Monday, 29 February 2016


How many of us have complained and grumbled about the situation in which we find ourselves?

I would say the majority at sometime or another.  Paul's first letter to the Corinthians contains a passage which is read this third Sunday of Lent (1 Cor. 10.1-3) that is in the middle of a larger essay that talks about how we interact with society.  For Paul there are three possibilities; 1) we can fully integrate ourselves and accept everything that is going on trying to assimilate the culture into our faith practice; 2) we can go part way down this route keeping some things and not others; 3) finally we reject everything from the culture and become an enclave that is closed to those around us.  In a multicultural situation what is going to be best for us?

Drawing from Jewish scriptures Paul uses the integration of both Greek and Jew and Gentile into the burgeoning Christian faith by pointing out the roots of some of the Christian rites of passage in Judaism and reminding the readers of the mistakes that our ancestors had made from which we should learn.  This is the halfway point not full integration and not segregation but accepting some things and learning from the mistakes made in our way forward.

In doing so Paul looks at four things; idolatry, fornication, testing and grumbling or complaining.  If we think about this we have the same problems in the present day and culture.  We have many idols that we set up before we think of God's presence in our lives, sport, film, leisure activities, money, etc.  In some cases even human leaders and interpreters of scripture (ISIS).  The problem with idolatry is that it often leads us away from God and into problems of power, sexuality and horror.  In Paul's essay he quotes from the Golden Calf incident and points out how the Israelite's feasted and then got up to play.  The word play has sexual overtones in the original Hebrew and is used elsewhere to indicate this sort of loose behaviour.  Many of our idols today lead us down this very path and into the arms of Paul's second temptation that of fornication.  Do we need to expand this to any real extent?

Our third temptation so to speak is the testing of God.  Just as in ancient times we still rely on authority to determine whether God's action  or Spirit has been active.  Bishops, priests, Popes and others in ecclesial authority have to authorise what they feel God has done.  Is this not what happened to the prophets in Jerusalem that Jesus is lamenting (Lk 13.31-35)?  Jewish authorities determined the authenticity of the prophet not the reality of God's word.  Yes, there is a need for discernment but discernment may often be in the actions of those involved rather than in official sanction.  Official sanction can often be part of a political maneuver rather than an actual discernment.  Expediency in maintaining the status quo may often dictate the discernment process.  Faith is not a matter of following the signs but one that is bound up in our experience of God.  Indeed, if it does not pan out then we more often then not degenerate into the fourth of Paul's temptation that of grumbling or complaining.

Do we complain to cover our own faults?

Here Paul puts grumbling/complaining into the same category as fornicators and idolaters, just think about that when you next grumble or complain about something.  I said at the beginning of Lent that it is not the temptation but what we do with it that matters.  In our complaining it is often about someone or something of our own situation rather than something else beyond our control.  Rather than complaining is this not an opportunity for us to reconsider our own actions.  It may be about how we look at the situation and allow ourselves to be guided by God's voice in our lives.  Faith is about taking a step into an unknown place and not about standing around and complaining about a situation which we have got ourselves into.  The step of faith allows us to follow the path that God has opened to us our 'escape route' which Paul talks about.  It may be an uncomfortable step, like accepting our own responsibility in our actions, or a path that removes us from the familiar.  Does it matter where we are led if we are discerning and doing what is right before God?  Instead of the complaint and the grumble let us see where the correct response is for our onward faith journey.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

A discipline worth continuing

We are now well into our Lenten journey.  Most of us have a book or a course we are attending.  Many of us have denied ourselves or taken up something that will, one hopes, change our lives and not just be a simple thing that is of no consequence.

This Sunday (Lent 2) is often used to celebrate the Transfiguration as the Philippians reading talks about the 'transfiguration of our bodies' (Phil 3.21).  I have written previously how transfiguration leads and indeed pushes us to transformation (Transfiguration pushing us to transformation). But as we move on into our Lenten disciplines we need to take cognisance of our determination and ability to continue on in discipline.  How good are we about being disciplined?

