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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.

Dunstan




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) )

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The real question we have to answer







Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20


Who do you say Jesus is?  That is the great question that all the Gospels try to answer; that is the question that looms behind all the stories that are remembered, treasured, recorded, mulled over and meditated upon.  Within the question is the ‘Open sesame’ for all the questions of our lives and of all our searching; within it is the map that shows us the way home and gives us the keys to the kingdom.

Who do you say Jesus is?  How do we begin or where do we begin?  Do we begin with what we know, or rather with what we think we know?  Is this simply a matter of thinking?  A matter of getting our theology sorted out?  Good luck with that!  Can we sort out our Christology and answer the question?  Have we world enough and time?  

Can we explain how Jesus is both truly God and truly human?  Reason would tell us that is an oxymoron: one or the other might be arguable but not both.  Paul encourages Jesus as a model for all his followers and in arguing his case offers a suggestion as to how the two natures, human and divine, may be imaginatively linked.  In Philippians 2 (5-8) he says:


5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.


Christ ‘empties himself’ of his divinity, he puts it aside.  This self-emptying we know of as kenosis – from the Greek term Paul uses.  It could be seen as a dangerous approach to the problem.  Because is a Christ drained of divinity, even voluntarily, really God? But, by the same token, if divinity is not yielded, how can he be truly human?  Are we going to sort out our Christology this morning?  

Paul takes us boldly into the intolerable abyss of ambiguity and seems to grasp the terrible anguish of a God who endures such a state – even ‘death on a cross.’ To be truly human must entail uncertainty: meaning limited knowledge and limited power.  So when Jesus asks the disciples what people say about him, is he voicing his own inner uncertainty?  Is he trying to identify who he really is and what God is requiring of him?  If that is so, is the consciousness of his calling something that gradually emerges over the course of time and through the experience and encounters his ministry provides?  

You may remember from last Sunday that I touched on this in his encounter with the Canaanite woman – when she out-manoeuvred him in theological debate – as I said then, ‘The Son of God changed his mind’. Are we going to sort out our Christology this morning and answer the question?  It seems our minds can’t quite get us there?

Now, what is happening when Jesus asks the disciples what they think of him?  Is he seeking reassurance?  Is he testing them?  Or is he giving them an opportunity to commit themselves and to make a leap beyond where the mind can go?  Perhaps all of these possibilities are on the table.  

Peter’s response seems typical of the man.  He speaks impulsively – typically from the heart rather than the head.  He speaks out of his experience of Jesus – the experience that the gospels record and much more that we can only imagine must have taken place in the informal talk shared during long journeys; conversations through the nights by a fire; questions that arose when impossible things happened; healings, of course;  and then maybe that eery sense of sheer mystery, of otherness,  that always seemed to surround Jesus; but perhaps, most of all was his feeling that whenever he was near Jesus, he felt he was truly and utterly at home; known through and through; at home and at peace.  It was being loved… yes, that was it, love was the key!  

Peter answers out of love.  "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  Love takes Peter where the mind can’t quite go and love gives him the keys of life.  The life we all seek from the very depths and marrow of our being.

Be encouraged in this great journey of the heart, as one great Archbishop of Canterbury, noted:

O Lord my God,
teach my heart where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.
Lord, if you are not here but absent,
where shall I seek you?
But you are everywhere, so you must be here,
why then do I not seek you?...

Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth
which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.

-Anselm of Canterbury c.1033-1109


Lord Jesus, ‘Teach our hearts’.  Give us the keys to the Kingdom.Amen!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Christ in the flux of History


20th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Reflection

Political events this week – Riots in Charlottesville, North Korea tensions, terrorist violence in Barcelona, the tragedy of the mudslide in Sierra Leone, this is a catalogue of shocking  pain and loss. What response can we make? We come this morning with these matters on our hearts.  Alongside these stories of the world’s confusion and pain we come also to hear again and remember the stories that shape our faith.

