Posted in Book review, New Interpretation of Scripture, Pastoral Therapy, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

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.

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

Do you want to be right, or be in a relationship? Matthew 5:21-37 Epiphany 6/ Ordinary 6

rulesMatthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

It was the present Dalai Lama who said““Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”  I also came across this Zen maxim, “First you learn the rules. Then you keep the rules. Then you break the rules. Then you are wise.”

This seems to be the gist of Jesus’ comments about the law in the gospel for this week. Those who have walked the path of Christ following for some time will know that the religion of the heart is not so much about the rules as it is about the relationship which the rules are intended to enhance anyway.

The problem with human nature though is we tend to swap the priorities around then that is where the hypocrisy begins.
We have all met people who prefer to be right and keep the rules, than be in relationship. They are usually shining saints, brightly burning but usually without a flicker of compassion.

If I read Jesus correctly, he is saying relationships are more important than rules.
Rules will lead you into and hell of minutiae and detail, but they will not deepen your humanity or your heart.

Rules will make you righteous, but relationships will make you real.
There’s no doubt that Jesus lived this truth.
Perhaps we could too?

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

Nest or Nets? Matthew 4:12–23 Epiphany 3A /Ordinary 3

nest3Matthew 4:12–23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

There is a poster in popular use to advertise retreats. The picture is usually of a single person in a solitary place, and the caption reads, “Sometimes you have to withdraw from the world to find your place in it.

If we read Matthew chapter 4 carefully we will see that it is a chapter of two withdrawals. The first is Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. The second is a withdrawal anachoreo to Capernaum by Jesus when he hears that John the Baptiser has been arrested.

Anachoreo is an interesting word. It is the root of the word “anchorite” which describes hermits in general and later came to to specifically describe a form of religious life during the early and high middle ages. At this time men (anchorites) and women (anchoresses) withdrew from society and were cloistered away in cells (anchorholds) usually attached to churches.

In Britain the most famous Anchoress is undoubtedly Dame Julian of Norwich, whose record of the mystical “shewings” given her are recorded in her book “Revelations of Divine Love” which is still in print.

The anchorite was often walled into the anchorhold by the Bishop who at that time would conduct their funeral liturgy as they became dead to the world. The rest of their life would be spent walled in with one window, called a hagioscope or squint, open to the high altar of the church so that they could watch the mass. Another window opened to the street through which food and presumably excrement could be passed and also through which people could seek the counsel of the holy soul inside.

Life for Jesus, as for us, took some interesting turns, didn’t it? Driven by fear of persecution by Herod, in the wake of John’s arrest, Jesus anchorites it to Capernaum, possibly to live a life of solitude and prayer? But that is not to be. One day on a quiet stroll along the shoreline of lake Galilee, Jesus in introverted mode, happens upon some fishermen casting their nets.

I would like to think that there was something in the archetypal symbolism of those fish gathering nets that jarred Jesus out of his introverted seclusion into an extroverted invitation to those early followers to come and “fish for the lost people of the house of Israel and indeed the whole world”

Its as if the anchorite nest was converted that day into missionary nets.

In times of dread and threat, nothing seems more inviting than to wall ourselves off from life threatening humanity.

It is then that we have to balance the hermit and the helper, the monk and the missionary.

Jesus found his largest appeal in a desert country he ran to while trying to avoid his mission.

We will probably experience the same.

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Healing, Lectionary, Narrative lectionary, New Interpretation of Scripture, Pastoral Therapy, Reflection, Sermon

Whipped up enough to pour yourself out?- Narrative Lectionary John 2:13-25

John 2:13–25

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

Jesus the Jew goes to Jerusalem for a major religious festival. If you read the gospels regularly you will know that the editor of John’s gospel has put this report in a different place from the three synoptics which have it in the final fateful week of Jesus’ life.

It is an editors privilege to do so. As a newspaper columnist I know that editors place columns in strategic places for effect. If current editorial principles applied to the compilation of John’s gospel, it suggests that moving the story of the cleaning of the temple from a finale story to a initial story in the Jesus record gives it more importance. It is as if the editor is saying , “If you want to understand the story of Jesus you have to see him in the context of this temple confrontation” .

In a recently published book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”, inter-faith author Reza Aslan suggests that the Jesus of history was first and foremost a Jew, speaking to Jews, and attempting to reform and revolutionize oppressed Jewish political and religious reality in first century Palestine. Alsan argues that although we know precious little about Jesus, the fact that we do know that he was crucified tells us that he was executed for crimes against the Roman Empire. The Romans who learnt crucifixion from the Greeks who learnt it, via Alexander the Great, from the Persians; reserved it solely for punishing political enemies.
It is this Jesus, one messiah amongst many contemporary claimants at the time, who Aslan succeeds in re-introducing to his readers. A zealot whose zeal for the temple consumed him.

