‘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.

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.


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