The story of Joseph is a tremendous family story of jealousy and betrayal and of reversal of fortunes as the young man sold into slavery becomes a leader of a nation and the story climaxes in the moment when the brothers who sold him come before him for his help.  In a dramatic moment  of disclosure, a brilliant and emotional moment, Joseph re-writes the family story; and sees the whole family narrative, its tragedy of loss and pain, from a greater perspective, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.”  This most Jewish story recognises the purpose of God faithfully keeping the covenant with his people Israel, working within the flux of history.

The gospel this morning is caught up in a family debate within the Judaism of Jesus’ time.  Some of the Pharisees promoted a tradition of hand-washing before meals as a way of encouraging holiness, a spiritual discipline, not a matter of hygiene.  Jesus dissents from that tradition when he declares that holiness proceeds from the heart and not from the laws and customs associated with food: this was a controversial position to take.  In this moment we see Jesus speaking as a Jew within the assumptions and debates of Judaism.  But what happens next?

Jesus heads away from Jerusalem and heads northwest toward the Mediterranean coast, toward a region associated with non-Jewish communities.  There he encounters an unknown woman identified only as a Canaanite – the ancient designation for the inhabitants of the region.

The Canaanite Woman asks for healing for her daughter . 
Juan, de Flandes, approximately 1465-1519 
The Jewish Jesus is confronted by his cultural and religious antithesis – a Canaanite woman who wants him to heal her daughter.   Again we see Jesus speaking as a Jew within Judaism: he ignores this religious ‘outsider’.   She creates a scene and obviously makes his disciples uncomfortable – because they ask him to send her away “for she keeps shouting after us”.  He explains the problem and why he ignores her: she is not within his mission: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.  This is a very orthodox Jewish point of view, a family perspective if you like.  His objection is entirely comprehensible to Jesus’ Jewish followers.  There is no surprise in this.

But what follows does surprise us.  The Canaanite woman directly approaches Jesus and kneels in front of him directly with a direct petition “Lord help me”.  In that moment, by that movement, the Canaanite woman cannot be ignored.  She is seen differently, she becomes a person and cannot be dismissed simply as a cultural outsider.  She says, “Lord help me”.   It cannot be more direct or simple than that.  It is the suppliant’s prayer.  We may find ourselves praying that a dozen times a day: in every situation where we are stumped as to what to say or do.  It is a relational plea; it produces a relational realignment.

This is not Charlottesville, a race confrontation  with no one really ‘seeing’ each other,  just different groups , ‘us’ and ‘them’, yelling across a history of stereotypes, slogans and prejudice.

Jesus’ response is still firmly rooted in his exclusive Jewish vision: salvation is for the Jews.  Accordingly his response sounds harsh: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  For him, the Jews are the children, and the dogs are the Gentiles.  Admittedly his harshness  is somewhat softened by his use of the term for puppies – but that is a trivial nuance – the relational position is still severe: Jews are children; Gentiles are dogs.

Her clever response turns Jesus’ words back upon him "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." In a word, all are fed by God.

At that response Jesus, the Son of God, changes his mind: in that moment his vision of salvation is transformed; expanded beyond recognition. He is ‘out-theologised’ by this early feminist theologian!

Jesus’ theology has shifted; it has become more comprehensive as it has been challenged in this ministry encounter. But it is even more than that: his consciousness has changed. He starts to understand his calling differently under the pressure of this encounter. Maybe here we see something of the nature of the incarnation; a Christ who develops into his calling; in the activity of a God who works constantly within the untidy flux and hazards of history. God works in the encounter with this unnamed Canaanite woman; it may be that God is at work in the shambles at Charlottesville, even in the tragic death of Heather Heyer.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Believing with the Heart


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14: 22-33;

Reflection:  “One believes with the heart”

There is a moment in Mark’s gospel (Mark 9) where a desperate father brings his son to Jesus for healing and, when Jesus says all things are possible if you believe, the father says “I believe, help my unbelief.”  I suspect we can all sympathise and identify with that man’s dilemma: do we believe?  How can we know? Be certain?  Is the voice of doubt and unbelief perched on our shoulders whispering?  Each time we say the creed, just that first phrase “I believe in God…” is there a tremor of uncertainty, a moment in which we engage with the question “what do I mean”, and “what if this is true”?  In that brief moment our world begins to shift, the paradigms by which we see ‘reality’, tilt and something new emerges.

Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996) has traced the way scientific method has advanced, especially when the results don’t fit the accepted paradigm and supposition and imagination press the boundaries to find a new way of seeing.  A new paradigm emerges.  George MacDonald wrote about the imagination as enabling the scaffolding of hypothesis without which “the house of science would never rise.”
So, if Mark reports the situation accurately, what changes for the father when his son is healed? Belief is not just a hypothesis but a paradigm shifting moment in which he sees Jesus differently. Can we imagine how we might respond to such a moment in our lives?  I am confident that we too would experience a paradigm shift and believe!

But such a paradigm shifting belief is not founded on intellectual conviction or scientific comprehension – for we don’t have that measure of control – but something else, something that Paul describes in terms of the heart. He says “one believes with the heart.” One believes with the heart! Take note, we are so accustomed to think of belief as a matter of the mind and intellectual conviction, but instead Paul locates the core of belief in the heart! In saying that, he follows a consistent thread through the OT scriptures where the heart is our spiritual, intellectual, moral and ethical centre. It shapes our fundamental disposition; and Proverbs accordingly counsels us “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov. 4:23) Much closer to our own time we find similar conviction in Blasé Pascal, who famously noted "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart."

So I encourage you to read our gospel this morning not merely with the critical faculties but also with the warmth and insight of your imagination.  Remember the context: the disciples have witnessed the spectacular miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and have been separated from Jesus who went off to pray while they launched off into the Sea of Galilee.  These are experienced fisherman, used to weather, boats and the ways of the sea; but nothing in their life has prepared them for the appearance of Jesus walking on the water toward them.  Can we believe the gospel here?  Is the gospel presenting a symbolic and metaphorical statement about the nature of God or is this a literal account of something that happened?  If it is a true record, what are its implications for us?   Is this a moment when the disciples’ understanding of reality and the world endures a radical paradigm shift and adjusts to a new understanding of faith and of Jesus?

Their initial reaction to the sight of Jesus walking on the sea is one of fear – they dismiss what they cannot comprehend, and explain the improbable and inexplicable event as a supernatural apparition – a ghost.  Can we blame them?   But Jesus identifies himself and in terms we associate with the resurrection appearances “It is I, do not be afraid.”
Peter’s response is a test: “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.”
‘If it is you’ – This is the question.  Peter is testing the unknown.   He knows the sea, its dangers and the hazards he faces so far from land – he risks himself to know the truth.  “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.”

He knows this is madness, sheer folly.  We do not walk on water.  And yet against every human instinct he steps out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus.  Maybe like a tightrope walker his eyes focussed ahead to his destination and all his thoughts keeping at bay the thought of the depths  beneath him until, until the moment he is distracted and,overwhelmed  by fear, he  sinks into the dark waters.


“Lord save me!”  That is the moment when we are told that Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him saying “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”   As Peter finds himself held and safe, what might have gone through his mind; or is it rather what overwhelmed his heart?  He was safe in the abyss, in the dark waters.  

All of us may recognise something of ourselves in Peter and something of what it means to be people of little faith.  We may say, Lord it is human to doubt.  We want to believe but help us with our unbelief. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Prayers for the City at noon


Most days the Cathedral offers Midday Prayers for the city.  Some have asked what we use and I post it here for those who are interested.  The greatest variation is about the 'particular' collect which usually engages with a particular concern for the city.  (However we did create a collect for the Grenfell Towers tragedy.)  Suggestions for Midday Prayers are always welcome, and local offers to share the prayers especially so.


