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.