Sunday, 19 May 2019

The call of love

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

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

Only when we come together do we expose love

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

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

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Shepherd's call

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 May 2019

The frustration of non-understanding

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

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

Where is the shepherd who tends these sheep?

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

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

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Political blundering

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Why we speak of doubt

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

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

Impossibility ceases when there is hope not doubt

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

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

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Why search among the dead...

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Passion and palms

This is a short reflection on the week to come.

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

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

Our passion may hurt us but we will achieve our utmost

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

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

Sunday, 7 April 2019

The price of oil

No, I am not going to talk about the price of oil and it's derivative products. I would rather look at the price that we put on our material goods in general and the goods that come from God. It is a question of outlook as the Gospel passage from John points out (Jn 12.3-8). The cost of the perfumed oil that was used by Mary and its usage. From Mary's point of view she has given what she can to the fullest possible extent. The oil, which had probably been saved up over a long time to be used sparingly, was poured with generosity over Christ's feet. Perhaps, like many of us Judas watching from the sidelines has a different  view: greater use could have been attained especially if the asset had been turned into cash rather than poured down the drain so to speak. This question is one that sits close to our hearts during Lent as it is a question that we need to wrestle with in applying it to not only material assets but to our spiritual wealth as well.

Compassion is the beginning of community and openness to the other

How are we to react when it comes to the use of the assets that we posses both personal and corporate? Is it for us to determine the expenditure? Are are we to follow Christ in our compassionate outpouring of all we have towards those who are in need? The Judas effect is the one that perhaps we adopt rather than that of Mary in the Gospel story. The asset is to be taken by ourselves and used for what we believe is to be the greater good. Christ says famously here that the 'poor are always with us' suggesting that there is little that we can do in the present time to alleviate something that is constantly there but rather to pour our wealth out in worship and acknowledgement of Christ or rather God. Yes, there is very little we can do to alleviate the poverty of the nations until such time as we can alleviate the poverty that is inherent within ourselves. Both ways have there faults built in. Judas was by no means an innocent in this conversation. It is inherent in the passage that Judas meant to utilise the money for himself not in the alleviation of the poor. We ourselves sidetrack often so that we spend everything that there is in chasing our own dreams and desires rather than using what has been freely given to the worship of God and following God's requirements.

In holding on to our own wealth of time, talent, finance, worship, etc. we withhold the opportunity of those who are not imbued with these to experience God's presence and love. In facing our own desires in this Lenten period we need to face our tendency to be as Judas, hoarding for ourselves and our wants. In our Lenten study we spoke about learning the life of compassion that is embedded within the Christian journey. We often do not see compassion as a response and we withhold our  compassionate response. In the Isaiah passage God says that even in the desert God will provide something new (Is 43.18-19) while we harbour our thoughts in the past. Compassion asks us to open our hearts to those around us and leave of the things that we are doing for ourselves. Leave the Judas mindset behind and allow something new to happen as we interact with compassion. We can claim anything in terms of how good we are, just as Paul does (Phil. 3.4-6), but in the end unless we write our assets of to God's presence in our lives we are nothing.

Mary's attitude is just this letting go of everything to allow the compassion of God and the love of God to reside within ourselves. In this manner we think not of our own wants and needs but we let go and open our hearts to the other. Only when we allow this to happen do we begin to see the new life of God and create the compassionate community that does not allow the poor to exist. It is our own thoughts that disabuse others as we do not open ourselves to the suffering that is around us.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Prodigal who?

The story of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15.11-32) is well known and has been written about with some superb insights around God's love for us (e.g. Henry Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son and John MacArthur's  The Prodigal Son). The majority of such books focus on the Prodigal and the welcome he receives from the Father. Yes, this is astonishing but what is perhaps even more astonishing is that the tale is not completed. There is no end. We all know that towards the end there is a discussion with the eldest son but we need to ask: What does the the eldest son do? There is nothing in the parable to tell us and it is up to us to come to a conclusion so that we can complete the story.

We are so often told to place ourselves into the mindset of the prodigal but in reality we need to really work on the mindset of the older son as more often than not this is our mindset, not that of the prodigal. We are often told that we need to acknowledge our sin and find the extraordinary love of God surrounding us. What happens when we are given the freedom of choice to do what is desired but refuse to and turn away deliberately thinking that we are better. The older son denigrates the father as the father holds out his love waiting for the older son to come into the house. Is not his sin against God just as great even when he has been in his fathers house all the time receiving the benefits of that love? Remember that all of the material possessions of the father actually belongs to the son. He knows he has a close relationship and yet he has not asked for anything willing to be a servant rather than receive the benefits of the estate.

Have we locked ourselves out like the older son?

