Archive for October, 2015

Pentecost

Posted: October 5, 2015 in Sermons Year B - Advent 2014 to 2015

reading from Mark began at verse 2 of chapter 10, but in verse 1, we had just been told that Jesus has entered into Perea which is on the other side of the Jordan River from Judea.  He is still in the domain ruled by Herod Antipas, but is moving south toward Jerusalem.

“The crowds again gathered around him”—we note here that this is the only use of the plural “crowds” in Mark’s gospel.  Further, to establish the link with previous teaching, Mark says “as was his custom, he again taught them.”  The mention of crowds in this context suggests that there will be a large audience for the rabbinical debate which is about to ensue.

The test about to ensue is as Mark suggests. There are several controversies involving the Pharisees (2:15-17, 2:23-3:6, 7:1-15, 8:11-12). The mention of Pharisees invites interest and suspicion. I want to note here also that this tension with the Pharisees comes out of the historical tensions that existed in Jesus time. Scholars have often painted the Pharisees as both in opposition to Jesus and also effective in the development of the Jesus movement. I think this is simplistic in that new arguments by Jewish scholars dissatisfied with the simple them and us debate between Christians and Jews have given new critique to this relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees. We might consider here that it is no longer acceptable to consider the divisions within the society are as simple as we thought. We have glossed over the fact that Jesus was Jewish for many years accepting the simple argument that he was Christian and not Jewish but in fact he was and always was Jewish. The next thing to consider is that Jesus was a Galilean and that Galileans, Samaritans and Judeans were all Jewish. There was as there is in all our society’s differences and debate among religions. We might also consider here that although some 30-50 years later John’s Gospel suggests that Jesus was not welcome in his home country and that this is brought about by the fact that Jesus was considered by the Pharisees and a Judean, one of them, and that he was seen as too radical in his arguments to be welcome in Judea where the temple still held significant influence. Here we have the suggestion that Jesus was a Judean temple supporter who had been corrupted by his Galilean and more importantly his support for Samaritans, another Jewish view that was anti temple and anti-Judean. The texts around John the Baptist suggest that this interfaith tension was evident in Jesus time. If this is correct, then the rejection of Jesus is not rejection by Israel, but rather by a sub-group within Israel.

Returning now to our text we read that these Pharisees come to “test” Jesus, as they had also done also earlier and they ask if it was “permissible” for a man to divorce–“release”–his wife. This test was to place Jesus squarely in the same position that had resulted in John the Baptist being killed.  John had questioned Herod Antipas’ divorce and subsequent remarriage to Herodias (6:17ff).  “It is not lawful (exestin),” John had said. The same question–“is it lawful?” (exestin)–has now been placed before Jesus.  If Jesus agrees with John, that could be interpreted as treason against Herod Antipas.  (Jesus is in Perea, and on Antipas’ turf.) Mark has already told us that the Pharisees were conspiring with the “Herodians” (3:6).  If Jesus criticizes Herod Antipas’ divorce, some of those “Herodians” would no doubt argue that he should deserve the same punishment as that dished out to John.

We need to be clear about what divorce meant then also and we revert here to the old testement for the argument. According to Deuteronomy 24, divorce clearly was “permissible”–or “lawful.”  (Deuteronomy 24:1 states:  “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.  She then leaves his house.”)

There was even a certificate of divorce that was called a “get.”  This terminated the marriage and made it possible for the woman to re-marry.  The certificate read:  “You are free to marry any man.”  (France, p. 393)  Remarriage was not an issue for men because they could marry more than one woman. So we are led to ask what was this ‘something objectionable’, what defined “something objectionable”?  we note here that this question was hotly debated between the two main theological schools of Judaism in that period, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel.  The more conservative school of Shammai argued that only adultery was an acceptable reason for divorce. (The liberals perhaps) The school of Hillel argued that almost anything could be considered “objectionable,” such as burning the pot roast, for example. (The conservatives perhaps.

Jesus responds to the question with a question, which we know is a typical rabbinical and Jesus practice.  “What did Moses command you?” he asks.  The question is subtle.  Moses had no “command” on this issue.  The provision for divorce in Deuteronomy was, essentially, a concession to the reality of divorce and an attempt to provide structure and guidelines in its wake.

The Pharisees respond that “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  With the understanding that a “permission” is not the same as a “command”, this was true.  Moses had permitted divorce.  The Pharisees present an acceptable legal argument based on the book of Deuteronomy.

Jesus dismisses this permission with a sharp rejoinder.  “For your hardness of heart” Moses allowed divorce, he says.  The accusation of “hardness of heart”–sklerokardia–is a serious one.  “Hardness of heart” is associated with resistance to the ways of God (Jer 4:4, Ez 3:7). Moreover, Pharaoh, their ancient enemy, had also had “hardness of heart.”  No Jew would want to be lumped in with Pharaoh.  Secondly, Pharaoh is a representative figure for patriarchy.  Nobody is higher up the social ladder than Pharaoh.

Having associated divorce with Pharaoh and patriarchy, Jesus switches from the subject of divorce to marriage in general.  In effect, he will base his argument on a broader understanding of Moses–not specific commands or permissions, but a general attitude toward life and relationships based on God’s design of creation. Jesus says, “from the beginning of creation, he (God) made them male and female.”  The reference is to Genesis 1:27:  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Note that the “image of God” is both corporate–“them”–and includes both male and female.

