Jairus’ Daughter

Posted: June 28, 2018 in Uncategorized

Jairus’ Daughter

Mark 5:21-43

The story Mark tells takes place on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee; a large freshwater lake some thirteen miles long and eight miles across, surrounded by high mountains. After leaving Nazareth Jesus seems to have spent most of what was left: of his short life in the city of Capernaum, which was on the northern shore of the lake and the center of its fishing industry. A number of his best friends lived there including Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, together with Peter and his brother Andrew, who were all of them partners in some sort of fishing enterprise that employed other people whose names we don’t know and that seems to have owned at least two boats.

When Mark gives his account of what happened by the lake on this particular day, he puts in so many details that Matthew leaves out that it seems possible Mark was actually there at the time or at least had talked to somebody who was. The kind of story that Mark is telling us here is a quiet, low-key little story and in some ways so unclear and ambiguous that it’s hard to know just why Mark is telling it or just what he expects us to make out of it or made out of it himself. It’s a story not about stained-glass people with some sort of special role but about people who lived and breathed and sweated and made love and used bad language when they tripped over stuff in the dark and sometimes had more troubles than they knew what to do with and sometimes laughed themselves silly over nothing in particular and were thus in many ways very much like the rest of us.

Jesus had just crossed over in a boat from the other side of the lake, Mark writes, when he found himself surrounded by some of them right there at the water’s edge where there were nets hanging up to dry and fish being gutted and scaled and stray cats looking around for anything they could get their paws on. He doesn’t say there was any particular reason for the crowd, so it’s probably just that they had heard about Jesus — probably even some knew him and were there to gawk at him. There may have been a lot of wild stories about who people said he was and what he was going around doing and saying. They might have been there to see what wild things he might say or do next.

Part of what all these stories about Jesus in the Gospels are trying to tell us is who he was and what it was it like to be with him. They’re trying to tell us what there was about him that made at least some of the people there by the lake that day decide to give up everything they had or ever hoped to have, in some cases even their own lives, maybe just for the sake of being near him.

Video Part 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbkvQcf6kJg

Matthew’s account doesn’t give us the name Jairus, but Mark’s does. A man named Jairus had somehow made his way to Jesus and threw himself at his feet, or fell to his knees perhaps, or touched his forehead to the ground in front of him. The man was a synagogue official of some kind, important enough to have the crowd give way enough to let him through. But he doesn’t behave like an important man. He behaves like a desperate man, a man close to hysteria with fear, grief, horror that his daughter is on the point of death. Jairus doesn’t say “my daughter,” he says “my little daughter.” She is twelve years old, going on thirteen, we’re told, so she wasn’t all that little really, but to Jairus she would presumably always be his little daughter the way even when they’ve grown up and moved away long since, we keep on speaking of our sons and daughters as children because that is what they were when we knew them first and loved them first. Remember here the place we are told women have in his culture.

His child is dying is what Jairus is there to get through somehow to this man who some say is like no other man. She is dying—he says it repeatedly, Mark tells us, dying, dying—and then he says, “Come and lay your hands on her,” because he’s seen it done that way before and has possibly even tried doing it that way himself, except that it did absolutely no good at all when he tried it, as for all he knows it will do absolutely no good now either. But this is the only card he has left to play, and he plays it. “Lay your hands on her, so she may be made well, and live,” he says—live, he says, live, not die, before she’s hardly had more than a glimpse of what living is.

It’s a wonder Jesus even hears him what with all the other things people are clamoring to him for, but somehow he does, and so does a lot of the crowd that follows along as Jairus leads the way to where his house stands.

They follow presumably because for the moment Jesus is the hottest ticket in town and because they don’t have anything better to do and because they’re eager to see if the man is all he’s been cracked up to be. But before they get very far, they run into some people coming the other way who with the devastating tactlessness of the simple souls they are come right out and say it. “Your daughter is dead,” they tell Jairus. They have just come from his house, where she died. They saw it with their own eyes. There is nothing anybody can do about it now. They have come too late. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” they ask her father, and it is Jesus who finally breaks the silence by speaking, only it’s just Jairus he speaks to. “Do not fear, “he says. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. And then, “Only believe.” And what is he to believe? “The child is not dead,” he said, “but sleeping.”

Video Part 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbkvQcf6kJg

Back to our text. The question is what kind of a story is this? If the little girl had actually died the way the people who were there in the house believed she had, then it is the story of a miracle that bears witness to the power Jesus had over nature. If she was only sleeping as Jesus said—in a coma or whatever he may have meant – then it is a story about a healing, about the power of Jesus’s touch to make the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk. Either way it is a story about a miracle, but about a miracle that doesn’t end with an exclamation point the way you would expect, but with a question mark or at most with the little row of dots that means unresolved, to be continued, to figure out somehow for ourselves.

Who cares any more than her mother and father can have cared. They had their child back. She was alive again. She was well again. That was all that mattered

It is that life-giving power that is at the heart of this shadowy story about Jairus and the daughter he loved, and that I think is at the heart of all our stories-the power of new life, new hope, new being, that whether we know it or not, keeps us coming to places like this year after year in search of it. It is the power to seek the adventure of being human even when that journey isn’t all that easy for us anymore and to keep going on and on toward whatever it is, whoever Jesus is, that all our lives long for reaches out to take us by the hand. Amen.


‘When Storms Matter’

Posted: June 28, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 5B June 24, 2018
I Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49        Mark 4:35-41

‘When Storms Matter’

Goliath stood huge in his stocking feet, wore a massive collar, big enough to go around several dog’s necks, a great helmet and a waist belt big enough to saddle a horse with. When he put his full armour on, he looked like a Transformer of skyscraper size. Built like a Sherman tank when stripped to the bare essentials, he had plenty to carry around, and flesh and bones were the least of it. There was a sense of the great burden of having to defend his title against all comers. He was the great defender, the mighty warrior and there was a sense of the mangled remains of the runners-up. The burden was expressed when he tried to think something out, because it was like struggling through a bog up to his hips, and when he tried to explain something, it was like pushing a truck uphill. His dark moods were leaden and his light moods like carrying an elephant on his shoulders. He would have considered underarm deodorants a sign of effeminacy.

The stone from David’s slingshot caught him between the eyes, and when he hit the dirt, windows rattled in their frames as far away as Ashkelon. The mighty had fallen to the ground, the world was ending. The ringing in his ears drowned out the catcalls of the onlooking armies, and his vision was all but shot, but he could still see enough to make out the naked figure of a boy running toward him through the scrub. The boy’s hair streamed out behind him like copper, and he was as swift and light-footed as a deer. As David straddled Goliath with Goliath’s sword in his hand, the giant believed that what he was seeing was his own soul stripped of the unwieldy flesh at last for its journey to paradise, and when David presented the severed head to Saul later, there was an unmistakable smile on its great lips.