Often having gained our inheritance we either squander it or we do not utilise it to the benefit of those around us. We try to hoard it and thus lose our relationship with God as we rail against the disasters that have come upon us. If we are the older son, what is our response do we go of in a huff because of our expectations of a generous handout when it already belongs to us? The older son appears to be more lost than the prodigal as the prodigal at least realises that he has sinned. Seemingly the older son has not. In the prodigal's realisation he has come begging and not expecting the generosity that has been given. Note that his plea to his Father loses the conniving end as he is welcomed by the generous father (Lk 15.19, 21). This is the prodigal's real turning point as he faced with the generosity and humility of the father in front of the village. Having the inheritance that we have been given are we not as rude in some ways as the older son as we often do not realise our own sinfulness and cannot repent in the face of the love that is given to us, rather we take offence, walk of in a huff, etc.

We are often in need of recognising both sides of the equation of repentance and forgiveness. Just as the pharisees listening to Christ tell this parable we need to be challenged not by the easy and foreseeable result of the returning prodigal but by the attitude and non-resolved situation that involves the older son. In our own situation and in the situation of our community whether it is the wider church or secular society we need to end the story and not leave it hanging as Christ does. We need to write the story in our answer to God, not for ourselves but for the new life that is promised as we climb beyond our own response to God's forgiving love.


Sunday, 24 March 2019

Pride before a fall

In our Lenten journeys we are continuously looking at ourselves to strive towards the pattern that Christ lays before us in his life. Some of us may believe that where we are is where we need to be at which point we stop listening to God's presence in our lives and start thinking about ourselves. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians warns of the consequences of ignoring the lessons from the Exodus story (1 Cor 10.1-5). In a similar manner these warnings are for us today as we contemplate our own reactions to those things that occur around us.

We are very quick in our condemnation of those who belittle others and yet we fail to live out the teachings of God. An article appeared in Grafton with regards to our own inconsequential thoughts that change how we perceive the reality around us. In our communities around the globe we all say that we are inclusive, we are not like others in that we welcome all. These are the messages that we give each other and those around us. But I ask you are we? Are we actually as inclusive as we think we are? Sometimes it is hard for us to understand that our own rhetoric does not reflect what we project into the community. Then when we realise our faults we delve into them and make them our martyrdom, the cross on which we hang ourselves.

Our pride blinds us to our reality

God offers us more than what we can provide for ourselves, if we are only able to follow where Christ leads us. The gospel that we proclaim is one that does away with the idols that we set up for ourselves. Those idols are the ones that lead us astray. We allow the mind of the community to sway us because that is what they see and are blinded to the actuality of their own thoughts. If we truly proclaim inclusivity then we should not harbour anything but love for those who are outside of ourselves. Yet,we constantly align others and those who think differently from us. We are a listening people. In order or us to form a relationship, no matter how difficult we think it is we need first to listen. As a country and as a community of faith this is the one thing we are appalling at. We only listen to the voices of dissent whether from the past or from a perception of what we think is happening. If, we are at odds with someone then we stop listening to them and portray our own beliefs by ass u m(e)ing to bring it into conjunction with our own thoughts. This happens in small groups as much as in wider and larger groups.

Going back to the Grafton article for a moment the community has the belief in the idol of inclusivity when they are homogeneous. We often proclaim our inclusivity .and yet exclude those we deem to be different from us. It is not in the big things but the small things that this often occurs. The Christian church proclaims an inclusive gospel of peace and love. Yet, more violence has been perpetrated in its name than anything else. We still set up the idols of ignorance and faithlessness as we follow our own paths and not the path of Christ. Paul reminds us to look back to our past in the scriptures and history to understand that we are imperfect as we look for God's presence. In our imperfection we set ourselves up for a continuous fall away from Christ's love. W allow our pride to show us the way rather than our humility to allow others to teach us. Scripture is there to teach us, the other is there to teach us and until we all start to listen we will not hear what there is to hear and we will not learn.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The consequences of the past

It is a strange world we live in. In the last twenty four hours we have witnessed one of the worst atrocities that the world has seen in recent months with the deaths of 49 people at the shooting in NZ. We have witnessed the shame of a politician who linked such tragic deaths to immigration policy. We have seen the outcry of many in the face of such utter vilification of people made in the image of God. Yet, I can foresee that in times to come this will be just another tragedy just like the fall of the tower at Siloam (Lk. 13.4). The scale may be different but the voices are the same in the blame game of culture and religion. In the same passage this is foretold as Christ himself states that this will continue until we repent but of what?

In the Philippians passage the writer suggests that we need to model our behaviour on that of Christ and he will be their as we transform ourselves into such a being that our transfigured selves can shine as a light to the world. What our problem, or at least one of our problems, is the holding on to of either untruths or truths that have been manipulated to conform to our wishes rather than those of God. We are like those that follow Christ in that we hold to our beliefs rather than to what scripture and God tells us. we place ourselves above those things that we should be believing and undermine our own beliefs. It is surprising for some that many non-Christians are more Christian than most Christians. Our belief systems often overlap with the belief systems of others but we are to engrossed in what we think we are meant to do that we fail to see others doing what we should be doing. We are quite honestly unable to conform to Christ more often than not as we uphold those who would have us  denigrate those not of our ilk. Our neighbours and our fellow inhabitants of earth are seen only as tools to be used for the benefit of ourselves and not for their own selves. Too often our sins are the sins that we perpetrate everyday without realising our own self hypocrisy.

