Another Way

Posted: February 19, 2016 in Sermons Year C - Advent 2015 to 2016

Isaiah 43 : 18-19 John 12: 1-8

Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii*

and the money given to the poor?’

 ‘The Church as an institution must change or die’. That is a challenging statement to make and one that needs much explanation, however the ground of such a statement is that all human organisations have their life span and one would have to say that the Church has had its fair share of history. Perhaps its success in longevity has been its ability to adapt and change however the challenge might be that it has now reached a watershed and must die in its present form in order to be reborn. Maybe it is an institution caught in a time when institutional forms based on an assumption of certainty must reform or die. In today’s world there are no absolutes, no single truths and no perfections. One might also offer the same challenge to national sovereignty, nation states, economic theories such as capitalism/ socialism etc. Have they had their day? Have institutions/cultures, assumptions based on scarcity, certainty, perfection and privatisation had their day. Have modes of operation based on the assumptions that better management will fix things, that individualism is the only way to value humanity and that competition rather than trust provides justice all had their day.

The next question of course is that if the above is correct then what next? The challenge here is that change is always an evolutionary event. Even though we might perceive the change to be sudden and isolated and extremely novel, it is always part of an evolutionary process and what appears as sudden is just the clear end of some assumptions that have become ingrained into the way things are done. Walter Brueggemann once said that the great moment in history is an imaginative construal, and that history makers were signs that a period in history has ended rather than something radically new. This means that what is seen as the new and novel has very likely been underway and developing long before it becomes identifiable as new. The challenge that this brings us is the nature of the new. If we want change then it can’t be about doing things better than before because that is already happening. It is rather about doing it differently. Better management is not the fix here. Change is not about the how question but rather about the why question. A change in the why question is required.

Why should the church exist today? What does it have to offer civilization today? What is its point of difference today? What does it do that contributes to the world as we know it?

Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann and John McKnight in their book An Other Kingdom offer some interesting approaches to this that I want to explore. They suggest that we might look first at our environment and when we do that we see that the ‘Western culture’ with its constellations of empire and kingdom, produce endless conversations about climate warming, restoring the middle class in our economies, worldwide immigration driven by poverty, and political instability. We talk about financial bubbles, accessible health care, economic growth and contraction. We all want more companies to come to town, more jobs, more graduates in education, less crime and violence and we seek more consumption and faster growth to keep us ahead of the next. The trouble is that these conversations are based on acquisitiveness, on assumptions of progress, and we don’t ask why? The conversations are saying something to us and we are missing it. They are painfully predictable and often despairing. The truth is that our current approaches will make modest improvements but they will not make any real difference. Any sort of real critique will tell us that our beliefs in the way we do things now makes poverty, encourages violence, produces ill health and we accept that fragile economic systems are all there is. We fail to ask why it is that our economic system based on competition, scarcity and acquisitiveness does this? Why is it acceptable to allow our culture of the day to invade our social order, govern our ways of being together and tell us what to value. Why does it produce a consumer culture that says its ok for 1% of the population to receive all the wealth and the power leaving the rest wanting what they have.

Block, Brueggemann and McKnight suggest that we first might look at Leviticus 19, verse 18. To answer the first why question. Why do we need a change and how do we begin to create it? They suggest that the text gives us a clue. It says “You shall love your neighbour as yourself ‘—Lev. 19:18.. The first task they suggest is to choose the communal path so as to overcome our isolation. They suggest we might discover a way where we begin to have affection for the land and the commons.

We know we can’t raise our children on our own. Even if we choose to home school them, this won’t work for all. We need schools. We just have to stop asking the school to raise our children. We want to re-formulate and create the systems we need to support the neighbourly culture, not reform the ones we already have. We want to construct a communal world, one in which the functions that systems perform are congruent with what the community needs. When communities are fully functioning, when they are doing all the things they can do themselves, then we can re-discover what systems we need and what for.

We might ask then: What would a system look like that built neighbourliness and covenantal relationships? It could begin with the question of how a human services system can create for its own workers the same cultural experience that it is intending to bring into the world. This would enable systems to support the kind of communal culture we are exploring. We can see some attempts at this in Christchurch and here in Auckland CBD. The response to the rebuilding of Christchurch where the state plan clashed with the people’s plan. And the growth of small interest groups in Auckland meeting as groups of poets, artists, musicians and special interest groups of homeless, apartment dwellers and so on.

An alternative the authors suggest is to set out to create a culture based on covenant, or a set of covenants that support neighbourly disciplines, rather than market disciplines, as a producer of culture. These non-market disciplines have to do with the common good and abundance as opposed to self-interest and scarcity. This neighbourly culture is held together by its depth of relatedness, its capacity to hold mystery, its willingness to stretch time and endure silence. It affirms its patience with fallibility, its appreciation of the value of re-performing aspects of a subsistence culture. For example, it calls for the right use of money, a willingness to eat food slowly, in season—food that is unprocessed and produced nearby. The movement that is planting gardens in schools and teaching children how to garden and grow their own food is an example of this prophetic step.

This sort of new world is radical and stands in stark contrast to the dominant contractual and consumer culture that pivots around autonomy, independence, isolation, and a longing for certainty—and is always in a hurry. It is a shift away from a culture impatient with faith not based on reason, and it is wary of fidelity without recent results. Does a trickle down system work and how? Long term promises are not good enough we need to see how it might benefit and whom it will benefit.

The culture we live in today has witnessed the disappearance of the neighbourhood; The church is no longer the centre of community nor is the school. In some cases the biggest company in the area has taken on this role of community philanthropist or gathering place. The big companies are the providers of charity for schools and community. Money and business are the morality banks. The mixed use of locations has made it harder to find community. It has seen neighbourly relations bested by automatic garage door openers and the rise of the convenience store. We no longer need to borrow sugar; because we can purchase it 24/7. This has taken us to a place of a different kingdom, a kingdom without neighbourliness.

And why is a covenant preferable to a contract? Well, briefly because it rests on different beliefs. A covenant rests on a belief in abundance. We have enough of everything to go around. We do not need more because we already waste so much of what we produce. Just on TV the other day we were told that one van load of waste food from some supermarkets feeds 1000 people and that is here in Auckland. The current system based on growth and economic surplus or profit already says that we have enough. A world based on covenant stands in stark contrast to a dominant, contractual and consumer culture that pivots around autonomy, independence, isolation and a longing for certainty and it is always in a hurry. A covenantal culture is not impatient with a faith based approach to life. A covenant also rests on a belief in fallibility as a permanent and natural condition. Fallibility knows about the limits of growth. If holds a growth process accountable knowing that the cost of its development often outweighs its attraction. Sometimes growth is not worth it. It also sees that death is not a problem to be solved or avoided at all costs but rather it is a state that animates life. It appreciates that the planet can be wounded and needs care for its restoration. The developmentally disabled and if we treat them as people who need to be fixed rather than say that their condition is a mystery, then we do them a disservice. When we acknowledge their mystery we can move ahead with who they are. A belief in fallibility enables us the possibility of seeing what is really there.