In the storms of life, regardless of what we name the mystery our God is with us. Facing impossible odds, we receive divine guidance and energy. Trusting in our God, we can do greater things than we can imagine. The impossible becomes possible as we tap the deeper energies of the universe be it seeking to name them or give them anthropomorphic shape and concept to explain our human agency. Miracles that don’t violate the nature’s law; nature’s power and the powers residing in us are often more than we can imagine. Faith, Hope and Trust open us to quantum leaps of power, inspiration, and energy. What we name as God’s grace is sufficient for us to respond to every crisis. Even though we appear weak, we are strong in Creative love.

What child doesn’t love the story of David and Goliath, described in I Samuel 17. It accommodates instinct in that there is violence in the victory, and this story is an inspiration for the “Bully and the bullied” within each of us. The underdog defeats the villain, the bully gets what’s coming to him, the weak defeat the strong. Yet, beyond the real violence of the story – the Goliath who is vanquished and beheaded – a deeper message may be found. Beyond the violence, beyond the destructive instinctive purely humanistic response there is more. When we trust in this mystery we name God, and I might name Creativity itself, we can respond with courage and strength to the forces that threaten to defeat us. We do not need to accept violence as a natural human activity. Power belongs to the creativity we find in serendipity, ambiguity and the unexpected and dare I say it the satirical, and this suggests that our alignment is not with bullies, oppressors, and those who would plan evil. There is a way when there is no way and we progressives know this as ‘The Jesus Way’. In Creativity God we are inspired to be agents in our own destiny and co-creators with the divine.

The challenge for us in our story is that we are called to be compassionate toward Goliath. He was a tool of the opponent. Perhaps, gigantic as a result of a genetic abnormality, the adversarial mode, the instinctive primitive brain, the military response gave him status and income, and delivered him from social ostracism as a result of his size. He became a victim of culture and of evil. Fighting was all he knew, and bluster and bloviation were his meal ticket. Perhaps, Goliath hoped for a quiet life, far away from the battlefield. But, his destiny was to fight and sadly to die. In the end he is more a victim than a villain in this story.

In Psalm 9 which we did not read today God’s preferential option is for the poor and vulnerable. The oppressor’s days are numbered. Prayers will be answered. We will be liberated from those who unfairly treat us. God will deliver the weak from the snare, and the impoverished from the unjust. We will rise. The catch in this, or the moment of awareness, is that God’s timetable differs from our own. Patience will be required and we have it. The patience to let the moral arc of history emerge in its patient and persistent way? Here is our understanding of the nature of evolution which is in its free serendipitous uncertain and random being our very certainty. Our finiteness in infinity as the science of the quantum might say.

And then we come to our epistle. Again, the dichotomy as Paul proclaims that now is the day of salvation. Today is the day of healing and transformation, confirming that healing and transformation often appear under their opposites. Paul and his companions are described as externally powerless and the objects of scorn. They are of no account and subject to the whims of the powerful. They have nothing. Yet, beneath the persecution and contempt, they are empowered by God’s presence. They possess an inner joy that flows from their trust in God. Their joy is not the result of external circumstances but their relationship with the Living God, revealed in the suffering and resurrected Christ. Salvation and healing are real, and contemporary, regardless of the circumstances of life. We are encouraged in reading this, to look with imagination and confidence for the presence of mystery – to seek the peace that calms and empowers – despite what we are currently enduring. We have everything we need to experience this and our sustenance our way through and beyond adverse circumstances.

Finally, we find Mark describing Jesus’ ability to still the storms of life as well as the storms of nature. The disciples panic when a sudden windstorm rocks their boat, filling their craft with water. In their fear, they call upon Jesus, whose calm voice stills the storm. There are two storms described in this story – the first is the storm at sea, our relationship with that which is beyond our immediate control, the external realities that might put us at risk. The passage proclaims God’s ability to work within the forces of nature to bring health and peace to the planet. The cosmic purpose is about the reality of creativity and change, there is always the movement from what was to what might be, yet, stilling the storm seems a fantasy for those in the path of hurricanes and tidal waves. In an interdependent universe, we have some effect on the forces of nature, we acknowledge this in our acceptance of some responsibility for climate change. and perhaps in the tradition of rainmakers and shaman, Jesus’ own spiritual power and synchronicity with nature could have influenced the course of a storm. Still, we know it is best – during severe storms – to pray for sunshine and find a place of safety!

For many of us as congregations in the western world and in countries where the secular has been strong, the storm at sea is more existential than meteorological. The storms we face involve budget and membership. We fear what will happen to us; we wander if our congregation will survive the changes in the spiritual landscape and our own aging demographics. We wonder what will happen to St David’s Community of Faith because of the need to save old buildings, what will happen to the value of St David’s in a post secular world. The second storm Jesus addresses is the inner tumult, the fear and anxiety within each of us and our institutions. A fishing prayer goes, “The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” Dwarfed by the grandeur of the universe and the challenges that confront us, we appear to be powerless. We are uncertain if our lives matter or if the universe cares for us. An alternative version of the saying gives us another perspective, the sea is God’s sea, not an indifferent force, the sea may be huge but it is dependent on each one of us. God’s sea ultimately will bring us homeward with waves of healing.

As we read this story, we can see two miracles described. The first is the inner miracle. When the disciples remember Jesus is in the boat, they are still fearful, but they are no longer hopeless. They sense that Jesus’ love and power is greater than their fear. Their attitude toward the storm begins to change: yes, this is a difficult situation and we are in trouble, but God is with us and we’re going to make it. The second miracle is the pacifying of the storm. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is so in synch with the energies of the universe that by his energetic word he can calm the storm. Here we have the synergy with the very creation story of old, Jesus seems to set up another type of vibration, strong enough to neutralize the destructive impact of the storm. In summary then, today’s readings remind us that despite our apparent weakness, we can experience newfound courage and strength when we trust Creativity God’s loving power. The storms of life will not cease, bullies may continue to threaten us, and external factors may put us at risk, but nothing in all creation can separate us from the love or the power of love that has its roots in Creativity itself. That which we see as the Jesus Way and that which we might name Creativity God. Amen.

Pentecost 4B

June 17th 2018

Mischievous Mustard Seed Satire

 If we start with all the stuff we have previously heard about this parable, there is a good chance many of us have heard it said this is a story about contrast. About a tiny mustard seed that grows into the greatest of all shrubs. The trouble is that botanically speaking “mustard does not grow to be the greatest of all shrubs, nor is it the smallest of all seeds. Which says that; hyperbole is used to drive home a contrast. On the other hand, wild mustard, an annoying weed, is almost impossible to eradicate once it has infested a paddock or vegetable garden. When you get it in your paddock, like ‘ring fern’ or Scotch thistle’, your paddock is ‘unclean’. So what might the storyteller be suggesting?

