Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

Experience the mystery -Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-13
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The traditional structure on which theological thinking, or discourse about God stands has three legs. Revelation (what data is given about God), Reason (how we process that data intellectually and logically) and Tradition (how others before us have dealt with the other two legs). This has been the classical system and though useful, it has tended to produce quite dry and dusty systems of thought.

I love the story of the first year student who made an error at registration and signed up for Geology instead of Theology. He attended lectures for an entire semester before realising the mistake!
Revelation, reason and tradition meant that the good ‘ol boys who ran the theological club could devise nice closed systems in a code that only they would understand.
Clearly there has been something missing with this three legged stool.
Many, like the Gnostics, tried to introduce a fourth and vital ingredient to the process but they were sooner or later removed from the club. “Right of admission reserved” and all that. It was only in the eighteenth century that classical theology received a challenge from one of its own.

An Oxford don, who had begun actually dialoguing with ordinary gin-swilling, slum-dwelling, mine-working, common people and discovered what was missing in the dusty theological process. John Wesley, preaching; and Charles Wesley, singing, experienced the power of the very thing their training had taught them to be suspicious of: Experience!
Academia was not impressed. The Wesleys were labelled as “Enthusiasts”, a terrible slight in intellectually imprisoned rational England. Undeterred they persevered and prevailed to allow the experiences of ordinary men and women to inform and shape religious discourse and development. In so doing they not only revived religion they also opened the door for the great Pentecostal and Charismatic revivals of the twentieth century.

Naturally experience has always been part of religious life, but it is difficult to contain and control. Human experience is mercurial, oft times manic and extremely maleable.  Definitely not the characteristics that are sought after for hierarchical systems of dominance and discipline. That’s why the Gnostics never made it. They set too much store by mystical experience.
But today the genie is out of the gin-bottle and it ain’t going back.

Our spiritual natures demand experiences that are relevant and real. They don’t even have to be rational or traditional.
It is strange that the church never caught on sooner to what was missing. The clue was sitting right at the coreof the creeds. The very statements of orthodoxy that were used to exclude the emotional enthusiasts had at their heart a doctrince completely based on experience. The doctrine of the Trinity.

The trinity is the way the church has tried to square its experience of God with revelation, reason and tradition.
The monotheistic Judaeo-Christian path has experienced the one God as Parent, Son/Sibling Jesus, and Spirit of Life.
Right here experience has determined our theology.
Why did we take so long to understand?
Well like the trinity, that’s a great mystery.
Jesus encourages Nicodemus to get out of his head and into his heart. To experience being born from above.
Louis Armstrong got it right when a reporter asked him, “Mr Armstrong what is Jazz?” Satchmo replied, “Honey, if ya gotta ask y’ull never know!

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Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

Ballast from Bethany-AscensionB

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The feast of the Ascension brings to a close the forty day season of Easter, which itself is a climax to the forty day preparatory period of Lent. The purpose of the Ascension is to mark the transition of Jesus from Incarnate God back to the original Cosmic Omnipresnt Being. At least that is the theological perspective.

But there is something missing in all of this, for in my lifetime I have seen a steady decline, not merely in the observance of the Ascension feast, but also in the significance of this event in moderna day experience of our salvation history.
In part I suppose this due to the fact that “ascension” works better in a flat earth cosmology where there is only one direction one can ascend in. Knowing we live on a sphere, and then discovering the vast insignificance of that sphere in the Universe makes the ascension almost impossible for twenty-first century minds to process on any cognitive level.

Besides this, asking “Where did he go?” is at once a locational as well as a dimensional conundrum and to go from here to geo-physical explanation becomes a flight of fanciful sophistry.

Simply from these few sentences you can see that it is easy to ascend into such etheric speculation as to begin to feel just a tad trippy. That is why I come to the Ascension looking for an anchor and some ballast. If I, as a global, galactic human am to understand this feast at all I will have to angle into its significance in a way that is relevant to my context.

Let’s see…
The ascension is at its heart the conclusion of the Incarnation. How does one grasp that then without feeling utterly bereft of all the gift and consolation that Emmanuel brought us at the Christ Mass? As I scoured the passage for some sign I noticed that Luke is very specific in telling his readers,”he led them out as far as Bethany”.

