Saturday, May 30, 2015

Trinity Sunday & Euthanasia - a brief reflection at Evensong

Euthanasia: a Trinity Sunday reflection

Choral Evensong is an occasion for a very brief reflection and probably impossible to do justice to so vast a subject as Euthanasia - yet I hope it is an opportunity to attempt some respectful reflection, however brief; and also a time when all who face difficult and terminal issues may be held in prayer.

If the Trinity is an imponderable doctrine that resists our understanding, for me euthanasia is an ethical issue that resists any easy resolution.  To be human is surely to face ethical issues and the measure of who we are may not be that we resolve them like some problematic mathematical equation but that we engage them with all our humanity – and obviously with respect, compassion and imagination. 

This week in the High Court in Wellington Lecretia Seales, suffering from a terminal brain tumour, has asked the Court that her doctor be allowed to help her die.  I am really not sure that this is a case that the Courts can or should make a decision on.  I would have no trouble with medication that was given to ease pain but that also shortened life: the intention to ease the pain being the primary aim.  If that was understood and accepted I hope that no one would then accuse the attendant physician of any wrong doing.  However I realise that such matters have a way of seldom being so straight forward.

However the Wellington case has been brought forward on the grounds of human rights and if it is allowed on those grounds I (with many in New Zealand) will wonder at the implication it will have on the human rights of many vulnerable people in New Zealand.  A shift in the way the law treats the sanctity of life for one will almost certainly cause a shift in the way the sanctity of life for others may come to be regarded.  We always talk about the ‘slippery slope’ in such ethical debates: one concession in case (a) may create precedents in cases (b) and (z) and so on.  

I suppose one particular case such as Lecretia Seales  presents is a bad way to make law that has to be applicable to everyone else.  I suggest that a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members: the aged, the poor, the sick, the handicapped, those who have no one to defend them, care for them or be an advocate for them.

I don’t know what is right for Lecretia Seales yet I hope that  the law is not changed.  There are many things I (and I am sure many others) believe ought to happen rather than change the law, such as: have hospices better funded; have more palliative care consultants to be trained; have money invested into pain clinics; have more research funded for pain relief.

It’s an old film now, but I still vividly remember sometime in the 1980s when I first watched Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in Sophie’s Choice and was appalled at the dilemma Sophie faced when she had to choose in Auschwitz which of her children would be gassed and which would be sent to the Labour camp.

A Poetry of The Trinity

This Trinity Sunday I especially want to share a poem by Malcom Guite (also the Chaplain at Girton College, Cambridge).  There are some famous poets on the subject - one's mind automatically turns to Herbert and Hopkins - but this is one I find particularly satisfying.

The Trinity

In the Beginning, not in time or space,

But in the quick before both space and time,

In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,

In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,

In music, in the whole creation story,

In His own image, His imagination,

The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,

And makes us each the other’s inspiration.

He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,

To improvise a music of our own,

To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,

Three notes resounding from a single tone,

To sing the End in whom we all begin;

Our God beyond, beside us and within.

The Trinity: Euchatastrophe & Cognitive Resistor

Trinity Sunday Reflections 2015

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17;

I want to offer you a new word this morning; not one that I have made up but one coined by J.R.R.Tolkein to describe what he realised as a distinctive feature of Fairy Stories – how they end in joy but only after a long (and transforming) way through tears, misadventure and sorrow.  The word he coined to describe this was ‘eucatastrophe’ – from the Greek prefix ‘eu’ meaning good and ‘catastrophe’ being disaster or destruction. 

"I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth… And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.” (Letter 89)

You could say that Trinity Sunday marks the ‘end’ (though it is never ‘The End’) of the great story of God’s redeeming work that we began to-retell on the First Sunday of Advent (way back in December 2014).  Sunday by Sunday and through the Seasons and Festivals of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost the story has unfolded, been rehearsed and reflected on until, on this Sunday, we may recall it no longer but must now live it.  The story has caught up with us and we must now continue the story into the future.

But why do I say all this on Trinity Sunday?  I think this is because on Trinity Sunday we mark the limits of revelation and reason as we have known or experienced them.  The great story of God’s work has been told and that, with the labours of the church and its theologians through the centuries, has brought us to this Sunday and this expression of the mystery of God, as known in the Holy, Blessed and Glorious Trinity.

It might have been thought that at the end of our liturgical journey, and remembering the roughly 2000 years of similar liturgical journeys that have preceded us, that we might come to this Sunday with a sense of enlightenment; a sense that we have grasped the mystery of God.  Trinity Sunday dispels any such notion.  The doctrine of the Trinity resists all our explanations, our models, our concepts about God: God remains ‘hidden’ in the bright cloud of the Trinity and no understanding we have of the world as we know it really assists us at all. 

