Monday, December 16, 2013

Madiba: The life gloriously lived

Well, yesterday we had the Memorial Service for Madiba.  It was an occasion with its own poignancy and magic.  The Sunny Side Up choir gave us the African rhythms to complement the Cathedral Choir and speakers and participants came from all parts of the community and faith traditions.  It was quintessentially Dunedin and, most of all, I was gratified to see the large number of South Africans turn out for the event. The DCC has been generous in its support and it is in an occasion such as this that we also catch a glimpse of what a Cathedral can offer the community.

There were a number of well-informed and moving addresses.  I gave a 'reflection' (not a sermon, note) where I tried to identify the extraordinary activity of God within the person of Madiba.  For those who may be interested, it is pasted below.

On my father’s bookshelves was a book entitled When Smuts Goes, written in 1947, it foresaw the destiny of South Africa as isolated and doomed with white and black peoples locked in mortal conflict.  For about the next 50 years most of the world thought that was South Africa’s future – and most South Africans also feared that to be so.
But something happened, something nobody counted on.
·       (I will call Nelson Mandela by the tribal name of affection he is known by in South Africa, Madiba) In the early 1960s Madiba had been imprisoned a terrorist.  He had gone into prison an angry man.  Just over 27 years later he emerged from prison, still resolute, his will unbowed, his principles unchanged.  But no longer angry.
He was no longer angry.  Something had happened, something nobody counted on.
·       It seems that about 11 years into his imprisonment Madiba changed.  He took up and learned Afrikaans and began to read Afrikaner literature – he came to understand the strengths and contradictions of the Afrikaner soul from the ‘inside’ and to recognise that Apartheid was born from fear; the fear of annihilation, of losing one’s identity, language and only place in the world.

·       ‘Know your enemy’: it could be said this was all part of Madiba’s political brilliance.  That’s one way of looking at it, but to truly “Know your enemy’ in your heart as well as your head is also to be changed yourself. Your former enemy becomes a part of you.
So, something happened, something nobody could ever have counted on.   That’s how God works.  We call it, grace.
·       God’s grace in Madiba unlocked a different future - for South Africa – nothing that the world could have dreamed possible
·       For the first time white South Africans were talking to an African leader who understood them from within himself; who within himself had experienced a seismic shift and allowed the cultures to meet and reconcile.  A man who presented a new way of being a South African, a way that included all.

·       At a critical hour – here was the man South Africa needed and, another gift of grace, he coincided with F.W. de Klerk (that courageous and gritty Afrikaner President: who released political prisoners; who persuaded white South Africans to abolish Apartheid; and who, with Madiba, opened the way for a democratic South Africa).  Something nobody could have counted on.

·       Symbolic gestures opened hearts and brought the new united South Africa into reality. For me, most poignantly, it is the memory of Ellis Park , the 24 June 1995. That still warms my heart and can bring me near to tears.  Madiba wearing the Springbok jersey; white South Africans roaring in acclamation, ‘Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!;  Madiba presenting the Web Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar with the words ‘Thank you for what you have done for our country; and Pienaar’s wonderful response: ‘No Mr President, thank you for what you have done for our country.’   Some of you may remember that in the post-match interviews a commentator remarked to Pienaar on the 63,000 crowd supporting the Springboks and Pienaar replied ‘No, we had 42 million South Africans supporting us.’
Grace – the unimaginable thing happening, something nobody could have counted on.  We have been witnesses; we have been brought close to it.  Thank you, Madiba.
Albert Schweitzer said:
Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.
Let that be so for us.  Thank you, Madiba.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Strange Vocation

I have a hunch that some folk might not be entirely happy with their vocation being described as strange, but for the record, this is the sermon as delivered this St Andrew's Day at the Diocesan Ordination, 2013.

Text: Matthew 4: 18-22
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 

Every ordination is an opportunity for the church to reflect on the mystery of our calling; this is not just for those about to be ordained but for all the ordained – for us all to reflect on the strangeness of our calling.

The gospel for the Feast of St Andrew is not a bad place to begin.  Has it ever struck you that in this very gospel our Lord seems just a little bit casual in his calling of disciples?  It all seems so serendipitous – notice the use of the conjunction ‘as’ – it all happens ‘as he is walking by the sea’ (in other words while he is doing something else).  The familiar story shows the smooth surfaces of this substantial world being strangely disrupted.  (We should have an eye for the comedy in this and spare a smile for those left to contend with the fish still to be cleaned, the nets still to be mended, and, worst of all, the explanations that will be required at home that night.

Think about it, God-incarnate (Jesus) wanders the sea shore and just happens to name Peter and Andrew, James and John who without debate or explanation summarily abandon all that we count as real and normal - homes and tasks, duties and practicalities - to follow Jesus, seemingly drawn to him as naturally as iron filings to a magnet or moths to a light – evidence, perhaps, for Augustine’s proposition that we are made for God and will know no rest until we rest in Him.

Where Matthew – sparely - tells us that they followed Jesus; John expands on what this means where he says ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory … full of grace and truth’; you will remember John elaborated further, saying that to follow Jesus, to live in the light of his truth, is to be set free; ‘the truth will make you free’.  But, push aside the familiar phrase that we can barely hear, and listen to how the writer Annie Dillard grounds it afresh in a startling paraphrase; she says - ‘the truth will make you strange’.

