Sunday, 19 May 2019

The call of love

Christ's call to love is a call that is placed upon us at baptism. As his disciples we are charged with the commandment to love one another (Jn 13.34). In this commandment lies all our personal interactions within and without the community in which we live. It is the basis upon which we as Christians and Christ's followers must (this imperative is essential) produce a stability to the increasingly diverse community of the modern age. It is not something that we can neglect and it is why we empower Godparents and parents to bring up their children in an extraordinary manner. We encourage and indeed command those who take these vows on for children to live to a standard that is far beyond what is common practice in today's world.

This extraordinary means of living is demonstrated within the story of Peter in the Acts of the apostles (Acts 11.1-18). Despite the requirements of Jewish law around dietary matters God's vision is a turning point in how Peter sees the community in which he lives. For us it must also be a turning point in how we live our lives and is an instruction to those who look to guide young people in their formative years. By accepting that which we automatically shun as a result of our own inner convictions with an act of love is the true beginning of living as Christ;s servant and disciple. Those who follow Christ are asked and are asking their compatriots to put aside their own deep prejudices and open their hearts to the community in which they live. To often we see this as but an excuse to create havens that are conforming to our own ideals and our own believes. No leadership and no form of politics if it is to be truly Christian can abandon people to live without care and love. This applies to a familial level as much to an international level.

Only when we come together do we expose love

We cannot abandon the least of our families, communities or other groupings for the sake of our prejudices and incoherent beliefs. The commandment that we obey is the one that is inclusive of all not just for some. This is something that we need to ultimately understand for ourselves as Christians especially within the present climate of expediency and denial that affects our everyday lives. Only when we have plumbed the depths of despair do we find the hope of the risen Christ in the love that is shared with our neighbours in humility and hospitality. Peter destroyed everything that he knew as being part and parcel of his faith to show the ultimate love of God for those we despise. It is only when we throw away our iconoclastic views and embrace the flow of love that comes from God through Christ can we manifest the remarkable changes that God's grace brings into our lives.

We can change the world, we may not have the will to change governmental policies that create an increasing divide within countries and between countries, but we can change the world by ensuring that the Christian message of love is carried into the future in the hearts and minds of the youngest members of society. We have been poor at undertaking the charge that Christ gives throughout the history of the Church establishment but as individuals it is up to us to ensure that the basis of our own lives within the community, not only of the Church but also of the seculam in which we live In doing this one thing we establish within our families and our communities the true understanding of God's love for us as we manifest God's love in our own communities. In encouraging that love in our youngest through the encouragement of godparents and parents perhaps we will strive towards a better and more loving society.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Shepherd's call

It is truly amazing when you think of shepherding and sheep. Yes, they are smelly, recalcitrant, have minds of their own, go off and do silly things, get lost, etc. However, it is the shepherd who is truly brilliant in the old style of shepherding, not necessarily in today's world. In old style shepherding the flocks were not necessarily as large as we see today. In a way this was advantageous as the shepherd grew to know his sheep and the sheep grew to know the shepherd. Even today this is often the case in some cultures and countries but is sometimes lacking in the manner we sometimes manage huge flocks. Christ relies on this understanding between shepherd and flock in his parable of the shepherd and the sheep (Jn. 10.22-30). It is also unfortunate that in some ways we have a mistaken understanding of the role of the shepherd and the role of the sheep. This mistaken understanding leads to unfortunate abuses as it leads to the concentration of power within a particular office that can be, and often has been, misused.

The role of the Shepherd is a role that has often been misimagined as we have moved away from the idyllic pastures of earlier pastoral societies. We imagine the leader of the flock and yet often pictorially the shepherd is seen at the back of the flock not at the front. The most important aspect is the sound of the voice as in the parable. If we place the power of the shepherd onto, say a political leader, what is it that we are expecting? Well in terms of the shepherd we expect someone showing the way out in the front. Controlling, directing and perhaps even being harsh with the flock to ensure that they bow to his authority. This imaginative is unfortunately, when we look to our shepherds in the political realm, the one we see regularly. In this thinking, we will find an old imagination that suggests that we the sheep must follow blindly where the shepherd leads. This is a recipe for disaster as we can attest by examining humanities varied history.

The shepherd gives pastoral direction with their voice. Let us listen to our Shepherd!

Let us go back to the text from John. Christ says "My own sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me" (Jn 10.27). The key words here is that the sheep listen to Christ's voice in order to follow to the green pastures that the psalmist refers to (Ps 23). The sheep listen to before following or moving in the correct direction by themselves. If we return to the image of the shepherd at the back of the flock this is perhaps the only way of directional control the shepherd has as the older sheep at the front listen for the words / commands that give direction. Many older ways of control are based on voice (carriage driving for example). These elders have learnt through successive generations. These are the words that a Christian hears from Christ and imparts to their family and community, so that they may learn to hear the words of the shepherd who calls from baptism onto a road that is straight and narrow. Yes, sheep wander and this is where the pastoral (as we know it) work of the shepherd is prominent to bring comfort and ease to those that stumble. The imagination we need to build in ourselves is the listening mode to guide us along the straight way towards those green pastures.

