Friday, February 24, 2017

Clarity begins with Ash Wednesday

What a strange day it has been with media reaction to a post on this blog from over a week ago.  The front page on the ODT; a Channel 39 news slot; and now this afternoon a movement into more familiar territory - recording a service on Otago Access Radio for Sunday.   Every reflection on a text raises issues and  next Sunday's gospel feels quite difficult to work with for a radio audience - whether I can use this again for Sunday in the Cathedral or have another approach at it - I have just not decided. See what you think ...

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’

It’s the story of our lives in a way, isn’t it? We spend so much energy fretting about these things. If you have no money to pay the rent or to restock the fridge, or feed the family tonight – the counsel from Jesus that we are not to worry seems a little hollow. How can we not worry? How can we not be afraid, fretful and anxious in a world where home, and family seem so vulnerable and are threatened?

Can we live without fear?

Probably not, because fear is part of our human survival kit, it keeps us alive and alert to danger. We recognise it from our experience as travellers: at 37000 feet above the Tasman, our plane hits serious turbulence and we recognise the experience of fear; we feel our vulnerability; our pulse rate increases and, speaking for myself (I am a nervous flyer) I instinctively focus on something like the Jesus Prayer.

Fear is always the recognition of our vulnerability. There are times in life when we hit turbulence (for some many times!). We experience it when there is a health issue and medical tests are required; we may remember what it was like through all the uncertainty as we awaited results and speculated about the diagnostic possibilities. We worried for ourselves and for our loved ones. Then of course there is the fear that we experience through loss of employment, loss of financial security, loss of purpose in our lives – there are so many dimensions in which we may be vulnerable; fear wears so many faces. Unmasking fear is like peeling an onion: there is always another layer. Many aspects of human malice stem from deep and unacknowledged fear about ourselves – but more on that another time.

Jesus approaches the question by challenging us to be clear about who we most truly and deeply are. He says:

‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth'.

To live without fear is to live generously and that requires a great clarity in us; a clarity about where we have set our heart – God or mammon. It takes time for us to get that clarity. We may spend our lives working on it: and sometimes when we think we are clear, something happens and we realise we still have a way to go; this learning to trust, to rest, in God keeps on stretching us, testing us.

I enjoy the stories about the old Desert Fathers in Egypt who left the soft life of the cities and lived in the wilderness. One concerns Abba Macarius who lived very simply but nonetheless went away from
his dwelling one day only to return and find someone loading up a camel with as many of the old man’s belongings as he could. It is told that Macarius came up to the thief as if he were a stranger and helped him to load the camel and then saw him off in great peace of soul saying ‘We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’ (1 Tim.6.7) ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1.21)

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and we observe the start of Lent. In the Cathedral this Wednesday there is a service where we come to take communion and have our foreheads marked with the ashes from last year’s palm crosses. We remember our vulnerability, our mortality, and we recommit to follow Christ: this is a moment when we start to sort out where we have set our heart’; who we serve – God or something else; this is a moment when we work toward a deep clarity in ourselves – and begin to live without fear. God bless you on this journey.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cathedral at Noon: Prayers for Cadbury

In the midday Cathedral prayer today I rang the ambulatory bell and was impressed by the sudden hush; the visitors stood quietly as I read the prayers for the city and added the collect devised for the Cadbury plant and its people and to help us all as we start to find our way through this sad event.

God of grace, we thank you for the many years the Cadbury Factory has enriched the life of our city: provided employment; sustained families; and served the common good. We grieve the factory closure and ask your grace to uphold all affected staff and their families in the days ahead that they find alternative local employment. In the power of your Holy Spirit, so lead us that this darkness and adversity will not prevail and we will know the joy and purpose of your perfect will, through Jesus Christ our Lord, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Reaped to the edges: Cadbury and Mondelez International

There are moments when life in this small diocese threatens to resemble one of Susan Howatch's 'Church of England' novels!  Consider these components: a city stunned at news of a factory closing and hundreds of jobs threatened; an impoverished diocese looking for a new bishop; a beleaguered Dean, looking for a new Director of Music; and in between these possibilities are all the endless twisting strands for a complex of sub-plots.  I doubt I have time to write it, but this is one of those times when it seems that life imitates art!

