Archive for February, 2018

‘A Journey Inwards’

Posted: February 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

Lent 1

‘A Journey Inwards’ 

William Blake wrote;

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour…”
(William Blake)

On Wednesday 14 February we began the Lenten period in the Church calendar. On Wednesday the 14th we noted that it was also St Valentine’s Day and it is said that in 18th-century England, St Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards. For us as Christians since about the year 1000CE Ash Wednesday has been a day when people were marked with ashes of palm trees burnt the previous year. Ash Wednesday has been a day when worshippers gathered and were reminded of their sinfulness and mortality. The practice was not part of the protestant church practice for many years being swallowed up in the rejection of anything depicting iconography symbolic or not sustainable in reasoning.

The challenge we have this year is the timing. As Rex Hunt puts it; we have Love and sin all on the same day!! One might say ‘That’s life”. Life is all about choice, about discernment and decision, about the richness and beauty always at risk of the choices we make in our attempts to understand and live within the randomness of existence. Lent for the Christian church is associated with the story of the Jewish Galilean sage called Jesus, and his 40-day stay or testing in the desert wilderness. The location of this event upon which the tradition is based happened at the beginning of his brief public activity in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire, sometime between the years 26-36CE.

Today we are challenged to reflect on what we are symbolically alluding to in the period we call lent and we as Progressive Contemporary followers of Jesus do this by not accepting a simple call to public self-abasement, as the means of acknowledging our struggle with the paradoxical juxtaposition of love and sin. We do not see that an act of sacrifice is a loving act because we struggle with the idea that that sort of exchange is what Jesus lived for. We want to acknowledge our limitedness as a human being but we also want to find a way of unfolding what that means without having to accept that we are now all bad and in need of outside intervention to make us good. That idea might be a means of projecting away what we have traditionally called our sinfulness, or the result of original sin but it does not give priority to the belief that a human being is essentially good and the task is to live that goodness as opposed to spending all our efforts on dealing with our sinfulness. Note that original sin comes after the creation of goodness so perhaps someone couldn’t deal with the fact that humans are essentially good so we have to explain the things we do wrong. It has to be said however that we progressives are still trying to get our heads around the same question. We all accept that we are biological animals and that we have a finite life span, but we don’t really like it, so having original sin as a panacea we can blame our death on our behaviour.

Leaping back to our story of Jesus and his response which was to go into the desert for 40 days, I think, maybe his trip was to get his head around this question of human purpose and human response, to think about his world where Roman world view was dominant and his people’s response was consumed with its ability to deal with this oppressive living existence. Reconcile with what it means to be human, reflect on what responses were manifesting and repentance or more correctly turn around the juggernaut of the popular responsive mode of being might have been his need. He is faced with a Culture that is not based in love but rather fear, nor in a responsible confidence but rather a fear driven responsibility. And what does this action that he took look like? He is said to have gone into the desert. What does that mean? His location is very easily imaged as being all desert with some small pockets of vegetation. What was the difference between their town and the desert? There must have been some distinction between desert and non-desert that was significant. But having accepted that our image might not be completely accurate we can for the sake of some idea look at our contemporary understanding of a desert and what better than just next door in Australia.

They have ten named deserts, the largest being the Great Victoria Desert which crosses the border into both Western Australia and South Australia. It is over 800 kilometers wide and covers an area of 348,750 square kilometers. In total the ten deserts cover nearly 1.4 million square kilometers or 18% of the Australian mainland and approximately 35% of the Australian continent receives so little rain it is effectively desert.

So, taking that image and exploring the experience of Jesus in the wilderness we look for the evidence of utter isolation and uninhabitable place and our image of a parched earth with its cracks and its groaning under the blazing sun across the wide land. And we find the desert in its colours and in Australia’s case its redness, we find it in its fickle dust that permeates everything we touch. We breathe it, taste it and it enters every personal space including our eyes. It takes over our lives.

However, there is another picture here as well. The perception of what a desert wilderness area is, varies greatly. It depends on the different exposures people have to nature and the ‘great outdoors’. To a person living on the coast, the desert is often dry and arid and dusty. A place without life. But for desert dwellers in Australia’s ‘outback’, it has a compelling fascination, as a place vibrant with life.

