Thursday, December 31, 2015

An unexpected Christmas

The ministry of St Paul's Symonds Street Auckland always impresses me.  Their ministry in the arts and media is outstanding and a Christmas production really delighted me.

Enjoy!  Paste this link to see this lovely production.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Priest on Boxing Day

The house is full.  Contemplation is on hold – or held differently!  Spaces and places of silence have been sequestered for the season or barred to prevent the new cat from escape.  Logistics are about showers and toilets or food; the voices of little people charge the air; familiar reality is reconfigured by necessities.

On Christmas Eve the household rallied to the cause with Christine and son-in-law James taking up the parts for my scripted nativity play (located - imaginatively at a ‘crib’ in Bannockburn) for the 6.00pm family service with the choir. It was a splendidly improvised performance as the actors
The Debris of the Nativity Play: NOT 'Messy Church'
involved the whole congregation and, all decorum abandoned, threw packaging about gloriously – probably the only time the Cathedral approximates something like ‘messy church’.

Midnight was as always, special.  But there was little sleep as our elderly setter Mac became unwell: I awoke to hear him bark about 3.00am and by the time I had finished attending him, the dawn light was with us.  The services of the day ended before noon: on such a warm day many tourists were enjoying the coolness of the Cathedral (a cruise ship was in port) and I was glad to leave George, our DoM, to shut the building once his concert for these seasonal visitors was over.

But this Boxing Day I come back to earth.  There is a kind of spiritual ‘hangover’ after the ‘mysteries’; certainly some tiredness – just so many services or particular and extraordinary elements to manage, that one is relieved that the celebrations for the great feast have gone so well; mainly this is the tiredness after the adrenaline such events demand.

There is something more than tiredness though, something that I might describe as a kind of aching wonder.  From being so caught up in the mysteries (and in the mundane busyness that is also part of the mystery) I now have this sense of a journey completed.  A spiritual journey of course, but somehow now the ordinary mess and clutter of Christmas junketing, the wails of little people, and the reorientation of all the familiar routines is shot through with a sense of presence, grace and gift.  One is tired but grateful.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Shepherds at Midnight

Christmas Midnight 2015

The Midnight Mass - such a variety of folk and not a time for fancy hermeneutics or homiletical pyrotechnics - the story itself can be enough.

Reading Luke 2:1-14.

We all know the story – the Christmas story, I mean, at least enough of it that if we had to tell it we’d have the essential outline right enough. There's the very human story at the heart of it, the birth of a baby in difficult circumstances (‘no room in the inn’).  Then there's the other part of the story: while the world is carrying on with its tasks, governor’s governing, soldiers soldiering, rich men getting richer, and so on, in the back of beyond in the night covered hills, some shepherds are watching their sheep … So far so good. Nothing untoward in that: just some guys passing the night away talking about whatever guys talk about; maybe dosing to catch a few moments sleep.

And that's when it happened: the shepherds reported that there was a blaze of light all about them and there was an angel standing in front of them who told them not to be afraid (well they were glad to hear that but they weren't used to Angels) Then they were given some news that a saviour had been born in Bethlehem that night; and then they found themselves surrounded by countless lights and a host of angels and music that seemed to fill the world.

Carravagio, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1609
And just as suddenly, the music ceased, the light vanished, and the shepherds found themselves alone once more: then pinching themselves to make sure they had not been dreaming, they checked with each other that they had all heard and seen the same thing. That was when they decided to leave the sheep and head off to Bethlehem and see this Saviour of the world – which they did and found the Angel’s message to be true indeed.

This is indeed something like the story we all know. I think the shepherds are interesting witnesses to the mystery – they are our human reference point and we'd expect them to be much like ourselves.  I can imagine them as a real mixed bag of personality types: the curious, sceptical, credulous, anxious – but on that first Christmas off they all go through the night toward the manger at Bethlehem and the Saviour of the world; they are drawn to the light.

Which maybe is where we find ourselves this night, keeping the shepherds company. We know their story; we have heard it more or less every year of our lives at about this time. Their story is our story, our Christmas story. And yet we still keep coming back to hear the story again with the loved familiar rituals, the carols, candles, feasting and gift-giving.   We keep coming back to the story and to find our place within it – lugging along our strange gifts for the Christ child: be it our joy, our hope, our desperation, our heartbreak, our fear, or our despair…. Our loneliness, our disappointment; tonight you might think about whatever it is you are carrying

We carry within us all our Christmases, the heart-warming and the heart-breaking; the childhood memories of the camping trip or when all the family were last about the dinner table.  The memories of stress, loss and sorrow; and those empty spaces  at the table always held in the heart.  Christmas is a wonderful time, but it can be a terrible time as well.  And still we come back to the story we know so well and have to try again to find our place in it.
Some of us make the Christmas service more or less their one church visit for the year. Something about this story still engages us, awakens the spirit, arouses us to hope and brings us close to a sense of the sacred.  It's not just the sentiment of the season but the fact that the season and this story bring us back to something in ourselves, maybe that latent spirituality, that trace of God in us …we like the shepherds may be waiting for hope. We have our place in the story.