Thinking about those components with all their potential to carry the richness and confusion of life – one speculates how the strands will weave and where the emphasis will fall.  I have no doubt that the very centre must be the city and the news of the factory closing: the issues of Bishops and Deans, dioceses and cathedrals, should be centred on the call of the city and not be distracted by ecclesiastical housekeeping or politics.  In this novel the response of the church to the city’s trauma is the critical element.  Perhaps this is a moment where art might guide life!

The wonder of life is that we dare take it for granted and commonly miss sight of the reality that life, matter, is charged with wonder.

The Jewish roots of our faith embrace this realisation very clearly in the law giving.  Consider this fragment from the Leviticus reading this morning and see how wonder and reality, spirit and matter are held together:

19:2 … You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

19:9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

The deep truth about us is ultimately the call to be holy – connected as one with God.  We are spiritual beings and we forget that at our peril.  To realise this truth is also to radically amend how we live – we are to live accountably and with care for one another – so immediately after the call to be holy we hear some instructions on how to live accountably: we are not to exploit, not to take everything that we might, but we are to leave enough for others so that they too can be sustained.   It’s the story embedded in the gleaners and reapers painting by Millet that I remembered and mentioned some months ago (in our reflection for Advent 2, 2016).

“You shall not reap to the edges… you shall not strip your vineyard bare … or gather the fallen grapes…”

Here is the foundation for how we are to live: we work because we are placed in the world to work and become the people we are created to be; and we must work in such a way that others are enabled to do the same. 

Apply this, roughly as need be, to our local situation now.    Our city is in some distress because a global corporation, a faceless entity, Mondelez International, has chosen to shut down the Cadbury’s factory which has its Quaker roots in this city.  The long hand of globalisation has reached out and ripped apart our community: Mondelez International is, figuratively, reaping to the edges and stripping the vineyard! It is ironic that on their website Mondelez promote their value of ‘Heritage’with a familiar icon: a glass of milk and a bar of Cadbury dairy milk chocolate.  To skim their website, its massive amount of data and its focus on shareholders – is to catch a sense of how and why Mondelez International ‘reaps to the edges’.   The Mondelez vice president for our region, Amanda Banfield, sees the problem as a matter of scale and said:

"The plant is not losing money, it is not about that. It is about its long term sustainability. It is actually more cost effective for us to move this volume elsewhere and that is really the view we have taken.

This is truly an instance of ‘reaping to the edges’.  

What are we to do?   There is a lot of anger in our community and talk of boycotts of Cadbury products – which might actually have some merit in resisting an unethical enterprise.  Yet the reality is that Mondelez International could buy Otago and Southland.   We are nothing in the scale of their business.  When evil is done; what do we do?  We go back to basic principles, I can almost feel the Quaker over my shoulder! Christ says: “Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;…”.   We resist evil by not becoming like it; we confront power by powerlessness – and it takes a lot of imagination and creative thinking to work that out into practical terms. 

We have been in such places before.  We thought about such things in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008; in the Occupy movement of 2011; in the Hillside Engineering Works Closure of 2012… and still such evil happens because there is not the moral vision to see the profound spiritual connection between us all: that my well-being involves my neighbours well-being; that our humanity requires that we resist power (including our own) and secure the vulnerable.   Our salvation involves the restoration of a broken relationship with the whole created order through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and, by the power of his Spirit, the creation of a community in which our care of one another makes us all transparent to God.

How are we as a church to respond to the closure of Cadbury and the issues it presents to the workers and the city?  Prayer will be, must be, at the very heart of all we do.

Friday, February 17, 2017

And Caiaphas said: "Let's Sell the Cathedral"

I tend to keep personal stuff and church politics out of this blog, but there are moments when it is used for reflection amidst the hurly burly of Cathedral life.   (One would like to think that a Dean’s ministry is one characterised by much calm reflection – reflection there is, but it often seems that it happens in a bubbling cauldron and anything but a calm!)  
That said, I am posting here a note written to keep our Cathedral people abreast of events that affect us – and thoughts and prayers are invited for this beautiful, troubled and troubling diocese, especially remembering that this is the context in which we are now looking for a new bishop.

