Saturday, November 27, 2010

Contemplation and Conflict

At the bottom of the garden but rising far above the deanery is a truly massive copper beech. Before dawn I rise and head for the espresso machine aiming to be back on the deck in time to catch the sun rise above the peninsula and to watch for the first bright rays to shine through the beech leaves. On a good morning there are a few minutes when the tree is a blaze of red light, spectacular and almost otherworldly.

Those moments on the deck in the early light have been much needed this week.

The disputes in this 'family' I care for continue, unresolved. As a priest I sit on the sideline and watch demonstrations of unkindness, ungraciousness, bitterness and distrust that are simply heart-rending and in which the protagonists seem to have no perception of what they are doing. Inwardly I recite the beatitudes, but that mantra brings no peace when I contemplate the kind of blood-letting people I care about inflict on one another.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Millstones or Mulberry Bushes? Luke 17:1-10

I have been asked to post this sermon that was given in St Paul's this morning - so here it is, still in unedited form.

(Sermon Notes on Luke 17:1-10)

I was asked the other day if I was preaching on the gospel and I said that I was but I felt a little anxious about doing so because the gospel was so relevant to some of the issues we are dealing with in our cathedral life that people might feel it was too pointed, too personal – to which the other responded – ‘Ah, but that’s the Bible, it’s a dangerous book!’ To which I must reply, indeed it is.

So, let’s be brave and unpack this gospel and see how it might speak to us and how it might even encourage us.

This gospel reading turns toward the disciples – the Christian community – just after a scathing parable against the Pharisees. In case the disciples are feeling a sense of smugness about the Pharisees being put in their place, Jesus now turns to them and to the Christian community and shows a very clear-eyed view of what it means to be a disciple and what it means to be the church.

As in previous weeks – Jesus holds up a mirror in which the disciples (readers) are to see themselves; the experience is meant to be discomforting, Jesus’ words shred away illusion. (For the self-righteous who pride themselves on their virtuous living he says at the end of it all, stop congratulating yourselves, you are doing no more than you are required to do.)

First of all he says there will be scandals; that is inevitable. The Greek word we know today as ‘scandal’ is translated here as a snare or stumbling block and it is used in the NT to describe things that cause offence within the community and that cause members (‘little ones’) of the community to ‘stumble’ – meaning to lose their faith or commitment.

·    Now reality is not optional: you don’t need much experience of church life to know the truth behind these words of Jesus. We have probably all had experience of one kind or another where someone has left a church or been deeply troubled as a result of what someone else has said or done (or is rumoured to have said or done).

·    Applying this image of stumbling against our experience of church life is, I think, curiously helpful: stumbling describes the shock and dismay one can feel on encountering what we least expected and tripping over what should not be there, the dark side of church life and discipleship. The shock can be crippling. We expect our church life to be accepting, nurturing, encouraging, helpful and fulfilling. We do not expect conflict or malice; we do not expect self-seeking, criticism, hostility or power-games. Sadly church history (and our own experience) tells us otherwise. Research by the Alban Institute reckons that clergy spend at least 25% of their time managing conflict in their congregations and in some circumstances much, much more than that. People leave churches because they have been driven out by bullying and conflict of various kinds. And, remember, we are talking about Christians, fellow disciples!

·    Jesus says this is inevitable: our human nature seems so constituted that, despite our deep need of each other, we have also a great capacity to cause hurt and division. If we know this truth about ourselves ... what are we to do?

·    Well, for a start, to all of us (all of us potentially self-righteous) disciples Jesus says ‘watch yourselves’ (trans. here as ‘be on your guard’) – which reminds us that this warning is primarily to us and not against someone else. Good self-knowledge and awareness is fundamental to a healthy spiritual life – and to healthy participation in church and community life.

The dominant image in this whole section about scandals and stumbling blocks is that sheer dead-weight of the millstone. The millstone is the image of what conflict does to us individually and collectively. Just as the weight of a millstone inexorably drags its victim down into the dark abyss of the ocean, so the weight of whatever it is in us that causes conflict not only will drag us into darkness but others with us. The millstone images what happens in a person or a community without forgiveness (grace) – and that helps us to understand the millstone as the weight of resentments and grief, the stored up bitterness and anger, which twist us when we will not let them go. This is the luggage that we can carry; and that we need to let go. (Remember Pilgrim’s Progress and the weight he carried?) Hence the warning Jesus gives: ‘Watch yourselves! Be on your guard!’ (Watch out for the things that will drag you down.)