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar suggest: “Jesus’ audience would probably have expected God’s domain to be compared to something great, not something small.” (Funk 1993:59) And then this interesting point: “As the tradition was passed on, it fell under the influence… of the mighty cedar of Lebanon as a metaphor for a towering empire… In his use of this mustard seed metaphor, Jesus is understanding the image for comic effect.” (Funk 1993: 484)

Having said that let’s take a moment to reflect on what the satire might be alluding to given that all the parables are thought to be comments on the realm of God that Jesus is hailing as present and unfolding. The kingdom come perhaps. Lets also take a moment to reflect on how satire is used today.

John Bennison in a sermon on this invites us to start by remembering that radical religious extremists with a distorted view of Islam committed a horrific act of terror a few years ago, executing the staff of a small satirical French publication. The satirists had dared to depict the Prophet Mohammed in cartoon caricature; all the while lampooning those misbegotten adherents who in turn regard such irreverent acts as blasphemous. The Western world reacted with outrage and defiance to such an affront. World leaders joined a million, person protest and unity marched through the streets of Paris, chanting “Je Suis Charlie,” in defense of freedom of speech, and on behalf of the publication’s name. When the modest magazine ran its next issue a week later, the printing presses couldn’t keep pace with consumer demand.

We note that anti-blasphemy laws are common in countries where there are a majority of Muslims. At the same time, it is notable that nearly ninety countries in the world, including France, have laws against the defamation of religion and public expression of hate against religious groups. In the U.S. there are laws that prohibit “hate speech,” where it pertains to words that “offend, threaten, or insult groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” We have recently debated the Australian rugby player, Israel Filau’s comments about homosexuality in the context of hate speech and rights to religious freedom.

While a clear distinction might be drawn between the use of words and the vehement reactions they may incite, more profound underlying questions remain. Once the dust settles and more thoughtful discussion ensues, we are left with what constitutes the differences between hate speech and freedom of expression? What one might consider merely irreverent, others might regard as not only offensive, but blasphemous and in violation of established law, whether religious or secular. In an attempt to take it out of the legal domain we begin to talk about what is PC and what is not. We talk about false news and political truth as descriptions that almost legitimize dishonesty. When should freedom of expression be curtailed if, and when, it leads to deliberate or even unnecessary provocation? What meaningful purpose might blasphemous satire serve, justifying its use as being of greater importance than the negative consequences that may result? We need strong leaders, or benevolent dictators is the cry. Was it a slip of the tongue or deliberate satire when Fox news announced the meeting of Trump and Kim Jong Un, as the meeting of two dictators?

Again, we are left with a question; While a clear distinction might be drawn between the use of words and the vehement reactions they may incite, … what constitutes the differences between hate speech and freedom of expression?

In the faith that was the faith of Jesus, the religiously observant person was forbidden from even pronouncing the name of their god, let alone seeing the face of the divine; hence they had the tetragrammaton YHWH commonly pronounced ‘Yahweh’ in English as an acknowledgment that even the utterance of the name was forbidden, and thus the word Adonai (“Lord”) is often substituted. To do otherwise could be considered blasphemous. In the Torah, it states that he that blasphemes the name of the LORD “shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 24:16)

In the canonical gospels of the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ antagonists are continually portrayed condemning the Galilean peasant preacher’s words and actions as blasphemy. The gospel author’s construct their stories to include the gradual, but cumulative, effect of tension and controversy surrounding Jesus. Moreover, they show Jesus as continuously breaking the rules, healing on the Sabbath, usurping God’s exclusive right to pronounce absolution, and making use of political satire in his depictions of the reign of god; until the mounting evidence is sufficient to condemn the offender as deserving death. Here is the collaboration of the Roman empire politically afraid of the Jesus movements political aspirations and the religious afraid of his corruption of their orthodoxy.

Whether it is the religious institution or the Empire of Rome, both the question and consequences may be the same. What useful and greater purpose might “blasphemous” satire serve, to make it worth the risk? When thinking about a ‘Purposeful Satire’ we might acknowledge that at Harvard University each autumn, the Ig Nobel Prizes are apparently awarded for the most esoteric, trivial or simply off-the-wall kinds of scientific research imaginable. As a parody of the prestigious Nobel Prizes, winners of the ignoble (hence the name of the awards) achievements of the last year might include researchers who study how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears; as well as others who investigate whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat; and still others seeking to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. And this is serious stuff, not unlike the debate about the Proctor’s right to ban and remove the Otago University Student publication from circulation.

The award ceremony at Harvard is organized by a science publication that goes by the name of Annals of Improbable Research. It considers itself a humorous, even satirical, magazine. It’s all meant to be good-hearted fun by those who take scientific inquiry very seriously.

Since the Enlightenment and Age of Reason it has long been suggested that scientific theory and empirical evidence is the religion of choice for those moderns, or now post-moderns, who have left primitive cosmologies and mythic theologies behind. We as progressive Christians might be considered as such people but why do we treat serious matters with the use of satire?

Well I don’t think we have time for a full answer to that question but we can offer an observation about the purposeful use of satire, regardless of its possible consequences. Religiously motivated types we might call fundamentalists, or radical extremists, or fanatical adherents of a warped interpretation of their religious convictions for their own purposes, all have a common response it seems. They all consider satire, lampooning, or mocking their deepest held beliefs to be intolerable blasphemy. And, since many religious traditions have a satire component to their text, it asks where does one draw the line, or cross it?

Was Jesus a Satirist and Blasphemer? Well at Harvard the stated purpose of the Ig Nobel prizes has always been to “honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” While the awards are sometimes thinly veiled criticism and gentle satire, they are also used to point out that even the most seemingly absurd can result in new and useful ways of seeing things.

So too, there may be no better way to describe Jesus’ use of satire in what are considered some of the most authentic sayings attributed to him in what we know as the parables. The idea of a good Samaritan, or a foolhardy shepherd who’d forsake an entire flock for one, dumb sheep, or a woman who’d turn her house upside down in search of a single coin are all examples of the kinds of absurd little stories with a bite sufficient to make one first laugh, then think more deeply. This brings us to today’s text of the parable of the mustard seed as another example.

All three synoptic gospels include their own variation on a somewhat briefer and probably earlier version found in the “sayings” of the Thomas gospel: The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on tilled soil, it produces a great plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.” (Thomas 20:2)

When Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed — how from the tiniest planted seed such tremendous and specular growth is possible — any motivational speaker or campaigning politician could adapt such a hopeful message out of context to suit their own agenda. Jesus’ original listeners, however, would have thought it was a joke; as in, “Did you hear the one about the mustard seed that thought it was a mighty tree? …” In fact, the mustard bush was a fast-growing weed that – once it took hold – could become so large it was almost impossible to eradicate. With echoes of the Ezekiel text from the Jewish prophetic tradition about the mighty cedar tree providing shelter and shade, Jesus’ image of the reign of God being compared to a mustard bush that could be equated with — or replace – the mighty cedar might well have made his listeners both laugh and cringe.