That feels awkward doesn’t it?  The humour of God is in our calling!  We are not usually comfortable with strangeness: I remember my teenage daughter fiercely pleading that I not wear my clerical collar when I was to pick her up from school.  She did not want to be associated with any strangeness!  We need to sense the smile of God at such moments.

But ‘strangeness’ hangs on the sleeve of our life, and of the church. The first disciples are changed as they participate in the life of Christ.  Following him they become signs in their communities and the early church and … here’s the catch … so must we.

The strangeness of the called and ordained life holds in its essence what we commonly call mystery or sacrament – understand, the ordained person is to be a living, breathing, mobile sacrament, exactly as in the old catechism ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’.  We are to be strange … mysteries … firmly oriented toward participation in the life of Christ and bearers of that life.

Every time we kneel alone at prayer; every time we take bread and wine for Eucharist; every time we take the oils; listen and ache with the sorrowing; share in the joy of a new life and sprinkle the baptismal waters; make the sign of the cross; absolve; speak words of blessing; and every time we stretch for the words that for a moment lift the veil of familiarity hiding the scriptures, we are caught up in our calling and participate in the life of Christ.  It’s an awful calling: ‘aweful’ also in the old sense!  Amidst (and despite) the intractable density and substance of the world, we witness to the holy flowing through it; to the glory, the joy and wonder, as close as breath. It is endurable only with the grace of laughter when so often we feel such shams, so aware of our failures and denials.  The cross is always close – its weight dragging in our sins and weakness and fear.  Doubt and anxiety will dog us – we should never be surprised by that.  Often we feel strange to ourselves as nonetheless we persist to walk within the story of Christ.

Our calling is never quite ours – it is lived among the people of God – and that can be a consolation and a great joy, but it can also be a devastating and fiery furnace! Our calling can break our hearts.  Anglicans stand in a living tradition of priest-poets: among them R.S.Thomas is my favourite truth-teller; in an early narrative poem, ‘The Minister’, he dramatizes the potential for incomprehension, conflict and tragedy in our calling.  For instance, an opening fragment …

In the hill country at the moor’s edge
There is a chapel, religion’s outpost
In the untamed land west of the valleys,
The marginal land where flesh meets spirit
Only on Sundays and the days between
Are mortgaged to the grasping soil.
Come with me, and we will go
Back through the darkness of the vanished years
To peer inside through the low window
Of the chapel vestry, the bare room
That is sour with books and wet clothes.

They chose their pastors as they chose their horses
For hard work.   But the last one died
Sooner than they expected; nothing sinister,
You understand, but just the natural
Breaking of the heart beneath a load
Unfit for horses. ‘Ay, he’s a good ‘un,’
Job Davies had said; and Job was a master
Hand at choosing a nag or a pastor.

And still, as the Word made flesh called Andrew and has called countless others; as His calling continues among us today, as in this Ordination; so in this Eucharist we acknowledge our strange calling to share in the great work of God.   Through the bread and wine we raise up we look with yearning and hope toward the unimaginable fulfillment of God’s purpose for all creation.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Deans' Conference 2013

It is a pleasantly informal photo for the very diverse (even motley) group of characters who are the Cathedral Deans in Aotearoa-NZ and Pasifika.  I came away from the conference encouraged by the talented colleagues who shared their stories and their faith.  Some face enormous challenges.  At the very least, we meet to remind ourselves that we are not alone.  It was good to meet in New Plymouth and, speaking personally, it was great to be back in 'The Naki' and to see some familiar faces and old friends.  St Mary's was a wonderful and generous host to all its visitors!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

C.S. Lewis Revisited


Coincidences ... are there really such things as coincidences?  That strikes me as a very C.S. Lewis kind of question.  I have not read C.S.Lewis for ages but he came to mind when I prepared the sermon for the Choral Eucharist last Sunday with that rather farcical passage in Luke 20 where the Sadducees question Jesus about the post-resurrection marital status of the woman who had survived seven husbands.  That got me on to the limitations of analogical thinking and led me to ask why Lewis had represented Christ as the lion Aslan in the Narnia stories.  Then, the same evening, on the BBC Knowledge programme was a presentation by the Lewis researcher Michael Ward on his book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S.Lewis (Oxford, 2008)

I had not heard of the book but the outline he provided delighted me.  I had never been able to quite make sense of the intellectual disjunction between Lewis the accomplished medieval scholar and the popular writer of childrens' books.  The medieval scholar revelled in the imaginative coherence of medieval cosmography, its sheer complexity and interrelatedness, wheras the Narniad did not seem particularly complex and seemed, at best, to hint in places at a fairly strained allegory of the atonement; how the Narnia books related to one another was not at all clear, or even if it were possible to even speak of a sequence.

Ward's point, his discovery, was to suddenly recognise that buried beneath the layers of the Narnia books was the medieval imagination and that each of the books exhibited the influence of one of the seven planets: Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus and Saturn.   I was surprised to realise how differently I began to feel about the Narnia stories!   They were no longer an aberration but formed by a subtle and secretive imaginative understanding of ultimate reality.

