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

  • 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.’

    Sunday, July 2, 2017

    On the Road to En-Dor

    Choral Evensong 2 July 2017

    1 SAMUEL 28: 3-19

    CS Lewis had the teacher's talent for asking provocative questions: for instance 'What would we do if the supernatural did in fact occur?” There is a lot of interest in the paranormal and in the supernatural - and in things that go 'bump in the night'.  It says a lot about human nature. There was a huge upsurge of interest in spiritualism after the first world war, not only in those who lost someone dear to them, but also in people who wanted to know, in the uncertainty, the loss, of all that had formed a safe and happy life, what the future held in store.

    Lewis was using the question to talk about God. The trouble is that God is not an object for our scrutiny or manipulation and yet we also want to believe that life is not random, that there is meaning and purpose in our lives and that someone has plans for us. Of course the atheist points to this drive in us as part of the god myth;  our desire for a god that is looking over us and looks after us, whereas the reality, they claim, is that life is random and there is no creator.

    Which thought brings us to our first reading and the realisation of what a very strange episode it is. It is clear that Saul, the first king of Israel, has lost his way and lost God’s favour. He is a desperate man.  He has lost his prophet, Samuel. He has tried the two methods used in Israel at the time to determine the future, dreams and the casting of lots, the Urim, which are kept in the Ark of the Covenant and God has answered him only by silence. The country is in a state of civil war and soothsayers abound though Saul has banned them, obeying the laws in Leviticus that state that a witch shall not be suffered to live. Nonetheless, in his desperation he seeks out a soothsayer and instructs her to call up Samuel’s spirit. The apparition of Samuel questions why he has been disturbed but tells Saul why God has turned away his face. The implication is that Saul’s desire to know the future is pointless, mainly because the questions that he wishes to have answered are those he already knows the answer to. There is worse to come. Not only will he lose the battle, but he is going to die and all of his sons with him.

    The book of Samuel and the story of the witch of En-dor are embedded in our literature. A year after the death of his son at Loos, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called En-Dor (1916), about communicating with the dead. It concludes,

    Witch of Endor by Nikolai Ge, 1857
    Oh the road to En-dor is the oldest road
    And the craziest road of all!
    Straight it runs to the Witch’s abode,
    As it did in the days of Saul,
    And nothing has changed of the sorrow in store
    For such as go down on the road to En-dor!

    This story of the soothsayer at Endor sits oddly with most of the story of the struggle between Saul and David. We see Saul at the end of story and desperate to know the future, so desperate that he vainly attempts, despite all the prohibitions, to communicate with spirits? He attempts to cross a boundary; attempts to manipulate another dimension; tinker with the supernatural but instead finds neither wisdom nor reassurance but only despair.

    Kipling’s son John was 18 years old when he went into battle at Loos and his body was never found, despite exhaustive searching by his distraught parents. Kipling was only too aware that his son need not have gone at all because of his poor eyesight and by the date of the poem, hundreds of thousands of families were beginning to come to terms with the loss of sons, father and brothers in France. Kipling can only look forward now to his own death. He
    has sent his son to war like Saul and death is the only result.

    The account of the witch at Endor is at least a cautionary tale and a warning not to dabble in spiritualism or to treat God so lightly.

    Saturday, July 1, 2017

    What sort of God are you?

    Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
    02                02 July 2017

    There are times when the Old Testament just horrifies you and of all the stories that can do that, the best remembered is the account of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  It violates our every natural and good instinct. It reeks of betrayal and abuse: God betrays the trust Abraham has in him; God orders him to sacrifice the promised son; Abraham betrays his son’s trust in him and betrays his own paternal duties; we note the pretence and sham of the journey to the mountain; we may imagine the misgivings Isaac might have had along the way until the moment when he is tied and placed on the stone, and his father raises the knife.   I hear a voice deep in my soul screaming ‘What sort of God are you?’ That of course is the question. It is the cry heard from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mat.27:46; Mark 15:34).