Only when we see beyond the past do we see a new future

Today we are reminded of the covenant that was made with Abram at a time when he was extremely uncertain of the future (Genesis 15). The promise that was made at that time was a promise of land and of fecundity. This to a certain degree mirrors the promise that is made right at the start of Genesis at the creation for man created in the image of God to go forth and multiply. How else but through his and Eve's offspring to become a multitude on Earth. This same generosity of fecundity is being offered to Abram and his descendants even if none are apparent at the time. Yet, it is a promise that is not without its challenges. Challenges that are to be faced and are in turn a challenge to the descendants' faith, which we know through the scriptures is not always true. This then is perhaps the crux of our question and how we are true to God as God is true to us.

It is only when we remove our own petty hypocrisies that we are actually able to follow Christ and fulfill that which we are destined to. It is when we form our own self fulfilling dreams that we revert to the continuation of Siloam and all that that means for us. It is only when we recognise the truth of God's promises to us that we are able to fully transform our lives and live as Christ would wish us to. Then the petty hatreds of today will fade away and we will begin to understand what it means to love. It is the influences of the past that colour the thoughts of the future. If something has happened in the past that has angered, disappointed, depressed, turned us away, upset us, etc. then anything that is similar will cause us to react in the same way. We need often to let go our past experience and allow ourselves to experience God anew for us to step into a new future. We have to reset our lives in accordance with God's purposes and allow our new eyes to see more clearly through the obstructions of the past.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Perspectives on temptation

We begin our Lenten journey with an overview of Christ's time in the desert (Lk. 4.1-15). This is traditional as we look at temptation and what can become of it. The portrayal in the synoptic gospels is of three very traditional forms of temptation; power, fame and authority. These three seem to be the top of our agenda and it is important that when we look at them that we understand that they are a) not the only ones and b) dependent on what is done with the temptation. For us there is a recognition that these three things are paramount in how we interact within society and are the more usual failings in people. Yet, there are some more insidious temptations that face us, which need to be equally highlighted but they are not. Probably because they were either not seen in the society at the time or more likely they were quickly quashed by those in authority. In keeping with Christ's temptation, as these are often entwined let us take three examples; rumour, jealousy, gossip.

Rumour is based in a similar fashion to gossip on unfounded facts. However, what is insidious of rumour is that it has an element of truth and tends to undermine power. It is inherent and prevalent where there is power. We can see rumour operating today through out the world of politics as each side tries to undermine the power base of the other. Rumour is powerful when we do not have the whole truth. In any situation if there are two sides competing against each other for power we find that rumour can be unleashed to destroy the foundation of those who have power.It is a tool to be used by the unscrupulous and can be seen in the allegations and innuendos that cast aspersion upon those who wield power. We can see it operating every day in the press as they strive to bring the truth to light but are left only with rumour and innuendo from their sources who control what is sad. This means that rumour can breed in the darkness and when we allow ourselves to follow rumour we allow ourselves to become tools of those who are looking for power. As Christians we stand for truth not rumour.

Jealousy is so easy to stoke in today's day and age. Fame and fortune are a temptation for many but with fame and fortune comes the ravages of jealousy. Should anyone rise towards fame then there is a tendency for others to become jealous. In jealousy the poison of envy lurks and destroys as we can see in our social media. The need to troll or to slander others so that those who are achieving can be brought low is seen everywhere. Fame when it is not sort may well be of benefit but when we drive ourselves towards it we will leave in our wake those that are jealous and will look to destroy the good that has been achieved so that I too can have my time in the spotlight.

We need to deal in the open not behind backs

Our third, gossip twins itself with rumour just the same as power and authority seem to be entangled in our imaginations. Difficult to separate but two slightly different things. Gossip comes in the form of out right lies not just things based on a sliver of truth such as is found in rumour. The lies that are devised are done so in order to undermine the authority that is over us in some form or another. They may seem to have a basis in truth but have no basis in truth. Is it that we do not like or appreciate someone else's talents or leadership. Let us start some gossip that will detract from their worth. Let us scatter fragments of untruth amongst those who do not know so that there is an outcry that cannot be stopped. In this manner we ourselves are protected because it is always someone else who started the gossip. Furthermore, at the end of the day the person or group we do not like is undermined and eventually has no standing no authority.

Just like the temptations of Christ we need to reject these temptations and respond not with hatred but with love. Not with the use of similar tactics but with the truth. This is a narrow way that is fraught with danger and often becomes a cause for our own hurt and martyrdom. Yet the way that Christ asks us to follow is the same as his that of rejection of evil and not the embodiment of the temptation. Remember it is not the temptation but what we ourselves do with it.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Transformation, transfiguration and the impetus to change

Christ calls us to transform our selves and change so that we may become transfigured in his image. This seems an amazingly difficult undertaking to transform and change so that we become transfigured. We need to really understand these terms and how we use them. This last Sunday of Epiphany is the day that is often used to celebrate the transfiguration as told in the gospels (Lk 9.28-36). The term used in the Greek is metamorphoses but in Latin transfigure which seems to indicate both transformation (metamorphoses) and transfiguration. So what are we actually being asked to undertake and perhaps become?

