Sunday, September 2, 2012
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Consider, after all, how chief executive pay has risen in New Zealand (2004-2010) by nearly 80% while, in the same period, the average workers wages rose by a bare 27%. Add to that the tax cuts given to the wealthy on the one hand and, on the other hand, tougher measures on beneficiaries, increased prescription charges, higher Family Courts charges, reduced Working for Family Families provisions, labour laws giving less security to workers, a desperately overworked social services system, a Ministry where further cuts are required and Chief Executives will receive bonuses or cuts for success or failure in meeting targets - what is going on?
One dreadful irony is that in response to the ever-growing gap in our society, and the despair that is engendered, the Ministry of Health proposes, over the next four years, to put $8 million into a 'community suicide prevention scheme'. What do you think of this as an example of 'aspirational waffle' : '(the scheme proposes that communities will) "work together and develop their own solutions to suicide, and access informed advice and support to implement local community action plans." That looks and sounds to me as something "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."
It seems that the ABC's book also delivers some strong challenges to the rampant materialism and the unquestioning pursuit of so-called 'economic growth' that seems to dominate our western economic assumptions. I understand that he has questioned the concept of 'growth' and the consequences that it carries - for instance, "By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term wellbeing." These are things we need to think on - deeply.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
|This is a place of truth-telling ... before God|
It's hard not feel more than a little sad today; even to feel rather betrayed, as the Government ignores its lack of mandate on this issue and persists with what I see as the folly and immorality of selling assets that belong to all New Zealanders. That these sales are being persisted with at a time when costs are rising and the gap between the well-heeled and the scraping-by is still widening, really sticks in my craw.
One quirky detail of the Cathedral debate comes to mind. Each of the panellists had been issued with a notepad and pen and after the meeting I collected these materials and was intrigued to see on one pad the note 'God?' I assume the writer was picking up on my welcome and introduction where I had observed how the Cathedral was a place of 'truth-telling' where we saw all our living and activities as being accountable and before God.
It may be that the panellist concerned found that the mention of God raised more questions than it provided clear answers - I won't argue with that. The proposition that lies at the foundation of faith always presents God as THE question.
|Putting the Vote against asset sales|
As I see it, the asset sales raise a question of good stewardship of natural resources and this flows back ultimately into a recognition of who we are as stewards of creation under God. To understand ourselves in this way causes me to doubt whether we can give such natural resources over to private enterprise where a strong sense of stewardship tends to be subordinated to profit and the benefit of a few takes precedence over the benefit of all. Of course public ownership does not in itself guarantee good stewardship of the creation or the interests of the many, but my hunch is that private ownership is not the better choice.
Monday, June 18, 2012
But of course this is certainly not an argument that every church should be kept: it is merely a caution not to operate with a facile polarisation of mission or buildings. I think the truth is that we are probably 'over-churched' and some rationalisation of our buildings, while painful, could be productive. In the ODT this morning the report on the Presbyterian's sale of their redundant Roslyn church is an example of what we may have to do - I pray that we may do this well.
I have heard gloomy prophecies of congregations vacating their buildings as they fail the required safety standard: well I'm not so sure of the sense of that and hope we can ask some fundamental questions and test the assumptions. Here in most of Dunedin and much of the South, the earthquake risk today is no greater than it was decades ago. Certainly our buildings may not survive a major quake but they may already have lasted ninety or so years. Rather than seeing our churches as a problem or (worse) as a block to our mission, we now have an opportunity for dialogue with councils and government on how to preserve our best - even to have such conversations in the community is itself an activity that has something of the missional about it. In the sharing and the listening - who knows what we may discover?
The ODT editorial on Saturday 16 June tackled the deeper question of the post-Christian environment and pondered how the church can become again 'relevant' in our society. For goodness sake: who or what determines relevance? What measures might one use? For instance, in a time when market forces seem to be taking over our assumed values and the importance of the human is being diminished accordingly, the church has an especially critical role as a counter-cultural presence and accordingly must ask the questions, challenge what is happening and work for a better society. In word, in deed and just by our presence - I think we do that. Does that make us relevant? Who decides? Those ancient gospel images for mission - salt, light - keep pressing at the back of my mind.