 A covenantal neighbourly culture rests in its promise of an unknowable world. A covenantal neighbourly world is organized for surprise and believes that much of life is permanently unknowable. It values the vow, which is a commitment in the absence of specificity. Mystery is not a problem to be solved. Mystery is an opening to the unknown. Acceptance of mystery opens the door to a set of communal disciplines such as time, food, silence, and re-performance. These disciplines lead us on a path that begins and ends in mystery. Believing in mystery is the initial act of departure, the doorway to an alternative future. It’s an opening to creativity and imagination. It opens the door to a neighbourhood or community organized by covenant.


What we are seeking is a gateway to the qualities called wholeness and aliveness. In trying to make sense of architecture in the 1970s, Christopher Alexander explored the reasons that when you walk into certain physical spaces your experience is different from what you sense in other spaces. He named this a “quality of aliveness.” ‘The purpose of architecture, in his view, was to create a physical built environment that conveys a sense of wholeness and evokes a quality of aliveness. He also concludes that this quality of aliveness cannot be defined. It can be produced by a knowledge of a pattern language, but not defined. Mystery then is essential to aliveness. Covenant is the expression of this connection; it is an act that evokes aliveness and draws out those qualities. Philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich (1973) also speaks to aliveness in his book Tools for Conviviality. This book was a guidepost to a culture that chooses life, a culture that prizes tools developed and maintained by a community of users—tools for life, not a system of death. Illich sought a name for that portion of social life that had been, remained, or might become immune to the logic of economization (Cayley, 2015).

Theologically speaking, this mystery, is a combination of surprise and aliveness. The theological tradition would say that mystery is occupied by the bottomless combination of fidelity and freedom, qualities that evoke the presence of God. A combination of fidelity and freedom has popularly been translated into the message that love wins. Rob Bell had an Evangelical mega-church until he wrote a book called Love Wins (2011). He was run out for promoting that message. The issue was that if love wins there is no moral binding, and you can’t threaten people to act right. Is this where our church has been or is it not? What the fundamental Christian is afraid of is that there is no retributive capacity when love rules, the homos will take over if we don’t keep them out, the migrants will take over our culture if we let too many in. There will be no market discipline to confine or make demands on us.

What we know and what we see is an inherent longing and readiness for community all around us. It is the bottomless combination of fidelity and freedom that funds our yearning. In other words, our yearning for community is not something we invented; it is innate, a given. We are social beings and we don’t know why. This means that mystery is more than just unknown space; it is also an active agency. Mystery has work to do. An example is that famous scene the night after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s house was bombed in Montgomery. He was sitting at the kitchen table when he heard a voice say, “Martin, don’t be afraid.” Dr. King said he was never afraid again. Was that an act of daring imagination on his part, or a mystery? We could say it was an active mystery that came to him and he chose to receive it.

There is always something that cannot be explained. And the best of the scientists know that. They don’t claim any sovereignty over knowledge. Especially near the end of their careers, they acknowledge the unknowability or limitless nature of what they spent their lives pursuing.

The child knows mystery also. And here I suggest is where our energy for building a school on our property lies. All children at some moment ask the question of where something comes from, where they come from. We can answer in every way imaginable, but the only response that seems to satisfy is, “From God.” This most often ends the questioning in a comforting way, so that something is no longer missing for them. It is simply unknowable. There is no place beyond reason, or confusion, or understanding, only the place of mystery.

Mystery also has a relationship to justice. Justice begins with a vow, a vow constituted of freedom and fidelity. This vow enables the emergence of justice. The wedding vow, again, has to do with the practice of freedom and fidelity that, when rightly done, will eventuate as justice for your partner. If you knew what was coming, it wouldn’t be a vow; it would be a contract. A vow requires mystery to be valid and trustworthy.

Mystery creates space for surprise, in contrast to the market culture that places such a premium on certainty. Holiday Inn was the first big motel system. The alternative was tourist homes and little places that might or might not be very good places to stay. . . you never knew. Holiday Inn made a promise to its guests; when you walked in to your room, there would be a sign on the chest of drawers that said, “Holiday Inn. No Surprises.” The rise of the franchise systems screams this at us. Put your trust with us we promise certainty.

The free market consumer culture hates uncertainty. That’s why it’s based on agreements that hold countries to account. It needs certainty not mystery. In the corporate world your stock price does not really suffer too much if profits are down. What is intolerable is not predicting the decline or not predicting it accurately. If you predicted a 20 percent reduction and profits fall 5 percent, you are faulted for that. If you predict a 20 percent increase in sales and you have a 60 percent increase in sales, you are faulted for that, too. The investment community, perhaps the greatest disciple of certainty, thinks that we are not in control because we missed our projections by so much. It’s called risk management, and there’s another industry for profit making there as well.. The consumer culture transposes mystery into ignorance in the belief that what is ignorant can be known and then controlled.

On Christmas Day 1939 King George VI gives an address just months after the beginning of WWII, and it looks like pretty dark days ahead for Britain. He ends his speech with a quotation from a popular poem, which reaches the British public in ways that not even Churchill had achieved: And l said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” —Haskins, 1908

Is this not a call to trust mystery?

 This sermon is already too long and I want to see if I can wrap it up. The claim I have been making is that an approach to abundance, mystery, fallibility and grief create conditions can reclaim the common good but it cannot be reclaimed by a movement. Nor can a science and fact based engineered, legislated or problem solving path achieve it either. The efforts to restore the environment, to put land. Air, water and resources back into the hand of the public trust are essential but they will only be complete when there is a shift in our way of being together. Our humanness needs restoration and there is no way to reason our way there. The language of covenant and fidelity I suggest need to create transcendence of the dominant culture we live in and we need to do this by asking questions of the narratives of change management, development and growth.

We are accustomed to the disciplines that belong to faith; there also are disciplines that belong to community. They are built by covenantal language held together by vow rather than barter and honour the fact that community has a job to do and needs to be productive. They are the way to covenantal justice, the way we get people to participate or engage in a more just society and a more sustainable earth.

Some signposts of an alternative social order of a society organized around covenantal promises sustaining the common good are:

  • Time. Which is space for relatedness and hospitality to be chosen as alternatives to speed, individualism, and like-mindedness.
  • Food. Which is choosing to grow food locally, urban farms, food without chemical intervention, food as the sacred table around which culture and community are sustained and created.
  • Silence. Which is quietening the noise of the automated, electronic, consumption-as-entertainment culture. Silence as a means of honouring mystery. Listening as an action step. An opening for the voice of nature and neighbour. Creating a place for thought and depth. A quality of Sabbath and reflection as an answer to restless productivity and advertising.

Time, food, and silence are three major disciplines for creating the conditions for neighbourliness and producing the social re-ordering. Those disciplines recognize the human condition, which the hubris of our current culture denies. They go against the grain of a culture of productivity, consumption, speed, entertainment, barter, and amnesia.