On Tuesday there was a ’bracing’ meeting of our Cathedral Greater Chapter with the Diocesan Council to discuss the place of the Cathedral in the ‘reorganisation’ of the diocese and the intention to have the number of Anglican parishes (including the cathedral) in Dunedin reduce to four.  
A question is whether to keep the Cathedral or not and the debate disclosed uncertainty as to why we should have a cathedral and the value (or not) that it represented.  
One clerical member of Council went so far as to question the value of the ministry of the Cathedral to the city, pointing out that this ministry did not benefit the diocese.  
For those who heard them, these were memorable words and will not easily be forgotten.  In contrast to this our Greater Chapter spoke with generous purpose, clarity, conviction and unanimity.  
The diocese is going through difficult times – remember how Dickens put  it in ‘Two Cities’, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – perhaps we should expect some unfortunate behaviour on the way. 
Where do we go from here?  It has been agreed that three representatives from the Cathedral will meet with three from Diocesan Council to talk further.  We have no more information than that at this stage.  Our community will be kept informed. Keep at your prayers, please; hold the life of this diocese, its strengths and its flaws, gently before God; likewise hold the life of this cathedral – all of us, before God.  Grace and peace,  ...

Monday, February 13, 2017

"Who Holds Your Heart?"

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading: Matthew 5: 21-37

The truth about this gospel in the life of the church now is that this gospel  is intolerably hard to read, hear and speak on.  We have been through the doctrine wars, the ethics conflicts and through the kind of social and cultural change that means there is a massive misfit between the literal reading of the gospel and where we typically find ourselves as a people.  Divorce is not unusual; the various aspects of sexual desire and thought are inescapable and anger, resentment and fear are endemic to church life.  We stand for this gospel and are flattened by it.  How can we approach it?

I start with a question you have heard me ask many times.  What or who are we becoming?   Behind that question stands the proposition that we are created for the purpose that we are to develop through our lifetime into what we would gladly recognise as a human being.   Our lifetime is all about the process of becoming this person.  It is a messy business.  We become through a lifetime of choices, of opportunities for training, through errors and deeds ill done and through the good that we have managed by chance or purpose.   

This past week I had an opportunity to minister alongside another priest.  It was late evening and we were aboard the cruise ship (The Emerald Princess) to help and support the 1200 crew who had lost a one of their number in a dreadful accident with an exploding gas cylinder.  We were down below decks in a training multi-purpose room just off a galley and dining room and people came in no particular order and just as they liked.  We were simply giving anointing, prayer and blessing for those whose lives had been cruelly shocked by mortality. In the prayer for anointing Mark added a phrase, he spoke of Jesus who “holds your heart” – and as we made our way along the rows who came for blessing, the thought of Jesus holding the hearts of these men and women made perfect sense.  Paul talks about having ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor.2:16) but to be assured that Jesus ‘holds your heart’ made good sense to me.  It places the question of who or what we are becoming in a clearer and more grounded context.

The gospel this morning resonates with the memory of Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments: it has Jesus reaffirm the Jewish Law, the Torah; he does not abolish or replace it; instead he takes it further and deeper – into the heart.   He does not just look at how we act but what is at work in us and how that drives our actions.  What do we think? What do we feel?  No wonder we are shattered by it.
Behind this there is huge debate. For instance – how are people to be guided in their thinking? 

Censorship immediately comes to mind – what may we not read, see or even think?  John Milton blew that out of the water in his essay Areopagitica and his determination that Christian virtue consists not in ignorance (masquerading as innocence) but informed choice.  His words haunt my memory: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

It is easy to get discouraged: one may be able to refrain from murder, but anger, resentment?  Are we not even to think such things?  The trouble is we are almost infinitely suggestible – for instance the familiar difficulty that if we are told not to think about something we are almost inevitably forced to think of it.  That recognised, the trick is to move on and move the mind to something else.  The thought of the Jesus who holds our heart …

One writer (Mary Margaret Funk. Thoughts Matter: The Practice of the Spiritual Life) has explored the place of our thoughts in the spiritual life and our need to be very intentional and aware of them.  Listen to these excerpts:

“Thoughts that are thought about become desires. Desires that are thought about become passions. Good thoughts become virtues. Bad thoughts become bad desires; bad passions or habits of action become sins. The passions are acted upon us when we consent, then the passions move from passive to active engagement.”

