‘Change is Life Refusing to be Embalmed Alive’

Helen Garton in her book ‘Courage to Love’ wrote: “As he went on his way he saw a woman who had been gay from birth. His disciples asked him: ‘Rabbi, whose sin caused her to be lesbian? Hers or her parents’ sin?’ Jesus answered: ’Neither she nor her parents sinned; she was born that way so that God’s work might be revealed in her. While the day lasts, we must carry on the work of God; night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world I am the light of the world.’ With these words, he spat on the ground and made a paste with the spittle; he spread it on the disciple’s eyes and immediately her pain eased and she was able to be herself.

It is a bit of a truism for sure to say that ‘nothing in life is permanent except change’. We grow up, meet new people and move to different places. We lose loved ones along the way as well. The reality is that the whole universe is alive and changing, continually co-creating new possibilities of life are always emerging. “The world is a web of changing individuals and systems and cultures and truths, interacting with, affecting, and changing each other… Change occurs from moment to moment in our daily lives as we are acted upon and act, exercising creative freedom.” A serendipitous creating ever present process. And there is a school of thought that asserts that knowing we will not stay the same from day to day, from moment to moment, “is what makes life interesting and worth living.”

We have not always thought this. Traditional western thinking, influenced by none other than Plato, saw change as equaling decay and death. And when this thinking moved into western religion, the Divine/God was seen as ‘unchanging’, existing totally apart from the changing world. Many of us sang and still do sing hymns such as: “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise” or “You are the Lord, you Changeth Not” or “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand” but many of us no longer can sing these other than as historic songs since outdated in their theology and use of words. Many of us are of a mind to deal with the thought that the so-called ‘divine plan’ was not written in stone at the beginning? That the Divine/God works in and through the changing world as part of it or more correctly as the very process by which it exists. This question is a must for all novel, and radical ideas in western thinking and religion? Some would say it is already too late given the demise of the institutional church that we are experiencing. What is happening is that Climate Change as an outcome of human interruption of the planets systems is demanding of theology a thorough revisioning and rethinking of religion and theology? And this is more than just theism verses atheism or religion verses secularism or science verses faith. These dichotomies are stale bread in the face of the ontological argument (that relating to the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being.) and we need a new story of ‘change’ as a result.

The anonymous biblical storyteller we call John, while not a ‘modern’ in any sense of the word’,
is also faced with the need for change within his small community. So he/she invites their exploration through a story of a blind man and his estimate of Jesus’ words rather than echoing something Jesus said. As a warm up we might need to say a couple of things at the beginning.
Because both biblical scholarship and one’s integrity require it.

The first is that this story is not a media report of an actual event. The subject of the story was not a real person “but a representative symbol.” (Spong 2013:143) As Bishop John Shelby Spong suggests in his Commentary: “He stands for the members of the Johannine community, who saw themselves as having once lived in the darkness of not seeing, but having been changed when ‘the light of the world’ permeated their darkness. That light brought to them a new perspective, which relativized everything that they had once assumed was ‘truth’.” (Spong 2013:143)

The second is that this raised another problem for the community. And it was that such ‘change’ as that advocated brought with it a real taste of ‘anxiety’. Spong continues his Commentary: “Would they simply stave off the threat—[embrace the light or deny it]—and then seek to rebuild their security walls and settle into the known routines of their past, or would they step into the light and walk with courage into the unknown, exposing themselves to the new realities that living in the light always brings?” (Spong 2013:143)

We know that context is always important when looking at and listening to a story. And the context in this biblical story is change that caused a split from the Jewish synagogue. Remember that there is always contention between groups of followers. Conflict between the Jewish Johannine community and the Jewish synagogue leaders was intense. At the time of writing and at many other times also. But here in the late 1st and early second century the result was Anger. Frustration. Anxiety. Change. Denunciation. Expulsion…. “as religious defenders of the faith are prone to do.” (Spong 2013:149)

In so many words, the storyteller is quite direct…  “If the Jewish traditionalists could not move out of the past… they were choosing to live in darkness, to hide in the religious security of yesterday… to refuse to step into the new life being offered, the new consciousness that invites the world into a new and unlimited understanding of what .life is all about.” (Spong 2013:150, 151) And we know from experience that at any time change can be either a threat
or what makes life interesting and worth living

We humans, born from 14 billion years of Earth’s invention, creativity, and increasing complexity, are the ‘ultimate dream animal’. Of all Earth’s species, we are the lucid dreamer.  “Through the profound mystery of conscious self-awareness, the human reaches a depth of seeing never before achieved in the history of life; and depth of seeing is depth of being.” (De Boer 2020:1)

Put another way… We are the species that sees but doesn’t only instinctively respond to what we see. We internalize it, engage with it emotionally. We seek to find meaning in the cosmic picture; its place in life and our ‘seeing’ and ‘discerning’, is our examining of it thoroughly in minute detail and then passing it back past the cosmic picture giving it meaning and purpose in the largest picture beyond our questions. One danger of recent times is that we have not completed the discernment process preferring to not step outside the confinements of a limited experience. We have made change a negative, unwanted part of life whereas it cannot be that without cost to what it means to be human. Change has been seen as the enemy of certainty as opposed to a vital part of its creation.

Pulitzer Prize winner. Mary Oliver (1935-2019) was a well-known and much-loved poet. Her ability to ‘see’ and ‘discern’ the world in which we all live and are a part, was central to her poetry. Her creativity was stirred by nature, by wonder, by discernment, and her poems are filled with imagery from daily walks: shore birds, water snakes, the phases of the moon, and humpback whales. Of her philosophy of life another has said: “Just pay attention to the natural world around you—the goldfinches, the swan, the wild geese. They will tell you what you need to know.” (Franklin 2017)

Nature is not a thing to be known. It is a process to be lived. A poem such as “What Can I Say” invites that ‘attention’…

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

It is a privilege of being human that we are curious creatures
—remember Nicodemus of a couple of weeks ago—
with a capacity for wonder.

Mary Oliver loved to wonder while she wandered. because wonder… Opens the door to beauty, “to muse about what fascinates us”. (Gleiser 2019) It also brings us into the richness and fullness of the present. Helps us detox against the frivolous ‘influencers’ of smart phones and selfies, and it asks questions aboutendless dependent growth policies, and of theories with measurable outcomes and assumptions of betterment. It invites critical thinking not as an adjunct to life but as intrinsic within it. Process and change demands it.

By ‘seeing’ more deeply, by increasing the scope of our sensitivities, we will all come to live more deeply as mor human and we can love the way this richness of the now makes us feel. Life refuses to be embalmed alive! Amen.

Christ, C. P. She Who Changes. Re-Imaging the Divine in the World. New York. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003De Boer, K. L. “Toward a New Cultural Reverie: A Cosmological Basis for the Ecological Citizen” in Minding Nature 13, 2, 2020. <www.humansandnature.org/spring-2020> Franklin, R. “What Mary Oliver’s Critic Don’t Understand”. The New Yorker. Books. 20 November 2017. <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/27/what-mary-olivers-critics-dont-understand> 
Gleiser, M. “I Wonder as I Wander. Why we need Sacred Places” in Orbiter Magazine, Vol 54 (12 December 2019). (Accessed 21 December 2019)
Spong, J. S. The Fourth Gospel. Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York. HarperCollins, 2013

Hunt RAE

A Creative Transforming Non-interventionist God…

Its possible that in attending a Baptism you might have heard the words “Water is everything. Water is life…” They are often said as a way of focusing on the active, dynamic symbol of water. As does the story we read from the storyteller/mystic we call John. And if we can remember for just a moment that we are in the middle of the season called Lent, which begins with stories around a time in the desert, a place of little to no water, we might find today’s story a lovely juxtaposition. Dryness, drought, climate change and wilderness, temptation and an arid place and time. And we know how precious water is.

And when it comes to the nature of flow, the dynamics of flow the river is an interesting symbol the invites us to explore the nature of life as a journey. Numerous travelers, from the early explorers through to present day beginners have perished for lack of water as well as underestimating its living dynamic reality. No water, no life. Too much water and no life. Water and life go together. To survive in the arid desert or wilderness is to know the sources of moisture and how to tap into the water table and in the lush green freshness of the flowing river is to know its power and its perpetual nature.

What we should never do is underestimate it as something that must be conquered. That is a mistake, we humans have made since the enlightenment at least. For the early people of human social political and economic development the earth could be a hostile and barren place and they could never dream of co-operating with it in the face of oppression and empire.

When we look closely at many indigenous peoples, we find they treasured the earth and cooperated with it rather than conquer it and they often memorized every watering hole. Especially so in the dry inland places.

From one generation to the next, and we know from the Australian Aboriginal that they sang songs which were like maps of their territory.  And in these song-maps the precious water holes were prominent. They treasured water. It meant life.

