Disturbing Tourists – Epiphany Year C

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I don’t know about you but I don’t like being disturbed.   Especially when it has taken me a while to get everything just the way it should be, and I can finally settle down into the comfort of the conditions I have created.   Whether it be the way my office administration operates, or something smaller like settling down to have a cozy evening read; I dislike disturbance.

On this feast of the Epiphany Matthew tells us that Herod and the whole of Jerusalem were disturbed.   It was all because some exotic Eastern mystics, called Magi, who drifted into Jerusalem, wanted to know where the child was who had been born as the king of the Jews.

I am puzzled as to why this should have made troubled Herod, and why Herod’s perturbation should have been so infectious as to disturb all of Jerusalem with him?
But when I remember how I dislike being disturbed I begin to understand Herod’s agitation.  He had built himself a comfortable kingdom that worked for him.   Obsequious enough to Rome, he was rewarded with “homeland” rule, much like the puppet leaders of the old South African regime were rewarded for their loyalty to the Pretoria Nationalists.

The mere thought that there was another “king” out there who could threaten Herod’s comfort was cause enough to disturb him.  The fact that the whole of Jerusalem was agitated too, is testimony to the fact that there are very few societies that embrace change.  Despite the graces of  a Gandhi, Mandela or Obama, we still find change from our familiar power bases disturbing.

As we read on into this chapter however, we are given deeper clues as to the reason for the agitation.  Herod like so many power players was agitated because at a deep level he knew that there were ethical issues at stake.

The research that Herod commissions from the scholars yields an interesting piece of prophecy, ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.

It would seem to me that Herod’s agitation is deepened into murderous intent when he realizes that this is no mere political opponent he is going to have deal with.  I infer this because of the phrase, “a ruler who will shepherd
Shepherding is not associated with political power is it?

Rulers rule. Presidents preside. Leaders lead. Executives execute.
They don’t shepherd!
Shepherding implies compassion, care and a courageous life-sacrificing quality that few powerful people would understand or want to practice.

Yet this had always been the basis of Godly rule from the inception of the monarchy in Israel.  The very first king David was called from the flocks to be the shepherd king, an archetype which was espoused and fulfilled in Jesus the good shepherd.

Herod, power player and man of maneuvering, could not begin to think of his leadership in those terms, and even though his scripture scholars may have pointed out that this was the scriptural paradigm, Herod knew that this was not how he came to power, and this was certainly not how he was going to stay in power.

So he turned his focus to bloodshed and destruction and is forever remembered as the butcher of the Bethlehem innocents.

I wonder how we are reacting to the reality that there is one amongst us who challenges our illegitimate power bases? This holy child whose birth we have totally over-celebrated, once again, last week.

Do we also want to “put him away” this Epiphany?  Of course not  in butchering bloodshed!  We are too subtle for that.  No we can simply pack this shepherd king away with the Christmas tree and lights, as we dismantle them on the twelfth day of Christmas and assign them to the musty cupboard till next Advent?

Are we also agitated and troubled by the thought that allowing this child to continue to grow in our “homelands” may cost us too much, and disturb our comfortable kingdoms more than we care for?

Herod hid from grace and terrible destruction was the fate and fruit of his life from then on.
Could we do it differently?

The mystical magi are knocking on the door.  They speak of stars and destiny, and shepherd kings who can lead us to God.

Will we allow them to disturb us enough that we might join their caravan of change?

Learning from our children – Christmas 1C

Luke 2:41-52 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.
Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

I have often been heard to say that being a parent for the past 25 years has taught me more about God’s relationship with humankind, than all the theology books I have read. So when I have the privilege of this Lukan window into the world of Mary and Joseph’s parenting of Jesus, I am delighted to see that they had to learn similar lessons to mine.

It was the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet, who first alerted me to the fact that, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Over the past twenty five years I have learnt the truth of this saying as I have not tried to be my sons’, controller, dictator, policeman, moralist, publicist nor garbage disposal unit.
In fact learning to be, not the perfect parent, just the Good Enough Parent, is what taught me so much about God’s parenting.

Mary and Joseph begin their school of Good Enough parenting, by learning the following lessons.

  • Children are never really lost.
  • Children find their true home despite us.

Children are never really lost, they are just on their own path.

