Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Lifting our Mater from our Materialism

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Some months ago I was in conversation with a woman who works at the Trust Division of a large bank. I commented that her task was more complex than mine as a minister as she had to deal with both the dimensions of grief and money. Without skipping a beat she replied, “Oh no, when I have had conversations with surviving families in the almost twenty years I have been doing this work, not once have I encountered any signs of grief!

Her comment was for me a confirmation of Jesus’ teaching all those years ago, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Also recently, I learnt of a widow who was cheated out of her entire estate by a smooth talking financial advisor who was her personal banker and who through winning her confidence by taking her in his car to her doctor and by running errands for her, eventually had her sign a power of attorney which he then used to empty her investment accounts! At one level it is fortunate that she died just months before the small balance left in her one account was exhausted, for this dignified trusting woman faced penury. Yes, of course she was silly, even stupid, to sign the power of attorney in the first place but my attention keeps going to the man who committed this crime. A man whose profile you could find on Facebook if I gave you his name and who still walks around the city where this happened, with his wife and family. The resentment and impotent anger I feel even as I write this reminds me that Jesus is correct.

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

The founding father of Methodism, John Wesley, understood this when he wrote in his journal, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.

Of course money in itself is ethically neutral.

There is a power of good being done at this very minute that you are reading this by the skilful application of money to situations of need and suffering all over the planet. However, at the same time that you are reading this a whole heap of evil is accumulating around issues of money in every suburb of the global village.

I need to be very careful in understanding that Jesus is not warning about money, he is warning about greed.

The greed for money can destroy us as we live to” make a killing” instead of working to “make a living”, or a “giving.”

But greed can take many forms: the greed for attention, the greed for control,  the greed for security.

When I went off in search of the roots of the word I found this:

Old.English. grædig “voracious,” also “covetous,” from Proto.Germanic. *grædagaz (cf. Old.Saxon. gradag, Old.Norse. graðr “greed, hunger”), from base *græduz (cf. Gothic. gredus “hunger,” O.E. grædum “eagerly”), cognate with Sanskrit. grdh “to be greedy.” In Greek., the word was philargyros, lit. “money-loving.” A German word for it is habsüchtig, from haben “to have” + sucht “sickness, disease,” with sense tending toward “passion for.”

So greed seems to be a rather universal concept, from Norse and Saxon to Indian Sanskrit, the word seeks to describe the universal problem. A “sickness to have something”.

It is the root of our addictions.

In this connection I am reminded that Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous was in correspondence and greatly helped by Carl Jung the Swiss Psychiatrist. In a very significant letter, that Bill W. treasured all his life, Jung writes about a patient whom he and Bill W had cared for:

Dear Mr. W.

(Note: Emphasis mine)

Your letter has been very welcome indeed.

I had no news from Rowland H. anymore and often wondered what has been his fate. Our conversation which he has adequately reported to you had an aspect of which he did not know. The reason that I could not tell him everything was that those days I had to be exceedingly careful of what I said. I had found out that I was misunderstood in every possible way. Thus I was very careful when I talked to Rowland H. But what I really thought about was the result of many experiences with men of his kind.

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.*

How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days?

The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.

I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouses so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.

These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation to Rowland H., but I am risking it with you because I conclude from your very decent and honest letter that you have acquired a point of view above the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism.

You see, “alcohol” in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

Thanking you again for your kind letter

I remain

Yours sincerely

C. G. Jung*

“As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Psalms 42:1)

As an object of addiction, money can fuel greed in the same way that alcohol fuels alcoholism.

Spiritus contra Spiritum.

From another angle, have you noticed the Latin word for Mother [MATER] in the word MATERialism?

Could it be, that in this Male-energy dominated Patriarchal world (PATER = Father [Latin]) that has created its male dominated Patriarchal religion; there is a resultant craving for Mothering (MATERing), and just as the alcoholic confuses spirits for Spirit, we as materialists have confused the material for Mother?

If that is true, then thank God for the movement we are seeing in our day, away from the Sky God PATER to the Earth Goddess MATER!

Notice how for years we have unconsciously used the female reference, when we have spoken of RAPING
the Earth. Raping our Mother?

Jesus knew that materialism was a false god. What a mountaineer friend of mine describes as a path that leads to a false summit.