To put the importance of understanding the nature and purpose of water we might read a little about flow and movement. A River of water is always flowing, it always appears to be a linear movement going in one direction but whirlpools and eddy’s suggest otherwise. What is it that water becomes when it becomes a whirlpool? What is it saying about the nature of water and its importance?

Democritus said “The cause of coming-into-being of all things is the vortex.” (a mass of fluid (such as a liquid) with a whirling or circular motion that tends to form a cavity or vacuum in the center of the circle and to draw toward this cavity or vacuum bodies subject to its action) Isaac Newton said “I do not define … motion, as being well known at all” McGilchrist says “Movement is reality itself.” Schelling’s description of causative chains is that “the individual successions of causes and effects, (that deceive us with the illusion of a mechanism) (left hemisphere bias)  disappear, being infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism, in which the world itself runs continually onward.” We see the water as linear flow when water in its ability to become vortex shows us that life is more vortex like than linear in other words the symbol becomes more real than what we thought? In its flow, its motion, its dynamic nature it becomes real life. Life is never what it seems because it is always dynamic evolving and progressing and can be mistaken as linear when it might not be so.

Another reflection in this light. ‘Water spiralling down a drain’ … This point is worth pausing on. Because the water going down a drain is the best possible demonstration of a moving, ever-changing, ever-evolving, indivisible motion: a vortex. It is never, except artificially, frozen into a coherent image; and it is a constantly self-reforming asymmetrical structure.

Now a quick look at the collection of stories told by John. They shows that he tells several stories using water. Water turned into wine. Water to wash disciple’s feet. Jesus walking on water. And of course, there are all those exciting fishing stories, which only someone with the name of Hay might claim are the really, good bits! (Mr Hay is a friend some of you might know as an avid fisherman)

Today’s story of a Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well, belongs in this collection. In this story John has Jesus asking the woman for a drink of water. It is said that this conversation between the two, is the longest of any Jesus is supposed to have had with anyone. Traditionally, the substance of the story is said to be about a ‘liberal’ Jesus talking to a close to a non-mechanistic Samaritan is another name for Northern Jew (One whose heritage is post Kingdom of Israel as opposed to Judean Jew) And, so this line of interpretation goes, Jesus issues a call to her to: “clean up her act, get right with God, and join the Jesus team to preach God’s word of forgiveness and love”.  (McKinney. PST Web site, 2008)

But as many scholars have pointed out, this and similar interpretations are an awful misreading of an important story. However staying with the story… with the help of Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish new testament scholar:

Rick Marshall, suggests that: Taking John’s image of a well and the rising up of the water says; “Who knows where (the water) comes from.  But we drink it and go on living our lives…  That’s how the creative, transforming power of God is:  Who knows where it comes from, but it sustains us and we go on living our lives.  We are called to trust the ‘Living Water’.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005) I might suggest we are being called to trust in the ’Almost’, the “not yet but about to be’ is more akin to the vortex like experience we call life. This power of God we call life sustains us and we go on living our lives. “We experience the creating, transforming power of ‘Love’ routinely, quietly moving through life, our life.” I wonder if this is also what the storyteller, we call John had in mind, in a context of plurality, of civilization change). Post Greek and changing Roman thought, theology and social and political change and when he told the story of Jesus asking a woman for a drink.

A reflection I can confirm is nice to hear and found in the following story. The story goes that the preacher was a great success.  Thousands came to learn wisdom from him. then they got the wisdom, they stopped coming to his sermons. And the preacher smiled contentedly. For he had attained his purpose, which was to bow out as quickly as possible for he knew in his heart that he was only offering people what they already had, if they would only open their eyes and see.  (Anthony de Mello)

Remember, here as well the description of the logician: ‘Having in fact left the curve of his thought, to follow straight along a tangent, he has become exterior to himself. He returns to himself when he gets back to intuition.’ He finds God, he recognizes Jesus for the first time.

That and the above story suggests it seems that the above is how the transforming present-ness of Creativity God or serendipitous Creativity God or ‘Almost’ God is at work. It sustains us as we live our lives, quietly moving through life, our life. Like a vortex hiding in the image of linearity and yet whirlpool like so that we might live life to the full, love wastefully, and be all that we can be.  (John S Spong) Amen.

Anthony de Mello, A. The Song of the Bird. 10th edition. India: J. Chryssavgis. The Desert is Alive. Melbourne. JBCE, 1990.

Levine, A-J. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne, 2006.

McGilchrist, Iain . The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (p. 1445). Perspectiva Press. Kindle Edition.

Nicodemus:  Protecting the Curious in Us.

The streets were dark and deserted. Not a soul could be seen.  At least he hoped not. There was one lonely figure, jumping from shadow to shadow, never using the major streets of the town, travelling only in out of the way places, hoping not to be seen.

So, what’s he doing, jumping from shadow to shadow in the middle of the night? He is going to pay a call on Jesus who is staying with friends. He doesn’t want anybody to know that he, one of the leaders of the community, would be going to see this itinerant preacher.

Jesus is roused from his sleep, I presume, and meets Nicodemus. Strangers in the night… So begins a story sermon by probably one of the best in narrative preaching. Eugene Lowry.  (Lowry 1990:78-84)

It’s a really good example of a narrative or story sermon. Yet we can’t help feeling that, in this, and in other bits of the text we don’t address here, Lowry gives Nicodemus a bit of a ‘bad rap’, even if unwittingly. To Quote Iain McGilchrist the Scottish Pychiatrist, Philosopher who offers us a new and enlightening way of looking at the Human brain and the human mind. He says:

Left hemisphere dysfunction does not change the world radically in the way that right hemisphere dysfunction does. Rather, it presents impediments to fluent utilisation of the world, either through the right hand or through language: the problem is not one of understanding (comprehension), but of manipulating (apprehension), the world. The fabric of reality typically goes for the most part unaltered when the left hemisphere is suppressed.

Iain McGilchrist.

Rex Hunt thinks Nicodemus is reduced to a foil by Lowry. Portrayed as a narrow-minded, left brain, literalist. What Rex is suggesting here I think, is that it is too easy to lock Nicodemus into a category or a character that misses the whole person. Like many in today’s world the certainty and literalization of narrative that offers a singular truth is not sufficient. What happens when we do that is we take the narrative out of context with which it interacted. The left hemisphere has a preference for that response, it is seeking after the parts that make up a final outcome rather than take first an overall view of the matter which is to see that the whole is always more than the sum of the parts.

The added difficulty in our task of reading the text is that we don’t know enough about the context if anything at all further relying only on theory based on parts, and we know that there is never a truth without a context with which it interacts: there is a context for everything in the real world. In the theorizing that gets left out. To decide that Nicodemus’ so-called ‘illicit’ night-time liaison is to be interpreted as skulking about under the cover of darkness is to limit our understanding Or as Jack Shea suggests, “be stranded in twilight”.  Nicodemus is not mesmerized by the signs he is encountering as questions… He wants a teaching, not another miracle.  But before he can receive a teaching from God, he must receive a teaching about himself”.  (Shea 1998:83-84)

This encourages us to continue to take another look at Nicodemus and like Rex to do that through the eyes of both some Jewish and Christian New Testament scholars.

The first thing we do is note that this is a story composed by the teller we call John written somewhere around the early second century. More than one hundred years after Jesus.
and we only ever hear of Nicodemus in John’s writings. So, we don’t have other accounts to compare it with.

Much debate still centres around this story and the storytellers use of this story at this point in the gospel. But we might put that down for a bit today. What should concern us is the way traditional Christianity appears to have used Jewish Jesus and Jewish Nicodemus. By the time of the writing the Jesus story is spreading among the Greek and Roman world, the interpretations are being contextualized to meet new cultural understandings. We know also that even among Judaism in the time of Jesus there was debate and discussion about diversity of thought and interpretation within Judaism. It was into this environment that Jesus spoke.

Jesus was a Jew.  A first century Galilean Jew. His prayers were Jewish. His thinking was Jewish. His ‘voice’ is thick with Jewish history – personal and cultural. And we miss that when we follow traditional Christianity and convert him into a proto-christian. The likelihood is that much ‘Greekness’ has impinged his Jewishness. By the time of John’s writing.

