Began my life as a priest amongst the Iban and spent my first few years travelling up and down the rivers, bringing with me, or so I thought, the Word of God. In those days, I still saw things very much in terms of black and white – I was Christian and they were Pagan; I had the Gospel, they didn’t; but their finger of kindness and the hospitality began to stir up my black and white into shades of grey and I realised that the Holy Spirit had been there long before I arrived. They already knew the commandments, such as “you shall not kill”. True, traditionally they understood this as “you may not kill the people of your longhouse, but you can take the heads of those downriver”. But, that is not very different from us. At the present time, a Brit may not kill someone in Britain, but, if he is a soldier in Afghanistan, he may kill Taliban. It is a matter of where our boundaries lie!
The Holy Spirit seems, in my experience, to have reached everyone in some way. There seems to be a time in everyone’s life, when we live in friendship with someone and into that space, be it ever so small, God comes to dwell. “Where there is love and friendship, there is God”; God is Trinity and Trinity means family, friendship. The difference between salvation and perdition is not the black and white of love and hate, but which direction in which our boundaries are moving. Is my friendship for others becoming more inclusive or more exclusive? Salvation is a journey, not a state.
The Gospel is about “pushing back the boundaries” and the way to do this is through prayer. When a community of Iban asked to become Christian, we taught them to pray with Readings and prayers for the world.
When we think about petitionary prayer, we tend to reason that if we do not pray, then God does not give. This, of course, cannot be right, for as Jesus himself said, “(God) causes the sun to rise on good and bad alike” (Mt 5:45) so, the command to pray is given because we need it, not God. When I pray, my prayer becomes a path through my heart, along which the Holy Spirit can pass to reach those for whom I pray. His passing opens me in love for towards them – and my boundaries are pushed back. This is why our Tradition puts into our mouths prayers for all – even if we can find, at the time, little or no concern for those people and intentions.
However, should I limit my prayer to family and friends and never go beyond this, then my life will eventually turn sour. It is similar to my need to water my garden, to make the grass and flowers grow, but should I let water into my garden and not allow it out, then it will turn into a stagnant pool, full of mosquitoes and sickness. So it is with the Spirit. If I do not allow the Spirit passage through my life and out onto the world, then the friendship of my garden will become mere selfishness.
The coming of Jesus was the beginning of God’s entrance into the whole world, but I have to give myself to this movement. Whenever I pray for someone dear to me, I should extend the boundaries by including someone beyond my concern. When I do this, I give passage to the Spirit, I allow the Spirit to push my boundaries out; I am on the journey of salvation – as were the Iban.
Fr Terry Burke