Sunday, 18 November 2018

Firm and steadfast...wasted hope

In today's age we are fully aware of the diminishing returns that are found in the pews. Not only are numbers falling drastically but when they do it is always the leaders responsibility and not the person who follows Christ. It is as if we void the responsibilities that are placed on us at baptism and confirmation or its equivalent in the denominations around us. We believe in Christ that is all there is to it, we do not have to do anything; it is the responsibility of others in faith to take that responsibility and lead us out of our present distress. At this time of year and as we approach the coming of Christ we actually need to face up to our own faith journey and the realities that this places on our selves as we bring Christ into the lives of those around us. We need to remember that it is not our personal tastes that are important but rather the tenants of our faith; love of neighbour and love of God. This love is overwhelming as it is for someone other then our own selves.

The author of the Hebrews text lays it out quite succinctly (Heb. 10. 23-25). It is our joint responsibility if we are "firm and unswerving in our faith" but we are so unaware of each other that this becomes an impossibility. The times have changed from when these words were written but if the author was having trouble then with people unable to come to worship then it does not bode well for us, unless we take these words seriously (Heb 10.24-25). We are all aware of the concerted programmes such as "Back to Church Sunday" or "bring a Friend to Church Sunday", which are there to assist faith groups to bring recalcitrant and ex-church goers as well as a few non-churched into pews (hardly ever to be seen again). Is this the reality that Christ dreams of outside the Temple (Mk 13.1-11)? or is it something profounder, something more tangible in the hearts of those who follow God? Christ speaks of persecution, of destruction, of devastation in the presence of the Temple, is this perhaps what we see happening in these programmes to sustain our lowering viability?  The destruction of our own faith, the persecution of what we stand for and thus our shame for bending away from it, and denying our journey.

Do we look to far in advance and not acknowledge our journey in faith?

The sins of the past have a habit of catching up to us especially when we align ourselves with a faith journey that is about justice, love and humility. These are goals which we find so hard to maintain for ourselves let alone the world around us. These are the virtues that are on display in the story of Hannah (1 Sam 1.4-20) which she proclaims in the inspiration for the more famous Magnificat. A song that we need to align ourselves to in all that we do so that when we have the courage and fortitude of our faith convictions we can bring others into God's light and love in such a manner that we can in all honesty of life and action praise God in the continuing and ongoing company of strangers. To bring the other closer to God through all that we espouse and hope in this is the goal and challenge of our life together.  Yet it is not smooth sailing it is not filled with joy. If we just focus on Hannah for a little while longer we remember that she is the one that is bullied and has suffered. She is the one that is condemned for her faith in God's presence, even Eli has a problem, thinking it is drink not faith.

This soul wrenching journey is what it means to be baptised and each time we come to worship we need to affirm our faith in God. We need to remind ourselves each and every week as we come to the table of Christ's offering that it was offered for us and we are committing ourselves once more for our faith. We need to bring others with us on our journey to show Christ in our worship. This is not something that we wish to hear, we want to hear the beauty, the hope, the love but unless we are able to see that in the other there will be no stories. Unless we ourselves can see the hope of faith in the other, the love that shines out of the eyes of the stranger and the hope that is found in the despair of the disenfranchised we will not find those things for ourselves. God reverses all our expectations.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Widow's might

The year's roll round one after the other and history is constantly being written by those who survive the turmoils of everyday life. One of the continuing anchors of our yearly round is the knowledge that we will celebrate the heroes and the fallen in silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Indeed in Australia we have two days for this act of remembrance, yes each has a slightly different theme but each points to and remembers a past that is described by the winners. I do not in anyway demean or dis-honour those who have fought and died in violence that sundered countries and indeed the world. Yet, as a Christian I must ask myself a simple question, which I have on a number of public occasions, If Christ died in violence for us to bring God's kingdom and God's peace, why do we continually remember the violent sacrifices on the war zones of the world and not the life of peace? A simple question which is yet to be answered.

Is it the sea of blood or is it the widow's might that we need to remember?