Jesus continues:  “Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.”  Here, the reference is to Genesis 2:24:  “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  Note that the man is to leave his family–that is, he is to leave his own patriarchal tradition. This leaving is much greater in consequence than just leaving home. To leave the family is to part with the very core social arrangement that undergirds a communal society. Not unlike an act many Pacific young people face when choosing a western more individualistic way of living and perhaps at the core of much disruption for Maori people without whanau connections. Jesus adds, “What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”  Jesus avoids the technical term for divorce (apoluse) and switches instead to “separate” (chorizo).  He does not directly challenge the Mosaic law which allows for divorce, but instead bases his argument on God’s intention in creation which is the unity that lies at the centre and goal of marital relationships and the essential equality of male and female.

That a man may divorce his wife, but not vice versa, is both an expression of the institution of patriarchy and a subversion of the intention of God “from the beginning of creation” for whole and unbroken relationships. Its less about the consequences of a marriage breakdown and more about the cultural assumptions and the development of practice and law that subvert holistic, healthy relationships between people.

Jesus and the disciples go away from the crowds and “into the house.”  The disciples have questions, which is not surprising since Jesus has just upended centuries of tradition.  Jesus responds, “Whoever might release his woman and might marry another commits adultery upon her.  And if she, releasing her man, might marry another, she commits adultery.”

The challenge here is that in the world of that time, a Jewish man could not commit adultery against his wife.  The definition of adultery was of a married woman with a man other than her husband.  If a man had relations with a married woman who was not his wife,it was considered to be adultery against the woman’s husband, not against his own wife.

In a strong defence of women, Jesus asserts that a man who divorces and remarries abrogates not only God’s intention in creation but also commits adultery against his first wife.  Further, Jesus contradicted Jewish law by stating that a woman might divorce her husband.  This was acceptable in Greco-Roman law, but not Jewish law.

To summarize to this point, Jesus invokes God’s intention in creation which is that relationships be equal and unbroken.  He subverts the dominant patriarchal worldview that only men could get divorces, and only women could commit adultery against her spouse.  His teaching recognizes the profoundly wrenching experience of divorce, as anyone who has been through it can attest, and also recognizes the reality of divorce and the importance of maintaining justice in its application.

Immediately after these teachings, we have people bringing children to Jesus “so that he might touch them.”  (Interesting:  Every other use of the word “touch” in Mark has to do with healing.  Some scholars argue here that the children were sick. The disciples “rebuked” (a strong word used only here in Marks Gospel). The disciples rebuked those who were bringing the children, apparently forgetting that Jesus had already said that whoever welcomed a child also welcomed him, which was the same thing as welcoming God (9:36-37).  Here we have the disciples getting it wrong again.

Jesus then says, “Do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”  Children represent all the “little ones” cared for by God.  Of these “little ones,” the kingdom of God is constituted. In Mark’s gospel, the phrase “truly I say to you” occurs 14 times.  It indicates a special pronouncement, and means the listener should underline what follows.  Then Jesus says, “Whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.”

The saying is not about the “simple faith” of innocent children and how we all should emulate their unquestioning trust.  It is, rather, about the precarious state of children, their vulnerability, their lack of status.  (It is claimed that 60% of first century middle-eastern children died before their 16th birthday.)  Indeed, already in Mark, the synagogue leader’s daughter had died of illness (5:21ff.), the syrophoenician woman’s daughter was ill (7:24ff.), and a man’s son was demon-possessed (9:14ff.).

Nobody is more powerless than a child, then or now, and every child knows it.  Hierarchical systems, of whatever kind, oppress those on the bottom.  Pharaoh oppressed his slaves.  From the point of view of the child, families oppress children.

Any psychologist worth his or her salt recognizes that children will almost always internalize the conflicts of the family.  If the family is experiencing stress, the children think it’s their fault.  Why wouldn’t they?  They often experience being at fault and earning the displeasure of their parents.  This is part of their everyday experience.

In the first century world, children were property of their father.  They were accepted into the family on the father’s say so, and were subject to his authority all through their lives.  This made them sitting ducks for “Stockholm syndrome.”

That is, they may feel oppressed within the family, they may have little if any voice, and they are generally not allowed to express their anger.  Nevertheless, they also recognize their complete dependence on the good will of their father and, in a sense, come to identify with their father.  In the process, they learn that it is all right to oppress those who are smaller and weaker, a view they carry with them into adulthood.

“Whoever receives a child receives me,” Jesus had said (9:37).  In the kingdom of God, which is to be practiced here on earth, children are to be “received.”  They are to be accepted.  Again, in our lection, children not to be “hindered.”  They are not to be turned away just because they are small and powerless.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  Turn a child away–turn away those who are weak–and you are not in the kingdom.

I want to suggest that the apparent failure of the CYPHS system in our country is an example of a cultural system that has lost touch with its Gospel imperative which is the wellbeing of the child and not the fiscal or political efficiency of a system of management. It is about the relationship the child has with God as a cherish human being made in God’s image rather than making sure all the rules of the day are kept.

The episode closes with Jesus taking children into his arms, “blessing them and “laying hands on them.”  The children had been brought so that Jesus might touch them.  Relationship is what it is about.  Amen.