Sunday, May 6, 2012
Gospel for the day
Text: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.(John 15:7)
One of the privileges of my vocation is that people feel at liberty to accost me, to fix me with their glittering eye like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and then proceed to tell me (because clearly it must have escaped my notice) that people no longer go to church as they once used to; and also ask me (as if I were the Pied Piper and had stolen them) where are the young people? All of this is usually said in a tone that nicely combines general lament with pointed accusation.
One frank response might be to inquire – ‘And where are your children (grandchildren) today? That might not be thought a very kind or sensitive response – but it would be revealing; because for many of us that thought would remind us of how the world has changed; how society has changed; how assumptions about belief and the expression of faith are now different; and how our current spiritual environment is now largely ‘post-Christian’. For example, how many of our children or our grandchildren know the Lord’s Prayer? That is something worth checking – because we can no longer assume that everyone does. However most important – the question ‘Where are your children or grandchildren today?’ reminds us all that we ‘catch’ faith in the nurturing of family life. If a close following of Jesus Christ is central in a family’s life through all the formative years, something of that tends to stick with the children and through the generations.
Of course I understand and often share the unease of those who accost me to lament and accuse. There are dissenting voices about the church. There are many who speak of the church as dying and who are looking for new signs of life, for ‘fresh expressions’ of faith; there are church leaders who talk of letting the old church die and of investing all our energy in a new way of being church. I admit to getting a little impatient when I hear this sort of talk – and there’s a lot of it about – if only because it displays a consumerist way of thinking about the church, a way of thinking that is all too close to the market forces mentality of the moment. It reminds me of the prophetic comment attributed to Dean Inge (the famous ‘gloomy Dean’ of St Paul’s, London) that ‘the church that is married to the spirit of this age will be a widow in the next’. The church’s real inner life is always at odds with the world; the church is a counter-cultural reality – always pointing us to the truth about who we are and what we are called to be. Such a church resists the commodity mentality and insists upon the mysteries of the inner life even as it calls us to resist the darkness of the world - injustice and the oppression of the poor.
In this context the appointment of Justin Duckworth as the new bishop of Wellington is especially interesting. Only recently an Anglican and recently ordained priest, Justin is associated with Urban Vision, what is sometimes called the ‘new monasticism’; groups of Christians living in communities working with the poorest, the least and the most marginalized. Urban Vision has placed itself under the spiritual oversight of the Anglican Church – it realized that its social activism needed a deep nurturing contemplative spirituality – and it discovered this in the New Zealand Prayer Book and the Anglican spiritual tradition.
Now this is not a reason for us to indulge in some self-congratulation about the wisdom of the Anglican tradition but really to remember what is the core business of the church and our ‘core business’ as followers of Christ. Our core business is captured in Jesus words: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.(John 15:7).
Now my guess is that you know what this means. Can you think back into your faith story and recall when you realised or decided that Christ was going to be ‘it’ for you? Was it through friends? Was it through a Christian group or community? Was it through reading the Bible or a book of prayers? Was it through the influence of a priest, evangelist? Was it through some experience – where suddenly the faith all made sense and you ‘knew’? Can you remember how you felt? It may have been a warming of the heart and mind, a sense of joy, of peace … something that beggars the most vivid description? Hold onto that memory, that recollection of the initial experience of Christ in your life. That is a precious clue to the life we seek.
You see, it seems to me that a church that is riddled with anxiety, fears, conflicts and resentments is a church that has temporarily forgotten the secret of its very existence and its calling – namely to ‘abide in Christ’. Let’s try and spell out what that means – at least in some rough summary fashion.
· It means to live in close connection with our Lord Jesus Christ.
· More than that, it means to constantly let Christ be the deep grounding reality of our lives.