The Christian call has always been to care for the widow and the orphan, those who have been disenfranchised through violence and death. Ruth the widow and her daughter Naomi, a widow, both struggle (Ruth 1-4) until the justice of the gate is administered and they are brought once more into the community (Ruth 4). Our focus here is on the justice that is meted out to the two of them not on the misfortunes of the past, not on death per se but on life. The injustices of the past are remedied by looking past the forming history towards a future that is calling in justice and peace. Christ's observations regarding the narrow focus of the ruling caste who bring about the injustice that is seen in the widow (Mk. 12.38-44) remind us again of where our focus should be. Injustice, because in the life of the world it is the widow who should be the focus of the rulers not the insistence on the finances of the Kingdom. The mite that she gives is her food and ability to live which she should be receiving from the wealth of the Temple. Yet, it is her might and the might of the widows Ruth and Naomi that are examples for our future not the disasters that created the situations. It is their perseverance and good will that is remembered in history. It is there courage and sacrifice that becomes our guide into the future as we celebrate God's presence in our lives.

The reason for remembrance day, "lest we forget", is forgotten in the triviality of the spectacle; for we have in reality forgotten. The day has become a ritual of pride in service and sacrifice occurring in zones of violence that are not diminished but rather re-created every generation. Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, the Balkans, the Falklands, Syria, Iraq...and so on it goes. Let alone, Nauru, Border walls, etc. The creation of more widows and more orphans rather than the peace that God brings. In our remembrance, "lest we forget", we are reminded of the perseverance of the widows in adversity, the damage to the orphans and the re-living of the violence within our own communities as a result of the lack that we have in showing God's love to the other. It is these forgotten "heroes" that we need to remember and care for in our remembrances of violence and not the heroes of violence perpetrated in history told by those who survived. Yes, remember their sacrifice but also, "lest we forget", the Christian message that is to bring peace to the consequential survivors who suffer as a result of our neglect in remembering the message of peace.

Christ overturns the traditions of power, pride and honour that lead to violence to bring dialogue, peace and service that lead to a better life and community. Everything Christ does overturns the ruling histories of the age by imposing a different perspective that lowers the self to humility that seeks friendship and not authority. Just as Naomi, the real hero of Ruth, seeks to accompany her friend and mother towards an unknown future that reveals her strength and might we to need to seek the other in friendship and service to build the trust that is embodied in community.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The saints rejoice while we fear death

The gloom and doom brigade is present all over the world. The whiners who can find nothing right unless they look to the past. "The church is dying". "Bring back the joy we used to have." "We used to be filled with joy. We are no longer". All to often familiar words from the mouths of congregants in many parishes and faith centres as they struggle with falling attendance and a lack of financial wherewithal. A need to look to new celebrations and old sources of joy fail to enliven tired and old people with a lack of their own faith in God's presence. It is always a job for someone else, as if it is an SEP (someone else's problem, a well known Douglas Adams field effect) the 'leadership' or the 'boss', to lead like Moses towards a promised land flowing with milk and honey. But even that community had their golden calf and failed to live up to the promise until they understood the fact that God was with them. At the beginning of November every year we celebrate the 'Saints' and 'All Souls' who have gone before. In doing so we glorify and remember their deeds as we have them in the hagiographies and histories that are extant. We celebrate their lives and all that they did but like all good histories that are written, in the end, by the survivors, remembrance is selective. In creating this joy and this celebration without understanding the fullness of each life we fall into a trap. This trap is one that says "The past was always bright and filled with joy."

Only when we rip away the bindings of the old life do we find the new life in Christ

Not all of those that we celebrate in November had lives that were filled with joy every single moment as we seem to think. They all struggled and had crises of faith. Many faced horrendous deaths, just think of Cecilia who apparently continued to survive after being bashed, cut with blades and unsuccessfully had her head chopped off (I think three times). In fact looking at the Saints that we celebrate it is their deaths that are remarkable for the cruelty imposed or the poverty in which they died. Yet, this was not what they feared. Death was not something that they were terrified of, perhaps the means but not the end, for they had a strong understanding of Christ in their lives and God's presence surrounding them. It is this that we celebrate each year. The barbarity of their deaths is in complete contrast to their acceptance of death in Christ. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon puts it neatly "in the sight of men (sic) they may suffer punishment, (but) they have a sure hope of immortality...Those who put their trust in him will understand that he is true" (Wisdom 3.1-9). It is in this hope that we place ourselves in Christ irrespective of our hopes and dreams for only then will we see the end of death as God dwells with(in) us (Rev 21.3-4).