We all have our place in the story. We aren’t here tonight to preach or to be preached at, but we are here to remember the story and to reclaim our place.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Mad Truth of Advent 4: The Messenger meets The Message

Reflection for Advent 4, 2015

Reading: Luke 1:39-45

There are moments in the gospel when one has a sense of shock and disbelief, almost as if one has somehow wandered into Louis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass and heard the White Queen proclaim that sometimes she had believed “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” In the first chapter Luke tells the improbable story of John the Baptist’s birth to the elderly Elizabeth; and then the even more improbable story of the Annunciation and the Virgin Mary conceiving a child; and then, the very questionable claim of Elizabeth that her unborn child, the Baptist, moved in

her womb as Mary came to see her.

Luke shows us a world in which God acts and the most extraordinary things happen to people and through people.  Of course we can say ‘impossible, I don’t believe that’ and declare Luke either a literary artist carried away by his invention or a shameless fabricator.  

But before we become too entrenched in our incredulity we might also pause to recall some of the extraordinary advances in science and medicine and how things previously unimagined have become reality.   Which raises the question: is our understanding of reality insufficient?  Is it possible that the deep reality of our universe is more complex, more densely layered than we like to allow?  When Luke presents us with what seems incomprehensible are we being confronted by a deeper reality that operates beyond (and despite) our conceptual horizon?

So here we have these two extraordinary women meeting womb to womb:  each used by God; each bearing an agent of the divine purpose; and might it then be too fanciful to imagine the enwombed John, bounded by water and the drum of flesh, virtually deaf and blind, yet recognising the presence of his unborn Lord?  Is it too strange that the prophetic Elizabeth cries out in wonder?  We see that Elizabeth recognises Mary as “mother of my Lord”; that John the Baptist recognises Jesus; and, if you like, the Messenger meets the Message. Luke’s narrative takes us to the threshold of our imagination and draws us to awaken into wonder.

The contemplative Thomas Merton in his poem ‘The Quickening of John the Baptist’ (1949) addressed the unborn John with burning words:
…What secret syllable
Woke your young faith to the mad truth
That an unborn baby could be washed in the spirit of God?
Oh burning joy!...

At the heart of this gospel is the call that awakens us to the God who reaches to us through the flesh and the things of the earth, reaching beyond our knowing and inviting us to recognise and respond, to be quickened and brought to life – like the unborn John the Baptist.

How are to be quickened and brought to life?  What does that mean for us?  The TV news this week with its report on the Christmas season, alongside the scenes of flurried or weary shoppers, has also reported queues at the City Mission in Auckland with people waiting for hours, from before dawn till noon, to collect a Christmas parcel.  With that image in mind – hear these words of the Catholic spiritual writer and campaigner for social justice, Dorothy Day.

Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.
But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that he gives.  It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter.  And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ…

The thought that ‘Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts’ is a transforming thought.  If we can truly grasp this thought we are moved past platitude into action: the fog of indifference and unbelief fades; and we no longer see the world merely as a neutral space created for our gratification and indulgence but instead as the place of decision and action where we are called to recognise our Lord and bid Him welcome.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent and Creation - asking questions about Dairy Farming

Choral Evensong Advent 3 2015

Evensong Reflection

Reading: Isaiah 35

For this Third Sunday in Advent John the Baptist’s call for repentance is the distinctive theme but one also notices how repentance is intertwined with the thread of hope.  We may lament for the way we have wasted our lives or abused the creation but the promise of hope and of God’s purpose being wonderfully fulfilled despite our failings constantly pulses through the scriptures, as in the fragment from Isaiah this evening.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 

The prophet images for us the transforming purpose of God: we have a ‘snapshot’ of people whole and a landscape of abundance.  The prophet’s hope of abundance contrasts with the brokenness of our reality that calls for repentance.

Last Sunday I spoke about the programme that highlighted the ill treatment of bobby calves and the way in which intensive dairying was systemically cruel.  In the ODT this week I saw a letter from a farmer who took a different view.  He condemned the appalling treatment of the bobby calves but went on to say this:

(But to) suggest this is normal practice and that dairy farming is inherently cruel is a deliberate and blatant misrepresentation of the story. It’s offensive and insulting to the thousands and thousands of decent New Zealanders who spend their lifetimes working on farms, caring for their land and caring for their animals.
Yes, we do encourage our cows to produce milk. For them to do so they need to be healthy, content, well fed, well looked­ after. We spend our lives getting this right. …
To talk of dairy farming as being inherently cruel is simply wrong, and is a sign of how far removed some of us have become from nature’s reality. There is life and there is death. We can’t change it. Accept it.

I was so pleased to read that letter and hear a farmer’s point of view.  Because at the very basis of our image of farming is, I believe, the strong and deeply grounded concept of one who is engaged with the land and with the cattle.  I believe that is worthy of respect and support.
But I hope that farmers might also exercise a moral imagination and take care to respect the land and the cattle and be willing to critique practises that do not show respect.  For instance, to make a point, when does a farm stop being a farm and become a factory?  When do cattle stop being the cattle you care for but just units of production?

On the subject of the bobby calves, how do you minimise stress and fear?  How do you ensure humane slaughtering?

Where are farmers leading the way in the ethics of animal welfare?

In the repentant mode of Advent, this is a time when we can reflect upon our nation and our pastoral economy and ask questions about how we are living; how we are treating the creation and the animals we share it with.  Do we have reverence for the trust given to us in the creation?  Again I encourage everyone to read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

John the Baptist and a 'Bonfire of the Vanities' ?