Why did he lead them out as far as Bethany?
Bethany is the place of consolation, community and care for Jesus. The home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, was his refuge and at the same time the prototypical church community.

If Jerusalem is the city that “stones the prophets” and which refuses to be “gathered like chicks under the wings” of Jesus; then Bethany is the place where prophets recover and where clucking, caring community is to be found. Jesus, in taking the disciples as far as Bethany, points to where his incarnation will continue after the ascension. Yes, he does tell them to go and wait in Jerusalem for the gift from on high, but they are to go as the Bethany house community, caring for and supporting each other.

Pentecost may mark the birth of the empowered church, but the Ascension marks the gathering of that grieving, wounded and wondering group preparing, through pain, for inspiration.

Here in Bethany,where Lazarus walked out of a tomb that had been sealed for four days, these women and men are experiencing the very human realities of separation, loneliness and agst that we know from our own experience are the portals through which Spirit can blow.

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

Love how? – Easter 6

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

I have always loved Occam’s razor. As someone who has sported facial hair since I learned to grow it, I am a relative stranger to razors, but I like Occam’s or Ockham’s one. You see the razor has nothing to do with beards. It has to do with shaving the superfluous from logic and design. Simply put it states “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity). That is why I like it. I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that 14th century Franscican Friar Father William of Ockham was not the first to suggest such a principle. Apparently Ptolemy (90-168 CE) stated “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible” So there is nothing new under the sun.
No matter who said it I like it. “Keep it simple”, I say.

It is interesting then, to discover that in religion there is generally an obsession with obfuscation rather than simplification. The Jewish legal code called the Talmud has two hundred and forty subject headings on which rules are promulgated. The Babylonian version of the Talmud stretches to multiple volumes, and all that developed from Ten Commandments!

How contrasting then, is the teaching of Jesus who condenses religious observance down to one commandment. He says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” An Occam delight.

It sounds a simple thing doesn’t it? “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Jesus even explains what that means. The greatest show of love is when someone lays down their life for a friend.

Every time I see this verse inscribed on a war memorial, I experience a wry and angry irony. I mean, it is ironic that our Chaplains in the bush war in Namibia/Angola used to encourage us to do that. To lay down our lives for our country and comrades whilst killing as many people on the other side as we possibly could! Methinks not quite what Jesus had in mind?

Speaking of minds, it is worth noting that the “life” that Jesus refers to being laid down is the Greek word “psuché’ which can be translated in any of these phrases:

  • lay down (or set aside) their heart
  • lay down their mind
  • lay down their soul
  • lay down their being

These ancient words hover at the edge of our modern psuché-logical understanding of human nature don’t they?
Would I be pushing too hard to suggest that a contemporary reading of Jesus’ words would be, “There is no greater unconditional love than when someone gets their ego out of the way for another.”?

As I watch myself going about the church and hanging out with Christians I don’t see a lot of ego’s getting out of the way. In fact I find that in place of setting myself aside for my friends (and enemies) it seems so instinctive to assert MYself, MYpsuché. Speaking of assertiveness…

The buzz these days is all about Generation ME. Yes, I heard that sigh, and I agree that generational analysis is less than helpful when it leads to profiling and stereotyping. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to give a sattelite view of a social grouping.
Gary Schlee has ripped the following headings out of Jean M Twenge’s “Generation Me” which will have to serve to outline Generation ME in bullets. (more here)

  1. Generation Direct
  2. Generation Self-Esteem
  3. Generation Entitlement
  4. Generation Thin-Skin
  5. Generation Dream-the-Impossible-Dream
  6. Generation Get-an-Education
  7. Generation Don’t-Want-To-Be-Bored
  8. Generation It’s-Not-My-Fault
  9. Generation Tough-to-Make-a-Living
  10. Generation Can’t-Change-a-Thing

Now as a boomer parent of Generation ME adults, I accept full responsibility for their attitudes and behaviours (Contra point 8 above!). I wanted to listen to my children rather than raise them as I was raised with, “Children are seen and not heard”. If that indulged them, I accept my culpability. However, I don’t think these dynamics above are exclusive to GenME’s. They are pretty general to modern humans. Check the list again and see.

The reason I am referencing these tendencies is to illustrate how, in every generation, the challenge of Jesus to love unconditionally in ego-heart-mind sacrificing ways, is going to run against the grain of our culture, our context and our conditioning.