“...First thoughts beget second thoughts, which become intentions. Intentions constitute motivations and indicate where the heart resides. Motivation moves the will to decide and act on the thought. Decisions give voice to the choices we intend to act upon.”

“Attention to our thoughts reveals our intentions. Right deeds must be accompanied by the right reason, or the deed becomes wrong for us in that particular situation. Discernment is our ability to do the right deed with the right intention or motivation.”

Our gospel this morning is invasive.  It probes aspects of our being that we would rather not share or review.  It can induce despair.  But austere and challenging though it is, it calls us into reality and truth.  Who ‘holds your heart’?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

I can't watch the news

Over the last few weeks I have noticed that I, a compulsive news watcher, am finding it harder to watch the news.  There is plenty going on in the world and there are plenty of things worth following
closely, but something has changed – for me it is as if the chemistry has changed and something no longer quite works the way it should.  I suspect that it is attributable to what we may call the ‘Trump phenomenon’; and I assume I possibly echo other’s emotions when I say that I was appalled by President Trump’s alleged and unwarranted rudeness to the PM of Australia – at that twist the world seemed to have changed.  Where we once thought we knew what the USA stood for and where it stood (however much we might have disagreed), now everything feels uncertain.

If I am right in understanding the cause for my sudden aversion to the news, then I am disappointed.  When things are going wrong, and the world feels disjointed, this is no time for any of us to hunker down and shut ourselves away from the things that disturb us.  This is no time for us to be passive or silent. 

It may be that we are confused and uncertain about the right course of action; we may lack vital information – all of that is possible.  But that is no reason for us to behave as if there is no one at home!  On the contrary, we have an obligation to speak and to act on our beliefs. 

This fragment of the gospel, associated with the Sermon on the Mount, is a radical expression of what is to happen when the principles (or beatitudes) are lived out and expressed in our actions: there is a transforming effect, it is like ‘salt and light’ in action.   So, maybe we are disturbed, depressed, alarmed, even frightened – but this is not the time to withdraw or be silent.  We are to be like salt; like light – we are agents of change, neither bland nor secretive.

That is an uncomfortable demand.  It allows no room to hide.  The dilemma is not a new one – it has teased the Christian conscience in all times of crisis – especially of persecution – from the earliest days to recent times.  In Nazi Germany Martin Niemoller preached to his congregation, reading out the names of members who had been arrested by the Nazis or were missing.  He rallied his people:

“And the other picture which the Lord Jesus Christ holds up to us: "Ye are the light of the world": we hear these words and are reminded by them that we worry about something that ceases to exist in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. What are we worrying about? When I read out the names, a little while ago*, did we not think: "Alas and alack, will this wind, this storm, that is going through the world just now, not blow out the Gospel candle? We must therefore take the message in out of the storm and put it in a safe nook."

It is only during these days that I have realised - that I have understood - what the Lord Jesus Christ means when He says: "Do not take up the bushel! I have not lit the candle for you to put it under the bushel, in order to protect it from the wind. Away with the bushel! The light should be placed upon a candlestick! It is not your business to worry about whether the light is extinguished or not by the draught." We are not to worry whether the light is extinguished or not; that is His concern: we are only to see that the light is not hidden away - hidden away perhaps with a noble intent, so that we may bring it out again in calmer times - no: "Let your light shine before men!"” (Martin Niemoller 1892-1984, from a sermon ’Church Members Missing or Arrested’, just before his arrest by the Nazis)

Now I know that this sermon began with me having an argument with myself (not watching the news) but that brings me back to the critical point of how we engage with the world; how we reveal Christ.  It may be in small matters or by great, but we are to reveal in our living the Christ within us.   Whether we pen a letter to our Member of Parliament, post a cheque to Save the Children, or stand in a protest: Christ speaks through us and little by little we and the world are changed – we are salt and we are light.  This is no time for us to sleep or look the other way … we are salt and we are light.

You will remember Niemoller’s famous speech, rousing us all to action:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

“We are salt and we are light”