There is a parable for me in the way that Mary and Joseph set off back home and travel a whole day with the assumption that Jesus is tagging along.

I feel their discovery of his absence viscerally, for as a parent I know how it is to wake up to the fact that my children are under no obligation to follow the path that I have chosen for myself. I remember the awakening to how I simply assumed that they, and every other rational being on the planet should emulate my path, my values and my way of looking at the world.
I also resonate with the shame, blame,game that Mary tries to lay on Jesus when he is found in the temple. Even down to the way she tries to triangulate Joseph onto her side of the power play!
Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.

Such a familiar scene. Or is my family the only one who played those games?
Remember the old relationship training adage, “Never assume. It only makes an ASS of U and ME!”

Please don’t hear me suggesting that parenting does not involve the formation of young lives. Of course it does! What I am suggesting from the lesson of Mary and Joseph, however, is that this formation must be done with deep respect and discernment for the destiny that our children’s Heavenly Parent has for them.

Chances are, that their destiny will be different from our own and may even be radically different from the plans that we may have made for our children.

I have had too many counselling conversations with distraught, damaged and depressed adults and adolescents who have been made to feel less than adequate for having “let their parents down“.

To any of us who may feel that way, let me remind us that in this passage Jesus also “let his parents down“, and not too gently either.

Can we begin to pray to be “let down” from our lofty delusions of how perfect and conforming our children should be?

They may not need to follow us back to Nazareth. It doesn’t mean they are lost. They are simply finding their own destined home, often closer to God’s heart than we are!

Which is really the core of the second lesson the Holy Family learnt.

Children find their true home despite us.

I have never been able to get my head around the notion of predestination. The idea that God has it all planned and determined from before our birth is offensive and mechanistic for me. Parenting has taught me the impossibility of predestination.

The amazing grace of a relationship with children who are not forced nor manipulated into loving one as the parent, and who do it nonetheless is one of the most profound human experiences. I hope I am never in a relationship where I feel I have to love someone simply because I was told, or required or determined to do so. Such a relationship would be an experience of deep oppression.

Yet, having said that I also know that despite the twists and vagaries of this precious human existence, there is a deep perfection at the heart of the created order. I know it sounds contradictory to human freedom and self determination. I also know that I cannot say it to another human being.

For example to say to my friend who is getting divorced as I write this, or to a congregation member who is grieving deeply years after their child was killed in an accident; “It’s all perfect”, would be scandalous and rude.
Yet somehow when I look at my own life, the past, the present, the pain the joy, the mistakes the success. In all of these I can say, in faith and with reference to my own life alone, “It’s all perfect”

It’s a faith response. It’s a chosen way of viewing my reality. It gives me deep peace.
Is it predestination?

Dear Lord, No!

It is integration.

Mary and Joseph, despite their mistaken assumptions, errors of judgement and anxiety, could also come away from the temple encounter with Jesus with a sense of deep peace, knowing that it was all perfect.
Parenting has taught me to trust the universal and unconditional providence of God, even when terrible and traumatic events tear at my sanity.

It’s all comes home to God.

Didn’t I know that we all need to be in our Father’s house?

I think to myself, “What a wonderful Word” – Christmas Eve/Day

Word becoming flesh

John 1:1-18 (NRSV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

So how does word become flesh?

It is a quirky kind of question, don’t you think?
It sounds like those silly riddles I grew up with. When is a tree not a tree?

Words seem so insubstantial. We talk, we shout, we scream, we sing, we pray.

WordPress.com where I host my blog, tells me that 50,419,875 words were written into its blogs on Thursday.
Flesh on the other hand is very substantial. And after today’s Christmas dinner, chances are your and my flesh will be even more substantial!
On December 19th, there were estimated to be 6,791,048,312 human flesh bodies on the planet according to the US Census service website

So how does word become flesh? And if that is at all possible, how does one such enfleshment change anything amongst so many people on the planet?

One would have to begin with words that can create something.
Words like ‘You are special’, ‘I love you unconditionally’, ‘I want to be with you and share my life with you’.
These are words which we have come to associate with dialogue between lovers, yet if we can tune out the very strong Hollywood, and now Bollywood, overlay we may find that these are words which are at the core of all human longing.
We long for unity and union at almost every level of our lives.

