Saturday, April 25, 2015

ANZAC Thoughts 2015

Sitting on my deck at dawn I can hear the sounds of the Dawn Parade from the Queen's
Gardens, barely a kilometre or so away.  

I gave my attendance last night at the ANZAC Eve service in the Cathedral where our Bishop and representatives from other churches joined with us in a very simple service that was reasonably well attended.   

In preparing the liturgy the challenge was how to differentiate this observance from other years without sliding into cliché or mawkishness. So the bidding or call to worship had to be carefully poised for everything that was to follow.  This seemed to work:

We gather here this evening to offer to God our worship and praise; to remember before God all who laid down their lives in war; and especially, in this Centenary of ANZAC, all those from Otago and Southland who fell in the Gallipoli Campaign.   This is the evening before the ANZAC story comes to be written; the night before such names as Quinn’s Post, Otago Gully, Bauchop’s Hill and Chunuk Bair will be etched in our nation’s story.   So, as one hundred years ago warships bearing our troops rolled in the swell off a darkened coast, tonight we remember the cost of this conflict and promise, as far as in us lies, that the evil of war shall not be again.

317 candles for Dunedin's Gallipoli fallen
Using, as is our custom, the Coventry litany of reconciliation we then lit 317 candles, each representing one of those from Dunedin who fell in the Gallipoli campaign.  Taking the light from the Paschal (Easter) candle - it was quite a task for the five of us to light them all.  The choir's anthem 'So they gave their bodies' had long finished and still there were more candles to be lit.  The silence and the solemnity that encompassed us throughout these minutes of lighting was compelling.  Each was a life ... and, dear God, there were so many!

Beneath the Cathedral's Great War Memorial Window, which carries also the emblems of every Otago and Southland unit that served in the Great War, we held the entire region of the diocese in prayer and throughout the Last Post and Reveille remembered all those communities and their memorials to their lost.

I had hoped to receive images of memorials from throughout Otago and Southland that could be mounted on display but only a handful were received in time.  However I was grateful to receive those, they helped anchor the regional spirit of the service and were powerful reminders of the reality that people throughout Southland and Otago had endured.

Church Rolls of Honour are one example of that reality. Below one can see the very impressive stone memorial from St Paul's Presbyterian Church, Invercargill and, below that the elegant wooden memorial from the Presbyterian Church in Wanaka.
St Paul's Presbyterian Church Invercargill
Presbyterian Church, Wanaka

What strikes me about both these memorials is the extraordinary number of names recorded from those communities.

Then there is the lychgate at St Mary's Anglican Church in Mornington.   This is not a WW1 memorial but belongs to WW2 and was built as a memorial for a parishioner's 4 sons killed in that conflict.  I can't quite bring myself to even imagine that kind of loss.

Lychgate St Mary's Mornington

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Hunger Games and a piece of fish

Gospel for this Sunday: Luke 24: 36b-48.

"Some looked for wider breadth of preaching which reaches out more to young people and a wider community."...

Have you ever watched the films or read the trilogy known as The Hunger Games?  Have you seen Mockingjay?  All this is available on SKY movies or in video stores.

This inquiry is one way of asking how much we know about what young people are reading and watching and thinking about – a way of checking out our connectedness and our willingness to be engaged.

If you have not watched The Hunger Games, think of one of those TV so-called reality shows where people are voted off a team and the winner is the last one remaining.  I have always thoughts such reality shows demeaning and essentially nasty – but The Hunger Games takes this to the furthest point of horror.  We enter a dystopian world where the nightmare of our Global Financial Crisis and the horror we glimpse in ISIL seem to have become the norm.  We see a decadent world ruled by a privileged and powerful minority: food and essential resources are used to enforce control over all others and, a particular controlling device is the games where 2 young people from each sector are selected and sent to an arena to kill each other for view on live TV.  Think Lord of the Flies, think of every dystopian novel you know – The Hunger Games has all the ingredients.

The great thing about the trilogy is that it expresses the questions and the challenges that face humanity now.  Taken to an extreme it images the kind of inequities created by Globalization and an inequitable economic order where 1% control all the wealth; it images the horrors of desperation – such as we now see playing out in the Middle East, the Ukraine and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.  The Hunger Games asks what it means to be human – and shows the efforts and the costliness of asking and seeking to answer that unsettling question.

Answering that question, at a time when people were dying in arenas, and after a bloody execution, it was Jesus who stood among his disciples and asked them ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?’  Well of course they were frightened and full of doubt – we all know, or think we know – that dead is dead!  But what happens when the model of reality we live with and work by, suddenly shifts?   We, with 2000 odd years behind the event, can more easily dismiss it now and say it is simply a pack of lies, a record of a group’s hysterical delusion.  