Today's world is about instantaneity and taking our kicks in the instant.  Like butterflies we flit from one thing to another because we are seduced into thinking that the next buzz, high or ecstatic experience is found in this or that new trend. Yet, each new delight is as fleeting as the last and grants us a momentary experience that has no long lasting effect on our lives.  We are continuously searching for the next 'thing' even before the last has faded away into the paltriness of everyday anonymity.   God's promise to Abram (Genesis 15) is not something that is here, now and over.  It is the source of a generational striving towards God.  It is a promise that is not to be hurried but rather to be lived into.  The experience is in the transformative power that the promise holds over the descendants rather than in instant gratification of the present generation.  In reality, God promises enslavement and hardship (Genesis 15.13-16) on the journey before fulfillment can be achieved.  Our eyes are opened from the start as to the hardships ahead.

Paul's lamentation in his letter to the Philippians (3.18-19) is perhaps a commentary on this butterfly effect he sees in those that proclaim themselves whilst referring to themselves as being of the Christian faith  without actually undergoing the discipline of a faith journey.  There is a searching for an instant gratification within our spiritual lives which no drug or flip flop between 'ways' can ever satisfy.  The journey of personal transformation is one that is long and arduous.  There are no short cuts that others forge for us through their branding, their experiences, there own transformation.  We can no more tread another's journey as we can live another's life.  Each of us makes the journey for ourselves but for this to occur we need the discipline to mature and develop along the meandering paths that we forge for ourselves.  We may travel alongside another and share their path but it is a sharing not a forging of ourselves.  Transformation of this type is associated with the intensive discipline of Lent that prepares us for an ongoing discipline within our own lives.  It is not meant to be an instant thing that produces an immediate effect like some drug.  It is rather an ongoing commitment towards not only a changed life but also a changed perspective.

So are you prepared to take the discipline (hardship) of the road less traveled?

The Christ in the reading from Luke (13.1-9), rather than the Transfiguration reading, makes an effort to point out the preconceptions and views of the people at the time on how God interacts with people.  If something goes wrong then it must be that the people involved in the tragedy are sinners.  Somewhat along the lines that some have suggested towards the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Tsunamis and other natural or unnatural disasters.  In following others we are likely to open ourselves up to just this simplistic easy thinking to assuage our consciences and lack of effort, especially when it involves tragedy in our own lives.  Without taking the time and effort to determine the true source of catastrophe in our lives and those around us.

 It is rather the discipline and perseverance of the gardener, the farmer and others that is needed in the development of our own faith as we journey towards and in understanding God in our lives.  Only in persistence and discipline do we achieve the results that are both life saving and life changing.  We cannot turn aside at the first hurdle, the covenant with Abram was one that would be long lasting and developed over time.  Our journey in Lent can neither be superficial nor be but a short instant in time.  Rather it is to set ourselves up for a transformed life in Christ that matures and changes with time and in time.  The choice is ours to make a momentary high or a journey that will develop and change us over the long haul.

Sunday, 14 February 2016


At the beginning of Lent we say that we will give up something or if we are really thinking ahead we will take up something.  Often those things that we give up are gestures in the way of food and drink to make us think that we are being 'good'.  They are fun to do as we can say to our neighbours and friends "Oh, no I won't have any chocolate because I have given it up for Lent."

However, right away we begin to feel the niggle of doubt as to whether we have enacted the best thing.  Does it really matter if we take a small bit of that chocolate cake, or the bar of favourite chocolate that our friend has just given to us?  What will it do, no-one will know especially if we do not tell them?  Christ's first temptation was also over the trivial, although at the end of 40 days not so trivial, requirement to self indulge in our gustatory senses (Lk 4.3-4).  Bread at the end of a long fast would seem like heaven on earth, forget the chocolate!  In the end when Easter comes we know that we will indulge in our favourite food once more.  Easter eggs and chocolate bunny rabbits. Rather Christ enjoyed companionship and hospitality with others, thus forming community.

Yummy!  Lord forgive us our temptations.

Not all of us are offered power on the scale that Christ is offered in Luke's gospel (4.6-8) but each of us is offered power as we are asked to take on ministries or are considered leaders of communities.  The power that is on offer is the power of authority, to play the dictator and to do those things that 'I' want done. So often we succumb to this temptation as we believe that our way and our needs are the best for the community we lead.  It is an insidious temptation as others look for saviours in us rather than facing the challenges as a community.  Ronald Heifetz quoting from his own book on leadership in the forward to Rabbi Sacks' Lessons in Leadership suggests:

 "We should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face the problems for which there are no simple painless solutions - the problems that require us to learn new ways."