The possibilities are endless as we transform ourselves into newness of life

Perhaps, it is true to say that the very first thing we are being asked to achieve is change. No amount of words can get around this fact. We are all reluctant to participate in change unless we ourselves become enamoured and enthused by the process. The only way that this will actually occur is if we ourselves change. That seems a bit of a chicken and an egg and perhaps it is but the seed of change is introduced into our lives at baptism. It needs to be watered and nurtured so that change can take place. This does not mean that someone outside ourselves has to enforce the change or be the continual source of water. They may inspire us and trickle some water into our lives leading us to a starting point to begin the process of change but cannot do it for us. So, our first port of call, so to speak, is our selves. In understanding our selves we begin to understand the issues that initiate our ability to encompass the transformation that Christ requires of us. Simply put Christ is asking and drawing us away from our selfish inner selves towards a transformation that opens our hearts to those who are other. This is perhaps the first stage in the process of transformation, an understanding of our own being that shows us the accumulation of harmful debris and sheltering obfuscation that prevents us from opening our hearts.

In beginning this process we begin the process of change and transformation. Like a caterpillar cocooning itself we breakdown our internal selves to allow a reformation into something different but the same. If we ourselves do not undergo this transformation our glory will not be available for our transfiguration. Christ shows us his glory in his transfiguration, not his transformation, for he does not need to transform it is we who need to transform. If we were to try to become transfigured we would expose only our ugliness to the world. Our hatred, our vilification of the other, our darkness because that is what transfiguration does it exposes our inner selves to the world. That is what Christ exposed to his disciples the pureness of his inner self that was not different from himself. It is this state of being that we are called to in Christ for if we are in Christ the pureness of our being will be shown to the world.

So this brings us back to our own selves and are ability to change from who we are into what Christ calls us to be. It is our transformation that is asked for at Baptism not our transfiguration. Until we are able to embrace this change, the change that totally changes our very being into something more glorious, we cannot strive towards our transfiguration. This is the hard journey. This is the journey that takes us beyond even ourselves so that we can embrace our totality and not hide the darker side of our selves behind the falseness of everyday living. We cannot and should not shy from this task and our coming Lenten journey is a place for us to start, or continue, or end our own transformative process.


Sunday, 24 February 2019

Extreme love

In thinking about love, as I have said before, we tend towards a mushy expression of romanticism which has been conveyed to us by the ever helpful media and social mores of the world. In coming to terms with love as it is expressed by Christ and God we have to enlarge our view and overcome our own inbuilt biases. The passage from 1 Corinthians (15.35-50) outlines what appears to be totally un-achievable for those that are mortal. The very fact that we are mortal seems to suggest that we cannot achieve that which is only available to the spiritual. Yet why would Paul suggest this if it were not achievable within our own mortal bodies.

The issue perhaps is how we understand and how we cope with the feeling and ideology of love in the first place. Too often perhaps we relegate it to a forgotten world of pinks and hearts and softness that enfolds us in comfort and bliss. However, the love that is from God is not this marshmallow style of love. Yes, there is an element of protection and forgiveness but there is a much harder aspect that forms and moulds us into something other. Let's look for example at the speech that Joseph makes to his brothers in Genesis (45.3-11). We see this often as a lovely reunion of a family split apart from each other and forgiveness on the part of Joseph. Midrashic sources delve much deeper into the psychological processes that are in play here. From these sources comes an understanding that this speech is a result of an about face almost in Joseph's thinking that has been brought about by the impassioned speech from Judah in the foregoing chapter. Joseph has been trying to piece together a story over the period of his interaction with the family, a story that he casts over the familial members and creates the conditions for them to participate in. Yet, following Judah's speech he comes to the realisation that his story will bring shame upon the family, a shame that will cause even greater divisions than have already been wrought. His love for them makes him abandon the "revenge" and holds out a branch that will draw the tattered remnants of the dispersing family into a whole despite the cost to him. It is this love, which breaks us down, so that we can reform ourselves and our families into a new understanding.

Christ offers us an alternate way of looking at the other through the eyes of love. In Luke's gospel (6.27-38) the actions of love are broken down into what can only be described in this day and age as the "Idiots Guide to..". Perhaps, this is actually all we are good for, being spoon fed the requirements of this extraordinary love that comes from God. Unless we are prepared to unpack ourselves and understand our agendas like Joseph, who almost mid story, returns to himself and begins to understand the sacrifice it takes to re-draw the family. Christ re-draws humanities response to the other on the cross through his sacrifice, making holy, and re-drawing our relationships in the midst of chaos. The steps are simple. They are laid out in black and white in Luke's gospel (Lk. 6.27-38). These are the simple steps that lead us into the moment of re-drawing our lives around love. It is we who have to sacrifice the story that we build around ourselves in order to accommodate the stories that are told by others. In the same way the other also sacrifices there story once they have heard our re-interpretation of our lives so that they can do the same for themselves and have the courage to return to the basic format of love that is acceptance of self and other.