Each discipline is a manifestation of, and supported by, covenant, a belief in abundance, and ritual. Covenant is holding a relationship sacred. Traditionally, it meant with God or a higher power. Here it is about our relationships with neighbours and even strangers. It means holding community and the commons sacred; it requires honouring vows as an expression of both freedom and fidelity. Abundance faces the questions of our relationship to money, the right use of wealth, and the reconstruction of money and market, including forgiving our debts, reducing debt slavery, and limiting usury, making money on money. By ritual we mean the re-performance of a set of liturgy, memory, and story that brings into the present all that is held precious. Remembering ourselves, putting limbs and body together, through common practices born of knowledge of what it means to be human. Amen.

P Block, W Brueggemann, J McKnight, ‘An Other Kingdom’ Departing The Consumer Culture John Wiley & Sons, Inc New Jersey


Lent 4C, 2016

Luke 15:1, 11-32

Leaving Home is Dangerous Yet Called For

Our story today is a story about a father who had two sons. Indeed, not only had two sons but loved two sons, went out to two sons, and was generous to two sons. Second, the father does not reject either son, under any circumstance. His love is given to both, not to one at the expense of the other. Yet this same love does not resolve the conflict. It accepts conflicts as the arena in which the work of love is to be done. Third, there is a missing third act in this parable (Scott 2001). The conflict between the brothers is left unresolved. So in the end there is a real question: it is; what happens next?

New Testament scholar Brandon Scott is helpful, with a suggestion: He says: “Soon the father will die.  Then what?  If the sons continue on with their established scripts, they are headed for a collision.  One will kill the other. Or they can follow the father’s script and surrender their male honour and keep on welcoming, accepting, and being with the other.  They have a choice between being lost or found, dead or alive” (Scott 2001:82-83).

In this parable the storyteller has Jesus offering a simple suggestion: that re-imagined world, hoped-for world Jesus continually talks about, pictures co-operation, not contest, as the basis for the realm of God. That one is loved not according to pre-set conditions. It’s that simple but do we have ears to hear?

The fact is that we can’t hear this story too many times because we are the son returning again and again. We are the father scanning the horizon watching for the impossible and then embracing it in our arms. We are the revellers in the far-away town, we are the servants in the father’s household, and we are the older brother in tears of rage, uncomprehending and exasperated.

One of the things about Lent is that it gives us time to find ourselves- our true self – for better or for worse, and usually both. Lent gives us time to work on habits that alienate us from ourselves, and from our God, and from our loved ones. We learn to see the “edited” version of ourselves for what it is, and to step back from the “cult of this shadow” we’ve created of ourselves. This unknown self…….. Thomas Merton wrote of this unknown self…….. He said…..

This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him, and to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy. My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion…. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.

And Frederick Buechner wrote about the new seeds of Contemplation that are born in the telling of secrets………

It is important at least to tell from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.
Lent teaches us to wake up in the middle of the waking day to a fuller awareness of our state of mind, to repent, to turn around toward the Loving Presence watching for us. Despair, the saints say, is the worst sin. Despair is a kind of pride – the pride of putting oneself beyond the possibility of redemption, the pride that says God’s ability to love is limited. Despair makes an idol out of wretchedness. I’m no good it says. I was never any good it says. Even God has despaired of me. I’m slowly starving to death while the hogs fatten. I will die here. And, it’s what I deserve.

he truth is that one aspirin is good for us. But taking a whole bottle will kill us. So it is with compunction. We can wallow in sorrow like pigs in mud, happily revelling in the smell and sticky filth of it. We can attach ourselves to the selfish stinking sweetness of self-pity. After a while, though, compunction alone without action – repentance, contrition, satisfaction – will poison us.

ut how does the young man know it’s time to arise? Maybe he remembered his prayers “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” Being sorry is one thing. We can stay in the lower barnyard feeling sorry for all eternity. But repenting requires action.

hen he comes to himself, the former prodigal assesses his situation. He asks himself; how many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!

He realizes his only path out of pride is through humility. He re-evaluates his options. He responds in saying; I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

The only way he can raise himself is through honesty. Humility and honesty help him stand up and take the first steps of the long journey home. So he set off.

Martin Buber wrote of insight….. His coming to himself……

The Baal Shem said: “Imagine a man whose business hounds him through many streets and across the marketplace the livelong day. He almost forgets that there is a Maker of the world. Only when the time for the Afternoon Prayer comes does he remember: ‘I must pray.’ And then, from the bottom of his heart, he heaves a sigh of regret that he has spent his day on vain and idle matters, and he runs into a by street and stands there and prays: God holds him dear, very dear, and his prayer pierces the firmament.”

Lent teaches us the subversion of loving and being loved. Howard Thurman says of integration, keep open the door of your heart.

There is a profound ground of unity that is more pertinent and authentic than all the unilateral dimensions of our lives. This a man discovers when he is able to keep open the door of his heart. This is one’s ultimate responsibility, and it is not dependent upon whether the heart of another is kept open for him. Here is a mystery: If sweeping through the door of my heart there moves continually a genuine love for you, it by-passes all your hate and all your indifference and gets through to you at your centre. You are powerless to do anything about it. You may keep alive in devious ways the fires of your bitter heart, but they cannot get through to me. Underneath the surface of all the tension, something else is at work. It is utterly impossible for you to keep another from loving you.

Lent prepares me to accept our authentic self, which is love.

Sometimes in art, we see the father looking into the distance from a tower. In this rendering, the artist emphasizes that the father not only waits for the son to come home but actively watches from a great height, taking time from a busy day in order to know the first possible moment his son might drop by. You don’t hear him brag, “I’m sure he’s taken his talents and turned them into more talents.” He doesn’t complain, “The boy’s an idiot, he’s probably lost everything.” He just watches. But not passively.

Is it possible he neglects other duties to ponder his younger son’s return? “I must go up to the tower now.” “But Nigel , there’s overdue accounts to settle, seeds to order, and the veterinary doctor is downstairs waiting for you to come down and he’s charging by the hour!” “But my son might come home soon. I wouldn’t want to miss it.”

Even without the tower of the medieval artist and the neglected work we have just invented, the detail Jesus offers, “But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him”. This implies the father’s foolishness. What does this scene remind us of?

Maybe the father was waiting to entertain angels, and instead of the heavenly messengers he expected, sees his son, and undergoes a profound conversion at that moment. “My poor, idiot son, is God’s messenger for me.”

This man has no shame, say his family, his employees, his neighbours. That’s right. The man jettisoned his hard earned shame the moment his heart melted when he saw his pathetic, profligate son. The shameless father embraces the shameful son in full view of all the sensible people around them. And there it is. We meet ‘grace’.

The once prodigal son rehearses and perfects his speech as he travels. He has to get it just right. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”

But when he meets his father on the road, he is unable to finish his carefully honed apology. His father interrupts and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for heavens’ sake, and to kill the fatted calf meant, perhaps, for some predictable upcoming anniversary. Maybe the older brother’s birthday. A feast! Now! “Let us eat and make merry!”

