Saturday, December 30, 2017

“Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”

“Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”   

This is a strange time of the year and impressions and memories that have been formed from early childhood still influence how many of us understand the Season of Christmas as it spills over into the New Year.  I read a recent article from a NZ columnist who explored that thought with insight and reverence.

“When I was little, Christmas seemed such a big thing. It loomed in my child’s mind as the final, familiar headland, around which the Ship of the Year must pass before dropping anchor on New Year’s Eve.

And it wasn’t just the gathering pace of the festival; the choosing and decorating of the tree, the steadily mounting pile of presents, the arrival of grandparents, aunts, uncles and assorted cousins, that quickened my excitement. Underpinning it all there was an awareness of the Christmas Story itself.

We are so familiar with the biblical narrative now, that it is easy to forget its impact upon the imagination of the very young. For me, the wonder of the story of the Nativity has always been encapsulated in the lines of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem:
Oh little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie,
Within thy dark and dreamless sleep
The silent hours go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

That sense of immanence, of something miraculous and terribly important taking place amidst the mundane and the ordinary; of a supernatural presence smashing through the barriers of the workaday world – as it did for those shepherds on the hillside – was incredibly powerful. It was as if a voice was whispering: “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”

To a little boy growing up in the Otago countryside – where at night the stars burn bright and clear - the whole Christmas story glimmered with mystery and magic.”

In this our columnist (Chris Trotter) demonstrates an instinctive understanding of the power of the Christmas story; a recognition of the irruption into normal finite time of something transcendent in essence and of a measure of reality far beyond what can understand: “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”   

I utterly agree.  It is of course outrageous – those words ‘mystery’ and ‘magic’ are surely a warning of where such thinking leads -  and theologians opposed to all such notions of transcendence have warned us and argued the point, affirmed the ‘Death of God’ theology, but, in the process have seemed to paint the faith into a corner.   At their hands our universe can seem drained of the sacred and our imaginative capacity is denigrated and diminished as an aberration rather than a complement to our use of reason and science.

Great Christian writers have worked tirelessly go restore our imaginative richness and renew our openness to the sources of transcendence at work within the natural order. The gospel vision appears re-framed within the fictions of C. S. Lewis and J. R.R. Tolkein.  There is an expansive contemporary movement of Christian/ religious fantasy fiction and a growing number of writers whose works extend its notional boundaries.  

The strange novels of Charles Williams fall clearly within that category but also some names I had not thought of – John Masefield for example, in his children’s novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights.  Similarly the possibly neo-pagan aspect of Susan Cooper’s children’s fantasy The Dark is Rising, presents our familiar world as a place where good and evil, light and dark, are enmeshed in conflict. “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”
These are stories that may or may not be recognised as Christian in essence, but doctrine and orthodoxy (as the creeds may express it), need imaginative relocation to refresh and renew our faith.  We all need help to see our world as a place where there is mystery and wonder, and where our hopes and deepest instincts draw upon a deeper wisdom than we allow for or can easily explain.  

In doing this we reclaim a sacred space for the imagination and we acknowledge the reality of evil and, alongside it, the capacity for goodness in our world.  To read such works is always to imaginatively realign ourselves with God and the good; this is reading to warm the heart and stir the will; it is reading with the intention or hope of transformation.

As the apostle John has expressed it: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.”  “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”   This is, in effect,  an invitation to view the New Year and its changes with hope, caution and resolve.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Advent 4 And is it true?

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2017

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1: 26-38;

Dunedin residents and readers of the ODT (Otago Daily Times) will recall the recent spat over the Christmas Tree in the Octagon and the new message that accompanied it: ‘Happy Holidays’.  I had someone ring me to ask that I complain: this was someone who sounded sane and benign but was plainly upset at the deliberate sidelining of the religious origins of the festival.  What can one say? ‘Happy Holidays’ was not in itself offensive.  On the contrary it was a benign sentiment, calculatedly inclusive and politically correct, (aspirationally commendable) except that it notionally excluded all for whom the so-called ‘holiday’ acknowledges a holy day, Christmas.

To be fair, this is nothing new; in one form or another  the issue of the holiness of the day rears its head uncomfortably as we think about the season.  Most of us indulge in the happy rituals of Christmas, - presents, tree, St Nicholas aka Santa, and like a few carols – it is a time for families and general good will – but it is also a time when we don’t want anything too serious, too solemn, let alone ‘holy’.  The thought of the latter can send a frisson of panic along the spine of the casual, carefree, ‘I’m OK with Christmas’, Christian.

Let me give you an example:  In a poem, simply titled ‘Christmas’, the poet John Betjeman celebrated the sentimental pull of the season - a time when ‘girls in slacks remember Dad/ and oafish louts remember Mum’ only to then abruptly ask a terrifying question, “And is it true”?
And is it true? And is it true,
this most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
                A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?

And is it true?  For if it is,              
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
                The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells,
                No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple shaking bells
                Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

For me the poem works because the poet picks out the familiar details of the Christmas rituals and the stubborn pull of affections in family and friends, good and charming things as they are; only to then set everything and every endeavour against the great and incredible mystery of the Incarnation: (Nothing) “can with this single truth compare - That God was man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine”.