Love that transforms our lives is harder than we think

In taking the route of extreme love we open ourselves up to transformation. In re-writing our story we understand what has been hidden by the mushiness of our understanding. We transform ourselves so that we become spirit. The malleability and ease with which the spirit is accepting becomes our physical home. We are able to transcend the limitations that our earthly life places upon us and are able to embrace the strange, the unusual, the other in an accepting love that is not only transformative but also deeply protective and life giving.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Where has all the faith gone?

It is not particularly surprising to ask such a question at this time. As a faith community we are meant to lead the way in terms of faith. This is after all what we proclaim to do as a community.. have FAITH! Yet, this is perhaps the one thing we tend to struggle with on a constant basis as it is asking us to place our whole being into an unknown. If we look at Jeremiah (17.5-10) we can see God saying something along the lines of: Have faith in me and you will grow like a tree beside life giving waters, if you do not you will be similar to a tree in the middle of a harsh desert. A similar theme is struck in Psalm 1. The early Christians also struggled with belief and faith but I suspect for different reasons (1 Cor 15.12-20).

Today faith and belief are not well known commodities, at least not in the esoteric sense. Faith and belief actually imbue our culture and our times but in a very different manner to what we think of within our Christian sensibilities. We actually have an undying faith in science and scientific progress, we have a strong faith in economic progress (whatever that may mean) and above all we have an absolute faith in everything technological. We have left behind us any thought of the nebulous faith that is associated with, well, faith. We are so concerned with what our rationality can undertake that we forget the other side of ourselves. One of our major issues in society today is that of mental health. I do not know but I suspect there is a correlation between our ability to sustain faith and our ability to retain our mental composure in the light of change. The world is changing rapidly and often which leads us towards an inability to integrate the things that are happening around us. We are so driven by our faith in things that are physical or rational that we do not cater for the needs of the other side of our own being.

It looks good but sometimes too much of a good thing is not good

In the Lukan beatitudes Christ puts the two sides of our being into perspective (Lk.6.17-26). Both the negative and the positive, the up and the down. Unfortunately today we look only to the one side, always looking for the up, never recognising that there is a down that corresponds. It is the integration of the two that brings us to Christ because it brings us to a wholeness of being. We cannot have one without the other. Any person who is involved in recovery or involved in bringing others out of pain know that for this to happen both the negative and the positive need to be embraced. IF we are unable to uderstand the flip side we are unable to understand ourselves. In order for us to maintain our faith we need to overthrow our faith. That sounds weird. In reality it is not we have a dependency on a faith with regards to the rational often as a result we find we have no place to turn to other than into disturbance and illness. If we overthrow this and move into the madness of faith in something other than the rational we find our equilibrium and begin to understand ourselves.

In beginning to understand ourselves we can see both sides of the equation, as it were, and are able to accept who we are. We begin to love ourselves. In this acceptance we are able to see the other not as other but as part of ourselves and are therefore able to begin to love our neighbour as ourselves. We begin to have faith in Christ and all the extraordinary claims that come with that faith because they are extraordinary. Like the tree in Psalm 1 that is beside the water we need to have an eye on the waters of faith and the dry country of rationality in order for us to become whole. It is not this or that it is rather both this and that.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Called to ...?

We are in some manner called to follow God from baptism onwards. God's call is not the same for each and every one of us. Isaiah is called to be a prophet to the people, a call he responds to when he hears God ask "Who shall I send?" (Is. 6.8). The fishermen follow when they are called to become "fisher of men" (Lk 5.10). Sometimes we fret about the fact that we are not called to this or that. Occasionally we find that our call is so different to others that we are unsure about our own call because it does not conform with, or is not traditional, or is perceived not to be a call because it falls so far outside of our known understanding that it cannot possibly be from God. So how do we know to what and to whom we are called? How can we understand the impossible that is possible in God's eyes?

Sometimes when we dream large we get caught up and leave others behind us. Sometimes when God calls we seem to think that others will automatically follow us. It took many days and indeed forty years before the Israelites understood what Moses and God was calling them to. Even when we dream small dreams we still think that others will automatically follow those dreams. Even the prophets led by God had problems and the disciples continually failed until after Christ had left them. Christ knew that when he called his disciples and the fishermen from Galilee that they would not be ready immediately. His words are "you will be fishers of men" not "you are". It is a future dream that will become a reality. We are often too impatient to see the reality. I cam across a story recently about a funeral of a person with DMD (Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy). It intrigued me because I worked with a research group looking at DMD in an earlier incarnation.

There is always danger in following God's call.