Grace interrupts. Grace, by very nature, is not what you expect. Grace reverses expectations. That’s how you know it’s grace. “What’s that tower for, Dad?” “Oh. I built it so I could watch for you.”

The most sympathetic character in Jesus’ story is the older son. It is not helpful to say he represents some elite group of righteous people opposed to Jesus any more than it is helpful to say that the father represents God. If the father represents God, his compassion is otherworldly and exempts you and I from compassion’s uncomfortable stretching and piercing of soul. The truth is that we are the father. We are the profligate son. And no kidding, we are probably heavily weighted, inside the core of this resentful older son.

When did this older son resentment begin? When he saw his brother in the robe, with the ring and new shoes? Or earlier, when his brother asked for his inheritance and left to seek his fortune and he did not? Or even before that, in childhood games and rivalry?

The father ran out onto the road to meet the younger son. And now he leaves the party to run after the older son who is sensible, hard-working, good, faithful, and true. Except now that son is justifiably angry.

Lo these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!

And then……. Jesus leaves the story open. He knows who we are.

Are we going to go to the party? Or not?

Are we going to engage with this re-imagined world, this hoped-for world Jesus continually talked about, will it be about co-operation, not contest? This realm of God.



Lent 3C, 2016

Luke 13:1-9

At The Edge Of Chaos

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Many of the Jews in Jesus’ time, or perhaps more correctly in Luke’s time it seems, believed in a God who punished the bad people and rewarded the good. They went so far as to say: • if you live in poverty or have a bad accident or disease, you are revealed by God as a sinner; • if you are healthy and prosper you are revealed by God as a righteous person. Some of this thinking still prevails today although I suspect most of it is of an unquestioned dogmatic residual form rather than a fundamental well thought through belief system. People just don’t seem to want to do theology today, or at least the academic form that demands an incarnational application. In other words an applied theology that is only valid if it can be applied to life as it is experienced.

What is clear though is that there are diametrically opposed worldviews in the present day:  There is the critical disjunction between the evolutionary story of the universe as described by modern science since the time of Darwin (1859) and the traditional Gospel story of God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ that still informs many of the 2 billion Christians in the world today. I want to suggest that there is growing a third worldview that is perhaps indicated by the phrase God after God, or God after the Death of God, or anatheism being that which is no longer theism, nor atheism but is what is next. I have spoken before about anatheism as Richard Kearney’s attempt to put vocabulary to this worldview.

While change I think is always evolutionary in its process and there could be argument about when the second worldview began it could be when Karl Rahner, the influential Catholic theologian whose writings were behind many of the reforms of Vatican II initiated the critical inquiry in the 1970s with a pioneering paper titled “Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World.” In seeking out an intrinsic unity between the decisive event of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus and the 13 billion year process of cosmic, biological and human evolution, Rahner maintained that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ “the basic tendency of matter to discover itself in spirit . . . reaches it’s definitive breakthrough.”So for Rahner, in Jesus Christ we discover New Creation—the necessary and permanent beginning of the divinization of sentient life in the evolving universe, an event signifying to us that the absolute self-communication of God to the world-historical process of evolution has been irrevocably inaugurated and is even now moving towards its far-off goal.

The third worldview has quickly formed I suggest and it is because the need for application of the ideas and the theology has grown more and more important in this apparent rapidly changing world. As more and more developments at the leading edge of scientific research arrive and this is known as the sciences of complexity. There is more and more concern for the integration of the evolutionary epic and the Christian story of creation and redemption.

The evolutionary systems sciences, or the sciences of complexity is a field that includes a wide range of scientific disciplines that describe the dynamic patterns of change that connect across disparate domains (physical, chemical, biological, psychological, socio-linguistics) with profound implications for the ongoing dialogue between evolutionary science and Christian theology. I want to suggest that this is what we progressives are doing right now. Racing to catch up with a world view that is unfolding ahead of us.

I want to now try to spell out what I think ‘repent’ means in our text, and it will be inadequate because sermons need to be short. But, I think it is worth having a go to stimulate thinking. At the core of this third worldview is what I have been suggesting is Co-creating with God and some are calling Creativity God. Another way of saying this would be to say that the distance between God and humanity is closing fast, divinization is well on the way in our limited view.

Returning to science’s involvement is to say that the general claim of the sciences of complexity is that evolution exhibits some dynamic patterns, its formative features are invariant, and evolution repeats itself in general ways so that we may now be able to glimpse its fundamental nature for the first time. The core insight of sciences of complexity is that matter on planet earth has the capacity to be ‘self-organizing’ on the account of the inherent nature of the processes that atomic, molecular, chemical and biological entities undergo. So in contrast to the infamous Second Law of thermodynamics that dictates an overall increase in disorder (in isolated systems) leading to the ultimate ‘heat death’ of the universe, it is becoming increasingly clear that complex systems in open energy exchange with their environments can become unpredictable and chaotic in their observable behaviour and then ‘self-organize’ or propel themselves onto new, higher levels of exterior complexity (and interior consciousness), commonly called ‘order out of chaos’. We might also call it the human propensity for organization, community, nation and the need for religion.

In other words, it is now recognized that when a constant energy flow is passed through dynamic open systems, they have the propensity to undergo abrupt transformations and organize themselves into new and unexpected forms of order characterized by an increase in structural organization and complexity. In fact, all evolving systems in the real world exist in open energy exchanges with their environments and when driven ‘far from equilibrium’ have this tendency to undergo chaotic instabilities and propel themselves to new and highly organized regimes.  And since self-organization in complex systems occurs across all levels of the known universe, evolution can now be seen to be engaged in an irreversible or ‘uni-directional’ pattern of change creating “order out of chaos” and pushing complex systems towards higher levels of structural organization and complexity. Randomness, serendipity and chance we might call this. We might also take hope in this for the future of the human race, the future of the church perhaps but definitely the future of the quest to understand spirituality.

Rather than destruction and an end to it all there is a glimpse of repentance being achieved and what is not perishing after all. The key thing here I think is to understand Chaos differently. No longer is it a totally destroyed order, unredeemable because chaos has become more discernable and thus so has the possibility of order. The edges of mystery are being pushed back. Order after Chaos perhaps. A few scholars have taken this idea and run with it and I will see if I can make sense of the journey as I see it.

We might acknowledge that evolving systems on the ‘edge-of-chaos’ are very different from closed systems at thermodynamic equilibrium and tend to be poised at a critical threshold between order (periodic change) and chaos (a period of random change). Commonly named the “edge-of-chaos”, it is precisely here in this critical state delicately poised between too much rigidity and too much fluidity that evolving systems in open energy exchange have the significant tendency to evolve towards new, more complex adaptive structures. ‘Repent of perish’ is the imperative and repentance is the seeking of a more complex balance.

The edge-of-chaos is therefore the “source of order” in the universe (Kauffman), bringing “order out of chaos” (Prigogine), and moving evolution towards new dynamic regimes with higher levels of complexity and spontaneous “emergent order” (Phillip Clayton). As Kauffman explains, “Self-organization is a natural property of complex genetic systems. There is ‘order for free’ out there, a spontaneous crystallization of generic order out of complex systems, with no need for natural selection or any other external force.”

