Monday, September 29, 2014

The Search for Home: Faith, Imagination, Music & Myth

An Evensong Meditation on the Feast of St Michael & All Angels

Evensong 26th Ordinary Sunday (28.9.14)

You may recall that prayer after communion (in The New Zealand Prayer Book) which contains the phrase ‘You met us in your Son and brought us home’: while alluding to one gospel story, that phrase carries the main thrust of the Christian story; our journey of faith, our search to make sense of our lives and find again our home, our ground in God.  

I suggest that this religious search is deeply grounded in our humanity and we find it in poetry, myth and music and I want to very briefly reflect on some aspects of this.

I want to begin with T.S. Eliot because yesterday was his birthday and  because the search for our home in God resonates through his poetry.  At the end of his Four Quartets there is this familiar passage
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
when the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;

Eliot maps our human condition as one of constant exploration but he has no doubt that as the source of our being resides in God, so is our end – and we ‘will arrive where we started’. (That is of course an over-simplified way of putting it - symbolically there is a profound difference between the lost Eden and the New Jerusalem.)

Like Eliot, but from his own medium of music, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim has suggested ways in which musicians cope with the explorations we all make in our living.  By way of illustration, Barenboim pointed out that the introduction to the Beethoven Fourth Symphony is a search for tonality that begins with a lone B-flat but by the end of the Introduction we are clearly in the dominant chord of B-flat.  Further in, the main Allegro of the piece, the exposition with its two themes, again affirms B-flat.  Barenboim explains that the purpose of this affirmation of B-flat has been to establish B-flat as the ‘home’ of the music.  Once that home has been established the music ranges into unknown territory but eventually returns.  This affirmation of the key and then the exploration and the return in an unexpected way are, he suggests a parallel of the process we all go through in our inner lives to discover who/what we are and then through many explorations find our way back the depths of our being, our truth.

The Palestinian critic and writer Edward Said pointed out that Barenboim’s explanation of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony is an allegory that corresponds to the great myths in literature – the myth of home, discovery and return: the Odyssey.  You know the schema of the story: Odysseus leaves home, leaves Penelope and all the familiar and comfortable things of Ithaca.  He goes to war, but after many hazards, adventures and a whole lifetime of exploration and discovery, returns home.  In other words Beethoven and Homer are dealing with the same deep human material. 

This is absolutely and quintessentially a religious and spiritual quest.  It is the grounding reality that Christian spirituality taps into and maps.  The vast scope of the Biblical story begins with the loss of Eden and ends with our yearning for home in the new creation, the heavenly Jerusalem, and foresees our eventual return - when we will know the place for the first time, entering through that ‘unknown, remembered gate.’

Sunday, September 28, 2014

God at work in us

Daylight saving started this morning and I think a lot of regulars were having a lie in

26th Ordinary Sunday (28.9.14)

Readings: Exodus 17: 1-7; Philippians 2: 1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32.

There is a phrase at the tail end of the reading from Philippians this morning that has stuck with me.  It is verse 13: “for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  The more I think about what that may mean I keep coming back to two considerations: the first is that for the Christian ‘living in Christ’ means we do not live for ourselves, but for God; the second is that we are continually shaped by our life in Christ – God is at work in us, influencing, forming and re-forming our inner lives, the decisions we make in heart and mind, and how we act – what we do in the external world.  

We live our lives under ‘the influence’ of Christ, living, active, a shaping presence even if we don’t think we are aware of him.   That thought reminds me of another letter of Paul (Galatians 2.20) where he says something similar “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’.  That is an alarming, deeply disturbing thought: does it mean to be possessed by God! 'Possessed' ? The idea arouses all sorts of images of religious extremism – and Lord knows where that might lead!  We back away from such thoughts even though we know that the story of Christian faith is illuminated by stories of the saints, and freighted with extraordinary accounts of following Christ.  

Yet the more I think about this, even while busily erecting mental barricades, noting caveats and locking spiritual doors against any impending invasion, I keep returning to the simple and startling realisation that it is in you and me, in each one of us, that God works – pushing us to will and to work at whatever lies before us.

Think about that parable of the man with the two sons: in its context it is aimed at the religious establishment who say the right thing but don’t deliver; while it is the outsiders and undesirables, tax collectors and prostitutes, whose lives may seem to make them ineligible but whose deeds deliver what God requires.