By analogy, drawing from the world of electrical circuitry (where, I understand, a resistor may dissipate or terminate electric current flow) the doctrine of the Trinity does something similar to our thinking about God: it stops us!  So, for the moment consider the Trinity as a cognitive resistor!

Each reading this morning confronts us with traces of resistance.

·         The reading from Isaiah is unnervingly of a God who is utterly ‘other’ and beyond us and the visionary who glimpses the ‘Holy’ is filled with fear, awe and an overwhelming sense of his finitude – everything that sustains his sense of being implodes and it is as if he is nothing – and this ‘nothingness’ of being is expressed in that realisation of what he calls uncleanness or sinfulness.

·         In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans there is (as in much of Paul’s thinking) what amounts to a kind of dualism – here expressed in terms of flesh and Spirit.  Note that Paul presents these two terms, these two distinct ways of being, as being incompatible and mutually incomprehensible.  To live in the life of the Spirit is utterly different to the life of the Flesh – reality is understood quite differently.  So, when someone living, as Paul puts it, ‘in the flesh’ is confronted by something related to the Spirit, the result is sheer, blank incomprehension.

·        Now what about the Gospel for today and that extraordinary story of the night visit by the Pharisee Nicodemus to see Jesus?  Commentators have often tried to explain why Nicodemus visited by night but when you think about the constant play and tension between dark and light through the gospel it is not too hard to understand.  The symbolism John works with shows Nicodemus as being physically and intellectually ‘in the dark’ about Jesus and what God is doing.  

So, for instance the cognitive dead end about being ‘born from above’ or ‘born again’ in the old versions – and Nicodemus is a dead literalist and not at all attuned to the fact that in the person of Jesus all language shatters and all concepts crumble into dust.  Here is the one who cannot be defined by the language and the understanding of the world as Nicodemus (and we) know it.  As Jesus speaks of the movement of the Spirit we can feel Nicodemus gaping with incomprehension – and we hear it as he mouths “How can these things be?”

Against the mental chaos Nicodemus experiences Jesus gives form, expression and meaning to the heart and mind of God through one of the most quoted verses of scripture – I think it was the first text that I was set, when a child, to remember: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” These are words we carry in our hearts; words that resonate in our minds; words that carry no conceptual construct to account for God but that nonetheless offer a bare minimal compass through the darkness to guide us home.

So at the end of our readings this Sunday, we find no explanation or map to frame the Trinity or hold the mystery of God; at the end of the great tale that we have told and re-told from Advent to this Sunday, our minds remain as baffled as when we began.  Except for this: we have followed the story in uncertainty and hope, known moments of joy and of great darkness and now that the story seems not so much to have closed as to have caught up with us, we sense a new direction and a presence drawing us on into the future.

Trinity Sunday is our eucatastrophe: the story is not ended but its completion beckons and we are part of it.  As in the Rublev icon of The Trinity there is space for us to sit with them at table, so there is now space for us in the great story of God as it unfolds with us.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

An Open Mind: Listening to that Unsettling Voice

Reflections: 7th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts  1:15-17, 21-26; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19;

The gospel for Ascension Day is always from Luke (24:44-53) – the prequel to the book of Acts – where (after the appearance on the Emmaus road) the resurrected Jesus again appears among the frightened but excited and joyful disciples, convinces them of his physical reality and then disappears from their sight.
  Before that disappearance he does something to prepare the church for the future which Luke expresses in a very particular way, namely this: “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

We understand of course that Luke is not being literal here – no craniotomy is involved!  He is however describing one of the most exciting, intoxicating but alarming experiences that human beings can encounter: that point in time (be it of long or short duration) when what might have been an unimagined or barely considered idea takes hold and the way we see the world changes.  A pale reflection of that might be the exhilaration of the academic researcher when a theory evolves that holds the data; or that of the writer, when the narrative form finally holds intractable material; or, greater in scale one imagines, that moment for Galileo when it became clear that the sun did not orbit the earth and the heliocentric way of thinking of the universe collapsed.

Luke records the moment when, for what we imagine would have been the inner circle of Christ’s followers, the world changed: at last the pieces of the puzzle now fit together – the Jewish scriptures and their baffling experience of Jesus and the resurrection are connected.  To see at last what they had never quite seen before is a moment of liberation, exhilaration and empowerment.   All the readings of this Sunday follow from that moment of revolutionary understanding; from this moment the church prepares for the future that the Spirit will bring at Pentecost.

·        1,  Acts tells the story of the first step in preparation: the gap left by Judas must be filled – they need someone who witnessed with them all that happened; and so the lots fall on Matthias and he joins the twelve apostles; these are all to be the primary bearers of the story.  They are the witnesses and they must testify to the truth of what they have seen, touched, experienced and discovered. 