All of which thankfully, drives me to pray…

“Lord Jesus, thank you for Ockham’s razor, and thank you for a simple commandment. Would you please cut through my obfuscatory, egotistical, sophistry and transform my heart, mind and life to your resurrected, self-sacrificing life?”

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

The catharsis of not cutting. Easter5

John 15:1-8

”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

As winter creeps darkly toward us in the Southern Hemisphere I see my horticultural friends wielding their most feared weapons, the seccateurs. Knowing just where to cut, they lop and lunge at every bush and tree until skeletal forms remain where foliage once flourished and the ground is littered with sticks and stalks.  It is botanical carnage.  Essential, I am told, but carnage nonetheless!

In the history of Christianity there have many, and some very interesting, aberrant groups commonly called heretics.  The word heretic comes from “hairetikos=able to choose”.  So  a heretic was judged by the church hierarchy to be one who had chosen to believe and profess in opposition to official  doctrine and as a result, had to be silenced.  Such silencing usually involved the cutting off of the heretical, “wrong choice” person or group from the church community. In dark and dangerous times it also involved the cutting off of body parts from the heretic either during the trial to determine heresy or eventually to cut the heretic off as a consequence of the bad choice they had made.  In the latter case the most favoured body part to be severed was the head.  The head that had made the wrong choice was thus removed from the body, symbolising the cleansing of the church by the removal of the heretic.  It was another carnage. Not botanical pruning, this time it was human carnage.  At least gardeners don’t hear the plants scream!

I am glad to report that this Inquisitorial practice is no longer part of church management though the language echoing that dreadful past remains with us in phrases like, “heads are going to roll” and “losing your head” about something or someone.  The Inquisitors, who were the head lopping pruners of the medieval church considered themselves tasked with “cleansing” the church of error.  They saw themselves as those who were doing the pruning work that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel reading.

In fact the word that John’s gospel uses for prune is  katharei=to cleanse. We still reference the word when speaking of cathartic experiences.  Those moments when we, through grief or pain, are cleared out and cleansed.  Inquisitors saw themselves as cleansing the church through the pruning of heretics.  Painful it might have been, but prudent for the preservation of power.

One of the best known groups of heretics in Europe also take their name from this word katharo.  They are the Cathars who are refered to in the Council of Nicaea in 325 but which emerged as an autonomous movement of strict Christians in the 12th Century in the Rhineland and Northern France.   These heretical,  “wrong-choicers”  were completely exterminated with the loss of many pruned and roasted body parts by the 12th and 13th century Inquisitions. The Cathars had some strange ideas about no re-marriage afetr widowhood and who also maintained that there was no way to do penance for sin that was committed after baptism.  A rather serious bunch they were. A kind of puritanical movement before the Puritans if you know what I mean?  How ironic then that the Cleansed Ones = Cathars were “cleansed” by the Inquisition.  Something Rwandan with Auschwitzian echoes here don’t you think?

Anyway, the Church needed to get rid of them.  They were just not with the Roman programme.  So the Inquisitors arrived and the heads rolled.   A vast pruning purge which, despite novel romantic notions of links to the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, surely represents one of the lowest ebbs of Christian history?

So it is with my mind awash with horticulture and history, that I eventually come to the Sunday gospel.

It fascinates me that in John’s gospel there are only two parables recorded.  Last Sunday Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd in the one parable, and this week he refers to himself as the Vine in the second.  If the writer of the last canonical gospel to be written  opted for only these two similes they must be pivotal to describe Jesus.

Now, if Jesus is the the Vine with a Shepherd’s heart, and only God is the gardener, then a few realities seem to bud and sprout from that:

  • Only God is qualified to wield the pruning tools.
  • Every severance is painful to Jesus.
  • Believing that we have the right to prune the church as Christ followers is not only arrogant, it is blasphemous (playing God) and may indeed rebound in the axe wielder being axed for usurpation!  Cathars are cleansed!

No, for me it is clear. The church is not called to prune, that is God’s job. Faggots of fruitless followers are God’s business not mine.

The church is called to fruit by remaining connected to the life giving/love flowing sap of the Shepherd-Vine.

It is through fruitful love and life, not through severance and sectarianism, that I become his disciple.  Of course if you don’t agree, you can always cut me off.