Self-organization in complex systems finely balanced at the creative tension between opposites has also been termed “chaosmos” (James Joyce) in describing the delicate interplay between chance and necessity, stasis and change, chaotic disruption and emergent novelty in the evolutionary trajectory from inanimate matter to self-replicating life to self-conscious humanity. And in a way that speaks directly to our current global situation, at a critical state of creative tension between opposing forces the outcome of any evolutionary process is said to be unpredictable in detail and inherently indeterminate, i.e. it is impossible to tell whether the system in this state of creative tension (i.e. the existing economic system!) will disintegrate into chaos or leap into a new, differentiated higher level of order. 

However the important point for us is that modern science has now discovered that the very site of evolutionary change is the creative tension between opposites at the “edge-of-chaos” – an insight which corresponds directly with orthodox Christian theology. For this same paradoxical tension between opposites is central to both dogmatic Christology – the irreducible tension between ‘fully human’ and ‘fully divine’ in the person of Jesus  as well as (and more pointedly), the original structure of Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God that reside within the earliest layers of the Christian faith tradition. That is, almost all of the recorded parables of Jesus of Nazareth have the same paradoxical voice-print, the same deep structure, where opposing perspectives are held together in the same creative tension at the “edge-of-chaos” that the sciences of complexity and self-organization have recently discovered at the wildly unpredictable edge of evolution’s creative advance. So Jesus of Nazareth spoke in paradoxes to usher in a new world (the Kingdom of God) and inaugurate a new horizon of what it means to be fully human by evoking the very same tension between opposites that has recently been discovered by the sciences of complexity and self-organization. 

Here we have the third worldview unfolding towards a post metaphysical theology where it is shown that the same paradoxical structure, what is also called a dynamic pattern of “bi-polar reversals” is clearly evidenced in the narrative center of at least 30 of the parables of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels.

So where the central teachings of Jesus all give voice to the same paradoxical tension between opposing perspectives, turn the other cheek, love your enemy, etc, the sciences of complexity now provide direct supporting evidence for the view that the creative tension of Christian paradox is indeed the ‘condition of possibility’ for the coming into being of emergent novelty in the structural dynamics of evolution at the “edge-of-chaos”. So the Christian hope for New Creation is synonymous with this critical threshold between opposing forces described by the sciences of complex emergence, while this paradoxical tension is also attested to by Jesus as the very place in which significant change and transformation can take place. “Repent or Perish as They did”. Change your thinking or be left behind.

 So where the centrality of paradox to the Christian faith (and the teachings of Jesus) corresponds seamlessly with the recent discoveries of modern science, with the paradoxes of Jesus at the heart of the Gospel story we also discover the flesh and blood story of a God who becomes human and participates fully in the world’s struggles, pains and convulsions. In Christianity the unsearchable mystery of God’s love is revealed in the capacity of a vulnerable, suffering creature to go all the way and fully embrace the contradictory tensions of existence. In addition to embodying the creative tension between opposites at the edge-of-chaos, the evolutionary worldview of modern science also allows us to depart from the image of an immutable God that is untouched by the world’s suffering and give renewed significance to our sense of God being present in the tangible depths of life’s long, painful, unpredictable and perpetually surprising evolutionary journey 

And to finish off I want to quote the theologian Sallie McFague where she writes: “Global warming is not just another important issue that human beings need to deal with; rather, it is the demand that we live differently.  We cannot solve it, deal with it, given our current anthropology.  It is not simply an issue of management; rather, it demands a paradigm shift in who we think we are.  This is certainly not the only thing that is needed, but it is a central one, for without it we cannot expect ourselves or others to undertake the radical behavioural change that is necessary to address our planetary crisis” (McFague 2008:44).

“Repent or Perish as They did”. Change your thinking or be left behind. Amen.



McFague, S. 2008.  A New Climate for Theology. God, the world, and global warming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press

Freeman C 2015 Creative Tension at the edge of Chaos Towards and Evolutionary Christology..



Luke 13: 31-35

Lent 2  21.2.2016

Re-Imagining God

For some time now I have been advocating that we need to re-imagine God, we need to grasp a new concept of who God is for us. Today I want to add some depth to this challenge. I want to suggest that this re-imagining is not a simple one off event. I want to suggest that we might consider that our concept of God is already changed and rather than finding something new we need to let go of the old that no longer works and affirm what we already know. I know I have advocated hard for the new and novel but I now want to suggest that perhaps the new is too evocative and without some acceptance of an evolutionary reality we might get caught up in being curious, nervous, anxious, annoyed, or bored and then resist all that and prefer to not notice at all. Embracing the new is the ideal and recognizing the process is making it happen.

What is true is that we have already been exposed to this task of ‘Re-imagining’ despite the fact that many of us have resisted. Some of the patterns for re-imagining God, Christ, the church and more were encouraged with hymns that introduced The Christ as “Sophia” (from Proverbs) or a reintroduction of the Wisdom literature. For Roman Catholics the Marian school provided the place for feminine imagery but not for God or The Christ. Our reading from Luke again raises this re-imagining with the power and emotion of Jesus’ words to Jerusalem, when he asks, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Here Jesus, is shown to employ a feminine image for himself and, to the degree that for many, Jesus reveals the essential character and disposition of the One who sent him, also for God. This leads us to ask that if Jesus can describe himself and God as a mother hen, can we not also employ a variety of images to describe God. Scripture, after all, is replete with a variety of images for God, both male and female. For instance, God is described also as a protective mother eagle (Deut 32:10-11), a fierce mother bear (Hosea 13:8), and a mother giving birth (Isa 42:14) and breast-feeding her child (Isa 49:15).

This then brings us to realize that when we only describe God with the typical male language of king and father, etc., we run the risk of limiting our imagination? And while we might be concerned with finding images that make God more accessible to women, the reality is that we are all impoverished when we can only imagine God in the narrowest of terms. To restrict our imagination to only male and female terms is to restrict our concept of God to anthropomorphic boundaries.

This of course invites a level of additional anxiety in that we become worried about going too far and getting it all wrong. When accepting our imagination as the boundary we quickly meet the assertion that “most of the heretics use biblical imagination and how do we know the difference? This indicates a fear that we’ll get our imagery for God wrong and that we’ll be declared heretical. The response to this is yes that might be true but isn’t all of our imagery ultimately, if not wrong, at least inadequate?

Tad DeLay, in his book ‘God Is Unconscious: Psychoanalysis and Theology’; states that: When you see a rainbow, you’re seeing something completely subjective. You see it at a certain distance as if stitched on to the landscape. It isn’t there. So, what is it? We no longer have a clear idea, do we, which is the subjective, which is the objective? Or isn’t it rather that we have acquired the habit of placing a too hastily drawn distinction between the objective and the subjective in our little thought-tank?