·         2. Our gospel text from John, part of the ‘high priestly prayer’ as we have been accustomed to call it, dispenses with an orderly chronology of events and in a passion narrative anticipates the Ascension and looks toward the church that has yet to come. Christ has given his disciples all that he can give – and they are now to be bearers of ‘The Word’ – and they will bear the word – carry it – to the ends of the earth in themselves; in their lives; in their unity; in their joy.  They will be the extension of the incarnation – bearing Christ in their life together.

·        3.  The fragment from that first epistle of John is all about apostolic testimony to the world-changing reality of Christ.  This barest summation of their testimony condenses everything to a creedal formula: “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.   He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life.”

And at that bright textual diamond of John, so densely and brilliantly compounded, condensing a whole world of faith and reflection, we pause.  That summary of the apostolic teaching, of the faith that formed the early church and that was to turn the world upside down, can seem so remote from us.  We are so used to keeping a comfortable distance between ourselves and this voice, this presence, that whispers through the scriptures and so persistently unsettles us … ‘this life is in his Son.  He who has the Son has life.” 

We relegate this to another proposition among many.  We hesitate to stake all on it: what would our friends think; what would our colleagues in the Staff Club think?  Here, in these weeks after Easter we may be in something like the situation that the poet Auden (in For the Time Being) saw Christians like us after Christmas:
Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

So we hedge our bets, keep our options open, stay moderately uncommitted; we tend to prefer that our ideas stay unchallenged and that the way we have come to understand the world remain similarly settled.   After all, do we really want to “have our minds opened” and see reality differently?  Yet, an echo in our memory, we may still hear “He who has the Son has life.” 

Hold onto those words in your heart: “He who has the Son has life.”  As we turn now into the Eucharist, we are called deeper into union, deeper into the mystery we name as God.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Writing in the Dust

Easter 6
Readings:   Acts 10: 44-48; 1 John 5: 1-6; John 15: 9-17.

Poetry has been described as a ‘raid on the inarticulate’ – what lies beyond the reach of speech.  Something similar could be claimed for preaching where we venture to explore what is always beyond us and our understanding.  We reflect on the scriptures while clutching all the baggage of our lives; we pore over these writings in the dust – and in this moment we are explorers.  Will you join with me in this?

Has anyone seen the science fiction film Interstellar?  In a dying world where dust storms ravage the earth, one household identifies inexplicable anomalies in gravity: in one room the intruding dust forms patterns that can be decoded into Morse code.  From beyond the universe there seems to be some inexplicable force that wills to communicate.  It seems that for humanity to survive a new world has to be discovered.  Consequently astronauts are launched through a wormhole and beyond space and time into a dimension where the speculations of relativity theory change reality as we know it.  In a critical moment of decision one of the scientists thinks beyond their ‘science’ and speculates:
Love isn't something we invented. It's much more powerful. It has to mean something.  It means something more, something we can't yet understand, some evidence, some artefact of a higher dimension we can't conceive.  Love is the one thing that we are capable of perceiving that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can't understand it yet.
Our language of faith is a strange thing.  While much of our faith is a matter of the heart which as Pascal said “has its reasons that reason knows nothing of”, there are also those mysteries that we wrap in such words as ‘Incarnation’, ‘Resurrection’ and ‘Ascension’; we stumble over these mysteries in the creed, in the Eucharistic prayers and in sermons but when we try to comprehend them we can feel our eyes glaze over and our minds threaten to blow a fuse.

Think of these strange words, these utter mysteries, as a message from another world, another dimension; a message reaching us across time and space, intruding in to our finite space and inviting us to receive and decode – even if we can’t quite comprehend it, let alone believe it.  Saint John staggers under the weight of its wonder when he puts into words the unimaginable, and confesses that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’.

Those first Christians must have been on a spiritual and intellectual roller-coaster.  They had to come to terms with the mind-bending mystery of the incarnation – that Jesus is indeed God but in our flesh; they came to follow him, love him but saw him die.  But it did not stop there:  after that grief and loss there was the resurrection –and here is this much loved one back, very much alive but different – by the empty tomb he says to Mary ‘don’t cling to me’ but in the locked upper room he invites Thomas to probe his wounds; the boundaries of time and space have telescoped; the rules of the material world seem to have collapsed.  But still, it did not stop there: for, just when they might have accepted this new order of reality – the resurrected Jesus says he is going away – and there we have the mystery we call the Ascension.  If you could summarise all of this – maybe it would be to say that we are caught up in a constant transformation of vision and understanding; just when you think you might have grasped something – everything changes again.

For example that first reading from Acts where, while in Joppa, Peter and some fellow Jewish Christians visit the house of the gentile Cornelius, and the Holy Spirit is made manifest among the Gentiles present – seemingly without any preconditions of circumcision, baptism or belief.  For those first Jewish Christians this was a world-changing moment.  God was more than they had imagined or ever bargained for.  Rules, concepts, the old cultural habits and ways of seeing the world just could not apply any longer. Here is a love, a power, a force, that cannot be contained or managed. 