Perhaps when the evangelists chose to include and adapt this parable for their own purposes in what later became the New Testament canon, they wanted to encourage their fledgling congregations to put their shoulder to the gospel plow and assure them that everything was possible with God. Just plant the seeds and watch the good news spread. But those who first heard the parable may have first gasped, then chuckled uncomfortably and nervously shifted in their seats when they were invited to imagine the divine as an irascible weed. With a little biting humour, Jesus was poking fun of their traditional image of the reign of God; while prompting them to think differently about it.

As already mentioned, the parable of the mustard seed is only one of a number of such challenging little stories. Almost a folk tale, set in ordinary, every-day secular settings, typically irreligious, they also often portrayed the religious authorities in a less than favourable light and they had a challenging twist about them. Jesus had to be deliberately poking people in the posterior with a sharp stick. Is it any wonder he paid the price when his satirical critiques hit too close to home for the institutional hierarchy.

When the gospel story depicts him “setting his face to Jerusalem,” along with everything that would await him there (Matt. 19:1; Mark 9:30-32; Luke9:51-56), Jesus may well have known his satirical jabs would not only be considered irreverent but judged to be blasphemous.

To his credit, however, it seems clear his use of satire was always used to serve a deeper purpose than a quick laugh. Namely, to think more deeply about the nature about what he called the reign of God. With the stakes so high, he did not seem interested in simply exercising his right to mock, ridicule or castigate those whom he regarded as having lost their way. Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. MacMillan Press, 1993.
Geering, L. G. Christianity Without God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Reid, B. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Mark. Year B. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 1999.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Toronto. Evans & Sanguin, 2015.

John William Bennison http://www.wordsnways.com/

A New Way of Being Human

Posted: June 8, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 3B

Genesis 3: 8-15         Mark 3: 20-35

A New Way of Being Human

Along with the age-old way of being human based on the personalized and anthropocentric approach to God, so too is the idea of God casting out Satan, no longer the way of working toward being human. Up until now, such ideas of God and evil have been essential to our species survival. These ideas have, at the very least given us a relative peace within our own groups in geographical and cultural distinctiveness but now we have a new world and a new opportunity to travel that path towards being more human. For us as followers of the Jesus Way this is the path that Jesus offers us. He said or is recorded as having said; “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Jesus seems to be saying that we have, in fact, been a house divided. Our recent review of human history suggests that human beings have always found ways to divide ourselves based on what was called the satanic way of accusation. Tradition has also said that, that way of being human has come to end in the cross, and Jesus’ new way of forgiveness is the only true way forward.

But what does that mean in terms of our understanding of God. This is important it seems because you and I are called to be part of this new order, this new alternative This new humanity. The old alternative is that older way of seeing salvation as an escape from a world that will forever remain divided and subject to violence and the primary question has been; which way of salvation do you want to be part of? One suggestion is that in order to see the choice more clearly, we have to raise our level of discourse to that of anthropology: that Jesus comes to invite us into a whole new way of being human. But again; what does that mean?

I think it means doing more of what we’ve been doing which is calling our community to treat each other as interdependent, be it family, village, town or community, especially when it comes to the least of us, “we shall always have the poor with us” and those different from us, ‘we are neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor master, gay nor straight, or different in skin colour. I think it means doing more as children of God, good citizens, faithful people etc. The task we are called to is to engage in the bridging of the gaps of this partisan polarity. We are called to be part of the solution in a world that is captured by violence in all its forms, from physical abuse of another to the sustaining of systems seeking to avoid the critique of its influence on the human path to flourishing.

In our Genesis reading there are a number of tantalizing phrases in this familiar passage from the Creation story. One could emerge from this text, taking a number of different directions: God searching for us, the nakedness of shame, the pervasive nature of blame, or the relational impact of curse. The theme that seems to be most harmonious with the themes presented in our Gospel passage are the resolution of the relational curses in the person and work of Jesus, “their sins will be forgiven them,” and also the pervasive nature of blame, “a house divided against itself shall not stand.”

It is also hard to resist dwelling on the beauty of the passage about God searching for Adam and Eve “at the time of the evening breeze but,” why that narrative elaboration? Well maybe; the evening breeze on a beautiful evening is an invitation to discern what could be the purpose in this text telling us that God was heard walking in the garden “at the time of the evening breeze.” Often the sounds on that occasion are magnificently alive because we’ve grown accustomed to the alternative sounds perhaps. In the sounds of the rain and storms of winter we miss the sound of the insects that can only be heard in the stillness. We miss the sound of silence and the sound of nature breathing and moving. I think these are the sounds of creativity that arise out of the silence of imagination that we miss when consumed with the business of the now.

The worldview of a Creativity God, with its strong affirmation of God’s immanence in the world, is not as threatened by the picture of God walking around in the garden “in the evening breeze” as our classical theistic forebears might claim. They took issue with such a passage of scripture because their theological concept of God was one of an utterly transcendent and impassible Gods.

Process Theology, proclaims the immanent God who is concerned about the whereabouts of a couple who were created free — free enough to hide from God even in the Garden of Eden. And thus, any mention of “breeze” in the scriptures invites us to clue into this translation as connoting the same Spirit that is involved in the Creation narrative in the first creation story, as well as elsewhere throughout the Bible. The Ruach, (wind, breeze, breath, Spirit) is one way that we might be able to translate the meaning of what is happening in this text to hearers who might be unwilling to let go of the idea of an omniscient God walking around searching for Adam and Eve.

The alternative claim to an omniscient God is that the Breeze blowing might just be one and the same of “God walking” and “God speaking” to Adam and Eve, who know they have trespassed upon God’s commandments. As Sally McFague has stated in Models of God, this Pneuma/Ruach/Spirit might be a good way of conceptualizing God in a way that connects humans to non-human creation and to a Creativity God, as was outlined in the Trinity Sunday sermon a couple of weeks ago. I called it Serendipitous Creativity but the serendipity can be assumed as the acknowledgement of the evolutionary component in creativity. Furthermore, the fact that God is portrayed as searching for Adam and Eve is a description of a divine relationship with humanity in which it could be said that God is actively involved in the pursuit of a humanity fulfilled. Creativity God is concerned with our well- being, our location in life, and this offers us the best possible outcome of relationship.

In this week’s Mark reading Jesus has been gleaning some wheat for a snack and then healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. After that, he is then pictured healing a multitude of people, such that he had to escape for fear of being crushed (3: 9-10), hushing up some impure spirits (3:11), then deciding to delegate the power of exorcism to twelve apostles (3:13-19). After this whirlwind of activity, Jesus returns home (3:20), where he is met with suspicion. His family seems somewhat embarrassed, since the word around town is that Jesus has lost his mind, and the scribes have an even more scandalous charge. He’s filled with the Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, since according to their logic, only the ruler of demons can cast out demons.

Jesus has the decency to entertain the charges of the scribes, and counters their logic with his own, woven into parables. “If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand, and if a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand, and if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. Note here that “his end has come”. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” Process theology speak says we can take this phrase as a lure to speak about our prevalent divisive cultural and adversarial political climate though the comparison here between a “kingdom” and “Satan’s kingdom” as implied by Jesus.