    There is a parallel to Abraham’s dilemma in the book of Job – a wisdom tale which tells of how this utterly righteous and God fearing man is stripped of everything, property, family, health – and in the midst of all this suffering stubbornly refuses to rebuke God, “the Lord gave, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord;”(Job 1:21). When his sufferings increase and he is challenged by his wife to ‘curse God and die’, he still responds “shall we receive the good at the hand of the Lord and not receive the bad” (Job 2:10)?  You could say that the whole of Job can be read as an investigation of our most anguished question ‘What sort of God are you?’

    This is not abstract or marginal question; it underlies every aspect of the spiritual life.  It is embedded in the most central of all our prayers when we ask ‘give us this day our daily bread,’ and yet also in the same breath nervously beg ‘save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil’; we pray not to be so tested.  We shudder at the dilemma of Abraham and the sufferings of Job:  “Shall we receive the good at the hand of the Lord, and not receive the bad?”  What sort of God are you?  The great stories of Abraham and Job wrench us from the cosy domestic images of God that we create for ourselves and confront us with the vertiginous walk of faith where all our handholds fall away and we struggle moment by moment, inch by inch, in the mystery we call God.  What sort of God are you?

    This question underlies the gospel today as Jesus advises the disciples (and us) on the mystery and the perils of our calling: who will we encounter; friend or foe; good or evil; righteous or unrighteous; blessing or curse?  How do we live with an open heart and offer hospitality, even just a cup of water, to all?  How do we recognise you? What sort of God are you?

    It has been pointed out that our care for the stranger carries some hazards with it and that the words host, guest, hostile, hostage and hospitality might all spring from the same Latin root hostis, meaning stranger or enemy.  It may be even more complex as another similar Latin root, hospes (friend, guest or visitor) might be the common source for host, guest, hospital and hospitality.  Hospes or hostis are guest and enemy, stranger and friend, closer and more ambiguous than we think.  Which encounter this day has drawn us by an angel of the Lord, unrecognised?

    One commentator reports on her mission amongst the most marginalised and urban poor and the ambiguities and hazards of this calling.  She offers another nuance to the question ‘What sort of God are you’?

    “What I heard, and continue to hear, is a voice that can crack religious and political convictions open, that advocates for the least qualified, least official, least likely. It [Christianity] proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed-up and pious, and then commands everyone to do the same. It doesn't promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God's.”

    (Sara Miles.   Take This Bread: The spiritual memoir of a twenty-first century Christian)

    Sunday, June 25, 2017

    The Collect for Peace

    It is a cold winter evening ...

    You will remember the Collect: “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

    To reflect on that collect is to enter deep into the origins of the Book of Common Prayer: to note not just the particular genius of Cranmer in the 16th century, but also touch the spirit and character of deep devotion and reflective prayer first couched in Latin and part of the liturgical practise of religious communities in the medieval and the ancient church.  There are deep roots here.

    The poise and balance of the collect still affect us as we listen, though familiar as it is over the years.  It reminds us that prayer, shaped and polished over time, is not just a verbal impulse of the spirit in the moment but a direction of the soul that shapes and forms us.

    The first part addresses God and is a reminder of God as presence, source and purpose of all that is holy, good and just.  That directs, attunes us if you like, to recognise the nature of God and of the signs of God’s presence and action in all the world about us.

    From that fundamental recognition there is a primary petition for the correct disposition of the soul: “Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give…”  The phrasing is reminiscent of the old BCP blessing which spoke of “the peace of God that passeth all understanding”, and it is a spiritual anchor for to know that peace, to abide in that peace, is to live in Christ.

    From that orientation there follows a series of consequential petitions:

    1.       “that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments;” we know the ease with which we become distracted by many cares and competing allegiances – and this is a highly realistic request that we set our hearts in the right direction and be firmly focussed.
    2.       “and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness.” This closes the circle of the prayer and returns us to that petition for peace with which the collect began.  But, as I observed in the reflection this morning, the  prayer is not a petition that we don’t feel fear but a prayer for deliverance from fear of our enemies – whatever these enemies may be.  To abide in Christ, to abide in the peace of his presence, is to be steadied amidst whatever fears may assail us.