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Truth

Posted: October 5, 2015 in Musings

More musings……..

What is truth, a fact, an absolute in a postmodern age?

One thing for sure is that truth is no longer the same as before and in this event there is a return of myth into our culture and in our language as it tries to capture, not the mythical culture uncontaminated by modernization and rationalism but through the weakening notion of truth, an understanding that points towards an overcoming of the opposition between rationalism and irrationalism in the interests of contemporary thought.

One downside of the above is a devaluing of the ‘New’ highlighting its dependency on the values of an old ‘truth’. Unveiled it has lost its foundational value and any possibility of being valuable again. This is the ‘crisis of faith’ that the Christian Myth’ is subject to and is revealed in its decline. Tied to an ‘old truth’ the myth is already without value in a postmodern world and as such it discloses a crisis of the ‘Future’. That crisis is revealed in an emphatic alteration in our inherited ways of experiencing time and history.

One response to the above view is that there is an emerging opportunity for a dialogue between poetics and philosophy, a commitment to the problematic, but not impossible, overcoming of metaphysics or a non-foundational non-functionalist theory of interpretation that solicits an ethical task of remembering, not as simple repetition of tradition but rather a joyous re-creation.

That response invites the development of a radical hermeneutics that welcomes a postmodern method of interpretation that no longer simply involves a reprise of meanings from the past, but one that remains alert to the contemporary phenomenon of con-fusion which characterizes knowledge as it circulates today. In this hermeneutic journey meanings become so disseminated that the metaphysical nostalgia for a unified system of a foundational truth is challenged and in its place we find a ‘weak ontology’ where, rather than seeking absolute grounds as bulwarks against streams of multiple meaning, we endeavour to discover and prepare for the appearance of chances or the post metaphysical opportunity. A global imaginary where the traditional metaphysical distinctions between subject and object, reality and representation are contained if not dissolved.

Perhaps all of this suggests the arrival of a world of ‘alleviated’ reality, or a world less neatly divided into the true and the fictive, information and mage, a world of total mediation much like the world we have now. A world where an objective, interventionist, theistic God is no longer palatable.

Enough for today……….

 

Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10

Epiphany 3C 24.1.2016

 

 

One of the realities of getting older is that one is more likely to encounter friends, relatives and others who suffer mental and spiritual anguish in some way. It might be through negotiating a divorce, losing a loved one or hearing of someone whose life is changed when one close is suffering dementia and Alzheimer’s. What seems common is the emotional blow back that always follows these events —regret, sadness, anger, pain, confusion, depression, weight loss, relief, and a welter of other mixed emotions. There is no time limit on the effects of these events on one’s life. Event of society seems to have an expectation that at some time we will move on but even that moving on raises a question. How long is one supposed to wait before moving on? Is there actually any set time for this? When is it time to move beyond the failure, grief and despair of the past, and to welcome celebration, or even to know joy again, and to hope for the future. When is it time, quoting this week’s Old Testament reading, “To eat the fat and drink the sweet wine” (Nehemiah 8:10, NRSV).

Another experience many in the helping professions encounter is one where people have considered committing suicide with drugs or alcohol, or some other means. Underlying that simple short sentence of wanting to end it all, is often a huge and complex story. It opens up the possibility of a range of devils that might threaten to undo such people — hospitalization for clinical depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, obesity and hopeless weight regimes, brain tumors, a plethora of suicide opportunities, vehicular manslaughter, teenage eating disorders, cancer, involuntary unemployment, and the death of a parent or a spouse or a friend. If this small sample of disappointments, disasters, failures, tragedy, and brokenness represents our baseline normal, then joy and rejoicing do not seem to follow. Eating the fat and drinking the sweet wine seems a bit far off.

Yet. As the Scriptures often do, they offer a turn around, a fix, an opportunity for change as if it is obvious and available on demand. The story from our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures offers a counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and subversive piece of advice. It says: do not yield to the spirit of despair. Do not default to gloom and doom. Instead, choose the radical option of genuine joy. A seemingly simple answer yet one that seems to contain a semblance of hope. It says: eat the fat and drink the sweet wine, and we know we can do that. It may even have been a part of what brought us to the point of despair.

 

The story of Nehemiah follows the humiliating defeat of Judah by pagan Babylon. The despair is deep. How could God abandon his elect people is the question that challenges them in their hearts? Their despair is rooted in the incredible astounding realization that such a thing could happen at all. So deep is the shock that it takes years for the people to even consider the future? The survival of a demoralized remnant, and then their improbable efforts to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem years later under the Persian king Artaxeres (465–424 BC) is in itself a deeply sad story.

When Nehemiah heard the story of his people’s “great distress and reproach,” he wept, mourned, fasted and prayed for days on end (1:3–4). But at the same time he also took action to rebuild the fallen walls of Jerusalem. Once rebuilt, the people gathered in the public square as God’s community to hear Ezra read the Law of Moses. Overcome with bittersweet emotions, the people wept. The story of the turnaround is brief, succinct and profound.

Then Nehemiah said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the wine, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And all the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival. (8:9–12)

Yes, there was a proper time to grieve the devastation of Jerusalem; but there also came a time to move forward and to rejoice, however modest the remnant’s circumstances compared with former times and expectations. There was then, and there is today a time to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine. The time it takes to mourn is the time it takes because that time is ordained and ingrained in what it means to be human and divine. It has no measure for it is of infinite value. One is an evolving creation within the cosmic process and the time for reflection is part of the way in which love, participation and purpose are manifest.