The trouble is that the more closely we look at the gospel texts – and probably no other texts in the world have been so carefully scrutinised – that kind of answer just does not wash.  Luke seems to have been written quite early, probably well within thirty years of Jesus crucifixion and at a time when witnesses of the resurrection were still alive – in other words he writes well before there has been opportunity for other bogus elements (pious rumour, mythology and so on) to cloud the essential memory of the event.

They consider the possibility that Jesus is a mere psychic phenomenon – a ghost – but the memory of the event not only names that possibility but dismisses it utterly with the memory of seeing the wounds and the invitation to touch them.  Then, last of all, he eats a piece of fish.  By the wounds and the eaten fish our material world is utterly affirmed –and yet here he is, this Jesus is indeed raised from the dead.  The consequence of this revelation is that they now must see the world differently; they must see reality differently.  The extraordinary story of the church that Luke tells in Acts begins here in this room of frightened and doubtful disciples whose world is being turned upside down.

Now can you hear the question our Lord directs to us: ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?’  It is true – we are not strangers to fear and doubt; at times it feels as if these demons have taken up permanent residence among us.   Yet against our fear and doubt the question echoes still: ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?’    We are the reluctant disciples – it is as if we are on the edge of a great pier extending far out into the ocean, shivering and nervously speculating whether or not we take the plunge and dive into this vast, cold and hazardous ocean!

What is asked of us?  Are we really so afraid, so doubtful that we simply dare not take the resurrection seriously and dare not have our minds and hearts changed?  In a society where unbelief is so dominant, are we fearful of seeming foolish?  In our own family and among our friends, among our Cathedral community – are we able to be peacemakers, are we able to be vulnerable, to say sorry, to stop wanting to have things our way?  Are we able to live in such a way with one another that we will be, like that piece of eaten fish, a sign and proof of the resurrection?  In a world where the dystopian horrors of The Hunger Games seem too close for comfort, are we prepared to so live that we “bring life to others” and “give light to the world”?

ANZAC Eve preparations

I've been thinking about how we might observe ANZAC Eve.  This Cathedral's Memorial Window is unique for Otago and Southland - and this is surely an occasion where denominational loyalties are set aside.  At a recent meeting of the Inner City Ministers I invited them to join in with us and there was widespread approval.

Here is a copy of a letter I prepared and that our ecumenical partners are sharing.
For the Churches and Communities of Otago & Southland
On Friday 24 April at 6.00pm the Cathedral hosts an ANZAC Eve service to observe the Centenary of the Gallipoli campaign.  Unique to our Cathedral is the Memorial Window over the East doors, which holds emblems for every unit in Otago and Southland that served in WW1: intrinsically this is a memorial for all Southland and Otago.  In the brief service on ANZAC Eve 317 candles will be lit, each representing one of Dunedin’s fallen at Gallipoli.  The Paschal candle will of course be a light that represents all our fallen but it is suggested that ministry units and churches throughout the region (everyone, not just Anglicans!) might like to attend or to send a prayer or a photo of a WW1 memorial in a church, a hall or any public place so that these can be displayed and the service be helped to speak for our region as fully as possible.
All the emails with prayers and photos should be sent to me at

 Grace and peace,
Already the Presbyterian Church at Wanaka has sent me a photo of their Roll of Honour for WW1. Bless them!   I do hope more will follow.

A similar letter was sent to all our Anglican churches in the diocese - and, sadly, so far the silence is deafening!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Probing Wounds on Low Sunday

Readings: Acts 2: 14a,22-32; 1 John 1:-2:2; John 20:19-31

Anyone who has ever had to gather witness statements or reports after an accident or some traumatic event will know how difficult that task can be and how confusing!  Sometimes it is the effect of shock and trauma that ‘witnesses’ are muddled or confused in some way: the evidence of those who should have seen the same thing is not consistent: what they saw, what they thought they saw, and their interpretation of what they thought they saw become entangled. Imagine the questions, and the doubts: Did I really see that?  Is that what I heard? Clarity is lost.

Today we might claim that a Coroner’s Court would deal with such matters.
But in the days and weeks after the crucifixion a clear and impartial adjudicator was not an option.  Anyway the debate would not have centred about cause of death but what happened afterwards.  Did he really die?  What is this talk about resurrection?

So, this First Sunday after Easter we can at least think our way into the possible mental state of the disciples and followers of Jesus who had reported an experience of a risen Jesus.  They had nothing in their previous experiences to account for their Easter experience – though I think Lazarus was still very much alive at this time and he might have had something to say about it; about the boundaries of life, matter and experience being extended and reformed in ways we can’t understand.  There might have been rich conversations to be had.