    Saturday, June 24, 2017

    Leaning into Fear: the dark rabbit-holes of doubt



    Don’t be afraid.  It is a phrase that introduces all the resurrection appearances of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid” – but those words are difficult to respond to when you are confronted by the inexplicable otherworldly reality of one you have seen die.  

    But in our own time, how can we not be afraid – a writer was asked “How would you live if you had no fear?”  She pondered long and hard before she anwered, “The question frightened me a little, for it involved asking harder questions about faith, confronting deeper insecurities within myself, and creeping farther down the dark rabbit holes of doubt that lie in wait in all the scary corners of my mind…which made me wonder, “Is hope really the thing that keeps me from disbelief? Or is it fear?”

    Tangled in the question of fear and of faith is how we may think of God; for instance, are we torn between fear or trust? I like the way C.S. Lewis has the Beavers describe Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe:

    "[Mrs. Beaver says] if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly."
    "Then he isn’t safe?" said Lucy. "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe?" ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you."
    (And in those stories, you may remember how that truth about Aslan is also balanced by the vision of the children - especially Lucy - burying their faces in Aslan's mane.)

    The story of Hagar and Ishmael always catches my imagination and makes me wonder about the domestic hazards of Abraham’s ménages à trois: the tangle of relationships, the friction as Abraham tries to manage Sarah and provide for Hagar; the rivalries over the children, over the property, over him.   It must have been complicated and, running through it all, for all involved, a disempowering undercurrent of fear.  My heart goes out to Hagar as the issue comes to a head and she is taken out and summarily dismissed from the household, the community and from all the security that she has known. Her world dissolves.  Gone, all gone,  in a moment!

    Claude Lorraine (1600-1682) The Banishment of Hagar
    Now imagine that someone you really respect and trust comes to you and, looking serious and sympathetic, says “Do not be afraid.”  Do you feel your pulse quicken?  Does the heart seem to go in the mouth? Is the breath a little short?  Are you suddenly operating on a different level as irrational fears, projections, confusion and panic flood through you?

    The fact is, of course, that our world is not safe and our calling to follow Christ is not so that we can feel safe.  As the gospel this morning clearly shows us, fear is part of the journey.  So we need to recognise fear.  Lean into it.  Work with it.  We have to learn to acknowledge and engage with what is uncomfortable and unpleasant.  This is part of the way of the disciple.   Perhaps we can learn to place our fear in God’s hands and learn also to be kind to ourselves, accepting that we are vulnerable; if we can’t give such kindness to ourselves how is it possible for us to offer kindness and mercy to other people?

    Our calling is certainly to learn not to be afraid.  In this gospel Jesus is teaching his disciples; preparing them for what their calling will make them face, dangers, humiliations, death.  He encourages them and reassures them at the same time: don’t be intimidated, be honest and faithful.  Keep the last day in mind.  You are loved.  And by losing your life, you will find it.  Sound advice to them and to us as we follow in The Way.

    You may remember that critical phrase in the Collect for Peace in the BCP Evensong: where we pray to be “defended from the fear of our enemies”.  We seek defence not from the experience of fear but from fear of our enemies – whoever or whatever they may be.  We name them; pray for them;  we hold them and ourselves before the Lord.  In so doing we lean into our fear and begin to change it and ourselves into an aspect of love.

    You will remember that collect: “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

    Monday, June 19, 2017

    Grenfell Towers, a society divided ...

    In the quietness of Evensong on a midwinter Sunday night, a very brief reflection on the readings and how they speak to us right now.  The horror of Grenfell Towers invites the deeper insight of the gospel.

    Choral Evensong 18 June 2017
    Readings: 1 Samuel 21:1-15; Luke 11:14-28;

    “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house…”

    This is a familiar passage, so much so that it has passed into our language as a piece of proverbial wisdom in the form “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand” and we most commonly associate it with the nightmare of civil war.   However the truth is that there are other forms of division in a society rather than civil war, and we tend to repress acknowledgement of such divisions, we can get by very well pretending that all is well … until something happens: as it did this week.