This truth of the Incarnation is almost impossible to conceptually grasp and that difficulty is the nub of Betjeman’s point.   If we embrace that truth, the consequences are annihilating.  We see ourselves, our world and our place in it, in an entirely different light.  From here on the ordinary is seen differently.  Reality as we understand it shimmers with immeasurable possibilities; all things become luminous with divine presence and purpose.  Our options for how we live are no longer quite our own, because to live now means to live ‘In Christ’.

This is why we can talk about the scandal of the incarnation: intellectually and conceptually it seems “a bridge too far”.  All theological concepts of God seem at odds with the God who takes on human form – no, more than that, the God who is truly and utterly human.  Philosophers and theologians, Christian and of other faiths, seem stumped on this issue.  As Leonardo Boff expresses it (read my Note from the Dean in this week’s pew sheet): “Once Christianity affirms that a man is at the same time God, it stands alone in the world. We are obliged to say it: This is a scandal to…all the religions and pious peoples of yesterday and today who venerate and adore a transcendent God: one that is totally other, who cannot be objectified, a God beyond this world, infinite, eternal, incomprehensible, and above everything that human beings can be and know.”

“And is it true?”  We keep coming back to Betjeman’s question.  On the one hand we hold affectionately to the Christmases we have celebrated over the years and the place those memories hold in our hearts.  Yet on the other hand, we are less than comfortable with the implications of the mystery – of the Holy amongst us – and of the call that places on us. In these moments of wrapping presents does the weight of an overwhelming reality press upon us and draw us into another way of being, into a deeper structure of reality?  And is it true?

No love that in a family dwells,
                No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple shaking bells
                Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

This morning we come to the Eucharist with that question in our minds and on our hearts “And is it true?”

Advent 3 "Who are you?"

Reflection for Advent 3
Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1Thess 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

At the heart of the gospel for this morning is a question – and in reality a question that cannot be answered.  Yet nonetheless the question is put: “Who are you?”  Imagine that you are asked that question: how do you begin to answer it?  Do you go back to your ancestry, list your whakapapa or bring out the Family Tree… even tell the legends and display the photos that inform the story?   Might you reel off a list of professional qualifications (framed of course), publications and conference papers, reciting what you have done?  There might be some gender variations here: there was a time when women were identified by who they were attached to or whom they were the mother of … “Who are you?”  But how do we express the mystery within that question – the enigma of consciousness and the truth of our identity?

John recalls that the people who asked the uncomfortable question were the Pharisees, the zealous and diligent Israelites who followed the Torah and were so scrupulous to keep the customs that preserved a Jewish identity, no matter what cultural complexities surrounded them.   They were a people knew the great Isaiah prophecy, cherished it, looked for its realisation and asked ‘Who are you?’:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;

.. to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
So who then are these oppressed and broken-hearted ones?  We have seen them in the long lines of wretched Rohyinga wading through the muddy paths from Rakhine in Myanmar to Cox’s bazaar and thence to Bangladesh.  They are in the dreadful queues at border crossings from Syria to Iraq and thence to Lebanon or Turkey: the cars, the trucks, anything with wheels and fuel; but we have also seen them on foot – hauling hand carts, and wheel barrows; and what about the captives, the prisoners, the mourners? Well we have seen them too.  The captives are the disarmed and disillusioned ones lined up at a vetting station to eventually be processed to a refugee camp; the prisoners are among them too; small groups huddled under the scrutiny of hard-eyed captors and their machine guns.  The mourners are all too familiar to us: we have seen droves of them, in columns by freshly dug graves.  Whole families buried this way; no time to waste; all to be done before sundown; tears in the dust are their line in the sand.  Here, in this week’s news, is the human state of broken hearts, captives, prisoners and mourners – as real now as in ancient times but universally documented with a smartphone and the internet.

To know this world of pain, to have realised just a bare fraction of such raw suffering, is to understand the intolerable longing contained in the prophet’s message.  Against this the prophet speaks of God’s faithful purpose: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed …”; and, in a dark hour in an occupied land, a territory of Rome’s empire, there were those oppressed, who sensed something in John the Baptist and asked out of their longing, ‘Who are You?’

Our prayer is always in our longing: which is encouraging for all of us who find prayer difficult.  The writer in the Epistle this morning tells us to pray without ceasing and it is Augustine who understood that our longing is always our prayer – and so we are to keep on longing and to hold that longing before God who knows our hearts and our thoughts before we can form the words.  Of course we hear the question those other longing hearts asked the Baptizer: “Who are you”.  His answer must have come as a disappointment – it was a string of negatives – an ancient way of doing theology – the via negativa. “ I am not the Messiah.  I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet.  You don’t recognise the one who is among you.  I am not worthy to undo the strap of his sandal.”  Who are you?  I am a voice crying in the wilderness (which is an around-about way of saying, I am nothing).  But the voice crying in the wilderness is the voice of longing; the cry of prayer.  Who are you?

In Advent we find the question probes us.  Who are we?  Truly and profoundly we are what we long for.  That realisation cuts through all the humbug and self-deceit we use to protect us from the One who knows us through and through.  What do we long for?  What is the cry in our prayer?  Advent draws us to the light!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Christ the King, Pantocrator and Prisoner

Feast of Christ the King 2017

We call this Sunday the Feast of Christ the King.  With a title like that we expect it to be an occasion of rejoicing and celebration.  This is the Sunday when we end the liturgical year (the completion of the Church’s story) and prepare to start the story again with Advent Sunday: so from the end of the story we will go back to the beginning.  So at this end of the story, we pause and realise that this Sunday is no end but already a new beginning.