Nehemiah says; do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. We note here that it is the Joy of the Lord that we might seek, but what is this joy? What does it look like?

The French Nobel laureate André Gide (1869–1951): reminds us that “Joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.” I am not sure that as a progressive morality can be limited to a right conduct or a single correct action but there is within us a desire to ensure a better world, a better outcome and this is a responsibility of our given being. Joy does seem to be a desire at the core of our purpose. But what are the differences between joy and happiness? What are some common counterfeits for joy? And can a person actually choose joy?

The problem for us is that Joy can be an ambiguous term. Many of us link it with happiness and the enhancement of one’s circumstances—health, success, fame, wealth, pleasure, fun, or good fortune. In that sense of the word, joy is derivative, attached to and dependent upon some external source. Joy of that sort can exude a sense of smugness, entitlement, narcissism, and even self-pity in the absence of desired objects.

Such joy seldom lasts for long or is genuinely fulfilling, for it creates its own set of needs that are rarely satisfied. We all know privileged people who enjoy the most fortunate of personal circumstances but who are never content, deeply insecure, and always unhappy, and, conversely, people who possess little but nevertheless radiate equanimity and gladness.

And which is sadder, that one could be so easily fulfilled by so very little—a new car, a bigger house, a better job; or one who is readily missed often? The reality is that Joy is more elusive, more subtle and more nuanced than happiness, or a predisposition to cheerfulness, or a persevering with emotional extra effort, or the luck of good fortune. Joy is something deeper, something perhaps even beyond words.

William Wordsworth’s poem Surprised by Joy — Impatient as the Wind”, relates to an incident when he forgot the death of his beloved daughter. A seemingly unimaginable thing to do yet his response touches into the nature of a genuine Joy.

Surprised by joy —

Impatient as the Wind I turned to share the transport —

Oh! With whom But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,

That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind —

But how could I forget thee?

Through what power,

Even for the least division of an hour,

Have I been so beguiled as to be blind?

To my most grievous loss? —

That thought’s return

Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore?

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,

Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;

That neither present time, nor years unborn

Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

It is as if at the very core of his despair, within the incredulity of his awareness of his loss, he discovers a deep joy of having known and loved his daughter. His remembrance of his daughter and all she meant to him returned in joy itself.

 

In his autobiography Surprised by Joy CS Lewis describes joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. . . I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”

Whereas we can manipulate circumstances to our own advantage to obtain what we think will bring happiness, or expend great efforts in pleasure-seeking, joy is entirely gratuitous. We cannot earn it, buy it, or deserve it. It is a divine gift to receive rather than a selfish goal to pursue. Just as joy is not happiness so the opposite of joy is not sadness or sorrow but rather anxiety. Lose one’s anxiety and one might find Joy. Jenny and I were talking about what to say to young children when a gran or a parent dies suddenly, and I suggested that honesty without embelishment was probably the best way of entering such discussion. This I think is because not knowing is being without joy whereas in knowing one’s loss one is confronted with Joy. Anxiety is addressed by joy and transformation is available. Jesus encouraged his followers, “do not worry about your life. . . Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Consider the joy of the birds in their morning songs, or the flowers in their spring time glory, he said. If the Lord of the universe clothes creation with such extravagance, then we can rejoice in his love regardless of our circumstances. Jesus says that we rest in God’s love “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).

In his poem The Revival the Welsh poet and physician Henry Vaughan (1621–1695) challenges us to open our “drowsy eyes” to experience “the drops and dews of future bliss.” This is a choice we can make or refuse.

Unfold! Unfold! Take in His light,

Who makes thy cares more short than night. The joys which with His day-star rise He deals to all but drowsy eyes; and, what the men of this world miss Some drops and dews of future bliss.

Hark! How His winds have changed their note! And with warm whispers call thee out; the frosts are past, the storms are gone, and backward life at last comes on. The lofty groves in express joys Reply unto the turtle’s voice; and here in dust and dirt, O here the lilies of His love appear!

Juliann of Norwich wrote that: “The greatest honour we can give Almighty God, is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.” No matter how bleak the tragic course of history, how unnerving our personal circumstances, or how pessimistic the forecasts of cultural historians, with joy we can expect divine love to blossom even in the dust and dirt of our lives. So let’s “Eat the Fat and Drink the Sweet Wine” Amen.

Epiphany 2C, 2016

John 2: 1-10

 

No wine At The Inn, Crisis or Opportunity?

 

In our everyday contemporary language we could say: Epiphany is about ‘going on a journey, searching’. During Epiphany we often hear a collection of stories: of the Magi or Wise Men, We hear of the baptism of Jesus, the marriage feast of Cana, and the so-called calling of the first disciples. We are at the marriage feast today and this Cana story is surely one of the most charming in all the Bible. Interesting to note that John is the only one to tell this story.

 

From social studies we can assume that the wedding itself would have been a great social occasion and that the celebration would probably have included the whole community. We don’t know how many days the party had been celebrating when the wine ran out but the event is at the crux of the story. There are huge social implications involved as such an event puts at risk family standing, honour and power and the familial standing has implications for the key stakeholders. The further family members come to be present, the numbers who come, the status of those who come, and the amount of food and wine that is provided all go to the one who pays the bill. In this case the groom’s father. One can imagine the crisis when the wine runs out. There is a lot at stake for the family. But is that all that is at stake?