It is in death on the cross and in the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11.32-44) that we become aware of the glory of God. Mary weeps and rails about what could have been (the past) she does not see the future in Christ's presence. Unlike Martha, who is specifically asked about the Messiah, Mary is trapped within the past and cannot or refuses to see past this moment when Jesus could have saved her beloved brother. Christ must reveal the future as being physically present in Lazarus' return from the tomb, shambling and bound to be freed to new life from the trappings of the old. In celebrating the saints we must not lose sight of both life and death for we cannot have the one without the other. In the struggle to bring forth new life we need to remind ourselves that this only occurs when we are prepared to accept death and turn our attention to a future which calls us into the present. This is sacrifice, just as the Saints have sacrificed their lives for new life in the propagation of the gospel so must we understand that we are called to live as the saints of the present day.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

The categorisation of blindness

Blindness is often associated in the Gospels with the inability to perceive Christ and when the blindness is alleviated the person often either praises God or follows Christ (Mark 10.46-52). It is quite useful to use this category, without being detrimental to those with poor vision, as we look at ourselves and our lives in Christ. The very first thing that we actually need to do is admit our blindness. What! I am not blind. Well as soon as we open our mouths and state this it is obvious that we are. We are all well aware that for many things the first response is denial and once we have denied we have actually admitted that we have the issue, challenge, etc. It is only when we are honest with ourselves about our own perceptions and our own knowledge can we begin to fashion a comprehensive plan of action that enables ourselves and those around us to come into the light and see for the first time. Our challenge then is to freely admit that we are blind and need God's grace to heal our blindness and lead us into a new world; a world that God has deemed ours.

At the beginning of Job's trials we can see that he was blind to the truth and yet held on to his faith. At the end Job's eyes are opened to the truth and sees how his faith has assisted him in his trials (Job 42.1-6). It is only when Job confronts and is confronted by God's presence does he realise the truth of his faith. It is only when we allow ourselves to confront God and come into Christ's presence are we able to understand the truth and how this affects our faith. We can so easily give up; we can so easily give in; we can so easily rest in the lies that surround our everyday lives. These are the friends that console us on our journey, these are the friends that lead us away from our journey, these our the friends that lend their worldly wisdom to our trials with God. We bitch and moan at every turn of our lives because things are not how they should be. Yet, if we hold to the path that God has set we are able to overcome so much, just like Job, and we are able to forgive so much just like Job (42.9-10). In doing so we are given so much by God's grace who has asked so little of ourselves.

Have you chosen your attitude towards Christ?

Yet, our attitude is one of the age, the miracle of the secular age is ours to play with and to re-invent our lives forgetting the miracle that is God's grace promised to us forever. Ours is not the attitude of thanksgiving it is the attitude that it belongs to us; the attitude of the age. If you cannot pay your way in today's society you are nobody. Well, this is where we are asked for our sacrifice if we want what we have to continue. Only when we begin to understand the sacrifice that God has given will we begin to appreciate our need to sacrifice ourselves fully and totally to God's purposes. We find it excessively hard to speak of God in our lives just as Job does; we find it excessively hard to make a sacrifice of time, talent and tarnished gold to fulfil God's purposes in today's world.

What does it take to change our hearts from stone to flesh that holds love of the other above all? What does it do to remove our own parochial blindness to see Christ in our neighbour and enable ourselves to sacrifice our lives to God? It takes the one thing that we control ourselves. The one thing that nobody can take from us no matter what they do to us. We need to approach life with one thing knowing that it cannot be changed irrespective of what is thrown our way. It takes us acknowledging and owning the attitude that says the God is in my heart and I find joy in God's presence. It takes us changing our hard attitudes to each other and to the other from the blankness of granite to an attitude that encompasses everyone with the softness of a lovers embrace. It is ours to undertake, it is ours to do, it ours to control. Once we have changed our attitude we have begun the process of removing the blindness that we all suffer from, the blindness that allows us to say "we are not blind."

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Joy or happiness

One is permanent and is found even in the depths of despair. The other is fleeting and is found wherever one can for a moment. God responds to Job by asking him questions not through levity and laughter but questions that are fundamental to our understanding of God's presence and joy in our lives (Job 38.1-7). Even when we are in our deepest depression, when all the world around us abounds in horror we can and do experience the joy that is God's presence in our hearts. It overcomes our deepest dread and our inability to give of ourselves to God in the most meaningful and sacrificial way that we can. Whilst it is an emotion that is deeper even than happiness it is without doubt an emotion that is linked to our attitudes and our hearts.