· Let’s try again, and not pull any punches: it means that it is Christ who is our life; and to abide in Christ is to let Christ take us over. That’s what Paul meant when he said ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20). That is the heart and the absolute goal of the spiritual life.
· To abide in Christ is to know what it is to live fearlessly – to know that all that we are and all that is - everything is held in the deep and loving purpose of God. To a fearful age and an anxious church that is a transforming knowledge – it is precisely what Paul understood when he proclaimed: ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39)
So I am going to suggest a few practical considerations to help us on our way as we seek to ‘abide in Christ’.
- · Do we have a ‘rule of life’? Have we thought about how we live our life in Christ and have we set time aside each day for things as simple as daily prayer and bible reading; and things as practical as giving of our money, time and talents in God’s service?
- · Do we encourage one another – by sharing our experiences and our stories?
- · Do we spend time being together – whether just a cup of tea or having meals together? I would love to see our cathedral community doing that – and getting to know one another in the process.
- · We need to share the faith wisely, graciously – consider inviting others to worship at the cathedral with you and to have lunch together; - and yes try to check that our children and grandchildren know the Lord’s Prayer!
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
(A tribute to Pam M-T and all the Kiwi Nurses)
I am the woman, who held your dying uncle's hand,
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Sexagesima 12th February 2012
For the sermon this evening I have announced my intention of a theological reflection upon the work of Charles Dickens, in this his 200th anniversary. But which Dickens will we discuss? There is the Dickens we know as the champion of the poor; and the Dickens who largely created the Victorian Christmas not only with his ‘A Christmas Carol’ but also with his ‘Christmas books’; there is the Dickens of the public performances; there is the Dickens who appears in his published letters, and the Dickens who especially used St Matthew’s Gospel and was very familiar with the Book of Common Prayer. But, what I hope I might achieve instead is to help draw out the religious underpinning of Dickens’s literary imagination.
Remember now, if you can, Holman Hunt’s painting known as ‘The Light of the World’ (1853-54). I am confident that you are familiar with the painting. If you can I want you to try and see it in your mind’s eye. It is an allegorical painting representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me". According to Hunt: "I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject…" The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore only be opened from the inside, representing "the obstinately shut mind". Hunt, even 50 years after painting it, felt he had to explain the symbolism. The painting seized the popular religious imagination of the time; it drew huge crowds and went on a world tour (the original is in Keble College, Oxford, and he made a life-size copy for St Paul’s in London). I will come back to this painting in a moment.
For the moment it is enough to say that we can be confident that Dickens was familiar with Hunt’s painting and with the work of others of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He was not especially well-disposed to the school: for instance he wrote a scathing review of Millais’s immensely controversial painting ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ when it was exhibited at the Tate. It shows Joseph at his workbench and the young Jesus having just had a nail taken from his hand. Dickens accused Millais of portraying Mary as an alcoholic who looks “so hideous in her ugliness that … she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England.” He claimed that Millais presented our Saviour as a "wry-necked boy in a nightgown who seems to have received a poke playing in an adjacent gutter" and the Holy Family look like “alcoholics and slum-dwellers”
In Dickens’s extravagant language I suggest we recognize not just the critic entertaining his readers with a lively demolition-job but that he is enraged; that he sees the work as blasphemous. Dickens is furious because he sees in Millais’s realism a serious detraction from the idealised concept of the Holy Family that he held dear and which flows into various aspects of his work. Millais had touched a nerve in Dickens!
Now come back to Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. There we see the kingly Christ, bearing the light in the dark wood of the world, and rapping gently at the door of the shut or darkened mind – now that is a painting that tells a story, it tells a story that one can live by. Hunt’s style is realist but it is, as he described it, a symbolic realism. And the same concept, I suggest to you, is at the very heart of Dickens religious imagination and forms the guiding principle of the great novels. Where Hunt paints with a symbolic realism, Dickens writes with a mythic realism: a shaping master-narrative – the Christian story – informs his vision. In short, he brings to the novel what we might call a ‘mythic’ imagination; a story to live by. This gives an underlying unity to what can otherwise seem a meandering and sprawling narrative – and think of the practicalities of him publishing books in monthly episodes – how difficult it would have been to have kept some inner coherence! I suggest that running through all the realism of Dickens’s narrative, and holding it together (even as month by month fresh sections of David Copperfield were published) is an underlying Christian mythos.