Second, the opposite of the millstone is the mulberry bush growing in the ocean. It is an impossible thing but it is the image of what unimaginable things become possible through grace. Jesus maps out the foundation for life as a disciple, and for life in the community of disciples – this is to be a people of forgiveness, of reconciliation; a community of unlimited forgiveness, reflecting the nature of God. Now forgiveness is not simple and there is not time to go into the dynamics of that, except to point out that conflict when worked through and where grace and forgiveness have done their work, has a gift – the community and all involved are changed and renewed at a deeper level than before.
For example, I remember visiting a patient in hospital and we got to talking, as one does – and he said “You know Father, I feel sorry for those folk who say they’ve had a wonderful marriage with never a cross word between them, ...” To which I asked, “What do you mean?” He replied with a broad grin and twinkling eye, “Ah, they miss out on all the fun of making up.” There beside us in that hospital ward I believe were the mulberry bushes growing in the ocean.

As disciples and as Church what do we wish for ourselves? What way of life will we follow? Do we choose to be dragged down by millstones or will we seek by God’s grace to live such lives of love and forgiveness that we will be a transforming community of growth and new life – finding mulberry bushes growing in the ocean?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Looking on darkness

(With thanks to C.S.Lewis for the loan of Screwtape and Wormwood)

It is nothing out of the ordinary, simply a Lent study group in a small parish church and the dozen or so participants are nearly all well over fifty. They are seated in a circle holding photocopies of some chapters of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book. They have just read Pasternak’s poem ‘Hamlet in Gethsemane’ and are faced with the proposition that evil can never really be incarnate. Some flick once more through the pages and shift uneasily as it waiting for the session to end so they can have dinner. Even the keen ones seem uneasy with the evening’s material and at least one looks as if he clearly expects the Vicar to sort the issue out and give a tidy resolution to the problem.

Finally he breaks out irritably, ‘Of course you realise that all this talk about evil and the devil is one of the reasons people don’t come to church any more. They just don’t believe this medieval rubbish. Evil is not out there. Evil is in ourselves. That’s what we have to deal with.’

‘Right’, says the Vicar equably, sensing a new current of disagreement running through others in the circle. ‘That points toward the limitations of language doesn’t it, Alan? I mean we tend to use the words evil and devil as a code of convenience, a sort of shorthand. It does not mean that we really want to signify a monster with horns and tail.’

(You see, said Screwtape from the shadows. You see what I meant Wormwood about such study groups being so helpful from our point of view. You have one of them doubting our existence. Now that’s always helpful for us: they don’t understand our influence and hate themselves – which is wonderfully productive to our cause. And look at that miserable Vicar. Trying to see all points of view and be nice. He sidelines it all with a reference to the problems of language and the caricature of Our Father Below.)

‘Um, ... but because people don’t believe in a devil like in the pictures, surely that doesn’t mean evil doesn’t exist; anymore than God could not exist because we don’t believe in some heavenly figure with a beard.’ The quiet tense woman with the bible had remained silent through most of the session, and she seemed to shrink back as the group turned to look at her.‘I, I mean, I might be wrong, but it seems logical doesn’t it,’ she appealed to the Vicar.

The Vicar beamed encouragingly. ‘Well, yes, I think it is Angela. That’s a very helpful point to make. I think we all need to make a note of that point - that although our image or language is too limited or even wrong, it does not mean that the concept we refer to does not exist.’

(‘You see’, muttered Screwtape. ‘That Vicar really is a gem. Things got a bit tricky with that schoolteacher woman, but he’s got it back on safer ground. Evil and God are just concepts for them now; oh there’s nothing to worry about here.’)

Eva, cut in sharply, ‘When I paint, when I lay the colours thick and textured and the form emerges, I know that something of God is there. Not the whole of course, but something, a fragment, a trace. And this is not just an idea at all, but a tangible real thing – it is there in the paint; tangible; real; oh, call it incarnate if you like.’

(‘Beelzebub,’ Screwtape snarled, and hooked himself up to the highest beam. ‘It’s getting stuffy down there. Watch that bloody artist; those creative types are always dangerous. It’s the act of making – that’s the shadow of the enemy. It’s what the enemy does – create, create, make, make, there’s no end to it. Watch down there! It might all hit the fan now!)

‘Well, let’s be consistent then, Alan sniped, ‘Eva is saying that something of God can be incarnate, so why not evil? That’s the question we were asked to talk about.’

‘Oh, that’s simple, Alan.’ Eva smiled, ‘there is nothing evil in matter or in the things of creation. I am quite sure that in my way of describing the world of physics, I am simply saying that everything exists and is held together by love – and that is what creation is about. Evil cannot assume matter because it cannot assume the work and substance of God. For evil to be incarnate is to me simply an impossibility, a conceptual oxymoron – a contradiction.’