    What happened was the inferno that was Grenfell Towers – the home of 127 families, in Kensington, the richest borough in England, where a block or so down from what was Grenfell Towers are houses that sell for tens of millions; many of them allegedly empty as property investments.  Almost side by side two different worlds have coexisted: the super-rich and the very poor in crowded accommodation.  In a cruel irony, the Council had Grenfell Towers smartened up by installing cladding.  Tragically (to save a paltry£ 4250) it opted for a cheaper cladding which had no fire retardant – and it was through this cheap cladding that the fire spread.

    Now we hear repeatedly of horror at cuts in Council spending (as a result of austerity measures imposed by Government) and the consequences that include considerable deregulation, a lack of building inspectors and similar cost-cutting.  Regardless of the public outcry and the political storm that has erupted, Grenfell Towers is an inexcusable tragedy and a judgement upon the economic and social policies of neoliberal economics, the deceit of ‘trickle down’ wealth and the divisions created by financial austerity.   I think The Observer has rightly summed up what has happened and the desperate need for change:

    “The horrific images of people signalling for help at the windows of a blazing Grenfell Tower will remain imprinted in our collective memory long after the demolition of its charred remains. They lived in one of the richest boroughs in one of the richest cities in the word. Yet the state utterly failed in its responsibility to provide them with the most basic of protections. It continues to fail to provide the survivors and relatives with the assistance they so desperately need. This grim insight into the society that we share with Grenfell Tower’s inhabitants should shake us all.”

    Grenfell Towers is a terrifying example of the consequence of the unacknowledged divisions in a society; an example of what happens when wealth is so inequitably distributed and of the hazards that follow.  A kingdom divided against itself … we have seen the reality of that and we now see how grief and suffering will turn to rage.  No good society can live like that … New Zealand should take heed.

    Sunday, June 18, 2017

    On being 'A New Creation' - reflections on stewardship

    11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

    From the readings this morning:  If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

    I want to hold those words from our readings today in our thoughts as a firm centre to which we keep returning.   I promised that I would preach on Stewardship – but I find it hard so to preach.  Why? It embarrasses me.  I don’t like asking for money.  But why should I be embarrassed? (After all I am not seeking something for myself but for the Cathedral.)  Just asking this question has nudged me in to reflection and maybe discovering something about myself; maybe something I’d rather not find.  

    I think we avoid frank talk about money because it has something to do with that intimate place in our heart where we need security, and we do not want to reveal our need or give away our security to someone.  And that we fear being dependent on others because the idea of dependence is a threat to our security.  Think of those advertisements for KiwiSaver; or the shining ads for upmarket retirement homes. And there is all this pressure on us to secure our future and have control of our lives as much as possible. (Very unbiblical; - cf Matthew 6.19-21).  

    If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

    I keep returning to these verses and pondering the phrases – ‘a new creation’, ‘abide in my love’ – at their heart is the experience of a daily conversion, and of a closeness to God that puts all fears, all self-consciousness and pride in their proper place.  That is the mystery of faith and the freedom and the wholeness God calls us into.   It is that same mystery upon which this Cathedral is founded and to which it daily gives witness.  Our pioneers in the faith built this Cathedral to do exactly that: in the midst of the city it is to give witness to God.  The imposing architecture, the many steps, the great doors, and the Bishop’s Walk with Bishop Nevill holding the miniature of the Cathedral in his hands, are all expressions of the vision of this place – it witnesses to the glory of God; it calls us all to wonder; it summons our city to faith.

    If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

    Of course times have changed since those early days: our society; and how we speak of faith and share the gospel – these have changed also; yet the vision endures and we continue to serve all in this city; we are inclusive and we endure.  In the Cathedral archives are the lists of endowments and diverse bequests and to scan these lists is to read a living testament and a continuing story of faith and vision.  The interest earned by those endowments keep the Cathedral going; our forebears in the faith are working still with us in the present – even now with each quarterly run of interest payments across the years - they still help to sustain the shared vision of the Cathedral as the place in the midst of the city where we bear witness to God.