Both the Nicene Creed written in the 4th Century and the Apostle’s Creed finalized in the 7th are silent on this fact. They do not mention his Jewishness at all. Which has caused Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, to say: “With the stress in some churches on Jesus’s divine sonship, the cross, the resurrection, and the redemptory role of saving humanity from sin and death, his historical connection to Judaism gets lost along with his very Jewish message of the kingdom of heaven”.  (Levine 2006:19)

Levine than goes on to point out that in popular Christian imagination Jesus is presented as: against the Law, against the Temple, against the people of Israel, as the only one to speak with women, as the only one who teaches non-violent responses to oppression, as the only one who cares about the ‘poor and marginalised’. “No wonder even today Jesus somehow looks ‘different’ from the ‘Jews’: in the movies and artistic renderings, he’s blond and they are swarthy; he is cute and buff and they need rhinoplasty and Pilates”. (Levine 2006:19)

This ‘divorcing’ of Jesus from Judaism in biblical stories and traditional Christian theology is neither honest nor helpful. Especially when we hear John’s story about Nicodemus.

So, in light of these comments, some suggestions; about the Jewish Rabbi we call Nicodemus, and his encounter with the Galilean sage we call Jesus. We might begin by hearing Nicodemus as a pilgrim.  A sincere religious seeker. A student who uses his precious study time to “expand his search beyond the standard texts… and distractions of the day”.   (PFarris.www.textweek.com 2008)

We might also hear Nicodemus, a member of the religious institution of his day, as a mover of theological boundaries. Willing to risk leaving behind past ‘truths’ as he and his colleagues 
have been taught them and known them, in order to explore something new. Many boundary movers today know what that means among friends and colleagues and among literalists and institutional stakeholders.

So instead of questioning his motives, as it appears Lowry and our general interpretive tradition has done, we might see Nicodemus’ motives recognised as both open and honourable. For Nicodemus, as for us, he must be allowed to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways rather than prescribing a single way of thinking or believing. How else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different?
Not just by re-shaping, but by re-thinking and reconstructing!

The invitation that metaphor offers Nicodemus and us. It to be able to think wholistically about life and ask ourselves what would we do differently if given half the chance? How would we grow up differently? How would we re-edit the story of our life?

The story of Nicodemus is an invitation to be curious about life. To rethink and re-construct assumptions, the imposed order and the rules by which we control human relations. Not just to conduct an autopsy on our past, but to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility. To take seriously the ambiguity and serendipity of human existence. And in traditional words; to be born anew, metaphorically! To consider how life might be different!

I was at a retreat recently where the question that came up was What does being a Progressive Christian mean and I think the suggested approach to this Nicodemus story is a good start in answering that question.

Taking a prayer from the website ‘Textweek’ is the following:

Nicodemus.  Patron saint of the curious.  (MHess.www.textweek.com 2008)

  • May he protect the curious in each of us.
  • May he place us in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers,
    of whatever faith tradition, whose openness defines a new community 
    of hope and grace.
  • May he give us the courage to dare to know creativity – ‘g-o-d’, with heart and mind, with courage and strength, as traditional theological boundaries are pushed…
  • And pushed again, with honesty and originality, wisdom and imagination.

Lee, B. L. The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus. Retrieving the Jewish Origins of Christianity.  Mahwah. Paulist Press, 1988.
Levine, A. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne, 2006.
Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B Robinson (ed). Journey Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Shea, J. Gospel Light. Jesus Stories for Spiritual Consciousness. New York. A Crossroad Book, 1998.

McGilchrist, Iain . The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (p. 165). Perspectiva Press. Kindle Edition.

What is Lent?

Posted: February 22, 2023 in Uncategorized

What is Lent?

John Shelby Spong asks: What do you make of the Season of Lent and how should the Christian Church observe it?

Gretta Vosper responds; The season of Lent is traditionally understood to be a time for reflection, contrition, and consideration of the sacrifice Jesus undertook for our sins.

It has been, as we know, traditionally recognized for the forty days leading up to Easter. Preceded by Shrove Tuesday, upon which Christians are to prepare to confess their sins, Lent traditionally is entered into by many still as a holy season of penitence. However fewer and fewer follow that tradition even in today’s church. Just the other day I heard a radio announcement that The Tuesday is known as Pancake Tuesday when we make pancakes to give away to others.

Of course, all the traditionally penitence focus is contingent upon a belief in the atonement theory of the crucifixion by which we accept that Jesus died to save us from our sins and bring us into eternal relationship with the divine being, God. This is quite a crucial theological shift as when our belief in that story has cracks in it, the idea of Lent can become nonsensical. Why would we need to be penitential if we are considering the death of a man who didn’t die for our sins but was rather a sage/mystic who challenged the assumptions about the current social, political and economic way of being. It is no wonder he was executed because he challenged the very infrastructure of Roman theology, social beliefs and the Empire’s economic wellbeing. And it was political genius of the Romans to use his challenge to his own Judaic religion to crucify him.

If we didn’t believe in the idea of sin as it was constructed in the early centuries of Christianity? Why would we consider an act of contrition the appropriate response to an act of barbarity and violence?

The seasons of the Christian year and the festivals and traditions that are celebrated within them are usually based upon doctrinal or theological premises that are traditional contextually relevant and they may be difficult to discern for us at first blush. Communion often feels like a beautiful, communal meal. The doctrinal assertions that undergird it, however, are considerably different than many assume. Sacrifice, isolation, persecution social exclusion undergirds the importance of community and the stories of blood and body as metaphor for the communal meal are contextually out of place.

Similarly, however, Lent can be thought of as a meaningful time for reflection and the consideration of love, justice, and kindness when the doctrinal beliefs upon which it is built no longer synch with contemporary understandings elicited through the study of the historical Jesus or the evolution of the idea of God.

If our understandings have shifted and we no longer believe that Jesus died for our sins, something many of us do not believe, does that mean, however, that we should give up on the idea of Lent? Many progressives do not think so. Sometimes setting aside a period of time for intentional reflection on life, on love, and on the things that flow from the often challenging, intersection of those two things, can be a very important discipline to undertake, particularly in the busy craziness of twenty-first century Western society, and specifically in this current age when post covid, climate change impact and interpersonal violence are a growing influence on society, community and our families.

And so, I like Gretta and others, invite you to undertake a course of reflection and study if that is your wont and to set aside a prescribed period in which to do it. Forty days feels good to me. And giving something up for Lent, an idea that is built on the practice of fasting, again, an act of penitence, can be worked in, if you like, by way of breaking a bad habit, or building up a good one.

 I’m giving up austerity for Lent.  
 My impulse to beat myself-up in order to win God’s favour seems to die hard.  
 So, I’m tackling this with a diet of joy,

supplemented by a daily dose of the Lord’s Supper.  
The original Christians didn’t celebrate Eucharist

with cardboard wafers and diluted grape juice.  
They shared communion in the midst of a common meal

and sometimes inside a genuine feast.  
I wonder what we’ve lost.  
So, I’m giving up austerity for Lent.  

Mark Herringshaw,

As with other ecclesial practices and understandings, however, I invite you to consider leaving behind the exclusively Christian word associated with it: Lent. To hold onto I think without critique and even perhaps with it, continues to overshadow our period of reflection with a bleak and dangerous interpretation of a tragic story. This is not suggesting that we deny others their right to use the word or to critique them for it. The thought is simply that we practice without it and see if it feels okay for us. Like most words over time, they can change with their meaning. We don’t need the doctrinal interpretation to reap the benefits of reflection and a sabbatical time away from the daily grind. And it is very likely that if we share the news of our intentional forty-day practice with someone who is not involved in church – someone at work or a family member – they will be far more likely to want to know what it is we are doing and why.

Gretta Vosper offers some suggestions about what one could do as an alternative practice. She says that of we are at a loss as to what you would do rather than some self-flagellating practices here are some ideas to begin with:

Think about what one or another of others might elicit in and from you. Would it make your life or the life of another more beautiful? If so, it is certainly worth trying. But the list is simply to stir your own imagination and see what you might undertake against the backdrop of your own life. 

Consider, making a pledge to yourself, and, if you can, keep track of how to feel as you move through your time.

  • Use one of the online short meditations each day.
  • Sign up for a poetry blog and read a new poem every morning when you get up and the same one every evening before retiring. Better yet, write a new poem every day!
  • Find an appropriate phrase or sentence of commitment, Print or write it out and pin or stick it up next to your bathroom mirror. In the morning, consider how that phrase or sentence can affect your day positively; in the evening, acknowledge what you might have done better and celebrate the good you made happen.
  • Write a thank you note to someone every day. Like that person down the street who you don’t know but who gifts the community each year with a beautiful garden or Christmas light display.
  • Think of a charity you’d like to support. Every day, place an amount of money you’d like to contribute to it and a note to explaining why you want to support it (yes, a different one each day!). Read the notes when you’re done and, if you feel like it, send them in an envelope with your cheque.
  • Subscribe to the daily TED talk or a YouTube series about the latest thinking on Sociology or Community and learn something new every day. Follow up on stuff that really intrigues you.