How do you turn the world around? John the Baptist this Sunday does call to mind images of radical change, not that I would want to see a bonfire of the vanities in the Octagon ... but 'Occupy' echoed the thought!

2015 Advent 3 Reflection
Readings: Luke 3: 7-18;

What made them do it?  I mean the crowd that streamed out of Jerusalem to make their way down to the Jordan and there be told off by the Baptist, that roughly dressed man from the desert.  Still they went: the great and the good; the despised tax collectors and the seen it all bully-boy soldiers; the women, wealthy and bored; the careful housewives; and the tired servants; the lawyers, the men of business, the scribes, the farmers and the sellers from their market-stalls.  All the world seemed to turn up at the Jordan and waited on his words.
It may be that it was something particular to that time and place, a crisis of some kind, a sense of anxiety, confusion and general unease – and into that moment came John with his dire warnings of calamity and judgement.  The man fitted to the moment perfectly; maybe that is how God works and the stories through the scriptures seem to say the same.

Botticelli's 'Bankers'
It may also be that, through the purpose of God, something similar threads through history to challenge and rebuke us for our folly and shallowness.  In 15th century Florence with its rich culture and art, it was the austere Dominican preacher Savonarola who invited the affluent citizens to turn away from illusion and burn their treasures in his ‘bonfire of the vanities’. In the 1980s the novelist Thomas Wolfe exposed the illusions of wealth and power in his novel with that name.  Even now, through the papal encyclical Laudato si and the COP21 talks in Paris at this moment, perhaps we catch a tremor of John’s call to repentance, the divine call to wake up, realise what is happening, repent and live differently before it is too late. 

The call to wake up and see the truth of our world and our circumstances runs all through scripture and John’s radical and unsparing message was in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. He warned against the assumption that being God’s chosen people somehow secured the Israelites from judgement.  He made them see themselves more clearly and without complacency.  He stripped away illusions and made them see how far they were from the society that God had called them to be.  No wonder then that they asked him what they should do.  They wanted guidance, if only because they needed to know where to start to change their lives and change their society.

That is what repentance is about: it is not about feeling guilty or sorry or shedding tears; but it is about deeds.  John’s medicine was potent and practical: don’t   grieve for the wasted years and blighted past: live fruitfully by living justly. John prescribes social justice – and how those who have are to share with those who don’t have.  For the powerful or influential he warns against greed: so, no profiteering, tax collectors are to take no more than their due; and no extortion, soldiers are not to abuse their power and be content with their wages.  

At the individual level this is about a change in the self: we put on the character of reality instead of the character of illusion or ‘sin’ and John’s baptism symbolised the cleansing away of illusion and entering into reality.  The social impact of this conversion  …?  Well imagine - no profiteering, no extortion, no one homeless, food and clothing, the necessities of life for all in need.   One catches a glimpse of a different world; we sense a brighter light; we hear a distant heavenly music – we start to catch a sense of what the Kingdom of God may mean.

Which brings us back to this place, our place, our city … the ‘kingdom’ that is our nation.  We have just had a vote for what may prove to be a new flag – and I find myself really questioning how important the concept is.  Will a flag change redefine who we are?  Will it create a clearer identity?  Will it make for a more just and compassionate society?

Or is the idea of a new flag a symptom of our ills? Is it a sign that we chase after illusions rather than face the reality of what we have become?   I mean that housing has become an unattainable dream for many young New Zealanders; and the growing gap between the wealthy few and the working poor.  I wonder what John the Baptist would say to us this Advent?  I think the donations of food and presents to Anglican Family Care at the Hanging of the Greens last Thursday is a step in the right direction; a step from illusion to reality; a gesture that points, however slightly, towards the Kingdom of God and the One who will return.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Parish Christmas letter I never posted

Is this another Cathedral Christmas letter with the Dean making the annual appeal for us to come to Church at Christmas and ‘put Christ back in Christmas?’

Absolutely not!

If you don’t want to come to church at Christmas, fine! Of course you might have many better things to do – I mean ...  well, think of it all – the turkey, the ham, the presents (lots of those), the family (with any luck) – already I can hear the sound of bottles being opened, the rustle of Christmas wrapping being ripped apart and young voices squabbling over who got what - and even the sound of older voices grumbling at being asked to lend a hand.

No, this letter is for someone else.  (So don’t bother to read any further.)

I think this letter is for the young child I remember from long ago who gazed at the rather scrappy Christmas tree stuck in a bucket; was entranced by the lights and yearned to open the presents that were so casually stacked beneath it. All those wonderful shiny papers with Father Christmas, bells and holly all over them; and of course the ribbons – silver and gold but also green and red.  And, oh yes, the name tags on the parcels  ... he could see his name there too, and Mum and Dad.  

In the dark of Christmas Eve, with the shining lights reflected in the window and the sound of the carols on the wireless, the sweet scent of baking from the kitchen, he would go outside and look back in at home with all those delights and he’d shiver with wonder and a kind of joy.  Above him in the night sky the Southern Cross looked down and he longed for the sweet sense of wonder and mystery to never end, as much as he longed for the morning that was to come.

I imagine time has caught up with that child.  Are his knees stiffer as he bends to place a present beneath the tree?  Does he still go out to look at the night sky and back at the Christmas lights of home?  Is there still a yearning and an ache in his heart? And is he still child enough to be humble and wonder at the deep mystery of God among us?  