Jesus’ parable puts him and his followers on the side of the plunderers, making their way into the house of the “Strong man,” and binding him, so that he and his followers can plunder the property. We look at our world today and we see examples of the resurgence of the “strong man” story around the world. Look at United States, Russia, The Philippines and many other places and we see political electorates which seem enamored with the possibility that such a “strong man” might provide salvation for a group of people politically engineered to feel victimized and hunkered down in a bunker mentality. Perhaps it is of interest to us that Jesus quite clearly positions himself on the side of the plunderers in this parable. How might an exorcist with a plan to “bind the strong man and plunder the property” be the torchbearer of followers of Christ in this political climate?

My summary to date is that the creation story and the gospel or the Jesus Way challenges us to see ourselves as part of the creativity, part of the culture building, part of the meaning development and one might say, part of the problem, and that when we see and understand this we are able to understand what forgiveness, freedom and the alternative Jesus Way, looks and feels like, and discover a new way of being human.

And on that note, I want to suggest that after service today we will engage in that very challenge. We will be asked to think about a name for our school; not our umbrella name because I think there is adequate justification being voiced that says St David’s Centre is where the location, heritage, legend and traditional, is valued and expressed. In other words that name says where we have come from and what we value as we step into the future, and now we are ready to engage in providing a name for our school. This will express what we think is distinctive, forward thinking and invites those who have no understanding of our spirituality, our aspirations as a sacred community of faith and how we think we might go about encouraging the development of young human beings to be spiritually aware, authentically driven and leaders of our world in a future which is beyond our imagination. In short what sort of world do we think the future might be, should be and how do we prepare others for it, even if we are not sure of what it might look and feel like.

What we do know is that it will be a world where our children will benefit from being multi-lingual, technologically astute, self-aware, and innovatively driven. A world where fear as a driver of violence, uncertainty, ambiguity is no longer valid and where society is based on an understanding of the efficacy of love and compassion. A new way of being human.

Genesis portrays the emergence of fear and sin in the human story. The Gospel portrays Jesus as declaring that all sins are forgiven and that love is the vehicle that replaces fear. Jesus is here, relating the sin to his own experience of feeling debased by the scribes who are describing his work and words and ministry as arising out of an unholy Spirit. If God is searching for us and comes walking in the evening breeze, which way the wind blows is important for our living as human beings, in other words what we say about ourselves to those who do not know us or what we believe is important. So, what are the words in naming our school that say who we are and what we believe we are aspiring to? Amen.

‘A Curious Trinity’

Posted: May 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

John 3:1-17

‘A Curious Trinity’

Gretta Vosper reminds us that “Church history, like most history, is generally told from the perspective of the victors, those who made the rules and reinforce them.  Those who dissented from the accepted beliefs of their time – often risking infamy, isolation, academic shunning, ridicule, or death – are depicted as heretics and traitors to the faith. History is told to discourage us from finding affinity with them.”

I want to make a suggestion about what I think might be our experience of history discouraging us from discovering a new way of being religious, or a new way of articulating the value of Jesus for the future.

Some time back I suggested that Gordon Kaufmann might be on to something here when he sought to use the word creativity instead of God as a means of understanding God in today’s context. He added the word serendipitous when he wrote his book ‘In the Face of Mystery, A Constructive Theology”. He had come to the conclusion that all theological ideas-including the idea of God-could best be understood as products of the human imagination, when employed by men and women seeking to orient themselves in life. This freed him to experiment with a variety of ways of thinking of God, humanity, and the world more congenial to modern/postmodern consciousness about these matters than were the more traditional formulations. It was in the publication of his book In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Kaufman 1993a) that he was able to set out in some detail the major problems he had with traditional Christian thinking about these matters, together with his own constructive proposals addressing these problems. Three terms he found useful in his constructive work were: bio-historical beings; widespread serendipitous creativity; and cosmic, evolutionary and historical trajectories or directional movements. The first; humans as bio-historical beings means conceiving the human as being deeply embedded in the web of life on planet earth at the same time as attending to the significance of our radical distinctiveness as a form of life. Being human is distinctive within the whole of what life is. The second; the widespread serendipitous creativity manifest in the cosmos as conceived today. This provides a promising way of thinking of God. The suggestion here is that the concept of serendipitous creativity is that force or energy which is manifest throughout our evolutionary universe. One might say that serendipitous creativity is that which powers the universe. This also presents creation as ongoing processes or events rather than a once off event in time. And three; in the notion of cosmic, we acknowledge evolutionary, and historical trajectories or directional movements that have emerged spontaneously in the universe at large and on planet Earth in particular. These trajectories or movements have made visible to us humans, the consequences of the divine creative activity in the world. This places religion within our current understanding of cosmic, biological and historical-cultural processes. It enables us to interrelate and interpret the enormous expansion and complexification of the physical universe from the Big Bang onward. As well as the evolution of life on earth including the gradual emergence of human historical existence.

Last week I suggested we might start to paint a new picture with the beginning of John’s gospel and reinterpret the word God as serendipitous creativity.

In the beginning was serendipitous creativity and serendipitous creativity was with God, and serendipitous creativity was God. All things came into being through Serendipitous Creativity and without it not one thing came into being. What has come into being in serendipitous creativity was life,* and the life was the light of all people.

“In the beginning was serendipitous creativity, and … [this] serendipitous creativity was God”? There are two quite different interpretations that come to mind in this. In the ordinary understanding of John’s Gospel, it is usually assumed that to say the Word was God” (1:1) is a declaration that the Word (which a few verses later will be identified with Jesus) is fully divine. John goes on to emphasize this point immediately by stating; All things came into being through” this Word (1:3); this is what created the heavens and the earth. Were we to follow this pattern of interpretation, our paraphrase would be redundant, simply asserting that the serendipitous creativity” that brought all things into being is nothing other than the activity of the creator-and we would be left with our familiar and recent traditional ideas about both God and creativity.

The other interpretation of the paraphrase, however, turns this all around and asserts that the phrase “serendipitous creativity was [or is] God” is not redundant at all but rather a claim about what our word” God” designates: it is serendipitous creativity that is God; when we use the word “God,” it is the profound mystery of serendipitous creativity to which we are referring. Our anthropomorphic or personalistic images and ideas of God should not get in the way of our recognizing the significance of this point. The common point is the mystery that will always exist. The words “serendipitous creativity,” as we have been noting, leave the question of how or why the new comes into being completely open, and (in this second interpretation) the word” God” is the religious name for this mystery that goes beyond human understanding. This interpretation implies that we should beware of unconsciously importing any images or ideas -personalistic or other -into our thinking about God, for that would be refusing to acknowledge the ultimacy of God’s (serendipitous creativity’s) profound mystery, instead of facing up to what that mystery means for us.