‘An oxymoron,...’ the Vicar paused, clearly feeling things were getting beyond him, ‘Now, I suppose that is an interesting way of looking at it..’ (‘Splendid fellow!’ hissed Screwtape.)

‘Now wait a moment.’ Alan put up his hand. ‘Are you saying there is no such thing as evil? Say for instance, a child molester?’What I am saying is that matter, the creation is inherently of God and is not capable of being used to incarnate evil. The child molester is not evil: what he or she does is evil.’

‘Well,’ said Alan triumphantly, ‘that brings us back to what I said at the start. Evil is in us, it’s not something out there like the devil.’

‘Oh, I don’t think that follows.’ Angela’s quiet voice cut in. ‘I suspect there are more forms of being than physical existence. If God is not limited by matter, it seems quite possible, at least to me, that evil is not either.’

‘Hell’s bells, it looks to me as if God and evil are all mixed up together, if you go down that route! What do you reckon Vicar?’ Alan appealed.

Clearly gratified to have his authority recognised, the Vicar paused judiciously: ‘Well now, dualism is a bit of a problem here. If we assume an all powerful God and still accept the reality of suffering and evil ...’

‘Exactly my point’, Alan cut in. ‘I mean look at that Gospel this morning. When the disciples ask why the man was blind, Jesus says he was blind so God could heal him! That makes God responsible for evil, for suffering. To put it bluntly, it makes God a monster! I’m not surprised people don’t want to come to church!’

(‘Oh very good.’ Screwtape nearly slipped off his roost with glee. ‘It’s always wonderful when they misread those stories about the Enemy, they get so messed up.’)

‘Yes, I’ve got that passage right in front of me,’ Angela ran her finger over the page. ‘My commentary notes point out that Jesus is not explaining why the man was blind, and was rejecting the old arguments that this was a punishment by God for sin. He says instead that this is an opportunity for the power of God to be revealed – which is what he is all about.’

‘So what about suffering?’ Alan pointed at Angela’s bible. ‘How can a good God allow suffering? I would have thought that makes God either evil or inadequate.’

Eva leaned forward, ‘I doubt we’ll sort that tonight, but suffering and evil are not the same. Suffering is lousy, dreadful but not simply evil. I know what it is like to suffer with cancer, but I can’t say that the cancer is evil. I think suffering and life can’t be separated and I don’t understand it. Surely the fact that Jesus suffers too, shows us that in some way God is involved with us in suffering.’

‘Yes! Yes!’ Angela nearly dropped her bible. ‘And isn’t that what Easter is about? That suffering and death are not the last word but only a stage in the journey? And that everything is being redeemed – and that in the end evil itself will be overwhelmed by the love of God?’

(‘It’s positively stifling here,’ rasped Screwtape. ‘We’re out of here.’)

Beyond the high windows of the foyer the evening sun shone more brightly and a beam struck across the circle to the cross on the far wall. In the silence, a thrush called from the garden.

‘Well’, said the Vicar, standing. ‘I think this is a good point to close, don’t you? Shall we say the grace together?’

Friday, July 30, 2010

Jobs and Dignity

Underlying the Government's proposed changes to the Employment Law is a fundamental theological issue and a matter of social justice. As I understand it, under the current law, in a small firm a new worker has 90 days trial after which the worker may be dismissed, no reason given and without liability for a personal grievance. While I am uncomfortable with this approach, one can argue that it was an attempt to encourage small and possibly vulnerable businesses to take a punt and employ someone. However, to extend this to larger firms changes employment laws so that 90 days 'free trial' will become the norm.

At issue here is how we treat one another. The foundational theological concept here is that of human beings as bearing 'the image of God'. From that follows the understanding that there is a special dignity and value in human beings that must be respected and honoured.

I think this is what the 90 day limitation threatens to deny. To lose employment without warning or reason and without any opportunity to defend oneself is an affront to basic human dignity. When someone enters a workplace they not only bring their labour, but they also enter into a social domain of relationships and give something of themselves. While any dismissal severs those relationships and potentially devalues the person, to dismiss without any reason is an affront to the dignity and value of the person who has been in that place, even if only for 90 days. We owe each other something better than that.

At stake here, is what it means to be human. The Government seems to be losing sight of that.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


We have a confirmation at the cathedral this Sunday; 13 young people of varying ages making the extraordinary commitments that we undertake at this time. This crazy thing that we call the journey of faith, The Way, the Christian life - and doubtless other names as well. Someone asked me, 'Do you think they are up for it?'. In a word, the question was did I think they knew enough and believe they were sincere enough to be confirmed?