    If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

    What does it mean ‘to abide in my love’?  I know it is conditional: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” But what I keep coming back to is to ask what it is like to ‘abide’ in God’s love; that lovely homely word ‘abide’ and ‘on a good day’ (as a much loved bishop used to say) I have this sense of being at home, at peace, surrounded and supported by love.  A good place!  And then, when in that place, I understand what Paul had in mind when he said “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation”

    As we grasp the truth of being that new creation we discover a new freedom and that includes our attitude to money.  The fact is that once our giving reflects our hope and our faith, we are changed.  Our hearts are re-engaged by the act of giving; our faith grows as giving expresses our commitment.  As we give we become a new creation.  
    Only in this way can we secure the future of this Cathedral and its mission in this city.  

    We are all in this together, contributing across time and space, to bring into being something of the kingdom of God; we are all co-workers , looking toward a new creation;  we are working together  to sustain, re-create, reform and renew this cathedral.  We all have a part to play.   In that private space where we make such choices, the opportunity is ours.

    If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.

    Saturday, June 17, 2017

    With Dorothy Sayers at Evensong: Trinity Sunday 2017

    With Trinity Sunday now past, I post this reflection from the Choral Evensong.

    It is common for clergy to dread Trinity Sunday and the sermon that is required; equally I suspect the dread may be shared by the congregations that will listen. 

    You may recall that one of the characteristics of discussions about the Trinity is how we are frequently drawn into the game to find analogies that help us to comprehend what otherwise seems bizarre and incomprehensible.  So drawn from common human experience one of the analogies has been water: the common element is H2O but there are three distinct forms – water, ice and steam.  I suspect Trinity Sunday sermons are dotted with illustrations of that kind.  I am not convinced that such analogies help but we tend to look for them.

    One of the best analogies was proposed by Augustine who saw a human analogy, what we call the psychological analogy, and he spoke of the human soul comprising memory, understanding and will – and in this, he found a psychological analogy with the Holy Trinity.

    In 1937 detective novelist Dorothy Sayers, the author of the Peter Wimsey Crime novels, wrote a play for the Canterbury Festival (about the building of the Cathedral) called The Zeal of Thy House.  At the end, the angel St Michael makes this speech:

    “Praise him that hath made man in his own image, a maker and a craftsman like Himself, a little mirror of his triune majesty.
    For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.
    First: there is the Creative Idea; passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning; and this is the image of the Father.
    Second: there is the Creative Energy, begotten of that Idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter, and this is the image of the Word.
    Third: there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively coul; and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.
    And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other; and this is the image of the Trinity.”

    Sayers has drawn upon Augustine’s analogy but shifted the analogy from the human person to the human work.  As a writer Sayers speaks from her experience of creation and for anyone who has known that creative energy, that moment … which may simply begin with something like “I have this idea for a book”.

    For the artist there is no real peace until moment is brought to completion and we realise that this creative energy images the life of God in us and that we are collaborators with God in such work – as Paul hints …  (Romans 8)

    "19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God."

    Saturday, June 10, 2017

    Trinity - a necessary cognitive barrier?

    Not that long ago I was in a church assembly where folk were invited to share their faith: where some had spoken of Jesus, one spoke of the Trinity and, most daringly, of perichoresis (a Trinitarian buzz word that summarises the way Father, Son and Holy Spirit live and relate, one to each other, separate persons but ever one God.)  My heart sank – he was absolutely right, theologically and spiritually spot on – but this assembly, theologically informed though it was, you could feel it drift away at the mention of perichoresis

    Now that is my sense of what happened.   Maybe I am wrong or unfair to suspect that the heart of the meeting was not with the Trinity; that it wanted a more accessible faith; that it wanted a strong and tidy concept it could nail to the wall.  'Jesus' sounded familiar; sounded biblical; sounded evangelical.  We know Jesus was human; we can identify with Jesus.  Jesus just feels more accessible than the Trinity.