I have bought Ward's books and purchased a mass of the Lewis books (for Kindle) and already start to wonder about a course - possibly for Lent.  Anyone interested?

Diabetes Awareness Day: a blue Cathedral

When the organizers of Diabetes Awareness Week invited me to let them illuminate the Cathedral in Blue - together with other buildings in the Octagon - it seemed a good opportunity for the Cathedral to express support for the common good.  I was glad to receive this photo this morning and also to see that they had taken my invitation to place an explanatory banner on the Bishop's Walk (not called that because our own Bishop is wont to walk there but because of the images of the 4 Bishops which adorn that balcony - among them Bishop Neville represented holding an image of the Cathedral).

Of course the colour blue has various associations and there may be some who will suggest a bright red, or encouraging green.  Who knows what the future will bring?

As it stands, I am pleased to see this image of the Cathedral and to usefully employ our privileged space in the centre of the City, a tangible expression of public theology.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day 2013: Forming our moral imagination

I am posting the text for the address at the Cathedral's Armistice Day Service: the service went well and one remark I received stuck with me.  I don't know the lady, but she observed, 'Although I am a pacifist, the words of this service are so moving, so beautiful, I can only concur.'

A casual bystander watching this and other Remembrance Day services might not be too sure exactly what we are about; what we are doing this for.  The sight of uniforms, of stacked arms, the procession of colours, the placing of regimental colours on the altar might – for some – seem to imply an honouring of war; even – at a considerable stretch – something like a glorification of war.  That of course would be a gross misunderstanding. 

Now it may surprise some to hear me say this, but we are not here for some sentimental or abstract purpose or to engage in a series of symbolic gestures and words to ‘honour the dead’. On the contrary, the matter is more urgent: we are here because we dare not forget.

I believe we are here to remember the horror and cost of war in a very disciplined and purposeful way and to resist to the utmost of our ability, any resort to war in the future.  We honour our dead not by any abstract remembering but by how we act and live in the present; by how we commit ourselves to the cause of peace and by how we help to shape our national life now and for years to come.

Consequently there is a sense in which we must, of course, look back.  We are accustomed to the innumerable memorials throughout our nation – many now forgotten and mouldering quietly,  all mute testimony to the unimaginable losses that decimated generations here and elsewhere.  We are accustomed to recall family albums with their sepia-tinted photographs of uniformed, fresh-faced young men, whose features are never seen again.  Books, exhibitions, films and the Internet show us images of grand departures with bands and troopships; then many more of appalling slaughter and waste; and, to complete the sequence, the return of a few, often maimed in body or mind, to a nation that has lost its innocence. Very properly and necessarily we say with Binyon’s Ode, ‘We will remember them’.

We are here because, this day of all days, through our vow to ‘remember’, we purposefully employ our moral imagination.  One aspect of our remembering is cautionary, passing on the warning across the years: a means to help ensure that we learn from history and don’t let this happen again. For, as Edmund Burke said, ‘those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.’ It is no accident that one New Zealand War historian closed his substantial photographic history of the Great War with Hemingway’s words: ‘Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.’

Another aspect of our remembering, and especially essential to the growth of any moral imagination, is our willingness to think and emotionally engage, as far as we can, with the loss and horror that this day observes.  This is essential for our humanity because the capacity to identify and empathise makes us human and shapes how we live and act.

This is critical and urgently contemporary.  For instance, with terrorism: one commentator has boldly described the act of terrorism as a failure of the imagination. Referring to the acts of September 11, 2001, the writer Ian McEwan has argued that, ‘if the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed.   It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim.  Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.  It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality … Among (the terrorists’) crimes was a failure of the imagination.’

This is why we keep Remembrance Day and understand it as a time when we reflect very carefully on our nation and our way of life.  We need to ask some hard questions.  Do we nourish the moral imagination or do we stifle it?  When we set political objectives or welfare policies, when we determine economic goals or employment or housing provisions for all, when we evaluate educational priorities, when we elect a government – to what extent are we driven in all of these by a concern for the priority of the moral imagination in our national life?  Take one example: in our universities and schools the humanities tend to be comparatively ‘starved’: it is alleged that the marketplace needs graduates to be in science, technology, business, engineering – at the cost of such disciplines as religion, literature and philosophy that consistently remind us what it means to be human and critique those aspects of our life which may undermine our humanity.  For instance, as ultrafast broadband is rolled out across the country, have we really addressed the destructive power of internet pornography and recognised the extent of its harm, its power to diminish our humanity?

It may be that we are now paying the price for a systemic erosion of our values.  Last week there was national shock at the discovery of the Facebook site run by a gang of young sexual predators in West Auckland.  Their smirks, their sneering cruelty and their unfeeling humiliation of their victims chilled me. One commentator’s headline asked a question we should all ask: ‘How has New Zealand raised such sons?’

This Remembrance Day we must ask such questions.  We are not helpless.  We can all be a force for good, wherever we are.  Our country is worth fighting for.  We owe those we remember this day no less than that.  