How would the words:’You are special’, ‘I love you unconditionally’, ‘I want to be with you and share my life with you’; have changed us if we had heard them from:

  • Our parents?
  • Our mentors?
  • Our partners?
  • Our children?

We long to be acknowledged. To have someone say, ‘You have significance to me’, ‘What happens to you matters to me’
It is these words that unlock in human nature the almost unlimited potential for the good, the true and the beautiful that we long for and pursue with our lives.
It is these words that lie at the heart of the Incarnation of God into our lives as Jesus.

John’s gospel picks up a Greek philosophical concept namely “The Word”, the divine Logos, that which the Philosophers regarded as the first principle that lies at the heart of all that is good, true and beautiful in the Universe. It is the Word that encapsulates all the integrating words I have been speaking about.

This Word says John, took flesh and pitched its tent among us.

It began with Mary hearing.
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”…”Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:29-30 NRSV)
Mary is incredulous.
“But she was much perplexed by his words (logo-Gk) and pondered(or dialogued with herself) what sort of greeting this might be” Luke 1:29 NRSV
Is it not part of our conditioning by oppressive religious structures that we have been told that we can never hope to find favour with God?
No wonder Mary was puzzled. Raised in a shame blame culture that was particularly hard on women, she would never have hoped to have found favour with God.

In almost thirty years of pastoral ministry I still feel the jolt when someone comes to see me for counsel and begins the conversation, ‘Peter, I know I am not a good Christian, but…‘ In moments like these, and they are all too frequent, I ask myself, what kind of message have we, as the church, been proclaiming?

If you find all the other theological reasons for the Incarnation too esoteric, then this simple moment in a young girl’s life should be enough for you to understand what the theologians try so hard to explain.

God wanted us all to know that we have found favour with God.
That we are blessed amongst people. Not because we are better than them but simply because we have stumbled onto this truth! The Word of God’s love is here for us all to see.

Our Roman Catholic friends have maintained a beautiful prayer, that has largely been lost to Protestantism. It is based on this message of the angel.
I am sure you know it…

Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.

The prayer then goes on into high octane doctrines of the nature of Mary that will only confuse our discussion, so I am going to stop there.

I am sure you agree this prayer is biblical and beautiful
Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.

This is the message of the Incarnation.
This is how the Word becomes flesh.

What is only slowly dawning on me however, as I live with this prayer, is that it is a prayer that I can pray for myself, that you can pray for yourself.
I could pray it like this…

Greetings, Peter, full of grace,
The Lord is with you.
Blessed are you amongst people,
and blessed is the fruit of your life, Jesus.

‘Whoa, just a minute!’, I hear you protest.

Let me unpack this a bit
I am suggesting we can pray the “Hail Mary” and insert our names in Mary’s place, because this is the essential meaning of Word becoming flesh.

So if I can commentate line by line:
Greetings, Peter, full of grace (where would I be without Amazing Grace?)
The Lord is with you. (always, till the end of the age)
Blessed are you amongst people (because, somehow, this Good News found me!)
and blessed is the fruit of your life, Jesus. (All that is good about me is His Spirit’s fruiting in me)

The Incarnation is not only a moment in history, it is the start of an ongoing process, beginning with Jesus and fruiting in every follower.

I hang out with people of other faiths as often as I can. How else can one hope to build a trust relationship in which to share Jesus?
I really love learning about their notions of what is precious and blessed about their faith path.
Of course when some trust has been built in those friendships, the questions come more easily, and inevitably, this one from my friends on Eastern paths, pops up.
‘Do you believe in reincarnation?’

They of course think they know what my answer is going to be, so what I say surprises them.
‘Yes, I do believe in reincarnation, but maybe not quite as you may think?’

The Christian message clearly speaks of the path of the disciple, being a path of dying to self so that Christ can be born in the follower.
That is Christian reincarnation.
Jesus being re-incarnated in every Christ follower as his word of love, compassion, forgiveness, healing, peace; all of it comes and takes flesh in your life and mine.

The Incarnation of the Word of God into human flesh happens first in Jesus and that is what we are celebrating this Christmas day. The Incarnation doesn’t end there though. It is the ongoing fruit of transformation of my life and yours, by the fruiting Word incarnate in us.

