Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Two Cities? Artists, Evensong and Apocalypse

It is not elegantly hung but merely propped up on the mantelpiece in my study accompanied (happily,I think) by some commentaries on Baxter, and Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky and Thomas Merton.  The print is, of course, by Peter Siddell and was part of a farewell gift by the English Department when I left Hamilton for adventures in Australia - years ago now.

What fascinated me  was the suggestion of an Auckland scene - the distinctive volcanic 'bumps' and the glimpse of harbour.  But there the resemblance stops as we see an empty refined and 'classical' urbanscape quite unlike the city we know.  Yet that glimpse is 'framed' by two modern glass and concrete structures and in the blurry reflections of the glass we catch the image of the villas and hills (Mount Hobson, Mount Eden?) of the place that we know.

We view then two cities or at least two possibilities, or an idea of a city and what 'we' have created.  In the lower right corner Siddell has put the Latin proverb sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus (but it flees meanwhile: irretrievable time flees).

All this came to mind as I engaged with the texts for Choral Evensong the other night - the readings were from Zechariah and Revelation - I have the references below and have given the links for convenience if needed.  If you decide to persevere with this, remember that in Choral Evensong I offer not so much a sermon as a reflection or musing - usually no more than 400 words.

Revelation 21: 22-22.5

I am something of an enthusiast for the paintings of Peter Siddell.  If you don’t know his work, his most typical paintings are of cities, urbanscapes or houses – the streets and houses are immaculate but we see no figures, no signs of human habitation, no cars, but perhaps a door or window ajar. It is as if all have fled and left this pristine beautiful vaguely familiar but somehow alien metropolis sparkling in a clear light – waiting for us to repeople it or, horrible thought – to spoil it.   To contemplate his paintings is to become aware what our cities have never been, of what they could be and of a longing in our hearts and a loss.

Think then on the ideas that ‘Jerusalem’ evokes.  This earthly city with its bloody history and its  troubled present – and for all that we might say about it, as city, as the idea if a city it positively haunts the western (and Christian) imagination.  However we think of it we cannot think of it without guilt – at least because of the plight of Palestinians in what is (also) their home.

Both our readings this Evensong are about Jerusalem.

In the first, Zechariah writes to a people who have been in exile and who, as they return, must take on the monumental task of rebuilding the city and, above all else, of rebuilding the temple.  For exiles, the return to their place of origin, of sacred memory, their place of deepest belonging is a huge event; a spiritual and psychological watershed.  It is also an experience fraught with some dangers and fears: will history repeat itself?  Will we become magnanimous and visionary or will we be twisted by our fears.  Zechariah paints a vision of the just city – of a gracious and joyous Jerusalem: ‘Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.’

In the second, the writer of the Book of Revelation presents us with another image of Jerusalem.  This is the Jerusalem that stands apart from time and space, the city that is the final and ultimate community created by God at the end of time.  It is a city bathed in light, the light of God.  It is the place of restoration and healing – it is the focus and the idea of the fulfillment of all God’s purpose in creation and the end toward which we turn our hearts.  This Jerusalem is no earthly city but image of our best and deepest longings.  ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him.’ (1 Cor.2:9)

Monday, May 26, 2014

News from the Sudan

A savvy observer has sent me a link to a post in The Guardian on the plight of Meriam Ibrahim - this is a report well worth reading.

We continue in prayer.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Truth? John 14:15-21 and the difficulty of 'smooth surfaces'

When one preaches in the Eucharist it is nearly always a report on experience; on how one is responding to the gospel. I found this gospel hard to engage with – hard because it is a farewell address before our Lord leaves the disciples – and it’s hard to argue with.  It feels so personal but it also feels so strangely abstract.  Beautiful, rarefied, holy words but so smooth that it feels as if there is no rough edge to catch on you and stick!

For instance the opening phrase: ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’.  How do we actually read that?  Do we read it as an admonishment, imagining it being said with a finger wagging gesture?  I don’t think so.  It is a statement that seems to flow from the inner life of our Lord, the (perichoretic) life of the Trinity where divine love circulates and flows and it’s a life that will be available to the disciples as they live in Christ and the keeping of the commandments is not so much a matter of rule-keeping but a manifestation of that circulating love.

One of the other words that we hear in this reading is ‘Truth’.  Jesus promises the disciples the ‘Spirit of truth’.

Truth is a powerful word.  Yet what we mean by truth is not as clear as we like to think. 

On a day to day basis our experience shows that truth is a vulnerable concept. Think of the Oscar Pistorious murder trial in South Africa at this time – and how elusive and fraught the truth seems to be. In cricket, what is the ‘truth’ about match fixing?   Our politicians are frequently under fire over ‘truthfulness’ – for instance, Minister Judith Collins and Mr John Banks.  One remembers that the ancient philosopher Aeschylus claimed that when war comes (or any of the messiness of life) truth is the first casualty. 

In one of the darkest moments of the gospel, when he is on trial before Pilate, Jesus says ‘for this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’ (John 18:37b)  

In John truth is a constantly recurring word.  In the very first chapter John speaks of the revelation of Jesus Christ ‘And we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth’.  What does he mean when he describes Christ as being ‘full of truth’? In a gospel which is so repeatedly shaped by the contrast between light and dark, one senses that truth is almost synonymous with the idea of light and revelation and when mention of truth is made the text almost begins to glow and convey a sense of luminosity.  As we let John’s glowing images warm us – glory, love, light, truth – we begin to grasp what is meant by being indwelt by the Spirit of truth.