Friday, November 8, 2013

HMNZS Otago: keeping her in our hearts

It is good to have news of the HMNZS Otago again.  In the past year they have rescued yachties off the Minerva reef; deployed to Antarctica in support of the Commision for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources; conducted boardings on the Tooth-Fish fleet in the Ross Sea and fought bush fires on Great Barrier Island.  That shot of them boarding a fishing boat in terrible conditions is a reminder of the tough work they do.

We hope to see her in port again toward the end of the month in good time for a visit to the Cathedral before they deploy once more to the South for the southern summer.  (Obviously this means the ship and crew will be away from home over Christmas and the New Year.)

It will be good to welcome them again - and we keep them all (and their families) in our prayers.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

All Saints & St Hilda's - Faith as Story

Once a year the Cathedral hosts St Hilda's Collegiate and the school takes a major role in the service; it is a time when the Cathedral is gratifyingly full as well over 500 pupils, parents and other family and staff overflow the building.  It is a service where churched and unchurched, believers and 'unbelievers' of all ages are present - by any standards a challenging task for the preacher, so, for the record, here is the sermon.  I hope we may yet get some photos of the service.

This morning, if you came into the Cathedral from the front steps, you will have passed close by to what might be the most substantial link we have with the first generation of St Hilda’s students. Though the original St Hilda’s buildings are gone, when this cathedral was rebuilt, those first students (for the years 1896-1918) donated the magnificent Baptismal font – there by the doors on the south aisle.  It is a substantial reminder that from the beginning there has been an intimate bond between the school and its cathedral. Of course times have changed, but St Hilda’s old girls still bring children here for baptism.

Of course what I am doing is to remind us all that the St Hilda’s story is (literally) embedded in your Cathedral and that it is not just a quaint memory of a long gone Anglican past but a story that continues within the life and mission of this diocese and Cathedral.  That is why the special character of St Hilda’s – a Christian School in the Anglican tradition – is so important to us.

So, for example, a 13 year old may go to a church camp and commit herself to following Jesus; she may not be sure of what this means but the experience changes her life, transforms her - and she has just begun to take her part in a vast story of which we can only glimpse tiny fragments. This story changes the world. The story that she has begun to share in is one we never finish with and it never finishes with us.

Some educators may not be comfortable with story as a form of knowledge, a vehicle of reality, but remember how in Hard Times Dickens caricatured a narrow understanding of knowledge in the words of the appalling schoolteacher, Thomas Gradgrind:
"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” 

Thankfully, St Hilda’s is not the Gradgrind Academy!

Now, think of your own experience as readers, perhaps with reading The Lord of The Rings.  You will know that to share in a story demands that we just get on with the story; we don’t start arguing, saying ‘I don’t believe’; in all good stories we suspend disbelief, put our questions on hold and simply let the story take us where it will.  In some of the great stories we keep reading them all our lives; we keep coming back to them and each time, despite our familiarity, we discover something new, understand something, see something differently or make connections we had not suspected before.  It is as if the story we thought we knew unexpectedly changes and expands – sometimes more than we could have imagined possible.

Now I am talking about a hypothetical reading experience, a reading experience some of you will have had; but I am also specifically describing the experience of living the Christian faith.

Earlier this week I said to some of our year 9 students that when you enter the Cathedral you enter a story and that is true likewise of the Christian faith generally.  What I am suggesting is please don’t think of the faith as a set of intellectual concepts,  or tick boxes, true or false; but as a story that requires all that we are (heart, body and mind) and that we continue to read and engage with it; some parts we will think we understand; but it winds and twists; it interacts with our lives and experiences; we argue with it; we may put it away but later return to it; we experience moments of insight and discovery; times of confusion and doubt.  So, when we come to the cathedral on any Sunday we join with other ‘readers’; some who might feel a bit jaded; some who might be fresh and new, making discoveries all the time; others who might be struggling and questioning while others are simply glowing with joy.  The story that we share is one we never finish with and it never finishes with us.

The liturgy we share in this morning is a special way of telling and enacting the Christian story.   At the very heart of it, in the passage known as The Great Thanksgiving, it tells one story to which we continually return – how, the night before he died, the Lord Jesus took bread and wine and said that when we do this, he will be with us, among us, as fully present to us as in his body and blood.  And so, in our retelling this story, re-enacting it as a great play in which we all have a part, the bread and the wine, though chemically unchanged, assume a new significance; though visibly still bread and wine, their reality to us is cosmically changed.  So, if we come up to take communion (and all are welcome to) if we come even despite reservations and questions about the story in which we are sharing, we are choosing to move from ‘observer-status’ to becoming participants in the story.  Remember, the story that we share in is one we never finish – and it never finishes with us.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sycamore Street

This Sunday we observe All Saints Sunday but if we remained on the ordinary cycle of readings we would encounter the story of the tax collector Zaccheus who, tradition has it, climbed a sycamore tree the better to see Jesus amidst the crowd.  An extraordinary story about a dodgy character making good and, at the same time as many churches (including this Cathedral) prepare stewardship drives and draft budgets for the coming year, Thom Schuman came up with this reflection - he does this kind of thing rather well.

sycamore street

when the ragtagged fellow
         came by with his
         empty cup held out,
   looking for a cool drink
   on the hottest day of the year,
               i turned on
               the hose very slowly
      so he could get
      a few drips;

walking by the volunteer
         standing by the red kettle
         and ringing the handbell,
   i reached in my pocket
   and dropped a shiny coin
      listening as it clinked
      against the other change;

as the plate
      down the pew
      toward me, i pull
   out my wallet
         and pour
         a wee dram
            for God;

a drip
      a drop
            a dram
   a dollop of generosity
   here and there . . .

if i'm not careful
all my possessions
will dribble away
                 and i'll end up
                 like poor Zach
   down the street.

