Sunday, 31 July 2016

This is what we are...What could we be?

Life is a continual struggle as we seek for and try to gain the things we need and want.  If we are goal minded then we are very much like the farmer portrayed in the Gospel who looks to a stable future and seeks to incorporate greater holdings and improve his infrastructure (Lk. 12.16-21).  We constantly seek to improve the things around us to improve the quality of life for our children and our friends.  Then the proverbial rug is pulled out from under us.  Some of us would begin to wonder about this passage in these terms as in today's world this would look like a common problem rather than greed, depending, of course, on the motivations of the person.

Just this week on the radio we heard of a similar situation in the dairy industry in WA.  Infra structure was put in to a farm on the expectation of a secure future but the rug was pulled out from under the farmer in terms of the closing of a contract for the supply of milk.  The portrayal of pretty well the same circumstances within the Gospel passage, of course not ending in the farmers death, although in some respects he thinks so, the death of his way of life.  In a manner of speaking greed may have been at the bottom of both events, but goal focus does not necessarily mean that there is greed in the heart of the person.  Yes, we must be aware of this aspect in anything that is goal focused but the event that is more important here is the event that is unforeseen.  It is the event of the unexpected within our lives, the future that rises up and bites us when we are expecting a pleasing and comfortable life.

In being goal focused, nothing wrong with that, we also need to be aware that we need the flexibility to cope with life. In putting into place those things that we would like to achieve, change, enhance, to make for a better life for ourselves (spiritual, mundane, work, play, etc) our task is to remind ourselves of the unexpected event.  The event we cannot prepare for no matter how we try, the event that disrupts our lives in ways that we cannot fathom.  In our 'greed', if that is what it is, for the betterment of ourselves and our families we need to stop and think how this goal focus can be so easily disrupted.  In focusing our goal within the secular and the mundane, which we all do, in one form or another in our current world view, we neglect the very things that are likely to disrupt the focus of our striving.

Focus our needs not in greed but in relationships.

Often the event that calls to us and occurs in our lives in such a manner that it disrupts us to the point of total frustration we turn to anger, malice and disruption of our own relationships.  It is at this point that we need to understand that it is we who are being called to change not the other.  It is we who are being challenged by the presence of Christ, we who are being asked to become like Christ (Col 3.9-10).  In answering God's call upon us we need to become open to the Spirit that blows through our lives.  It is our failure but also our opportunity when we begin to realise that it may be God who is opening up our lives and leading us into newness of life.  Instead of anger and frustration, the natural consequence of our plans going AWOL, we need to re-integrate our relationships so that they become community to us and we become community to others.

It is not that we have been selfish but that we often focus ourselves too much and neglect the realisation that it is community that sustains us. This passage reminds us that the call of the other on our lives often disrupts our own plans.  Instead of becoming complacent within our own planning we need to open ourselves to the presence of God's call and admit others into our lives.  In doing so we achieve more than our dreams as we help others to achieve the dreams that they dream at the same time.  By hoarding our wealth (knowledge, presence, financial, food, etc.) we deny the presence of the other as we fail to share and thus form relationship.  It is in our ability to share the little that we have that grants us access to the multitude of God's love that we find in interacting with the other. The need and our underlying instinct to hoard is an instinct to obtain power over others by removing or limiting a supply for the other.

It is this power over that is found in greed that is decried by God and Christ.  In achieving power over we automatically see the other as a commodity not a person or the other with whom we relate.  This can be seen in the trafficking of people which is the result of greed.  We can see it in academia where an academic does not allow access to work but keeps it for themselves.  As we come to understand our own appetites we start to recognise where we are greedy and where we are despoiling our own relationships by striving for power over.  Christ calls us to account for our relationships not to become so focused that we miss the opportunity to create community rather than enhance our own shaky greed.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Getting what we asked for

Luke's Gospel records a conversation with Christ that follows the Lord's prayer.  In it Christ states "..ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened." (Lk 11.9).  The sequence is of interest because it starts with the verb ask, not seek and not knock, we must first ask and then the others follow.

However, the question that has to be asked is what do we ask for? The answers that Christ gives are all relatively simple things and common cultural requests that may occur at any time when a person is in need.  A request for bread or accommodation nothing complex, simple things of human need.  So all we have to do is ask!  I can think of a lot of things that I could ask for, a new mini traveller, an apartment on the river, a farm where I can keep  some horses, etc.  I am sure that we can all dream up things that we would like.  Indeed, if we look at asking for what we want we can see how much difficulty that brings, if we take it up to the level of the country.  We are constantly bombarded by various sectors saying that their sector needs more finances or they need more workers, or they need more facilities and do not cut from others because they require the things that they have.  Everyone wants something and more often then not they want it over and above the needs of everyone else. we forget that in our asking we are doing so not for the reasons that Christ gives but for the reasons of our own hearts.