Materialism does not diminish the Patriarchal craving for power and possessing.

Our salvation lies not in the material but in the maternal. The nurturing, inclusive, enfolding of God is all that will still our raging consumptive addictions. We need to recognise that calling God our Mother is not a feminist whim, it is the key to our survival.

If we won’t allow the Spirit of our nurturing, inclusive, enfolding Mother to enrapture us, then the ruptured oil wells will continue to bleed death from the rapist’s wounds and the air will be choked from us all by his rapist foul breath.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

At the end of that alchemical work, Faust, by Goethe, the Mystical choir sings:

All that is transitory

shows us the way

is only a symbol;

What seems unachievable

here is seen done;

What’s indescribable

here becomes fact

Woman eternally,

shows us the way.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

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Posted in Book review, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Re-learning to pray for today

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

It has become fashionable in recent years to offer translations of the Lord’s Prayer that intend to make the depths of this core Christian practice more meaningful and accessible.

One of my favourites is the one by Neil Douglas-Klotz, translated from the Aramaic, which is probably the language that Jesus spoke. If you visit this website you can hear the prayer being said in Aramaic (Note that God is referred to as “Allah” in Aramaic, a fact that draws me much closer to my Muslim brothers and sisters when I pray)

Douglas-Klotz’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer published in Prayers of the Cosmos reads as follows:

O Birther! Father- Mother of the Cosmos

Focus your light within us – make it useful.

Create your reign of unity now-

through our fiery hearts and willing hands

Help us love beyond our ideals

and sprout acts of compassion for all creatures.

Animate the earth within us: we then

feel the Wisdom underneath supporting all.

Untangle the knots within

so that we can mend our hearts’ simple ties to each other.

Don’t let surface things delude us,

But free us from what holds us back from our true purpose.

Out of you, the astonishing fire,

Returning light and sound to the cosmos.

Amen.

This translation is obviously very different from the one we grow up saying or singing in church but it does illustrate the need for us, in every generation, to review our understandings, not only of the Lord’s Prayer, but also of all our faith and practice.

A few years ago I was in conversation with a friend who was considering becoming a Buddhist monk and we were reflecting on the two hundred and twenty seven precepts or commandments that govern Bhikkhu’s lives. In that conversation I coined the phrase, “context-relevance” which describes the need for our doctrine, ethics and practice to be relevant with the context we find ourselves in. If we do not pursue context-relevance, (and I don’t mean context-relativism) we run the risk of becoming anachronistic and irrelevant.

With that in mind, permit me to take another look at the Lord’s Prayer (which would be better named “The Disciple’s prayer”; as the Lord’s Prayer is what Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.)

Say it with me:

Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.

Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Give us this day our daily bread nd forgive us our trespasses(sins) as we forgive those who trespass(sin) against us.

And lead us not into temptation (Save us from the time of trial) but deliver is from evil.

Such familiar words which we learn as children, and then as adults we love telling of the bloopers kids make whilst learning. Ones like, “Our Father who shouts in heaven, ‘Hello what’s your name?'” My favourite, was one of my sons who, as a little mite, earnestly prayed, “… and lead us not onto the station.”

The question that lurks behind the cuteness is, “What is the context-relevance of this prayer in 2010?

Permit me then, to apply what I have learnt of modern human needs, from my pastoral ministry; to the Lord’s Prayer in an attempt to offer some insights that may remind us of its context relevance in 2010.

Our Father. Thank you that despite the dysfunction of some families of origin, I need never think of myself as spiritually orphaned nor abandoned in my life as it is now.

Who art in heaven and not in some faraway destination, but right within the heart of your creation. You live in the place of perfect bliss and love, which I can access every time I open to your reality within me.

Hallowed be Thy name which is above every human distinction and status. You are without equal and thus in competition with no one. As wholly other, you do not require of me to justify you, explain you, or even defend you. I need only acknowledge you as the ultimate and everything else then finds its proper place.

Thy Kingdom come. May the discovery that you are in charge of all reality as the Prime One, be the experience of every conscious being.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. May your dreamed destiny for everything you have created be realised within us, and made real around us, so that the intended perfection of all beings and relationships may manifest.

Give us this day our daily bread. Restore our perceptions so we may see you at the heart of all provision and work for a living and not to make a killing.