(c) 2013 Thom M. Shuman
Interim Pastor

Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, OH Associate Member, Iona Community

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A foundation for authentic spiritual life: last Sunday's sermon

This sermon will also appear on the Cathedral website but it has been asked that it also appear here ...

First Reading: Joel 2:23-32
Second Reading: 2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

Preached at Choral Eucharist 30 Ordinary Sunday 27/10/2013

In the pewsheet for this morning you have as usual, printed in full, each of the readings we have just heard. Now I am confident that each of these readings speaks to our attitude toward God and ourselves (i.e. is about our relatedness, our connectedness, our wholeness) but I find myself asking how the very familiar anecdote that constitutes our gospel reading (the moral lesson concerning the religious behaviour of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector) ‘connects’ with the readings from Joel and 2 Timothy.

We don’t have a reliable date for Joel and his circumstances but it seems that the prophet speaks to a people trapped in moral lethargy; they seem to have lost hope and vision; they lament the past.  In some of the most eloquent and poetical passages of the scriptures he rouses them to hope for restoration of what has been lost and to look to a future in which they will see that God has acted.

There is a wonderful phrase: Joel hears God say ‘I will restore the years that the locust has eaten’.  That is not a bad description of how we may feel when we look back over the years and wonder perhaps why things went wrong for us, why did so and so die or fall gravely ill; why all that period of fear, worry and depression – we all have known ‘years that the locust has eaten’ – and times, it may be, when we have lost faith and hope.  This morning if we feel some resonance, any sense of recognition – then Joel speaks to us, to all who lament the past, who are short on hope, lethargic – depressed - if you like.  To us, Joel says – wait and see – God will restore ‘the years that the locust has eaten’.

Written about 5 or 6 hundred years later, we listen to a fragment from Paul’s second letter to Timothy.  We hear the words of an older man, someone exhausted by struggle, disputation and privation; someone who has lived his life under the cross.  He remembers the loneliness and the hardship of his calling.  The voice we hear speaking is of someone who knows what a called life is like; the gritty reality of a life that can leave you drained while everyone else seems free to get on with their lives; and yet running along within this there is also Paul’s strong sense that in the weakness, the tiredness, the sense of being abandoned, Christ is always present and active.

The line that both rends the heart and warms it is:
6As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
The idea of Paul as being a libation – a sacrificial offering – his life being poured out onto the sand of the arena, the place of testing, as so many martyrs blood was spilled – is the heart-holding image that we can take from this letter this morning.  In this one passage Paul’s letter invites us to consider how we see ourselves and God: do we live under the cross? 

By contrast with the sheer reality of Paul’s experience, our gospel reading offers us a moral anecdote with cardboard cut-out figures – they represent attitudes rather than real people.  My hunch here is that Jesus is setting out the foundation of any authentic spiritual life.

So, if we read this gospel anecdote against the Joel and Paul passages we can start to ask some questions.  For instance, does the Pharisee persona strike you as someone who is drained by living a sacrificial life?  Does he strike you as someone troubled by ‘the years the locust has eaten’?  I think not!

What concerns me about the Pharisee’s condition is that he comes across as someone with ‘smooth surfaces’ – he appears untroubled by doubt, want or misfortune.  He seems to inhabit a world where his place is assured, he is convinced of his righteousness and that the good opinion he has of himself is shared by others and by God.  He seems to possess no inner awareness, no discernment – and even more tragic is that he acts as if God is equally lacking in discernment and does not see through him.

By contrast the Tax Collector represents the unacceptable edge of Jewish society: he is an agent of the Roman authorities and his social and ethical status is utterly compromised.  He is a man ‘on the edge’. He is not a man of smooth surfaces, but of broken surfaces – and he knows it.

I suggest that he strikes us as a man who just might know something of ‘years that the locust has eaten’; know something of shame and loss; something of poor choices and a life not well lived; something of loneliness, uncertainty and vulnerability. He offers no defences or excuses; no rationalizations or special pleas; instead just a broken recognition of his condition.  God can work with someone like that.

Who do we recognise in ourselves: Pharisee or tax collector?  Who comes in us to the sacrament this morning?

Monday, October 28, 2013

St Francis Day: Thank God for Dogs!