An answer to this supposed acceptance of the imagination is that the ability to look again at our scriptures with integrity is worth far more than our fear of inaccuracy? Trust the process, revisit the known which is the imagination of before and do so with integrity and experience the novel, the new. Understand the new subjectivity with a better objectivity. Another way of saying this would be to say that what we seek in re-imagining is a new more vivid Christian imagination – not the right or wrong imagination, or a progressive or orthodox imagination, just a Christian one, which we might define simply and expansively as the attempt to understand God in light of Jesus.

One of the really important things to come out of the historical Jesus studies over the last 100 years, is the rediscovery and the recognition of the utter Jewishness of Jesus, He was a Jew with a devout Judaism focus. He spoke with passion to Judaism, his faith and his message was to Judaism and to those who followed its tenets. For us this is a rediscovery of the man Jesus and thus a discovery of our real connection with him. The other thing we need to consider is that the gospel storytellers tend to present a Greekish Jesus rather than a Jewish Jesus. They are subjects of their time also and this is an invitation to ask of their context, their agenda, and their world view to authenticate their setting. Jesus, and those our tradition call ‘the disciples of Jesus’ during his lifetime, and the communities that formed soon after his death, have a clear identity. They are groups of Palestinian Jews within a complex and diverse Judaism under the Roman Empire.

There is also little to no evidence that Jesus had any conscious intention of founding a new religious institution either superseding Judaism or existing alongside it. So, I want to suggest, we can never really appreciate the depth of feeling a Jew like Jesus had for Jerusalem. For Luke’s Jesus, no earthly place was more precious. And no place brought out Jesus’ sense of compassion more, than Jerusalem. The storyteller Luke reminds us of this. All told, Luke mentions Jerusalem 90 times in the stories that carry his name. While all the other New Testament writers combined, mention it only 49 times. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Luke sees the place as important. Jerusalem is the dwelling place of God, the place where God’s glory shall be revealed. But let’s also acknowledge that Jerusalem is also the place where God is betrayed by those who would further their own subjectivity at the expense of others.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s comment sums it up well: “Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is insignificant. When Jerusalem obeys God, the world spins peacefully on its axis. When Jerusalem ignores God, the whole planet wobbles” (B B Taylor/Religion-online Web site 2004).

All of this suggests that Luke’s Jesus lived in the context of danger because of what he was saying and danger because he was probably being grouped together with zealots and other political agitators, by the powers that be – the Empire. Danger, also because, it is claimed, Herod Antipas was never backward in coming forward to deal “decisively with the leader of a religious movement whom he perceived as undermining the authority of his government…” (Funk. 1993:349). A danger that is emphasized in Jerusalem – the centre of power.


The complexity of this danger is noted in the text earlier where Jesus has been on his way to Jerusalem and he is not going to be dissuaded from that course.  He is leaving the region of Galilee anyway, but, in the face of a threat from Herod Antipas, he makes clear that he will do so in his own way and on his own timetable.

“Some Pharisees” bring the warning:  Herod wants to kill you.  Some have suggested that Herod might have sent the Pharisees to Jesus in order to encourage the troublesome Jesus to get out of his territory, but this seems unlikely.  Luke treats the Pharisees more positively than does Mark or Matthew. This is not to say that Luke doesn’t take a hard line on the Pharisees–he does–but not so much as Mark or Matthew.  In Luke, Pharisees invite Jesus to dinner. So when Luke tells us that “some Pharisees” came to Jesus to encourage him to save his life by leaving Galilee, it is most likely that this was a friendly warning and not some kind of trick.

Jesus and the Pharisees had quite a bit in common and some scholars now suggest that without the Pharisees there would have be no Christianity.  The Pharisees were a reform party and part of the diverse expressions of Judaism present in the time. This is supported by their lack of support for dishing off the practice of Judaism to the Temple alone.  They were in favour of Jews living the Torah all the time in daily life.  As God cared for creation 24/7, they would live the law 24/7.  Jesus and the Pharisees shared a common devotion to God which, they both believed, could be lived out in daily life.

The rub came in how it was lived out.  The Pharisees grounded their devotion in Torah and living the law as a way of life.  Jesus, on the other hand, identified with the prophetic tradition.  In Luke, the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is marked by strong prophetic identification (4:16-30).  In fact, Jesus again identifies with the prophetic tradition in our text this week.  In the prophetic tradition, the “spirit” of the law trumps the “letter” of it.

Though the Pharisees as a whole are identified as enemies of Jesus in all four gospels, they do not make an appearance in the actual passion narrative in Luke.  This is probably true to actual history.  The Pharisees were more of an influence outside of Jerusalem than in it.  Inside Jerusalem, the prime movers behind the assassination of Jesus were Sadducees and Temple bureaucrats.  At the time of Jesus’ death, two-thirds of the membership of the Sanhedrin was Sadducee, only one-third Pharisee.

Jesus calls Herod a “fox.”  Foxes may be crafty and clever, but they are not very powerful.  Jesus dismisses Herod as a mere pest.  True, Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, could be dangerous.  He had beheaded John the Baptist (9:9), for example.  On the other hand, he was a small fry compared to the concentration of power in Jerusalem.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is not going to alter his plans on account of Herod.  He is on his way out of Galilee and toward Jerusalem, but he will not hurry his timetable or change his local mission just because of Herod’s threats.  “Behold,” he says, “I am throwing out demons and accomplishing healings today and the next day, and the third.”

Another challenge in our text today would have been a significant challenge to its readers as it has been to some of us. The challenge to consider the strong feminine side of imagining God.

‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Luke is digging deep into the Wisdom tradition of Judaism here and the observation has been made that there is hardly a more feminine picture of Jesus available in the gospels tradition, than the vivid picture of a hen rounding up her chickens and fluffing her feathers protectively over them. She has ‘no razor-sharp teeth, no claws, and no steroid muscles’. All she has is her willingness to shield her chicks with her own body. Such is Luke’s picture of the compassion of Jesus. Luke uses the feminine image to convey the level of anti- cultural, anti- establishment, Jerusalem centered passion of Jesus.

Its important here to get a grasp of just how important this passion is because it takes it out of the intellectual, out of the well-schooled academic world and places it firmly in the heart. It also seems, according to Bill Loader for instance, that the warning given to Luke’s Jesus by some of the Pharisees, indicates that engaging in acts of compassion and caring which restores dignity to people, can have wide ranging implications: both personal and communal. It is paradigm shift stuff.

William Loader sets it up like this: “Why should Herod worry about such a ‘nice person’?  Because Jesus’ vision went beyond the individual to a transformed society. That had social and political implications. Both dimensions matter…” (WLoader Web site 2004)

The other point to remember here is that many scholars, our own Judith McKinley for one, claim that in Jewish literature, ‘Wisdom’ (always feminine) was pictured as God’s treasured companion… and again Bill Loader comments that “Behind the image of the hen is the image of Wisdom and behind that is an image of God, the compassionate and caring mother.  Jesus embodies that” (WLoader 2004 Web site).

So maybe this is what Luke is challenging his small community to be. Be compassionate. And so maybe this story to us many generations later says, we might embody compassion also. Gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, Amen.