Midday Prayer

The ambulatory bell is rung at noon

Welcome to your Cathedral.  Please pause for this brief midday prayer.

Invocation

E te whānau / My brothers and sisters,
our help is in the name of the eternal God,
who is making the heavens and the earth.
Eternal Spirit,
flow through our being and open our lips,
that our mouths may proclaim your praise.

Silence

Let us worship the God of love.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

O God of many names,
lover of all peoples;
we pray for peace
in our hearts and homes,
in our nations and our world;
the peace of your will,
the peace of our need.  Amen.

COLLECT FOR THE CITY
Gracious Lord of all that is,
You delight in all fullness of life;
Look with your grace and mercy upon our city:
Bless all who labour for the common good and who
serve to build up the life we share;
Bless our City Council, our University and all places of learning;
Bless our Courts, all who administer justice and all who seek it;
Bless our hospitals and all places of healing, social service and support;
that your fullness of life and purpose may abound and flourish here.
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Particular Collect (may vary)
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

COLLECT FOR MIDDAY
Blessed Saviour, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms; grant that all the peoples of the earth may be drawn to your uplifted love; for your kingdom’s sake.
Amen.



THE LORD’S PRAYER & BLESSING
Jesus, remember us in your kingdom and teach us to pray
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
now and for ever.    Amen.

Dismissal & Blessing
In the following a deacon or layperson says ‘us’ instead of ‘you’.
Go forth into the world in peace;
hold fast that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak;
help the afflicted; honour everyone;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit;
and the blessing …




Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Deacon on Social Services Sunday


Social Services Sunday and Christine, a Vocational Deacon, gave the sermon for us - sharing reflections on her calling and her daily work with the most troubled of children.


Readings:  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The gospel reading this morning asks us to imagine a fertile world
where seeds and weeds
look so much alike
and grow so closely together
that the owner will have to wait until they are fully grown
before he can separate the weeds from crop.
It seems that this is a world where it takes time for things to grow
and for truth and value to become clear.
If we are to learn anything  -
it may be that we are not to judge by appearances
and, above all, not rush into judgement
It reminds us
that there may be a lot more going on than we can see on the surface.
Deeper yet,
there is the sense of a greater purpose
and sustaining presence,
which I think we may discern as love

I work as a counsellor for traumatised and troubled children. 
My task each day
 is to listen to the confusion, the fear and the anger of children struggling to make sense of their
world.
A world that has been turned upside down
by the actions and decisions of others.
Often by the same people who are expected
to love and care for them:
expected to keep them safe;
to help them flourish, and become all that God created them to be. 

This is not a place for judgement!
My task is to give focussed attention and love
and to pray
when they leave
that these fragile plants survive despite a hostile environment.

So many of the decisions that affect our children
are made by others:
parents, families, caregivers, teachers, social workers, police, lawyers, judges and politicians.
Against the noise of these competing voices
it is not surprising that the voice of the child
is, so often, lost.
Children speak with many voices.
Which should we listen to and act on?
Do we listen to the voice of love
that continues to love despite years of abuse;
or to the voice of fantasy
that believes things are going to be different now;
or to the voice of trust
that believes because you are who you are,
you will do right by me and you will see what I need.

My task as counsellor
is to listen attentively and faithfully to the voices that speak out of
heartbreak, pain, fear, anger, frustration, confusion, hopelessness. 

To be honest, at times,
I ask myself, who in their right mind would choose to sit alongside such anguish
hour after hour, day after day, year after year?
These are feelings we often shy away from
and want to put in the 'too hard basket'
as they remind me of my own feelings of inadequacy.

All I can say is that it is God driven
I can only make sense of it through my calling to the Diaconate.
This journey began many years ago
when I explored what it means to be called by God
and found in the Diaconate
There was a call to always work alongside others.
Not to lead; not to assist;
but always to work and walk alongside.