 

I want to suggest that there is more here than meets the eye. One reason I would argue, is that a lot of theological ink and perspiration has been spilled on the subject of this story. Perhaps the most obvious but not always offered meaning is that Jesus by his very attendance at the feast endorsed feasting and singing and dancing and human sexual interaction called love. And before any puritan, prudish, or party-poopers might want to tell us otherwise, tell them to go to a wedding, they are after all events where romance, human relationship and love are at the centre of what is going on.

 

I want to also say here, that for those who don’t want to deal with being too humanistic, and prefer to see the story as written testimony to Jesus’ powers over the laws of nature, you have got it all wrong. This is not a story about a man who has somehow miraculously violated the laws of fermentation and instantaneously turned plain old tap water into wine of the best available vintage. It is rather, I suggest, a story about crisis averted. The crisis being averted is the one where culture takes over spirituality and the averting is that it is an opportunity for renewal. The crisis provides the opportunity for human interaction, human loving, to transcend culture. It is not a miracle but rather a sign of possibility and opportunity.

 

I want to now see if I can replant this historical wedding crisis in our time today, and by that I mean make an interpretation of what such a culturally set story might look like today.

 

The first problem we have is the issue of cultural misunderstanding. The miracle of the water into wine only makes sense within the culture of the day. The expectations of meaning and behaviour etc are culturally driven and situation specific. This implies that extraordinary opportunities for growth and change in our thinking are being thwarted by our culture’s disconnection from the kind of spirituality that was such an integral part of Jesus’ culture and subsequently the cultures of all indigenous peoples.

 

One of the challenges that we face today is to know what we mean when we say a person has a spiritual experience. It seems that these days we find it hard to discuss openly or even discard openly many spontaneous spiritual events. The line between altered states, psychic openings, possession, near-death experiences, and shamanic journeys and spiritual event is blurred. One of the reasons for this is that we don’t any longer have a context in which to understand these experiences, and we are often unable to find people with whom to talk about them. Eye witnesses have all died. As a result of this we have a very limited understanding of what we mean by Spirituality today. It seems that it many cases profound spiritual experiences are misinterpreted as mental breakdowns, not only by psychologists, but by the individuals themselves and their friends and relatives.

 

It is very possible that because of this lack of knowledge about what spirituality is and about spiritual growth, too many people are being medicated and hospitalized for experiences that actually have the potential to transform their lives in positive ways and open the door to meaningful spiritual journeys. In some cases this vacuum in understanding is encouraging experimentation with mind altering drugs. One wonders of this is why a huge number of NZers use cannabis these days. An unconscious search for spirituality perhaps? I have often said that while religion is off the agenda today and more and more people are opting for things spiritual rather than religion, I am not sure we actually know what we are seeking.

 

Another challenge today is that there are different names for similar processes and each discipline has its own preferred terminology for the spiritual changes that are taking place. Some people use the term ascension to describe a process of purification, heightened awareness, and consciousness — a process which some believe leads us into dimensions where the light level increases in our physical body, until we reach a point where we can no longer sustain a physical body. Others prefer to talk of a New Age, a time of a Second Coming, a Fourth or Fifth Dimensional Shift, or simply ”The Shift.” There are increasingly on line communities that teach, train and offer experiences of this new spiritual awareness and each of them have names for these experiences. There is even a blending of ideas happening and courses in the west based on an amalgym of faiths.

 

In the field of what is known as transpersonal psychology the terms that are used [1] are ”spiritual growth” or ”spiritual emergence.” Transpersonal psychology acknowledges that in countries all around the world, people are experiencing spiritual openings, and that unless these signs of spiritual awakening are accurately understood, opportunities for life enhancement and growth will be missed. The idea of seeing water changed into wine as a miracle is long gone.

 

Yet another challenge is that the world is a small place today. People of every religious orientation call in on the global hotlines and receive free personal assistance and educational information on spiritual emergence. And the calls are from men and women who have different ethnicities, and from people of all ages. Sometimes a relative or friend of an individual who is experiencing a crisis makes the call. Other times it is the person who is in crisis.

 

In many parts of the world these contacts can lead to regular counselling at a particular centre if signed up and paying. There are in most cases people available to advise who claim to be licensed mental health professionals, trained in professional psychology, and they draw on their knowledge and wisdom of the different spiritual traditions that have investigated stages and characteristics of spiritual growth. This idea of counselling on line is mind boggling to many of us older folk, but non the less true

 

But getting back to our Wedding crisis, and my claim that a wedding without wine is a spiritual crisis with opportunity? What is the opportunity that is presenting itself? I have suggested that for Jesus it was an opportunity to challenge the culture of the day. The perception of wine was just that; a perception, and what was important was being aware of the cultural expectations and not allowing them to dictate. For us today there are many different factors causing people to question the belief system that they grew up with. Society is rapidly changing because of the Internet and globalization, and people are being bombarded with different worldviews that they don’t know how to integrate. Questions never before considered are being asked. Some are asking if the changes in the earth’s magnetic field, and higher harmonics in the ”earth’s pulse” are triggering spiritual awakenings. Some do consider this a possibility. Even learned people are saying that although they couldn’t scientifically prove whether or not these kinds of earth changes were happening, it certainly seemed reasonable that if they were, they could affect people energetically and contribute to increased incidences of spiritual emergence.

