Monday, November 21, 2016

Hallelujah in the Cathedral

This is one of those reflections in a minor key for Choral Evensong where the thoughts are shaped by the occasion ...

Choral Evensong – The Cathedral Music Foundation
Christ the King 2016

The recent death of Leonard Cohen prompted me to download one of his albums and, of course, it
included his song ‘Hallelujah’: one of his great songs and incredibly popular.  When he was asked to explain its popularity – he said that it has a great chorus; indeed it has; it draws you in to sing along with it.  In Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ the first verse sets out something of what we might briefly reflect on tonight

Now, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord

In just those two lines Cohen opens up something of the mystery of music; its origin, if you like, in God and its capacity to awake the God in us: music being a kind of bridge spanning, however tenuously, the finite and the infinite.  However, I love the way Cohen takes the vision back a peg or two and gently mocks himself and us with the sideline …

“But you don't really care for music, do you?”

I am told that music theorists understand music as a collection of sounds in and over time and that music may be explained in terms of pitch and structure.  But Cohen describes, quite literally, the harmonic progression of the verse: "It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift." This is an explanation of the song's structure (the basic chord progression of most pop and blues songs goes from the "one" chord, the root, up three steps to the "four," then up another to the "five," and then resolves back to the "one"), followed by a reference to the conventional contrast between a major and a minor key.

It may be judged a little incongruous that this evening we celebrate the Cathedral Music Foundation with the Dean talking about Leonard Cohen.  But I suggest it is not: Cohen ends the first verse with his reference to David, "the baffled king composing Hallelujah!" – a comment that touches on the enigmatic nature of artistic creation, or of romantic love, or both: the kind of world spanning insight that only poets and music gift us.  We are in a time when we desperately need that kind of revelation and understanding.

All our language to describe or in some way account for music breaks down in the face of the experience itself: the moment when the God breaks through and we are utterly involved in something that calls us beyond ourselves and yet also makes us aware that we are, and that we are alive and held in wonder.  Rudolph Otto described such moments of wonder as numinous and he talked of the mysterium tremendum, that otherness of the Holy – which we approach with hope and awe as it intersects our lives.   You could say that’s why we have music and why we have a Cathedral Music Foundation.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Christ the King - between faith and doubt

Christ the King 2016
20 November 2016

This is a Sunday when we need to remember where we are in the church’s story – we are at the end of the liturgical year – and next Sunday we start the story again with Advent Sunday.  So at this end of the story we celebrate with a bold statement of faith – the Feast of Christ the King; celebrating with hope and longing the rule of Christ over all creation.  It is a strange Feast – because it celebrates what we cannot yet quite discern; it inhabits the reality of the now and the not yet, the visible and the invisible, present and future – it is a feast that demands we cross dimensions of time and space.
Icon of Christ the King

We see this most obviously in the readings.  The epistle, Colossians, has a fragment from what we think was an early Christian hymn, proclaiming who Christ is:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, …

A careful reader will notice the artful oxymoron – “the image of the invisible” – of course this shakes us.  It is a conceptual impossibility.    This hymn takes us beyond all we can imagine: it affirms Christ as God and as the source of all that is - from before creation and to beyond the end of time.  The hymn sings us into faith.  That is what hymns do; that is what worship does; that is what liturgy is about – we are drawn into faith; drawn into another dimension of reality.  

This is heady stuff!  This vision of the cosmic Christ beggars our imagination and our capacity to comprehend.

Contrast that vision with the gospel where Luke takes us to observe the brutality of the cross.   At the forefront of this gospel is Christ on the cross enduring the mockery of the soldiers, the ridicule of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of one of those crucified with him.  To read this, to hear it, is to be confronted by the darkness of our world and what we are capable of; our capacity to marginalise and isolate, humiliate and torture, and to kill.  We catch a glimpse of our own blindness and wilfulness; we are placed within a tableau of the darkness and abandonment we inhabit.

So, today the two readings collide: the epistle being the dazzling and mind-bending vision of the cosmic Christ, ruler of the universe; the gospel as the spectacle of suffering and death in a brutal, finite, and temporal world.

Except that this is not quite the whole story. 
Hieronymous Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross,

I have in mind a painting by Hieronymous Bosch, painted about 1480.  The painting is of Christ carrying the cross – and Bosch painted 3 very different studies on this subject.  The one I have in mind is in the Art History Museum in Vienna.  At the centre is Christ crowded about and bowed under the cross. But this is also a very tall painting with the effect that our eyes are drawn down to the lower right and left corners where we see two other figures – the thieves also about to be crucified with Jesus.  In the right corner we see one of them, kneeling and making confession to a robed friar.

Detail, the penitent thief
In this way Bosch guides our reading of this gospel.  At the place of execution, confronting the terror and pain that will mark his death, this man makes his confession.  This killing ground is his ‘ground zero’: this moment of truth allows no time for illusion or denial. Reality, raw and indescribably brutal, cannot be evaded.   Yet, despite the horror and darkness, it is also as if there is a pinpoint of light.  This is a man who sees through the horror of the cross into the Kingdom.  

