Sunday, 13 January 2019

Born in the Spirit

In looking at the baptism of Christ we are inevitably drawn to the descent of the Spirit and need to come to some sort of understanding of what this means for us today. In the reading from Luke's gospel (Lk. 3.21-22) the descent of the Spirit occurs after Jesus' baptism while he was praying, by implication, on his own. Thus, the words and the presence of the Spirit was a personal experience and not a public one. In Mark's gospel it is a vision experienced as he comes up from the water (Mk. 1.10-11), which is repeated in Matthew (Matt. 3.16-17). To my mind this indicates that the baptismal experience was an extremely profound one for Jesus' internal spiritual life with few repercussions on the lives of those around him at the time. It was thought provoking and so intense that he required solitude to process the experience. Elsewhere in the Scriptures the Spirit is outwardly manifest, or apparently so, with the laying on of hands (Acts 8.17) but usually more personal in the way of the prophets (Is. 43.1). If it is as personal as it appears what then does it mean for us to be born in the Spirit, is it the ecstatic prominence that is seen or is it a more subdued life changing event?

If we were to look back in the scriptures to the first "manifestation" of God's Spirit and interaction with humanity we would be looking back to the Sinai event and the initial revelation of God to the people of Israel (Exodus 19-20). This is a traumatic event for the Israelites, which ultimately leads them into a rejection of the personal entwinement of  God's presence in their lives. A personal involvement that comes with a cost that they leave to the prophets and at the time, Moses (Exod. 20.19) as God's Spirit demands of us a prophetic voice. The fear according to interpretive sources is a fear of responding to God with openness and in the keeping of the commandments. This is the originary fear of opening oneself up to be injured and hurt by the other as we allow them into our hearts and minds. We fear, ultimately, being hurt when we cannot live up to the expectations of God and the other. In our reaction to that fear we lash out against what we perceive to be attacks against our person or our integrity. Until the Israelites were able to place God and the other before themselves they found themselves within the desert experience and continually in a place of exile. This took forty years of pain and struggle, it was not immediate.

The swirl of ecstasy when we accept the Spirit  (Egyptian artist - Taher Abdel Azim)

Since that time, the closeness of God's Spirit became associated only with the prophets who undertake God's bidding, even if sometimes against their own will (See Jeremiah). For us Christ changes this as he models the acceptance of the Spirit in a manner that can be emulated without fear. The prophetic charge of God's call is still present but it is not the charge of strangeness but of normality. It opens us up to the other without fear but with love. It means that when we are filled with the Spirit we reject our own responses if they are abusive of the other. It means that we are responsive to the hurt in others and do not compound it in our own commentary. Our displays of God's love need to be responsive to the presence of the other. Sobriety and sternness do not always determine the presence of God. Then again hysteria and ecstasy are also not, necessarily, indicators of God's presence. God's Spirit calls us from the moment of Baptism, just as it called to Christ. Our personal response to God's presence is not always immediate as babies, but manifests as we grow into our faith and the acknowledgement of God in our presence (remember the forty years). So being born of the Spirit is an acceptance of the presence of God in our lives, a presence that has been with us since our early lives. It is our recognition of the other and it is God's acknowledgement of that change in our perspective.

In moving into the world we return with a true respect for each other that encompasses faults, errors and disagreements. It allows us to form a harmonious whole in the presence of God and it forgives the hurts that we deem to have been heaped upon us, through mis-perception, mis-understanding and genuine error. No community that is called into place is perfect but struggles within itself to find God's presence and display it to the world with joy and peace. God truly loves us, so that we may mirror that love back to God and as a light in the world. Our prophetic ministry as bearers of God's light in the world is to understand our own grievances, forgive ourselves and others whilst enfolding each other in prayer and love. It is these actions that achieve community and bring God's presence into reality.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The subversive gifts

What is in a gift? Today, we celebrate the coming of the wise men / astrologers / kings into the life of a young baby who would know nothing of the event but marvel at the stories told in the family home of the visitation. I am sure he would have marvelled at the concept of gold for the family (where is it mum?), the fragrance of frankincense being burnt in the home and being told it cane from the wise men and at family funerals the expensive myrrh being burnt for the dead or even used to help preserve granny (Matt 2.11). We are told today that the gifts represent things that are associated with the Christ; kingship, priesthood and power over life/death. I believe that if we allow ourselves to be lulled by these simple meanings we actually miss some of the deeper points that are being made by the writer. These are points that in today's world allow us to take on a new understanding about the presence of Christ in our lives in face of a society whose beliefs are at odds with the Christian ethos.