Happiness is an emotion that is available to us at the most trivial level. It is levity and laughter that is generated by others around us. We chase happiness the same way we chase our standing in society. We want only the best so that we can be happy. We want our friends around us so that we can enjoy the moment and be happy. All of these things are ephemeral and fleeting in our lives. We will find this feeling and often we are so obsessed with our need for happiness in our lives that we forget that it comes from outside not from inside. Just like a drug that gives us a momentary high. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with being happy, of course we should achieve happiness in our lives. We do however need to realise that happiness is fleeting and can easily be destroyed. It is something that others can assist ourselves in achieving or destroying through their attitudes and actions. Whilst happiness will lead us into joy, joy is much more than the fleeting insubstantialness of happiness.

Only when we accept ourselves at the deepest level do we find joy

Joy does not come through the antics of others. Joy is generated in the heart that is willing to sacrifice itself for others so that others may come to find joy in their hearts no matter the circumstances of their lives. It is a much deeper emotion and one that is understood through our own attitudes rather than through the attitudes of others. It is a fundamental change in our hearts so that we too may experience the suffering others feel to bring joy and love into the hearts of the other. Christ understands this when he his requested by the Sons of Zebedee to bring them happiness by elevating their status (Mk 10.35-37). The sons of Zebedee are looking for temporal happiness they are not looking for the deep joy that comes with the presence of Christ in our hearts.

This deep joy is also alluded to in the Hebrew scriptures and in the epistle to the Hebrews (Heb. 1.1-10). The greatest joy to be found is in the sacrifice of the Priest Melchizedek, thought to be the son of Moses. It is not a simple sacrifice but a sacrifice of dedication to God beyond everything. It is our sacrifice when we allow ourselves to go the extra mile and not hold back our hearts and our efforts. It is Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross to grant us the grace of God's presence and salvation. If we are to find joy we need to adjust our attitude towards the other and not towards ourselves. If we are looking for Joy because we have lost it we are looking for the ephemeral happiness of the everyday rather than the deep joy of God's presence. It is our attitude towards each and every person who build up the community of Christ that expresses joy in the midst of disaster or destroys its presence. God asks us at our baptism and confirmation to sacrifice ourselves totally. It is only when we do this on a daily basis that we begin to experience the true joy which is God's presence in our lives.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The extent of faith

One of the ongoing words that I often speak about is "commitment". In today's society this word surfaces almost daily within the faith community usually accompanied by words that are negative, i.e. "not", "fails". "under", etc. Yet no matter what portion of the scriptures we read the word comes up time and again in a positive light. Often associated with praise or at least as an example for those that are hearing, seeing the story develop around them. Mark's gospel is graphic and forms a delightful picture, no matter how we interpret its origins (Mk 10.25), on the need for us to be committed. However, the wider passage that this small sentence is embedded in is so full of our need to ensure that we are fully committed to our faith and its journey in our lives (Mk 10.17-31). If we still think that this is a passage that holds up only on its own then we need to look further to see that there are a number of texts that speak to this commitment in faith (Job 23.1-9; Heb 4.12-16).

A small total commitment means that we share the greatness of faith

The commitment we make is a commitment from baptism onwards, it is not one off, it is persistent throughout time as we grapple with our own faith journey. There are times when we are right on the edge such as portrayed in the passage from Job there are others which are not quite so knife edged and yet we fall back from that full commitment that we make within the promises of baptism. In embracing our faith journey, irrespective of what that may look like, whether it is enjoying the presence of the Spirit and singing with manic delight or sitting quietly contemplating God's presence it requires a total commitment to our life in the journey towards the Christic indwelling in our hearts. This is not a simple commitment to say a date. The whole provision of our faith is a journey towards God and a movement towards becoming Christlike. For Job this is the culmination of his faith to speak to God and demand answers of the most puzzling questions that we can think of.