Though unnamed in the gospel, we have a name for this man: by tradition the church remembers him as Dismas.  We recall that, dying on the cross, gasping for breath, he asked Jesus to remember him.   We recall Christ’s response, also gasping for breath, he said “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  

Dismas in Paradise

So, Dismas is made Christ’s own forever.

At the end of the Church year, in this untidy week before the start of Advent,  Dismas speaks for us all and for our mortality and frailty; for all of us who swing between wonder and fear, faith and doubt.   “In the chaos of life, in my sins, at my end, King Jesus, remember me.”

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Remembrance Sunday Thoughts after the Election of Mr Trump

Reflections for Remembrance Sunday 2016

We are still more or less in the exam season and Remembrance Day reminds me of one of the standard exam questions for modern History students – the invitation to explain the causes of the First World War.  

I remember the headache the question seemed to induce: there was no obvious ‘bad guy’ and no rogue nation, no obvious cause or need for so many nations to get dragged into such a messy and meaningless global conflict. 

The system of alliances (Britain, France and Russia on one side, Germany, Austria Hungary and Italy on the other) worked like collapsing dominoes: one nation after another got drawn in; all tumbling into chaos.   It was hard to explain at the time, and it has got no easier over the years.  Yet, behind all the nationalism, militarism and the elaborate alliances, historians point to an underlying social unease: that in post industrial revolution Europe the old way of running things no longer quite worked and class conflict and socialism were changing things.  Was the war a distraction, a diversion from insoluble social pressures?  I think that would be a great exam question!

But that’s not a comfortable thought.  That exhibition of crosses at Queen’s Gardens brings home the horrible cost of New Zealand being sucked into a conflict that began a world away so many years ago.  It seems all the more horrible if the war was really the manifestation of a deeper problem.

To think about those crosses in Queen’s Gardens, is not just to remember and grieve, but to remember and think about our world now.  We learn from the past.  Remembrance Day is not about nostalgia but it demands our attention to the present.  If a changing world order prepared the way for the First WW, how do we make sense of the world changing events that have happened this year and even this past week?   What about that French diplomat who, responding to the election result in America, tweeted “The world is collapsing before our eyes.”?

Behind Brexit earlier this year, and behind the election of Mr Trump, there is a reality – and, disturbing as it is, it is hard to know how to change it –wealth has become concentrated into a 1% of world elite and there is a global technocracy that serves their interests. 

A journalist, Simon Jenkins, observed: “(Brexit) … was the shock given to politics in Europe when voters rejected the failure of a perceived ruling class to deliver on its duties and promises. For decades an elite of the urban, educated and self-righteous had merely made itself richer and the poor poorer. A peasants’ revolt of the sort that periodically jolts democracy out of its comfort zone was the result.” 

Remember how in recent years we have had the Global Financial Crisis of 2008; seen the banks bailed out with little reform; noted the Occupy Movement of 2011; and  in 2015 we saw Greece utterly humiliated by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund; at home we have seen house prices in Auckland make home ownership impossible for many.  

Hear how one observer has summarised the experience of many:

“Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neo-liberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.”

On Remembrance Sunday, is that the legacy with which we honour our dead?  

Are we content to tolerate a privileged few alongside an underclass trapped in debt and financial insecurity?  However I think the question is bigger than that: this is not just a political or economic problem; not even an ideological one. Quietly, silently, the world changes moment by moment because we are on a roller coaster of accelerating technological change far greater than anything the world has experienced since the Industrial Revolution.  In the big picture technology is taking jobs: the future of employment, the nature of work, seems bound to change fundamentally.  In the process our society will be transformed and there is a future that we will have to help shape.

On Remembrance Sunday we don’t just remember to grieve; we remember also so that we may act with courage and insight in the challenges that we face now.  We owe our dead no less.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Future Shock at Choral Evensong

The Friday Otago Daily Times is, for me, obligatory reading.  There is always Chris Trotter’s column ‘From the Left’, almost invariably good; then there is the Faith and Reason column – at best, erratic; and there is frequently a piece of thoughtful journalism, often ‘World View’ by Gwynne Dyer.  

This last Friday all 3 columns serendipitously held together.  Trotter lamented the departure of David Cunliffe from politics, lamenting the utter inability of the party to ideologically reposition itself in the wake of the global financial crisis.  In 'Faith and Reason' Richard Dawson mourned the loss of hope in the young generation, pointing to the consequences of a society drained of spiritual vision and consequently prepared to accept the gross inequalities of wealth and opportunity we see about us.  It was Gwynne Dyer who pulled the threads together in his astute little reflection on the troubles of Uber: pointing out that the rise of driver-owner-operators in this little market will be short-lived as the development of self-driving cars will abolish almost all driving jobs in the next twenty years.  He cites research in 2013 by Oxford economists Carl Frey and Michael Osborne that foresees in America about 47% of jobs will be lost to automation within 20 years.  Radical thinking is required to manage this kind of change.

Historically the great change prior to this was the huge shift in social organisation and ways of living brought about by the Industrial Revolution – and that was a messy transition, accompanied by urban uprisings and class warfare.  What the future holds now is less easy to predict.