On this Sunday I find myself conflicted.  I murmur the lovely words ‘Christ the King’ and make that a prayer in my heart.  It is a cry of longing.  The thought reminds me of a recurring image often found in prominent locations in ancient churches (I think especially of the Eastern Church) Christ pantocrator – it represents Christ as the creator and sustainer of the universe.   To encounter the image is quite startling – it crosses a cultural threshold; a spiritual and imaginative threshold.  This is Christ in glory – beyond the scope of time.   It is unspeakably bold in conception and, when I saw it in Hagia Sophia, the ambiguity of it wrung my heart as, on each side of it, were the huge calligraphic panes that bragged of an Islamic conquest.  And yet the cry of longing remains: I remember Christ’s caution (John 18:36) “My kingdom is not of this world” and I continue to pray “your kingdom come”, even in Hagia Sophia, this magnificent edifice to faith, desolation and loss.

Recollection Tableaux: Inmate shortly after processing, by Susan Hagen
So, I continue to be conflicted: on the one hand the image of Christ pantocrator, creator and sustainer of the universe, and, on the other hand our human condition, finite, troubled, uncertain.  How might we image our condition?  I stumbled across this.  It is a photograph of a sculpture by the artist Susan Hagen and it is called ‘Recollection Tableaux: Inmate shortly after processing’.  The situation is quite unique: it is from an art exhibit at the Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA.  The exhibit depicts scenes of prison life in plaster sculptures. In the photograph the sculpture is brightly spotlit but surrounded by darkness. The image is disturbing; it is a lone figure, hooded and in a prison uniform; everything in this image speaks of alienation and dislocation, of a process of dehumanisation; of subjection to a systematic assault that makes one feel lost, without dignity, without identity and utterly helpless. Even the title shocks me: ‘Inmate shortly after processing’, here is someone rendered as an object not a person; referred to as an ‘inmate’ and subjected to a ‘process’.   

On this feast of Christ the King we contemplate these two images and feel the disparity and tension between them.  In the image of the conquering Christ, the creator and sustainer of all that is, I glimpse, imaginatively, the vision of God’s purpose, that fulfilment envisioned in Revelation (21) when

“…God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

But in ‘Inmate shortly after processing’ I recognise myself, and all of us, bound in our human predicament, – bound in our humanity, vulnerable and blind.  More than this, I also start to discern in this bound and hooded figure the helpless Christ of the Passion; the incarnate one who shares our flesh and our predicament; the one who is humiliated, mocked and reduced by the powers and authorities of this world.

I don’t see this connection easily or quickly; it is no glib trick of speech or shuffling of images.  It is a realisation that comes out of the pain that is also a kind of prayer.  We see it in the gospel this morning when the gloriously confused righteous ask their King in glory:

“25:37 … 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

25:38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

25:39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

25:40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'

On this Feast of Christ the King we rehearse and spell out the difficult grammar of salvation.  In the image of ‘Inmate shortly after processing’ we recognise ourselves and our predicament and holding that, in the manner of the watermark on our paper, we faintly discern the image of Christ Pantocrator, the one who is creator and sustainer of the universe. Dear Lord, your Kingdom come.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

An intolerable parable

This is one of those parables that threaten to drive you to despair.  I find myself angry with it and that maybe because I am frightened by it – that at the end of the great game of life, I never quite did what I should have done.  Too late then to complain: “It isn’t fair”; to point the finger – the others had more , better genes, better circumstances, a happier disposition; or simply you expect too much.  But who wants at the end of the course to be haunted by the dreadful thought, ‘I never did quite enough?’  It’s a parable with a dreadful sting in its tail:

So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

25:29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

This poor last servant misses the point, and the poor clueless man finds himself in the outer darkness for clinging to the supposed safety of burying his talent in the ground.
John Wesley commented, "So mere harmlessness, on which many build their hope of salvation, was the cause of his damnation."  How might we craft his epitaph: “I did no harm but that wasn’t enough?”
Then there is the ethical and economic question of the parable: this looks like a triumph of capitalism and the market forces – if you have more than others you will succeed and success is rewarded by even more; whereas the poor, the marginal, the one talent multitude will be stripped of all they have.  Is this a parable cheering on the mega rich and the entrepreneurs?

You may remember at some stage being required to read and learn John Milton’s famous sonnet (19) on his blindness ; you may remember how he writes about his blindness and his vocation to be a poet; he questions God’s justice and in the end resolves the debate – by arguing that the scope of God’s purpose is greater than any can imagine and “They also serve who only stand and wait”.  It’s a great example of an artist arguing with the parable; stretching and testing it.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
'Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?'
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, 'God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.'

-John Milton 1608-1674
Sonnet XIX

You will realise that this is a parable that invites you argue with it.  Is God fair?  But is that simply as irrelevant as if we were to complain about water being wet!