The spinifex which we have sung about in some hymns out of Australia, are blue grey with amber glints. They look soft but they are prickly and hard. They survive tenaciously because no grazing animal can eat them out or destroy their roots. Here is the seed of a picture that says that it may look as if nothing can live in the desert, but underneath the spinifex, the desert creatures leave their tracks in the red sand. Life may not stir all day, but come night… lizards, mice, and the rare animals of the desert live their delicate but vastly tough lives in this harsh habitat.

One of the learnings is that a desert is what one sees at first glance but at another look it is transformed. What seems barren, uninhabited, desolate – even hostile because it lacked the visible plants and animals of our experience can be seen differently. Seen differently the wilderness environment can be ‘very romantic, beautifully formed by nature’
as well as ‘the worst country in the world’: “… an ‘alien landscape’, where nature was ‘upside down’ and flora and fauna were so unnervingly weird”.

This raises the contradiction of perspective, first glance, and of time for reflection. So, when it comes to lent there is the suggestion that it is a very real time where we can once again, in an intentional way, seek out the present-ness of the sacred lurking in the most unlikely of places, the sacred is waiting to be uncovered, found, and embraced. If we only see the desert as a place of harsh, relentless isolation and a place where people face despair and animals die of thirst, then the desert experience will always be an alien danger. So too our expectations of lent and of any intentional reflection and of any intentional cleaning out of the cupboard of our past.

A Zen teacher said to his students: ‘If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes, but the elders furrow their brows. If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes, but the elders relax their brows.’

If we listen to cosmologists they say we are made from dust—essentially stardust. We are all connected—biologically and spiritually—with planet Earth and with all its ‘other than human’ beings.

And echoing the words of William Blake, a former professor of biology at the University of Washington, John Palka, suggests: “To see a world in a grain of sand—to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—that to me is the essence of science as a quest. Not as a profession or a career, not as a niche in complex modern society, but as a quest for understanding one’s deepest nature.”  (John Palka. 15/11/2015. Nature’s Depths)

Rex Hunt suggests that our Zen teacher probably had a different thought in mind. To raise a speck of dust is to stir up goodness, struggle for justice, speak up for those who stutter or do not speak the languages of power, band together to stand resolutely and non-violently before evil and refuse to be absorbed into it or intimidated by it. For progressive Christians lent is not a time of sorry self-deprecation. We are not helped by that perspective. For us lent can be a time when, in positive and intentional ways, our focused actions can enable others to flourish. When our selfless actions seep into the world
‘like the scent of perfume distilled in the air’… encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us, and strengthening the bonds of community.

Judging from what we know of Jesus, he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom, strongly encouraging his hearers to take a second look at the traditions that helped them make their way in the world. And with a storyteller’s imagination,
he set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life. Wilderness and thus reality are not what they seem, take time and look again. Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. A. The Poet The Warrior The Prophet. Edward Cadbury Lectures. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1990.
Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem. Polebridge Press, 2012.
Hedrick, C. W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Eugene. Cascade Books, 2014.
McRae-McMahon, D. Rituals for Life, Love and Loss. Paddington. Jane Curry Publishing, 2003.
rexae74@gmail.com

 

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Transfiguration B, 2018
Mark 9: 2-9

‘Unsettled into the fulness of Life!’

Meister Eckhart, the 12th century mystic proclaimed, ……We are all meant to be mothers of God……… for God is always needing to be born. For those of us nurtured in the patriarchal phase of Christian history that is an unsettling comment. Some of us have moved on to be able to be comfortable with the feminine images and metaphor for God but many of us are still unsettled by it. A few of you noted we had a hymn with the line mothers of God recently. But when you think about where we have been since Christmas the unsettling challenges haven’t stopped. We have not long celebrated Christmas where Holy innocence has led to Jesus being born and 12 days later, on Epiphany, we celebrated his physical arrival, a much-awaited incarnation called forth by ages of invocation and prophecy. Christmas carols lift the refrain, “Christ was born to save!” And then, Eckhart comes along with, “God is always needing to be born.” As 2018 unfolds, this teaching is a prompt for us. What role will we play as mothers of God? The other question I think that lies here is what do we understand as the transfiguration?