Some folk may remember one of the influential books of the 1970s – Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.  Much in Toffler’s old essay reads very pertinently now.  He argued that back then society was already caught up in enormous structural change and was shifting from an industrial to a super-industrial society in which accelerated technological and social change left people feeling stressed, disconnected and disoriented.  Familiar institutions disappear (e.g. Churches, post offices, department stores); professions change – e.g. doctors, engineers – goods become disposable, designs outdated, e.g. rapid transition of computers and smart phones, new generations emerging before others are sold!  Jobs change, markets change and workers become migrants – moving to find new work.  This has a huge effect on communities.   People change professions because professions become outdated – may have many careers in a lifetime – we become transients/nomads!

Gwynne Dyer pointed out – I think quite accurately – that in this rapidly changing situation “the real task will be to find ways of providing a majority of our citizens with money and self-respect without the jobs they would previously have expected.  Some form of guaranteed minimum income is probably the answer”.

As a theologian, this is the area I think we need to be working in.  We are looking for a new kind of society – and I come back to Richard Dawson’s comments on vision: “Our spirits need something that helps us to live beyond ourselves, our needs, our desires - that enables us to be more selfless in some way.  This is one of
the reasons Jesus said ‘those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ ”  Amen to that!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Reductio ad absurdum in Jerusalem

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C


All the readings this morning hold the sense an ending: rightly so; the church is near the end of the liturgical year and approaching the cusp of something new.  In the wake of All Saints Day and the Feast of All Souls, we look toward the action and purpose of God in our world and in our lives across all time and space.

In the book of Haggai, a minor prophet, we catch a glimpse of the prophet speaking to the people in a difficult time.  This is a precise moment in time – the people are no longer in exile in Babylon but back in Jerusalem, but the city is a shadow of what it used to be: there are hostile neighbours and all work on rebuilding the temple has stopped.  In this climate of uncertainty, anxiety and fear, Haggai repeats the ancient promise of God that dates back to the Exodus from Egypt: “Take courage, work, for I am with you.”  We can look back and we find that Haggai’s message was heard and responded to: the work on the temple resumed and by about 515 BC the temple was completed.   Where hope and vision had been lost, where the community had become paralysed by anxiety, they are reassured by Haggai’s message and so radically refocused that they can move forward as a people.

Hundreds of years later, in the fragment from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica we also catch a glimpse of a community going through a difficult time.  This little Christian community was riddled by uncertainty as to what to believe: is the end of the world coming now or are they to wait?  There are ‘fear merchants’ predicting disaster and the end of all things: secular writers, warning of disaster and point to storms and earthquakes; religious leaders confuse them similarly.  How can one live in such times?  Paul is very clear: he takes this little church back to the God in whom we trust – we are held in God’s care and our task is to trust, to live confidently, to work confidently – and to not be shaken. 

We might all identify with the anxieties of the Thessalonians: we watch the coverage of the American elections; we ponder Trump and Clinton, we contemplate the hopelessness of the wars in Iraq and Syria – the tragedy that is Aleppo; we see the trauma of refugees, camping in the streets of Europe or risking hazardous journeys; we know a world where employment opportunities are shrinking and where financial inequity is rampant and increasing.  Yes, it is hard not to be shaken and we may feel like asking the question, how is it possible to live in such times?

In the gospel this morning our distinctively human and deepest anxiety about life and what it means is drawn to the surface.  It is focussed about the fact of our mortality.

In Jerusalem Jesus is challenged by the powerful religious establishment of the time, Pharisees and Sadducees.   These two groups had their theological differences: the Pharisees believed in a resurrection; the Sadducees did not; so they were sad, you see!

The Sadducees challenge Jesus with the question of the resurrection – is there life beyond death? –they present him with a proposition that makes the question look ridiculous.  They clearly know that the best way to discredit an idea is to have everyone laugh at it.  So, they raise the Mosaic tradition that stipulates brothers are to marry their brother’s childless widow and raise children for their brother: seven brothers die childless; then the woman who has married them all; so, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be?  Philosophically this looks like the argument philosophers call reduction ad absurdum.   It’s a fine joke but the real humour and the irony rest with Jesus: the Sadducees have got it all wrong – the proposition falters because this life is not that life; this reality is not that reality.  This reality that we cling to so tenaciously now (this life) is just the threshold of another dimension entirely.

This other dimension is to where all these readings draw us: in Haggai a dispirited society has lost sight of its spiritual roots and is paralysed by fear – but they have to grasp that God is still with them and there is work for them to do – now.  In Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians, the believers are overwhelmed by uncertainty, is this the end of days and what should they do?  Paul says, get a grip – trust God; live as people of faith are meant to live.  In the gospel, the aristocratic cultivated Sadducees, sneering at the silly idea of the resurrection, try to intimidate Jesus – and in effect Jesus says you know nothing – reality is more than you can ever imagine.

I have in my mind’s eye an icon of the resurrection: it shows Christ stepping into the void and hauling men and women from their graves and drawing them into life.  Of course we don’t understand it – we can’t – but the image speaks more powerfully than any words.  This is He whom we follow.