John’s detail of the Thomas story is particular to his gospel and shows very evocatively the way unbelief connects to belief.  The story shares with the other gospels (Luke) the appearance as taking place among a community of believers and despite locked doors.  Jesus’ invitation to Thomas is not to just see the wounds to establish identity but also to probe them and verify them as tangibly as may be imagined.  It’s a detail I find always a little unnerving, knowing myself to be squeamish and rather useless about something like that.  In Caravaggio’s painting of the subject, ‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ (1601-1602) Caravaggio has the risen Jesus holding Thomas’s hand and guiding his finger into the wound in his side.  The whole emphasis of that painting is on the unmistakeable physical reality of the resurrected Jesus – as John says in his First Epistle:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life--

1:2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—

So this Sunday, gathered in solidarity with those first disciples, the witnesses of the resurrection, we share their confusion and something of their wonder.  Perhaps the first and most obvious thing is that we pay serious attention to this gospel and don’t try to evade the strangeness of the event that we are confronted by.

We tend to dismiss as nonsense what we don’t understand.  The story of Thomas takes us directly to the limit of that approach.  The evidence of the Thomas’s senses – ears, eyes, touch – can’t resist the claim of the risen Lord.  His mind can’t get there, but his mind is overridden by what his mind has previously demanded – ‘Show me the evidence’!  Be careful what you pray for!  

Accordingly this Gospel’s clear insistence on evidence and its importance is not something that we can simply ignore – it speaks to us now and to our doubts.  This probing of the wounds marks the limits of our reason and demands our response.

These wounds of Jesus speak also to us in other ways.  

For instance, one of the English mystics, Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1614) had a series of visions or ‘shewings’ as she called them: in one Christ’s wounds are revealed to her and she speaks of them as ‘a fair and delectable place, large enough for all mankind that will be saved and will rest in peace and love.’  Those wounds probed by Thomas become for Julian the image of divine purpose: the mark of a love that draws us into a reality beyond our comprehension.

Reflection on these wounds of Christ must change how we live and see ourselves.  We are used to a society where self-defence, self-justification and self-interest is the norm but the wounds of the cross contradict this way of being. To be wounded is to know about vulnerability; and to be vulnerable, to endure vulnerability seems to be one way in which we who follow Christ may understand the love of God and share and work with one another.  I think of Henri Nouwen’s classic ‘The Wounded Healer’ as one example.  Another is Jean Vanier in his meditation on John’s Gospel.  He writes:

Jesus invites each one of us, through Thomas,
to touch not only his wounds,
but those wounds in others and in ourselves,
wounds that can make us hate others and ourselves
and can be a sign of separation and division.
These wounds will be transformed into a sign of forgiveness
through the love of Jesus
and will bring people together in love.
These wounds reveal that we need each other.
These wounds become the place of mutual compassion,
of indwelling
and of thanksgiving.

We, too, will show our wounds
when we are with him in the kingdom,
revealing our brokenness
and the healing power of Jesus.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Palm Sunday, 'Tuning the instrument at the door'

I am posting this retrospectively but in this brief Palm Sunday homily I hoped to frame what our journey through Holy Week and Easter would be like - we inhabit the mystery
of the Passion; we journey with Christ ... no wonder that after Easter many of us feel that we have been 'through a wringer'! 

It was a Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral London who, believing himself dying, amidst the anxiety of his sickness, composed a poem to give some shape and order to his thoughts in his last days.  Understanding himself on the cusp of reality, and about to be drawn through the membrane of our finitude in this world, he wrote:

"Since I am coming to that holy room,
         Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
         I tune the instrument here at the door,
         And what I must do then, think here before."
(John Donne 1572-1631, ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’)

This is not a bad introduction to what we do on Palm Sunday and indeed throughout this Holy Week.  On Palm Sunday we begin to enter into the deep heart of the story of the Love of God, that love Dante (The Paradiso) described as the “Love, that moves the sun and the other stars”.  Of course we like to think we know the story, but that’s the problem; we are so limited in our capacity and so encased in our finitude and understanding, that it is a major task to stir us into something like spiritual consciousness!  All that we do this week draws us into the story: our readings, our processions, hymns, the various services and the special rituals of each day are a preparation of heart and mind to turn us toward the reality of God.  Recalling C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, today is the time when we start to open the wardrobe door, push at all those things that are in the way, and sense the air of the mystery and the wonder of the unimaginable love that draws us.

So we take our palm crosses and walk in procession singing “All glory, laud and honour” but all this is just to set us in the story and to nudge us toward the mystery of Love incarnate.  We carry our crosses as tangible signs to help direct our disordered minds, our tepid hearts, our sluggish souls toward the wonder of the Love that enfolds us.  In all we do this day and through this week we press against the membrane of illusion, the carapace of finitude, that blinds us to the Holy that is reality itself.

Donne said ‘I tune the instrument at the door’; we too now seek to ‘tune our hearts and minds’ so we may become God’s music.  That is our work this Holy Week.