 

What is becoming clearer is that any form a labelling or categorization of experiences is not a major concern of any of these emerging Spiritual nettworks. It seems more important to be open to what people are saying and experiencing, and to help support the process, rather than giving these experiences a label. The task seems to be to listen and to accept the language that each person uses to describe his or her experiences.

 

”Some people call and say that they are in a Kundalini process. Someone else may call and say they are having a shamanic journey. Another person might say ‘I am experiencing a dark night of the soul’. What is common however is that two types of categories are being used. They are either ”spontaneous” or ”intentional” spiritual experiences.

 

”A spontaneous spiritual experience might happen when one’s parents die, or when one loses one’s job, or has an accident. One goes through an intense experience which unintentionally opens one up. They didn’t want it, or ask for it, they weren’t doing a spiritual practice, or yoga, they weren’t praying on a regular basis. But suddenly something happens that is outside what they thought was possible. Some of these experiences are brought on by trauma — like going into surgery and having a near-death experience. It can be something that on the face of it would seem relatively ordinary, like stopping in on a cathedral on a trip, then suddenly you’re inside this sacred space having a vision. It can be a walk in the woods or in the mountains, when one begin to see things in a different light. One might feel deeply connected to the animals and the trees. This might cause one to question a number of things about who one is, in relation to creation and the creative principle. This leads one to want to understand what has happened and inspires one to live in a way which leads one to more of this kind of connection, of this reality in which we’re all interconnected.

 

An intentional spiritual experience is where people have active spiritual practices. They have a desire or intention to transform. This leads to intentional spiritual experiences. People may have taken on any number of practices in order to make this happen, and sometimes they may overdo the practice, like an athlete who over-trains or stresses the system. This appears to be happening more frequently in the West because the West does not seem to have the same kind of container for these things that has been traditional in other countries.

 

In many eastern settings one might only be doing intense spiritual practices if, for example, one was a committed monk. Without this container of expectation or norm, many westerners may find they do not have the support to integrate their experiences. This can be a problem. Although the behaviour is intentional, the effects may be unintentional. They may find themselves in a spiritual crisis and in need of guidance. This suggests that many of us in the western traditions need to do some serious thinking about the crisis that we have created for ourselves. We need to look for the opportunity beyond the crisis or we will be incapable of functioning effectively in the world. We will get locked in the fear of doom and lose trust in life.

 

The opportunity that offers itself in the water to wine is the opportunity to become more spiritually aware on the understanding that as we become more spiritually mature in a developmental sense, we will become more aware of these changes. The key is to be consciously aware of what is happening so as to participate safely. This implies that while there are phases of physical growth, mental development, and emotional development that we acknowledge, there is also another growth track that is not as well understood in this culture of ours, although it is becoming more understood — and that is that there is such a thing as spiritual growth and we need to learn more about it.

 

There are characteristics of different phases of spiritual growth, just as there are phases of physical growth. ”What makes it difficult is that our culture doesn’t recognize that there is a spiritual growth path, or that it’s developmental,” ‘Everyone knows that in adolescence we might get tattoos, dye our hair green, and behave in ways that are a little strange. We think that’s part of being an adolescent, and the culture is pretty tolerant of that. But when we reach our spiritual adolescence, and things look pretty crazy, those in mainstream culture might see this behaviour as psychotic and want to medicate it. When this happens there is a chance that our natural growth process might be thwarted.’ We need to see that Spiritual growth is as normal as physical growth. An awareness and acceptance of this reality is the possibility of water into wine. Awareness averts the crisis, and maybe that’s the opportunity?

 

What is certain is that things religious, things like church going, and institutionalised Christianity are under threat, in crisis, but what’s the opportunity that is also being presented? Maybe the spiritual crisis is happening in our culture, in part, because so many things do not fit into the rational perspective that dominates much of modern-day thought. The belief that if something can’t be proven scientifically it doesn’t exist has created a culture in which people are left on their own to try to understand the very real experiences that happen to them — many of these experiences have been labelled as so called miracles and they can’t happen. Maybe we have a paradigm of the way the world is supposed to work, but then when we begin having experiences that challenge this worldview we have to change that ”containing myth” that held us. It no longer works because we’ve just experienced a number of things that blow it apart.’ Maybe the opportunity for those of us who follow the Jesus Way is to help people to integrate new knowledge and new experiences into their understanding of life. Maybe the opportunity to avert the crisis, to turn water into wine, is to recognize that profound spiritual experiences are opportunities for expanded understanding of ourselves and of the universe.

 

Footnotes:

Transpersonal psychology is the branch of study, which focuses on growth beyond ego development. It therefore includes the development of spiritual experiences and understandings.

Based on an article by Karen Trueheart, director of the Spiritual Emergence Network (SEN)

 

 

A ‘Calling’ That Liberates For Life

Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

 

Why did Jesus feel he should take a different path to that of his mentor John The Baptist? Or was it that different?