The parable however probes us.  It prods us where we are most vulnerable – where we are most fearful and uncertain.   The rhetoric of the parable casts us into the role of the unfortunate servant – the one who is afraid – and there the parable confronts us, challenges us, with where our fearfulness can trap us.  If the currency of the talent is about our capacity for love; in other words our capacity to be free and to reach beyond ourselves, beyond our preoccupation with ourselves; then what happens if we bury love, it we hide it away?  Something in us dies …

So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

25:29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”

That is why we are here: for the art of love which requires endless practice, a constant rehearsal…

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Remembrance Sunday

Remembrance Sunday - some reflections

An Address for Remembrance Sunday Civic Service 2017
St Paul's Cathedral, Dunedin

My thoughts for this Remembrance Sunday began over a month ago.  It was 15 October and we gathered in this Cathedral to bless and dedicate the Parata Chapel.  To honour the grandparents of Canon Hoani Parata whose flag is above us here today.  That faded New Zealand flag above us here is the same flag that he took with him in the First World War where he served as a military chaplain.  As always happens on such occasions stories were shared.    One story stuck with me.  It concerned Victor Spencer, the 1st battalion Otago, shot by Firing Squad at dawn 24 February 1918.   On that morning Hoani Parata was the Chaplain who walked alongside Spencer.  It is remembered that Spencer’s last words were to him: ‘Are you there Padre?” “I’m here.” The Squad fired.

So on this Remembrance Sunday we remember this grim incident; we remember the faithfulness of a padre who walked alongside a doomed man from Southland; we remember the harshness of what Spencer suffered; we might even try to imagine the anguish and the shame his family suffered; and we thankfully may also remember his posthumous pardon, too many years later, in 2007.  Perhaps most powerfully of all we may reconsider where we would stand in this story – I hope we would wish to stand alongside Canon  Parata and with him respond “I’m here”.

Every year we make the same promise in the words of the Ode   “at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”  The promise to remember what we have never ourselves known is a rather tenuous thing, however well intended.  If the promise is to have some integrity it must mean that we exercise our moral imagination and our critical faculties; that we turn away from empty platitudes and patriotic sentimentality and remember with some realism – that in the mess of war terrible things happen and in the chaos we look desperately for signs of hope. ‘Are you there Padre?” “I’m here.”

This is the year that marks the centenary of New Zealand’s Blackest Day as it has been called:  The Passchendaele engagement of 12 October 1917, a futile attack on the Bellevue Spur at the cost of c.846 men.  Historically we are well informed of what the military campaigns were like: I think of Matthew Wright’s recent book The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front.  Diaries, letters and various papers from those who survived the war have been keenly collected and there is a Passchendaele Society that respectfully keeps the intolerable memory alive.

And every year we gather to remember them and to try and peel back the scab of memory and face again what happened; perhaps catch a sense of what it must have been like; and we flinch to think of such things. 

But to remember is to do something more than that.  To remember requires we engage the past with our present, this is an activity of our moral imagination.  We may simply ask ourselves about our country and how we now live: does what we have and do honour the memory of those who died in this war?  Where do we stand?  We hear the question “Are you there Padre? “  Could we answer ‘Yes’?

Of course we know that our society has changed; but how do we feel about the emergence of deep divisions in our nation; social and financial divisions that have made us, I suspect more than in any other time in our history, a nation of haves and have-nots; and a nation perilously divided by those who pay taxes and those who manage to avoid them or at least pay far less than their fair share.  This is a global phenomenon, as the recently released so-called ‘Paradise Papers’ have made clear.  

The concept of care for the common good has been horribly eroded and the common bonds that make for a truly civilised society have become ever more fragile.  As social bonds have fractured – for instance in  the cost of housing, access to health care, the fact of child poverty and diminished job opportunities – the question of where we stand in our society is not just a rhetorical flourish but a matter of where we set our hearts and minds.  

Remembering on Remembrance Sunday is, I suggest, a kind of prayer. A martyr (Oscar Romero) once wrote that:

“The guarantee of one’s prayer is not in saying a lot of words. The guarantee of one’s petition is very easy to know: how do I treat the poor?  The degree to which you approach them, and the love with which you approach them, or the scorn with which you approach them – that is how you approach your God.  What you do to them, you do to God.  The way you look at them is the way you look at God.” (The Violence of Love)

.That’s a simple test.   ‘Are you there Padre?” “I’m here.”

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Door to the Soul

A reflection for All Saints and All Souls

All week I have been quietly mulling over the two Feasts we celebrate this day.

Byzantine Style Icon of All Saints
The most immediate thing about these Feasts is that they are connected.  On the surface All Saints celebrates the heroes of the Faith and All Souls remembers all the Faithful Departed, but each Feast flows into the other as both require us to see the church and the purpose of God in all creation with a larger vision and with a more generous and hopeful imagination.

I use the word ‘imagination’ deliberately.  Imagination is a door to the soul.  Where we are blind and deaf and despairing it is the imagination that can move us and draw us to renewed insight, unheard sound and renewed hope.  We must protect and cherish the imagination – it is the artist in our souls that warms the spirit and gives life. 