The story reported that the young man's funeral was attended by a few mourners mainly relatives. This was to be expected as typical for this disease the young man did not socialise, nor was he able to go out. However, a different story emerged during the funeral as there were a number of strangers unknown to the family who had turned up. They had met with the father the day before and one of them spoke at the funeral. Unbeknownst to the family, the young man did indeed have friends all over the world. The young representative of this group told them that candles were being lit for him all over Europe. The reason was that he had been an integral and much loved member of a community that met online as immersive gamers. So, his calling was not visible to those around him but was to many whom he met and gamed with during the long hours of the night. What does this tell us about our call and how we need to behave. (Perhaps there is even a place for missionary gamer!!)

Simply put we can never as the old saying goes, judge a book by their cover. Indeed sometimes we need to remind ourselves never to judge according to our own desires, needs and criteria. Isaiah was called out in a vision seen by himself. He responded and did not have an easy life. He was not necessary well liked doing things which I am sure he did not necessarily want to do. But his calling was from God and he responded to that call. Our calling may not appear to be fruitful, be hard work, be boring , be something other than dramatic but it is still a call from God to be what God wants us to be and to which we need to respond. We all make mistakes but we need to learn from them and approach life knowing that God is about change and movement not about stillness. The Israelites took forty years to discover their true purpose. The disciples had to wait until after Christ's death before they produced fruit. Sometimes it is a question of accepting and not fighting. Sometimes it is about fighting and not accepting. Which ever one it is it is always about listening to God speak and lead and not about allowing others to pressure us into decisions that are theirs and not God's. God is happy to wait. Sometimes waiting is the hardest but sometimes it is the most productive period of our lives as we prepare to bring God's word into the community through our actions.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

The better part

At the end of 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes about the greater gifts, which we would probably now call ministries, but then says, "But I can show you an even better way" (1 Cor. 12.13). This he does in the following chapter, which if you do not know it is the treatise on love (1 Cor 13). So, if we are to be ministers to the body of Christ what should our goal be: the gifts of the greater part or love? Perhaps too often we generally focus on the gifts of the greater part and neglect the better way that is the way of love. Yet, the whole of the gospel is the way of love not the way of the gifts. So, why the big focus on gifts?

Our understanding of what love is may be at the root of our ability to successfully deal with this vexed question. I think that often we think of love as a romantic notion that is filled with soft, cuddly feelings that enhance our well being. Or else it is the romanticised understanding of Mills & Boon or the cinematographic portrayals of romantic love. These are the cultural portrayals of love that are fed to us through screen and the written word. An escapism, if you will, from the drear normality of the world that we inhabit. In our emphasis on this aspect of love we cannot see how love can be effective in the building of community or in bringing the Gospel into the hearts of those around us. Rather it is the prosaic and sometimes spectacular gifts of the greater part that can be seen as showing God's presence through the effects of an evangeliser, teacher, prophet (Jer 1.4-10) or speaker of tongues. These will bring in more people to the heart of worship and all the implicit gains that this means for the faith community. Yes, these are required, yes these are gifts that need to be nurtured in an appropriate manner not to bring fame but to show God's love and mercy. Each gift is there to encourage or enhance the community not the individual, something that I feel we are inclined to forget. It is a gift of a moment and once that moment is past such gifts may become boorish and un-motivational. Just think of Jeremiah's life at the end.

Are we only part of the community as a result of our greater gift or because we are loved?

At the end of the day the issue is a simple one. The greater gifts we can acknowledge and respond to with ease knowing that someone else is fulfilling the necessary work. They can be assessed as to their effectiveness and if not fulfilling the criteria set, forgotten about or let out to pasture. The better way is actually hard work. It is not easy and simple, it is not something that we can handover to someone else but rather requires our personal involvement and effort. Just looking at the criteria that Paul sets reminds us of the difficulty that is faced: "Love never boastful, conceited, rude, selfish, quick to take offence"; "Love is patient, kind, envies no one, delights in truth, etc"; "Love can face anything, has no limit on its faith, hope and endurance". Can we honestly say that these criteria are not hard work? More importantly can we measure these in a simplistic and rational manner to say that you are good because we can see these effects of love?  All of us, at sometime or another, fall on our faces in terms of these demands and are quite often condemned for the fact (displaying once more our failings). Once we start that route we begin to turn our backs on God and the community that we have been asked to form (Luke 4.28-30).

Love is the long term commitment asked of us by God. The same commitment that is placed before the Israelites at Mt Sinai. Indeed, if we are truly to be honest with ourselves the gifts of the greater part, if they are of any worth to the community, have to be cultivated on the base of love and not the other way around. So when we extol the greater gifts we need to be very careful that they are gifts given by God, for the benefit of the good news that is the Gospel, which is based in and on God's manifest love. The metanoia or turning back to God in repentance is the requirement of love as we acknowledge our own failings towards our selves and our community. It is hard work and it is made even harder when we turn our backs on each other.