I suppose the expected Anglican response would be 'Yes and No' but I simply said 'yes' to both.

My reason is quite simple: who ever knows enough to start the journey and whoever in their heart of hearts can claim sufficient sincerity? For me it seems enough simply that they desire to be confirmed. Some appear to have engaged with the course more than others, that's for certain, but confirmation is not an exam with a diploma or badge at the end. I think its often more like a journey that we start (though we may not always quite know why) and, had we the luxury of hindsight, might have chosen to pack and prepare quite differently; nonetheless God is good and we find things along the way.

For me the most important thing is the sense of the church community that nurtures and encourages the candidates along the way. I am so grateful for the different clergy and laity who have shared their faith and their sense of being Anglican. I think that's the heart of it. One's understanding of faith may change, expand, metamorphose in strange and even exotic ways, but being part of a church community and a vast and diverse tradition earths and enriches us immeasurably. It endures.

The clever and wise Richard Giles picks some of this up when he also thinks of confirmation as a journey. He writes:
'You will find the immigration officials at the frontier into this new century kindness itself. They will not glower at you as they compare you with that ridiculous passport photograph, nor will they interrogate you, or try to catch you out, or demand that you open your suitcase. on the whole we are fairly laid back about instruction courses - a few chats with the parish priest is sometimes all that you will get - but we have no intention of being made to feel inadequate on this score. We believe that Christian initiation is 90% incorporation and 10% indoctrination. We know that we can offer real community, intimate and demanding, where the Risen Lord is encountered, not just in the breaking of bread, but in the coffee hour and at the soup kitchen, in the prayer group and at the local hospital, in the neighbourhood clean-up or at the peace vigil...' ( from How to be an Anglican, p.134)


Thursday, June 24, 2010

'Not a religious man'

Last week the office mail brought me a copy of the University of Otago Magazine - always a good read and a very honourable Otago publication. It featured an engaging article on Professor Alan Musgrave, a great Dunedin identity noted for his work in the philosophy and history of science. The writer wrapped up the article noting as follows:

'Unsurprisingly, Musgrave is not a religious man. He read the Bible once, when he was a teenager, and found it to be a "tissue of contradictions". Religion, he suspects, is a manifestation of our need for absolute certainty. Or perhaps, as Australian philosopher David Stove said, we invent Gods who care about us to try to satisfy our insatiable need for attention.'

Now I found myself quite gob-smacked at the naivety of these remarks - and I don't think this is about Musgrave but more about a very common mind set. Just begin with the bible itself - if one does not see contradictions in the bible, then one is simply being stupid. A collection of works, of differing literary types, written across a huge time span by different 'authors' and in different contexts is bound to produce contradictions - different points of view. The problem would be if the bible had no contradictions and was a seamless text - that would be truly sinister and open to suspicions of conspiracy.

By the same token, I cannot think of any great theologian or any mystic who would lay claim to absolute certainty in matters of faith - faith and certainty really don't sit easily together. In fact faith's typical way of being is to embrace uncertainty and hold oneself attentive before the darkness of God. That is a radical way of being in the world and has absolutely nothing to do with 'our insatiable need for attention'.

Am I being grumpy?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Wheelchair Thoughts

It is strange the different perspective one has on the world from a wheelchair.

My bookshelves have a acquired a new interest for me. My eye level has changed and a new range of titles are on their way to becoming familiar as I roll up the passageway to the study: Theological Aesthetics – did I really buy that? I must have, but I doubt I ever got past the introduction. Perhaps this is the time to renew the encounter ... perhaps; I make no promises.

Other concerns engage my mind at the moment, and they are connected to this wheelchair phase of recuperation. My surgeon was quite wise when he visited me at some ungodly hour in my room and said, ‘you’ll find this recuperating stage very hard: anyone with a demanding job does; it’s hard to be away from the office for a long time.’ I accept that part of our ‘wiring’ is our need to be around and available in our work environments because of what can go wrong when we aren’t – ‘when the cat’s away...’ as the saying goes.

Unhappily this worldly wisdom applies in the church as much as in any other environment: the church participates in the brokenness of this world no less than any other institution – except that (on a good day) we acknowledge our brokenness and resolutely seek God’s grace to deal with it.