Gold is always associated with kingship. It's very essence and beauty is something that Queens, Emperors and other rulers lavishly display to show their authority. Yet, the very presence of gold amongst the wealthy and powerful should send us signals on the darker significance that gold retains. The power that is on display is power that is of the self. It is power that overrides others and demeans those with less. It is an authority that if allowed, or not, de-legitimises the others feelings, presence and self-hood. It proclaims the wealth and greatness of the individual and in some, if not all, circumstances it proclaims the right to what ever the owner wishes. So what does this tell us about the gift that is given? From what we know of Jesus the Christ's life the allure of gold was not high on his agenda. Indeed the Gospels record his rejection of such power during his forty days in the desert. Perhaps as a result of the gift given to him he was able to see beyond its allure to the greed that was displayed by those around him for such power. Perhaps, when we see the gift of gold we need to remind ourselves that the Christ's riches are not found in gold but in love and friendship that is the foundation of community.

The gifts from the wise call us to re-evaluate our thinking

Frankincense is associated intimately with the priesthood. Even today when we have services with incense a part of the church incense is frankincense. It's scent would have been redolent through out the temple during Passover and most ceremonies. It was indicative of sweet prayers ascending to God. It is mentioned in numerous places in the Bible and is seen as a symbol of the divine name (Mal. 1.11). It is a high quality resinous substance from Arabia and Somalia, which has a balsamic-spicy and lemony smell with undertones of pine. The association with ritual and spiritual things is part and parcel of our understanding of Christ the High Priest. Yet, the use of ritual and religion to manipulate has been well highlighted in recent years. It speaks of personal gain and hypocrisy rather than purity and love. Throughout history there are incidents where it is the cleric or spiritual person who is at the root of the evil in society. We can see figures like Rasputin, Jones (Jonestown massacre) and modern priests who have abused spiritual wealth and power in one form or another. The Gospel account is quite clear in Christ's rejection of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, who hid behind the fragrance of incense. This rejection may well be a keen insight into the hidden depths of those who care for power and self rather than for the spiritual realities of God's presence. The presence of God brings joy and love not wailing and the feeling of rejection as a result of man made laws that boost the image of the priest. It is in quietness that God is found and the expression of God's love is as ubiquitous as the fragrance of incense when the other is the centre of our attention.

Myrrh is representative of death. It was used as part of the funerary rites and in the embalming of bodies. It was extremely expensive at times worth more than gold. Myrrh is an earthy smell with bitter undertones. It is considered as an associate of death as it was used in the embalming process and is likely to be the resin used on Christ's body following the crucifixion. A foretaste then of death at Christ's birth, in some respects a completion of a circle. We have both a fascination and fear of death, one of the reasons for our elaborate rituals around death and mortality. However, myrrh has many other properties including a healing function. It was well used in the ancient East and Hildegard of Bingen used it for medical purposes. This is life rather than death but then life and death are entwined. Christ would have known both and showed no fear of the latter as death is needed for new life to come into being. Neither should we fear our mortality for it is a part of substantive life. Christ brings us to new life not to death as he rejects the need for stasis and invites us to joyousness in new things as our world changes around us but retains God's love and presence in every breath we breathe.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Clothing for the year

The attraction of the Boxing day sales is often too much for people. They dive in to find new inexpensive luxury clothing that would otherwise not be purchased. The sales are a good time to make these changes, although one wonders if in reality you are getting a bargain or is it that the store is ridding itself of old stock at a healthy markup.. The question is, as we reflect immediately after the frivolities of the season, do we need to find new styles of clothing that we should be wearing as Christians in the coming year? It seems a silly question but what we wear does say a lot about a person. Especially, when we are assessed by others by our outer clothing and how we stack up in a society that is focused on fashion. The writer to the Colossians says "Put on, then, garments that suit God's chosen and beloved people" (Col 3.12),

We occasionally take Paul and St Patrick's stiff armour of God a little too seriously and are caught out of time and place. So, let's take a look at some of the older fashions that we like and exchange them for some newer fashions, which are more attractive. Modern garments are somewhat more flexible, although older styles are still glamourised or over indulged by Christians. The stiff laces and whalebone corsets are often much admired as we focus ourselves on things that cannot change in our eyes or are seen as the traditional manner in which to comport ourselves. The inability to be open to the newness of God's life often renders our attitudes old fashioned and stiff. This does not mean to say that we should never look at old clothing but rather recognise that it is sometimes inappropriate for our closets. However, openness and a free flow is not always appropriate either in clothing. The fit and style needs to go with the circumstances of our lives as Christians and in some senses the basic style should not change but our presentation of them should, so that they are a compliment to the age in which we live.