This will go a long way towards breaking any mold that Lent has been and release the new you that you’ve not yet met! And don’t forget to celebrate you while you do it!

About the Author:
The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada minister who is a self-described ‘atheist’. Her best-selling books include With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. She has also published three books of poetry and prayers.

Bishop John Shelby Spongs ‘Question & Answer” Newsletter 23 February 2017 Published by <progressivechristianity.org>

Living Imaginatively.

Posted: February 14, 2023 in Uncategorized

Living Imaginatively.

I think the words of the 1960s poet and song writer Sydney Carter got it right when he 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.

Transfiguration Sunday. Is a bit like – that I can’t believe! and today’s gospel story by Matthew is about one of those ‘but that I can’t believe’ incidents. A mythical incident in the life of Jesus called the ‘transfiguration’. And a direct pinch from the other storyteller, Mark.

But this claim is nothing new. Many times, it has been spoken of as a very imaginative story that has Jesus and some of his friends climbing to the top of a mountain. They enjoy the magnificent views. They breathe deeply the fresh air. They are engulfed by a cloud. They allow the experience to recharge their flagging spirits and re-sensitize their imaginations. Sounds familiar doesn’t it. Remember those moments when we meet nature anew. And like us they wanted the experience to last forever. ‘Let’s build our own chapel and you, Jesus, can be our private chaplain’. Never too much of a good thing.

But, says the storyteller, a booming voice out of a cloud put paid to the idea. And as another storyteller has said: The mountaintop is a refuge, but it is not home. The mountaintop is safe, but it is removed. We are forever changed up on the mountain, but we are useless to the world if we do not return and share what we have experienced. We go up the mountain so that we can come back down.

Now we can approach this story with historical questions… such as

  1. ‘How did this happen?’ ‘Where did it happen?’
  2. Or we can approach this story with theological questions… such as ‘What connections can we make to this story?’ ‘What is this story saying about Jesus, or even g-o-d?’
  3. Or we can approach this story with imagination as the poets and hymn writers have done through the ages, using what Tom Troeger calls ‘spiritual exegesis’.

We really do have several options but as a person interested in the theological overview I would choose option 2 and as a person who prefers to use intuition option three feels better when engaging with the serendipitous world.

During my life I have moved home many times so moving has been somewhat a regular event! Packing one’s stuff for a move is also a good time to throw out some of one’s stuff. And I and my wife have done that over the years. Neither my late wife nor I were hoarders! 

During our last move, on my retirement before I threw out many of my books papers and sermons, (More than six boxes) I admit to a degree of nostalgia.

I have to say that when I reflected on the past in preparation of this address it was the theological underpinnings which seemed to dominate my thinking. That, along with what is being suggested in this story/myth, is something quite important about God. It is that God is to be understood as a creative transforming ‘energy’ in the lives of people. And that we are called to come down off the mountain top and serve in the towns and cities and the valleys below. To reach out our hand, so to speak and touch the One who is incognito in our neighbour.

Undergirding this approach has been the archaeological concern for material to undergird or challenge the assumptions. I like many of my colleagues have appreciated the archeological work of both Dom Crossan and (the late) Marcus Borg.

As a follower of the Jesus Way and a Minister of Word and Sacrament I have been trained to be a critical biblical and theological thinker. And to be such is to seek understanding of what one believes and values, and to grow in that understanding. But there has always been that thing called experience and life and its part in the shaping of who I am and how I think. For many years my preaching on the Transfiguration reflected my training. It was during the years of parish ministry that I began to ask ‘what about the passion , the prophet’s ecstasy, the dreamer’s vision, the preacher’s imagination’. In reading Iain McGilchrist in his work of the two hemispheres of the human brain I have come to value the instinct, the experiential, and the non-conscious. Both as an wholistic critique of everything and as the outworking of love as a transfiguring event of life.

It has over latter years been of import to understand the comment: “Our faith is about entertaining angels, every bit as much as it is about seeking to comfort the afflicted and to heal the sick.  It is about seeking visions of a new heaven and a new earth, every bit as much as it is about seeking justice and resisting evil.”

And Marcus Borg’s comments that ‘Jesus was an ‘ecstatic’.’ Has renewed my interest in a more wholistic approach to discernment of truth.  Borg says “Jesus… was a Jewish mystic.  …I think he was a ‘critical thinker of the wholistic order’. This seems like the best explanation of his understanding of the wilderness and the impact of ‘empire’ on his society and civilization.  I think he had visions, though I don’t know whether we have an account of any of them.  I have a hunch that he had experiences of nature mysticism… this would be consistent with his sense of the immediate presence of God… I suspect like many he had an experiential sense of the reality of God in his prayer life, which I assume included some form of meditation”. (Borg 2002:132).

Option No. 3 is probably looking better now? Or maybe an amalgamation of all three?

Returning to our text for today we have to acknowledge that there is good news in this story. The good news is, that God, (however we use that word/symbol/metaphor), is not aloof and detached and supernatural, but rather that God as ‘Dynamic Event’, works like an expert weaver, and is as Panentheism suggest intimately in nature naturally. Using some personalistic (and imaginative) language, God is in the fibre of our lives, weaving them into beautiful, powerful garments of love… empowering us for mission as a collaborative people critiquing our continuing theological journeys (as individuals and as communities)

The good news is also, the present-ness of God is: in the beauty of the universe around us, and in our ability to apprehend it, in the close encounters with new life and death. There is also an awareness of the way in which the hemispheres work to give meaning to human suffering, in the creation of the new, a tool of the imagination that gives value and meaning to daily in praying and meditation, and dare I say it, in many church liturgies.

So, with all the above the suggestion is that we don’t ignore or throw away these imaginative and mysterious experiences. Don’t let go of those things that you don’t understand or cannot explain slip past but rather, meditate on them, delight in them, use them in all their exciting particularity… As imaginative ‘energy’ or Creativity that vitalizes faith. See them as ‘Transfiguration’ or as a source of strength for living (and ministry) in the valleys below. As we revere how things are, and find ways to express gratitude for our human existence.

And to conclude a story that Rex Hunt wrote of; a story from Karl Peters, retired professor of philosophy and religion, as a clue to a new awareness and imagination.

Peters was sharing in a conference on ‘Prayer and Spirituality’ with a Zen Buddhist nun, called Geshin.  He said: “We were having a vigorous intellectual go at prayer and spirituality, with all their implications.  In the midst of our intense discussion, Geshin raised her hand and said, ‘Do you hear the bird outside, singing?’  I realized at that point that she had included not only what we were talking about, but also the whole environment around us.  She was connected ‘with the way things are in all their exciting particularity’”. (Peters 2008:104).

So like Rex I too offer the comment that imaginative and mysterious experiences can allow us to balance our personal selves with the sense we are in a context that is larger and more important than our selves. We humans need stories. Compelling stories. Stories from the sages and artists of past and present times “which help to orient us in our lives and in the cosmos”. (Goodenough 1998:174).

On that note Amen.

Borg, M. ‘Jesus: A Sketch’ in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Carter, S. ‘Friday Morning’ in J. A. T. Robinson. But That I Can’t Believe. London. Collins/Fontana, 1967.
Goodenough, U. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations. Science, Religion, and Human Becoming. Minniapolis. Fortress/FACETS Books, 2008. 

‘Evolution, God, and an Unfolding Connectedness…’

Today in the progressive religious world, is Evolution Weekend and I want to recount a story by Rex Hunt that reminds us that there is a difference in talking about the nature of God and the Nature and God.

Rex tells of the time he bought a recommended book and when he got it home he realised he discovered that it was not called Nature of God at all. But instead, Nature and God. Nevertheless, the book and its author, L Charles Birch, former Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney, became a valuable travelling companion with him on his personal theological journey. The very first sentence in Birch’s book is: “The concept of God’s operations in the universe as a series of fitful interventions from a supernatural sphere overlaying the natural is quite unacceptable to science”. (Birch 1965:7). While the third sentence said: “On the other hand, the traditional thinking of science, sometimes called mechanism, is quite unreconcilable with any reasoned Christian position”. (Birch 1965:7). Rex noted that since reading Birch an interest in communication, regular eye tests, and as a self-described ‘religious naturalist’ the relationship between science and religion, has remained with him! On the latter: the relationship between science and religion, three major views exist:

(i) the ‘conflict’ view – that science and religion are inherently, and perpetually, in opposition;
(ii) the ‘contrast’ view – that science and religion are different because they ask different questions;
(iii) the ‘integration’ view – that science and religion can be integrated into a self-consistent worldview.

Unfortunately, what emanates from many pulpits is more likely to represent the ‘conflict’ view than the ‘integration’ view. Which is why, on Evolution Weekend, many clergy try to speak personally about God.