Monday, 28 January 2019

Moses is no longer required

Moses is renowned for being THE prophet of the scriptures. Looking at the interpretation of his loss of the priestly function from the point of view of the Jewish commentators, fills us with an understanding of the tension that he holds before God and the people. I suspect that he was the first feral priest. In maintaining his stance before God, he angers God but gains God's respect in more ways than we can come to understand by just reading the text. The start of the 'church' as we know it was built on people such as Moses and the prophets. One of the leadership positions within the Pauline churches, which was honoured and respected, was that of the prophet. The priestly role came later and from a very different source, the honoured elders of the congregation. This role grew into the role that we are familiar with today and yet little is understood as to the role of the prophet in today's society, perhaps because, in the same way that all prophets are seen, they are unwanted and shunned.

In the tale of the rise of the High Priest, the Aaronic role, one of the details that is presented to us is the description of the robes that the priest wears. The fringes of the coat were decorated with pomegranates and bells (Exodus 28.33-35). Tradition suggests that these represent the dual tensions that the priest needs to thread in their role, the sublimity of ecstasy and the corporeality of existence. The sound of the bells and the pomegranates in the movement of the priest reminds them of their standing in the world. In time and with the establishment of the 'church' this understanding has been lost, which means that the priest is either centred in the corporeality of existence or is found in the hinterland of religiosity ever lost in the sublimity of ecstasy that is characterised by their closeness to God. In the loss of the tension, the technical understanding of the priest, as defined by Kenneth Burke in Permanence and Change, is mainly undertaken by "professors, journalists, public relation counsellors..." (and I would include psychiatric / psychology counsellors) in today's world. A new understanding of ministry in the modern world is by and large, that of  'manager' ensuring the well being and financial growth of the Parish in terms of numbers, maintenance and adherence to a well worn pattern of worship tradition (see Martyn Percy "The Future Shapes of Anglicanism"). Faithful worshippers are always minded towards their pew, their service, and their way of doing things, which must not change, or if it does in such a slow incremental manner that it does not impact on their consciousness until it is well established. (Even the angle of the pew when changed by the incumbent will be brought back to an even keel by an anonymous member).

Even our images place the prophet in the wilderness

Does the prophet exist in today's world? Walter Bruegmann seemed to think that there is room for the prophetic imagination but how well received is the prophet? Christ says that the prophet is not welcomed in their home town (Matt 13.57). In this day and age perhaps the role of the prophet is on the fringes where the feral priests are, with the 'home town' being the center. So, in terms of technicality, what is the prophet? Kenneth Burke puts it like this  when comparing the priest and the prophet "The priests devote themselves to maintaining the vestigial structure; the prophets seek new perspectives whereby this vestigial structure may be criticized and a new one established in its place". No wonder prophets are shunned and left in the margins, for who wants to make the change that a new perspective allows for. That is unless they too catch the vision and are willing to bear the cost that is demanded of them as no changed perspective comes without cost. The prophet is also likely to be brutal in speaking into situations to share the view of God's hope rather than a gently, gently, all is good approach, which further alienates the ministry as it lacks the conformation required for the rigid vestigial structures that are in place.

In the early corporatisation of the Church, as it abandoned the leadership of the prophets, the historical forces have placed faith structures within the world of the corporate. Leaving the imaginations of God's inspiration to the margins. Whilst appeasing the appetites of  the satisfied, faith structures have become inflexible; struggling to survive in a world that thrives on innovation and surprise. For the complacent in conformity, who have risen in respect and authority, the prophet's place is no longer required. Otherwise, by implication in accepting the prophet's voice, they too must be prepared for the chaos of God's re-creation and change in the heart of the faith.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

One body...Is this our reality?

Following on from the earlier part of the chapter Paul now begins to speak about the well known understanding of the church as the 'body of Christ' (1 Cor 12.12-31). This analogy should be considered in terms of the faith group at that time before we attempt to bring it into the present. The communities that Paul was addressing would have been a mixture of what we would term professional people, tradies and the more affluent. They would likely have been meeting at one person's house. Many would have been friends of the householder and there would have been a certain amount of tension as the various groups came together. Each would have been most comfortable in the company of there fellows rather than those from other ethnic and trade backgrounds. It would also have been unlikely to been a place of quiet contemplation but rather a noisy gathering during the meal, which would have reduced somewhat as those who taught began to speak. It is therefore not surprising that jealousies and envy were rife and would tend to pull the gathering one way or another. Thus, the analogy would have been to bring a more harmonious relationship into being.

Let us look at the whole to care for the part

Today, in my opinion, this analogy is false for our churches (that is the parish church in the Anglican tradition). Why do I say this? Simply put today the average church goer will determine which 'parish' they are comfortable in and will seek that space for themselves. This means that in most circumstances the local church as we know it contains those that are compatible with the ethos. Yes, there will be differences but not the differences that were extant at the time of Paul. The differences in most parishes could be said to be minor ailments that require antibiotics rather than limb transplants and the need to understand our own place in the whole. If the person does not like the feel of the place the likelihood is that they will shop around until they find a comfortable place. It is the reality of our mobile society. Not all congregations can cater for all people and those that do often find themselves splintering into distinct groups rather than melding together as a whole. Instead of the attempt to amalgamate a conglomerate of difference the average congregation facilitates the health of a specific bodily part (hand, eye, ear, etc in Paul's analogy).