While organisational researchers often use systems theory to map and explain how organisations work, they don’t usually cite the bible. Yet Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12: 12-27) is a superb image for the interconnectedness that systems theory maps. One phrase sticks particularly in my mind – ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together’. The body imagery is utterly apposite. If there is an infection in a foot there will be a rise in temperature that will manifest itself throughout the body and may lead to other complications. Congregational life is very similar: you only need one person in any congregation to be harbouring a grievance and it is extraordinary how a kind of toxicity can spread through the community (especially now through technology - whether phone, email, or Facebook).

For me the real question is how a congregation responds to the one who is the ‘suffering’ member. If we ignore them, then we are actually doing damage to the rest of the body – because we are all affected, whether we are recognizing it or not. Equally, if we collude with them (whether passively or, God forbid, actively), toxicity spreads all the faster. For myself, I reckon the health of any congregation can be usefully checked by noting whether issues are brought out into the open or are allowed to fester. Of course the kind of robust openness that this requires is not simple but a spiritual discipline that requires a grace-filled and purposeful attention.

Strange, the benefits of this wheelchair: ‘new’ books come into view; ‘new’ thoughts make a fresh imprint.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Watching the news

It has been a hectic last two weeks in the cathedral: the ordination of a new bishop and the civic service for Commonwealth Sunday. Yet alongside these considerable occasions the regular business of the cathedral trundles along, together with those additional activities associated with Lent.

Watching the news, two things have struck me. First, in our local scene, the local Health Board is declaring that rest home occupancy is too high and must be reduced. Simultaneously, the same Board is trying to cut back on the home support services that assist elderly folk remain in their own homes and stay out of rest homes. The coherence and logic of these apparently contradictory policies escapes me. It may of course be that there is no concern about coherence or logic, but merely the determination to trim the spending no matter what the consequences. I feel grim and despondent about where this seems to be heading.

Second, on the national news, I was staggered by informal political commentary (mainly Paul Henry) regarding the government's foreshadowed job losses through merging ministries. Neither Paul nor the others on the news seemed at all concerned about the job losses. I'm finding this widespread indifference to job losses quite alarming - and a sickening sign of the times. A darwinian survival of the fittest mentality has set in and seems to have replaced our social conscience. Our national life seems occasionally to resemble one of those appalling TV reality shows. I'd far rather jobs were shared rather than shed - but no one seems to propose that.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

John Donne in the cathedral

This has been a curious week. Summer seems finally to have arrived and the temperatures hover in the near 30s in the city and a forest fire beyond Mosgiel has sent a cloud of smoke drifting over the city. The Octagon is baking and streams of over-heated tourists find their way into the cool of the cathedral.

Tourists wandered in yesterday evening while I was in mid-flight delivering the first of the Lenten Studies 'Speaking into the Silence: Poets and God'. I can't imagine what they made of it, this cassocked fellow talking about John Donne. Of course 'To His Mistress going to Bed' might be thought an odd poem to introduce a Lenten meditation in the cathedral, but fun nonetheless.

... Licence my roving hands, and let them go

Before, behind, between, above, below,

O my America, my new found land,

My kingdom, safliest when with one man manned,

My mine of precious stones, my empery,

How blessed am I in this discovering thee!

I'm not sure at all what the few who came to the study made of it. I speak from my enthusiasms, and poetry is certainly that. I find poetry is another way of thinking and it makes connections that normal discourse can't quite manage or you need to go into another medium - painting or music to touch on. Metaphor crosses cognitive boundaries to create new possibilities and reach across the silence. One remembers, in saying this, that 'God' itself is a metaphor.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sunday before Lent

First Reading: Jer 17:5-10

Second Reading: 1 Cor 15:12-20

Gospel: Luke 6:17-26

Lectionary readings are like beads threaded on a cord, each separate but linked together by a common thread. What holds us together is that we are a story-people and daily, weekly we return to the stories about which our faith is woven. Although the ‘story’ of God is multi-layered, complex, infinite as the universe, the 3 readings we have this morning provoke us to think laterally and engage with multiple images that will find their connection within us. So we come to these readings not expecting that they simply speak to us but that they will require us to work with them, reflect and ponder.

Take the first bead on the thread, the reading from Jeremiah. It begins with a salutary warning:

Thus says the Lord:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals

and make mere flesh their strength,

whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

This is the trouble with prophets isn’t it? They always provide us with another way of seeing the world and confront us with things that I suspect we’d really prefer not to have drawn to our attention and, worse still, make a decision on. There is something here in Jeremiah that seems to cut right against the grain of our humanity and our way of being in the world. Do we trust ‘mere mortals’? Think about it: we certainly invest a lot of our energies and affections in families and friends; at every election for council or government we invest trust and responsibility. Is ‘mere flesh’ our strength? Well, consider the amount of energy given to the cult of physical fitness and the reverence and admiration that is accorded to wealth and property – and I note here the fearfulness of the government to tax property, regardless of what the tax review has advised. If we place our trust and our heart in humans and in material things, the prophet warns us that we will turn our hearts from God and so turn from the source of our life and joy - in a word we will be cursed, not by God but by our loss of sight and connection with that which sustains all that is.