 

The fact of the matter is, that because our world has got smaller with the technologies of communication and travel we hear more instantly about the horrible things we humans do to each other. Some say that 911, the Bali bombings, Middle eastern rebellion and Paris have made us more afraid than we used to be. Every day, it seems, the headlines are filled with stories of terrorist bombs in hotels or market places, or horrific actions by people who resort to violence as a way of getting heard. Even in many suburban schools, security fences have been erected and there are calls for guards to be posted at entrances. There is a suggestion that this fear is more among the elderly than among the young and this leads to some politicians and some angry people playing on the emotions, for nothing other, it seems, than attempting some political or social gain.

 

It seems that that John the Baptizer’s message might have been different from Jesus’ and at first glance it appears that John’s message was one of fear and jesus one of love. Different perhaps but are they really?

 

According to the storyteller we call Luke, Jesus was about 30 when he went to hear

John the Baptizer his cousin, preach. And on one of those occasions, – and it seems to be more implied than actually said – Jesus was baptised. But Luke doesn’t say where Jesus was baptised. Neither does Luke say who baptised Jesus. The tradition that Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan and that the agent of that baptism was John, comes from a blending of stories from the other gospels. Not from Luke.  Period.

 

So allowing for what really was probably an embarrassment for the early Jesus/Christian movements… I invite you to ponder these two questions:

  • What might there have been in John’s message that prompted Jesus to ask for baptism?
  • And what might have he experienced during his baptism and days spent in the wilderness that reportedly followed?

 

According to John Beverley Butcher in the introduction to his book, An uncommon lectionary, the evidence is clear that something profound happened within Jesus

which provided direction and energy for a ministry of teaching and healing. He suggests: “Without Jesus’ baptism, there might have been no ministry, no getting into trouble with the authorities, no crucifixion, no resurrection experiences, no church, no Christian religion, and no church history!  The course of human civilisation would have gone quite differently” (Butcher 2002).

 

For Butcher this event was of “pivotal significance… in the life of Jesus”. For storyteller Luke it too was a significant moment. But one that has got him and others in the early Jesus-cum-Christian movement, into a fair amount of trouble, it seems.

 

Rex Hunt and others offer comments and opinions around the general question: Was Jesus divine? Or put another way: when did Jesus become God’s son? The first question is perhaps easier than the second for orthodoxy to accept because Jesus was considered both human and divine and so it is purely academic but the second goes directly against the orthodox position of the doctrine of the Trinity. From that theological perspective, the idea of Jesus ‘becoming’ God’s son makes little to no sense. Yet the storyteller Luke, preparing his story long before the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated, declares in his story: And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you’.

 

This issue to remember here is that this way of stating Jesus’ sonship is known as ‘adoptionism’. God adopts Jesus as son and messiah. Not too dissimilar to Paul’s understanding of Jesus as ‘The anointed one’. A bestowing on him a special status he did not have the day before. Scholars now tell us this christological position of God’s adopted one was widespread among early Jesus followers and indeed, remained a viable option for nearly three centuries. But as we now know changed due to matters more political than theological. The idea of adoptionism was marginalised and then suppressed by both the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire.

 

Returning to Jesus baptism we find that Butcher seems quite definite about things. He argues the evidence is clear: that something profound happened within Jesus at his baptism. Another commentator I have quoted often, Bruce Epperly, (Epperly 2007) tells this story: “The North African Desert Mothers and Fathers tell the story of a monk who came to his spiritual guide with a question about the next steps in his spiritual journey.  The monk described his monastic solitude and daily rituals, and then asked what more he could to in order to experience God in his life.  His spiritual guide simply responded with the words, ‘Become fire!’” And then he goes on to offer this comment: “Today’s scriptures invite progressive and mainstream Christians to ‘become fire.’

 

This is the heart of John the Baptist’s response…  While the meaning of John’s affirmation is unclear, it surely points to the energetic nature of God’s presence in our spiritual lives.  Our faith journey is meant to embody the energy of the ‘big bang’ or ‘big birth’ of the cosmos.  God’s energy flows through our lives in each moment.  We are the children of cosmic stardust and cosmic energy, who are meant… not only to live, but to live well and live better” (Epperly P&F web site, 2007).

The essence of this call is that fire is more than going through the motions of living, it has intention to it, it has passion to it. It is emotional rooted in the energy of creation. The energy of the sun.

 

Mary Tucker and Brian Swimme remind us that when the universe was just quarks and leptons, the idea that a process of bringing forth stars and galaxies was far from formed. Just as later, when Earth emerged, and life existed in the form of tiny jiggling cells, the idea of the possibility of the blue-fin tuna or a vast temperate rain forest would have been far off in the future also. We now find ourselves inside an amazing dynamic drama filled with danger and risk but also stunning creativity. We also find that this has happened many times in the past. Two billion years ago, when the atmosphere became so filled with oxygen, all of life was deteriorating. The only way for the life of that time to survive was to burrow deep into the mud at the bottom of the oceans. The future of Earth would have seemed bleak if life was conscious. And yet, in the midst of that crisis a new kind of cell emerged, one that was not destroyed by oxygen, but was in fact energized by it. Because of this miracle of creativity, life exploded with an exuberance never seen before. Here we have another example of this fire. It is in the nature of the universe to move forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces. If the creative energies in the heart of the universe succeeded so brilliantly in the past, we have reason to hope that such creativity will inspire us and guide us into the future. In this way, our own generativity becomes woven into the vibrant communities that constitute the vast symphony of the universe.