And forgive us our trespasses(sins) as we forgive those who trespass(sin) against us. Help us to understand that your unconditional acceptance of every person and culture is the ground of harmony and community for us all. May compassion grow for victims and perpetrators alike, so that real transformation will be our experience.

And lead us not into temptation (Save us from the time of trial) Guard us from our own destructiveness and the oppositional forces within us that keep us from being healed.

but deliver is from evil. May our shadows never overwhelm us, and may fear not be the ruling principle in our living and decision making.

So may it be for us all

AMEN

Posted in Book review, Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Watching till the ego yields.

Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The Indians call it Darshan. It is a sanskrit word that means to gaze, to behold.

For an Indian devotee to attend the Darshan of a teacher, or guru, is a great blessing. When a guru gives darshan there is no expectation from the devotee, other than an opportunity to see the teacher, to gaze upon the teacher. No words are expected but followers of a teacher in the East will often describe how powerful the darshan was spiritually. The gaze, sometimes including eye contact oft times will become the vehicle of some form of transmission from the teacher to the disciple. It is an exchange which will empower and bless their lives.

Our Western tradition finds this practice foreign. We are a culture of doers. The idea of wordless worship is about as comprehensible to us a Vuvuzela at Wimbledon! We want words, lots of them. We want to be told what to do. We want concepts, opinions, theories, all of which we will engage with, accept or reject, promote or oppose. The idea of wordless, devoted gazing is not something that comes naturally to us.

It was also foreign to Martha, as she fussed around the house preparing a meal for Jesus and the family who were gathered in Bethany. Isn’t it interesting that when we are busy working, the ego will begin to inflate itself around the significance of the work and then make the work, that is often as mundane as meal preparation, the most important thing in the world, simply because we, or more accurately, our egos are now invested in the action.

Having been a parent for the past twenty six years has given me many illustrations of just how dashed my ego can feel when, having gone to a lot of trouble to prepare a special supper for the family, (remember I am a Cancerian) the family members rush past the table at random intervals, grabbing and gulping, on their way to multiple more important appointments. All that remains is the candle on the table guttering in their slipstream as they dash out the door! At moments like these I understand Martha’s irritation. My ego insists on being stroked and acknowledged. “Withold your adulation at your peril!

Just like Martha I then want to enlist Jesus (the morality and ethics icon) in my egoic revenge and reformation program for these Phillistines. “Tell them the truth”, I whine. “Get them to appreciate me! Tell them they are wrong to take me for granted! Tell them anything but please notice the significance of all the things I do for you, my family and community.”

There is a folksy, fairytale myth that seems to grow ever more schmaltsy and syrupy (what a strange spread that would be!) with the “Family Values” brand of franchised Christianity one sees around. It is steeped, not in robust real world spirituality that acknowledges schedules, stress, single-parenting, screaming bills and the general chaos of life in the third Millennium. Rather, this Helen Steiner Rice’ish (Read “Hallmark” if you don’t get her in your context) image is steeped in an illusion of how family should be. It is as sentimental and unreal as the makeup on Barbie’s plastic cheeks. The most baffling aspect of this pursuit of sentimental Family Values is that hundreds of thousands of men and women are beating themselves up at this very moment because they can’t achieve the false projected perfection that this movement demands, but cannot really model. This is not only the error of Martha (“After all I have done for you”) it is also the rampant ego’s greatest trap for our true selves. Robert Johnson and Jerry Ruhl remind me in “Contentment:the way to true happiness” that Sigmund Freud called sentimentality, “repressed brutality” they point out ” When sentimentality gushes forth, you don’t have to wait very long for brutality to follow” When will the church learn that following Jesus is more than playing at that sentimental game “Happy Families”?

Martha and my ego, get short shrift from Jesus for all our whining attempts to coerce him to our side.

“Mary has discovered the only one thing that is necessary,” Sit down, sit still, watch, and wait”

Robert Johnson tells of how he asked a first generation student of C.J. Jung’s how best to work at his own growth and integration. The reply was, “Read mythology, read Jung, and watch. Watching is most helpful

This is Darshan. This is watching without expectation and prejudice. Look if you have eyes, listen if you have ears.

We call it contemplation, or if we are even bolder, meditation. The name doesn’t matter, the secret lies in the simple awareness.

