Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reading the Koran at Epiphany

I enjoy following the work of Dean Kelvin Holdsworth at St Mary's Cathedral in Glasgow: he is
St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow
always stimulating and challenging.   This Epiphany he shared the Epiphany Eucharist with other faiths and the account of the Virgin Birth in the Koran was read by a young woman from the Muslim community.  This is not new, it has been done before, but it seems to provoked quite a reaction.  I warmly encourage everyone to read Dean Kelvin's reflections:

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"What are you looking for?"

Epiphany 2, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 49.1-7; 1 Cor. 1:1-9; John 1:29-42.

Where do sermons begin?  I have an argument with the word ‘sermon’. The word has associations that kill anything it touches  –the dictionary tells us a sermon is a religious talk usually given by a member of the clergy and also that it is  “a long and tedious talk, especially one telling somebody how or how not to behave.”

We use the word by convention but for our purposes ‘reflection’ is infinitely preferable.  I see it to have connotations of looking back, thinking back, reviewing and making sense of our life in the here and now.  That I think is the place where sermons/reflections begin: in the place where our experiences (which includes our thoughts, deepest needs and longings) collide with the story of God. 

  (Note I said ‘the story of God’ not ‘the Word of God’ and you may want to meditate on the distinction and why I deliberately take my foot off the homiletic accelerator.)

What engages my attention this morning are the first words we hear Jesus utter in this gospel: “What are you looking for?”  The question resonates within the very depths of our being: it sounds our hopes and our vulnerability; our deepest thoughts and our inexpressible longings.   It is a question that we do not know how to answer; and, if we think we do, we have probably got it wrong.  This is the question of a lifetime and it may take us all our lives to come to answer it.  Embedded in this question is the story of our lives: the person we are and the person we are becoming.

Think of the journey we have all been on and are still on. Remember the child growing up.  The most elemental formation of the self; the earliest speculations to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?; the multitude of decisions taken, and mis-taken; the experience of falling in love and the shaping and re-shaping of the self under the impress of love and the self that is shaped in the nurturing of children; the multitude of loss and losses experienced in a lifetime and the self that emerges; the experience of the death of our nearest and dearest and the self that remains.  At the end of all our wondering and our searching, the question of Jesus still remains “What are you looking for?”

That we are looking for something I have no doubt but we have a great talent for looking wrong!  

Perhaps the most famous example is Marlowe's play Dr Faustus.  You may remember that in the play Faustus strikes a deal with the devil, Mephistopheles and as part of the deal Faustus demands that Helen of Troy be brought to him to be his love.  This is what Faustus thinks he is looking for but he begins the most famous speech in the play:
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”  (5.1.97-98)
The tragedy of course is that this is all an illusion, a fantasy: an infatuation, self-indulgence and self-deception – half-sensed by Faustus himself with the disappointment in his question “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships…”

“What are you looking for?”  Think about the news this week!  Something of Christ’s question to us resonates in the anguished debates over the prospective Trump presidency.  This may well be one of the great instances of a nation looking wrong and of a political process that, in the finite limited sphere of an election, completely failed to address the deepest and most human longings.  A sense of tragedy seems to loom in the shadows of the Trump election.

“What are you looking for?” This is of course an ultimate question, a religious question.  I was troubled this week to realise that the Council of our Diocese is encouraging the visit to Dunedin of an American ‘evangelist’ who runs an ‘international ministry‘ business.   At a time when churches are flailing about, desperately trying to recoup numbers and credibility in a radically post-Christian society; trying to ensure that there is still a church in a few years’ time; I really wonder whether a visiting evangelist is what we are looking for.

“What are you looking for?” I close this reflection with the question the Lord Jesus addresses to us and it is the question that resonates in the depths of our being.  It is the most attractive question imaginable – it opens a world of infinite possibilities – and it is the question that is also the invitation to a journey; to ‘Come and see’ … there is no other way; the way of the disciple, the follower.  That is why we are here this morning, sharing in this Eucharist.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Facing the Void

The diocese is gearing up to elect a bishop and all the gesturing and posturing associated with electoral synods looms ahead: ach! "whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent."

A fragment from my notebook - a splendid point about the heart of the ordained life from Monica Furlong (though I cannot recall where it came from) - but I doubt whether the synod will come anywhere near that sort of vocational awareness or courage.

Monica Furlong said "I want [the clergy] to be people who dare because they are secure enough in the value of what they are doing to have time to read, to sit and think, and who face the emptiness and possible depression which often attacks people when they do not keep the surface of their mind occupied.."

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees

I see that I began something on Epiphany and working with some similar sources about the same time last year but never completed it - well let it be on the table for reflection even if only as a draft and a step toward something more.

With Epiphany nudging at us I find myself looking at the poetry of Eliot and Auden.

I recall my comment in the Midnight Mass: "We carry within us all our Christmases, the heart-warming and the heart-breaking; the childhood memories of the camping trip or when all the family were last about the dinner table..." and this evening have rediscovered in Eliot's 'On the Cultivation of Christmas Trees' the way he explores the implication of the annual effect of the celebration and makes the point:

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By 'eightieth' meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall also be a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming."