 

In the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry, when he appears before his home synagogue gathering, the storyteller Luke has Jesus using the words of Isaiah to describe the significance of this baptism event. Surprisingly, this is not a word or call of mission, he is not sent into the future on a quest. In using Isaiah Luke is saying that the baptismal event is about the delight of God in this beloved, this chosen, this anointed, adopted person called by name. What is significant here is that this is not a calling to ‘do’ anything but rather a calling to ‘be’… We are called to be because in that being life itself is liberated. And when we take this back to the difference between John and Jesus we see that loving is the key to being. Love is God and loving is being in God so to speak. The kingdom that Jesus says is already here is sustained best, indeed it can be sustained at all, is when it abides by the searing, searching, and simple account of the unconditional loving. Matthew says; when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? (25: 37– 39)

The text is saying what this being looks like we don’t have to conjur it up or create it.

It is revealed in and through the loving. When we feed the hungry and quench their thirst, when we clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned, and care for the sick God is, love is.

 

What is interesting here is that all these works are carried out in the weak mode, or in the mode of folly. As Caputo puts it there is an absence of any deeper cause or purpose to be attained, of any Categorical Imperative or Divine Command, of any promises or threats. If there are rewards at stake here they are an absolute secret. These works are undertaken unconditionally. Love does not exist; love calls. Love is a weak force, not one of the powers and principalities that threaten reprisal if it is not heeded and promises a reward if it is. The works of love are performed “without why,” as the mystics say, on the grounds that love is always “without why.” If love is love it does not have anything up its sleeve. If we ask two people why they love, what they hope to get out of this love affair, they would be nonplussed. Any answer as they might muster would be circular; they would just end up saying because love is love. The works of mercy, which are works of love of the other, friend or foe (hostis), are performed without anything else in view, without knowledge of or motivation by some deeper reason to do them. They represent a gift in the truest sense, undertaken unconditionally, done without the expectation of a reward or the fear of punishment.

This is the foolishness that is sought when too people marry. We all know the love is pulled every which way and yet we promise to marry forever.

 

Love is a precious, perfect folly. Like the string quartet on the Titanic that continued to play its beautiful music in the face of an impending disaster. The music was not going to upright the ship; their playing was undertaken unconditionally, without the expectation of a reward. This example helps us widen the amplitude of the folly of the kingdom of God so that it is not confused with or confined to religion in the narrow sense. All such deeds are, in Paul’s terms, folly. For Aristotle they are beautiful, noble. In Derrida’s terms, they are a gift, not an economic exchange. In Deleuze’s terms, they are the way we make ourselves worthy of the events that happen to us. In Lyotard’s terms, they are carried out without the least knowledge of any Big Story in which they are playing their appointed part. What Big Story? The big story or as I like to call it the meta narrative always seeks to turn love into one of the powers and principalities, a Strong Force in the world that makes our enemies our footstool. Like the one about the coming of the “Son of Man.”

 

We look at the scriptures to see that by the time of Matthew the Son of Man is one of the mythological forces, one of the powers that be, one of the powers and principalities, a High and Mighty Being coming to judge the nations, to separate out the sheep from the goats. When this royal judge— this is what has become of defeated, crucified Yeshua— arrives, he will tell the faithful that a great treasure awaits them, that they have been granted entry to the kingdom as reward (merces) for having performed these works of mercy. The weak has been replaced by the mighty. The being by the doing and love has been reduced to a powerful allay of the righteous.

Forgotten is the understanding that the call calls, unconditionally, but without force. The merciful can walk away but instead they choose to love, rather than not. If it was a little mad, it was with the madness of the kingdom. It has no further “reason” than that. If love has a reason, if it has been entirely relieved of folly, if love makes good sense, we can be sure what is going on is something other than love.

 

What might there have been in John’s message that prompted Jesus to ask for baptism? Maybe Jesus saw the place of the primal creative energy of fire required for life?

And what might have he experienced during his baptism and days spent in the wilderness that reportedly followed? Maybe he became aware that one needed to be a new person in order to walk the alternative Way he was to propose.

 

Julie McGuinness’ in her Celtic poem ‘Reflections on life’s road’ captures the spirit of this ‘calling to be’: She says:

Some people travel in straight lines:

Sit in metal boxes, eyes ahead,

Always mindful of their target,

Moving in obedience to coloured lights

and white lines,

Mission accomplished at journey’s end.

 

Some people travel round in circles:

Trudging in drudgery, eyes looking down,

Knowing only too well their daily,

unchanging round,

Moving in response to clock and to habit,

Journey never finished yet never begun.

 

I want to travel in patterns of God’s making:

Walking in wonder, gazing all around,

Knowing my destiny, though not my destination,

Moving to the rhythm of the surging of his spirit,

A journey which when life ends,

in Christ has just begun.

(Quoted in Bradley 2000: 243-44)

 

 

Notes:

Bradley, I. 2000.  Colonies of Heaven. Celtic models for today’s church. London: D L & T.

Butcher, J. B. 2002.  An Uncommon Lectionary. A companion to Common Lectionaries. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.

Ludemann, G. 1998. Virgin Birth? The real story of Mary and her son Jesus. Translated: John Bowden. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International

Miller, R. J. 2003.  Born Divine. The births of Jesus and other sons of god. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.