    Yesterday during a pastoral visit a parishioner said to me something like, “I don’t envy your job, how can we speak of God any longer?”   That has always been a problem.   We have never had the language to speak of God.  Our best thinkers have always known that God cannot be contained in the net of language; God is not an object to be accounted for; the word ‘God’ is, at best, a metaphor – drawing us beyond ourselves and our frames of reference.  

    And yet the task of theology, the business of faith, is to make sense as best we can of the God we encounter in our lives; in scripture and in the life of the church: that is where the doctrine of the Trinity has its source – it confronts our experience of God and the impossibility of our experience. 

    The mystics have always understood the problem, for example a superb illustration from the classic The Cloud of Unknowing:

    ‘Now you say, "How shall I proceed to think of God as he is in himself?" To this I can only reply, "I do not know."
    With this question you bring me into the very darkness and cloud of unknowing that I want you to enter. A man may know completely and ponder thoroughly every created thing and its works, yes, and God’s works, too, but not God himself. Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him we can love him. By love he may be touched and embraced, never by thought. Of course, we do well at times to ponder God’s majesty or kindness for the insight these meditations may bring. But in the real contemplative work you must set all this aside and cover it over with a cloud of forgetting. Then let your loving desire, gracious and devout, step bravely and joyfully beyond it and reach out to pierce the darkness above.”’

    Celtic Knot as Trinitarian symbol
    The writer of The Cloud reminds us of the limitations of thought – and nudges us beyond thought and towards silence; ‘to reach out to pierce the darkness.’

    The doctrine of the Trinity trains us beyond thought: it is a mystery; a cognitive barrier that resists all our attempts to understand, simplify, domesticate or explain God.  The Trinity takes us beyond all that we think we know – it is so contrary to the way we understand the world.

    In the wisdom of the church, we embrace the Trinity as the utter mystery of God, defying all our logic.  We are taught to use the Trinity as the proper formulary for our prayers: as a liturgical church we pray to God the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.  To learn to pray and think in this way opens us to think of God and all creation in terms of a deeply rooted relationality: a perichoresis of continuous movement, a perpetually open system, and to be at home with a sense of God encompassing both transcendence and immanence.

    One observant commentator highlighted the effect of being formed in a Trinitarian faith.

    “Once trained in the Trinity, it's not a great leap to consider the God of multiple dimensions, multi-universes, string theory, and hyperspace. Opening to new perceptions of God's self-revelation is as natural as contemplating innovations in theoretical physics. As I learn and grow I can open to God's Reality more fully if ever increasingly more humbly. Awe deepens.”

    Friday, June 9, 2017

    Election Thoughts: "a country made for angels, not for men"

    A beautiful winter morning in Dunedin: it is not as cold as we normally expect; not a breath of wind; this stillness; this calm clear light; this reach from hills to sea; and this little city with our harbour mill-pond of the moment – all this at a glance transcends thought and touches prayer. There is a kind of directness in such prayer: at its core is a surge in the heart, a sense of love and gratitude at something so freely given.

    From such awareness come a sense of responsibility and recollection of one of poet James K Baxter’s early lines about this land – “a country made for angels not for men.” On such a morning that is a kind of truth that strikes the heart and holds me still - just wondering.

    In an election year I ask what kind of country does one long for?  More than that, what dreams do others hold – and what possibilities might be on the cusp of realisation if we could just see them?  This is the heady stuff of a lifetime ago; of student talk in the pub; but also of hopes and dreams never quite lost, what Yeats called the rag and bone shop of the heart, and what I call the kingdom that is yet to come.

    How may we imagine the future for this land and if we think of a trajectory that is the future is there also a trajectory for our deepest hopes and where may these lines meet?  That is more than mere dreaming; something I judge a primary spiritual task as our thinking and our prayers shape us and even start to shape something beyond us.