I hope he will make his way to church this Christmas, he and all the children whom we love or carry within our hearts.

With warm wishes for you all this Christmas,

"The Hanging of the Greens"

The lead-up to Christmas is punctuated with familiar events and rituals, some of which are
exhausting and others which are by nature wonderfully life-giving.  The service 'The Hanging of the Greens' is certainly among the latter.  The service is especially dedicated to the work of Anglican Family Care (AFC) in Dunedin and the special relationship the Cathedral has with AFC.  A simple service of carols led by the Cathedral Choir, readings, and prayers it concludes with the decorating of the Cathedral's Christmas tree.  At the end of what for some will have been a long and possibly stressful day, it offers a moment of respite and an opportunity to re-connect with faith and the hope of the season.  It has its light-hearted aspects and there was real joy in the fun of decorating the tree.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Caring for Creation & The Ethics of Dairy Farming

An Evensong Reflection for Advent 2

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep (Is.40:11)

This metaphor from Isaiah in our readings tonight expresses the relationship of God to humankind and to all creation; it models a relationship of care and gentleness.  It implicitly models the relationship that should characterise the stewardship and care that human beings exercise in the creation.

Of course we know that the truth of our care of creation is nothing like this: otherwise there would be no need for the climate change talks in Paris at this time.

However, inexcusably, until recently it had never quite dawned on me how brutally we abuse the creation in our own country.  

It was the TV programme that exposed the plight of the bobby calves that made me reconsider. It is a big subject, but just two points:

  • So many New Zealanders witnessed the unspeakable cruelty of the men throwing calves into the trucks and the brutality at the abattoir; all who saw that were appalled.
  • There is also the systemic cruelty of a dairy industry that needs calves so cows will lactate but immediately removes them from their mothers, stuffing them in a box to be collected for pet food.

Ethically something about that sticks in the throat: in terms of animal welfare it is awful; in terms of the care of creation, it is irreverent and exploitative. 

Think about it: the development and expansion of intensive dairying has so transformed the New Zealand export economy that huge dairy farms, often owned by investors rather than farmers, produce something like two million calves a year.  

To me this looks like something that has become a bloated and distorted travesty of what may be called ‘farming’ and is now an industry that is huge, faceless and cruel in its exploitation of living creatures.  For a moment we might remember the environmental damage caused by intensive dairying; and we might also reflect that this is an industry that our economy is now locked into.

Questions have been raised about how pigs are treated, also poultry; but now awareness has been raised about dairy farming, the icon of our pastoral economy, and we are starting to feel tainted by it.

I suppose, somewhat in the spirit of someone demanding an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, I am advocating for ethical review of all our farming practices; and that animal welfare become a top priority.

But most profoundly we need a change of heart as people who share the planet with one another and with all living things.  We need a spirit of reverence for the creation.  I think Pope Francis has most eloquently expressed this in his Laudato si encyclical where he tries to help us see past our obsession with ourselves and see instead ourselves in solidarity with all creation.

(83) “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us.  Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.  Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.”

In this Second Sunday of Advent with its emphasis on repentance, there is scope and opportunity to think again about the things we have taken for granted, including the bottles of milk at the supermarket: we may relate to such things differently and think again what it means to be human and a steward of creation.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

John the Baptist & Advent 2

Reflection: Advent 2

Reading Luke 3:1-6

Did you notice how Luke introduces the story of John the Baptist?

It is worth paying attention to it. Luke sets John’s place in time, in history, with what appears to be a certain degree of precision ‘the fifteenth year of…’ Certainly his intention seems to ground the story of John in time. However there are problems with the dating he gives - because Luke’s purpose is much more than historical detail and instead a call to faith; a call to recognise the activity of God in the world.

To look at the names Luke works with is to see how he summons up the powers of the world about him: he begins with the empire, then regional authorities and finally the religious leadership of the time. This is a catalogue of power and influence; it broadly names the political and religious establishment and in the same breath conjures up a catalogue of oppression, lost causes and lost hope.

And yet, this massive opening sentence is not the last word! In fact its clauses lead us to a startling conclusion – that it was in these very same days of lost hope that ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’

There are certain resonances here that make us prick our ears: ‘the wilderness’, and ‘the word of God’. The wilderness is of course the very opposite of the imperial court, the senate, the assembly or the temple. For the people of scripture, the wilderness is no spiritual wasteland but always the place of wonder, revelation, the place of divine encounter: as Moses turned to see the burning bush, and the Israelites received the revelations at Sinai.

Even today we understand something of this: accustomed to our city life and a world away from John in time and space, we turn from our urban comforts and wander in our hills to receive a landscape that is stark, beautiful; that expands our emotional and spiritual horizons and that cuts us down to size – a realisation that the poet James K. Baxter noted when he spoke of New Zealand as “a country made for angels, not for men”.

So, in a time when hope had been lost, at an unexpected time, from the wilderness appears a messenger from God.

John’s message from God is that even in this moment where hope seems lost, God is active and there is a way forward. We are to repent. We are to change our minds. We are to change the way we see the world; and change the way we live. This is not just an intellectual adjustment, a minor change of focus, but something more far reaching and John urges this change of life by promoting baptism by him in the Jordan. The old religious language for this turnabout is ‘conversion’ – a turning away from the past way of being and embracing a new way of being in the world.

