Monday, December 5, 2016

Ahab in Advent

It is nearly always a bit of a problem quite how to tie Evensong (or Matins) readings with the liturgical season and to do so within the very limited scope of a brief reflection (approximately 400 words).  It may be argued that such linking is unnecessary, and even an imposition, but if a congregation has to endure the readings - then there seems to be some obligation to try and make sense of them.  What do you think?

Choral Evensong Advent 2 2016

Readings:  1 Kings 18:17-39;
John 1:19-28.

We are frequently told that Advent is a time of waiting; of expectancy; of getting ready for the coming of Christ.   As children some of us understood that only too well: Christmas never seemed to come.  We had waited and watched: we had seen presents carefully smuggled into the house; we knew the favourite places of concealment; we might even have shaken the box on the top of the tall wardrobe in the spare room and guessed at the contents.  But none of this made the great day come any sooner and there was always some uncertainty about what we hoped for.

Uncertainty prevails in the readings for this evening.  Each reading has elements that resonate between the texts.  So, for instance, Ahab sees Elijah and appears to check that it really is Elijah he is dealing with, though his words are more rhetorical gesture than a genuine inquiry: “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”  Elijah makes it plain that the boot is on the other foot and the troubler is Ahab himself.  All of Elijah’s actions that follow show him appearing to act against his own cause: the pouring of the water is to douse any possibility of fire; and yet conversely, any fire will have to be the action of God and the irrefutable confirmation of Elijah’s status.

John the Baptist has impressed Jerusalem and the officials about the Jerusalem temple.  His character and style have stirred old cultural memories and legends of Elijah: has Elijah come again?  Who are you?  The questions are real, not rhetorical.  John flatly denies that he is in any way the one they are waiting for.  Yet his actions recall Elijah: as Elijah doused the sacrifice with water so John baptizes with water in the Jordan River: different actions but using the same element - water always being used for cleansing and to signify commitment. 

Both Ahab and the Pharisees had to manage uncertainty; had to clarify who they were dealing with; had to recognise the activity and agency of God.  Those are typically Advent questions and issues.  Similarly our preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas demands our attention and our discernment.  We see Ahab as reluctant and fearful; the Pharisees as unsure who they look for; or quite what they look for;  and we ourselves may feel puzzled at the prospect of Advent – a confusion and hope that Archbishop Rowan Williams voices in his poem ‘Advent Calendar’.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Advent 2 Thinking about Chaff and Winnowing

Reflection Advent 2

How might you describe the ‘mood’ of the readings set for this Sunday?  The language of Isaiah is charged with hope – but the righteousness, faithfulness and judgement he speaks of are virtually subverted by the strangeness of his language.  We neither expect the wolf to live with the lamb; the leopard to lie down with the kid; or the calf and lion to reside together; neither do we imagine the bear to graze or the lion to eat straw.  In the natural order as we know it, these are carnivores.  Isaiah knows this of course and his language takes us into another world and another order, another way of being. He alerts us to this other world and the purpose of God beyond time.

John the Baptist refines this vision by warning of a cosmic judgement, a holocaust and at the same time speaks of a harvest that is the point of judgement where chaff is burned but the grain is preserved and stored. There is also hope here but alongside warning and judgement.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

These texts draw me to the painting we know as The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet (1857). You may recall it shows three peasant women collecting straws of grain missed in the harvest.   This is survival agriculture, back-breaking work by people at the bottom of the social and economic order. In the far distance, in a golden light, we catch a glimpse of huge haystacks, many workers at an abundant harvest and, apart from it all, a mounted supervisor.  When exhibited, The Gleaners attracted hostile criticism from polite society because they thought it glorified workers, criticised upper classes, and was the sort of revolutionary thinking that had led many to the guillotine about 60 years earlier.   I react to the painting in that way.  It asks a social question – where is the justice in a world where so many struggle to survive and others are so privileged and indifferent? Where is the revolution?  That is of course not just a social question but a moral one and as relevant now as then.

In Matthew we see how the people of Jerusalem and Judea responded to the Baptist’s Advent challenge to set their house in order: “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight”.  We hear of many going down to the Jordan to be baptised and to confess their sins.  At an hour of judgement and crisis – what does one do?   Those going to the scaffold make their peace – they prepare the way; they straighten things up; if this is the end, the critical moment when all one’s life is weighed and judged, what else can one do?

John notices the religious, social and political leaders of Judea have also heard the warning and have taken it seriously enough to head to the Jordan for baptism with everyone else.  He is not impressed.   These are leaders and role models; they hold power and influence.  What does he mean when he shouts “Bear fruit worthy of repentance?”  My guess is that he means ‘Change your life.”  Live in such a way that we all see who you are, the changed person that you are – or even the person you were created to be.

Now we know the story of Dismas, you may recall he was the repentant thief who died on the cross next to Jesus and asked Jesus to remember him.  But is repentance that simple?  Can the habits of a lifetime simply be shed?  Can a lifetime of selfishness just be walked away from; one’s formed and habitual way of thinking and acting just be disengaged?  May that not require some time, some focus and careful attention?