Bead 2, Paul on the resurrection: ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?’ Paul walks along the same high wire as Jeremiah: where human common sense urges trust in assets and shakes its head at the thought of a resurrection, prophet and apostle point to God and speak out of their experience of God. Paul’s whole gospel is the gospel of the risen Jesus, an encounter testified to by the early church, and proclaimed by the apostles; an encounter Paul himself somehow experienced on the road to Damascus and never forgot. In this sentence Paul typically confronts and challenges how we see the world: if we believe in the risen Christ, how can we live and speak as if our life in this world is all there is? Let’s push this further and paraphrase it a little more: if we believe in the risen Christ, how can we foreclose or limit the possibilities and modes of being that there may be in the universe?

Now, bead 3, the gospel: extraordinary and perplexing as it is. Here Luke crunches material he shares with Matthew into a spare 30 or so verses. The man of letters, the author, sets the scene and the emphasis is on the crowd and their expectations of him: they all want help, healing and wholeness. There is not much information, it is left to us to imagine the crowd and how the people were – how desperate, how anxious.

We can understand or at least begin to imagine desperation. We may have had the experience ourselves. We are familiar with the desperation of others, at least through TV – we have seen the despair and resignation in Haiti, we have seen the desperate job searching of the 1500 who queued for job application in the new supermarket in South Auckland.

But Luke adds one explanatory comment, a brief gloss to his description: ‘all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them’. Touch of course to us as humans is the ultimate reassurance: we caress the ones we love, we touch the thing we are making, and we test the reality of what we see. Touch is one of the gates of the soul, and what Jeremiah called ‘mere flesh’ is in fact the most common means for testing the substance of this world. It should be no surprise to us then that the sceptical Thomas wanted to touch to test the reality of the risen Christ in that upper room after Easter.

Yet for these desperate people, for these ‘touch-hungry’ people Jesus’, beatitudes seem slightly shocking. Jesus insists that their troubles, their conditions of limitation are, to be seen not as afflictions but as blessings – because such things are a shield from the illusion of self-sufficiency that material power and assets can provide. This is a troubling thought when it first flickers through the mind. It seems to justify not doing anything about poverty or being concerned about social justice; it seems to support the most appalling ‘other-worldly’ type of thinking.

Yet I think in these beatitudes we see Jesus at his most deliberately contentious, provocative and challenging. He heals, he feeds, he makes whole: no one suggests he does not do these things – but with that behind him – he challenges those who have come to him to see the world and their circumstances (and God!) very differently. It was the romantic poet and painter William Blake who said ‘If only the doors of perception were cleansed, then we would see everything as it is – infinite’. Learning to see things as they really are 'cleanse the doors of perception' ... that is our task and our calling on this journey of faith.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Log Tossing

Firewood and wood heaps seem to be a way of being in Dunedin and the deanery is no exception. Tuesday morning after Mass I passed the administrator as his car swung into the cathedral car park and there was a moment, both cars blocking the entrance, while I blithely reassured Monty that I was off to supervise the delivery of a load of firewood and would be back imminently. As the brewer’s ad has it, ‘Yeah, right!’

The conjunction of eight cubic metres of heart-stoppingly expensive wood in a large truck with a small gateway was transforming. The crisp brilliance of the morning metamorphosed into a day of drudgery.

The holly hedge swiped the truck’s wing mirror and the truck tray crunched into the deanery gatepost. Blinded, the driver stopped: the truck lodged between driveway and road, squarely beneath a low overhead cable; a cable so low that the tray could not fully tilt to dump the wood. So, he tilted till I bellowed ‘stop!’ when the tray brushed the cable. A paltry spill went on the driveway to block the gate. Then the truck heaved away from the splintering gatepost and the rest of the load cascaded into Every Street.

The rest of the day was passed tossing wood. By 4.00pm Every Street was liberated and decorous once more. In the deanery driveway was a massive heap of wood, carefully sited to allow the gates to shut and to keep Mackenzie and Dunstan (the dogs) inside. Not quite how I had planned the day.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Art & Imperfection

"(the) finite beauty or finishedness in the work always incomplete at some level, 'limping', like biblical Jacob, from the encounter with what cannot be named; achieved art always has 'that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite'.