Every Epiphany Eliot's 'The Journey of the Magi' comes to mind - no surprise in that.  But Eliot gives new space to the legend. (Remembering that Epiphany originates from the Greek phainein to bring to light, to cause to appear, to show; epiphainein to manifest, epiphainea appearance Latin epiphania.) Eliot allows no warm glow of satisfaction; no reassurance of something understood; instead the conclusion he leaves us with is one of questioning and unease.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here in the old dispensation,
with an alien people clutching their gods,
I should be glad of another death,"

This poem was written in the year of Eliot's conversion (1927) and it is plausible to suppose his conversion experience has informed the Magi's anguish of the familiar place, people and culture no longer seeming familiar but now alien.

Both poems close with an eschatalogical yearning - whether second coming or death - an entry into reality.

Auden is less intense than Eliot but his seriousness is never in doubt.

 I  need to go back to Auden and try to recall which poems of his  I had in mind - I suspect 'New Year Letter'.

Epiphany Problems

Reflection: Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 2.1-12

I find the Sundays after Christmas more than a little confusing.  This is the time when the Church tries to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation.  On the Feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the revelation of Christ to the non-Jewish world, the custom is that we pack up the Christmas tree and all the Christmas decorations, including the crib, and hurry them away – among them being the figures of the three Kings (sages, wise men) who, led by the star, are the gospel for the feast .  That particular detail really confuses me as with these figures stashed away for another year, Epiphany disappears from sight: the country goes on holiday; the choir is in recess; the Cathedral inhabits what feels to be a kind of liturgical limbo. 

It gets more complicated: we have not experienced Epiphany and immediately after that Feast of 6th January, on the first Sunday of Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.  Chronologically it feels as if all sequence is lost – in a matter of days we have progressed from Christ’s birth to the beginning of his adult ministry.  Upon reflection I realise that this is an emotional impasse rather than a cognitive problem. The truth is that the desire for sequence and chronology, however understandable, is absurd and futile: we cannot tell the 'story of God' and none of the gospels fill in the gaps.  Our liturgical shift from the birth to the baptism is a thematic adjustment, a tightening of focus, as the church explores Epiphany and contemplates the revelation of who Christ is.

At the heart of Epiphany is the legend of the wise men or 3 Kings/sages who make their way to Bethlehem, led by a star.  These three men are ‘outsiders’ in the gospel narrative: they are not Jews, but their response to the star makes them ‘insiders’, the story grafts them into the gospel and, with them, all of us.  Even to think of them is to be influenced by extra-biblical sources, most notably T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.  Eliot shapes their story by presenting it as a journey, a gradual process of transformation, that is life-changing.  Elements of doubt, of hardship, and indeed of danger constantly accompany them.   In the first section we hear of the hardships, difficulty and doubt – note always the presence of doubt and uncertainty (a constant feature of the Christian journey) “the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.”

The brief middle section of the poem concludes the journey at Bethlehem in ambiguous terms and without any great sense of triumph
“And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.”
In that deliberate understatement, that calculated sense of bathos, we find the collision of our humanity with the otherness of God.  Who is this that the sages have travelled half a world away to find?  It seems so little.  Can we discern God even when en-fleshed amidst us?  That is the nagging question that Epiphany presents us.  We have a talent for not seeing what we need to see!

This is also the question that the final section of Eliot’s poem engages.  How can one be certain of what has been experienced?  This is an epistemological question: how do we ever really know what we know?  In the poem the narrator looks back over time, mulls the questions over and concludes:
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

In these terms we see that the journey into God changes us, there is a kind of death and no going back.  The Eliot's narrator traces a spiritual journey we all may make; a journey that may make what we previously considered ‘home’ seem alien.  In a word, Epiphany is an unsettling season that draws us far beyond our ‘comfort zones’ and into something new.

Which thought, that Epiphany draws into something new, seems to answer the questions I began with: showing us that Epiphany is thematically connected with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, because Jesus’ baptism shows us who Jesus is.  Both incarnation and baptism are revelations that shock us into wonder: it is a ‘shock’ that God is revealed in human flesh to be adored by the sages; likewise the Baptism of Christ extends the shock of the incarnation – as the adult Christ 'fulfils all righteousness'.  Christ leads the way for us by submitting to baptism: he holds nothing back; he embraces our full humanity; by his immersion in the waters he symbolically embraces death; and by his rising from the waters he begins his ministry and invites us to follow him.
The Journey Of The Magi
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reflections for The Naming of Jesus
& the Second Sunday of Christmas
1 January 2017

Readings: Isaiah 45:15-23; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21.

It is courageous liturgical thinking that on the Second Sunday of Christmas with the Feast for the Naming of Jesus, the First Testament reading (from Isaiah) declares: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” 

Think about it for a moment: there is an absolute contradiction between the notion of the God who withholds the divine self from human observation and the God who chooses to be revealed in the incarnation; in a bodily existence so palpable and particular that the divine is given a name.