It would be claiming we know something that we cannot possibly know, why and how there is something and not nothing. In the Genesis 1 story, although the created realities spoken of there -like the sun and moon, plants and animals and humans -are all things that we know perfectly well. Just what the creator God is, or how and why God is able to bring these sorts of things into being, remains completely unexplained. It is interesting to note that the modern story of the Big Bang, the subsequent coming into being of the cosmos, and the eventual evolution of life has similar limitations: all that we actually see or can understand here is that new realities have emerged in the course of time. In this account, like in the biblical account, the how and why of creation remain profound mysteries. So here again is the challenge to not allow ancient religious assumptions and beliefs to lead us into thinking we know or understand what happens in events or processes of this kind.

God, of course, has always been understood to be a profound mystery, but the way in which God has been talked about has often involved fudging this point and proceeding as though we knew that God is really a personal being, one of enormous power who can create at will things that previously did not exist. A supernatural. Interventionist God.

Thinking of God as serendipitous creativity (rather than as “the Creator”) forces us to take the profundity of God’s mystery to a deeper level. For serendipitous creativity” is simply a name with which we identify this profound mystery of new realities coming into being; it is in no way an explanation of it. What has come into being is the whole vast cosmos -with all its multifarious contents -the wide context of our human lives. Within this developing cosmos, after billions of years of further serendipitous creativity,’ life emerged on planet Earth and gradually evolved along many different lines. On one of these trajectories, after further billions of years of creativity, mammals, primates, and finally humans came into being. This particular development represents, of course, only one line of the creativity manifest in our universe, but it is the one that -in its serendipitous superabundance -brought humans into being and thus is of special meaning and importance to us. To become aware of this awe-inspiring mystery of serendipitous creativity is to come out of the dark unconsciousness of these matters. Most of life, and of human history as well, lives and has existed. It lives and has existed into the paradoxical consciousness and knowledge of the profound mystery within which we humans live. It is this mystery of serendipitous creativity, that Kaufmann and I am suggesting, that we today should think of as God.’

But what has this to do with Trinity? Can this 14th century doctrine be of any value in talking about this serendipitous creativity as God? Well, to recap; I think it can. When reminding ourselves of some key points in this claim we see that Serendipitous Creativity is a name of God and it is a way of speaking about God. Trinity is a metaphor that expresses the individuation of God and by individuation, I mean the completion of God, in other words an evolutionary God is always almost here, all around us and almost here. Trinity suggests that God is understood through the triune relationship, the dynamic of relationship between the cosmic, life and human flourishing. God the father, the cosmic creation, God the Son, the life creation and God the Holy Spirit, the human flourishing.

When we examine these three significantly different modalities of serendipitous creativity, each of them is involved in mystery in its own distinctive way; putting this point theologically, one can say that serendipitous creativity (God’s activity) will be considered here in connection with three different contexts, and thus in three different forms. The first of these modalities -which we might call serendipitous creativity is the initial coming into the ongoing coming into being of trajectories of increasingly complex novel realities. In this mode creation is not thought of as simply and straightforwardly from nothing; it is, rather, creation in the context of other realities that already exist. The second mode is about the kind of complex processes that today are believed to have produced, in the course of some billions of years, humans (as well as many other creatures). This mode provides (among other things) a link between Serendipitous Creativity 1 and serendipitous creativity 3. There are, doubtless, other ways of thinking about the concept of creativity, but this trinitarian, three-fold division enables us to view it from three distinctly different angles. The ideas of the Big Bang and the subsequent evolution of the world and of life have become commonplace features of a very comprehensive way of thinking that some commentators believe is increasingly bringing the sciences back into relation with each other as they now proceed with their work. After some years of vigorous debate, a widespread consensus appears to be developing among cosmologists about the basic facts of the universe -how old it is, how large it is, the various stages through which it developed, and so on.’ It is believed that the universe is very large and perhaps consisting of many billions of galaxies, each of which, on average, Scientist Stephen Hawking said `At the big bang itself, the universe is thought to have had zero size, and … to have been infinitely hot” (Hawking 1988,117). Though this may be plausible mathematically, it is very difficult to imagine or think just what is being said here about an actual state of affairs: what could it mean to describe this whatever-it-is as being, of zero size”, and how could anything of that sort be articulated clearly in our ordinary speech.

The Big Bang, its effects or what follows it are cumulative and long-lasting but probably not unending as new structures and patterns gradually emerge in the universe that is coming into being. There is of course more to say about what could be called ongoing serendipitous creativity or more creativity but for today I want to leave that discussion for later. Suffice to say that this further creative activity also cumulates and develops and brings more new forms of order into being through long and increasingly complex creative evolutionary processes. The earlier experiences of serendipitous creativity or God’s activity produced the material and vital orders of the world in which we live, and this latter serendipitous creativity- appearing in and through the activities of our human minds, our spirits, produces the whole mental /spiritual world as an emergent outcome of those prior modalities of serendipitous creativity. This argues that serendipitous creativity should not be thought of as a static reality, always and everywhere the same, but rather as itself modulating and developing in ways appropriate to the increasing complexity of the realities it is producing and within which it appears.

So, back to the trinity. For a piece of theology which was supposed to bring unity in the church amid political intrigue and a host of opposing theological opinions, of ‘suspected heretics’ and ‘dissidents’, we have to say it failed! Yet when listening to Marjorie Suchocki, professor emerita of Claremont School of Theology and executive director of ‘Process & Faith’ we have to think again. She said that: “despite (its) divisive history, the doctrine of the Trinity is more important today than ever, and for two very practical reasons: the first is that the doctrine can keep us from the idolatry of thinking God is just a human being, only bigger and better than the rest of us. We know that taking away a theistic God and a divine Jesus we are apt to feel that we have lost our faith or destroyed Christianity and Suchocki’s claim is that the doctrine argues against that as well as telling us that the very deepest form of unity is one that includes irreducible diversity.” (Process & Faith web site 2006)

In closing we are invited to hear Nicodemus again. To hear him as a member of the religious institution of his day take the risk of changing his view. He was a mover of theological boundaries. He was willing to risk leaving behind the so-called ‘truth’ as he and his colleagues had known it, in order to explore something new. Nicodemus as for us, must be allowed to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways rather than prescribing a single mode. Otherwise how else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different? Nicodemus, Patron saint of the curious.  And for many of us, our patron saint. May he protect the curious in each of us. Amen.

Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B. Robinson (ed) Journeys Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. The Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Press, 1967.
Vosper, G. Amen. What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief . Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012

Kaufman G. D. In The Beginning Creativity. Fortress press 2004

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Pentecost B, 2018
Acts 2:1-4

Pentecost: Beyond the ‘Language Game…

Picture two scenes of beginning.

Scene one: In the beginning was the word and the word was ‘How r ya’. That’s how the New Testament book we traditionally call John might have begun if Jesus had been born a Kiwi. To some, Kiwi English is a lazy drawl of distorted vowels and suppressed consonants. But to most of us Kiwi’s it is a rich vein of regional idioms and unique slang expressions. “We don’t talk like anyone else on Earth,” some have said of Australians and we too might claim that also, even if in some cases the English put us two together in confusion.