It is out of our need that we ask not out of our wants.  The requests that Christ highlights are requests that are needful not requests for our own selfishness.  However, there is more to this than just the simplicity of the needful request, however we formulate these requests.  In asking for these we are asking for a fulfilment for our lives.  In which case if our physical needs are met what should we be asking for?  This is I think were we start to go wrong in the consumerist society that we have become, because we immediately turn back to those things that we want rather than looking for the need in our lives.  Our asking must now lead to the only need that we truly require and that is to become more Christic and closer to 'God'.  Ultimately this is the true need of all humanity and the one thing we fail to ask for at any time as we see fulfillment in the material not the spiritual.

Once we have that thought, the giveness of the request is not a magical fulfilment but a deeper searching for what we are needful of, an inner response to an extreme need.  A seeking to bring to fruition the desire in our hearts which is a yearning towards an unknown that we label as 'God'.  However, just as with the Zen master's use of koans and sayings, there are many disappointments along the way and the goal always appears to be just ahead and never there.  Often it is as if we are riding an ox to search for an ox.  We are constantly looking and looking for something that we feel is beyond us and in the future ahead, we see its tracks and we see the signs but we fail to recognise that what we are searching for is right next to us if we were only to open our eyes and see.  Our searching and striving is often concerned with the future rather than what is.  In other words the Christic presence is here in the present not in the future but to enable it we need to hear the knock on the door of our closed hearts.

Pre-Raphelite artist William Holbury Hunt's "Light of the World".
Note the over grown plants at the door.

It is not only that we need to hear the knock we need to knock, not just for help to get out but to clear the debris that has built up over the years of neglect.  It is the door into new life that we are talking about and when we come to it we will be unable to recognise it because of all the debris we have chucked up against it.  William Holman Hunt's painting of Christ knocking on the door shows that the outside of the door has accrued many and interesting accretions over time.  The wilderness and nature has overtaken the whole.  Now just imagine what the inside looks like because of our own neglect of the more nebulous dimensions of life. Christ may well be knocking to get in but there is a large amount of knocking or us to find the door.  Our selfish attitudes that have built up over the ages have deafened our ears to Christ's knock.  For us to start knocking on other doors and bringing Christ with us we first have to knock through our door to find Christ and let him in.  Only when we have allowed Christ's presence into our hearts can we start to actually knock on the doors of others and bring them into Christ.  It is we who are open to the Christic experience that are enabled to go out and persistently knock on the doors of others as Christ that Christ enjoins to be persistent.

The process starts with us asking.  It starts with us asking for the right things, in asking for our hearts to be turned from stone to flesh, from coldness and self centred to warm and open to the other and Christ in the present moment. That we may seek and find that which is here in the present so that we can go and knock on other hearts to be Christ to the other and bring the Good News into the world in faith and action.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The better part

Martha and Mary are quintessential displays of opposites within the scriptural challenges that appear in the Gospel passages (Lk. 10.38-42).  In looking at this passage all sorts of reasons are given for the reason for Christ's saying that Mary had chosen the better part.  In some respects all are quite right and it is very dependant on our own circumstance as to how we will interact with the implications within this small vignette.

Perhaps, for me it is the way that the two women are in their being which is of importance rather than what Christ is doing or saying.  Martha is for me the epitome of  many wives and partners who are house proud.  I am not saying anything against this, in fact I am reminded by Martha of my wife.  Whilst she was alive we enjoyed, immensely the opportunity to entertain friends and colleagues around the dinner table.  Often I would be the cook for these occasions whilst she would make the table arrangements and  insist that every nook and cranny was dusted and cleaned to perfection.  There was none of this sweep it under the carpet or close the door on the untidy aspects of the house.  The house was swept and cleaned from top to bottom prior to the guests arrival.  I would often despair at the minutiae and detail to which she was prepared and insisted on going to on behalf of the guests.  It helped that she kept the house appearance clean in the first place.  For me this is Martha.  A woman who worries about the state of things prior to and during the guests stay in the house.  It is a celebration of the household and the person takes pride in offering first class hospitality to the stranger and friend alike.