But the truth is also something more. The truth is:  I recognise both sons in me.  So easy to say the right thing, even want the right thing but, for whatever reason, not do it, not follow through – there are always excuses to be made for that.  That’s the second son.  I recognise him.  Then there are those other moments where I feel the nudge of God, the subtle strings drawing me in a particular direction – and, heels digging in, I say, no thanks, not today – but, hours wasted arguing, procrastinating, doubting, obstructing, I rally and do it.  That’s the first son.  I recognise him too.

My hunch is that we all have both sons in us and as Christians we continually try to so live in Christ that we keep clear the way for God to work freely in us, and so form our wills and direct our actions.

That is of course to be prepared to live dangerously.  If we are going to respond to the nudge of God – who knows where it may lead us?  We are close to the Feast of St Francis – that crazy, extreme, lovely, holy man – now there’s an example of someone who let Christ take charge and act and work through him.  The consequences were astounding.  You could say the church has never quite recovered from Francis!

As I said, I keep returning to the simple and startling realisation that it is in you and me, in each one of us that God works – pushing us to will and to work at whatever lies before us.  That means how we respond in the here and the now with the real and difficult issues or ordinary raw needs that present themselves. Nothing abstract.  Just dealing with the real stuff of life.

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll leave you with these words of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero:

“It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world: a very spiritualized word, a word without any commitment to history, a word that can sound in any part of the world because it belongs to no part of the world. A word like that creates no problems, starts no conflicts. What starts conflicts and persecutions, what marks the genuine Church, is the word that, burning like the word of the prophets, proclaims and accuses: proclaims to the people God's wonders to be believed and venerated, and accuses of sin those who oppose God's reign, so that they may tear that sin out of their hearts, out of their societies, out of their laws - out of the structures that oppress, that imprison, that violate the rights of God and of humanity.”  (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reflection for a service with Selwyn College at the Cathedral  14 September, 2014

Thinking about Matthew 18: 21-35.

The question I have this morning is how do we map the history of an idea?  Sometimes it seems to me that it is like taking the end of a piece of string and following where it takes you.  

So, with Bishop Neville and the founding of Selwyn College, it is important to remember what he did not found: it was not to be a student hostel; it was not to be a hall of residence; it was certainly not to be a boarding house.  It was to be a College: and as like as he could make it, to the Colleges that formed the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.  

Accordingly it was to be a self-governing community.  It was to be a community of scholars: with a mix of faculty, postgraduates and undergraduates; it was to be a community with a common life – dining and living facilities, common rooms, tutorials and, always, a chapel. This Oxbridge model of the College evolved in the 13th century, largely shaped by the influence of the church but, following the string a little further back, its genesis  can be traced to the medieval Monastic and Cathedral schools where learning and a common life went hand in hand.   Farther back the thread starts to fray out into various sources but retains a strand that leads directly to communities that gathered about the Gospels and passed on the Christian story with, at its heart, a vision of what it is to be truly human.

And that is where we are taken this morning by that provocative parable we have just listened to.  To make sense of the parable is itself like taking hold of one end of a string and following it to find that the story it seems to tell us draws us into a far greater story.  On the face of it, what have we got?  Peter asks a question about rules in the community – how many times should he forgive someone?  The answer he gets is illustrated with the story we have just heard: a king forgives a servant a vast debt, but that servant will not forgive a fellow servant who owes him a trivial sum.  Accordingly the unforgiving servant is imprisoned.  But, is this story really about forgiveness?  

Think about it.  Push the boundaries of the parable.  Remember, Peter asks how many times he should forgive someone in the community who has sinned against him and the answer is that Peter should not keep score and should never stop forgiving.  That sounds an unrealistic and impractical proposition – almost anarchic and lawless; and quite impossible.  But this is where the parable kicks in and we discover that the parable is really about us and what it means to be human.

In the frame of the parable it is no great step to say that the King represents God but we don’t immediately grasp that the servant with the unimaginable debt is you and me, Peter, anyone.  Think about it: the source of all our being, the source of all that is, is God; and the mystery of our life and everything that is can be imagined as an unpayable debt; but, as the parable shows, this not a debt we are to be burdened or oppressed by. Instead, freed debtors all of us, we are free to enjoy who we are and what we have; free in the knowledge that our being is grounded in a loving and gracious creator.  Following the thread of the parable then is to be reminded of who we really are: God’s creatures, grounded in God; living generously, fearlessly, creatively and in peace. 

Alas – something is wrong.  The second section of the parable shows us acting as if we had no memory of having been given (or forgiven) anything; without any consciousness of gift or gratitude; we seem to have no memory of who we are.  Someone or something offends us and we assert ourselves to get our rights and our way.  In that moment, in that graceless display of self-centred egotism, we catch a glimpse of what happens when we have forgotten who we are, lost sight of our gift of being, and are disconnected from our source in God!   In that unforgiving servant throttling his neighbour we recognise ourselves and what we do to one another and to our world.  To recognise this is to contemplate life without grace.