This is Christ's way, a way of challenge to us today.  Christ formed relationships, he refused the temptation to be dictatorial.  In relationship we grow whilst in authority situations there is a tendency towards stagnation, like an enormous mono culture pine forest that does not harbour growth and community below its branches.

Of course who cannot resist the need for fame in some form.  Even if it is for a moment. We all hope our blogs, pictures, comments will go viral.   Some will go out of their way to court that fame and encourage it within their lives.  Yet, one wonders how sterile some of those 'famous' lives are as they have everything and partake of everything to excess,but end up broken, depressed, alcoholic or worse.  It is no wonder that with the role models kids have of broken fame that our kids are themselves broken and depressed.  Christ resists the temptation of instant fame, the instant millionaire syndrome.  Who wants to be a millionaire? Christ models the wholeness of long term interaction not short term fame that so often leads to brokenness

So if we are taking up something there is still the temptation to give up because it becomes a too hard basket phenomena.  Yet, Lent is about discipline.  The discipline of maintaining a change of life so that it becomes part of who we are.  It is not just for Lent that we do these things.  If we are serious about our intentions as Christ was, then we must be serious about the continuation of our Lenten discipline as a life changing event.  Lent becomes our precursor to our new life in Christ at Easter.  What we have given up or taken up becomes and forms part of our lives.  Why should we revert to chocolate because there is plentiful supplies?  Why should we give up that hour of prayer that we took up when it has become a part of our daily routine?  Or the Gym or the reading of Scripture...  If we allow these our Lenten disciplines to become habit they become part of ourselves; our new life in Christ as we resurrect ourselves at Easter.

The Gospels show Christ living out the foretelling of the temptations.  He does not take the route of authority and power 'over' in his relationships.  He does not seek for his own welfare over others but pus himself into 'danger' to help others.  He does not seek fame and fortune but rather moves on and often seeks the wilderness to avoid that form of relationship.  The time in the desert forms part of his life long action to form relationship and model a way of being. If we follow Christ then our Lenten journey should become our life in Christ.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Sanctuary: Sacred, secular or populist

Although admiring those in the Church in the Australian context who are offering 'sanctuary' to refugees facing re-deportation to off shore processing centres and applaud the publicity it brings to the issue, I cannot help wondering what the rationale is from a theological or social justice point of view.  Is it a sacred duty, a secular protest or a populist publicity getter?

Scripturally the notion of sanctuary can go back to the requirement of the Israelites to build cities of refuge for those who are unjustly accused to flee to and find refuge (Numbers 35.9-).  These were, as I understand it, to give a certain breathing space to allow for tempers to cool and a thorough investigation to be undertaken so that innocent lives were not subjugated to  immediate legal punishments.  However, the person fleeing to such a city was required to contribute to the life of that city and be part of the community.  They were there so that people could remain in relationship and not be ostracised.  All up there were only a limited number of such cities (six in all) scattered through Israel.  As a moral answer to some challenging circumstances the refuge system provided a good route to pursue.  Not only did it give safety from prosecution / persecution but it meant that the person continued within relationship and was part of community.

In the Medieval Church, now legally fallen away, sanctuary was given to 'criminals' and 'falsely accused' as a place of safety.  This was also usually assigned to select centres / Churches (those given a specific licence / decree) although, at a lower level, by all churches.  There were also conditions, a 40 day limit, confession, etc.  At the end of which the person had a choice, go before secular authority or be exiled.  It was not a long term situation and such churches often had the necessary accommodation or rooms to house the person.  For the falsely accused this was a good place to ensure that appropriate investigation and/or for evidence for clemency etc to be collected rather than a hasty trial and the imprisonment of the innocent.  For the guilty it meant a breathing space to come to terms with the loss of property and the burdens of exile from home but with ones life!

Sanctuary across the border at St John of Beverley, UK.