I am in contrast somewhat like Mary.  I am content to be with the guest or the company (if I were not cooking), not as an entertainer, nor as a conversationalist but by the pleasure of being with, listening and contributing to the peace and companionship of the moment.  My concern was that the food be delicious and that I could spend quality time with our guests, irrespective of who they were. I often became frustrated with the pedantism  of my wife in the lead up to a dinner or having guests around.  It was not that I did not see the need for a clean house and a neat appearance, what I objected to was the fuss.  I am quite content to ensure a clean appearance but I don't need to make an overt effort just because guests are arriving.  My kids and the family live in the home, it is not a show house, we are here to be with the guest not to showcase the house as if it were an object for sale.

In this story, we must remember that it is Jesus that they are entertaining.  This is something we often overlook when trying to come to grips with the interpretation of the story.  We automatically see the entry of the Christ and make an assumption that this illustrates Mary's understanding of the Christic presence.  Let us see the humanity on display when we look at the episode not the presence of God/Christ.  This for me is an emphasis on Jesus' humanity and the interaction that is happening at the human level.  If we delve into the fanciful footwork of seeking the spiritual in every reading we fail to accommodate the more basic human reality that brings us into contact with God. It is here in the simple humanity of two people in company that brings in the Christic presence not the fact of Jesus 'the Christ'.

Interacting with a person takes energy, is this why we onlysee individuals? (

This simple interaction of a person with a person, when we engage with the other as a person not as a label, denies our tendency to ostracise and individualise everyone.  If we do not see this in our lives, we become the same as the Israelites that Amos rails against (Amos 8.5-6) who are only after their own individual success and not the concerns of the person.  Our day to day dealings are with individuals who have no personality or rather whose personality is of no consequence to us.  Until we realise for ourselves the need to come into conscious communion with our neighbours as ourselves, look them in the face and see them for themselves, we will be unable to find Christ and God's gracious presence in our lives. We burden ourselves with our day to day concerns, as Martha did, whilst not attending to our day to day interactions that happen in the present not the future.  The presence of God is in the present, this is where we live. Mary sees the person of Jesus in the present and therefore sits before Christ.  It is not that Mary sits before Christ who happens to be Jesus, this is the wrong way round as it means that Mary is seeing an object not a person.  Although Dr Ike, from Global Ethics, is talking about leadership and followership his quote equally applies to each of us on a daily basis:
 "The bottom line for leadership and followership is not always the emphasis on what I have but rather on who I am. Not what I learnt from others but rather on what I taught.  Not what I received, but rather on what I gave.  Not what I pulled out and took but rather on what I put in. Not what I accumulated, but what I shared.  Indeed and worthy of thought, not even on how or what I lived, but what I left behind.This is the challenge."

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The good neighbour or something more

The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke's Gospel is well known (Lk. 10.25-37).  We look at this and interpret in light of the question that has been placed before Christ 'Who is my neighbour?', yet does Christ really answer the question?   Like any good story teller and politician we would say yes as the 'Go and do likewise" is sufficient;y clear given the circumstances.  Yet, I want to ask what are we being asked to go and do?

At a superficial level it is perhaps within our interpretation to follow on from the likes of St Augustine and speak of how we must, unlike the priest and levite, reach out our hands to those who are in desperate need no matter what the circumstance, no matter our consideration of who it actually is.  Coming into play here are a number of issues that we must first battle through as we realise the import of this story.  Firstly, we have no idea who the person who has been set upon is, where he is from, whether he is a Samaritan or an Israelite or some other tribal personage.  The 'man' has been stripped of all identification, for all we know he is a Samaritan.  In which case, this is a story of a Samaritan assisting another Samaritan. Are we then to go and look after those who are part of our own country or tribal group?

Secondly, what did the priest and levite see?  Neither of them appear to have had a close look at the person nor did they ascertain his condition.  We are not operating under Napoleonic law here, which imposes the requirement of a person to see if they can render aid.  It is within the legal constrictions of the Israelite legal system for priests and levites.  If it is dead they cannot come into contact for purity reasons.  This may not seem reasonable to us but for those listening it was perfectly legitimate.  Of course what happens if this is a trap set by robbers and it is one of their own who is lying there pretending to be hurt or a person beaten to become bait for another rich person. Can we not render aid by notifying the town and have them send aid is not his being neighbourly and  practical? If the person was an Israelite, perhaps he too would have felt mortified if the Samaritan came anywhere near him, perhaps he himself would have been repelled by this event.  So is the requirement to go against all laws and regulations governing our own societal norms in our struggle to be a good neighbour?  Go and do likewise.  Augustine would have us think about giving ourselves to those who are at odds with ourselves in times of adversity, reach out and give to those less fortunate then ourselves.  Even if we dislike them or despise them.  Yes, we truly need to do this with a willing heart but is this what we are being asked in the parable?

