Love life live lent (Ash Wednesday) – Say sorry

It’s possible that I apologise too much.  People sometimes say that to me. Maybe they even think that I don’t have anything to apologise for.  Maybe they think that someone in my position ought to put on a stronger face, not admit to weakness or failure.  Maybe they’ve just pre-forgiven me for whatever it was I did (or, more usually, failed to do) and don’t feel a need for me to do my bit….

But you know what? I’m not going to stop.

I’m also not going to stop, because while I am profoundly grateful for the people who forgive me for the same things again and again and again, the moment I take their forgiveness for granted, I’ve started to take them for granted too.  My missed deadlines mean someone else has to work later, or longer, or has to do their bit at the last minute when they (unlike me) are not natural last-minute people. My ‘sorry’ is an acknowledgement that my failure hurts other people, even if only in minor ways.   It’s an act of empathy, and I don’t ever want to lose that.

I’m not going to stop, because as long as I’m in the habit of being apologetic, then hopefully when it comes to the big things –  you know, the things that are actually really really hard to own up to, the things I want to hide, and hope nobody ever finds out about – I’ll be all nicely warmed up and the repentance will flow easily from my heart right out of my mouth.

I’m not going to stop, because although sometimes I repent and repent and the bridge remains broken, other times, by the grace of God, the person I realise ages ago that I’d hurt and finally pluck up courage to visit not only accepts my apology,  but also sits down with me over a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits, and shows me that I can be promoted to the rank of ‘friend’.  Real forgiveness is too wonderful an experience  to risk missing out on.

And I’m not going to stop, because saying sorry and meaning it is a way of  just starting the process of cleaning out the dark and dirty corners of the soul.  If my soul is a dark and cluttered cupboard, the ‘Sorry’ is that moment when I have the courage to open the cupboard door, with God standing next to me, so that he can turn to me and say, ‘Can I give you a hand clearing this lot up?’

Easter 3: John 21.1-19

The first time I ever experienced making my individual confession to a priest, the penance I was given was to read John 21. I remember that my immediate feeling was a combination of very relieved (clearly I wasn’t all that bad if all I had to do was read a chapter of John’s gospel!) and disappointed (would it feel like a proper bit of penance if it wasn’t actually difficult to do?).

It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Making me read this passage from John’s gospel was, I think, a stroke of genius on the part of my confessor, and it was just what I needed, in so many ways. Here are just a few of them.

First, at that stage in my life I was at my final year at theological college, a time when over-confidence and anxiety battle it out for the upper hand.  I needed to read the part about the disastrous fishing trip to realise that God does not waste or deny the gifts and experiences that we bring from our earlier life, rather, he enhances them and uses them.  The disciples must have thought back to their own initial calling when Jesus promised that he would make them fish for people here he was again, showing them how what they were and what they had to offer could be made more, and better, by doing it God’s way.  At that stage in my life (as I suspect is still the case) I needed to hear both that my past experience was of some worth, and that God could help me use those experiences to greater effect in the ministry to which he’d called me.

Second, I needed to see not only Peter’s impulsive jumping into the water, but also the other disciples’ more sensible gathering in of the miraculous catch of fish and slower return to shore. I needed to be reminded that there are people who make a splash in ministry, and those who work more slowly; there are people for whom leaving the safety of the boat is normal, and those for whom fishing from the boat is the most fruitful place to be. And that both ways of reaching the shore are effective.

Third, I needed to remember that some of the best fellowship and growing in discipleship takes place in the context of hospitality, and that as God’s ministers we share in that.  Jesus is the one who got the barbeque going, but it is the disciples who bring the fish to cook on it.  Jesus is the host, but we bring and offer what we have to his table, and it is our gathering around him, bringing what we are and what we have, that makes the whole thing special.

Fourth (and I suspect that it was for this reason that I was asked to read the chapter in the first place), I needed to read Peter’s threefold commission, that wonderful moment when Jesus takes him aside and reminds him of that other occasion, also gathered around a charcoal fire, when Peter had denied Jesus three times. Here, he is given three opportunities to affirm his love for, and loyalty to, Jesus. Here was my penance, and my absolution, here were my three chances to reflect on the times when I had wandered away from God or rebelled against him, in my own mediocre way; here were my three chances to affirm, prior to my ordination, that I really did love God.

But more than that, this little story of Jesus and Peter makes something absolutely clear which has been hinted at throughout the Easter narratives: belief in God, and love of God are not an end, they are a beginning.  Read through the Easter stories and you will see a very clear pattern that every act of recognition of the risen Christ, every realisation of the truth of the resurrection, every declaration of faith, is followed immediately by a commission.  Peter’s love for Jesus is just the beginning, but it is the firm foundation from which he will make his next leap of faith – Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation of faith and love is not ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’ or ‘you are forgiven’, but ‘feed my sheep’, ‘tend my flock’, and ‘feed my lambs’.