The locked door, the shut mind, the foolish deluded heroes of Dickens’s greatest narratives repeatedly demonstrate variations on the great Christian story of salvation - enfolding all who lose their way in the world’s wood, who fail to see the true source and goal of their lives and who only later grow to grasp the truth and figuratively to ‘see the light’. One may rightly consider the parable of the Prodigal Son as a masterful paradigm of this theme but Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ images it visually with Christ bearing the light in a dark place.
Dickens’s heroines are often bearers of the light of the world – and Agnes in David Copperfield is a good example. At the close of that long and wandering novel, after all the errors and misadventures, David eloquently acknowledges the light that is Agnes Wickfield.
…one face, shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects, is above them and beyond them all. And that remains.
I turn my head, and see it, in its beautiful serenity, beside me. My lamp burns low, and I have written far into the night; but the dear presence without which I were nothing, bears me company.
O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!
Agnes helps David in his journey from darkness to light; she is his light, his type of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, and the Light of the World. Yes, I am suggesting that her name is no mere coincidence but part of the greater shaping vision that structures the work.
If Dickens’s imagination is, as I argue, essentially formed by the great Christian narrative of salvation it is also given further substance and resource by the many ways in which he deploys his knowledge of scripture. So, in the second book of Samuel we find the story of King David as the King of Judah: and there we also find the account of how the King desired the wife of the Hittite Uriah, and arranged for his death in battle. How extraordinary then that Dickens has his David (Copperfield) similarly engage with Uriah (a most un-English name); compete with him for the affections of a woman (Agnes); and, while not arranging his death, dream of it more than once – as he says ‘I believe I had a delirious idea of seizing the red-hot poker out of the fire and running him through with it.’ One speculates how deliberately Dickens made such an association in his work.
We see operating through the pages of David Copperfield, mainly through the heroine Agnes Wickfield, a testimony of light, an ethic of all that is won for humanity through the gift of the constant, tirelessly serving, selfless life. This ethic is what many would claim as our true Dickens, the Dickens we best like to remember: ‘the opponent of social injustice in the name of all victims, especially children, the orphaned, magistrate-hounded, mistaught, neglected, half-starved Olivers, little Dicks, Nells, Smikes, Dorrits, Davids, Jos, Pips wandering in the wilderness (Dickens’s figure) of an uncaring because still un-Christian world: ’ a world of debtors’ prisons and squalid rookeries, of corruption in high places and greedy City bankers – perhaps not so unlike our own time after all.
It is said that when Dickens wrote Great Expectations he re-read David Copperfield to prevent himself from any ‘unconscious repetitions’. The personal elements of the Expectations story were strong, especially in the vulnerable young Pip wandering in the darkness and marshes. The underlying creative religious vision, with its pattern of moving from error (or sin), through repentance to regeneration holds true but in Great Expectations an emphasis on forgiveness comes to the fore. The failure to forgive and its consequences are most powerfully imaged in the ghastly haunted figure of Miss Havisham and her death by fire.
The figure of Estella (the name signifies a star) is ‘The Light of the World’ for Pip, though she throws a much more diffident and ambiguous light than David’s Agnes. Yet light she is and at the close of Great Expectations (an ending notoriously worked over by Dickens) it is the evening, the time of star-rise, when Pip visits the site of Satis House and chances upon Estella. The words they exchange are luminously charged with grace and forgiveness and these two human figures (symbolically the latest Adam and Eve) leave the ruined garden with a new light about them.
I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.’ GE,493
The Christian mythos that shaped Dickens’s imagination and subtly informed his greatest works, still has the imaginative power to subtly reach his readers today; to make us question how we live and relate to others; what it means to live honourably and – to bear the light of Christ in the world.