(Archbishop Rowan, in his 2005 Clark Lecture quoting Jacques Maritain)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Living with Scripture

In one form or another Scripture Wars seem always to be with us. True, Christians no longer literally kill one another over interpretations of scripture, but there are acrimonious divisions. For instance, consider the bitterness with which some fundamentalists defend their view of the inerrancy of scripture against the historical scepticism of the Jesus Seminar. Yet beyond the intensity of such hermeneutical feuds is a wider society in which knowledge of scripture is poor and often muddled by what are seen as its inconsistencies: as a correspondent in the ODT recently complained, 'Why are preachers like Dr James remaining silent? Why do they not expose the many shortcomings of the Bible to the whole world?'

Virtually all acts of reading involve our anticipation and expectation: so we anticipate finding a friend’s number in a phone book because our expectation of phone books tells us that is where we look for such things. We get miffed or muddled if our expectations seem betrayed. For instance, I might buy a book with the title To Cast a Fly expecting it to be about trout fishing but on reading find it is a political thriller. I might still enjoy it but my anticipation of its reading must change because my expectations were askew.

Something like this is an underlying problem when we try to read the bible, or even, just the gospels. What do we expect of the gospels? It is it is not at all clear what sort of books the gospels are; what we should expect of them, or how we should then read them. They are neither histories nor biographies, though aspects of those genres can be found in them; they are neither dogmatic texts nor systematic theology; still less are they works of fiction, but in each a shaping purpose, narrative sense and imagination are clearly present. How do we read these books? What are they?

A reader who approaches the bible with an expectation of a definitive account of Christ finds four gospels, not one; and, remember, none of them biography or history. Over the centuries countless scholars have explored the complex textual connections between the gospels and the different traditions and contexts that lie behind each of them. The general experience of the church has been that the differences between the gospels have proven to be not a shortcoming but richness. The gospels are a web of story that taps into a common well of memory and experience but in each case speak with a distinctive voice and theological slant that indicate particular authorial sources and contexts. So, when detractors of the Christian faith cite differences between the gospels as evidence of their unreliability or proof against Christian faith, they repeatedly fail to grasp the unique character of these texts.

The mystery about which each gospel turns remains enigmatic and irreducible. One image for each Gospel, indeed each section within a gospel, could be to think of it as a window through we may glimpse something of the mystery of God. The multiplicity of windows or points of entry to the mystery on which they give some access allows a greater range of vision, a different perspective – rather frustrating for readers who seek a single vision. The view is never complete, always an invitation to enter to see further; always, an invitation to faith. I like to think that St Paul had something similar in mind when he spoke of seeing ‘through a glass darkly’.

The enigmatic nature of the gospels is underlined if we reflect on what is probably their most memorable form of discourse, the parable. Many of the parables parallel or echo one another across the synoptic gospels; some are particular; some have so-called interpretations attached to them and others do not. Readers have become familiar with parables – the simplicity of the memorable story form encourages that – and typically have tended to understand the parables in fairly consistent ways as if such interpretations were a foregone conclusion. Some theological positions and critical traditions have done something similar, tending to limit the scope of some parables as if wanting to foreclose on any alternative readings. In such environments one consequence has been that scripture tends to be treated as dogma and the sense of surprise or discovery that most truly characterises its reading is lost. So, for instance, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) is most commonly read with the focus on the prodigal; but the parable is more about the nature of the father who has to contend with both the waywardness of the prodigal and the bitterness of the elder brother. Although one can read this as a moral tale of wayward humanity, it holds a powerful element of the unexpected that undermines easy readings and invites us to reconsider our assumptions. It extends and challenges our understanding of what it means to live as authentic human beings – after all there is certainly something amiss with the elder brother. This parable hints at a God who is much more than we may imagine; unknowable and mysterious.

We are not dismayed by this: we can trust the parables because we trust their source, Christ. That faith encounter remains the foundation for enduring and enjoying the struggle with scripture. Of course, I understand this must be an exasperating opinion for those who don’t share that faith.

Epiphany 5

In the urgent and sometimes almost luminous language of Paul writing to the church in Corinth, Paul presents in the 11 verses of this morning’s epistle (1Cor.15:1-11) the bare outlines of his ‘creed’ – what it is that defines the Christian people, and that makes them who they are. It is a faith that defies reason and is based entirely on the experience that eludes explanation: the great gospel mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In these 11 verses we have the bare essence of ‘the gospel’ – this is what the first generation of Christians proclaimed; the hope that sustained martyrs in the persecutions; the faith that was to encompass the world. This gospel, forged in an inexplicable experience, is the driving energy of the first generation church; it precedes the extended narratives and collections of memories and sayings that we more conventionally now know as ‘gospel’.