With repentance and absolution, with any declaration of faith, with any moment of conversion (as we hear in Saul’s story in Acts today) comes vocation.  Disciples can only be true to their identity as disciples by turning into apostles. Those who feed on the body and blood of Christ must respond by becoming the body of Christ in the world, continuing his work, and empowered by his Spirit, his very breath of life. This was his commission to his friends almost 2000 years ago, and it is still his commission to us, his friends now.

We know what this ended up meaning for Peter and the other disciples, and for Paul.  But what will it look like in our lives, this week, this month, this year?  How will our own faith respond to Christ’s commission, continuing his work? How will the new life that we experience in absolution flow from us to be a force of life and forgiveness in the world?  How will what we do in this service with the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ, help to shape us into individuals and a church that is truly Christ-like?

The truth shall set you free

In ministry and in my personal life I’m confronted again and again by these gospel words, and every time I find them just as challenging.
Perhaps it’s because on some level of wishful thinking I believe that if only I really did have all the facts I would be able to make all the right choices, and pick my way better through the minefield of small and large decisions (and their consequences)  that face me, as they do us all, each day. Maybe it’s because I so often find myself dealing with people’s expectations that I will know what to do, that I’ll have access to some crucial wisdom or insight. Maybe it’s because I’ve almost started believing that this might be the case?
But most of all think it’s because, while I’ve always told myself and others that I value my doubts, and that uncertainty is ok, even healthy, there is some part of me that wants to know the whole truth about myself. I want to know what my motivations really are, whether my memories of things I’ve done and things that have been done to me or for me are as inaccurate and subjective as I fear they are. I want to be able to be wholly honest about who I am, and what I am. I want to be able to see myself as I really am, so that I can smile at the good and repent of the evil, safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing I have missed.
Can any of us ever really become that self aware? Is it possible to dig deep enough to find a truth that is beyond the scope of our self-deception?
When I was at school, I clearly remember an incident when someone had flushed paper towels down the loo and the whole school was kept in detention after assembly until the guilty pupil would own up. It only took about two minutes for me to convince myself that it had been me, even though I also knew in my mind that I was innocent. But equally there are other times in my life where I have been guilty as hell, and I’ve instead told myself lies about mitigating circumstances and how it wasn’t really as bad as it looked, until I’ve ended up believing my own spin. How hard it is to recover truth once we’ve started the process of lying to ourselves!
Reaching truth is like peeling a many-layered onion, we can peel off each painful tearful layer thinking that we’ve finally got to the centre, only to find another layer and another round of tears. Is there ever a point where it’s right to stop, when to go further would be ‘too much truth’? Or if we find that the layer we have reached is not, in fact, setting us free at all, have we rather not gone deep enough?
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C S Lewis writes of an incident in which a rather unpleasant child is turned into a dragon, and while he desperately wants to scratch off the scaly dragon skin to rediscover his human self, each time he does so there is another layer of scales beneath. He simply cannot scratch deeply enough to reach who he really is. He is finally helped by the lion, Aslan, whose claws are sharper and longer, and who scratches so deeply that when the Dragon skin finally cones off the boy feels small and vulnerable, and the sensation of the fresh water on this skin as the lion throws him in a pool nearby is painful for an instant. But he is himself again. Or is he? For the child who emerges from this ordeal is not the same as the one who turned into the Dragon; he has been reborn, and the child he is now is less the spoiled, objectionable brat that he was before and is closer to being the human being that God created him to be. When Aslan strips off the Dragon skin, he also strips off some of the other layers of the boy that were also not part of who he was created to be. In the search for himself, the boy found Aslan – God- and also found a different self from the one he expected to get back.
For St Augustine, the quest for truth about himself was inextricably bound up with what turned out to be a quest for God, as he related in his autobiographical Confessions. For he discovered that ‘You were within me, but I was outside myself’ – that it was impossible to know the truth about himself without learning to see himself in the context of God. It’s a sort of theocentric anthropology.
I want to see myself as God sees me, but even having got as far as that realisation is not enough to enable me actually to do so. I am left with the only viable option being to pray continually to the only one who can really see me, in all my happy successes and dismal failings, and still love me, and ask him to keep on transforming me, whether I notice or not, and even if I might sometimes object to the pain of the process.
Will I ever in this life know the whole truth about myself? I don’t think so. But God does. And he is working on me. And maybe that will have to do.