It is pure indulgence to publish this but St Francis Day was a joy and I am so gratefully proud of our two English Setters especially our darling old Mac who is centre-stage in this ODT newsclipping.  He was happy to be with me but really wanted to cosy-up to Dunstan our youngest (but slightly nervy) younger setter (we see his back).
It was an interesting Sunday afternoon, a joy to be accompanied by Br. Christopher SSF and we had a fine and moving address from Stephanie Saunders of the SPCA.   It is a service marked by a high degree of informality and unpredictability - but flowing through it also is a sense of God's grace and something too of wonder.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Navy service: HMNZS Toroa's 85th Anniversary

One of the many joys of Cathedral life is the opportunity to share in and support the life of the city; our naval HQ HMNZS Toroa has been around for 85 years and it was our privilege to host their service for this weekend. From all over the country (and abroad) navy people appeared.  We must have had about 200 for the service with a fine sermon preached by the Reverend Colin Hay RNZNVR (retired) with The Reverend  Dr Tony Martin participating as Officiating Chaplain.  The photo below was captured by Tony - a little detail of life below stairs before the service!
I'm just cutting it, not eating it

Mignon and a team of helpers

Ready at the door

The White Ensign

Processing the White Ensign

Its a very long aisle

The gathering afterwards in the Crypt
I have decided to add a brief historical note that was given me.
Since its inception in 1928, HMNZS TOROA has been a large part of Dunedin’s history and during this period has played a vital role in the City’s history.  During World War 2 numerous members of TOROA were drafted into the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy and then in 1941, the Royal New Zealand Navy.  Assistance was also offered during the 1959 fire that devastated the Arthur Barnett store and again in 1990 during the Aramoana massacre, when members of HMNZS TOROA manning the inshore patrol Vessel HMNZS MOA positioned it to seal off the harbour entrance to all shipping.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

Len Brown: Please Don't Resign

Today is supposed to be Len Brown's first day back in the office since the storm broke with the publication of news of his relationship with Bevan Chuang. He and his family are very much in my prayers; especially I hope that he will be able to reconcile with his wife and his family; be able also to do the hard personal inner work of the spirit from which healing and growth can occur. One prays for the necessary grace, strength, courage and wisdom to be given: Len and his family will need all that - and in abundance.

I have no sympathy or patience with those who call for him to resign. He has betrayed his wife and family - not the ratepayers of Auckland (and the independent Council inquiry should be able to confirm this). The only moral and Christian position I can see as appropriate for anyone to take is that modelled by our Lord who,when asked for judgement, responded with the invitation that those without sin should cast the first stones.

This week Len's tragedy assumed almost Shakespearean dimensions as it illustrated the hazards of hubris: from the bright lights of a victor in the election who was flanked by a supportive family, then almost overnight the dizzy fall into shame with the 'Whaleoil' blog disclosures and the excruciating revelations levered out of Ms Chuang. No family, no one, should ever have been exposed to such personal disclosures, such humiliation and pain.

The more the facts behind this start to emerge, the clearer it becomes that there was a conspiracy to damage Len Brown and that the identified politician and assorted hangers-on behind this used the shallow and appalling Ms Chuang for their purposes.

What these people have done is unspeakably cruel to the truly innocent parties in this wretched business: the humiliation and pain felt by Len's wife and daughters can only be imagined as every ghastly detail and humiliating comment provided through Ms Chaung have been gloatingly disclosed in Mr Slater's blog.

Of less importance is what this incident has introduced to New Zealand politics - for the first time in my recollection the flaws and follies of someone's private life have been ruthlessly made public to achieve a political gain. For that reason alone I earnestly hope that Len does not resign - evil acts should not be rewarded by their success!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Some photos with the Dalai Lama

Two blogs in one day?  Not really, this is more of a sequel to this morning's post.  This evening after Evensong  I discovered I had been left a disc of photos from our few minutes with the Dalai Lama.  They are by our Cathedral Photographer, James Aitken (who would need to be acknowledged if any are used).  I think they are splendid, and here are a few that I especially enjoyed ...

There was that moment of greeting onto the Cathedral precinct:

Then a splendid shot with Bishop Kelvin.

There was a moment when we weren't too serious - and a nice shot of Bishop Colin and Canon Claire Brown sharing the moment.

But it was the man who rather won our hearts.  

What really matters?

It is not always that easy to work out what is important in the life of a Cathedral.  The agenda is complicated and swirls through the place like a flood-tide with every post and email, every visitor and phone call, every meeting.  The French would shrug and murmur 'C'est la vie' and of course they would be right - we share the world's condition and the daily struggle for clarity and focus.  This morning began early (4.30) with the daily office and Psalm 71 wrapped around me as a pure gift of love. ( I love the Episcopal Contemporary Office book: it has all the readings, collects and offices in one (thick) convenient volume.)

It has been an interesting week.  On Tuesday, on our Cathedral steps, I had the joy of joining in a welcome to the Dalai Lama (see the photo above by Paul Sorrell) and it was a happy ecumenical and inter-faith gathering on a very cold morning.   The heart-warming joy of the moment contrasted most eloquently with the sad headline in the ODT of the previous Friday where a Christian writer had trumpeted 'Buddhism and Christianity can't both be right'.  Of course the 'Faith and Reason' column is a strange creature and I am used to despairing over what it publishes; but one does wonder just where the writer of that caption was coming from and which strand of Christianity he was referring to because, by the same logic, they can't all be right.  Fortunately, as I found myself saying to folk on the steps that morning, 'God is bigger than any of our constructs.'