The role of the shepherd needs to be reimagined to enable ourselves beyond the sufficiency of those that think only for themselves and lord it over those who like sheep follow without thought. In coming days we will be placing ourselves in a place of authority when we cast our vote for our political shepherd. For us as Christians it is not and should not be our human shepherds who we listen to but the risen Christ who calls us into new life. In placing Christ's call upon our lives as shepherd we need to ask where is the risen Lord in the decisions that I make and am I listening to Christ's call to peace, love, harmony and reconciliation, am I listening to Christ's call to care for creation, am I listening to Christ's call into newness of life? Indeed we often neglect the fact that as Christians we are called by Christ in all aspects of our lives. So, do you enact the risen Christ's call within your marriage, family and work place or do you neglect Christ's call and need his pastoral staff to guide you back into the folds of his peace.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

The frustration of non-understanding

Don't we all sometimes feel frustrated? Some of us find that frustration builds and builds and all of a sudden we go of on a rant. For others, the frustration builds and then we just turn away and give up. The sometimes, not often, but sometimes frustration leads us to a breakthrough in understanding as we approach the issue from an alternative viewpoint. I am not sure what Peter does with his frustration but you can see the levels increase as Christ asks him the same question and gives him different answers (Jn. 21.15-17). Yes, they all appear to be much the same but there are differences and I think that those differences matter as does Peter's growing frustration. If they matter to the writer of the gospel then they should matter to us. The gospel was written some years after the events so is not an accurate portrayal of events and yet they are important to us as they reveal views that were important to the followers of the Christ at an early stage in the burgeoning ministry of this new faith.

Whilst for us sheep and lambs would appear to be very similar there are differences, which we often interpret as being differences between children and adults. This anthropomorphic thinking I believe actually hinders us and in the end dregs up those feelings of despair that we see in Peter. However, as any good person who has handled a farm knows the feeding pattern for lambs and sheep are different but most importantly Peter was instructed to tend the sheep not the lambs. In deed the tending of sheep comes prior to their feeding. I suspect that all of our missionary thinking has been appallingly carried out in our over anthropomorphisation of this passage. Yes, I  can well believe that this is parable at its finest and yes I am sure that a certain amount of anthropomorphic interpretation needs to be done but not in such a fashion that we blind ourselves to the underlying realities of the parable.Peter is so lost in this dialogue that it is no wonder he has a rising frustration with the whole interlude.If we are perhaps to look at this passage with any relevance for society today then perhaps by looking at it at an oblique angle so to speak will help.

Where is the shepherd who tends these sheep?

It is for me the central phrasing of this passage that is relevant and important. In the story Christ says "tend my sheep". This is an important message for us. Before Paul becomes Paul he is full of zeal and encounters the risen Lord in a vision that leaves him blinded (Acts 9). Before he continues he needs the acceptance of the community. The starting point is the community...he does not go out into the world to teach until such time as the community has become known to him and he to the community. This like Christ reminds us that we are beholden to the community first and foremost before we can even attempt anything else. Not our own community but the community in which we are embedded. Sheep are herd animals and if the flock is maintained i.e. not disturbed, driven or led, housed, kept free of predators etc., it will survive. There is no need to teach or feed for the community does this as it nurtures the group, leading the young to water and growth.

So why teach. We teach by and through the community. Peter's injunction to teach must be seen in this light. By tending the flock we teach the lambs the requirements and positive effects of community. Teaching the sheep we teach them where the good feed is and where the still waters are. This is not an indoctrination lesson but rather a leading and tending of the flock so that the communal fundamentals are taught. Not the individuality that we have come to express in western culture but the communal culture of the good society. In our failures to understand this we become increasingly frustrated as our teaching does not appear to have any influence on those around us particularly the young. However, if we place ourselves as a community within a community we will begin to lose our frustrations. In this we just have to look at a few different organisations around us and see that this is how they grow and how the church is growing in other places...it becomes the community.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Political blundering

I must admit I was not looking forward to the wrangling and one-up-manship of this election campaign. I believe that most of the rhetoric on display is basically dishonest, self serving and not in the best interests of the country. I was particularly dis-enamoured of the recent radio  interview with, I think Shorten, on climate change funding. Not only was the interviewer, in particular, a bit of a bully (aren't they all) but what was trying to be unearthed was even more disheartening and reminded me an awful lot of squabbles that are often featured in parishes, clubs and societies in general. It perhaps persuades me to understand that no matter what level of politics we are involved in the same scenario comes up and must be answered time and time again by each one of us.