This door to the soul is daily under attack by things that delude us and ultimately may twist us: advertising is an obvious example; it cultivates consumerism, conspicuous consumption of things and feeds envy.  It promotes the delusion that things offer happiness, success and fulfilment.  The imagination hooked by this drags us to a dead end.  An even bleaker example is pornography: it poisons the wells of the spirit; it sets the imagination to work against itself; it distorts intimacy and in the process debases others as mere objects for use and abuse.  We understand it is addictive and its tentacles are everywhere in our connected world.  An imagination twisted in this way can open only into darkness.

Thankfully, despite such darkness, the experience of the imagination opening us to the life and light of the spirit is not uncommon – it may be an encounter with a book, a painting, a film, some music that stirs us, a poem – but whenever this happens the limits of our world feel enlarged, there is a sense of light, and we are charged again to revisit what we have mistakenly thought was ordinary and dull. It can seem as if we are awakened from sleep. The poet Coleridge claimed that the purpose of poetry is to achieve just that:

“awakening the mind’s attention  from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.” (Biographia Literaria, Chapter 14)

All our readings for today challenge and can stir the imagination in us and we should read them till they do.  The writer of Revelations holds before us a vision of heaven – ‘a great multitude that no one could count’ – and we may well struggle with that thought, a vastness before which we shrink. In the Epistle John presents our future and our hope: “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is’. Is that truly our hope or does it also carry a sense of dread?  In the Gospel – the passage we know as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’  and the beatitudes – Jesus unfolds a way of being in the world that seems flatly contrary to nearly everything we regard as normal.  ‘Poor in Spirit’, ‘meekness’, ‘mourning’ – what sense do we make of these qualities in our daily life?  These are questions that on the surface seem to cut us off from life, ambition, a glittering career path, but paradoxically these beatitudes draw us deeper into life, away from illusion and into truth. 
Christ Enthroned and the Court of Heaven, Fra Angelico, 1428

The imagination is the door of the soul: it helps us see the world differently and it enlarges the way we think of the Saints and think of ourselves and each other.  With this in mind I offer you a poem for this season by Malcolm Guite.

‘A Last Beatitude’

And blessed are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come ‘to do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organize the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open Heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken,
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Snatching at 'Being'

30th Sunday in OT Evensong 29.10.2017

Reading: Ecclesiastes 11, 12

I remember  an anecdote with Billy Connelly mocking  a certain kind of English teacher – one who, as he put it, would tie a poem to a chair and beat it with a hosepipe until it yielded what it meant!  There may be preachers who would take a scriptural text and do something similar.  Not however, I think, with Ecclessiastes.

Not that it does not give scope for some mockery:  ‘vanity for instance’.  The Hebrew ‘hebel’ has been translated as ‘vanity’ – an interesting word, and evocative too; I have embarrassed memories of theological student days and of friends muttering “vanity, all is vanity” after lectures or seminars, not that we had the slightest notion of what we were talking about but it was a mild put down to anything that might have been thought ambitious or pretentious, or anything we had not understood.

The effect of reading Ecclesiastes against the constant but irregular drumbeat of vanity can be disheartening.  We encounter such wonderful language; such  evocative imagery – there are moments where one catches the sense of life, the world, and of our different stages in the journey: the bloom of youth and the difficulties of age;  but all these may grate when we feel we are told that such intense awareness is all vanity. ‘Too much, I choke, on such nutritious imagery’ (Larkin).  For example these wonderful words:

“Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’;

 2before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. 8Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.”

One of the problems is that we take vanity to mean ‘meaningless’ which is the word used in some translations  (NIV and New Living Translation) and that thought is quite contrary to the consistent message of scripture.  The Teacher uses language that makes our best thoughts and common experiences more present to us.  This is a heightened use of language that incarnates the boundaries of our being.   However this awareness of our human condition, how we are caught in time, wrapped in finitude and mortality, is not meaningless: such awareness is an invitation to wonder and thankfulness; to the consecrated life!

The word we mistranslate as vanity is better understood as smoke or vapour: In describing human life as vapour or breath, Solomon emphasizes that life is brief and beyond our control. Life is vapour because the world goes on unchanged in spite of all our frantic activities (1:3-11); because things slip through our fingers when we try to grasp them and through our minds when we try to understand them; because nothing lasts, yet everything stays the same; because it ends in death (2:16), and we have no control over the future (2:18-19).
We are caught in time, wrapped in finitude and mortality, and in this dance of life we are drawn into wonder.  

The Teacher reminds us of the limits of our capacity and that despite all our knowledge the mystery of being eludes us; the One is who the very ground of all being remains beyond our understanding and all our efforts at management of our world and understanding are like smoke in the air, sifting through our fingers whenever we attempt to grasp it.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

In The Field Hospital for the Soul


There are those life-changing moments when something in us is stirred and we see the world differently: the birth of a child is one of those moments.  There is a sense of miracle in the emergence of this new life - this product of the reproductive systems of nature; and yet there is the uniqueness of this new life; this is no clone but an individual being, someone who is utterly distinctive and holds an innate capacity to contribute to the world.  Most parents have known the awe of such a moment.  You don’t have to be a church-goer or a Christian to have had something of sort stir in you.  It seems to be wired into our humanity.

Baptism celebrates this uniqueness, it celebrates who we are; it celebrates the miracle and the wonder of creation and it reminds us who we are: it connects us with God and prepares the way for this new life to be nurtured and fulfilled.  For us all, baptism is one of those moments when we see the world with renewed and deeper understanding.