What hatreds do we harbour within ourselves?
  Are we prepared to let go our enmity of the unknown? 

Is there something more here that we are missing in what we are being asked to do.  I am not so certain that Christ has answered the question quite as readily as we assume if we follow St Augustine.  There is a deeper understanding that we have to grapple with which is over and above the neighbourliness of assistance in time of need.  Let us for a moment, despite what I said above, think of the traveller as being a good Hebrew who has been set upon.  Let us also agree for a moment about the rights of the two who go before the priest and the levite.  What exactly takes place in the case of the Samaritan?  I can imagine myself as the Samaritan,as I move across to the downed man.  I am uncertain if this is not just a ploy.  I loosen my knife at my belt so that I can kill the person if he springs up and attacks. If not perhaps I can kill another despised Israelite, one who should not breathe and whom I hate with all my heart and life.  This is what I have been taught from birth, should I not act within the realms of culture and natural social conditioning?  The two others I saw earlier did little why should I?

It is not love of neighbour that drives the scenario when it unfolds into the act of compassion and yet it is.  It is something deeper that has unfolded within the heart and mind of the Samaritan.  The hate with which he has been brought up to understand as being natural has gone.  The enmity that fuels the life of the Samaritan - Jewish interaction has been dissipated by love.  The person by the side of the road has been lifted out of isolation and being an SEP (Somebody else's problem) has become an object of love.  God is found here in this act. This is something that most of us have yet to come to terms with in our lives. We do not like to think that this level of emotion operates in our lives but we can see it rearing its ugly head within society.  The emotions generated within nationalistic movements and fundamental views are driven by enmity.  This level of emotion goes far beyond the 'love of neighbour' that we think of on a normal basis when relating this story.  This is what Christ is asking us to do when he says 'Go and do likewise' not just love of neighbour, that's easy, but loss of enmity and the lifting out into conscious presence the other in love.  This moves us beyond all borders into a new understanding of ultimate sacrifice. Only when we can discuss our own fears and our own prejudices that result in enmity can we really begin to encompass the love of the other that God requires of us.  This is when we begin to see God's presence and grace in our lives, not when we look for God's intervention as an outside presence.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Opportunity knocks but will we take it

Australians have voted and the result is a blow for party politics, of all persuasions.  It matters not whether you are Liberal, Labour, Green or Australia First because as far as I am concerned the vote tells me that Australians do not want party politics.  This blow for what appears to be the norm in society is a wake up call and opportunity for the country.  It tells me that politics based on party lines is a dead duck in the water as all the major parties are offering the same old same old without thinking on a more holistic and open basis.

The opportunity that Australia has been given is for their leaders, political and other, to actually think more broadly and to have a useful conversation with each other.  Given that the political divide is almost 50:50, at the time of writing, that tells me that it is time for the two major parties to actually sit down and listen to each other.  In doing so they will probably find that there is room for compromise in each others policies to form a comprehensive plan that caters for everyone.  This is a win win situation for the country.  However, knowing our political system and how people see themselves I can see that the next few years are going to be a debacle of note as each fights for the power to rule and denigrating politics.  The opportunity that presents itself at this time is an opportunity to think beyond the immediate party line.

If this opportunity is not taken what does it tell us about ourselves and those who say they wish to lead the country into a better place.  I suspect that it highlights our fears, a fear to embrace something that is entirely new, a fear of failure and a fear that the 'leader' will lose power and respect.  For myself I think I would be happier with someone who is able to give away power rather than someone who wishes to retain power.  I would respect a leader who actually listens and changes their thinking after receiving a different opinion.  The question is not whether this policy or that is better, the question is whether our leaders are up to the challenge of listening to each other and formulating something new for the country that will reaffirm their belief in assisting others rather than there own pockets.  An affirmation that Australia is looking for justice in the world not blind obedience to doctrine

Balanced authority or imbalanced power?

Are we as Christians able to step up into the public square again and challenge those who would lead to a leadership that is encompassing rather than denigrating?  Over the past few years we have only had a politics of denigration not a politics of inclusiveness.  We have had poorly mouthed leaders who are unwilling to listen to other points of view.  Assistance is thought of only as a political stepping stone to power, offers of finance are only seen as bribes to obtain votes or sway independent thinkers to the party line.  Christians should be people who stand up to such tyranny rather than bow their heads in acceptance.  The faith based voice should be loud and clear in this moment proclaiming a time for justice to prevail.  Will we have the courage to undertake this?  I doubt it, simply because the prediction of the election is for a majority to one party and we will all wait on the sidelines to see what will happen.