Are we conscious of what we wear on the outside as Christians?

Perhaps, its because we think that our clothing needs to be cut from truth but actually our clothing should be love that is woven with truth. This gives our clothing a remarkable resilience in the face of abuse. If we prepare our clothing only with truth we are liable to become very stiff, like the breastplate and we get caught out wearing last year's armour. If, we have the main fabric as love then we are well on the way to showing the world how we can pleat it with compassion and hem it with humility. It allows us to be tolerant when others change the design slightly so that they can wear a more practical cloth for the work that they do in the community. This acceptance of the other brings joy into the hearts and minds of those we minister to rather than confronting them with stiffness and formality as we try to develop clothing only made out of our truth.

Of course, the cloth made of love that is threaded with truth is like teflon and kevlar, so that the stains of other's words against us do not penetrate and are easily removed with forgiveness. This clothing is unlike any other that is worn today as many people still wear the garments of hatred and anger such as found in 1 Samuel (2.26). Modern garments are light to wear and enable us to have a spirit of joy and laughter in our hearts. We wash them and care for them as we come into God's presence. We do not have to be brash about it but like Christ we do need to be in communication with God at all times (Lk. 3.49). In away this is what makes our clothing unique because it comes to us free when we are constantly in the presence of God and opening ourselves up to God's presence through prayer, worship and praise..

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

The word made flesh

The first chapter of John's Gospel is not something we associate with the joy that permeates Christmas and yet the 'birth narrative' of John is one of the set readings for Christmas day. At midnight we hear the Lukan story, which can also be repeated with slight variation in the morning. (Not to burst a balloon or anything but our interpretations of Luke's story are overlaid with misinformation and cultural bias which often lead us astray). John is forthright in his narrative, if somewhat dense, it is almost as if it comes directly from a Jewish midrashic sensibility that shows the fecundity and possibility that is redolent in the birth of Christ.

It is a narrative of possibility that leads us into a deeper appreciation of the spiritual reality of the incarnation that opens up our imaginative juices to the possibilities that are inherent in God's presence. We can see within its progression an interpretation of the originatory story in Genesis made concrete and human bound allowing us to access the wells of possibility that are present in genesis and the creative moment. The be-coming of God into human form brings forth a hopeful expectancy that is awaited for in creation. The imagery of light and darkness gives us structure to the possibilities of the future. There can be no distinguishing between two things unless there is contrast introduced by the strobe of light reflected outward and into our lives. We cannot imagine, in the wells of darkness, something that is different and hope filled unless there is a contrasting element. For us that element is the incarnation of God in the midst of frailty and suffering.

Light affords us contrast and words afford us community

In John there is an understanding of a reading that is associated with the history of the Jewish people. We can perhaps imagine the author reminding his community, with Christ's non-recognition, the understanding that only the forefathers walked with God whilst now, as a result of fear of God's presence, we need an interface (the Law / Torah) for communication between God and God's people. In seeing the Christ we see God's presence directly once more but are unable to recognise this as a result of our dependence on an interpretative structure such as Scripture. The incarnation thus becomes for us a light to God's presence in humanity brought into being in the meanest of places as we read in the other Gospels. It means that we can once more have direct access as humanity to the hope and love that is God. We no longer require the intermediary but like Abraham we are able to walk with God on a human basis.

This is furthered by the simple understanding that the first thing was the word. This suggests that the first thing in our relationship, as with any relationship, is the ability to communicate. The first word spoken is "Let there be light" (Gen 1.3) the beginning of discernment that allows us to formulate relationship. Words are the things that are required for us to form relationship and harmony whether they are lingual or physical. Words enable us to express love and beauty, faith and praise, happiness and joy, gratefulness and forgiveness. It is in our realisation of God's undying presence incarnate amongst us that enables and participates in the joy of creation, the creation inherent in conversation, partnership and community.