Have you watched any of David Attenborough’s BBC nature programme series Planet Earth?    When watching these films, have you felt (as I have) a sense of wonder at the sheer variety of species and the complex responses of life to a changing environment?  Even as I am amazed at the diversity and differentiation in life, I am also humbled as I become aware of how everything in this planet is interconnected and one form influences another.  The realization of this is overwhelming; I just can’t grasp the scope and the massive implications of this process as it unfolds.  The universe is charged with glory.

We hear Moses ask the Lord “show me your glory, I pray.” The response seems strange: “while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."  Why is God’s response to Moses request qualified in this way?  I suggest is that it is because the writer knows that the glory of God is more than we can imagine or understand: and that while we may glimpse something of God obliquely in creation, we cannot grasp not the reality of the Holy itself; so it is that Moses may see God’s back, but not his face.

“Show me your glory” the irony of that request is that it is humankind, we, who are ‘made in the image of God’; and it is we who are made to reveal the glory of God.  Let’s push that a little harder: why are we here?  What is our role in creation?   Saint Irenaeus of Lyons summed it up in one phrase: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  ... “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” To be fully alive is our life’s work. Our life’s work – think of it! That is why we have the church: because as human beings we have so much to learn and a great talent for getting things wrong; for not seeing the truth; and for grabbing at such baubles as money, prestige and possessions instead of the truly important things.  To become ‘fully alive’ is a messy process and the church helps us, not as a club for good or perfect human beings, but more as a field hospital for the soul to bring us back into health.

The gospel this morning with this encounter between the Pharisees and Jesus is a harsh reminder of our capacity to ignore what is important and dismally fail to be “fully alive”.   Confronted by Jesus the Pharisees have no sense of him as the one who is ‘fully alive’.  Instead they surround him with their malice and hypocrisy.  They try to trap him with the denarius, the empire’s coin, minted with the Emperor’s image, each coin more or less identical, no living image here, no creative richness, no life, no differentiation.  Is this the measure of who we are?  Is this the measure of our lives?

That is why we are here this morning.  The Cathedral is just a field hospital for the soul.  We come here to take our bearings; to trace our way through the tests and challenges of life.  Here we learn to discern God’s call; we learn to pray; we are nourished by the sacraments; we become ‘tuned’ to the holy and to be receptive to wonder and mystery.  So, in baptism this morning we welcomed Logan to membership in this field hospital of the soul; so, together we are learning -  admittedly slowly and by  fits and starts - how we may give glory to God as a people who will yet be fully alive! 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Garment of our Lives


Reading: Matthew 22:1-14.

There is a challenge this morning: we celebrate the dedication of a Chapel honouring the Parata family and alongside that we address the question of the gospel and its meaning for our lives.  Can we find a point of connection?  So, I begin by offering you a phrase, a question, for reflection.  What is ‘the garment of our lives’?

One of the things you notice about special services in the Cathedral is that there are usually clergy who ring or email to enquire about what curious items they are expected to wear for the occasion!  Is it albs or cassock and surplice? Eucharistic or choir dress? If stoles are worn, what colour? Is this a service when copes are an option?  Usually everyone wants to get it right!  No one wants to stand out by looking different.

It’s a very human feeling and not just in the church!  You know the sort of situation:, there is a dinner invitation and there is that sort of discussion that goes on at home while you get ready and one says to the other (Caution is the better part of valour, so I won’t identify anyone but you can fill in the blanks): One says, ‘What are we to wear?’ The other replies  ‘Oh I don’t think it matters.” The question is pressed further, “Posh dress or jeans?’ The answer comes back, ‘Yes, that will be fine.’  

We could revisit this conversation when it happens that the jeans were chosen and the invitation turned out to have been for a black-tie dinner! You might imagine the conversation back home afterwards.  ‘We looked like hillbillies from Hicksville!’ ‘O it will blow over; we’ll laugh about it later.’  ‘What world do you live in?’

The dress code is the sign of belonging and getting it wrong results in embarrassment or exclusion: it happens at High Table, in clubs, the officer’s mess and certain fine dining restaurants; for instance in places where jackets and ties are required and where jandals are excluded.

We understand this: we may rebel against it and decide to flout convention and expectations but that decision carries consequences that we impose upon ourselves.
So, what sense do you make of the parable Jesus tells this morning?  What is ‘the garment of our lives’?

The gospel reminds me of other stories: for instance the story of the women waiting for the marriage celebration; the wise women who have kept their lamps ready and the foolish ones who have no oil (Matthew 25:3-13).  Behind that parable and the parable we face this morning is the tension between the way of wisdom and the way of folly.  It is an ancient tension that runs through the wisdom literature of the Old Testament – for instance we catch echoes of it in the psalms.

Remembering that, nonetheless, my knee-jerk reaction is sympathy for the character who doesn’t meet the dress-code.  How could he be expected to meet the dress code of the Kingdom when, without warning, he is pulled into the banquet hall?  It seems absolutely unfair!  (But cf Luke 12:15-25)  And yet the truth of our lives is that we have little control over important matters and we certainly can’t control when we will die.  You will remember the famous parable in Luke (12: 15-25) where the wealthy landowner sets out his plans to build numerous barns to store and grow his business but God says “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So our life is that vulnerable space where all sorts of things may happen and quite beyond our planning.  What is ‘the garment of our lives’?