I never tire of reading that wonderful vignette that comes at the beginning of Hebrew exodus into freedom. All is chaos. The Red Sea is an impenetrable barrier in front of the escaping pilgrims. Behind them the pursuing Egyptian chariots are drawing ever closer with dust and destruction in their wake. Trapped and fearful Moses hears a baffling and challenging word, “Stand still and watch the salvation of your God” Exodus 14:13

Watch and pray.

There is nothing to be done. Nothing for the ego to grasp. No programme to be followed. No hoops to jump through

As I watch Mary watching Jesus, it would seem watching is most helpful.

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Twice robbed: by Thieves and Lawyers

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Coming once again to such a familiar passage as the Good Samaritan, there is the strong temptation to assume that I know what is happening in the narrative. If I can fight off that temptation and hover over the story just a little, previously unnoticed or unregistered details pixelate into view.

One such emerging insight is the fact that the parable is told in response to the sophistry of a lawyer who is testing Jesus. Lawyers suffer a lot of bad press and are the butt of thousands of jokes. Usually they deserve the derision. It is an adversarial and argumentative profession. The lawyer in our Gospel is no different. Is he really interested in eternal life or is he flying a kite? It is impossible from this distance to know. It does seem that he wants to inherit eternal life, but within clear norms and parameters. Loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving neighbour as one loves oneself is not clear enough. He wants a definition of the term neighbour. If he knows who is described he can then proceed to love them within the norm and the parameter.

Jesus, frustratingly tells his enquirer a story which casts the neighbour in the form of the person who we come across and whom we would be the least likely to help. In fact the law of Jesus’ day would have fully exonerated the bypassing priest and Levite on good legal grounds of avoiding impurity and defilement. It would seem that Jesus’ story is in fact subversive with regard to the law itself. It is an outrageous story of an untouchable Samaritan being the one who touches the beaten up man on the side of the road. Not only is the Samaritan uncaring of the purity laws about blood and corpses (which the heap of humanity by the roadside might have been), as a Samaritan, by touching the man he may in fact have brought defilement on the victim by the touch of compassion. This story is a legal conundrum and koan.

In the days of the Struggle to end Apartheid here in South Africa, there was a saying that was borrowed from the American Civil Rights movement a decade earlier. It said, “If the law becomes a thief, it is just to break the law.” Examples of this civil disobedience were clergy who married Black, Coloured, Indian and Chinese people to Caucasian people despite the fact that it was not permitted in terms of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, Act No 55 of 1949. The marriage could not be registered legally, but the ministers performing the marriage knew that in the sight of God these two people were married even if the state would not acknowledge this. In a most ironic twist, current South African legislation permits Gay and Lesbian Civil Unions, but Methodist clergy are prohibited by our Church law from registering with the State as Civil Union Officers and thus prohibited from performing Gay and Lesbian Marriages. “If the law becomes a thief it is just to break the law.” Many Methodist clergy are still conducting the Christian blessing of Civil Unions in defiance of the Church legislation.

As I look once more at this socially outrageous story of the Good Samaritan, set in the context of Jesus’ debate with a sophisticated lawyer’s sophistry, one thing becomes clear. Law and Compassion do not sit easily together. In fact, nine times out of ten, law seems to quench love. On the other hand, compassionate love, if it is to be true to Jesus, will at some point probably have to break some laws. Loving like Jesus (who is the archetypal Good Samaritan and Good Shepherd)is not for faint hearts.

Reflecting on over thirty years of minsitry I recognise that everytime I have kept the rules of the church with regard to who may or may not be baptised, confirmed, married or buried in the Church, inevitably, someone has got hurt or excluded. Usually both. During such times I have always felt such a coward having hidden in the thicket of the law.

This parable brings home to me a recognition, that whilst I may find the most erudite reasons to justify non-engagement with the suffering of those lying in my path, in most cases, I will be motivated by Law and not by Love. I have become a robber too.

You see, the poor man lying on the side of the road was robbed twice. The first robbers took his goods and beat him up. At the hands of the priest and Levite, he was robbed a second time. The priest and Levite robbed him of compassionate justice.

It is true. The law is a thief, whenever is steals my love away.

Thanks be to God we are called not to be lawyers, but lovers for Jesus.