We are all familiar enough with the difficulties of the so-called ‘proofs’ for God and the frustration we experience when we seek to apply the tools of science to the question.  We realise the tools and the language are utterly unequal to the task.  But the difficulties are even closer to home, they apply quite intimately to us as well: for instance, can any of us give an account of who we are; can we account for our own consciousness?  Do we understand what Being or a Self is?

Natural and behavioural sciences struggle to explain either Being or Self.  One medical researcher has expressed the problem in these terms: “Creating algorithms, intelligent machines, or identifying correlates, anatomical, neurophysiological, molecular or atomic and subatomic, may elucidate mechanisms of consciousness, the latter being of value to the sciences, pure and applied, but it does not answer the question of who I am and what is my relation to a ‘being’ higher in the hierarchical organisation of cognitive systems, what we may call God.” (Michael M. Nikoletseas, Deus Absconditus – The Hidden God (2014) p.12)

The prophet says, “You are a God who hides himself”.  There is some interpretative scope about what that means: might God hide or even turn away? Are we thinking of a God who is indifferent, or gracious in a way that we cannot comprehend?  Can we bear to imagine what the reality of the experience of God might be like?  There is a whole trail of allusions and references through both testaments where the glory of God is necessarily veiled or hidden.

That changes with the birth of Christ.   The whole story of creation and divine purpose is focussed in this child and in his name:  in Hebrew, Jesus means ‘God saves’.   Now the unknowable and hidden God is revealed in this living person who perfectly expresses the intention and nature of God.  That is an orthodox way of expressing it.

Of course we have questions – untidy and awkward questions about this Jesus and these questions turn on the same questions we have begun with.  For instance, what can we say of Jesus’ knowledge of God; of himself as Trinity as well as human; how did his self-emptying of divinity work and the divine and human coexist in the one person?   There is no way we can answer these questions but it is important that we are not afraid to raise them because by such questions the enormity of the Incarnation comes home to us and with that also the question of what it means to be human and, on top of that, the question of our own humanity and the sort of persons we are all in the process of becoming.

But on this day, these questions lie ahead of us.   At this stage in the story the mystery of the incarnation holds us: here, in this flesh, is the Christ and with his naming is the great message ‘God saves’.  The universe is not a hostile space, but formed and shaped with love and purpose.  This vulnerable child is the perfect image of that creative and redeeming love.  A great creative project is underway.

The rest of the New Testament is an attempt to comprehend and respond to this project.  Each of the gospellers tells the story as best they can while in the rest of the New Testament, most powerfully in Paul’s letters to the churches, where the most original thinker of the early church, is quite clear about what this project in Christ means for us.   We are to be like Christ.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited.
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave …”

‘To have the mind of Christ’ – think what that means!  We who follow Jesus are to be formed to think like him.  I am speaking of a process, the work of our lives and our lifetime … something that is unique to each one of us; something infinitely varied and distinctive; but something that is shaped and formed by the intersection of our longing and the grace of God.  Formed by ‘the mind of Christ’ we are collaborators with the great project of God.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Preparing for 'The Gate of the Year'

This week after Christmas is a so-called 'down-time' for a parish priest and also, though to a lesser extent, for a cathedral in this our holiday season.  No choir and a certain quietness falls; no PA and the pew sheets will be entirely prepared and assembled by the Dean; a bare string of volunteers keep the Cathedral open for visitors and pastoral care is summoned via the Dean's cellphone.  There is a strange sense of improvisation - and there are still the crib, tree and decorations to get down, sort  and store away by Epiphany.  I draft a note for the Cathedral pew sheet and am especially mindful of how the Sunday is also New Year's Day.  On New Year's Eve the Octagon will be rocking with celebrations and the Cathedral steps will be taken over as a viewing platform for the Town Hall Fireworks display; in the morning we will discover evidence of this 'occupation' and I will once again ponder how better we might use this privileged location for the gospel.  It would be nice to have some help ... but back to the pew sheet.

When I think about the new year I find myself drawn back to childhood and to remembering the quaint custom my mother had of staying up till after midnight and opening the front door to (as she put it) ‘let the New Year’ in.  More significantly, I also remember the framed text she had in the kitchen, ‘The Gate of the Year’ which read:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. 
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” 

The words are quite famous, being spoken by George VI in his Christmas 1939 broadcast to the Empire, certainly striking a chord to people facing the uncertainty of war (and I suspect that my mother’s fondness for the text may date from that particular Christmas message). The text comes from a poem God Knows by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957) and her story is interesting in itself and I found good information on this from Sue Donnelly, the LSE Archivist.

We live in ‘interesting times’ and the juxtaposition of the secular ‘New Year’ alongside the sacred story of Christ’s birth always sets me thinking about the story by which we mark our lives. Haskin’s poem does not so much celebrate the New Year as enclose it within the greater narrative of our faith – and I (of course) feel comfortable with that. That, I think, keeps the so-called ‘New Year’ in its true perspective.