Then, sequentially some years later, we come to the ‘second generation’ narrative – the gospel of Luke and Acts (the 2 volumes belonging together) and we find this morning’s glowing vignette – the memory of when Jesus called his disciples (Luke5:1-11). It has something of the glow of nostalgia about it – the blush of reminiscence as old friends may say ‘do you remember when...?’ All of this is captured in that first word ‘once’ which introduces the memory. The word stands apart from time; it inhabits the timelessness of story while it registers a unique and exceptional moment.

The heavy reality of memory is vividly caught. Luke remembers the crush of the crowd around Jesus – pressing in on him to hear him, to hear ‘the word of God’. The compelling power of what Jesus says is evidenced in the pressure of the crowd and so he remembers how Jesus was obliged to teach from the lake itself, sitting in one of the boats.

But notice the silence! We are not given one word of whatever it was Jesus said. What can fill that silence, that shocking omission on the part of the writer? The truth may be that this silence is more eloquent than any summary of Jesus’ teaching – because in the end it was not Jesus’ words that people responded to, but Jesus himself. When we hear of Jesus speaking the ‘word of God’ what people almost certainly encountered in Jesus was an ‘embodied word’ – we may guess that there was that about Jesus which brought people into a sense of the reality of God calling upon their lives that spoke more eloquently than any teaching. We may guess that in Jesus they found again new possibilities of life, new ways of being human, which were transforming and liberating. Through Jesus they were brought into radical and new ways of seeing and understanding the world, their place in it and the purpose of God for them. Through Jesus they discovered a new sense of the incredible depth and potential of their being and that they were part of a great shaping purpose transcending anything they ever previously imagined. What we are speaking of here is a powerful and transforming religious experience, an encounter with absolute ultimate reality – what the 1920s philosopher Rudolph Otto wrote about in his book The Idea of the Holy – where he spoke of the holy as the mysterium tremendum, the fascinans. For Otto the holy is beyond all comprehension, awesome (mysterium tremendum) and it is compelling (fascinans). This probably helps explain why our First Testament lesson for this morning is the account of Isaiah’s encounter with the holy in the temple – the effect of that encounter and the obvious thematic connection with Peter’s response in this gospel speaks directly into the mystery that the gospel narrative unfolds beside the lake of Gennesaret.

You will note that what follows the evocative silence in our gospel is simply an instruction to ‘put out into the deep water’ and to let down the nets. Notice how the pressing of the crowd about Jesus now becomes the crush of fish held in overflowing nets. Whether the crush about Jesus is of people or fish, one catches the sense that here in Jesus is the compelling reality of Being itself toward which all being is irresistibly attracted: we are drawn to our source.

Unsettling it is, but our joy and our fulfilment, our true humanity, is in that call ‘out into the deep’.


A previous Dean of this cathedral is reputed to have described a sermon in a rather pithy phrase: "A sermon must warm the heart, inform the mind and move the will." That I attribute to Tim Raphael and I hope I have quoted him correctly.

However there are many kinds of sermons - and mostly when I place a sermon in this blog I expect it will be for a Sunday Eucharist and reflect my own engagement with scripture and the question of how that mystery about which scriptures turn connects with my own life and the questions that hold me - whether in perplexity, despair or delight.

Thursday, January 21, 2010




that black sentinel,

the solitary shag

alone on his bleak outpost

a wave blown rock,

lifting his wings to

all elements, whatever,

wave, wind; rain and sun.

We praise differently,

each bearing the other,

scarce believing our luck

to have found each other

and allowed to weather

all storms – together.

Pascal’s wager

‘If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is ... you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.’

Why blog?

I began this blog with some real uncertainty as to why I would want to do it.

I see a blog as so much like a journal - and that's private. I don't want people to read what I write in a journal. The process is so messy - as I try and write my way through to a kind of clarity and understanding about what I think. The journal records the messy birthing of a written piece - it does not show the finished product. So, vanity alone seems to argue that I should not blog.

However, a blog is an open invitation to read. So it seems that by blogging I am inviting people to read my journal - if that's how I'm going to continue to write in my blogging.

Of course I could blog because I have things that I want people to hear and there are possibly views I want to advance. Still I'm not sure that's what I really want to do.

No I think I want to blog because it means being exploratory and open in a new way. I suspect I won't write quite as I might in a private journal but maybe through blogging I will discover other modes of writing, other ways of being and connecting. We'll see.