Scene two: In the beginning was serendipitous creativity and serendipitous creativity was with God, and serendipitous creativity was God. All things came into being through Serendipitous Creativity and without it not one thing came into being. What has come into being in serendipitous creativity was life,* and the life was the light of all people.

These two stories give us the context for Pentecost and I suggests a Pentecost beyond language.

Rex Hunt suggests that like a movie director, Luke, the one we traditionally claim as the author of Acts, creates a scene with wind and fire. This is flamboyant speech. It is great drama. A Pentecost script full of symbolism which cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event does or does not lay behind this story. But is Pentecost just about a ‘language’ game as charismatics might argue?

Rex suggests a couple of interesting articles which took the Pentecost story beyond this, into some social issues.

One article claims that the ecological crisis is a ‘spirit’-ual problem. The other is about the power and dignity in other words, the ‘spirit’ – of a city. In our case the City of Auckland. Two rather unlikely subjects to be associated with Pentecost, according to Rex and he offered some random thoughts from each of those articles that might apply to us.

Lynn White, in one article suggests that Christianity’s attack on so-called pagan religion effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning. When paganism was banished what happened was that it replaced the belief that the sacred is in rivers and trees, with the doctrine that God is a disembodied spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth. God is up there out there unconnected and untouchable.

He wrote: “By destroying pagan (religions), Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” (White 1967) This suggests that the impact of Christianity’s teachings has tended to empty the biosphere of any sense of God’s presence in natural things. And what was created in terms of traditional theism, is that God is pictured as a sky-God.

And in turn, human beings, as bearers of God’s image, are regarded essentially as ‘souls’ taking up temporary residence in their earthly bodies. Or to put it in the common idiom: God is against nature. God is super – natural, disconnected from nature, superior to nature. ‘Dominion over’ becomes a top down idiom.

White claims, in this sense the ecological crisis – global warming, irreversible ozone depletion, massive deforestation – is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. Because… certain Christian teachings have blunted our ability to experience co-belonging with other life forms. How do you feel when we say those words in our community prayer “Forgive us when we trespass against others, human and other than human”? Do you get a sense of the challenge to review your relationship with the non- human life on this planet” What does it mean to trespass against other than human”?

The next question is “has this dominant view of nature rendered us unwilling to alter our self- destructive course and plot a new path toward sustainable living. If one holds to a doctrine of Trinity then it’s possible that the three in one relationship is distorted at best, and maybe there is a battle between pantheism and panentheism. God is Nature verses God is in Nature becomes the mechanism of avoiding the hard question.

The second article is a about St John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the 4th and early 5th centuries, who described the Festival of Pentecost as the ‘capital city of holy days’ and ‘the metropolis of the Christian year.’ While other cities may be larger, or more populated, or more fun… warmer even, Chrysostom argued they do not have the power or might or dignity of the capital city.

Living as we do in the City of Auckland, one of the most multicultural cities in the world where a myriad of languages is spoken this Chrysostom reference could be applied. The festival of Pentecost is the Auckland City of holy days, the metropolis of the Christian year. A significant image in this city of Auckland is the streets upon streets of different cultures and languages. In many of its buildings from houses to business all the peoples of the inhabited world are represented. In this city there are many people of different ethnicity’s and tongues, many cultures celebrated, much art and music and food and clothing to please the tastes of all the families of the planet.

Returning to Chrysostom’s image, in the city of Pentecost, no house or building is under siege, none has been shuttered or its families sent away by a secret order from the government, no front door has been vandalized or spray painted with insults or taunts, no refugee person has been declared persona non grata. Of course, that last claim might be challenged in our city. The issue is that the city of Pentecost is the safe place where all the cultures and languages are meant to be and the idyllic nature of this claim also reminds us that the city of Pentecost is not yet fully come.

The question we face is ‘how is ‘pentecost’ moved beyond the ‘language’ game?’ What is Pentecost as living with the planet rather than against nature? Pentecost as living in all the dignity and diversity of Auckland city. One might also say that this is the task that faces St David’s today. What is Pentecost as St David’s living in and with Uptown Auckland and of course within the greater city of Auckland.

Luke as storyteller, suggests something here. He suggests that the spirit (Sophia) is the source of unity amid diversity. (Why else the United Nations list of participants?) She does not eliminate diversity, but she makes it possible to rejoice in it instead of fighting over it. Neither Greek nor Roman, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female… Neither Irish, Indonesian nor Chinese, neither Pakeha or Maori, neither straight nor gay…

Pentecost is not yet come. It is a promise, a vision not yet achieved in practice.  Rather, it is a goal towards which we strive with greater or lesser success and indeed with greater or lesser effort. Theism or Serendipitous Creativity, Pentecost might be understood as the nudging of God in our lives which can bring about an expanding experience of what life is really designed to be about.” (Goff.P&F Web site 2003)

In this we can relate to as ‘just a bit of ‘Pentecost’ each day’. This initiates a process of empowerment found in the dynamic of relationship across complexity, which can bring satisfaction to God in creation, I might say the satisfaction is found in the healthy relationship with and understanding of Serendipitous Creativity. Found in the relationship between God and the city, and between us all.

This has got to be worth reflecting upon and celebrating, As Rex adds; especially on a day when we see ‘red’!


Easter 7B, 2018
John 17: 6-19

Prayer as Language of The Heart

Powell Davies, served as minister of All Souls Church in Washington, USA, during the late 1940s and early 50s and he wrote a book on prayer that raised a number of questions about prayer. What he said was that “Prayer… is the language of the heart, akin to poetry. Its concern is not with exact description, as that of prose so often is, but with reality itself and with the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off: it has to do with what is least known and yet most deeply felt.”  (Davies 1956:6)

In that simple statement he made some significant claims about prayer that I want to explore a little today. The first is that ‘Prayer is the language of the heart, the second that language of the heart is akin to poetry, the third was that Prayer is not concerned with exact description but rather with reality itself and this is a claim that reality is as I argued some months back when quoting the Italian Physicist Carlo Rovelli when he said Reality is ‘not what it seems”. Prayer is more akin to being not what it seems as opposed to exact description and what is important about prayer is that it has the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off, and its main concern is to explore what is least known and yet most deeply felt. What I want to explore this morning is some of the connections this approach makes with the rest of life because I think that somehow this understanding of prayer permeates almost the whole of human living.

I am currently reading a book loaned to me by Carl Becker entitled “Desiring the Kingdom’ by James K A Smith, which talks about there being an intentional nature in being human and that this intent is a desire to be a lover as opposed to being a thinker. Much of our recent history as human beings has been obsessed with thinking and our education theory has been centered on cognitive development. Not that such learning is not important but current thinking is that it is not enough to be cognitively proficient, our learning environment needs to recognize that human development is more likely to be through cultural and sociological exposure, or as Smith suggests cultural liturgies. That are formational. We note here also that Smith talks about Liturgies as the way we pull the cognitive and the practice together. In this way he can claim what I think we already know, and that is that education is a holistic endeavour that involves the whole person, including our bodies, in the process of formation that aims our desires, primes our imagination and orients us to the world, all before we start thinking about it.