I began as an industrial Chaplain  and trauma counsellor.
I soon realised God wanted more.
This led to acceptance into the diaconate and a degree in theology.
Again I thought this is where it would end,
only to find myself being asked to work with traumatised and abused children and their families.
Feeling woefully inadequate I gained a masters degree in counselling, specialising in working
with children.

But always working alongside -
 alongside Bishops, alongside Priests, alongside Servers
and in my daily work alongside Social Workers, alongside Families
and alongside children.
Children broken and torn apart by things beyond their control.
To me this means always being part of a team,
never a one person band wanting to do it all myself.
 Knowing this keeps me from stepping into a space where others need to be. 

Working this way brings moments of delight
when I see others stepping up
when I see the the smile of change
And I see them becoming what God meant them to be.

But working this way can also bring heart breaking pain
because we seem to struggle against impossible odds.
Nevertheless,
and so much hangs on that 'nevertheless' -
my job as therapist is to hold onto hope,
and help these young people endure and survive despite the odds.  
A hope that only God can give

Try to imagine what hope means in various situations:
  
When a child's evidence is not believed in court;
 
 When a 10 year old girl,
traumatised by years of neglect and abuse,
faces her 5th temporary placement because there is nowhere for her to go;

   When a caregiver's heart, good intentions, and patience
have been worn away by lack of support and understanding
of the difficulties she was taking on;

  When a social worker says "I have no choice the court has ruled that he goes back";
 
 When a mother learns for the first time that her child has suffered years of abuse by a trusted
friend of the family

When, yet again, a little girls mother, fails to turn up for an access visit after many promises
 
 When a terrified 7yr old sits on the couch waiting for an hour before the mental health team can
come to help her mother calm down;
  
When a lawyer's argument results in a child being placed back in the family home where little or
no change has occurred and they are likely to be uplifted again in 6 months;
  
When lack of funding means a child may wait over a year before they have a cognitive
assessment that will allow their school to apply for a few hours of assisted learning in the
classroom.

The list goes on, highlighting human need and suffering on many levels:
lack of understanding; lack of vision; lack of funding and resources;
conflicting human rights and ethical dilemmas.

So where does that leave us as followers of Jesus Christ,
our most radical agent of social change?

We all share in a world where
good and bad,
joy and sorrow,
what is and what may be
seem to coexist and be intertwined;
a world where God's purpose is not yet clear
 but where, nonetheless,
a sense of love and hope may still shine through. 

We work with that hope;
all of us;
caught up in the mystery
of being the many faces of love. 

As Paul famously reminded the believers in Corinth:

"Now faith, hope and love remain, but the greatest of these is love."  (1Cor: 13:13)



Sunday, July 16, 2017

John Updike - Seven Stanzas at Easter


I was reading Ian Harris's essay in the Otago Daily Times (ODT) this last Friday, the opinion piece on religion with his usual well informed (and contentious) efforts to present a viable form for faith in our 'post-modernity'.   It made me think of Updike's poem, where we are cautioned against such subtleties, re-thinks and demythologisations - and instead urged to imagine that the scandal of the resurrection must carry with it the most daring possibilities of science.  See what you think.




Seven Stanzas at Easter




Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

'Farmer God...'?


Reflections for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings:
  • Genesis 25:19-34
  • Romans 8:1-11
  • Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

    Typically I start my sermon for a Sunday about a week in advance – usually on the Monday or Tuesday as I review the readings and prepare the pewsheets for the coming Sunday.  This week has been no different except that the collect caught my attention – just as it did last Sunday with that extraordinary opening “Unpretentious God”.  These are experimental collects – but even so this week’s collect rattled me: ‘Farmer God’!  

    Farmer God, good soil brings forth a hundredfold of grain. May we be that soil; vibrant, deep and teeming with life. This we ask in God’s name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

    Anglicans are usually more circumspect than this in our prayer speech: it is our custom to be careful as we address the mystery, the glory, the wonder, the sheer otherness of God. ‘Farmer God’ hit me in one breath with its banality.  It just sounded wrong and the more I thought about it the image seemed to circumscribe God by so finite a frame of reference that ‘God’ was no longer God.


    Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1836-190
    That said, the meat of the collect is in the petition, voicing our burning desire to be a people who are fruitful, ‘vibrant, deep and teaming with life.’  Which is of course the always relevant question of ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Who are we becoming?’  This is the question, however worded, by which we take the measure of our days. Think for the moment, of those instances of self-doubt when we ask ourselves  –‘What does my life add up to?’ – or something of that sort.

    We may ask ourselves such tormenting questions as, “what would my life be like if I had done x and not chosen y?”   If I had made a different choice would I be a different person - i.e. vibrant, deep, teeming with life rather than as I may see myself now, depleted, shallow and driven by circumstances? 

    We may look back to a time when our world seem charged with rich possibilities and lament our present.  It is to this aspect of our human condition that the OT story of the brothers Esau and Jacob can speak.  Esau is the first-born son, the man born with the privileges of the first-born, a great start in life, and yet he takes the gift so lightly that he gives the blessing away lightly, casually, as if it is of no consequence.  He loses everything for the ‘mess of potage’, for a moment’s gratification.  We won’t speak of Jacob at the moment – the unspeakable trickster - but in the shadow of Esau we recognise the other selves we might have been, the shining possibilities that might have been us; the things we have taken for granted or disregarded.   

    Further back in time, back into the time of myth and creation, we may recognise the first Esau in Adam, who, after the fatal choice we call the Fall – has lost everything and the course of human creation has taken another and decisive twist.  When in our lives have we lost sight of who we might have been; lost sight of the really important things?

    Paul sees it all so clearly; he can be so irritating in that way!  

    He maps it out – you can live by the flesh or live by the Spirit.  One way is death-burdened, the other gives life; as he puts it: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (8:6) In terms of the collect, the life we seek, “vibrant, deep and teeming with life” is this life of the Spirit, this life that Paul recognises as identical with “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus”.  

    However we may agree or disagree with Paul, we know the truth about ourselves.  We have our good days and the days where faith, hope and love seem very diminished in us; where vibrance, depth and life seem minimal; and days when we wonder whether the Spirit of Christ is in us at all!  

    And yet we still turn toward Christ; we come to this Cathedral to join with all the others who seek to live in the Spirit of Christ, to be “vibrant, deep and full of meaning”.  Week by week we come, with our failures, and our successes, and on this Sunday we try to fix our mind on Christ and to hear again Paul’s assertion “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

    Parable of the Sower, 1180, Canterbury Cathedral
    And so we come to what we know as the Parable of the Sower. This is different from Old Testament saga and from Paul’s theological argument and debate.  Now we are in the story, like a multitude
    seated on the grass or among a crowd on a hillside.  We are hearing the stories and trying to make sense of them.  Except this is one we know – almost too well.

    Here the figure of the farmer as sower is like no farmer I know.   Farmers are careful, calculating and measured in their actions; nothing is casual about their sowing!  I have often preached on this text and recall how often I have seen it as a parable of the life of the Spirit: the times in our lives when we have been like the grain in shallow soil, or on rocks, among thorns – or even when we have been the good soil and fruitful.  In the course of that reflection we take ourselves back to the granary of memory and wonder at what has been wasted, lost or let die.   It is too easy for this parable to be used as a way of cracking the whip to stir us to better efforts; other readings are possible for the grace of the Spirit.

    Perhaps we are the infertile soil, the seed left to chance, the thorns, the rocks, the shallow soil, the open place with the birds – and so on – as well as the good and productive soil.  Perhaps in the generous love and grace of God – all options are in us and yet there is always still enough for all. To contemplate that is see the parable quite differently, and to be humorous and gentle.  

    For instance …  in his poem ‘New Reading’ the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins almost transforms the parable of the sower by reading it differently; by seeing in all things the transforming power of Christ’s love. This is far more than any 'Farmer God'!