On this Sunday before Ascension it is no accident that our Gospel reading comes from St John’s account of Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples before his death. To say farewell to loved ones can be the hardest thing we endure; our instincts fight against it – we want to hold on.  To watch a loved one pass away, slip from our reach – to go beyond our grasp or comprehension is so hard.  Years later still our love remains – a pulse flickering into space.

But in that brief moment of farewell when hands may still be held and words exchanged, all speech is condensed, reduced to its essence.  So our Gospel today cannot be reduced further: our Lord merely says “Abide in my love,” (and) “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Written in our dust is this message from beyond our world … love one another … I love you.   All our faith-speech of incarnation, resurrection, ascension … is bare code that traced in our dust carries the message of immeasurable love.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Life in the Vineyard and being 'a cell of good living'

Easter 5, 2015
Readings: 1 John 4: 7-21; John 15:1-8

Nearly 70 years ago, speaking at a New Zealand writers' conference in Christchurch, 1951, the young poet James K. Baxter argued that it was ‘reasonable and necessary that poetry should contain moral truth, and that every poet should be a prophet according to his lights’. The poet ‘should remain as a cell of good living in a corrupt society, and in this situation by writing and example attempt to change it’. That is a highly principled and socially grounded view of the poet’s calling and how we are called to live for the common good. That is a view that contrasts starkly with our current social context.   

It still surprises me that when I turn on the TV in the morning to find the news I have to go through something called ‘The Breakfast Show’ where, if one misses the very few minutes of sensibly delivered news, one has to endure a string of shrill and faintly hysterical inanities until the next segment of news is due. I can’t recall the context but I vividly remember the words of one recent commentator who triumphantly trilled “I’m such an atheist, I’m such an atheist”. It was the attitude that struck me – here was someone eloquent in banality and seemingly untouched by any dark night of the soul, any agonies of faith or unfaith. This images the social context within which (or against which) we worship this morning: in the beauty and mystery of Eucharist and Choral Mattins we contemplate the scriptures and we offer God our worship; but we do this within a society where such mysteries are incomprehensible and might as well be messages from another planet.  

This morning we are confronted by writings attributed to St John – the Gospel and the First Epistle that bear his name. Are both by the same writer? We are uncertain, but there are great similarities. From John’s gospel you may remember that magnificent prologue that summarises the themes of the gospel and introduces the images of light and dark that run through the whole work. In the epistle we see the same images of light and dark and the same emphasis as in the gospel on the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands…” (1 John 1:1.)

As a reader I recognise that my response to the gospel and to the epistle is quite different. Where the gospel draws me in by story and images to stimulate my mind and my imagination, the epistle is far harder to engage with so personally, it resists me with its style of sermon and impassable theology.   

For instance, it is barely possible to argue or debate over the exhortation “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.” The problem is that against the smooth surfaces of that exhortation there is little on which to grab hold and the implications for daily life in our complex present are bewilderingly opaque. What does ‘love’ mean? Further, even if we have a fleeting sense of what it may mean, how does one ever get to love like that? Deeper in the background we might still hear the mindless yapping of that nameless commentator “I’m such an atheist, I’m such an atheist”.   

But deeper still, running beneath the smooth surface of the epistle we sense the otherness of this love the author speaks of, its transforming nature and its source in God: “if we love one another, God abides in us.” During our Thinking Through the Scriptures this week one instinctive response was ‘This is beautiful’ – and so it is! Love is not put off by our human follies – always love recognises the other and sees something to love and welcome. We sense that love behind the composure and authority of the voice that addresses us even if we scrabble to find something to guide us.   

This is where the gospel passage comes to our aid. Here, using the familiar things of our world, its imagery and metaphor shine through the fog of spiritual abstractions and absolutes to guide us. Suddenly the spiritual reality of life in Christ coalesces through the world of a vineyard with a vine and a vine-grower: to follow Christ is to be as connected to him as a fruit bearing cane is to its vine. It is clear also that this life is not for the dilettante; it is not a hobby; not a leisure activity; not a self-indulgence; not a self-improvement course; but a way of being that is all-consuming, demanding, and painful – one thinks of the snip of the secateurs! And yet here is something utterly life-giving.   

But a question worth asking at this point may be how does this change the world? What is the social good of living this radically connected life? Baxter argued that a poet be a cell of good living in a corrupt society and so seek to change it. So it is for us: as we grow in Christ, so we are changed, even transformed – and this change affects everyone about us. It was Catherine of Siena who observed:

“Keep in mind that each of you has your own vineyard. But everyone is joined to the neighbours’ vineyards without any dividing lines. They are so joined together, in fact, that you cannot do good or evil for yourself without doing the same for your neighbours.”