    Which brings me to the point that I want to engage the Cathedral in for this election year: this Sunday evening on TVNZ1 at 8.30 pm and for 5 consecutive nights (11-15 June) there is a programme developed with the University of Auckland, featuring various ‘Futurists’.  The programme is called ‘What Next’ and, managed by Nigel Latta and John Campbell,  will consider the following questions: 1. Your Future and Technology; 2.The Future of our Environment; 3. The Future of our economy; 4. The Future of our Lifestyles.  Underlying all these questions are primary theological questions and I can’t wait to see how these issues are discussed and, in turn, what theological reflections will be raised for us.

    So, in a word, I encourage the Cathedral community to watch these programs, take notes and ask how this program raises questions that I as a person of faith should address and reflect further on.  This is especially relevant as we near Social Services Sunday and our General Election in September.

    Of course – who knows how this show will work – I don’t see any theologians in the Think Tank!  That does not matter, it is enough if we get jolted into thinking more deeply and engage in conversation.  The Think Tank will go live on Facebook if you want to check that out - Futurist Think Tank, check it out on TVNZ.

    Saturday, June 3, 2017

    Beyond the Blanket-Word 'Spirit'

    It was in the course of an electoral synod (i.e. a synod in which we nominate someone to be a bishop) that I heard a speaker talk about a nominee’s faith, it went something like this:  “I asked (N) how he nourished his faith and he said ‘each day I try to fall in love with Jesus’.”  That is truly a beautiful answer, a beautiful thought.  Another candidate was quoted as saying simply ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’.    The effect of hearing these things is heart-warming; the name, the thought of Jesus draws us back into the heart of the great story and our way of thinking about the mystery of God is firmly framed by Jesus.

    Now on the day of Pentecost there is a sense in which we (almost) stop speaking of Jesus and must instead speak of the Spirit.  In that moment we become more conscious of how we speak of Jesus because he has always been the way we comprehend and speak of God and humanity.  The humanity of Jesus so naturally and substantially frames our humanity and our world in relation to God, whereas the word Spirit does not. In fact mostly the term Spirit feels like a kind of blanket-word that covers a wide range of vague concepts and diverse experiences and phenomena; it is a cloudy word that is difficult to examine.

    The thought of ‘Spirit’ is unsettling!  At their core the metaphors of wind (and fire) are images of power and unpredictability; a power that can take hold of us and change us, beyond our imagining – and certainly beyond our natural capacity; as with the disciples on the Day of Pentecost.  The other word associated with Spirit is ‘breath’ a most intimate and fundamental sign of life – in our breath is our essential reality, the mystery of life and the mystery of our origin.  The biblical words that express the spirit are the Hebrew ‘ruach’ that has at its root the meaning ‘air in motion’ and, similarly, the Greek root pneu that connects to both wind and breath.  The unsettling aspect is that Spirit, while so central to us is essentially beyond us and our control.

    In the life of the Church, the Spirit is an unruly and untidy aspect of our faith.  Points of doctrine, matters of ethics and details of faith may all be contested as Spirit and Word are played against each other; an evolving Spirit-led faith against a certainty grounded in scripture.  When encountered this sort of tension is extremely painful and difficult to navigate.  Yet as the experience of  the Spirit ‘ignites’ the disciples at Pentecost, so the experience of the Spirit is always to draw us into an enlarged awareness of God; it may be a troubling and diverse experience – but that is part of the journey.  The Spirit moves us beyond false dualisms into the mystery that flows through all that is: we are made aware of  God beyond all our mental and spiritual constructions.  

    Few writers have expressed this insight more concisely than James K Baxter in his poem ‘Song to the Holy Spirit’ (printed in the New Zealand Prayer Book in the order for Midday Prayer, p.157).  Through the enlarging vision of the first stanza and then in every stanza that follows, Baxter’s metaphors provide ever more images from the natural world to ground and enlarge the ways we think of God.

    Lord, Holy Spirit,
    You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,
    Inside and outside the fences,
    You blow where you wish to blow.

    Lord, Holy Spirit,
    You are the sun who shines on the little plant,
    You warm him gently, you give him life,
    You raise him up to become a tree with many leaves.