The English poet and song writer Sydney Carter in his poem Friday Morning in the mid-1960s wrote, “you can blame it on Adam, you can blame it on Eve, you can blame it on the apple, but that I can’t believe”. This was a very typical reaction to much Christian thinking in the 1960s. This was when people such as Bishop John A T Robinson wrote many popular books on theology in the hope some would see that there was a constant need for fresh formulations of the reality of God. Then, from the late 1980s through to now, this work is being carried on by others like John Shelby Spong, another Anglican bishop.

I want to wrestle with the transfiguration idea today because I think that today’s gospel story by Mark is about one of those ‘but that I can’t believe’ incidents, full of myth and pre-modern images. I suggest wrestling because the idea of transfiguration is one idea for which there are very few postmodern images. All the searches I made this week for images to use on the power point ended up with traditional images of Jesus with some sort of halo or burst of light around him. There were a few new age type images but they were all either centered on the human form or on the cosmos. None seemed to speak to me of a postmodern transfiguration whatever that is.

Our story from Mark is a so-called incident in the life of Jesus called the Transfiguration or Shining. As a story it is very imaginative. Storyteller Mark says Jesus and some of his closest friends climb to the top of a mountain. Immediately we hear a connecting link to other existing ‘hero’ stories. Going to the top of a mountain is a common thing in Israel’s stories. Because mountains are regarded as ‘thin places’- when God, the Divine, the Sacred – can be experienced. I happen to like that idea of thin places because it speaks to me of some place that is neither here nor there. It is a least a portal between idea and event. They climb to the top of a mountain. They enjoy the magnificent views. They breathe deeply the fresh air. This experience recharges their flagging spirits and re-sensitizes their imaginations. They are refreshed by Creativity God. Then out of the blue, pious Peter attempts to secure this experience in some tangible way: ‘Let’s build our own chapel, he says and you, Jesus, can be our private chaplain’. But as our storyteller says, a booming voice puts paid to that bad idea. Says something about preserving buildings doesn’t it.

Ched Myers, has an interesting comment: he says “After all, in Mark the true impediments to discipleship have nothing to do with physical impairment, but with spiritual and ideological disorders…”. Or, as another on the Process and Faith website has said: “Because of their relationship with Jesus, Peter, James, and John experience a walk up a mountainside in an exciting and enlivening way.  Because they have allowed themselves to see life through Jesus’ eyes, however fleetingly and partially, they have come to know God in new ways and to see Jesus as the vehicle for that new knowing. Once again, the hand or pen of the storyteller is there. After coming to know God in new ways and of seeing Jesus as the vehicle for that new knowing, the storyteller reminds them and us they are to climb down from the top of the mountain. They are to refresh others as they have been refreshed by God. Or in other words, they are to move from a private refuge (chapel) to a public presence (community).

So, how can we approach this mythical, supernatural story from Mark today? Rex Hunt suggests we can do it two ways. One with a historical question… like ‘How/where did this happen?’ or we can approach it with a theological question… such as ‘What connections can we make to this story?’ For me I think I would want to start close to the second question, but before we do I want to bring in another thought. This time about a transfigured community.

Soong-Chan Rah, a theologian and seminary professor who is committed to freeing spiritual communities from what he calls, “Western Cultural Captivity.” writes, “Lament is honesty before God and each other”. He asks, “should we not be concerned over a church that lives in denial over the reality of death in our midst?”  As readers of “Progressing Spirit,” and earlier posts by Bishop Spong”, he says, “we are not blind to the death around us – the extinction of species, government’s termination of life-affirming policies, and the archetypal display of patriarchy in its last gasps. While so much of labouring to birth God begins inwardly, as individuals, it is what we do together that makes our beliefs visibly alive in the world. This is tough when the dominant system rewards us for our ability to do things without needing any help – some people thrive on this, and some give up entirely, hoping that others will find a magical way forward. But these, “Independence Teachings,” are written nowhere in the sacred texts that we know. Moreover, Earth’s teachings repeatedly show us the brilliant interdependency that sustains us all – trees needing CO2, and mammals needing oxygen – as the most obvious example.