It is also a commitment that is beyond the petty. We can quite easily commit to one thing and at the end of the day say well done we have achieved the goal through our single commitment. However when we are talking about our own journey in faith this a a work of a lifetime not a single moment. It is a total culmination of the whole of life rather than a small piece of life. It does not discriminate on who we are but is totally inclusive of all believers. It is this wholeness that makes the faith journey something to undertake for our selves and our community. It is simple, we do not have to undertake a journey, we do not have to undertake a fast, we do not have to undertake any of these things. All we have to do is to ensure that our whole life is part and parcel of God. That means that no matter how rich or how poor in financial, time, or even talents we place everything to the fore for God's use. Our commitment must be such that not one thing is left to the vagary of chance but our whole life is placed on the line. A commitment such as this is seen in people like Theresa of Calcutta and the other saints. This is what makes them saints.

We are not loose change people when it comes to our giving. We should not be the type of person that gives out of the loose change that they find in their pockets. In other words we do not give to our faith the small amount of time we have spare between our round of golf and the family dinner party. Our commitment in faith must be greater than this for it to achieve the desires of our hearts for the community of God. It is only by committing our greater resources and only leaving the change for ourselves that we are able to achieve that which God desires.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Complaints - The Good and the Bad

Have we learnt anything over the past 2000 years or more? Probably not, even if we are meant to learn from history. Job was and is held up as a person of supreme faith within his community (Job 2.1-10) and yet as a result of that faith appears to have everything go wrong. On the face of it we are always confronted with some form of disaster or another and are asked to overcome it in some way through our faith. The disaster may be a natural one such as the recent earthquakes in the Indonesian peninsula or the threat of extreme weather events. It may on the other hand be a change in our lives that has upset our equilibrium or it may be that our faith community is in the throes of struggle in an unending series of setbacks. Consider our response in each of these cases and any other that we may confront. We actually have a series of decisions that we personally have to make and these decisions impact on our lives and the lives of the community that we belong to.

What do you see? Despair, hope or picture

Response: Positive energy. In the midst of doubt when disaster strikes it is possible to find a path which consumes us with positive energy. Such a path is one that is generated by God's presence encouraging us to not only give of ourselves in time and expertise but also to give of ourselves to the greatest possible sense. This is the path of Job; the path of integrity to our faith and to our baptismal vows. It is a remembrance that irrespective of the good and the bad we are committed to the presence of God in our lives. We give thanks to this presence by in turn, dedicating our lives to the presence of Christ. This means that we give fully of ourselves in everything to our faith our work, our time, our finances, our lives, etc. It is not a part time commitment that is only as deep as our interest in the present time. It means that if we have committed to giving 100% of ourselves to God then we can not and should not fall away from that commitment. Often when we financially or time commit ourselves we often vary our commitment depending on our own circumstances in the world. Yet, God commits 100% of God to ourselves irrespective of the circumstances. Can we not do the same in our own faith commitments? If we say we will commit time to our faith can we not continue this no matter the circumstances or is our commitment to our faith journey but a move towards the supermarket? This is the hope seen in Job's response; the hope that is embedded in the shema. If we lose this, we just trash that which we do not use and move on to some other thing that becomes important to us allowing our faith to slowly become beached in the narrow shallows of some forgotten creek.

Response: Leave everything as it is. This is a very Australian way of looking at life. She'll be right mate, just leave it be everything will turn out ok. It has worked in the past it is guaranteed to work in the future. God does not give us the opportunity to grow God just allows us to be. We can keep on repeating and repeating the mistakes of the past and not worry because God will keep it going. Yet, God is the God of change and metamorphoses. God continually draws us forward so that we can willingly follow as children follow their inquisitiveness to discover the next thing in their growth. Just like children we are encouraged to explore the depths and heights not just sit and do nothing whilst surrounded by possibility. Christ blesses the children (Mk 10.13-16), not in indolence but in activity. In exploring the children invest themselves in the future so we to as members of Christ body, as children of God, need to invest ourselves in our faith journey and those instruments that assist us to grow. We cannot just leave things be but rather invest time, money and work into our tools and places that help us to look to God.

Response: Give up. This for some is the natural response. To lie down and roll over so that nothing bad will happen. For us as people of faith to do this means that we give up our response at baptism to Christ. We declare that every single vow or promise that we have made is void. This means even those promises that appear to be secular in nature. We give ourselves up to the void of depression and an endless cycle of grief and sadness. We all know of someone or some structure that has appeared to give up. Job in his response to disaster is also tempted by his wife to just give up (Job 2.9). This can never be our response as people of faith rather like Job we need to respond with an understanding that all things are possible even recovery in the deepest of disasters.