    Lord, Holy Spirit,
    You are as the mother eagle with her young,
    Holding them in peace under your feathers.
    On the highest mountain you have built your nest,
    Above the valley, above the storms of the world,
    Where no hunter ever comes.

    Lord, Holy Spirit,
    You are the bright cloud in whom we hide,
    In whom we know already that the battle has been won.
    You bring us to our Brother Jesus
    To rest our heads upon his shoulder.

    Lord, Holy Spirit,
    You are the kind fire who does not cease to burn,
    Consuming us with flames of love and peace,
    Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.

    Lord, Holy Spirit,
    In the love of friends you are building a new house,
    Heaven is with us when you are with us.
    You are singing your song in the hearts of the poor.
    Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to the Father.

    The rustling of the olive trees speaks of the movement of the wind. The Greek work for spirit has the suggestion of breath or wind; the Hebrew word - Ruach - actually means the desert-wind, that powerful unseen force that sweeps across the face of the earth, none knows whence or whither. The wind - the Spirit - it bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest its voice, but thou knowest not whence it cometh and whither it goeth. But you can feel its breath on your face if, hearing it pass, you go out and stand in its course. So is everyone that is born of the Spirit. Don't ask for credentials. Don't wait till you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you, or its destination before you spread sail to it. It offers what you need; trust yourself to it.

    -William Temple 1881-1944
    Readings in John's Gospel

    Thursday, June 1, 2017

    Living in the Light, Working with the Light

    Attached as a post is the text I used for a radio broadcast on our community radio station, something most of the inner city churches share in.  As luck would have it, my turn coincided with the Sunday after Ascension and this strange feast was an opportunity to reflect.

    This week Thursday 25 May was forty days after Easter, it is a day we know as
    Ascension Day.  For centuries this has been the day when the Christian has observed the memory of Jesus’s bodily ascent to heaven.  This is the day when the Easter season is complete,  Christs’s work is now done and he departs, leaving us, the church, to carry it on.  The number forty is based on Luke’s comments in Acts 1:3: ““He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”

    The famous Roman Catholic scholar and apologist Ronald Knox was at one time chaplain to a girl’s boarding school and he wrote an extraordinary little book on the Apostles Creed  with the engaging title, Through the Creed in Slow Motion. However when he came to the chapter on the ascension, he said very little and pointed out that he didn’t think there was much that we could say because, after all it was all happening in a cloud and out of our sight so no description could be much use. Instead he made his readers think as he began to question some details, for instance the allusion to the forty days. He asked why Jesus took so long before leaving his disciples for another dimension – for example, why did Jesus not ascend on Easter Day?  Knox talked about what is to have friends and what it means to say good bye and how the disciples needed time to  be able to say goodbye and to come to grips with the mystery of the resurrection and time to come also to realise what the church was going to have to be and do.  That makes perfect sense to me.

    Talking about this, I also have in the back of my mind the memory of a meditation on the subject by Rowan Williams’ the former Archbishop of Canterbury.  He begins with the simple analogy of what it is like for us in the morning us when we wake, look for our glasses and first turn on the light – how in the bright glare of that first light we need a bit of time to adjust and take our bearings, don’t we?

    Williams suggests that the gospels are full of that kind of early morning disorientation as the disciples first try to make sense of the resurrection; and that it takes them quite a while for the understanding to dawn that the resurrection shows God at work; and, even more than this, for them to understand that they no longer need focus on the event of the resurrection itself but instead to allow the resurrection to become the light by which they (and we) start to see the world. 

    Ascension Day marks this subtle shift in our attention as, because of Jesus, we see and understand the world differently.  In the light of the Ascension we start to understand Jesus as the power now within us working to change and transform us to see the world with faith and hope and love.

    To live like that is to include everyone, exclude no one.  It is to care for our world, our planet and all the species we share it with.  To understand the world in this way is to see clearly for the first time; it is truly living in the light and working with the light.

    We see this clearly in action this past week in response to the Manchester bombing – despite the horror and darkness, even through the darkness, the affirmation of love rather than hate has been clear.  That is living in the light and working with the light!