May your life and mine be transformed by God’s word, Jesus and may we all become just like him.

“O holy child of Bethlehem, be born in us today”

Incarnation is an inside job. Advent 4C

The fecund feminine

Allow me a quick recap of the map that we have been following through these weeks of Advent.

Week one: the outer chaos of external events such as the destruction of the temple, and their modern day equivalents in multiple contexts around the world lead one to “lift up your eyes for our redemption is at hand”

Week two: the preparation of the outer ground with the end of “Access control” with the leveling of religious mountains of exclusion, the filling in of valleys of suffering and the straightening of crooked paths, so that a level pathway of equal opportunity can lead to God.

Week three: moves us inward into the heartspace, where the people who come to see John the Baptizer, Priests, Tax Collectors and Soldiers, are not told to give up their tasks when they repent/change, but rather to stay with those tasks bringing to them Compassion, Ethics and Non-abuse of power respectively.

Week four: finds us with Mary having recently conceived by the overpowering of God’s Spirit, going to visit her cousin Elizabeth, where the two women celebrate the fecundity that comes as the consequence of inner journeying.

And so to the Gospel for Sunday

Luke 1:39-56

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

This prayer of Mary is not dissimilar to Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel and it raises a question.

Why do women who are touched by God have their prayers recorded by a patriarchal religion that viewed women as possessions and not people?

Why would these words find a place in the hearts of the men who made the decisions of what to include and what to leave out of their Sacred Texts that they regarded as God’s Word?

Could it be because the Holy Spirit is female energy? A nurturing fruiting energy that even hardened religious men find indispensable on their journey to wisdom?

The Hebrew word for Spirit is in the feminine case.The spirit that overpowered Mary was a feminine Spirit. This was not rape, this was a fecund embrace.

I am a man. A man who has spent my life being taught and told to take charge. To lead, to decide, to dominate.

I keep hearing of, and being invited to mighty men conferences, and I am sure that the intention of developing a wholesome masculine spirituality is important in a world where so many men seem to have lost their way and their sense of identity.

I never accept the invitations.

What concerns me is that very few of the men who go off to the mighty men conferences seem to return having made that essential journey which Richard Rohr calls “From Wild man to Wise man”

Mighty men, in fact, seem to return more determined to dominate and govern their families in ways that sees no decrease in the South African statistics of domestic violence and the abuse of women and children.

So I wonder if mighty men are any wiser?

It would seem from the Gospel this Sunday and from the readings of scripture that wisdom requires female fecundity to fruit.

“Say that Wisdom is thy sister” (Proverbs 7:4)

“Wisdom is known by her children” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:35)

Could it be that the fruiting of God’s working in human life cannot be understood apart from the fecundity of the womb.

When I look back at the map I have discerned in Advent this all begins to make sense. There is a journey from the chaos of the time, wars and rumours of wars, through the ground leveling preparation for God, the entry inside to the heartscape of compassion, ethics, and non-violence, finally to feminine fruiting.

There is in the journey from wild to wise, from outer to inner. A very necessary move from spear to womb.

From force to fecundity.

It is the eternal feminine that brings the truly redemptive processes for humankind to birth

Whether you speak of economics, politics or ecology, it is the nurturing, holding energy of the feminine spirit of God that is at work in what is holding and healing our lives on the planet. Of course I am not denying the need for testosterone.

Where would we be without the Sea Shepherd ramming whalers in protest against their killing of those beautiful behemoths?

I am, however, convinced that we are most likely to build something whole and lasting when we “enwomb” rather than “impale”

For some years now I have meditated on that leap of John the Baptizer in his mother Elizabeth’s womb. This desert dwelling, camel haired, locust eater, (as opposed to lotus eater) responded en utero to the gentle arrival of feminine spirit when Mary came to visit.

Was it this sensitivity which stayed with John and fruited into the profound discernment that knew when it was time to hand over to Jesus and step out of the way, and into history?

Of course I will never know. The speculation is helpful for me though as I come to this final week of preparation to receive Immanuel.

Would that I will find enough feminine spirit moving in my life that something may leap in me, when the yet unborn Christ child comes to visit this Sunday.

I have done with being Wild. Holy Mother help me to become wise.