In reflecting on the multitudinal possibilities that comes with the expression of God's word amongst God's creation we can begin to see the possibilities that are created in our lives as we celebrate this day. A celebration that should fill our hearts with the hope expressed in the Christ child and our own lives as we own God's presence as part of our humanity this day.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Pregnant waiting

The imagery of pregnancy (Micah 5.3; Lk. 1.39-45) is one that is filled with hope for a new beginning and for a future that is filled with life. There is no negativity within the image itself. The pain and struggle of the actual birth process is not part of the image and often that pain is fleeting with the passage of time. Like all pain, that is not constant, there is a memory which may be shaded in any direction. However, the joy that is redolent in the image is infectious and brings sighs, memories and a glowing happiness of both the past and the future. It is also an image that brings comfort perhaps as we hark back to a time when the womb surrounded us and protected us from the harsh realities of the world or to the simple comfort of knowing that something loved is growing quietly away from the cold realities of life.

In some respects, this seems all wrong, as the reality appears to be filled with angst around the time of birth. There is much fear and of course pain during the birthing process. On occasion there are challenges that have to faced perhaps around existing medical conditions or the possibility of premature delivery, perhaps even around the possibilities of unknown conditions that are likely to generate hardship and challenges over and above the normal. No matter the final outcome, it is more often then not, joy, love and happiness, which is what we take away from the whole process at the end of the day. Life in some respects can mirror our expectations and our own experiences both the negative and the positive. In facing the coming of the incarnation it is our role to pick up the positive aspects and to discard the negative. In our services and the lives that we share together should be reflections of that never ending joy.

Faith, Joy, Peace all come together with love as we await the incarnation

Mary spontaneously bursts into praise and song when Elizabeth tells of the kick she received from her son as Mary approached (Lk. 1.46-55). A effervescent, bubbling up of response to God's nearness and presence in each others lives. Achieved through an attitude that is firmly set within the confines of God's presence. The one thing that no one can remove from ourselves and can only be determined by the responsive self to any and all situations. Mary chose to celebrate and praise God, Mary chose to be a vessel of God, Mary chose to be joyful in the face of hatred and ostracization. She probably prepared for her visit to Elizabeth by reading the start of 1 Samuel and so as she is greeted, the praise song of Mary pours forth. In approaching God we come with joy in our hearts and praises on our lips.

Does this speak to our situation today? Naturally. In planning for the future we of necessity listen closely and reflect on God's leading. This is where Martha and the other Mary jostle our lives for prominence. The birthing process is painful and on occasion it wants to rush into being while being called to slow down and not be born prematurely. At others there is a need to push forward and not allow ourselves to be retained and held up, which can also cause severe challenges. Yet the whole process is one of joy for the birth of new life and should be approached not with reflections on what was but on what is to come. In newness of life we find changes to our perspective (every child born changes the life of those tasked with caring for the child) this is what we need to open ourselves to and experience God's presence.

In the same manner we  approach the incarnation of our Lord, not with fear and trepidation but with throats sore from the shouts of praise and worship. To make our own decision as to the attitude that we approach God and not be bullied by our past or our present experiences. Just as Mary accepted without complaint and moved into new life with an attitude of joy. The inability to express our joy at God's presence reflects an inability to see the myriad possibilities that new life brings and to turn away from God's love which is always present and waits in pregnant anticipation for its release into our lives as it becomes incarnate in the world.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

God's shalom...looking past war

We have binary vision. Yes, we have two eyes but that is not what I mean. We just think and view things from a binary perspective because this is what we are taught to do from an early stage. Everything must come with an either / or perspective and when we look at bigger picture issues we see it as either this solution or that solution. A classic example at the present, or rather two to ensure we understand what we are looking at. Either: coal and fossil fuels, these are inexpensive and therefore we should use them. It maintains jobs and employment. Don't forget it brings in finances to the few. Or renewable energy sources; there are no jobs in this sector, we cannot maintain the prices at a low level, we cannot reap the financial rewards. (Simplistic I know but the picture is there either coal (inexpensive etc) or renewables (too hard basket etc)). Immigration: Either they are all undesirables, do not belong, are terrorists, deserve to be locked up, do not come in the right way or they are just humans in need, we should find homes for them, they will contribute to the economy, etc (Again simplistic but summarises the either or situation).

Let's now talk about peace. Well we cannot have peace without the cessation of war. Either we have peace or we have war, in other words violence or no violence that is peace. Is it? or can we re-think our way out of the either / or situation? The direction in Philippians is "then the peace of God which is beyond all understanding..." following the understanding that God is near and not to be anxious (Phil. 3.6-7). This seems to me to bring a new meaning to shalom, a meaning that takes us beyond the binary of war and peace. The passage does not retain any sense of violence in the physical but rather harks back to the disintegration of Jacob's family. Just think of the familial troubles that are rooted in not knowing themselves and their own siblings (For more on this read: The Beginning of Desire by AG Zornberg). This then requires us to think a bit more laterally then normal and when we do this we have an entirely new understanding of God's shalom in our midst or the lack thereof. It is precisely because of this re-imagining of peace that we recognise that it is all beyond our understanding if and while we have binary vision.