Notes: Funk, R. W.; R. W Hoover. (ed) 1993.  The Five Gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan Publishing.


Lent 1C, 14.2.2016 Luke 4:1-13

‘A Self Affirming Lent’

Oh to wonder at the gift of life, my life, our life with the earth, the shared body of our existence. And that which reminds us of our humanity. This could be the very reason for Lent. Today is the first Sunday in Lent when traditionally we reflect on the wilderness experience of the one we call Jesus of Nazareth. When we think about it this story of Jesus’ testing ordeal in the desert, has been significant in recent human history. It could be said to be legendary. From the call to suffer isolation and deprivation as a form of penance and sacrifice to the call to take time out to reflect, this story has influenced the human psyche for many years.

However, scholars – at least the ones who interest me -claim this story comes from one of the early traditions of the Jesus movement, which the storytellers, including Luke, adopts. Note it is one of the early traditions all be it the one we have inherited and secondly it is not an eyewitness, historical account. This might actually enhance it because we all know what fickle eye witness accounts might encourage.

Traditionally, though, in very recent times Lent has been the season of abstinence or self-denial. A time of doing without. A time of fasting. Note the personalization, the focus on one’s behaviour. Is this all it is?

Well, it is the way of celebrating Lent according to much of our broad church tradition. And it appears to have been a strong motivation over the centuries. But its just possible that the focus has shifted. Is Lent only about sackcloth and ashes, fasting and giving up or is it something more? Is it a more holistic season for rekindling our faith, a doing with rather than a doing without? Is it a time of self-discovery and self-affirmation, as well as a time to claim our connectedness with the whole of the cosmos, rather than a time of self-doubt, self-denial and self-abasement?

You might about now be saying yes but isn’t that a bit too introspective? Isn’t there a danger of seeing one-self as the centre of all things? Aren’t we selfish enough? And the answer is of course, yes, there is always the danger that we get caught up in the me, me, me syndrome, but only if we enter this examination of our lives understanding that we are social beings that we need each other, and in fact as much neuroscience suggests we are mirrors of each other, mimics of each other and our identities as individuals is that which others bestow on us. A lent season with a focus on one-self is an honest, humble and challenging one. It is a journey in the wilderness which is outside the norm, and more challenging than the present.

Rex Hunt tells a story that I found helpful in seeing the nature of a lent based on self-examination rather than the popular sacrificial, sackcloth and ashes self-denial sort of lent. Rex invites us to go walking with a birdwatcher. A good birdwatcher is someone whose sharpness of sight and sense of hearing is amazingly acute. And the remarkable thing is that their acute sight and hearing is set among the very ordinary. We share the same bush, sticks, shrubs, grass and trees and yet it is there that they see the subtle colour change and they hear the particular call of the bird, and in hearing it they almost pluck it out of all the other noises around as if it was the only one. What appears in common is then named, identified. The jumble of sticks and leaves and the flashes of colour become the fantail, the Sparrow or the yellow eye. The trained birdwatcher creates the awareness amongst the ordinary everyday. Maybe the Lent season is a call for us to enter the wilderness of not knowing, of potential, of the possible and be creators of beauty, peace and justice.

Entering the wilderness, like walking with a bird watcher we discover how much there is to be noticed. And our walks in the park or paddock become so much richer. The ordinary is seen differently and what was there all along, is noticed. Another thing about this time is the challenge to see that just because something is there doesn’t mean we automatically see it and understand it. Sometimes perception takes practice. Like the birdwatcher we have to train our eyes and ears.

So maybe Lent is a time when we could devote ‘forty days’ to the task of training ourselves to become aware, to uncover and/or discover once again our own self-worth, not as an isolated self but a self that is vital for the species, the world and the community. That we might explore our own potential, again not as an exercise of selfish success but rather as the tremendous complex and valuable contribution we can make to our world. And that we might become more sensitive to our interdependence, our connectedness to the earth and the universe, again not as an attempt to have dominion over and exploit for one’s own purpose but rather as an honest humble and compassionate engagement with the ideas of expanding cosmos, exploding wonder and an intimacy of being human in the image of God.

Lent can be about self-discovery and connectedness rather than self-denial and isolation. It can be seen as a life affirming discovery rather than life denying. It can be a lent that says we are not judged by our past, but rather but by the way in which we relate to it. And this raises another aspect of this challenge to see lent differently.

We know that entering the wilderness, will uncover moments when we have been faced with decision making that has shown our neglect of an inner life. We have all made decisions which have required us to put aside, throw away or avoid decisions about our own spiritual wellbeing. Sometimes these decisions can be called a ‘crisis’. Other times the word used might be ‘testing’. But all of them are about how we respond, or about our ‘being’ in the world rather than our doing. This I think is the difference between seeking to grasp one’s self-worth and one’s self esteem. One’s self-worth is about who one is in the global picture and self-esteem is how one acts, or what one does in a more localized expression of that picture. Perhaps the old idea of self-denial keeps us in a world of self-esteem rather than invites us to see the goal of self- acceptance as a product of self-worth.

The greatest challenge to the old self-denial Lent is the accepting of ourselves unconditionally (despite our deficiencies).To live with the positive message is a supportive environment and sadly it is not the way of the world. Lent can be the opportunity to “certify” ourselves, as ok, and to validate our essential ok-ness. A time to get over our habit of constantly judging ourselves. If deep within us we’re ever to experience, as our normal state of being, personal fulfillment and peace of mind, we must first rise to the challenge of complete, unqualified self-acceptance.

I want to tell you another story that I think is about a journey of self-discovery and that it is done in the everyday and finally that right through it I think is the product of a worthwhile lenten time.

A blogger, Debie Thomas writes of the recent death of her grandmother noting that ‘the ground hasn’t behaved itself for me. It sways under my feet. It trembles, lurches, bucks. It gives way. As a friend said to me recently, it’s the nature of ballast to be invisible; we can’t know what steadies us until it’s taken away.


Debie noted that she had grown up practicing a conservative, fundamentalist version of Christianity — the version her grandmother observed and cherished all her life. She also noted that in recent years, she, Debie had moved away from that version, into a liturgical and more progressive expression of faith. She also noted that that description might be deceptive. It made the journey sound straightforward, as if her spiritual GPS had offered unambiguous guidance. Head north. Turn left. Continue straight. In two miles, take exit 32B, on the right. You have arrived at your destination. The reality says Debie is devastatingly something else. She writes………..

My grandmother’s death this winter comes hard on the heels of another long grief. My daughter, now sixteen years old, is sick, with a constellation of illnesses that seem, at the time of this writing, intractable. My husband and I continue to seek out every kind of treatment we can. We cry. We plead. We hope. But we also live in shadow, knowing that our daughter might die. Each moment is hard. Each moment is a battle against despair.


I’ve avoided writing about this crisis, in part to protect our family’s privacy, but in part to protect a lie — the lie that I can keep my faith intact despite my daughter’s illness. I can’t. Whatever happens now between God and me, it will happen — it could only ever happen — in this shadowland.