With that thought in mind, what do you really make of this story of the garment without which this guest at the banquet is so roughly and arbitrarily cast out into darkness?  This has to be a metaphor – but of what?  There is a history behind and a tradition.  

The best account of it is in the tradition of Jewish mysticism, in the Jewish Kabbalah, the book known as Zohar.  In the Kabbalah this world can be thought of as a vestibule to heaven and all that we do is preparation for eternity.  We learn to become our true self and in the process prepare what we may imagine as ‘the garment of days’ that fits us for eternity.  
So I quote from the Zohar:
“It has been taught: Happy are the righteous for their days are pure and extend to the world that is coming. When they leave this world, all their days are sewn together, made into radiant garments for them to wear. Arrayed in that garment, they are admitted to the world that is coming to enjoy its pleasures. Clothed in that garment, they are destined to come back to life. All who had a garment will be resurrected as it is written: 'They will rise as in a garment' (Job 38:14).”
What then is ‘the garment of our lives’? It is the self we have spent our lives holding before God.

On this day of remembering the name ‘Parata’ in this Cathedral we find ourselves giving thanks for those who have lived wisely and well; those who have so followed Christ that their memory is to us a source of light, a warmth of love and a sustaining and gentling presence that encourages us on our way as we seek to follow Christ.  To live in this way is to be changed and to work for change in our world.  We seek to become lights in the darkness of a world that is damaged by exploitation and defaced by greed.  We become workers for the Kingdom as we follow Christ: this is ‘the garment of our lives’.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The story of our lives

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Reflection

There are some words that open our hearts; that turn a key even in a rusted lock; and that prepare us to see our familiar world afresh: I think of the phrase, ‘Once upon a time.’  It is the story teller’s overture, the gambit that catches our attention and draws us in to a world that unfolds around us.  A world where good and evil are encountered; a world where we learn to see, discern and discriminate; a world where the ordinary and the wonderful coincide and where, nearly always, there may be more than we expect.  It is the phrase we remember from early childhood; heavy with expectation and promise; it is the phrase we may use ourselves, when the time to tell a story is given to us for our children and grandchildren.

Story is the natural genre of scripture.  The bible begins with a story, that starts like this: ”In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth, and while the earth was still unformed, God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day and the darkness Night. And there was an evening and a morning, making the first day.”  We remember that this story goes on to tell of the first humans and their location in the first garden, the perfect place and the conditions they are given for its care.

It is the nature of stories that they carry within themselves connecting strands that can link one to another; or, another way of putting it, they can hold resonances and echoes that spill over from one to another.  For instance in the story from the Gospel this morning when Jesus says “Listen to another parable” he tells another story and the careful listener recognises echoes of an older tale.

Jesus tells the story of a beginning, when someone went to a great deal of work and created something.  He did all the hard work needed to make a vineyard: he planted, fenced, and installed a wine press; he even built a watch tower so that the vineyard could be protected.   When you think about it you realise that a vineyard is a long term project.   It involves a long term commitment to the land, to people and to generations to come.   It can flourish only in times of peace, giving vines time to grow and fruit without disturbance.  It carries the promise of aged wine, reflective thought, sustained projects, safety, seeing your grandchildren grow up.  But one thing went wrong.  The people placed to care for the vineyard, did not fulfil their duty of care, but conspired against the landowner so that the promise of peace and plenty was lost.  We recognise that this is our story too and that we may recognise ourselves in the rebellious and unfruitful tenants.

Yet the story of God with us is always about how what has been lost is recovered, restored and redeemed. So, for instance, in the Old Testament, a new relationship occurs in the event known as the Exodus : that becomes the foundational story for Israel. It is the story that must not be forgotten.  So the Old Testament reading this morning celebrates the mighty acts of God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” and the story remembers the commandments that mark the special relationship between God and his people.  Remembering is central to how story works, we remember so that we learn to respond and the story lives within us, shapes us and changes us.

That is what happens in the epistle this morning; remembrance becomes response.  Paul remembers the story of God in Jesus Christ and Paul responds by following Christ with all his heart, energy and strength.  Paul is drawn into the story and into Christ: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death … forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

This is what happens with us in the Eucharist this morning.  The Eucharist is the ‘Once upon a time’ story of the Church when we tell, remember and respond. May our hearts be opened, our closed and rusted locks released!  The Eucharist is our foundational story; it taps into our memories and our humanity; it encompasses our deepest hopes and fears; it draws us into great mystery of Christ; it forms and changes us.  Christ meets us in the bread and wine …  (Love’s Choice, Malcom Guite)

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,
A little visitation on my tongue,
A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.
This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung
A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,
Even its aftertaste a memory.
Yet this is how he comes. Through wine and bread
Love chooses to be emptied into me.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Packing Thoughts and the luggage we carry

Gracious God,
when two or three are gathered in your name, you are there.
Be present with your family, the church.
Give us grace and maturity when we are in conflict.
Help us to listen, to forgive and to live together in mutual love.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen.

It's a bold frank collect, very realistic.   And I would like to be a fly on the wall of the Cathedral to hear what the preacher may make of it.  Matthew 18 is such a gospel to engage with.  The best and simplest comment I have heard on Matthew 18 is below, a comment by a very wise and experienced pastor who understands the dynamics of congregations...