Last weekend we had our Cathedral Vestry retreat at the deanery.  We have a strong range of new folk on Vestry with some quite a bit younger and this is a new and encouraging mix.  One of the questions that I asked in a free ranging discussion was where we should be focussing our attention (while not excluding the usual and obvious 'givens' of being a Cathedral).  I am concerned that too much of our talk in the church is controlled by an agenda that is inward-looking - the marriage debate being a ghastly example of this. I suggested that the gap between the well off and the poor seems to be ever-widening and that this is an issue that is destructive and cruel - and certainly something we should seek to give our serious and sustained attention.  (By this I mean something much more than the occasional sermon!)  The problem is that I am not yet clear about what else we may do: with the rest of the country I (we) share a sense of helplessness when confronted by faceless and global forces.  How can we act?  How can we begin to be effective for any sort of change? To begin with I think we need discussion and a sharing of ideas until something starts to become clearer.  I invite your thoughts.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Trinity Sunday Sermon


In a few words Pope Francis has effectively dismantled over a millennium of ecclesiastical squabbling between churches and repositioned  the church in relation to the world.

He was preaching on a passage in Mark where the disciples are displeased that someone outside their circle is doing good. Pope Francis said the disciples “were a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of ​​possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.” Pope Francis said, “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is in creation”
Pope Francis went further in his sermon to say:
"The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!".. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”  (The Huffington Post, May 22)

This demonstrates the gospel set for this Trinity Sunday: ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’

For too long Christians have fought with one another and with the world over what they have maintained to be the truth.  Church history from start to present illustrates that.  The debate in our diocese this weekend over who may be married illustrates this fact.  

However as Pope Francis well knows and as the passage this morning in John’s gospel declares, God is more than we can imagine and the Spirit guides us into ever greater understanding of the mystery and purpose of God.

On Trinity Sunday we don’t explore or celebrate the doctrine of God as if God were something we could examine; we can’t do that.  Instead Trinity Sunday is a reminder of how we talk and think about God: think of it as a theological grammar check.  One word ‘God’ is not enough; we have to talk of the Son and inevitably in various circumstances we find we simply must talk of the Spirit.   Of course when we speak of one of the ‘persons’ we find we are also implying the others: something powerfully imaged in the Rublev icon of the Trinity – where the three figures are shown so utterly in communion with each other that to speak of any one of them without implying the others is inconceivable.

We find the Trinity as an active and necessary guide in prayer:  (1) we do this formally in our collects which may be addressed to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit – as the familiar doxology tends to close them. (2)  We experience the Trinity more obviously in our informal prayer life and meditation: – as we contemplate the Father, so our thoughts and reflections are subtly changed as we speak to Jesus or invoke the Spirit.  Each of these three modulates and transforms our prayers and our understanding.  For instance, it can be that we start out thinking something about the ‘Father’ only to find later that our understanding has shifted as prayer and reflection contemplated the ‘Son’.  That may be an indication of how the life of the Trinity works in us; that each of the ‘persons’ acts on us and opens us to new insights and perspectives of grace.

Our entire spiritual life is lived in the experience of the Trinity continually changing us and leading us into renewed and deeper understandings of God and what God is doing with us in our world.  Each day, each year, we may think we traverse the same spiritual terrain but it is only superficially similar.  In fact we progress and change all the time under the impress of the Trinitarian life: our insights and sympathies, our openness to the divine presence, our growth in humility and love are part of an endless shaping and re-shaping by the three in one.  A model for describing our progression under the shaping and pressure of the Trinity might be that of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical spiral. Over time, our contemplation of God as Trinity continually works upon us; abrading some of the dead images and beliefs and honing where our understanding has become dulled – and opening us to fresh insights where we have previously been blind.

Using a similar model the 17th century poet John Donne vividly expresses this process of seeking truth through an image of a spiral ascent. It was a time of bitter divisions in the church and great confusion. In his own life he had moved from family roots in the Roman Catholic tradition to embracing Anglicanism – but all about him in Europe at the time were rival religious camps clamouring for allegiance and vociferous in their claims on the truth.  In one poem he wrote with an understanding that can still speak to us today in our faith journey:
…    doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
Satyre III

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reflections on the Recognition of an Archbishop

I have just returned from the service at Taranaki Cathedral for the recognition of Archbishop Philip Richardson.   It is almost inevitable that after such events one enthuses at the splendour of the occasion, the liturgy, the music, even  the homily - and so on.   One could do that, and rightly, but that is not quite what most impressed me.

To explain this I need to backtrack a little, almost to 14 years ago when I was the Vicar of a largish South Taranaki parish.  Early in my tenure I was at a clergy conference and a very wise and experienced priest from the Wellington diocese who had much to do with South Taranaki when it was in the Wellington Diocese, asked me a slightly unusual question: had I any sense of  'darkness' during my ministry in the parish.  