Yet the challenge still remains even if a single party eventually wins.  The closeness of the result and the ambiguity that has been brought to the fore, with the tight count, reveals our trepidation about uncertainty.  The disillusionment in both political camps only highlights the need to re-think, to grasp this opportunity and forge a new path for the political system.  Is there someone out there within the political system who could rise to the challenge? or will we languish along with the rest of the world in mediocrity? or am I looking for an ideal which we will never achieve with our inability to shake off the yoke of tradition and take up the yoke of Christ?

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Go out into the world

In last week's blog I spoke about how attractive the comforts of home are and how we are called out of that comfort.  This week we see Luke's gospel telling the story of those who are sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God (Lk. 10.1-18) with Paul reminding us that we should 'never tire of doing good' (Gal. 6.9).  So how much dis-comfort are we to take on board to spread God's reign in our time and in our communities?  What does this mean for our own faith journey? Can we answer God's call on our lives to minister to God's people?

I cannot break away from this constant call within myself that tells me I have to change.  I do not want to continually talk about the subject but every time I come to the readings in Scripture I see this constant call upon my life that nags at my core each day.  If we are to think about this we actually realise that this is what we are about every single day of our lives.  I do not mean biologically, although this is also true, but in my attitudes and my working habits.  If I think back, maybe ten twelve years my thinking and my doing have changed.  I have not necessarily noticed that change, except during times of stress, but they have become a natural part of me.  I am sure that all of you have found the same if you were to stop and think about it.  All of us have accepted those incremental changes in our lives.  However, when it comes to a sudden imposition upon our lives change becomes a threat and something to be resisted.

A monument to a 'living-dead' language.
Are we as guilty, building dead monuments to a living God?

The disciples in Luke's gospel have been travelling with Christ and are now thrust out into the world on their own.  They have had the comfort of being with the 'Christ' and are now called upon to fulfill the mission he has given to them,  Not only that but they are asked to go into the world with nothing.  Considering the world that they were going into this was a monumental task and one of so much risk in its undertaking that we would not countenance it today.  They were asked not to take money.  Can you imagine going out to Cambodia or Palestine with no spending money?  Surely this is a crutch that we so often need yet Christ asks of his disciples this impossibility? Why?  They were asked to go without any form of decent footwear.  Can you imagine yourself wandering around Perth or Sydney with nothing on your feet?  We can dream up all the horrors of stepping in dung, catching worms, bruised and bleeding feet from scratches and stones. Why?  They are sent out without any form of protection against robbers or thugs, like lambs amongst wolves.  Can you imagine going into an area where there are known thieves and bandits, just waiting for the poor gullible fool without any protection?  Why?  Then of course they are sent without any plans for shelter or food but solely dependent on the hospitality of the people.  Just, imagine planning your next holiday with nowhere to stay and with no food in your car and on top of that with no money.  Why?

To be honest I don't know but perhaps it is a question of going out in faith knowing that God is right there beside us.  Even in the most dire circumstances if we were but to look around we will find God.  We too often are scared of change because we cannot imagine beyond our past and deny our present and yet our present is in constant flux bringing us into a changed reality that is beyond our past.  We create our own problems by predicting our future based on our past experience and by not living in the present.  We con ourselves into believing that we cannot commune with God because things around us have changed but the reality is that unlike the disciples who went out two by two into a dangerous culture without anything, we wish to remain in our ark and not find God in the present.  I will always remember my parents exasperation with the Afrikaans community when they visited the Taal monument in Paarl.  They said 'How can you have a monument to a language, unless that language is dead?'  How can we fear our circumstances and change if we worship a living God?

Naaman wanted something complex so that he knew he was being cured by God, not something simple and easy.  We want to retain our complexities that have become accretions to our worship and understanding of God over time.  We are offered the simple but refuse to believe that this will lead us to God.  Our belief is centred in the complex and accretions of time but our faith is to be found when we can embrace the simple in our lives enabling us to see the change that occurs at every point of our present.  A living change occurs when we start to do good in the lives of those around us.  Change occurs when we focus our lives in God not on idols.  Change happens whether we want it or not.  Change enables us to see God in the present rather than the past and in the constant waiting for the future.  The Kingdom of God is here, not in the future, not in the past but here in the present.