So in this second Sunday of Advent, as we prepare for Christ’s coming at Christmas, we hear a call for conversion, for radical repentance and in how we see the world. A response in heart and mind changes our spiritual landscape and draws us into the wilderness of God, to that place of the Spirit where illusion, sham and deception evaporate and we are open to the reality and mystery we name as God.

It would be a mistake to think of John’s call merely as an odd little occurrence in Palestine some two thousand years ago. The spirit of repentance, the recognition of the need for radical change is not entirely lost even today. The Spirit of God is not confined to a moment in time: in an unexpected way, from nowhere, God acts. Think of the movement for climate change and the great about-face we see the survival of the planet to require. For a moment, simply juxtapose in your mind the message of John the Baptist and the about-face required of the world to avoid the disasters that face our planet: we start to see that repentance is multi-layered and multi-dimensional.

Repentance is not just the matter of an individual response to an altar call or someone seeking baptism, wonderful though these transforming moments are. Repentance has deep social and communal aspects embedded in the life-long searching, turning, returning and renewal of the divine in us. Repentance is always an awakening; a realization and discovery: it is an about-turn of mind and will to the God we have forgotten; the holy wonder we have lost sight of; and, for that matter, the world we have wasted and may yet lose.

To repent as John calls us is to seek a better way of being in the world and, looking past the ways we deceive and serve ourselves, to seek the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent 1 Reflection

Advent 1 2015

Readings Jer 33: 14-16; 1 Thess 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36


With the ordination yesterday, I have already reflected on part of the gospel for this morning and simply offer a minor reflection for this start to Advent.

The signs of Christmas, decorations and all the seasonal paraphernalia, have been in supermarkets and shops for perhaps a month now.  The commercial world has been ready for Christmas – raring to go you might say – for some time.

By comparison the church doesn’t seem to be in quite the same space.  Of course I think that fortunate: I walk past the trinkets in the gift aisle at the supermarket – and wonder at the ‘Advent Calendar’ with its little treats, each day on the calendar marking the countdown to the great day.

I am impressed by the stark contrast between the sticky treats or sentiments of some Advent Calendars and the way the Church keeps Advent.  There is nothing sweet, sticky or in any way sentimental or tinselly about the first Sunday of Advent. 

Last Judgement, Giotto, 1306 detail
Instead we are confronted with images of the end of the world; with the winding up of all things; the wrapping up of time and with the coming of God.  Images of storm and disaster, the end of days, shake us – we will, it is true, get to Christmas, to the promise of the child in the manger, but not before this drum roll of doom and disaster has shaken us.

Why is it like this?  Why do we have the shock and the disorientation of the apocalypse as our start on the way toward Christmas?

Think of Advent 1 as a ‘wake-up call’ – the church rouses itself from sleep, from apathy, from sloth and despair.  We are roused to focus once again on what really matters – and maybe it takes a shock to wake us up; imagine a sleepy driver who at the wheel suddenly realises he is on the wrong side of the road and, horn blaring, there is a giant Kenwood truck bearing down towards him.  Under enough stress, one wakes up!

To be awoken like that – is to be forced to get back on track; get back to living the journey we are created for and called to work at through all our living; our life’s journey into God and to do our part in building the kingdom.

This Sunday of the new liturgical year wakes us up to face our deepest anxieties and fears.  Our mortality – and what that means in the limitless abyss of the universe, vast beyond all conception.  What are we?  We hide from that thought by all the trappings, tinsel, playthings and anodyne that the world can provide.  Yet on this day the Church rouses us to face that deepest dread and find our pathway again – because the church has something wonderful to show us.

Behind the unsettling apocalyptic noise of this day, the Church is urgently whispering, ‘Come and see’, the world is much, oh so much more than you have ever dreamed my love; don’t stay asleep; wake up; the dawn is near; eternity is all about you.  Come and see.

These thoughts call to mind of R.S.Thomas’s poem ‘The Bright Field’

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

On this Advent Sunday, we are to wake up and turn aside and in the brightness of a world seen afresh, be ready for the eternity that awaits us.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ordination in Interesting Times

An ordination in the Cathedral this afternoon - difficult for any preacher I suspect ...

Reading Luke 21:34-36;

Advent Eve: it is an interesting time for an ordination.

In the week of the Paris attacks the BBC, ITV news, various British papers (Spectator, Telegraph, The Times and the Daily Mirror) announced that the Archbishop of Canterbury had confessed that the attacks in France had made him doubt the presence of God.

Just this week this event was seized upon by the columnist Joe Bennett in Thursday’s Otago Daily Times where he ridiculed the Archbishop of Canterbury (and faith generally) because Archbishop Justin had made this confession of doubt about God.  Well, the Archbishop obviously didn’t have his media consultant by him at the time, and it is not the first time he has made this sort of admission – but good on him!

A lot about the ordained life and the life of faith generally might be drawn from this incident: the Archbishop demonstrated honesty, emotional capacity, and vulnerability.  He was willing to share the shock and pain of a society in a time of crisis; he stepped out from behind the façade of office and presented the reality of Christian faith, and the pain and questioning it entails.  

He modelled the way faith has to be lived - always in tension with doubts and questions.   Such public vulnerability carries many risks: he may be criticised for such frankness by some ‘believers’ while behind that is an abyss of secularism and unbelief that mocks faith and jeers at the falling numbers in the Christian churches.