God’ spelt G-O-D is a symbol or word known and used by nearly everyone who speaks the English language. But it is also a word which has many uses and meanings attached to it. The Macquarie Dictionary for one defines the word as: “the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe”. (Macquarie Dictionary 1981:763). And this way of speaking theologically is called ‘classical theism’. This ‘God’ is supernatural, interventionist, and nearly always couched in male anthropological (or human-like) language and images. And for many this is still the way they think when they hear the word ‘God’.  Increasingly however this way of thinking no longer works. With inclusive language, pronouns critique and  dare I say it shifts in the human relationship with nature and the cosmos people’s thinking has and continues, to change.

Many have come to think of God as the creative process or ‘creativity itself’, I have used the term serendipitous creativity to try to embody the changing dynamic relationship rather than persist with terms that depict an impersonal machine maker who made something and then stepped back to watch it work and who only intervenes when asked to or when something needs fixing. Many clergy use the label of Christian Atheist to signify their difficulties with Theism. I prefer the term ‘Anatheism’ which suggests that this God is through and beyond and more than theism. Or as what might be terms as Love itself.

  • Many have tried, in the main, to use non-personal metaphors rather than personal ones to avoid the mechanistic and embrace the relational.  And let’s be honest the thoughts of many have been including those positively influenced by the work of Charles Darwin and his 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species.

In that book Darwin suggested that the world/universe was:

  • unfinished and continuing;
  • involved chance events and struggle, and
  • natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint”. (Birch 1965:29).

Put another way more inclusive way might be to say: cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution. (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004). Or yet another way: “In the beginning was creativity and the creativity was with God, and the creativity was God.  All things came into being through the mystery of creativity; apart from creativity nothing would have come into being. (Kaufman 2004:ix).

I would dare to suggest that we have mentally constructed another universe in recent years. Both in science and in religion/theology. Not as some sort of revelation by by evolution in keeping with our reality. In science, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the earth’s age is approximately 4.5 billion years.  While the universe – that whole “complex, interrelated and interacting… matter-energy in space-time… of which humans are an integral part…” (Gillette 2006:1), is approximately 14 billion years old.

And “if we put our fourteen-billion-year universe on a clock of one hour, humanity appears in only the last few seconds” (Peters 2002:127). So, ‘modern’ science is saying and has been saying, again and again: the universe must be regarded as a whole; it is of intrinsic value, and each part, galaxy, organism, individual atom, participates in that intrinsic value as each part or web, participates in this wonderful web of life.

This is further supported by recent neurological understandings and experimental outcomes of the human brain at work. Iain McGilchrist’s work on the brain and the mind supports this interdependent dynamic relational reality. No longer is it sufficient to argue that each part, put together makes a whole like some sort of mechanical entity is rather a living organism that is more than the sum of its parts. It is a whole first and foremost.

As one overseas colleague of Rex’s has said: “This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read”. (John Shuck). This is a challenge to the definitions we use for God.

And just in case you think this is new there are a few books, such as: Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution”, David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone. How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives, and
Lloyd Geering, ‘From the Big Bang to God’. Our Awe-inspiring Journey of Evolution. That support this view.

The ‘naturalistic’ strand of theology shaped by former (now late) Harvard Divinity School theologian, Gordon Kaufman, presents God as a non-personal ‘serendipitous creativity’
“manifest throughout the cosmos instead of as a kind of cosmic person.  We humans are deeply embedded in, and basically sustained by, this creative activity in and through the web of life on planet Earth”. (Kaufman 2004:58).

Rex argues that Kaufman clearly names the problem with traditional religious language and thinking. Likewise, his alternative thinking and language embraces both our scientific knowledge and the reality beyond the symbols of biblical faith.

What is happening around the world is that a growing number of people, religious and scientifically minded, and conscious of this ‘web within a web of life’, or this dynamic more that is both organic and material or spirit and matter interwoven are recognising that our modern life-style is: harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns.

The earth is under assault!  Indeed “we are killing our very life support system in a manner unprecedented in human history.  And yet, most of us go about our daily lives more or less blissfully indifferent to the devastation”. (Hill 2008:10). Thus, progressive religious thought calls each and every one of us to ‘dance with’, to find and live in harmony with, our world.

And progressive religious/christian thought seeks to name appropriately that creativity which indwells and sustains all life forms… galaxy organism and individual atom… ‘God’ or ‘the sacred’ or ‘serendipitous creativity’.

Meanwhile, Karl Peters, retired professor of philosophy and religion, has a couple of interesting and detailed comments. They are like that which I have often been accuses of, a bit technical and a little wordy, but they are an attempt to revisit interpretations and concepts of the past in a new way.

To the question: ‘How old are we?’ Peters says: “phenomenally, a few decades; culturally, a few centuries or millennia; biologically, millions of years; cosmically, about 15 billion years”. (Peters 1992:412).

To the additional question: ‘How long will we continue?’ he adds: “phenomenally, a few more decades or less; culturally, maybe a few more centuries; biologically, millions of years or, if we do not destroy ourselves first, perhaps until our sun dies five (5) billion years from now; cosmically, until the universe ends, which may be never…”. (Peters 1992:412).

Peters, answers are a kind of cosmic recipe for the functioning of all things. And reminds us that nature is in us as much as we are nature. “We are webs of reality, woven out of the threads of culture, biology, and cosmos…  As webs of reality each of us is a manifestation of a larger part of the universe as a whole…  We contain in us… after many cosmic, biological, and cultural transformations, the radiation that was present at the origin of the universe”. (Peters 1992:412).

For Peters and for many the evolutionary epic is a religious world view. All of this and more, is why, on Evolution Weekend, we might talk about God. The capacity of the natural world to inspire a religious response from humans has long been recognised—even before the new level of stunning cinematographic visualisations as in David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet 1 & 2 and before that, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

Thus, there is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions.  “If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred,” writes Jerome Stone, “surely, we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognized as sacred… 

J A Stone reminds us that there is a strong monotheistic tradition of cutting down the sacred groves. What we need is to realise that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship… but is rather the acknowledgement of the awesome, and the overriding and the overwhelming.” .(Stone 1997)

One of the important things to understand and embrace is that religious orientation only lives while we are making it up, while our imaginations and creative juices are firing and we are ‘composting’—crafting—new angles, new narratives, new metaphors within the particular context of the moment because these things are liberating.  And such ‘crafting’ is today, much more than embarking of a salvage operation!  What matters most for the religious life, is imagination and experimentation.  Honouring and engaging the mind, living the question as dynamic, dialectic, not just intellectually thinking and by exploring the adventure of being human, using intuition, imagination as the mode of becoming. 

Birch, L. C. Nature and God. London. SCM Press, 1965.
Birch, L. C. Science & Soul. Sydney. University of New South Wales Press, 2008.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for Religious Naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6. (An online journal).
Hill, J. A. Ethics in the Global Village. Moral insights for the post 9-11 USA. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2008.
Kaufman, G. D. In the Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2004.
Macquarie Dictionary. McMahons Point. Macquarie University, 1981.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity International, 2002.
Peters, K. E. 1992.  “Interrelating Nature, Humanity, and the Work of God: Some issues for future reflection” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 27, 4, 403-419.
Zimmermn, M. “The Evolution-creation Controversy. Why it Matters”. Part 1, in The FourthR 23, 6, 11-15, 26, 2010.
Stone, J. A. “On Listening to Indigenous Peoples and Neo-pagans: Obstacles to Appropriating the Old Ways” in (Ed). C. D. Hardwick & D. A. Crosby. Pragmatism, Neo-Pragmatism, and Religion: Conversations with Richard Rorty. New York. Peter Lang, 1997

R E Hunt

Salt and Light… Today?

Posted: January 30, 2023 in Uncategorized

Salt and Light… Today?

Much debate and discussion has taken place over the years as to what is the role of the church. And by church I mean that in a universal sense. The ‘church’ that we find in the local expression often called a congregation. We note that like most businesses, organisations and human institutions we as the church always seem to be in the middle of one of those discussions about the future. And they are always discussions about restructuring… Always it seems!

As far as the church goes it seems that many of us feel all this restructuring talk will enable our Church, Congregation or Faith Community to more resemble the kingdom or realm of God of which Jesus spoke about. We tend to forget that it is an alternative way of being from that which we might assume is better or perfect, or efficient.

What we invariably get caught up in is the causes have more to do with dwindling resources,
an outdated theology, and the rate of change in the world. Like climate change issues we scramble with what we think is a better way of doing things rather than seek an alternative way of being. It seems that we don’t really want to believe that if everything changes, then change too must change.

For instance, each generation finds itself further removed from its predecessor. The gap between children and their parents is always a little wider than it had been for parents and their parents. (Friedman 2009:10). The same can be said for ‘church’.