So when we promote sanctuary in the church today what are we promoting? and is there a limit? or are we entering into a Julian Assange form of imprisonment that in the long term is detrimental to both the body and soul.  Grace is not cheap and must be part of our longer faith journey.  Sanctuary should, in modern times and from a human, social and moral standpoint, be something that each country offers freely not just a faith grouping.  A grace that is offered to each of us by God. should be reflected in the actions of our leaders in the world.  Yet, we cannot agree on who we will accept as our own neighbour let alone who we should accept as being worthy of sanctuary?  Our own prejudices are ingrained by ethnic, religious and social relationships that leads to disagreement, violence and heavy legality to protect our 'borders'.  The church has not always been as free with regards to its own acceptance of those in need of a place of sanctuary and in some places continues to ostracise through its actions.

Where to from here for those who are religiously moved to offer sanctuary?  Is there a moral responsibility that makes the burden fall on the Church or other religious entities?  Is there a danger of offering to alleviate the mote while we carry a log in our own eye?  Is this offer of sanctuary for the ostracised in faith, those denied relationship as a result of gender, ethnicity or religious persuasion? or are we focused only on the needs of the moment (for publicity, notoriety, etc)?  Is it in terms of a re-conceptualisation of the medieval concept or the cities of refuge? How do we make a gesture more than a temporary feel good response so that it helps to integrate the lost into relationship? Questions that should be answered not only by those offering sanctuary but by all faith groups.  For me the burden is on those of us who lead within a faith community to demonstrate the acceptance of all of God's people, irrespective of sexual, ethnic or religious persuasion.  Our responsibility is, yes, to highlight the moral irresponsibility of our leaders and our citizens, who at the end are responsible for those in leadership positions but also to show what it means to be compassionate of heart.  Our places of sanctuary need to be  open to all in peace and love not just the select few in response to politics.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Transfiguration pushing us to transformation

Being the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and our journey into Lent we tend to celebrate the story of what is known as the transfiguration.  Although this year being Year C we read from Luke's gospel which does not use this word in telling the story.  There are many sources available today to tell us that transfiguration is really a translation of the Greek 'metamorphothe' which we derive the word metamorphose or change such as a butterfly caterpillar undergoes a change from one state to another yet remaining the same.  Christ undergoes a change but it appears not a radical change as he is still recognisable as himself.  But is this true? The reading from Exodus (34.29-35) where Moses is changed following his experience with God details a similar experience with a metamorphoses occurring.  Again in this episode Moses is changed but remains the same, sufficiently so that he is recognised for who he is. and yet he is definitely changed.  Has the same metamorphoses occurred in Christ in such a manner that we only glimpse it briefly and afterwards are missing it?

Both of these experiences can be classified as 'mountain top experiences'.  These are often why we are drawn to hill and mountaintops, whether it is an Everest or a Machu Picchu or even a Collombatti hill or a Telegraph hill.  The openness from the top gives us vision into the future or what is around us in terms of geography.  The mountaintop gives us clarity of vision to see our way forward.  Moses clarity of vision was the presence of God and the conventional building blocks concretised by the tablets.  For Christ it was a clarification of the road to Jerusalem, the cross and resurrection. For Celtic spirituality the hill top is an important part of our spiritual journey a place were we achieve clarity for the way forward.  I am not sure about you but descriptions of mountain top journeys give me a thrill and wish to be there to see the view, to experience the openness, to be changed from the experience.  The poor disciples they really miss out on this mountain top experience...they sleep!!  They catch the tail end and miss the point so much so that they are determined to remain where they are and celebrate with structures.  Structures that bind us to a spot and keep us tied to old and perhaps ineffective  ways.  Or structures that prevent us from interacting with and seeing the view from the top.

Often we too are asleep when it comes to the experience as it happens to us and so miss our opportunity.  Both Moses and Christ had a moment that changed them.  Yet the change while physically apparent is not where we need to focus.  It is the change in trajectory to which we need to pay attention.  On being changed they did not stand still they moved on in their journey.  They both walked back down the hill.  They both came into contact with others and in doing so changed the others lives.  Transformation came in the wake of transfiguration.  Moses gives the law to the people they are bound into a conventional relationship and move into a new place.  They are transformed from where they were.  Christ moves directly to Jerusalem and the denouement on the cross.  A moment that transforms history and time.  Action came out of the mountain top and their transfiguration not stasis.