This is the question of change or not to change. We seem to think that because all is well we need not worry about change. We seem to think that what has worked in the past is good to work in the future. We seem to have this stark belief that we cannot grow and change, yet surprisingly everything is about life is about change and growth. The cost of not changing is often for greater than the cost associated with change. The costs may not be financial, although this is always what is argued about, I might add, vehemently, but are more to do with our social lives and well being. For, if we do not change and we do not allow change to occur we stagnate. The stagnant pond is not an environment in which life grows well. The costs to our long term emotional and spiritual and physical needs is tremendously high when we stagnate. Some years ago when I returned to the UK with a new wife, for the first time, her comment was "This place has retired, even the youth" (that view did not change). Looking at the UK, now many years later, there seems little life left. Is this the road down which the world is to travel; a road that ultimately leads to death?

The difference between life and death, can we embrace radical change?

This may seem really pessimistic but until we really understand our hesitancy over change, very little will change and we will continue to moan and grumble. It is our attitude that is most important at this point in time. In looking towards our future what do you actually see? I suppose that there are two possible views that you can commit to, with an infinite number of variations to the theme. The first is not to use our imagination and just see the same things that have gone before. In other words a democracy in decline (see AC Grayling’s 'Democracy and its Crisis', 2017) with the same party structures offering the same party lines to which we must be beholden. The second is to actually use our imaginations and visualise something that is completely different. In other words a change to how we see our lives in the future. This opens up so many possibilities. I was asked recently what would happen if there was an independent who sat as the Prime Minister? Just think of that and what that would mean for the parliamentary system? Well, it would certainly indicate change but would it be bad or would it create some innovative thinking around how we should be ensuring a minority voice within the parliament. Perhaps, the majority party should not get to set the Prime Minister but rather the second majority party? This would certainly mean that the parties would have to work together...As Christians, can we see a really different way of making the presence of Christ felt within the political and social structure of our society without alienating vast numbers of people? We are so stuck within the imaginations of our past that we can hardly encompass the new and allow change to become an integral part of our lives.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Why we speak of doubt

Immediately after Easter and the joy of the risen Lord we have a reading on doubt and our famous protagonist in this arena Thomas (Jn 20.19-). Why do we need to speak about doubt so soon after the joy that is resplendent at Easter? Surely we should be looking at this either during Lent or at least halfway through the year when doubts arise sometime after the event. In reality this reading could be discussed at and on any Sunday of the year for the simple reality that in this day and age, in our secularity, the norm is a mindset based on doubt.

Just think about this a bit and you will begin to realise its truth. Our premise in life is to doubt our abilities up till, and even sometimes when, we are proven wrong. Our doubts are raised in all sorts of ways. I remember when I purchased my first house. I spent days doubting my ability to pay the mortgage on a single income, I doubted my ability to achieve the required loan, etc. This meant that I spent days worrying myself over the smallest detail and believing that everything would go wrong. We all do this in some form or another especially when it comes to our work lives. However, it spills over into our social and spiritual lives as well. Very few of us are ever without doubt at some point in our lives. Thomas exhibits only that which is natural within our humanity. I am certain that there is no one who is reading this who has never doubted either themselves or their abilities. It is natural and is portrayed in our greatest heroes or those whom we hold up to be great.

Impossibility ceases when there is hope not doubt

So, if doubt is a part of our lives, what is the big deal? Why should we worry about it or retell it in our scriptures? Perhaps simply to acknowledge that it is part of our lives as human beings and when we do doubt we do not allow it to be the pervading force in our lives. Doubt of ourselves as human beings leads us into the depravity of dependence on others and allowing others to guide our lives for both good and evil. We place ourselves in the position of slaves not in the position of those who are equal. Christ calls his disciples friends and loves them to the end, in doing so he elevates them to a place that is filled with hope. In casting himself as a servant to all he places the deliverance of ourselves from the road that doubt places us on. By his grace we are elevated into a place that is beyond doubt and yet...we will tend towards doubt as a default within our lives.

This is why this passage is placed here within our cycle of scripture no matter what year it is. Christ is risen and yet immediately we fall into the pattern of doubt, as shown by Thomas. Christ comes into the lives of the disciples as the risen Lord. Hope is present for death has been conquered there is no room for doubt as Thomas also clearly shows for in Christ there is new life; there is fresh hope in the midst of the greatest despair. Doubt is pushed away from our lives by the hope of a new life. Despair is allayed with Christ. We squander ourselves in doubt at every point in our journey. It is tiring when we do not allow ourselves the positive presence of the risen Lord because we are in a constant battle with our own internal doubts about our faith, about our work, about our life, about ..., about..., about... At what point does the Easter story become ours and is lived in our communities in the same way that it was lived in the communities of the risen Lord. It is not about a building, a place or a ritual; it is about a community gathered around in friendship and love that shares its common faith with those around us. Let us like Thomas stop doubting and celebrate 'My Lord, My God'.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Why search among the dead...