Could we turn this around? Advent 3C

shipsLuke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

It is interesting that out of the four Sundays of advent, John the Baptizer takes centre stage in Sundays two and three. It is naturally due the fact that Advent is a season of preparation and John is the Arch-Prophet of Preparation.
As we know by now, the first Sunday of Advent is about the trauma of contemporary chaotic events. In the context of Jesus’s words it was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Literally the mountains being made low! The second Sunday is the first John the Baptizer Sunday and focuses on the external preparation for the Coming One. (See The End of Access Control) This third Sunday, the second John Baptizer Sunday move the realm of preparation inwards as we shall see later, and the fourth Advent Sunday reaches the height of interiority with the Annunciation to Mary and the Cosmic conception of Emmanuel in her womb. Please remember that this is not the Immaculate Conception which is a Catholic doctrine referring to something completely different. More of that next week.

All I want to map this week is the concentric inward course of the Advent journey.

The route is Week 1 Outer chaos, Week 2 Outer landscape, Week 3 Inner heart scape, Week 4 Interior fruiting. I trust that your Advent journey is mirroring some of that gradual stepping inside?
And so to the Gospel passage of the week.

After two hundred years of quiet through the Inter-testamental period, (yes I know it wasn’t as silent as our fore-parents in Biblical studies presented,but it does capture the expectancy so cut me some slack?)one can understand the interest that the proclamations of John generated.
Two hundred years is a long time. Imagine religious life going on Sabbath by sabbath from 1810 till now with no change nor new inspiration! Mmmmmm come to think of it, that sounds too familiar for this Methodist.

John’s call to prepare the freeway for the Lord, brings the most interesting collection of people to hear him in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan.

Following the script of most significant theological shifts, there are the scripture scholars and the learned theologians, the Scribes and Pharisees. Good, sincere, religious leaders who somehow always feel obliged to have to see, judge and act upon anything different that emerges in the realms of religion. There is a joke amongst my Roman Catholic friends that any teacher or theologian worth their salt will have to be investigated by Rome at some point in their work. It’s a rite of passage.

One would expect the Scribes and Pharisees to be there. John makes short work of them. Calling someone a snake and the group a brood of vipers is pretty straight talk, but these are, after all, the people of power who are on the summit of the mountains of religious control and prejudice. Mountains that, he told us last week, are about to be downsized to the level of the plains. There is no way to escape the impermanence of power and privilege. The freeway is going to bulldoze its way right through the High Priest’s palace.

In my more inspired moments I think I understand why post-modern deconstruction has been good for the church. Although I long for the power and prestige that must have been a factor to draw me to this vocation all those years ago,  I understand that John was correct, you can’t avoid the wrath that pulls down oppressive power. I understand even when it is difficult to live as a white South-African male now, and to see other mountains rising on what should be a level kingdom plain.
So the priests were duty bound to be there, listening to John.

What they are told however is deeply challenging. “Don’t think your dynasty that you trace back to Abraham will save you from being brought down. Like an axe cutting to the root, let me cut to the root of the problem with the Temple, there is no compassion! Discover that God’s work is compassion and you will realise you don’t have to be in the temple on the mountain top. You can be compassionate anywhere. In things as simple as sharing your surplus.
A surprising answer from someone who started out carving up the snakes with his locust stained tongue.

Less expected at the river sermon though, are his next group of questioners in the narrative. The Tax-collectors.

Who would have thought that these guys, who in our world would be regarded with the same disdain as loan sharks and traffic police (the South African variety who will accept on the spot payment of fines in cash, and small bills), could be attracted by a message of change?

I need to hit the pause button to help us understand this word repent. Too many years, and too many guilt inducing sermons, stand between us and the word that John included in his call. Repent in it’s ancient form, meant to change direction. Realizing that one is on the wrong path, one repents and goes another way. All the added weight of guilt, shame, blame, and boxes of Kleenex tissues is just unnecessary padding. Nonetheless, it is still fascinating that these financial grafters had a desire to change their lives.
Does this point to the truth of that Great Wesleyan teaching, “All people need to be saved”? Perhaps, but  John’s answer, points to the next Wesleyan foundational understanding, “All people can be saved!” Even tax-collectors.

