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.