The Mountain top experience gives us courage to face the journey down

We have not left the mountain top but have rather stayed behind and built our monuments to the holy.  In experiencing the transfiguration of the experience of the holy we should be pushed to transformation not stasis.  We should be pushed to show the light of Christ in our lives by going out from our mountain top refuges into the place where the people are.  How can we reach others if we do not step down from our ecclesial mountains?  How can we show the light of Christ that comes into our lives at Baptism to our communities if we stay sheltered in our havens of safety?  Christ's transformation takes him to the cross not to a nice cozy enclave. It takes him to a painful beginning.  We celebrate the mountain top of the transfiguration just before the beginning of Lent.  This is not a coincidence.  We are driven forth into the world down the mountain into the deepest depths of our own humanity as we struggle through Lent.  We are challenged to ring the changes of transfiguration and ecstatic experience into a transformed life that will impact on our communities and bring the light of Christ into their lives.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Love is

This weekend, the last of January, we again celebrate a baptism at Applecross, Perth.  Today we also hear read the famous passage written to the Corinthians, Paul's treatise on love.  This passage comes at the centre of a rhetorical essay beginning in Chapter 11 and going on to the end of Chapter 14.  This passage is one that centres on gifts of the church both Spiritual and given by grace.  So what is love and how does it impact upon the new life in Christ that we celebrate today.

Well, we ask that the parents and godparents raise their child  into a life that is described in Paul's passage in Corinthians.  A major task one would think.  Given the attributes that Paul ascribes to love.  Patience, never boastful, never conceited, never taking offence, delights in truth doesn't make an accounting , etc.  A truly superhuman thing to achieve.  I know people who have some of these attributes but all of them, no way.  Surely we would wish for some of the other gifts on this child of God.  The gifts of knowledge, prophesy, speaking in tongues.  These are tangible things that will contribute immensely to our understanding of God and are sources of goodness to the Church.

Just think back through the decades, I am sure there are those who will remember, the outpouring of the Spirit during the Charismatic movement, when these gifts were prominent.  Think of the thousands that came into the Church then.  Even now we can think of the movement of the Spirit in the African countries and the enormous church attendances and presence in services in countries such as Nigeria and South Africa.  These are gifts which are useful to the Church and some would say essential for the Church's growth and ability to reach out into our communities to bring Christ's light to the darker places of the world.

An enduring power of love found in refugee camps

Yet Paul draws on the noisy environment of the brass foundries and bronze markets of  ancient Corinth to show how distracting such gifts are without an understanding and lived into experience of love that is needed to go with it.  Paul draws on the clamour of the market place to show us that for all our good intentions such gifts lead to our own downfall.  The tendency is to boast of having spoken or speaking in tongues.  Even if we do not have the gift now we still mention that we have had so in the past (we must be good!!).  We lord it over others if we have specialised knowledge that they do not have.  All of these things are typical of human nature we just need to look at the reading from Luke (4.21-30) to see how human these reactions are especially when we think we know better.  However, all of these things are fleeting in the scheme of things.  The Spirit does not stay but moves on to encourage others.  Our knowledge is transitory as new information comes to light and we have but our own glories in the past to reflect on rather than an ongoing  deepening understanding of our faith.

At the start of our faith journey the greatest gift that we can ask for is that the child comes to understand the strictures and freedoms of growing up filled with love.  An easy task, well perhaps perhaps not depending on how we think of love.  Looking at Paul's list of what love is and isn't it may not be as easy as we think. Can we truly say that we can bring our children to show the patience of withholding any power that they may wield over another, in the same manner that David withholds his power to kill King Saul on a number of occasions (out of love).  More often than not the encouragement is to use our power to benefit ourselves or the person with the power.  or can we encourage our children to have the endurance that those in refugee camps have.  The power to endure a life that is subjugated to power over us in the worst possible conditions.  A life that is seemingly impossible yet still brings love into the lives around us no matter how subjugated we are.

These are almost impossible but they are what Paul enjoins us to do and how we are to love our neighbour.  Are we able to bring our children up in this light giving of themselves selflessly in love?