The re-integration of ourselves brings peace

The direction is Philippians is a personal direction to the recipient "if you...". In other words it us the individual that is targeted not the collective. It is we who need to integrate ourselves into harmony that is the key to a greater peace with the wider community. If we think about this then we can see that this is ultimately the corrective that brings about God's shalom in the world. In our current age more and more of us are suffering from a disintegration of our selves. We are no longer whole. We rise to the least threat to ourselves and create violent solutions for our issues and solvable challenges. We only have to look at the rates of violence against women, children and the marginalised to see how true this is. We need only look at the continual challenges we face with road rage, king hits, etc as a result of a momentary breakdown of our social selves. Our jobs or the lack of jobs; our infantile responses to change climate or otherwise; our disintegration into challenge politics rather than listening and dialogue. All of these things point to our own self disintegration which ultimately leads to challenges at an international scale which results in violence and war i.e. the lack of our own peace and God's shalom.

In approaching the coming of the incarnate one we need to set our minds free of those things that divide us. This is an important aspect of our faith life together for in order for us to form a harmonious community we need to look to our own harmony. It is our shattered lives that are the root of disharmony and we cannot place the blame solely on the other. If we are to be light bringers we are also bringers of peace or God's shalom but we ourselves must be prepared to re-integrate ourselves into wholeness in the presence of God. We will continue to bear shattered lives if we do not look to ourselves for re-integration into the story of faith in our own lives before we bring the light of God's countenance into the lives of those around us.

Sunday, 9 December 2018


Every story has a beginning, our life story, our faith story, our institution's story, etc. The story of the Christian faith journey also has a beginning, no not the start of creation, nor the start of the Covenant but rather the start of our baptism. The idea of an initiation rite and the acceptance of a person into a "club", "faith", life journey is as old as humankind. It begins with a call, a call that is responded to in the deepest parts of our hearts that requires a response. Often the first step of that response is taken for us by the initiator of that call and those who are older (perhaps wiser) than ourselves. In responding to that call we are responding to a blessing from whom the call originated, a blessing that for us as Christians calls us into a world that praises those who fill themselves with their own self worth so that we may convey love and humility.

The start of anything is always filled with wonder as we begin a new beginning. There is no difference in the joy and wonder and love that comes as a young person takes these first steps at the behest of their parents and godparents. In love they are called to be at the start of a faith life, this is a beginning that can lead anywhere. Just as there can be disbelief which ends with apparent disaster only to be sung out in worship and praise as what is forecast comes into being (Lk 1.68-79). We cannot see into every child's future as they are brought to the font of life through baptism. However, we can rejoice and praise God for the blessings that are showered on those who have heard God's call on their child's life. In celebration we testify to God's love in the presence of family and friends we do not allow our secular nature to overcome us so that we can brag at our collective experience.

To begin we have to start. All life begins at some point.

We move into our Christian faith journey by showing God's love to the world around us as God has shown love towards us. It is not our lives that matter it is the life of Christ that is on display and the glorification of Christ in our lives that is a celebratory event for all. We are given permission to display God's love to the world. It is not as if we are being guided and directed every step of the way, it is rather that we are given permission to be compassionate, to show love and to become a blessing to others by doing so. Only when we allow ourselves to become as Christ to the world does the world become filled with the joy and love of God's presence. It is our decision, just as it was Adam's, Eve's and all of those who have been before us. What happens when we treat God's presence as conventional orders, you must do this, you cannot do that is that we twist those things to become beneficial to our own way of thinking not towards God's presence. It creates power for us rather than the freedom that Love brings.

If we look at God's covenant it is a covenant of love not of legality. We are asked to look at what God has said and use our minds not to blindly follow but to open our eyes in love and show others the way. The shepherd leads from the rear by prompting the sheep and keeping an oversight on the whole to ensure the wayward follow the true leader who knows where sustenance is found. We must decide to follow the example of Christ or be curtailed by the legalities of our own power. It is love that brings us closer to each other and begins the stories of our lives. It is love that calls us to lead the communities in which we live and work not whether we have power, authority or legality to berate others with. In approaching the incarnation we approach the embodiment of love within ourselves as we reach into the hearts of those around us to sustain the community that we build together. So let us wonder together in praise of God as we begin again our lives showing God to the world by our wishes not by someones command.