For all the ordained and those about to be, this incident reminds us of the hazards of our calling: what it means to be vulnerable; what it means to live with the tension of faith and doubt; what it means to minister in a social context where faith is out of fashion and churches struggle to survive. 

While it is easy to get discouraged in ministry and wonder about our calling, from the beginning the Church has always remembered that the reality we are caught up in from one moment to the next is far from being the whole story. 

This time before Advent is the season when we are expected to remember this.  For instance you may recall how over the last few weeks we have been reading much from Daniel, from Revelations, and the little apocalypses in the Gospels.   Sometimes we have fretted over these obscure and difficult passages of apocalyptic scriptures and wanted to protest at why we are expected to read this in church.  What sense will people make of them? We may imagine visitors leaving our services and shaking their heads in disbelief and confusion.  

Nonetheless for centuries at this season the practice of the church has been to look beyond the things of the present and toward the end of time:  when we engage the apocalyptic texts our spiritual horizon expands to include an unimaginable future holding judgements, desolation, and the end of all things.  

To have that ‘sense of the end’ within our spiritual tradition means that changes in society and culture, being in fashion or out of fashion, knowing calamity and disaster, however traumatic and horrible at the time, do not define the church.  You could say that our faith is, in a sense, ‘future-proofed’.

But of course there is more to it than that.  Running all the way through the scriptures are the stories of the spiritual life and the endless scope we have for getting ourselves into trouble and losing heart – whether we think about the sometimes comical lesson of Jonah in Nineveh or Paul’s cranky letters to churches that have lost their way.  

We can see that most clearly in the Gospel for our liturgy today:  where the Gospeller warns the faithful “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down”.  It can be better translated as saying: “pay attention to yourselves …” (so that the troubles of the present moment don’t distract or overwhelm you).

‘Pay attention to yourselves’.  He gives us simple directions – about being alert and praying – and this practise of self-awareness, something developed through prayer, silence and with a good spiritual director, this discipline of paying attention to ourselves, is at the very heart of the ordained life.  Without it we lose direction and quickly become weighed down with a multitude of things and lose heart.

As I said, it’s an interesting time to be ordained, the eve of Advent.  Remember the Archbishop of Canterbury caught on the spot, blurting out what is in his heart and not afraid to appear vulnerable, maybe even foolish; a target for a world where faith is out of fashion:  that kind of faithful vulnerability is at the heart of the ordained life.  To live with that faithful openness will not solve all the problems the church faces; the problems of a broken world; problems of war, poverty, climate change; but it keeps us honest and therefore open to what God will do in us and through us.

The eve of Advent is an interesting time to be ordained, the rumours of the end of time resonate through the soul of the church, and amidst all this, tomorrow we start a new liturgical year, and our newly ordained take up their ministry.  ‘Pay attention to yourselves.’

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christ the King

Christ the King 2015


This is the last Sunday of the Church Year. Once we called it ‘Stir Up Sunday’ (after the collect the church used for thousands of years) but for some decades we have instead observed this Sunday as the Feast of Christ the King, ending the year proclaiming the rule of Christ.

Even the most steadfast believer, the most devout, the most optimistic, must be struck by the horrible discrepancy between a liturgy that proclaims the rule of Christ and what one has encountered in the morning papers or the TV news.  In the wake of violence in the Middle East, terrorism in Beirut, Paris, Nigeria and Mali – to speak of the ‘Rule of Christ’ might seem naïve at best or, at worst, an instance of disingenuous, cynical, religious propaganda.

Our understanding, our language, our imaginative capacity limits us.  Pilate presses Jesus with questions and Jesus instead highlights the inadequacy of Pilate’s thinking: he simply says “You say that I am a King …” Instead we need to attend to the grammar of faith, which is driven by the religious imagination.  I have two images in mind that may illustrate what I mean.  One is the Paschal Candle and the other is Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’.

Each year, at the Easter Vigil, the Paschal candle is carved with the numerals of the year and with the symbols of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the Alpha and the Omega.  As a representation of time it is an oxymoron, an enigma: the specific moment of time marked by the year is enfolded by the emblems for the start of time and the end of time.  This is the grammar of the religious imagination, it is a grammar that consumes itself.

The painting known as ‘The Light of the World’ (1851-53) by Holman Hunt is one of the best-known devotional paintings; it is an allegorical illustration of the text in Revelation 3:20 "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me".   It show a richly robed Christ, crowned with a crown of thorns and bearing a lantern, knocking at an overgrown, and obviously long-unopened door, to which there appears to be no handle other than what may be on the inside.  The door is of course the closed mind or the closed heart.  The painting presents the enigma of the religious imagination: on the one hand we see Christ, the light of the world; on the other hand is the closed door of the shut mind.  The painting, its juxtaposition of the door and Christ, confronts us with the enigma of our refusal to see or respond to Christ.

The gospel presents us with a similar juxtaposition.  We are drawn into a dramatic encounter as Pilate talks to Jesus – it is not just two different personalities that we see but different worlds, and different dimensions confront each other.  It would be fascinating to try and script this for a play.  Pilate’s world: of court politics, ways and means, the slippery pole of power, of duties and taxes; Pilate’s world cannot begin to comprehend who Jesus is.  We get the impression that he realises there is more to this Jesus than he can understand; we catch a sense of his curiosity and of the tragedy of someone caught up in the machinery of their own political world.  He cannot understand Jesus.