    Although the letter said
    On thistles that men look not grapes to gather,
    I read the story rather
    How soldiers platting thorns around Christ’s Head
    Grapes grew and drops of wine were shed.

    Though when the sower sowed,
    The wingèd fowls took part, part fell in thorn,
    And never turned to corn,
    Part found no root upon the flinty road—
    Christ at all hazards fruit hath shewed.

    From wastes of rock He brings
    Food for five thousand: on the thorns He shed
    Grains from His drooping Head;
    And would not have that legion of winged things
    Bear Him to heaven on easeful wings.
    -Gerard Manly Hopkins 1844-1889


    Saturday, July 8, 2017

    "Unpretentious God ...?"


    13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
    Readings: Genesis 24. 34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Romans 7. 15-25a;Matthew 11. 16-19, 25-30

    “Unpretentious God, you call us as we are; and in our weakness you find strength. Help us so to delight in who we are, that we are set free to dream of all that we could yet become; through the grace of our Saviour, Jesus Christ and the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

    Our church is experimenting with new collects (prayers) for each Sunday and these are printed in the NZ lectionary, with the result that each Sunday we face a new expression of faith.  Sometimes we are startled by such ‘newness’.  I was by the phrase ‘unpretentious’ – never ever thought of God in that way – but there is more muscle in the expression than I at first responded to.  After all ‘unpretentious’ is far better than ‘pretentious’ and as one thinks of equivalent phrases, (I felt ‘self-effacing’ especially suitable) it seemed to me especially appropriate as a way to recognise the hiddenness of God as presence in creation and in incarnation. (An unpretentious presence instead of dramatic theophany with signs, wonders and appropriate fireworks.)

    So, for instance in the OT lesson which closes off the Abraham story by the continuation of the next generation with the finding of a wife for Isaac.  It’s an elaborate little story with the servant delegated to find the right woman.  He is successful but is he successful because of the direction of God or is he just lucky?   Is God active or not – and this question depends upon the reading one has of ordinary events.  Whether he is right or not, the servant believes it is God’s providential guidance that has been at work - a God who works discreetly within this real world – in other words ‘an unpretentious God’.

    Think now about the second lesson, that passage from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.  It is a formidable piece of theological reflection upon human experience:  a truth by recognised anyone who has ever faced the pressures of the ego, the indulgence of impulses to self-promotion, power, lust, fear or avarice. Paul’s analysis of an inner conflict between what we could be and what we settle for is a source of painful incomprehension: “I do not understand my own actions.”  Within the framework of ordinary human experience Paul recognises a conflict: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”  Within the natural order of things, the storm and stress of lived experience, Paul discerns a moral force and acknowledges the presence and purpose of ‘an unpretentious God’.

    When we come to the gospel the words ‘But to what will I compare this generation?’ have the ring of condemnation as if from someone deploring the present state of things.  We recognise something of this in our own behaviour – as we deplore the current state of things compared with how they used to be in some previous period.

    The gospeller tries to make sense of how Jews of the day have responded to John the Baptist and to Jesus – he can make no sense of the indifferent reception to each of them – totally different personalities.  It has no more rational explanation than the frivolity of a children’s game:
    “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
       we wailed, and you did not mourn.” 
    Neither the joyful freedom of Jesus’ teaching awakened any signs of joy, nor the sombreness of the Baptist’s warnings, any signs of remorse.  At the heart of this situation is the mystery of human freedom and our capacity to not respond and not commit to what God offers us.   It is the mystery of our condition – this perilous, burdensome freedom; this wilful ignorance that we hide behind, of which Jesus says “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”  This is truly the ‘unpretentiousness’ of God: nothing is imposed and we are free to interpret the world and make sense of our lives or not.

    These diverse readings of scripture each present us with the presence of God within the diverse currents of our story of faith.  The loving purpose of God and our fulfilment in God is the call that runs through the gospel… ‘Come to me…’

     ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’