During this time of continuing change, what will guide us in our understanding of ‘church’? How will our ecclesiology mirror our theology and how will our theology reflect the alternative we seek and how will our theology reflect that which we now know?

It is always tempting to look back. And it is important to reflect on how the past has influenced our present, but as historical beings we are not just nourished by our past. We actually live in the present, and it is a new present, “qualitatively different from any of our human pasts” (Kaufman 2006:106). This is the nature of the realm that we seek, it is always the alternative, it is always that which is yet to be but it is also about being alternative and thus we are required to be attentive to alternative, always ready to engage imagination.

It will of course also be tempting to do nothing, lest we upset someone or their pet likes or dislikes, or power structures. We will always create resistance to change otherwise it would not be new, it would not happen without the other, the other person, the other point of view. Without challenge is would become useless fundamentalism. It is always more that its label, more than extremes.

Maybe the question we face is where are our discussion about alternatives? Where are our guides amid these calls for change or redefinition? What will shape our new present which is  qualitatively different from our past? If we have any so-called hope as followers of Jesus what might it look like? Maybe we could start with our stories? Perhaps today’s stories, which hint at common everyday life in first century Palestine, and as told by the storyteller we call Matthew, can be a guide, or at least offer a couple of suggestions or signposts.

The images of the ‘church’ as light or salt, as eagerly grabbed hold of by many church leaders, as catalysts for illumination or flavour seem to be in sharp contrast to much of our modern mega-church or mission thinking. These sayings might appear to uncover something of the indirect and hidden nature of the church. That is, they might as stories from the past reveal a way in which the life of a faith community could seek to express itself.  Rather than calling attention to itself, to claim some sort of singular truth possessed as a group of people who know it all, who have got it all sorted as if there is only one way of being? Maybe the question we face in our time is what is a church or congregation or a ‘follower of Jesus’, that is most effective when it/they are not noticed. I am not suggesting that church can exist outside of, nor instead of or in separation from, the community that surrounds and feeds us as human beings.

Some years ago, retired Melbourne theologian and educationalist, Denham Grierson,
published an important book called, “A People on The Way”. It was a study of ‘congregation, mission and Australian culture’ where he picked up the three biblical images of light,
salt and yeast and said they provide “a theological foundation for a local congregation as it seeks to define its mission”.

He then went on: “That mission is best understood as a continuing persisting presence…  Much of the witness of the local congregation (will be) of the kind that is hidden within the fabric of community”. A continuing persisting presence…  Hidden, we might say, like salt? Just enough salt and we say ‘this steak is juicy and tender’. Too much salt and we spit it out and complain. The salt is not detectable if it is doing its job. Its effects are.

Grierson, also being a storyteller, digs into his local history and tells a ‘salt’ story…  His story was that during the post war years in the 1940s in Australia a small but determined Catholic woman heard of thesickness of aged neighbours in small houses in her street.

South Melbourne, the suburb where she lived, was hard hit by strikes and unemployment. Many people were sick because of poor nutrition, and unable to act because of advanced age. So Mary Kehoe mobilised some of her friends and they cooked meals for those who were ill.

A problem arose as to how to carry the meals to those in need?  And a solution was found in the use of an old pram. The meals were loaded into the pram, and pushed up the street to the houses of the unwell and needy, and to a canteen two houses from Mary Kehoe’s place. Her efforts to involve the local council had resulted in the provision of two huts to act as a relief centre. Meals cooked at her house were wheeled to the canteen where many gathered for emergency help. Thus began ‘Meals on Wheels’, which today it is so much a part of many of our social service provisions  where its beginnings are lost and forgotten. What this does is give hope and support to hundreds of people, who without it, would not survive.

The manifestation of imagination, human effort and a continuing persisting presence, hidden, like salt changes things.

Biblical scholar Barbara Reid puts Matthew’s ‘salt’ story in some sort of context: “…the uses of salt in the ancient world included: seasoning, preservation, purification, and judgment…” She goes on: “In saying to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ Jesus could have meant that they perform any and all of these functions: that they draw out the liveliness and flavour of God’s love in the world; they are a sign of God’s eternal fidelity; they bring to judgment all that is opposed to God’s basiliea”. (Reid 2001:48). Like the symbolic Hebrew Passover meal the reality of collaboration, shared celebration, shared resources the church is seen in its becoming.

Then She makes this important comment: She says: “The task of Christians in every age is to discern what it means in a new context to be faithful to the words and deeds of Jesus.  Just as Christians of the last century determined that abolition of slavery was being most faithful to the gospel, even though Jesus’ teachings presumed the institution of slavery, so today we face the challenge of eliminating sexism, inculturation, extremisms and systems of domination, though even though these are woven into the fabric of the Gospels”. Makes some significant challenges for reliance of restructuring I suggest. If everything changes, then change must change too.

What do we mean when we suggest our new way of being will be characterised or shaped by:
(a) listening to the community first rather than talk;

(b) letting what we hear and feel and sense genuinely shape our gospel response;

(c) letting our response be original and creative.

I want to suggest that St Andrews has been innovative, attentive to others and resourceful in its support and initiatives. It’s model has been to speak inclusive language, to be inclusive in its actions and its evangelism tries to be a continuing receptive persisting presence, and hidden if you like, like salt. And amid change that too is changing. Where is the alternative that identifies the Way of Jesus?

If we are to face a ‘church’ which is discussing change and restructuring because of dwindling resources and interest in faith communities that come with an identity assumed or not… And if we are to face this changing situation with integrity and purpose, then how we become ‘church’ in the community, will be more important than how we are structured within any set of set of Regulations or guidelines or Constitution. Note I haven’t given you any solution because I am not sure we have understood the question yet. What does it mean to be light and salt to those who don’t understand or want to be like us? How do we be a continuing persisting presence… This is the question that is being asked.

Friedman, E. H. What are You Going to Do with Your Life? Unpublished Writing and Diaries. New York. Seabury Books, 2009.
Grierson, D. A People on The Way. Congregation, Mission and Australian Culture. Melbourne. JBCE, 1991.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minniapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.

We Are To Be!

Posted: January 26, 2023 in Uncategorized

We Are To Be!

In today’s gospel story we have the beginnings of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes. Some have even paraphrased the title as: ‘Be-Attitudes’ or ‘Attitudes for Being’. It is a very well-known section of the gospel story and we probably have heard a similar story – from Luke, and most probably last year. But Matthew’s story is not the same as Luke’s.  However, Luke’s version is written after Matthew, and it is likely that he is using earlier material. That said, the Luke story is about the poor, the hungry and those who weep. He is clearly talking about human need and he reflects Jesus’ sayings that when God’s reign is enacted, there will be change but it will be good news for only certain people. The poor. The hungry. The depressed. Whereas in Matthew’s story we find that these promises have undergone some change.  Matthew’s focus is less on the needy, and they have been somewhat ‘spiritualised’. Matthew’s focus is more on the hearers who need to be challenged to take up new attitudes.

[Former] West Australian Bill Loader offers this suggestion for the change in emphasis: “Love and compassion are the hallmark of the discipleship for which Jesus calls… Perhaps this reflects the kind of people who made up Matthew’s community.  So… the beatitudes have been changed from promises to the poor and hungry to challenges to people to be ‘poor in spirit’ and to ‘hunger after righteousness’… attitudes and behaviour you need to develop”.  (Loader web site 2005).

Now, whether Jesus actually preached a so-called ‘sermon’ like this or not, is debatable. Much recent scholarship reckons he didn’t, and that what we have here is an edited collection of sayings. What seemed to matter for Matthew the storyteller, was the building-up of his young, struggling house-churches. And to do that Matthew had to recruit more followers who would take upon themselves the responsibility for dreaming and for re-imagining the world. But they had little or no inkling how to live out that dream. How to be a ‘kingdom’ of equals. So, Matthew tells a story… of Jesus leading a group of supporters to the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where he, Jesus, begins to teach and stretch their imaginations.

The Inclusive Language Lectionary from which we gained our version today uses the words “Happy are…” ‘Happy’ is a word which seems to jar as somewhat strange and even superficial and not everyone is happy with the ‘happy’ translation. A few commentators reckon it makes Jesus out to be some kind of “pop psychologist”.  (Sarah Dylan Breuer). However, I like Rex Hunts response to that when he asks, “doesn’t everyone strive to be ‘happy’?” And besides, doesn’t the more familiar translation, ‘Blessed’ open to the irritating touch of the pious. There is a third suggestion around and that is to replace ‘blessed’, the traditional term derived from the Latin, with its modern equivalent ‘congratulations!’ For in these sayings “Jesus declares that certain groups are in God’s special favour”. (Funk 1993:138) And then there is a fourth one which is to translate the Greek as ‘honoured’ . (J H Neyrey). Honoured are you when you make the greatest claim for others; Honoured are you when you bring peace rather than being a source of dissension; Honoured are you when you act non-violently in the face of violence.