‘Are you a King?’

The question is of course absurd.  His words probe infinity and rebound to him: “You say that I am a king.”  One might as well have asked “Are you a plumber?” There is no word for what God is.

In this moment we recognise our kinship with Pilate: he is very much like anyone of us.  His mental and spiritual capacity is severely limited – and he cannot even remotely conceive the mystery of the truth about the one who stands opposite him.

In its way, Pilate’s question is our question, and it is unanswerable – we have no language or comprehension to make sense of an answer.

And yet, despite our limitations, despite our finitude, despite even the darkness that we may fear in the world, on this Sunday we proclaim that Christ rules. 

From that haunted question in Pilate’s court, and the story that runs from there to the cross, the empty tomb and echoes still to touch our own lives … on this day we proclaim Christ rules.

From our finite moment in time we contemplate the immeasurable reach of eternity; we offer the bread and wine, and we proclaim Christ, our Alpha and Omega! 

In this finite moment we attend to the one who is the ‘Light of the world’ and continues still to knock at the door of our closed minds and rebellious hearts, always seeking our response.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cathedrals - Repositories of the Spirit

It is curious how people seek out Cathedrals.  On Wednesday evening in the Chapter Room, during a meeting, someone put their head around the door and asked if they could have a look upstairs in the Cathedral.  He was the guide for a group of Polish tourists and they had been delayed in their travels, arriving well after the Cathedral had been locked up for the night.  It was no problem for me to leave the meeting and take them upstairs.

They were a marvellous group - all, I am sure, solid Roman Catholics.  They were curious about our altar and its splendid frontal; absolutely fascinated by the building (though, Lord knows, Cathedrals can be no novelty to them);  and extremely well informed and curious with lots of good questions. This was the kind of group that it was a joy to take around.

My thoughts shifted to the scenes inside and out of Notre Dame after the Daesh murders this week - so-called secular France and yet people flocked to Notre Dame.  The cathedral is a repository of the Spirit ... that thought warms my heart.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

In the Furnace of the world

Pulling the threads together for the Evensong meditation ... variations on a theme, holding the events of this week in Beirut and especially Paris under the scrutiny of Daniel and the apocalyptic parables of Matthew 13 ...

Choral Evensong 33d Ordinary Sunday
15 November 2015
Readings. Daniel 3; Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43.

The readings for Evensong tonight are very much in the spirit of the apocalypse, reflecting the focus upon the end-times that the church requires at this time of the close of the liturgical year.

The reading from Daniel, in parts repetitive and turgid, closes with an image that is dear to me.  This is, as I said this morning, apocalyptic literature, the literature of the dispossessed. Here the exiled Jews are being harried for their faith and required to act against God.  So these 3 brave men suffer their punishment but are unharmed by the furnace.  In the furnace, we see them walking and with them a fourth figure, God himself.  This passage works imaginatively: it explores what it is to be a person of faith and where God is in the midst of a time of trial.  Think of the furnace as the world, a place of violence and persecution, and in the midst of that furnace, God walks with you.

The parables from Matthew’s Gospel similarly engage the confusion of reality we experience in the world where good and evil coexist; where beliefs differ; where deep differences exist; and behind divergence and difference the question of what may constitute truth.  The parables don’t answer the question but instead resist any attempt to foreclose on an answer.  The weeds are to remain.  Weeds and wheat will coexist.  The matter is to be left to God to the end time.

So, hold the image of Daniel’s fiery furnace in your mind; with that hold the images of the wheat and the weeds; in the fiery furnace of the world where it is so tempting to impose one’s reality and preference by force, we are held back.  The world is more complicated than we have imagined; God’s purpose may be more charged with love, compassion and grace than we can ever have imagined.  We are restrained by openness to grace.

The events this week in Beirut and especially in Paris with violent attacks being mounted against civilians can helpfully be weighed against these texts.   One commentator from the Islamic world has claimed that the attacks in Paris are an ISIL attempt to force the West to strike against Islam.

ISIL wants the world divided into black and white (like its flag); it wants to eliminate any sense that Muslims and non –Muslims can coexist.   Its most basic premises and its very existence are threatened at the sight of the Western world opening its arms in a humane and decent way to refugees fleeing the war in Syria and Iraq,  ISIL can only prosper where there is division and intolerance and no possibility of coexistence.

In the furnace of the world, we are to continue to love, to show compassion, to behave decently; to withhold judgement and to embrace difference and diversity.  All else is to be left in the goodness of God.  In the furnace of the world, love endures over evil.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Horror in Paris & Playing on the doorstep of Eternity

I write very much against the news of today with the tragic events in Paris rattling remorselessly against the gospel for tomorrow...

33d Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Mark 13:1-8;

On a Friday evening you go out for dinner, a meal and some wine at some small street corner restaurant.  All is well, the world continues in its ordered way. Until, that is, men with automatic weapons suddenly enter and open fire at random.  The ordered civilised world you are familiar with is suddenly transformed into mayhem and a portal to hell.  I have in mind, of course, the horrific attacks in Paris in the last 24 hours.

We are near the end of our liturgical year and this is the time of the year when the church requires us to direct our attention to what we may call the end-times.  It is a kind of reality check on human life, our projects and ambitions, civilization itself.  As the church year wraps up, the end-times remind us that the universe has a scope and a purpose far beyond our comprehension and most daring speculation.

