St Francis, Terriers - Sunday next before Lent(26.02.2017)

Tony Dickinson

Last week, I mentioned my brief encounter with the actor Mark Rylance in a London street. On Wednesday it happened again – another encounter in London with someone in the public eye. This time it was Rowan Williams, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, Archbishop Rowan as was. It wasn’t in the street, this time. It was in Church House Bookshop. He came in just as I was signing out the Church bookstall and he was happily browsing through the display of books on the table by the door. So I didn’t ask him “Well, Lord Williams, what’s it all about?” Though I suspect that, unlike Lord Russell, he might have put forward a few fruitful suggestions…

I also suspect that one of those suggestions might have echoed the final words from the cloud in this morning’s Gospel. When “that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”, the Gospels include three words that are not in the much later retelling in our second reading. Those words are “Listen to him.”

“Listen to him.” Those words are a challenge and an encouragement, as the disciples are going to find out very soon. On the way down the mountain, Jesus explains to Peter, James and John about the role of John the Baptist. At the bottom of the mountain he rebukes the lack of faith of the other disciples, who had failed to meet the needs of a desperate father and his dangerously disturbed child. And, as they move on after he has healed the boy, Jesus for a second time warns his followers what awaits him – and them – in Jerusalem.

“Listen to him.” Those words put us, and all who follow Jesus, on the spot. Who do we listen to? What “mood music” do we pick up in these distracted times? There are so many different organisations and interests competing for our attention and our allegiance that it can be far from easy to discern the voice of Jesus our Lord. The blare of the news headlines, the blast of the front page, the booming echo-chamber of social media, all threaten to drown out “the prophetic message” with what our second reading calls “cleverly devised myths”. Are they, I wonder, the original “alternative facts”?

So, let’s stand back, for a moment, and think what it might mean to use the coming weeks of Lent to listen to God’s Son, “the Beloved, with whom [God is] well pleased”. Let’s think what it means for us, here, now, in Terriers in spring 2017, to “be attentive to [the prophetic message], as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”

First of all, I’d suggest that we listen for Jesus in the obvious places: in the words of Scripture and in the silence of our prayer. Many of us make use of the BRF notes which Irena organises for us. That is good. I hope that those who do will find that the notes for Lent and Holy Week draw them deeper into the journey, and open their ears and their hearts to the voice of Jesus. For those who don’t – and for some of those who do, but who would like to go deeper – for them, on the table at the back there are some leaflets from the Sisters at Burnham Abbey which offer an introduction to an ancient way of reading the Bible prayerfully. It’s called “lectio divina” and it offers a way into a more reflective, contemplative way of engaging with Scripture.

Those who take the BRF notes follow a daily programme of Bible reading. Those who don’t are encouraged to try one during the coming weeks. There are various plans around. If you’re comfortable using the internet, you can log on to the Church of England website and share in the daily pattern on offer there. If you’re not, please have a word with me, and we’ll talk about what you’re looking for and fix something up that will, I hope, meet your needs. Serious engagement with the Bible day by day is an important way of listening to God, allowing him to cut through the “noise” of everyday life, to encourage us, to challenge us, and to transform us.

That is best done within the framework of regular prayer, and when I talk about prayer, I don’t mean bending God’s ear with a shopping list of wants and wishes – whether for ourselves or for other people. When I talk about prayer, I mean that silent encounter with God in which we are truly open to his transforming love, renewing our relationship with God, discerning his presence with us in every aspect of our daily life, listening for that “sound of sheer silence” which speaks to us at the deepest level of our being.

Paradoxically, we don’t have to work on that encounter – God is there for us before we seek him – but it can seem like a lot of effort as we cut out the distracting “noise”, including the chatter of our own false self, our ego. Like Moses in our first reading, we have go up into the mountain, and into the cloud; and that journey can take a very long time. There are no quick fixes, no buttons we can press to make God “answer our prayers”. We spend much of our time, in Simone Weil’s famous phrase, “waiting on God”, attentive, in a different way to that “lamp shining in a dark place” – even when the lamp appears to have gone out, and there is no sign, as yet, of the morning star rising in our hearts.

If that happens, do not worry. There are many guides to the darkness, people who have been through it themselves and know the way among them, in our own day, Thomas H. Green, Richard Rohr and Rowan Williams. One of the best guides is an English priest who lived in the East Midlands six and a half centuries ago. He wrote a short book, which he called “The Cloud of Unknowing”. In it he urges his readers to persevere in these words: “[God] can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.”

On Wednesday we shall set out once more into the wilderness of Lent where, like Israel of old, we shall be led by the cloud. As we enter into it, as we listen out for the Lord, may we find him saying to us, as he did to Peter, James and John, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And may we know his presence transforming our lives. To Him, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit …