The Evil underpinning Easter

Approaching the pivotal Christian feast of Easter with its themes of death and redemption, I am aware of how much violence is a feature of our daily news. Whether it be in domestic and child abuse, street violence, or brutal murder, violence stalks us like a hungry wolf.
With these high levels of destructive behaviour one begins to wonder at the mental mechanics of those who carry out these dastardly acts. Are they unfortunate, disturbed, maladjusted or dare we dig out our “old fashioned” vocabulary and call such people “evil”?
The idea that human evil exists is difficult for many people to believe. Most consider evil too superstitious a concept to apply in our scientific society. We want to reduce it to a medical diagnosis, or some personality disorder, or something that can be managed with a pill.
But there’s no pill that can cure evil, and that is the opinion of psychiatrist M. Scott Peck who penned one of the most disturbing books I have ever read, “People of the Lie: the hope for healing human evil.”
Peck wrote the book to describe a category of human behaviour currently not catalogued by psychology in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently DSM 5).
Scott Peck accepts the described psychiatric disorders, including those that can cause people to behave in an evil way, but still sees evil as a distinct problem that straddles the line between a personality disorder, and a spiritual disorder, perhaps leaning towards the latter.
He sketches evil people as being aware of their conscience, but actively choosing to ignore it, as opposed to a sociopathic person who appears to be devoid of conscience altogether. In other words, an evil person knows that they are doing evil, while a sociopath does not, even though their actions may be very similar.
Peck explains evil as “militant ignorance”. Evil people are obsessed with maintaining their self-image of perfection through self-deception. In addition, evil people will be very selective about who they inflict their evil upon, while going to great lengths to maintain an image of respectability and normality with everyone else. As a result, evil people are often well liked by the majority, and their victims come across as being overly sensitive, having a persecution complex, or even being crazy.
This selectivity in choosing victims explains why children are often targeted and how afterwards the supervising adults cannot believe that such a nice “Uncle” was actually a paedophile or pornographer.
All of this points to the sinister truth that religious communities are obvious places for People of the Lie to lurk. Hiding in plain sight, they manipulate the honest and trusting believers in these communities, all the while feeding their self-absorbed narcissism and maintaining the glittering masks which conceal their evil behaviour.
For Christians, Good Friday is a reminder that it was the holy religious leaders of Jerusalem who, in an evil plot, tried to kill God’s love manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.

All the Saints who did not despair. John 11:1-45 All Saints Day

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

It was Eric Erikson the famous German-born American developmental psychologist who created a wonderful map to illustrate the stages in our journey of our psycho-social development.
The last of the eight stages he mapped begins at age 65 and lasts till our death, and given that most of the congregation is in that stage now I thought I wouldn’t bore you with the other seven stages because it too late for you!

The last stage of our lives, according to Erikson’s schema involves reconciling the tension between Integrity and Despair.
In this final stage, says Erikson, we for the first time in our lives look back over the path and there comes to us, as we look, either a deep sense of integrity, meaning,  and wholeness, or there will be a opposing sense of profound despair.

Waste, mistake, unresolved relationships, guilt, shame and blame these are the ingredients for us to despair.

Despair is what the gospel on this All Saints Day is all about.
The death of Lazarus is a study in despair.
The delay of the teacher, the anxiety of Martha and Mary, the disbelief of the disciples.  All go into making the death of Jesus’ dear friend seem both avoidable and thereby unnecessary.
This is summed up in exactly the same words that Martha and later Mary both speak to Jesus when he eventually arrives at the Bethany house of the now four day dead Lazarus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
If only. If only.

This is the language of despair.

Soren Kierkegaard the Danish Christian Existentialist philospher wrote about the death of Lazarus and about human despair in his work, “The Sickness unto Death” written in 1949 under a pseudonym Anti-Clamacus.

For Kierkegaard the ultimate despair is the despair of the Christian who believes in sin and in particular, original sin.
To come to believe that there is nothing one can do about one’s human condition of falleness is the worst kind of despair.

Mary and Martha and the whole of Bethany despair that Jesus doesn’t arrive and then when he does it is on the fourth day. The day when any act of God could no longer happen. God was believed to act up to the third day. The fourth day was the day of reality and thus despair.

When Jesus raises Lazarus from the fetid tomb he dispels the roots of human despair.
There is no statute of limitations on when God can bring life back to the dead.
There are thus no grounds for complete and utter despair.
Faith for Kierkegaard is the opposite of despair.

“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” becomes with faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

The raising of Lazarus begins with this declaration of faith and trust in the saving power of God.
For those of us who look back on life and are tempted to despair, may I remind us all that today we are still alive. Still trusting.

Look back at the sealed stinking tombs of your life as I look back at mine and know that even now the God of life can call forth life even from those smelly places.

It is the good news.

It is the Gospel of All the Saints.

Let’s divorce God for causing this suffering! Job 2:1-10 Mark 10 2-16 Ordinary 27B

Job 1:1 1

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. Job 2:1-10 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.”Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

There is nothing that angers and horrifies us more than the abuse of children. On this St Francis Sunday we have to say that the abuse of animals for many probably comes close. Jesus never said anything about the abuse of animals, but he certainly spoke out about the abuse of children and women.

I live in a country where the abuse of children and particularly child rape is a regular occurence.

The urban legend that grew up around AIDS saying that you could be cured or immunised against the virus by having sex with a virgin, is a huge contributing factor to the child rape statistics. The younger the child predated, the better the chance that she is a virgin. The insane conclusion of following that line of reasoning I will leave to your graphic imagination. But let me add one detail. We have experienced toddler rapes here.

Divorce does not help the protection of the children. The vulnerability of children is increased when the ideal nuclear family is disrupted, often due to the selfishness of parents. I am divorced so I know how this works and I am not proud of it but nor am ashamed of it. I not going to avoid speaking about the problem.

I know too, that children in families are also at risk where there is domestic violence and conflict, and often divorce is a healthier option than obedience to church laws. This is not a simple problem and it surely does not have a one size fits all solution.

These, like all ethical issues, are not simple scenarios. There is no black and white. Perhaps there are even more than fifty shades of grey, I don’t know, but it is complicated.

Job’s wife thought it was simple black and white. Her logic said, “We are blessed, healthy, wealthy and wonderful. That means that we are blessed by God”

Then Job got ill.

It seems Satan was involved.

I am not sure.  Job’s wife was.

She reasoned, “ Job you are sick and thus you must have lost your blessing. Screw God anyway. Just curse God and die!”

I am reluctant to be so harsh on her as Job was.

He called her a stupid woman. At least he didn’t divorce her for it!

I am less ready to judge Job’s wife, simply because I have caught myself thinking in her black and white way.

I too have thought, “Life’s good, praise God. Life’s tough, to hell with God”

Job perseveres in what his wife calls his “integrity”

Interesting word integrity. It means to integrate, to hold together in tension.

  • The black and the white
  • The joy and the suffering
  • For better, for worse
  • For richer for poorer
  • In sickness and in health

Until not even death can part us from our conviction that God has not abandoned us.

Until we know with Job, that the whole of life, good and bad is in the hand of God.

What God holds together let no one separate!

I know this seems childish and naive.

That’s why Jesus said we should be like them in receiving his truth.

The Original Love Language – Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A lot has been said about how we can communicate love since Gary Chapman published his book, “The Five Love Languages
In case you haven’t come across them here is a summary of Chapman’s Five Emotional Love Languages:
Words of Affirmation
This is when you say how nice your spouse looks, or how great the dinner tasted. These words will also build your mate’s self image and confidence.
Quality Time
Some spouses believe that being together, doing things together and focusing in on one another is the best way to show love. If this is your partner’s love language, turn off the TV now and then and give one another some undivided attention.
Gifts
It is universal in human cultures to give gifts. They don’t have to be expensive to send a powerful message of love. Spouses who forget a birthday or anniversary or who never give gifts to someone who truly enjoys gift giving will find themselves with a spouse who feels neglected and unloved.
Acts of Service
Discovering how you can best do something for your spouse will require time and creativity. These acts of service like vacuuming, hanging a bird feeder, planting a garden, etc., need to be done with joy in order to be perceived as a gift of love.
Physical Touch
Sometimes just stroking your spouse’s back, holding hands, or a peck on the cheek will fulfill this need.

The invitation is then to go on to “Determining Your Own Love Language

Since you may be speaking what you need, you can discover your own love language by asking yourself these questions:

  • How do I express love to others?
  • What do I complain about the most?
  • What do I request most often?

(excerpted from http://marriage.about.com/cs/communicationkeys/a/lovelanguage.htm)

It would seem from the success of Chapman’s book and the subsequent spin-offs that inevitably come from a pivotal production as his was, that he touched a sensitive spot in our collective emotional psyche.

As a divorced person and also as a pastoral minister, I know the difficulties of relationships at first and second hand.
Psychologists are continually telling us that we are undernourished with regard to our emotional needs

William E. Harley who runs Marriage Builders determines the most important emotional needs of couples to be:

  • Affection
  • Sexual Fulfillment
  • Conversation
  • Recreational Companionship
  • Honesty and Openness
  • Physical Attractiveness
  • Financial Support
  • Domestic Support
  • Family Commitment
  • Admiration

What I miss in these very important and helpful studies is an answer to the question, “Why are we so needy in the first place?”
Do we arrive needy, or is there something missing in our emotional diets early on, that creates this deficiency, in much the same way some of us need more magnesium or calcium than others?
If the development psychologists are to be believed then the cause of our love hunger, and by inference of much of our neurosis, is the deficiency of knowing at an early age that we are “The Beloved”

To know that one is deeply loved is one of the greatest of human experiences.
I am going to suggest a very subversive truth to you now.
It is subversive because it has the potential to put every self-help guru out of business.
It is subversive because it also has the potential to put that great grace dispensary, the church, out of business too.
The truth is a simple one that Jesus experiences at the pivotal moment he begins his public ministry.
The truth is that you and I and every single living being on the planet are the agapeitoi of God.
The agapeitoi….WHAT?  of God?
O sorry I need to translate for you.
We are all, with Jesus, the Beloved of God.
Now this may not seem subversive at first, but the more we realise and live from that place of being beloved, we see the absolute security and grounding it can give to our lives.

It is for this very reason, the church has for centuries tried to keep this reality from us. The church knew that if people were secure in their relationship as the agapeitoi of God; if they knew that there was indeed “nothing that could separate them from the Love (agapeis) of God” Rom 8:39, then they would not fall pray to the guilt riddled shame blame game that the church has used so effectively to extort money and allegiance from fearful people.

So what about us who weren’t told this early on in our lives?

Well, the good news is that it can happen at any time.

  • Jesus was thirty at his baptism.
  • Augustine of Hippo came to this life changing understanding late in his life at the age of thirty two.

Augustine  wrote:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

This subversive truth is the ultimate form of human liberation.

  • I am the agapetos-the beloved of God.
  • God’s very nature is agape-selfless love.
  • By realising that I am the agapetos of the agape. The beloved of Love, I begin a participation in the very life and nature of God.

This is transformative to the deepest fibres of our being.

Jesus knew this.
It was imprinted from the moment he stepped out of the Jordan.
“You are my child the beloved.”
It is already true for you and me.
We simply have to realise that it is.

Nan C Merrill published a wonderful paraphrase of the Psalms in 1996. She titled the Book, “Psalms for Praying- an invitation to wholeness”

The psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 29.
Nan has it read like this:

Give praise to the Beloved,
O heavenly hosts,
Sing of Love’s glory and strength,
Exalt the glory of Love’s name;
Adore the Beloved in holy splendour.

The voice of the Beloved is upon the waters;
Love’s voice echoes over the oceans and seas.
The voice of Love is powerful,
majestic is the heart of Love.

The voice of the Beloved breaks the bonds of oppression,
shatters the chains of injustice.
Love invites all to the dance of freedom,
to sing the Beloved’s song of truth.

The voice of Love strikes with fire upon hearts of stone.
The voice of Love uproots the thorns of fear,
Love uproots fear in every open heart.

The voice of Love is heard in every storm,
and strips the ego bare;
And in their hearts all cry
“Glory!”

The Beloved lives in our hearts;
Love dwells with us forever
May Love give strength to all people!
May Love bless all nations with peace!

It’s Oil gonna be OK – Ordinary 32A

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

It is inevitable that in our days of mined fossil fuels, we should read this parable and reference it to lamp oil. Some kind of parafin or kerosene. That would not be correct. It is most likely that the oil that fueled the lamps of people in Jesus’ day would have been olive oil. The same marvelous stuff that was used in cooking but even more specially in the anointing of the sick and the blessing of visitors and other dignatories. It was also, as we know, a symbol of the Spirit of God.

The idea that this life giving substance so critical for light, cooking and blessing should become scarce was unthinkable. It would mean that the olive crop had failed. It was the worst of conditions that Habakkuk lists as the worst of times when he would still trust in God
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Jesus is describing a coming age when he as the bridegroom, is delayed from the consumating feast and the welcoming party has to dig deep into its reserves of inspiration, or is that spiritual lubrication? The point being that the wise followers of Jesus are those who are able to be logistically strategic.
What does that mean?

At the most basic level it means staying awake and being prudent.
This is most graphically evident in monastic orders where from earliest times, it has meant the keeping of vigils and staying awake in the night watches, not merely as ritual but as a discipline of watchfulness.
For we third millennium Westerners who have daylight at night, and burn tons of fuel to have it so, this might not be a parable that communicates as effectively it did, to the first Christian communities.
Or could it be a parable about being resourced at all levels. Literal, Ethical, and Spiritual?

As a Baby Boomer I have lived long enough to see the red fuel light flashing on our global dashboard at all three levels.
We all know that there are no longer enough resources to feed the mouths we are bringing to birth. The lamps of livelihood and food security are literally flickering.
We are also seeing, most recently in the Jasmine revolution and on Wall Street, that executive power can no longer burn at full bore from the power-full without any concern for the long term consequences of their abuse of power and resources. The ethical flames are flickering.

Finally, it would seem that the ancient world’s religions of which ours is but one, are flickering too. All the major world’s religions (at least those who are not pursuing some hidden political passionate agenda) are showing declining numbers and interest.
The Wikis are Leaking indeed!
Even the flames of the faithful are flickering.

The challenge for us as preachers, working with this text is to be able to proclaim with some credible, passionate expectancy to a world so jaded that it scarce believes that there is a Bridegroom, let alone that he is coming back!

This parable challenges us to revisit our Eschatology (The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.) To think that the Bridegroom has gone somewhere far away is to misunderstand the context of the parable. In the time of Jesus the bridegroom would have been away, fetching his bride, more than likely from a home in the same or a nearby, village. Jesus has not gone off far away. We are not abandoned at all.

I have a friend who is a keen scholar of Paul Tillich and who often says, “God is so immanent as to appear transcendent”
In our obsession with transcendent and imperial cosmic notions of God we have neglected the immanent. We have focussed so much on God “up there” and Heaven “out there, one day”, that we have forgotten the indwelling unity of all being in the heart of God.
Let us not forget the opening lines of this, as with all the other parables, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” (Don’t assume to much about the translation of tote as “Then” it can just as easily be translated “Consequently”)

The worst mistake I could possibly make is to forget that the Kingdom of the Heavens, the Divine Domain, is right here right now. It is an immanent reality as much as a transcendent one.
There is no way that one can run out of Holy Spirit, the worst one could do is neglect the container. The error of the foolish virgins was not that they fell asleep, but that they were careless with their most critical resource, Spirit. Seems to me when I listen to the church at Mission meetings, Synods and Conferences, that we are in danger of making the same mistake. We have become negligent of Spirit. We have plans and programmes, strategies and skills sets; but to we have the simple resource of Spirit?

The light from a flickering lamp of faith is all that is required to watch and wait that despite all the gloomy shadows crawling on the walls, there is one who is coming to us in every moment. The Immanent Bridegroom beckons us to wake up to the fact that our faith is not a programme or a project it is a betrothal and celebration to the mystery and miracle of life in every moment day or night.
Don’t fall asleep.

Not now!

Taking the plunge – Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Almost twenty years ago and a hundred kilometers off the coast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa’s most southern city, a yachting couple were in grave danger.  A brutal storm that characterizes these waters, had capsized their small yacht. Being a keel boat it had of course righted itself, but the mast was broken and lay like a broken limb across the deck with the sails and rigging in the turbulent sea.  Their lives were seriously at risk.

I read the story on the front page of the local morning paper. By then the news desk could report that a South African Air force Shackleton fixed wing aircraft had located the yacht when responding to the distress call which had been picked up by a local radio ham.  There was even a picture of the grateful couple waving up at the plane from their crippled craft.

I remember thinking how relieved they must have been to see the plane circle above them, but also how despondent they must have felt when they saw the plane turn around and head back to base.  There was of course no way a fixed wing craft could rescue them.  They had to wait a while longer for diverted shipping to come to their aid.

This story has stayed with me as an illustration of how useless and impotent a God who watches from the heavens is for us humans.  We who have to live in the reality and storms of life may be a liitle encouraged by a God who watches from a distance.  An overhead God may be as encouraging in my storms as the Shackleton was to the yachtsmen, but truth be told, what those yachtsmen needed more than an overhead observer, was someone on their level. One who could touch, grasp and lift them from their stricken vessel.

As a preacher, I am delighted every year by the sequencing of the Lectionary that has the Baptism of Jesus follow directly after the great Christ Mass celebrations of the Incarnation.

The baptism of Jesus is for me the great act at the commencement of Jesus’ ministry that declares him not simply to be the “Only begotten Son” who pleases the observing Father above, but this event also reveals him as the one who immerses himself in the sin soiled waters of humanity.  Here is one who can touch, grasp and lift me from my level of crisis and challenge because he has immersed himself in this life.  He is one whom I can embrace, bond with, and follow to wholeness.

For first century Judeans, desert people, who had a deep fear of water, similar to many Southern African traditional cultures, being thrust under water and possibly held there, was a powerful initiatory moment.  It marked, not only the washing off of past failure, it also enacted the gasping inrush of new ruach (translated as spirit, wind and breath) as they emerged from the depths. (Yes I know the Jordan isn’t that deep, but hey, you can drown in a cup of water, remember)

The fact that Jesus chooses to use this symbolism for the launch of his public ministry is not merely iconic, it is transformative for we who follow after him.

How amazing that we go into the year 2011 following a flesh and blood God, who doesn’t merely hover over us, but who immerses himself in our soiled lives and gasps every gasp with us along the way.

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

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.

What does he possibly see in her?

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

There is a saying that goes, “We seldom see things the way they are, rather we see things the way we are

Our contexts, our cultures, our histories with certain people groups, our preferences, are all filters which determine what we see when we see something or someone. Living as I do in South Africa, where labelling and prejudice was a way of life, I am deeply aware of my tendency to label and judge at every opportunity. In the heydays of Liberation Theology and Orthopraxis, we were taught to “See, Judge, Act“. Now that may be good for revolutionaries, but I am not sure that it cultivates a contemplative attitude to the world and people. These days I much prefer Lama Surya Das’ mantra, “See it, Know it, Watch it go. There seems less of the judging labelling mind in this second approach. Am I getting lazy?

With that as my background you will understand why, when I read of this classic encounter at Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party, I notice the way people are seeing, judging and acting.

Simon the Pharisee, is focussed on the externals. “he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” His focus on externals prevents him from meeting the person behind his label.

The anonymous woman, is focussed on her deep need for unconditional acceptance. “She stood behind him at his feet,
weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair”
Her need overwhelms her awareness of propriety and place.

Jesus with the wealth of wisdom coming from a contemplatively integrated heart, sees both and his response to Simon and the woman is absolutely need specific and thus appropriate to each individual.

I would like to cultivate seeing the way that Jesus sees.

  • Seeing the need not the label
  • Responding with compassion and not prejudice
  • Putting care above convention
  • Being able to hold opposing energies in one room and minister to people on each side. (Simon and the Woman)

The gospel reading ends with a list of interesting woman who followed Jesus on the way. Looking deeply at this encounter in Simon’s house, I can understand why they did.

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”