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Once more we have come to the space and time of celebrating the risen Christ, once more we come to celebrate the risen life. Each time that we do so we rededicate our lives to the promises that are made at baptism. Promises that commit ourselves to looking forward to a future that is filled with the truth and veracity of Christ within our lives. This is an important time for us as Christians and it is a time that should be filled with hope and joy for a fulfillment of the new life that comes with Christ. Too often though it is a time of despair and futility as we contemplate in our hearts our lacks and our inability to change from year to year creating a fugue in our hearts and souls.

This however is a time of rejoicing, our introspection should have been undertaken as we approached the cross initially. Now in the joy of seeing our risen Lord we need to acknowledge our own death so that we also can rise with Christ. What we should not do is go looking into the past that is dead to us to find the newness in life that is promised by Christ in his resurrection. Christ comes to us from the future not the past and in coming to us from the future we accept him into our lives knowing and abetting the change that this brings. We celebrate the burning away of the dead wood as we light the new fire, the fire of the Spirit in our lives as we move forward on the journey to the risen life. We pass through baptism acknowledging that we will live in truth and in Christ.

Let us not search amongst the dead and the past where they reside

In passing through the waters of death we can once more rise again leaving those things behind that belong in the past and celebrate the life that Christ gives us in the NOW. How can we find the good life in the past when Christ comes from the future? In our renewal of vows taken by our godparents on our behalf and ourselves when we came to confirmation we reaffirm our purpose and close ourselves of to the past. In passing through the waters we pass from death, that is now past, to a new life which is in Christ, the future. If we renege on these vows we deny Christ and look to death for our self knowledge. Only when we accept the death of ourselves in the waters of baptism do we begin to live in newness of life.

We celebrate today in the present. We allow the past to die. We begin a new life in the future with Christ. In celebrating today we need to place all our effort into fulfilling the vows that we take. Only in allowing ourselves to die will we begin to rise into something different. Unfortunately for many today this will be an exercise in futility as we do not wish to die. The horror that we feel is present in death is persuasive and denies us the support that we need to fulfil Christ's promise. In our denial we loose our rebirth and are unable to become as Christ as we bring with us the sins of the past. We immediately forget the words at the beginning of each service and the light that is re-lit at dawn, Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Passion and palms

This is a short reflection on the week to come.

Sounds like a new cocktail that has been created to celebrate. How can we celebrate two things on the one day.Both admittedly have passion in them but we seem to have allowed that to sittle away into minor protests that appear to rally no one or change the scene as dramatically as the passion in the one off parade into Jerusalem (Lk .19.28-40). The passionate response of the crowds to this man / Christ, yet not yet, figure as they enter into a central town in the politics of the era and area. These passions of welcome change to a passion for death over the period of a week. What are we to make of this change and how are we meant to interact with this day.

I have spoken over the past two years regarding political protest and the commitment that we need to make before the protest achieves anything. How protest often becomes nothing more than a temporary side show for other to watch. I note that very little has been made of the annual march for refugees this year. Has this style of protest run its course? Has the passion left the field? I see the same sort of thing happening when it comes to the environment. So how do we sustain the passion? The passion that celebrates and the passion that brings hardship and struggle within our lives.

Our passion may hurt us but we will achieve our utmost

It is only when we struggle that we begin to achieve something. Any person learning something new can tell you that unless there is a passion for it you will ultimately fail and lead yourself into depression. By struggle we find the new path that brings life. Christ struggles through this week to bring new life. We struggle as we endure the hardships that are brought about by change. It is through our willingness to interact with the struggle that we actually grow. Through out Lent people have struggled with the course that I have led so that they can better understand God's presence in their lives. This is what it means to have passion and to come to know Christ in our lives. If we cannot enter into Christ then we cannot become like Christ. If we fail to have passion for what we want then we fail in achieving that which is most important to ourselves.

In entering Holy week we enter into the trials and passion of Christ. If we are to enter fully into Christ this is the path that we must take. A path that leads to our death, the death of our lives as we know them so that we can be resurrected into the life of Christ. In this final week before the glory of Easter let us dwell first on the passion of the crowd as it changes and then on the passion that Christ undergoes in order to find new life. We need to understand the same change in us. The wonder and the kick (so to speak) that we get out of our initial becoming  filled with the Spirit. This is followed by what appears to be years of struggle and often times years that are spent with those around us seemingly dropping from the path. Yet, it is in this struggle that we achieve our goals and come to understand that death in our lives is often the only way forward. We are reluctant, we hesitate, we become depressed and begin to turn away. We need to grasp the struggle and embrace the change that comes with death in order to embrace the life of newness that comes with Christ. Our passion needs to become fulfilled just as Christ's passion becomes fulfilled.