It is when we begin to take a look at the wider circumstances of the church as a whole that this analogy begins to work and should be taken a lot more seriously then we do. In only trying to apply it to the local we miss entirely the global impact of the analogy. However, we are often to focused on the minutiae that we fail to realise the bigger circumstances. Take for example a diocese, not a parish but the larger whole. In this we find often a sort of blame game emerging from both the Parish and the offices of the Diocese. In many of the places, I have been in, the major complaint from the Parish is that the Diocese does not look after the parishes or does not listen or inflicts extra burdens, etc. The Diocesan office complains that the parishes do not see their efforts, are complacent, are not fulfilling their obligations, etc. This to me sounds more like Paul's Corinthian assembly and the need for the imagery of the Body. Each Parish and each Diocesan office is part of a whole. In terms of Paul, we could suggest that the Parishes are the feet and hands, the senses, the nerves, etc. For this spread out structure both the central and extended parts need to realise that they are part and parcel of the one body. This theological thinking must change our own thinking in terms of how we operate as a whole.

Of course, we need not stop there but looking at the whole of the, for example, Anglican Communion the body analogy works at an even better level. Then when we take it further the analogy works probably the best in pointing out the failings of the faith more generally. So when we start thinking in terms of Paul's body analogy we need to think in much broader terms then the local. Once we have integrated the wholeness of the body into the broader structures we would find an easier and cohesive understanding of ourselves locally. In displaying the body in its dispersed form as we tend to do, we actually do a disservice to God and fail to portray the love of Christ at the local level. By seeing the whole we better understand the part and are better able to ameliorate the needs of Christ's body and reach out to those who find themselves alienated and cut off from God. Christ proclaims the release of all in the jubilee an all encompassing thought that makes the body free (Lk 4.14-21).

Sunday, 20 January 2019

All in one and one in all

The three musketeers almost got it right by saying "All for on and One for all". This is the automatic reaction of the physical and perhaps something that we want to continue rather than to look further. However, faith is the taking of a step that is somewhat more than the physical. In the Corinthians letter, prior to the bodily analogy we are familiar with, Paul speaks of the spiritual and the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12.1-11). In doing so Paul reiterates and reinforces the idea that no matter what the gift the giver is the same. This is something that we often fail to acknowledge simply because we are too competitive to notice the trajectory or rather that we categorise what has been give into better and best rather than an acceptance of the giver and honouring the gifts.

In allowing ourselves to dwell in the cycle of better and best we mislead ourselves in suggesting that some are better than others. Once we do that we begin to bring into our faith the structures of the world around us that judge each according to the hierarchy of best. All gifts are given by the Spirit of God to be used to the benefit of the world and God's children. Only when we can overcome our fear of being least in the hierarchy of the world will we begin to ind the true value of God's Spirit in the world. Our gifts are there so that we can demonstrate to the world that God is present to us and not for us to demonstrate to each other who is the better or best in a categorisation of how we should act.

Open the gift to those around us and see the joy that comes with the Spirit

In caring for the other we open ourselves up to abuse and hurt. We are also opening ourselves up to the praise of those around us. In both cases it is not just us that will suffer but the community which we serve. In allowing the hurts of the world to harm us we damage our relationship with the world and yet this is precisely what we are called to do. In allowing others praise we are allowing the possibility of envy and categorisation to occur and yet we still need to undertake the task of being present to the other and bringing God's Spirit close. This appears to be a bit of a situation where we are damned if we do and damned if we do not do. The key here is in allowing ourselves to be guided by that selfsame Spirit rather than turning away from and spurning the gifts that have been given. In our reluctance to use our gifts either as a result of possible hurt or as a result of over praise we wither and die.

Christ could have refused to turn the water into wine at the wedding feast (Jn 2.1-11). This would have kept him from the limelight and he would have been able to minister quietly on the edges. The possibility of creating a figure of notoriety was there in this sign. Just like the offer in the other Gospels of having the angles catch him as he drops from the pinnacle of the temple roof. Yet, this does not happen. Christ remains in the background and yet is enabled to assist those around him in the community by bringing good out of a possible joyless occasion. By acknowledging the possibilities that are present within our use of those gifts given to us we are able to circumvent the downside that is present. It is this acknowledgement that we are so poor at enabling in ourselves. We are too often lured by the praise or hurt by the openness that we abuse the gift that has been given to us. Either we make grandiose statements and plans or we become reclusive and hard to move from where we are comfortable. Our first step along the road of following God's path is acknowledging that we ourselves are vulnerable to these paths and need the closeness of God's Spirit in our hearts. Then we can minister with an open heart and the full use of our gifts without envy and without hurt being present in our mix. This seems to  be our attitude to God's calling and gifts rather than allowing the attitude of others to be foisted upon us.

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.