Matthew sets the stage and he does that in story… A story which has us and the members of his collection of house churches, overhearing a Jesus’ conversation… A story which invites a response in favour of those who are adversely affected by the powerful goings-on of the ‘empire’. And encouraging a response that is more an incentive to want to do away with all that oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, imprisons others. The challenge is one of attitudes, assumptions and systemic culture akin to that which we call colonialism, inculturation and a number of social, political and economic isms. To borrow some 21st century words of social commentator, Hugh Mackay: “The acid test of the decency of any society [or group] is the way it deals with the disadvantaged, the drop-outs, the criminals and, yes, the ‘aliens’”.

In all these story suggestions we can sense Matthew’s hope that at least some of the house-church membership will reply: Yes, we know that’s risky. Yes, we know that means change. But… we can be that!  Our hope for the future lies with us in this. We can live out that dream! We can make that happen. And like Matthew’s house-churches, we are also invited to listen. To discern, to hear the alternative, to seek the better, the alternative. Like Matthew’s house-churches, we too can respond: And yes, that will be risky because we will be changed. And like the members of Matthew’s house-churches, we can. accept that we will not get it all right first time, that we need to adapt and move during the change. It will not be perfect. But it will be with the strongest of intent because it is about the attitude of the common good, the compassionate and the loving..

One of the challenges we in New Zealand face at this time is the upcoming 2023 national elections. In my view we have had a leader who took on a challenge to change attitudes to the poor and disadvantaged, and to the adversarial attitudinal them and us approach. The stigmatization of difference, and to the individualist propensity to isolate the frightening. Some argue that this last battle was hugely difficult and even divisive. What was possible lost in this was the theme of the search for wellbeing. The nation was once again sucked into an adversarial mode and we know now of the vitriolic, bigotry, the racism and stereotyping that such an approach revealed and we were reminded of the challenge of the beatitudes. Happy are the  poor that, Blessed are the poor, Honoured are the poor. We are forced to ask: how does that happen without a change of heart? How does a nation change its attitude? Can it change? The danger of the election process is that we lose sight of who are we to be and get caught up in the need to win and to control our world as if our ideals are absolutes of right when the reality is that life is dynamic and can only succeed with attitudes of compassion and love. The task of politics is the wellbeing of the people ad it can only happen within an attitude of love, Love for the people, Love for those who struggle to be able to be who they are called to be. Fully functioning members of the society that we name New Zealand. It wasn’t called the ’team of 5 million’ for nothing. It wasn’t about the battle between the centralization verses the privatisation of resources and control, it was about the attitude towards each other as human beings on this populated planet called Earth. Surely we have learnt that the way we have been doing things, the attitudes we have towards each other, towards the planet and to wards the cosmos cannot be sustained. Time to read the beatitudes again it seems? Amen.

Bibliography: Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. Sarah Dylan Breuer. 2005. Funk, R. W. et al. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan Publishing, 1993. Jerome H. Neyrey. <http://www.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/loss.html&gt; “Honoring the Dishonored: The Cultural Edge of Jesus’ Beatitudes,”

‘Each Day Nurtures and Enlivens’

The story of the Baptism of Jesus is a story that reminds us of the nature of awareness, the nature of encountering or engaging with the novel, the new. It challenges us to ask about choice and decision and making change and how to value them as part of life and living while at the same time acknowledging their importance as watershed or significant life choices. In the time of the early gatherings of Jesus followers it was important to declare ones membership of the cause, Baptism was a ritual that expressed that and later took on the supernatural status of divine family. The context of the story in our context is our lives and how we live them. During the past week of so some of us have undertaken the post-Christmas ritual of disassembling the lounge room Christmas tree and decorations. The fairy lights and decorated wreaths and been packed away. The last remaining spot of candle grease removed from the dining room table. And the Christmas cards packed away as reminders for another year. Maybe the cupboards and ‘under beds’ have once again received their annual ‘gifts’ and will not be invaded for another 11 months. It’ll soon be back to reality! Time to get back into the public demands of commuting and work and all that.

In the spirit of this so-called ‘return to reality’ let me then pose a couple of questions. How do we prepare to step out into the public spotlight? And how do we act once we are out in the public view? In this post Christendom and almost post Christian world, what is the significance of the ritual of Baptism? Parties, media releases and performances are the usual ways folk are introduced into public view.

 Rex Hunt talks of an article he read in 1970 Joint Board of Christian Education –
written by former Victorian, Doug Mackenzie.  The query was, “How can we in the church expand our rituals, our celebrations, to include those important special stages of life – such as applying for a first job, or leaving home to go to university, or heading off overseas for 12 months? What rituals can we, the church, encourage, invent, celebrate, as those among us step out into the public spotlight in these ‘first time’ public events? Rex commented that he was left with the conclusion we really haven’t seen the necessity of doing that. Perhaps it is caught up in the ‘too hard’ basket. Or got lost in the so-called ‘sacred/secular’ debate.”

Rex also notes that the church has been reasonably successful despite the decline in acknowledging how one is introduced into public ministry within the church. It still maintains its recognition and even one’s authentication or legalization through ordination and induction.

The baptism of Jesus, as told by the storyteller Matthew, is the church’s traditional ritual story of the ‘coming out’ of Jesus into the public spotlight. And while Jesus may have been reticent to claim titles for himself, others, such as Matthew, were quick to do so. For Matthew, this ‘coming out’ is of the one who will “establish justice upon the earth”. through tenderness and vulnerability rather than force. We note here the magnitude of the significance of his Baptism as more than an individually motivated act and thus an integral part of the meaning of the ritual. His coming out was both an individual personal choice and a social, political, economic, and religious transformation.

New Testament scholars now tell us the baptism of Jesus has distinctive characteristics in Matthew’s story. For instance, only Matthew: • includes a conversation between John the baptiser and Jesus; • recounts John’s resistance to the baptism request; • stresses the public character of the baptism – the ‘voice’ addresses everyone. And the baptism of Jesus was also a very controversial subject. John was not the first to baptise people. Jews baptised ‘outsiders’ into their faith, but did not baptise other Jews. Jesus was a Jew.

William Barclay picks up this point in his commentary on Matthew: “No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism…”. (Barclay 1956:52-53).

Rex has also said elsewhere… that;(i) Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in the Synoptic Gospels, and not as ‘historical reports, but as Christian accounts of an existing practice within the Christian community, (ii) that tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John the Dipper baptising Jesus, and (iii) the John baptism was not a Christian baptism!

Grounding the Sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament as some are wont to do, is also tricky business.  There is no consistent or one New Testament view on this which leaded one to abandon that understanding.  Even when we examine the genuine Pauline letters it is impossible to determine the origin of Christian baptism.  Only that Paul already met with baptism

These were all important issues for members of the early Jesus Movement communities. Especially the debate around the different style and theology of Jesus and his cousin John, the baptiser! Dom Crossan also puts this in context for us: “The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful” (Crossan 1991:232).

And of course this raises another question. That which we have been taught by conservatives and traditionalists that Jesus was born and led a ‘sinless’ life. Like us, but not really one of us. So was Jesus just participating in a public relations exercise by setting a good public example? Others have suggested that maybe Jesus did not see himself as beyond the need for repentance. That he was content to be identified along with the tax collectors, the lowly, the outsider. Maybe he felt an acute need to share the baptism of repentance.

Bruce Prewer, retired Uniting Church minister, suggests: “Jesus was baptised along beside the common human herd, because he was one of us and saw himself as one of us.  He did not play the role of being a human being; he was one.  His dipping in the river was neither setting a good example nor a public relations exercise for the best of reasons…  If this leaves us in a doctrinal tangle about the so-called sinlessness of Jesus, too bad.  I would far prefer a tangle, a dilemma, a paradox, than compromise [his] essential humanity…”.  (Bruce Prewer Web site, 2005).

Much doctrinal ‘bothering’ has gone on over the years around this issue. In Matthew’s era and in our era. And no doubt all of you will have your own opinion on this issue as well. I am sure when Matthew told this story, he told it very sensitively and aware of the raging debates of his time. But Like Rex and many Progressives, I am also inclined to the view the reason he told this story was not doctrinal, but to lure his hearers away from all those ‘tangles’ to the life of the man Jesus who’s vision would enlarge their experiences of what it means to be human, a child of God, and the understanding of that which they named Elohim, Yahweh, and God and what we might name Love, The sacred, Perhaps or Almost.