The Baptist speaks of the coming one as having the threshing floor cleared and his winnowing fork in hand: this is early agriculture – requiring a threshing floor (a flattened and cleared space) for the grain to be deposited and then trampled by cattle or beaten so that the husks are loosened from the kernels.  Then everything is tossed into the air with the winnowing fork and the air flow separates the chaff from the grain – blowing it away.

What is the chaff in our lives?  Are we aware of the dead stuff that it seems must take a lifetime to get past?  We should not judge too hastily.  The chaff was the husk that held the grain and brought it to ripeness; it had its purpose.  What we may call chaff and long to be rid of, may have had its part in forming us; but who are we becoming and who will the winnowing show us to be?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thy Kingdom Come ... be careful what you pray for

I have ambiguous feelings about this time of the year.

There are some famous lines in Book 11 of Augustine’s Confessions where he tries to explain the nature of time.

“What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend 
this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words?
Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time?
We surely know what we mean when we speak of it.
We also know what is meant when we hear someone else taking about it.
What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know.
If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know”
(Confessions,11.14.17, p. 230)

We start a new Church year this Advent Sunday. We mark the moment and the expectancy of the season with the Advent candle stand and the ring of candles that will count us to Christmas Day.  So this Sunday shows us all engaged with the great mystery of time: (1) we start a new church year and (2) we have a candlestand that counts us through the time of Advent to Christmas.

There is of course a practical problem – something that we really impose upon ourselves; perhaps something that we need to ask ourselves?

Is our countdown to Christmas really a preparation for Christmas or are we really rehearsing and waiting for something more?  I hope I am not going to sound like someone who puts Christmas down – I love Christmas and the intolerable wonder of the Word made flesh.  But I will admit to times on Christmas Day, after all the joy and far too much to eat and drink, that I sense that the longing of the season still lingers unsatisfied … and at the back of the mind one senses the pressure of that rather frightening and awesome prayer “your kingdom come”.  Amen, ‘Come, King Jesus.”

Of course we do prepare for Christmas: in the proper sense of heart and mind and contemplating the mystery that beggars all our thought; in the proper sense of understanding the love of God toward us and all creation as the Word takes form and substance in our matter.  There is enough in all of that to ponder and wonder at – and we need to do that or else the familiar stories can be reduced to the colourful but sentimental images too often associated with a children’s Christmas pageant.

But I will be frank, I think at Advent our preparation for the Christ event, the birth in Bethlehem, is really a rehearsal for the end of time and the return of the King.  This means that our enthusiastic preparations for the season are also threaded with our longing for the end; for the kingdom – as dreadful and as terrifying a thought as it may be.   That thought does give a certain edge to our Christmas shopping and preparations – we prepare to celebrate the day of course, but in our hearts we are looking further ahead.  The mince pies, the Christmas cake, the turkey and the ham, the endless little presents, the cards: the whole vast train of things we do at Christmas start to become a little less important at the thought of Christ’s return – and whatever that may involve.

That looking ahead aspect accounts for the edginess and the warning tone of all the Advent readings.  We are cautioned to be ready for the return of the King; to be ready for the end as the great purpose of God (we can put it no more clearly than that) is drawn to completion.  The apocalyptic language of scripture with its talk of flood and famine, wars, disasters – and of course earthquakes, of which we know something – confronts us with our mortality, our finitude, our temporality in the vast abyss of time. 

And yet, against that cosmic unease, we continue with the simple human tasks of preparation for the feast and we light our Advent candles: holding both our hopes for the day of celebration and the day of the kingdom that will come.

Further Notes

“This morning during Matins I had a ‘jolt of happiness, of fullness of life, and at the same time the thought: I will have to die! But in such a fleeting breath of happiness, time usually ‘gathers’ itself. In an instant, not only are all such breaths of happiness remembered but they are present and alive—that Holy Saturday in Paris when I was a young man—and many such ‘breaks.’ It seems to me that eternity might be not the stopping of time, but precisely its resurrection and gathering. The fragmentation of time, its division, is the fall of eternity. Maybe the words of Christ are about time when He said: ‘…not to destroy anything but will raise it all on the last day.’ The thirst for solitude, peace, freedom, is thirst for the liberation of time from cumbersome dead bodies, from hustle; thirst for the transformation of time into what it should be—the receptacle, the chalice of eternity. Liturgy is the conversion of time, its filling with eternity. There are two irreconcilable types of spirituality: one that strives to liberate man from time (Buddhism, Hinduism, Nirvana, etc.); the other that strives to liberate time. In genuine eternity, all is alive. The limit and the fullness: the whole of time, the whole of life is in each moment. But there is also the perpetual problem: What about the evil moments? Evil time? The terrible fear before dying of the drowning man, of the man falling from the tenth floor about to be crushed on the pavement? What about the tears of an abused child?”

(The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983, p.78)

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!