After winter’s snow and ice, rivers of water and muddy, sloppy mush precede the return of firm earth, gardens and leaves. Our communities are only as strong as the transparency and vulnerability we entrust to them. So, we are left with the question: How will our spiritual community resolve, this year, to acknowledge the mess? How will we create a very intentional time and space for lament…and then to mindfully respond? Our knowledge of ourselves says that when our anguish is fully met, we see our passions and convictions more clearly; more love becomes possible. Love = God being born. Mothers of God we become. Unsettled we might be with this and rightly so because as Lauren Van Ham suggests, none of us knows how our story with Earth is to evolve or find its end for that matter; but it is in this paradoxical space of wrestling and finding blessing that our spiritual paths are formed. Somehow, we know the Love that comes from this wrestling with unsettling — the divine Love that is in us, and for us, wants us to be in Love.

As 2018 evolves, we might ask ourselves how we perceive God needing to be born? When we’re clear about what isn’t working, we are asked to imagine what we do want and Van Ham asks us to consider three practices: The first is stopping for Stillness, the second is daring to feel and sharing our Laments in Community, and then the third is Wrestling – not for the perceived reward of winning – but rather to receive the unimaginable flow of Earth’s Love that is in us, for us and beyond us, calling us to God who is always needing to be born!

So What connections can we make to this story. Well I hope we have already made some but let’s go deeper, so to speak. It seems that at least one of things being suggested in this story by the one we call Mark, is that it is saying something important about God. And we have acknowledged that, that something is not about any so-called supernatural power or event. That’ is the 1st century mythical and cultural encompassed story for Marks hearers. The key however is I think, that God is to be ‘experienced’ as a creative transforming presence in ordinary people’s lives. Not by coercion and power over, but rather by lure and suggestion and imagination. As Jesus was transfigured or ‘changed’ before Peter, James, and John, God’s so-called ‘will’ (to use tradition language) is to transform us in the everyday moments of our lives.

So, how does this happen?  In very personal-sounding traditional language one colleague of Rex Hunt suggests: If our deepest experience is loneliness, it is the will of God to transform us from loneliness to human connectedness. If our deepest feeling is fear and anxiety, then God wishes to move us creatively past that, to love and to trust. What he is suggesting is that God wants to move us beyond the meaninglessness of life to the intensity of living, characterized by joy and by vitality. To a new level of depth in our existence that will provide joy and zest and empowerment.

There is good news in this story for 21st century ‘even for post-moderns’ like us,
despite all the mythical baggage. And the good news is, our God or Divine energy is not aloof and detached, but rather works like the new metaphor of an expert weaver. Continuing the metaphor, God uses the fibers of our lives, weaving them into beautiful, powerful garments of love and creativity. And as it is with us, individually, so too is it with us, as church or faith community. It is the creative transformation of God that wants to move congregations beyond being a cozy club with ‘feel good’ attitudes, to being people at mission who meet and serve others where they are. So, if we are to continue to be the inclusive people of faith we say we are, we might need to be people who are continually and radically open to the creative, transforming present-ness of God…

The Jesus Way is inviting us to a better way of being the church. Not because it has been wrong in the past but because the divine invitation is about our refreshment and it will unsettle us. Once again John Shelby Spong sums this up well: “God, the source of life, calls us to live fully.  God, the source of love, calls us to love wastefully.  God, the Ground of Being, calls us to have the courage to be ourselves.  So, when we live, love, and have the courage to be, we are… expanding our humanity”. What God refreshes, unsettles, and changes, God or The Divine Spirit or Energy does so with and through us.

So, leaving the last word to Jack Spong. “The mission of the Christian Church is not to convert the world, but to call all who are also part of the creation into the fullness of life”

Amen.

Notes:
Myers, C. 2008. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. New York. Maryknoll. Orbis Books.
Spong, J. S. 1999. Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Spong, J. S. 2001. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

rexae74@gmail.com