I wonder how many pastors in the church today would show John’s skill in counselling the change-desiring tax-collectors? He doesn’t demand that they give up their difficult and conflicted positions as Jews working as Roman agents. He simply says, “Be fair.” There will always be difficult and easily compromised jobs to do. Keep your values intact. Be ruled by compassion not greed.

Along similar lines, Luke introduces the next group of hearers simply as “soldiers”. We can’t be sure if these would be the hated Roman soldiers of the occupying force in Judea, or if they were the temple guards, accompanying the religious leaders to protect their security on this fact finding mission.
Whatever group of soldiers it might have been, and perhaps it was both, John’s response and invitation has a very contemporary ring to it. “Don’t abuse power for exploitation of the weak. Be satisfied with what you have.”

Of course in our world you don’t have to carry a gun to be able to abuse power, but sometimes it is a lever! Similarly there are many instruments of power that we can “lock and load” to ensure we get our way on the path to privilege and power. Soldiers face the temptation to use their might to get their way by force. Each partner, parent, priest, teacher, employer,and politician have at our disposal an arsenal of abuse with which we can wield power. John says,”You won’t find the kingdom down that road”

In next week’s reading of the Annunciation there is a disturbing phrase. The angel says to Mary, “the power from on high will overwhelm you.” Sounds abusive at one level, doesn’t it?
But remember what it generates.
The infant servant of peace!
Power needn’t exploit. Power can bring peace, compassion and a power of good.

This is the heart scape that John explores with us this third Advent Sunday.
It is a space where anyone may enter, Orthodox Traditionalist, Extortionist, Militarist may I continue with a contemporary list,Racist,Sexist,Atheist, Africanist, (ANY)ist?

Welcome to Emmanuel’s waiting room. Your only entrance requirement is the willingness to be changed by his truth.  Observe your Open Heart scape.  Change is possible.

A Stroke of Insight

CoverIn the stillness of the morning the soul eases itself back from the silent world of dreams and begins to allow the programmes of the left brain begin to shape and plan the events of the day.
It is a quiet and safe place my right hemisphere world of creative unitary energy. I do not need lines, fences, channels in that place. I wander freely and lightly skipping from one image to the next. The soul speaks a softer dialect to the consciousness when I walk there. It truly is the green pasture where my soul is restored.
Reading “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor PhD has given me an anatomical framework for understanding some of the experiences of contemplation and meditation that come to me on the spiritual path. A neuro-anatomist or as she calls herself, a brain scientist, Bolte Taylor came to the field as a deep response to growing up with a schizophrenic brother. She describes how she could never understand how her brother and her could have exactly the same contextual experience and yet interpret the experience is such different ways. She wanted to study brains to see where the differences came from.
It was whilst pursuing this path, that in her late thirties she woke up one morning and whilst preparing to go to work realised that she was having a stroke. Despite the suffering of bleeding into the left hemisphere of her brain, there was also the fascination of the scientist who realised that she would be living what she had been studying all these years.
To me what is most helpful in the book is the experience Jill has as her left brain shuts down. The left brain is the where all the logical processors and interpreters live. Speech, sight, hearing, and even body boundaries are the result of the raw data having been processed on the left of the brain and then transmitted to consciousness. As this part of her brain shut down Bolte Taylor experienced the un-audited activity of the right brain. She says, “In the absence of my left hemisphere’s analytical judgement, I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria and omniscience.” (pg49). She was also aware of a deep desire not to fight to return to logic and reason, but wanted many times to simply yield to the “enfolding sense of liberation and transformation”
She didn’t and fought back. The book is an amazing revelation of the intricacies of the brain, the power of creative care-giving largely by her mother “GG” as well as the plasticity of the brain in its ability to re-learn new ways of functioning.
My Stroke of Insight is filled with very helpful insights and lessons for those who care for stroke victims and the exploding of many of the stroke myths, like “you only have a few months to regain functions and then the residual damage will remain”. For me, however, the interface with the spiritual disciplines of contemplation and meditation, as well as the deep brain psychology of these disciplines is the books major attraction.
What was Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight? I am not taking anything from your own reading of the book as it has much more to say than just this, but the Insight was, “peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind”
I highly recommend this book.
It has left me with a deep desire, “May I nurture and cultivate my silent right brain so that it may to be bullied by my logical left”