"Jesus says to love your enemies. But there is a difference between loving and tolerating - especially for the sake of the “little ones,” that is, the rest of the congregation. One negative person can suck all the energy from a room. One skilled gossiper, craftily playing on others' craving of intrigue, drama, or titillation, can bring down a good pastor. One envier, with a huge unacknowledged shadow, can demolish a church.

Love the envier. Love the gossiper. Love the poor nay-sayer. Pray for them. Listen to them. But don't let them infest the church - because everyone will suffer. Be as innocent as doves but as wary as serpents - because the folks who bring down a church often do their work in secret until the foundations crack beyond repair.

A woman who just lost her job said to me, “Sometimes an angel has to push you off the cliff before you get the help you need. I'm scared, but grateful I lost my job - because that's the only way the good that is to come can happen.”

Don't stop the angel from nudging. Let God help the troubler face the consequences of the hurt they carry inside but project onto the community. I always thought that the church should put up with all kinds of malevolence, and asking even the most destructive person to leave was not a Christian option. But now I know what looks cruel may be, in fact, kind."

This has been a strange day with odd moments of hilarity and anxiety - packing to travel for four weeks of flights, buses and walking, overnighting here and there and doubtless hordes of other tourists.  Dunstan is unhappy, he knows something is up. He follows me from one room to the other and eyes the suitcases with deep suspicion.  He clearly wonders about the early morning walk routine - or is that just me?  Few chances for writing in the blog for a while I fear.


Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Sign of The Cross

The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2017

Choral Matins

Do you have a memory of a film that profoundly affected you?  I have memories of a variety of films with powerful moments, some moments almost too much to watch, but I have a particular memory, now more than 60 years old – it was The Ten Commandments and that moment when the wandering Moses encounters the burning bush and is told, “Take your sandals from off your feet, for the ground on which you stand is holy ground.”  That is the moment when Moses hears God’s voice and receives his call.  I remember that moment and the frisson of awe that shook me as a very susceptible nine-year-old; that thought of ‘The Holy’.

Moses and the burning bush
In the scriptures, that is the moment where the purpose of God is revealed and promised, God will deliver his people from oppression.  And so begins the great mission of Moses, accompanied by all the turmoil, the blood sweat and tears, that marked the Exodus.  In the course of this mission, Moses is transformed, his life is no longer his own, and God’s purpose is accomplished.

It is no accident that in the New Testament Jesus is seen as the second Moses; he is charged with the redemption and deliverance of Israel and the World.  So, too, in the gospel reading this morning, when Jesus discloses what the cross means for him and for us, it is made clear that the cross is not an abstract principle but the agonising precondition of following Christ.  "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In these words Our Lord outlines in summary form a whole way of life.  The denial of self is a clear renunciation of wilfulness, of having our own way, of indulging our preferences for the soft option; this is a way of being that is summarised by the cross; and embedded here is a life-changing and soul shaping process of transformation.  This is at the heart of our calling, the cross changes us and shapes us.  Paul explains this when he writes: “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

In the Episcopal Prayer book, the office for Morning Prayer,  the Collect for Friday is explicit:

A Collect for Fridays
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I remember being prepared for confirmation by the university chaplain at Ramsey House, the Anglican Centre in Victoria University, when I was a young student.  The Chaplain was in the Catholic tradition of our church and had been trained at Mirfield, in The Community of the Resurrection.  A little of that rubbed off on me: I was taught to make the sign of the cross.  It is not about lugging the cross around, but was always about taking the cross inwards! An Eastern Orthodox has put it this way:

“The summation of the life of Jesus in the symbol and the sign of the cross is not meant so much as an act of "taking up" the cross, as it is of "taking the cross inside." The direction of the sign of the cross is inward, which suggests embracing and internalizing the life of Jesus. Nevertheless, this inward direction suggests that, starting with the historical events of the life of Jesus, we live these events here and now, appropriating them outside time and space, as we become one with the timeless Christ.” (Andreas Andropoulos)

I still remember how strange it felt for me, newly confirmed, to make the sign of the cross and how self-conscious I initially felt doing it. (This was something utterly alien to my family’s staunchly protestant tradition). ‘Taking Christ in; putting Christ on’ … these were quite conscious thoughts then; and now, I often deliberately recall them to remind myself.  

By chance I came across reference to a former 18-19th  century Episcopalian who converted to Rome and was taught to make the sign of the Cross while there.  She became the first American-born Saint, Elizabeth Anne Seton  (1774-1821) and she remembered the impression of making the sign of the cross for the first time.  She wrote: “I was cold with the awful impression my first making it gave me -- the sign of the cross of Christ on me! Deepest thoughts came with it of I know not what earnest desires to be closely united with Him who died on it. Oh, that last day when it is to be borne in triumph!

To bear the cross is to be vulnerable and we do not know where it may lead.  I am very struck by these word from Sophie Scholl, a German student who felt led to oppose Nazism.  She was a founder of the society known as The White Rose” and was captured for distributing anti-Nazi literature and trying to arouse Germans against Nazism.  Her words describe what I consider her way of the cross.

"The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest people who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves – or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

Source: Die Letzten Tage  (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) )