In the New Testament our word Truth comes from the Greek word ‘alethea’ and the initial letter ‘a’ functions like our prefix ‘un’ which means ‘not’  (see it in words such as unfeeling, unhearing, unobserved, unremembered). Take the prefix ‘a’ away from Alethea and we have Lethe, which in Greek mythology was the name given to the river in Hades from which the dead drank in order to forget their past.   And so "a-lethea" - truth - has the sense of: waking up; remembering; overcoming oblivion and stupor; being alive and vital; not being deceived by false ideas or desires or scams; SEEING what is as it actually is.

No wonder then Paul in Ephesians (5:14) quotes from an early Christian hymn saying ‘Sleeper, awake, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you’; and in the early icons we see Christ opening the grave of Lazarus to call him out; or we find images of Christ leading the dead out of the maw of hell.  Paul says something similar in Colossians (3:4): ‘When Christ who is our life appears then shall you also appear with him in glory’.

Christ ‘the way, the truth, the life’ is the one who comes to wake us from our stupor and blindness; draw us out of the dead end we have strayed into; free us from the false self that we have become – he draws us into truth and light and his life...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Faith and hope in Khartoum

Meriam Yehya Ibrahim Ishag, right,
with her husband Daniel Wani, left.

'Mariam Yahia Ibrahim' like most of us until a few days ago I had never heard her name.  Hitherto I have only casually followed news on the Sudan but Mariam's story has changed that.  The report that this Christian woman, married and pregnant, has been condemned for apostasy and adultery by a Sudanese court and sentenced to be lashed and hanged leaves me shocked, incredulous and sickened.  

Included is a photo off the web of Mariam and her husband and there is a link below to a news item on the Aljazeera website.

I think we will hear much more of this, until now, more or less unknown Christian woman.  The truth is of course that she is known to God and her story and her faith now reach out to touch us. Just this fragment of her story that is available to us makes it impossible for us to take our faith for granted or to be dull or casual about it.

I will certainly be keeping Mariam in my prayers and we will keep her constantly in prayer at the Cathedral.  I remain full of hope for Mariam, for the Sudan, for the Court ...

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Read this aloud this Sunday ...

The view from my deck this morning showed the stark outlines of the copper beech against the glimmer of the pre-dawn light.  Since we have been away the great tree has lost all its leaves and I can appreciate its now gaunt beauty.  Of course the leaves will be, I know, in great drifts on the bottom path demanding to be raked, swept, heaped and removed before they turn to mulch and the path becomes a hazard.

I recall how our first week in Wanaka was golden in the peak of Autumn - as the photo shows -though when we left the gold was already browning over to become sludge - earth to earth, ashes to ashes - to feed the new growth for the greening in the Spring.

Sunday will be my first Sunday back since the break but it looks to be a little different from what I had planned - I had been looking forward to reflecting on the gospel for the day (John 14 - 'I am the way, the truth and the life' passage) but since then the request has come from the Bishops at General Synod that at all services this Sunday we read the Synod's resolution on the issue of same sex blessings.

We are not often asked to do something like that, but at significant moments in its life the church has done just this.  This may not come from one of the great Councils of the Church as a proclamation of a major point of doctrine, nonetheless in our place and context and the issues that perplex us, this is a major statement of our faith and what it means to be the church.  To ask that we all read it out rather than distribute printouts is to make the resolution a living and tangible part of our common life as a Communion; it is to translate the Resolution from the conceptual to the incarnational.  So tomorrow, whether comprehending or uncomprehending,  from the smallest church in a remote community to a great Cathedral in a major city, we will all read and hear this resolution and, in our various ways, share in the pain, the hope and the faith that it holds.  Reading it in this way as 'the Church' (at least in this province of our Communion) we will make corporeal something of what it means to be 'in Christ' and, indeed, to follow the One who is 'the way, the truth and the life'.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

vive la différence

The sheer bliss of being on leave for two weeks is still with me but the debates at General Synod are bringing me 'back to earth' very quickly.
The debate on the report of the Ma Whea Commission has grabbed attention but for me the real gem is the report from the Commission on Doctrine and Theological Questions (a separate report but also included in the Ma Whea appendices).
The Commission on Doctrine (CDTQ), building on the work of the four Hermeneutical hui from 2009, has looked comprehensively at the question of marriage and/or blessing of same-gender relationships - and the report is a model of good theological reflection in a complex and changing cultural context.

My own take on the subject has tended to favour blessing rather than marriage for same gender relationships - mainly because I think that difference between the sexes is best not liturgically obliterated as if it were of no theological consequence.  Both marriage and blessed relationships will be equally 'covenanted relationships' but distinctive liturgical ceremonies would nuance their recognition.  Of course the secular understanding of marriage will probably be impatient with such a distinction - too bad!

 The conversations and reflections will continue, but I am enormously encouraged by the tone and quality of this report and grateful that our church produces work of this quality.