But returning to our topic; what is this to do with prayer? Well I want to suggest that the connection might be in the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Under the strain of difficult conditions, or in severe loss or bereavement, or when emotionally moved by a scene of natural beauty, there is something within us that cries out for expression and this is a natural phenomenon. This is the beginning of prayer. In traditional language, this is God, or the sacred, found in the midst of ordinary life and in the natural world. Or as K E Peters suggests prayer is “something more than ourselves in which we ‘live and move and have our being’… [and] which in various ways, calls us and the world, on the edge of time, to move beyond present states of existence” (Peters 2008: 12).

To use Smiths approach, prayer is a challenge to the person as thinker model (I think therefor I am’) as being reductionist and not recognizing that the complexity and richness of human persons is not found by reducing the core identity to something less than it should be. We are not totally defined by our thinking ability and in fact other means of learning and human development are more involved in human identity. It is here that Smith I think introduces the idea that we are more likely to be driven by love than cognitive thinking. Prayer might just be an example of this attempt to reach beyond the cognitive.

Today’s gospel story by the bloke we call John, is a very small part of the tradition
which was circulating about Jesus’ prayers or prayer life. The tone of this rather long-winded prayer is very personal. In it Jesus addresses God as someone whom he knows
very intimately indeed, and as someone whom he trusts implicitly. At one level this is classic ‘theism’, but at another it is an acknowledgement that there is more to prayer than a conversation with a supernatural being, it is rather a claim that his human identity as a son of God is more than that which is limited by human thinking. He knows in his gut that he can trust God. He feels convinced that he is in the same space as his God. They are one in existence. And in this prayer John has Jesus weaving together the past, the present and the future into a kind of timelessness, which he suggests is available for all. This particular prayer is quite different from the ‘The Abba Prayer’. Which suggests that there are many different types of prayer and many different approaches to prayer. Just as poetry engages the space between the words and evokes a person’s spirit to explore meaning and feeling and even action so does prayer.

In regard to the different types of prayer we might suggests that a prayer which somebody leads in church or in a prayer group on behalf of others, is quite different from private prayer. Any measurement of prayer has to take into account the hearer and how many hearers as well thus the cognitive dilemma. On the other hand, prayer may be just a few words, like OMG, or a waiting in silence. Whatever the sort of prayer you prefer, the common thing is that there seems to be a need for some time for silence… and the deeper we get into prayer the more it tends to be listening prayer rather than speaking prayer. Again; we have the need for room for the non-cognitive.

This silence may be when you’re outside gardening, or enjoying a bush or beach view,
or looking at a picture, or out for a brisk morning walk in winter. It may also be while
you’re ironing, or painting the shed, or washing the car. Or it may be in deliberate meditation.

Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, wrote some words on prayer to the people of his diocese, at a time when they were enduring horrific suffering. He said that Prayer was “putting our ear to the ground” in order to hear the Divine voice… to recognize that God always is by our side, even when in our agony we are silenced and unable to think at all. What I think he was saying was that prayer is not just about thinking but rather about something more than language could engage with. He wrote “Put your ear to the ground and listen, hurried, worried footsteps, bitterness, rebellion. “Hope hasn’t yet begun. Listen again. Put out your feelers. The Lord is there.  (Camara 1984)

Peter Millar from the Iona Community offers a perspective on Camara’s prayer: when he says “Is this not the essence of prayer – to see the One who is always near, and who is constantly inviting us, in gentle compassion, to come back to our inheritance as a human being made in the divine image?” (Millar 2000:37)

Another perspective on prayer, especially how ‘it works’, comes from Christine Robinson.  She suggests that prayer ‘works’: “on our own hearts, calming us enough to hear our own wisdom, to reroute habits and habitual responses, to help us adjust to and find good in all that we cannot change, and see the light in each person, no matter how difficult they are, in our lives” (C Robinson. First Unitarian, Albuquerque web site, 2007).

Here we again sense that prayer is not just about the cognitive approach, and that our fundamental way of dealing with the world is non-cognitive. It also suggests that because our fundamental nature is to be intentional about engaging with the world our engagement is neither reflectional or theoretical, in other words we do not go around all day thinking about how to live our lives. It is rather more that we simply involve ourselves in it and we orient and navigate ourselves without thinking about it.

For us as Progressive Christians prayer ‘works’ not because of a so-called all powerful, supernatural, being who just happens to be listening, waiting for our orders. Prayer works’ because our lives and our world are porous to new and creative re-imagined possibilities. As H N Wieman says: prayer ‘works’ in the re-creation of the one who prays.  (Wieman 1946)

Before I finish I want to say two things that I think undergird these claims about prayer. The first is that Prayer is part of the human intention for the world and it is born out of that which prayer seeks to manifest. The human intention is as we said; that we desire to be more fully human and that means to be more loving, that’s the ‘why’ question, and the way in which we see ourselves involved in that intent is by loving, that’s the ‘how’ question We are more fully human by loving and agents of love in that loving. It is more about what we do as opposed to what we think.

Last week I talked about plurality and how we needed to recognize that we live beyond the theory of tolerance of difference and find the experiential place of tension between the idea of assimilation and valued differences and what I did not succeed in doing was making clear what love and loving have to say in that approach to plurality. Today I am suggesting that an understanding the importance of the non-cognitive opens doors for the language of the heart and thus for love. Some would even go so far as to say that humans are essentially lovers because to be human is to love and that what we love defines who we are.

I want to conclude this talk by claiming that if ‘Religion’ has any value at all to humanity it has to be seen not as an historical organizational problem tied to the past but rather a wisdom born of centuries of experience, that tells us that qualities of heart, and mind rather than physical blessings, are a major concern in our prayer life. I would want to add here that it is the qualities of heart and especially love that exceeds even the importance of mind in this process. It also suggests that, we should pray not for more of the bounties of life, but for more awareness of life; not for more recognition and love from our peers, but for more capacity to give love and recognition. As a footnote I want to say here that this is why our liturgies begin with ‘Awesome wonder’ as acknowledgment of the bounteous beauty with which we are endowed, followed by an ‘Awareness’ as acknowledgement of the need to ask questions of our motivation, desire and expectations, followed by imaginative choice which recognizes that the scriptures and what we say makes sense as products of the human imagination and that the creative choice returns us to a place of gratitude, and an intent to love even more fully. One could say our liturgical journey is one of heart, mind, response, heart.

Davies, A. P. The Language of the Heart. Washington DC. A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee, All Soul’s Church, 1956.
Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion and Human Becoming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.
Wieman, H. N. The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press, 1946.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom. Baker Academic, Baker Publishing Group 2009