Various replies came to mind, not all entirely serious, but I remember that I answered him seriously and admitted that there were aspects to my ministry in the region that I had not come across before; they were not clear and I would struggle to define them - but there did seem to be something of a stubborn miasma that I could not explain.

He went on to say that he had counselled priests from my area before and speculated that this was a spiritual consequence of the Land Wars of the 19th century which had left a deep legacy of bitterness, division, grief and loss.   That actually makes a kind of sense.  The notion of a curse as something grounded in the psyche and being passed on through generations, even soaking into a site or locus, did not seem to me as especially fanciful or implausible.

So, back to Taranaki Cathedral on Saturday morning: the first thing that impressed me was the abundance of Maori worshippers - yes it was a 3Tikanga service, but it wasn't just that. There was a 'lightness', even a rippling spiritedness that seemed new, fresh and energising. There were Maori there; there were people from Parihaka ( that most visionary and abused of communities); the military hatchments had been relocated; a new canonry was created to honour the legacy and strong ties of Sir Paul Reeves to the region, and, lingering in the background, was a reminder that the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, had been here - and much had been happening.  In all of this one has gratefully to acknowledge the vision and hard work of Archbishop Phillip and the leadership team he has formed in the region.   A spirit of hope and reconciliation is in the air and the difference is almost palpable.  

Now I am not saying that everything is now right throughout the ‘Naki’.  I would like to say that but it may not be so.  But things are changing and I notice the difference. The church was and is helping to nurture real changes. Thanks be to God.

The other thing that really impressed me was the sermon:  Judge Sarah Reeves preached and here was someone also making connections between church and society in a real way.  She spoke in particular of the changes to the Marriage Act and how society was becoming more inclusive and she compared the inclusivity that society was welcoming with the difficulties our church has in being inclusive – and of course the situation with the Human Rights Tribunal came to mind.

If I understand Judge Reeves correctly, she was looking for where there were signs of what a Christian must understand as the activity of the Holy Spirit: where is life being enriched, where is love being affirmed, where are people feeling included and valued?  It seemed to me that she warned the Church of being less loving, less life affirming, less inclusive than society.  I won’t argue with that: we sometimes act and speak as if we thought the Spirit of God was limited to the church! 

So, returning to Dunedin from New Plymouth, I travelled with a strong sense of the activity of the Spirit of God working in our church and our nation: working in Taranaki with signs of healing and reconciliation; and working in our society as differences are overcome and as some people come to feel included where they have not been before.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ordination and the Human Rights Tribunal

I find myself writing to try and clarify some of my thinking on this subject and because of the pain I feel at the dubious light the Church has been shown in at the Human Rights Tribunal this week.  Ordination is a bishop's prerogative; one assumes he/she takes advice, but to take the matter to this Tribunal is simply weird.   One may wonder why the Church's discernment process for ordinands should seem to show so much interest as to what goes on in their bedrooms!  Well, that's being frivolous of course - there is much more at stake.  

Ordination sets one apart to be, as it were, a walking, talking sacrament, bearing something of God's grace.  We do that in our vulnerability as much as in our strengths, but at the very heart of the discernment process must be a strong sense of the underlying wholeness of the person under consideration: a crucial aspect of that is always our sexual identity and relationships.  Presumably the expectation is that we be clear about our identity and comfortable with it; similarly that we be committed and whole in our relationships. This is always a sensitive area of inquiry and one where everyone carries some vulnerability.

Traditionally marriage has been regarded as the standard that marks a mature, committed Christian intimate relationship. A formal public ceremony (marriage, or civil union now that it is available, or even a formal blessing) to mark a faithful, chaste, committed relationship seems highly desirable.  Of course breakdowns and breaches of marriage have occurred and seen clergy subjected to discipline; for instance, a withdrawal of licence. However at present the church seems in a quandary about what to with same gender relationships (including those relationships that have amply demonstrated the maturity, commitment and loving faithfulness we associate with marriage):  the default position has been to say 'no' or 'wait' and to remind all concerned that our church processes have to work on a theology of marriage - after which our statutes may be revised.

However the promised theological spadework may not be either simple or clear - though I am confident that it will happen.  Think about it, what constitutes the essence of marriage: the declaration of the state and/or the Church?  Surely not!  I expect state and church would both say it is the free exchange of vows between two persons that defines a marriage; in which  case state and church are principally witnesses.  The 'real stuff'- the 'sacramental stuff' is in the inner life of the relationship between these two people who marry each other.  What then is the status of persons who also live in an exemplary faithful committed relationship?  Although there may not have been any formal exchange of vows, and despite the church's canons, can we simply 'write off' a relationship in which the partners are clearly bearers of God's love and grace to one another?  In other words, can one discern signs of God at work in this relationship and, if so, can the Church disregard it?  (This is hardly a new question for the church,  as the debates in Acts over Gentile circumcision remind us.)

If we look ahead, looking past a change in our canons concerning marriage, what happens for those who are already ordained and in committed but 'unmarried' relationships?  Could questions be asked and bishop's be compelled to act?  If the canons on marriage are amended could clergy even be required to 'marry' their partners, or else?   Some of the possible scenarios would be almost surreal: a series of 'shotgun' marriages? For goodness sake!