Of course to think about the end-time is to check the way we are beguiled by illusion.  We tend to fend off the prospect of our own demise and instead see the continuation of life all about us and landmarks and signs and symbols which suggest permanence.  We see the sweep of the ridges above our city, trace the familiar line of Flagstaff; we fondly admire our much loved buildings, particularly our cathedral – and forget that a million years prior to us and a million years hence, none of these things were or will be.  Our place in eternity is minimal.

There is nothing new in thinking this.  We know this, it’s just that we tend to dismiss the thought as disturbing.  But the idea of remembering our mortality, the memento mori symbolised by a skull or an hour glass, is an ancient discipline.  That wonderful Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, practised it and even had himself painted wearing his shroud.  More modern manifestations of a similar awareness may be the numerous contemporary films on the themes of the apocalypse – global warming, tsunamis, earthquakes, plague, and cosmic destruction.  We entertain ourselves with thoughts of our own destruction; but maybe beneath the entertainment is a deeper and primordial intuition.

Jesus taps into this as he leaves the temple which is going to be the backdrop of his passion.  His disciples admire the great architectural statement of this vast edifice and he brings them back down to earth with a thump and tells them of things to come that they would rather not hear.   

The world that seems so powerful, so certain, so fixed and enduring suddenly starts to change as he unfolds for them what is sometimes called “the little apocalypse”: telling them about the mystery of the future and of the last things.  There is a tradition in the Old Testament of apocalypse – for instance the curious visions in Daniel and it has been said that apocalypse is ‘the literature of the dispossessed’, meaning a coded literature for people who are oppressed and are forced to look for hope and vindication in a future beyond what they can imagine.  In the New Testament the Book of Revelation is exactly that.

Now this Sunday, with one of the great cities of our world in mourning, as we contemplate the fragility and finitude of all things, the vision of apocalypse does not lessen the horror of what has been done in Paris; it may not diminish other horrors of the past or those yet to come; it will not diminish the grief of loss and anguish; but apocalypse spurs us into compassion and love – because we are in the space that is given to us and this is where we play our part.  

The thought calls to mind the mystic Thomas Merton in The Sign of Jonas, where Merton remarks:
“Sooner or later the world must burn, and all things in it – all the books, the cloister together with the brothel, ….  Sooner or later it will all be consumed by fire and nobody will be left – for by that time the last man in the universe will have discovered the bomb capable of destroying the universe and will have been unable to resist the temptation to throw the thing and get it over with.
   And here I sit writing a diary.
But love laughs at the end of the world because love is the door to eternity and he who loves God is playing on the doorstep of eternity, and before anything can happen love will have drawn him over the sill and closed the door and he won’t bother about the world burning because he will know nothing but love.”  (Thomas Merton, 1915-1968. The Sign of Jonas)

That is why we are here this morning.  We hold the dead, the maimed, the suffering of Paris, the bloodied ruins of restaurants and concert hall, and as we offer the bread and the wine we are joined with Christ in the great love offering that transforms the world and us … in the Eucharist we are playing on the doorstep of eternity.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

All Souls and Remembrance Day

I have been impressed by the occurrence of All Souls Day and the observance of Remembrance Sunday falling within the one week.  Each of these occasions is about remembering the dead.  

The Feast of All Souls is of course the occasion when we remember all who have died in the faith of Christ, acknowledging our connection with them beyond time in the Church, the Body of Christ.   

Traditionally the range of the doctrine behind ‘All Souls’ has restricted it to those considered within ‘the faith of Christ’ but that restriction begs more questions than it answers.  Who are we to speak for God or determine the reach of Christ?  In fact it seems to me that the reach and range of this feast is immeasurable: it presents us with the impossible prospect of countless souls, millennia upon millennia, being remembered before God in prayer. 

The feast is the most daring stretch of the liturgical imagination and the most ambitious expression of our hope in Christ.  It takes us beyond the scope of our finite imagining, our conceptual framing, and all reach of words, gathering us up into the mystery of being, time and mortality that compels us to silence in which we may at best light a votive candle or let the music of lux aeterna speak.

By comparison with All Souls, the scope of Remembrance Day seems relatively modest.  Even so, it is huge and imaginatively intolerable as one considers images of war cemeteries, crosses after crosses in endless progression; name after name etched on walls of remembrance, caves, cells, and monuments around the world; the countless dead whose remains are lost in the forests, steppes, and killing fields of Europe and Asia; those lost in the oceans of the world; or those vaporised by nuclear weaponry.  The mind and spirit falter at the scope of what such remembrance may require. At the tomb of every unknown warrior this immeasurable army of the unknown dead attends.

It is worth remembering how in July, 1945, Benjamin Britten accompanied the violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a brief tour of defeated Germany. One day, the two men visited the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and performed works by Mozart and others for some former inmates. Stupefied by what he had seen, Britten went home to the East Anglian coast and set to music the most spiritually scouring poetry that he could find—the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

Of these, Sonnet 7 of Donne’s Holy Sonnets is the poem that most powerfully expresses the impossibility of remembering or imagining our mortality across the sweep of eternity.  Nonetheless it somehow accomplishes the impossible in the bare 8 lines of its octave.  

Anticipating the Last Judgement Donne summons all our dead and our living:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes

Shall behold God, and never taste deaths woe.