The Liberation of Saint Peter, Sanzio Raffaello, 1514, detail

The final section of the parable is the prison scene, but behind the narrative frame is a warning of the violence we risk to ourselves disconnected from God.  The ‘God-connection’ shapes and forms who we are and how we act.  To live unmindful of God is to risk being chained, imprisoned and tortured by our resentments and grievances (real or imagined); to fret about the person we might have been and grieve over the person we fear we have become.  

No wonder we daily pray ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’   To pray that prayer, to be formed by that prayer, is to keep hold on the thread of Bishop Neville’s vision for Selwyn College; and his vision for this Cathedral.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Pre-Election Thoughts (1)

I view this election with dread and have an anxiety that if a different government is not elected this country may lose the last chance it has to reclaim a compassionate society and a government that works for the common good.

I stumbled across this quote, which is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. It seems remarkably prescient and could have been written for this election. Across the years this warning reaches us – perhaps it is ironic that it comes from the USA.

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

The Courage to live in Community

This is the draft for the reflection on Sunday morning.

23D Sunday in Ordinary Time (070914)
Readings:  Ex.12: 1-14; Rom.13:8-14; Matt. 18:15-20;

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

The Archbishop of Canterbury (Marcus Welby) has, if I remember him correctly, described the horror and barbarism presented by the ‘Islamic State’ as the greatest threat to civilization since the Mongol invasions of the Thirteenth century.  (That’s a sobering thought and worthy of deeper consideration – on another occasion.)  But holding that thought in mind at a time when the Islamic world seems so misrepresented by an evil force, it may be timely to go back to the 13th century Islamic world and how it too was threatened by the Mongols and opposed them.

Today we know him as Nazreddin; he was a Sufi philosopher and we understand him to have been born in Turkey in the 13th century and that he was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad to organise the resistance in Anatolia against the Mongols.  Nazreddin is remembered throughout the Islamic world – at least from Morocco to India – and beyond, as a wise man or holy fool whose teaching has a timeless quality and was passed on in witty tales and sayings.  Here’s an example of one:

A stranger stops Nazreddin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what Baghdad is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nazreddin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a wonderful place! Neighbors were kind to one another, we looked out for the children, people shared and were generous and happy!" "Ah! said Nazreddin. "You will love Baghdad. Don't worry at all, and welcome!"

Later on, another stranger stops Nazreddin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what Baghdad is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nazreddin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a terrible place! Thieving and fornication and children noisy and running wild. People are selfish and distrustful." "Ah!" said Nazreddin. "You will dislike Baghdad. You'd better move on to another city!"

You will notice that each tale turns on what each stranger brings with them to Baghdad.   The past that they bring with them; the way they see the world, will pre-determine how they see Baghdad.  You could say this is one key to unlocking the saying in our Gospel this morning, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

This is why the gospel’s emphasis on ‘peacemaking’ in the church community is grounded in the deep truth of who we are becoming – and learning to live with one another in peace is fundamental for shaping us and preparing us for our future in God.

Now I want to remind you of the work of the Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier who founded the L’Arche community at Trosly-Breuil. Vanier’s community was about people living together with others who have developmental disabilities.  In one of his books, Vanier explains the importance of what underlies the vision of  L’Arche.

Community means caring: caring for people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: "He who loves community destroys community; he who loves the brethren builds community." A community is not an abstract ideal. We are not striving for perfect community. Community is not an ideal; it is people. It is you and I. In community we are called to love people just as they are with their wounds and their gifts, not as we would want them to be. Community means giving them space, helping them to grow. It means also receiving from them so that we too can grow. It is giving each other freedom; it is giving each other trust; it is confirming but also challenging each other. We give dignity to each other by the way we listen to each other, in a spirit of trust and of dying to oneself so that the other may live, grow and give. (Vanier: From Brokenness to Community)

In a word, that describes our calling as the church.   Vanier describes the hard work we take on in our life together.  Our gospel is entirely realistic – hence the instruction on how we make peace when we encounter disagreement.  The church is not an abstraction but always it is about people and how we love one another with all our mutual wounds and gifts.  This involves discipline and commitment and we must care for one another: watch out for the negative personality who can suck all the energy from a room; watch out for the artful gossiper who can divide and disable a community; watch out for the envious spirit who, carrying their unacknowledged shadow, can demolish a church: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.