Today, we are invited to recall the public ‘coming out’ of Jesus: Jesus’ baptism. And by association we are also being invited to recall our own baptism. To know again, to remember again, to acknowledge that the refreshing waters of baptism signified by the ritual enlivens, and nurtures us each new day. It also reminds us that we live in tat which we call God, the Serendipitously creating event we call God lives and comes to wonderful expression, in us in every new moment of life. If anything needs a ritual then that has to worth ‘coming out’ and celebrating! Amen.

Barclay, W. The Gospel According to Matthew. Scotland. St Andrew’s Press, 1956.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.

Hunt & Jenks. Wisdom & Imagination, Melbourne. Morning Star Publishing, 2014) ALSO Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2016.

Posted: January 11, 2023 in Uncategorized

Travelling Light.’

Did you hear the story floating about over the Christmas holidays? It claims that because the nativity stories were written by men there is a gap in the narratives about the birth of Mary and Joseph’s baby boy. This alternative version says that… Three Wise Women actually arrived before the three Wise Men (Ones). The women quickly asked for directions, got there in time to deliver the baby, made a casserole, and brought disposable nappies, baby cream and baby powder as their gifts for Mary, and a soft toy for the baby.

Are we in a post Christendom world or maybe even a post Christian World? Are we abandoning the Jesus story in favour of another or are we modifying it in the light of revelation? Are we reinterpreting it and how far can we go. I found a poem by John Roedel.

I was riding comfortably on the road to God

when suddenly and without warning

the wheels fell off of the ornate carriage I was riding in

~ and I became stuck

I was stranded on a dusty road

surrounded by the untamed wilderness on either side of me

“I have to get moving again,” I thought

so, I spent way too much time

desperately trying to fix what was irrecoverably broken

eventually, it became clear that I would never get my life to look the way it used to

I was tempted to turn the wreckage of my life into a roadside museum

and to make a home out of the ruins

but then suddenly and without warning

a blue butterfly came out of the badlands next to me ~

and landed right on my nose

her wings had the most abstract watercolor pattern I had ever see before

~ but after spending an hour watching her stretch and close her wings

I was able to see that the pattern actually spelled three words that I spoke out loud

“come find Me”

then suddenly and without warning the butterfly lept off of my nose

and back into the sprawling wild

I immediately set fire to the wreckage of my broken down carriage

and I chased the butterfly straight into the chaos of the wilderness

I’ve been out here for years now and I’ve learned that no matter how lost I have gotten

I have never felt more found by the Great Love

I have learned that there is no set road for me to journey to the home of God

for me, God’s home isn’t a fabulous destination at the end of a detailed map

or tight travel schedule

God’s home is the uncharted dangerous expanse of wonder and howling wolves

where the two of us climb trees to scout the next day’s walk

I was never going to find Love by watching the wheels spin on a groomed path

I was only going to find God by stepping off the path and into the crackerjack

splendor of the mystery that has been calling to me for years

it’s an undiscovered land where tree trunks are shaped like question marks

and rivers lead me from one curiosity to the next

it’s a relentless and unending adventure where Spirit arranges a couple hundred

bright blue butterflies in the sky to spell the same thing each morning:

“Come find me”

Today, we move further into the church’s traditional calendar… into the season of Epiphany. We remember here that Epiphany means ‘revelation’ or ‘showing forth’. Like the poem above we can say in our everyday contemporary language that: Epiphany is about ‘going on a journey, about searching for the new. We hear a collection of stories: of the Magi or Wise Ones, the baptism of Jesus, and the Marriage Feast of Cana, where Jesus begins his public ministry, and the calling of the first disciples. Interestingly enough, the biblical stories imply
Epiphany is a search everyone must make.

The storyteller we call Luke… has the poor doing the searching,  in the form of shepherds. The storyteller we call Matthew… has the learned (and rich) doing the searching, in the form of the Magi.

We are used to hearing the story of the Magi, but many of us miss the fact that our religious tradition gives us two sets of so-called Magi or Wise Ones. The first set are the ones we call the Magi. Legend and not history has it there were three and they have those lovely mediaeval names of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. And they took a series of risks as they pushed some boundaries and searched the heavens, followed the star, and made a commitment. But there was a second group of Wise Ones, the one’s Herod called in… These were the scribes and the pharisees.

Herod says to these Wise Ones, “I’ve got a problem here”.  And when you’ve got a problem you either call in the experts, or check out Wikipedia! Herod chose the former. He gathered a bunch of them together and said, “They talk of the birth of a messiah; I want to know where he is to be born.” And these Wise Ones come up with a ‘poetic’ answer: “In Bethlehem of Judea.” And that’s all that we hear of them.

Two groups of so-called ‘wise ones’.  Two different groups of ‘wise ones’. One group prepared to play it safe… One group, curious about the new, but prepared to take some risks. This Epiphany, we are asked to choose between the two ‘wise’ types: between those who play it safe, and between those who take a risk. Again, like that revealed by the poem above this risk or this revelation is a challenge about the need for a journey. It is perhaps too easy to say and could be said about every year and it can and should but like every year this one is going to be a very interesting and important year for this congregation this church this denomination and for you and I. A bit of a watershed year, we might say.

The challenge of this Epiphany, this year, this group of people is for it to be a year where we all dare to:

• use our imaginations a little more,

• recommit our involvement a little more, and

• like the Magi, become changed ourselves because of the experience and ‘return home by      another way’.

Rex Hunt suggests we might need an image to help us as we begin our new year together, as leaders and followers and the image he suggests is of being on a journey… on a camping trip, in tents, to be exact. We are on a journey. And because we are in tents, we need to travel light. While we need the ‘kitchen sink’, it needs to be a light-weight kitchen sink! But more than that, we are all on the journey together. We need each other’s guidance. We need each other’s encouragement. We need each other’s imagination. We need each other’s curiosity. We need each other’s creativity. We need each other’s balance.

We are all on a journey. And all of us are at different points on that journey. Some of us are way up the front; others of us are at the rear. Some of us are willing; some of us are dragging our feet just a bit. Some of us journey with great certainty; some of us have some doubt. It doesn’t matter where we are in the trip… It’s important that we are journeying at all. At least we’ve responded… we’re taking the risk, to explore, and to return home by another way!

And where is the hope of a new and different future? As a result of their journey, the Magi were changed. No longer could they be instruments of a government oppression. No longer could they repose in cynicism. No longer could they face the world with mere curiosity, remaining aloof. They were changed.  For they had been confronted with the newness and the hope experienced in a God like never before known. And their story is our story, too.
Home by a different way, never to be the same again. As we confront the demise of Christendom and maybe of the Christianity as we know it maybe the hope lies in our ability to interpret for today?


Caught in the kaleidoscope of love I am confronted by the beauty in ambiguity.

Swept away in gratitude for graced glimpses of what used to be certainty

wallowing in companionship of the other,

mesmerized by the constancy of the limited declaration.

Serendipitously divine beauty calls beyond the deeply disconcerting

carrying us far away to a place beyond and yet within the simple

complete but not yet dead alive and not yet born

Drawn by sunsets the dark clouds of distance are revealed

Yet still promise near the peaceful peaks and distant mountains

 The coloured strands of vision dance and glow like every changing form

 bouncing off barren branches and fluttering leaves of time

Sacred beauty is revealed in the gift of magnificence

like a cloaking of the soul brought to bear

In loving, consolation, affirmation, healing,

challenge and gratitude.

A dance of allurement in the heart of mystery,

Born a life of beauty, of mind beyond mundane, a life of sacred unity.

D Lendrum

In a way Epiphany is about another way to live. Another way to love. Another way to belong. Another way to be all we can possibly be.

John Shuck says that “Because Creativity God “is a god on the move and on the margins”. “This is a god who invites us to…

  • Imagine a world in which there are no weapons because no one can ever think of a need for one.
  • Imagine a world in which we don’t fear each other but enjoy each other.
  • Imagine a world in which no one ever needs to worry about what to eat or what to wear or where to sleep.
  • Imagine a world in which we give what we take and everyone has enough.
  • Imagine a world in which our talents and creativity are valued for the joy they bring not the profit they make.
  • Imagine a world in which the circle of care is so large that no one is left out.
  • Imagine a world in which education is a lifetime love of learning.
  • Imagine a world in which we live with the rhythms of Earth.
  • Imagine a world in which we respect and care for all living things.
  • Imagine a world in which the decisions we make are made with the awareness of how they will affect seven generations to come.
  • Imagine a world in which we are daily filled with awe and joy”  

(JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog, 16/1/2011).

What is sure is that the journey awaits us… Imagine a world where the story of Jesus is a story that describes our journey, not God’s. This is Epiphany, our time for searching and journeying! The story of God is already being told and awaits ours to make it exist. So, Welcome to the journey… to an exciting camping trip. Together. Amen.