The morning after my grandmother died, I stayed outside the house and kept my eyes on the sky. It was a grey day, cloudy and dismal, but I didn’t care; I was busily imagining sunshine. Also angels in gleaming robes. Also a wide, blue river — the River Jordan, to be precise. I was wondering, quite literally, this: Has it happened yet? Did it happen instantaneously? Is it happening now? When will it happen?

“It” being my grandmother entering heaven. “It” being the sweet reunion of a widow with her long-departed husband. “It” being a mended hip, an end to arthritis, a fabulously restored memory. “It” being my grandmother meeting — at last, at last — the God she loved and worshipped so faithfully for a hundred years. The ground shook as I wondered these things. My fear is what made the ground shake.

The thing is, my grandmother believed in a literal heaven “up there,” a real and beautiful place where Christians go immediately upon death. She believed in the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, a holy book of promises written expressly for us. She believed in Jesus’s substitutionary death and bodily resurrection as the only cornerstones of salvation. She believed in specific and miraculous answers to prayer, divine healing, ecstatic spiritual experience, and the gift of tongues. She believed in the absolute and inviolable will of an all-powerful and all-benevolent God, governing every particular of our lives. She didn’t just believe in these things. She inhabited them. They were the walls, windows, ceilings, and doors of her life.

Here’s what my lurching ground feels like: I used to believe every single thing my grandmother believed about God, Christianity, and the spiritual life. I used to have a religious home as solid and certain as hers. To say that I have left that home is true. To say I had no choice — honesty compelled me — is truer. But the truest thing is this: I long to go home. I long to know where home is.

For the past few years, I’ve told myself that my grandmother’s version of faith is no longer available to me, and that I’m okay with that. Because it’s true. In theory, I’m perfectly okay with metaphor and mystery. In theory, I’ve moved past an anxious need for dogma, for certainty, for bedrock absolutes. In theory, I can hold my faith at a clinical distance from the messy particulars of my life. But then the earth buckles, and I understand. Death is not theory, and neither is a sick child. Nothing is okay when I stare at the clouds, looking for my dead grandmother, and no longer know what to hope for. Will I see her again? Is she up there? What does eternity mean now?


Nothing is okay when I hold my daughter up to God night after anguished night, and find no comfort in mystery. Nuance aside, I want answers. Clear bottom lines. Are the New Testament healings real or not? Are the promises of Scripture meant for us or not? Is God all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, or not? Will you heal my baby? Or not?

It’s impolite to pose the questions so baldly. When I asked a priest I respect very much if he believes in a literal afterlife, he hemmed. He knew I was asking about my daughter, and his sorrow was etched into every line of his face. “I believe in Love,” he said cautiously. “I believe in God’s deep, deep Love, which is stronger than evil, sickness, or death.” “That’s nice,” I snapped, fighting back tears. “But what does it mean? And why on earth is it enough?”

We don’t know what gives us ballast until it’s gone. We don’t see what we’re made of until we’re unmade. We think we’re okay, we think we’re strong — and then the ground begins to shake. The earth heaves, our feet slip, and we grab wildly in all directions at once: backwards, forwards, sideways, down. Where is safety? Whom do I belong to? What is real? Where can I go? I didn’t know my grandmother was a placeholder. Keeping a thousand fears at bay with a faith I still admire, but can’t sustain.

Debies grandmother died in a village in South India, and Debie was unable to return for her funeral. She continues………… So a week after my grandmother’s death, in the middle of the night here in California, I found myself curled up tight on my bed, my laptop propped beside me, watching a livestream of her funeral. It was an experience unlike any I’ve had before — disorienting, piercing, raw. I was, at once, there and not there. Connected and disconnected. In community, but alone.

Debie was grateful for the technology that made it possible for her to witness the funeral but it also reminded her of just how much she had lost. She continues……..

I miss her in the flesh. I miss her long fingers on my face. Her sweet smile. The way she smelled of coconut oil, lotion, and spices. But I also miss the comfort of Presence. Of welcome. Of return. The assurance that no matter where I go, or how far I wander, I can always make a journey home.

The same friend who spoke so wisely of ballast sent me a gift last year. It’s a cartoon, in black and white, of a funny-looking man fending off a little girl. The man has his arm extended, his long fingers pressed against the forehead of the child. There’s a look of supreme — acceptance? patience? amusement? — on his face. But the girl is fury personified. Pigtails flying, fists and teeth clenched, feet moving so fast they never even touch the ground. She’s headed for the man with all the spitfire ferocity of a bull aimed at a red cape, and though her arms are far too short to reach him, it’s clear she’s determined to knock him to the ground.

“It’s you,” my friend explained when she sent the gift. “It’s you, fighting God.” She’s right; it’s what I do. I fight with God. Like Jacob in the pre-dawn darkness, wrestling the angel for a blessing, I ram my whole conflicted self into my Maker. I throw myself against his maybe-patient, maybe-amused self over and over again, until war is all I know. I do this in my writing, in my thoughts, and through my prayers. Every step of my faith journey has been combative. A pitched and desperate battle.

It’s not a bad thing. After all, to fight is to engage, to keep my arms wrapped tight around my opponent. Fighting means I haven’t walked away. Fighting means I still have skin in the game.

Debie writes that she keeps her friend’s cartoon on her desk and looks at it every day. Most of the time, it makes her laugh. But sometimes, she gazes at that furious little girl, so determined, so mad, and she wishes she’d allow herself a breather. She wishes the girl would drop her fists, unclench her teeth, and touch the ground. She wishes the man, instead of fending the girl off, would take her hands in his and say, “Good, but that’s enough for now. Let’s go get ice cream.”

Debie continues saying…… What my grandmother knew — and I still don’t — is how to make God my home. How to sit in his Presence gently. Quietly. Without a fight. Though there was nothing easy about my grandmother’s life — she suffered poverty, illness, even the death of a child — she found a way to inhabit a consoling faith. She was certain of her God.

Like many of us progressives Debie was not yet certain of her God, but she does not want to return to her grandmothers God, she does not want to accept an interventionist God but she acknowledges that she would like to be certain. Even when sure that whatever religious tradition or expression one follows it is only ever a container, a vessel for the holy yet she would still like to find God as refuge, solace and safe place. She senses that for her, God is still too much an opponent, a stranger she grabs in the night and seems locked in tiresome combat with. Her posture towards God is still the greedy child’s. “Bless me!” Answer me. Fix me. Give me. I won’t relax until you do.

As Luke’s Jesus of Nazareth gained an important piece of self-knowledge, we too can face the wilderness experiences of life, and in the process, discover the closeness, the intimacy, the presence of God, our hope is that the God we discover is the evolutionary impulse becoming, that we can understand the path we walk as an evolutionary impulse to ‘become’ and that we can celebrate the discovery of the fellowship of the initiating consciousness. Amen.


Alsford, M. 2006.  Heroes and Villains. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.

  1. “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny….To work out our identity in God.”
    ― Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

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