It is with this as background that I read the gospel narrative for this Sunday (in the Lutheran Narrative Lectionary)

Through this lens there are three aspects I would like to comment on as I bolded them in the text above:

  1. The Passover of the Jews was near…he found people selling…” Right there we have the confrontation of Jesus the devout Jew with the populist religion that his dear faith had become. It was then and still is now, prohibited for Orthodox Jews to trade during the Passover. The feast has as its deepest intention a memorial to the emancipation of Hapiru (slaves) from the tyranny of superpower Egypt. Yet here they were, centuries later, enslaved once more to superpower Rome, who used the temple rituals as part of their occupation strategy.
  2. Making a whip (phragellion) of cords, … He also poured out (ekcheo) the coins” Jesus the scourger with a whip, ends his life in the very temple he comes to cleanse and then in Pilate’s precinct, he is the one who is scourged. The action with the coins is even more interesting to me. The word ekcheo is used most in the New Testament in the book of Revelation where seven of the nine instances refer to the pouring out of the vials of judgement and wrath in the angels’ hands. Other usages in the New Testament refer to the spilling of blood or most graphically in Acts 1:18 to the gushing out of the ruptured bowels of Judas. There is something visceral here in the passion of Jesus for cleansing the temple. Again as with the flagellation, how ironic is it that his is the blood that is spilt? Blood money and sweating blood for money are the strange alchemical mixtures that curse our age and every age before us.
  3. “But he was speaking of the temple of his body”… It was Richard Rohr, who made me aware that a core contribution of Jesus’ teaching to the religious understanding of the planet is that Jesus taught that the sanctuary for divine/human encounter lies, not in external structures, sacrifices or symbolic acts, but rather Jesus understood and taught that the temple was an inner space. The kicker being that if the temple is within, then says Rohr, the only sacrifice that remains is my false self to the True Self. Jesus models this truth in his own life and body temple.

How may we continue to pour ourselves out zealously from the inner sanctuaries of our hearts to those who suffer in the structures of systemic oppression?

Posted in New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

How did John see the Spirit anyway? – Epiphany 2 / Ordinary 2

John_baptist_byzantine

John 1:29-42
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

===
This passage is remarkable for a whole raft of reasons.

Some that demand my attention are firstly, the psychic nature of John the Baptiser’s “seeing” of the Spirit descending on Jesus. (Of course it doesn’t help that I am reading Stephen King’s , “Doctor Sleep” his sequel to “The Shining”)

Nonetheless, there is a sense that not everyone saw what John saw, which begs the question as to what the pre-requisites for such sight, inner sight or insight are?

If I were to have a guess, it would be John’s complete and utter willingness (as opposed to usual human willfulness)to be used by God.
Notice how once he has seen that Jesus is the bearer of the Spirit he is quite happy to stop his path finding and road levelling ministry and even to hand over his disciples to Jesus.

Which is the second impressive thing about John.

Not only is he willing and obedient He also seems completely devoid of egotistical ambition, selfishness and that clinging to success that begrudges anyone else a chance to do better.

So the point to ponder should you want to see the moments when the Spirit descends on people, places and contexts is to cultivate the non-attachment that doesn’t want the Spirit for oneself.

Another remarkable part of the narrative is the descriptor that John uses for Jesus.
Alright, I know that this story is layered with first century church reflection on the Eucharist and there is significant reading back, but the words still get my contemplative attention.

“Look, the lamb of God who bears the failures of the whole, out of sync, creation.”

(My justification for this translation is that the word kosmos only appears in the New Testament and not the Greek Old Testament It is used as a reference to the created order, implying an ordered, logical world. Sin (hamartia) is thus the condition of disorderedness which is what Jesus has, under the Spirit’s anointing, come to bear towards restoration)

Small wonder then that the two disciples of John say to Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” (annointed one).

Keep noticing though that their acknowledgement of Jesus seems to rest, not on their own insight but simply on the recognition and endorsement of their teacher John the willing and ego-less baptiser.

After thirty years of preaching round about 1500 sermons, I can’t help envying John that depth of spirituality and inner-light that invited such profound trust from those he taught. When he said that he had seen the Spirit descend on Jesus and that he was the Lamb of God to be followed, they believed him because his life to that point was so believable.

May your hearers see the same in you this Sunday O proclaimers of the Lamb of God.

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

Cultivating Change – Lent 3C

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

I keep meaning to look up the definition of procrastination, but I never seem to get round to it.
I really want to change, but Lent after Lent comes around and the same old issues, attitudes and addictions bedevil my development and growth in love.
As a columnist I know the power of deadlines. There is something about having to submit copy by Tuesday that sharpens my focus and gets me tapping away at the keys. I know that the deadline will not slow down it’s inexorable approach, so I had better get my act together and be ready for its arrival.
The gospel story of the martyred Galileans and those killed in the disastrous fall of the tower of Siloam, reflect that the dead did not have had any time to prepare for deaths.
According to this parable our lives have a deadline. The presence of a “dead”-line, (pun intended), should move us to fruitfulness in our lives. According to the story, the fruition of our life is not complicated. If you are a fig tree, produce figs. If you are a vine, grapes.
So often we fall into the trap of assuming that spirituality involves becoming who we inherently are not. That is not true. The Lord does not expect anything, except for us to fruitfully be who were created to be.
So let’s use this Lent to dig around the roots of our lives and prune ourselves into fruition. This may be our last opportunity.
Oh, one last thing, if you are wondering about where the manure comes from, remember Forrest Gump and his wise words, “Sh#t happens”. The failures and hurts of the past are the fecund compost of today.
Can you dig it?

Posted in Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Pastoral Therapy, Reflection, Sermon

Vintage extravagance – John 2:1-11

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

This miracle story seems to brim with invitation to metaphorical interpretation.  It is too bizarre a narrative to be taken literally.

  • A wedding where the wine runs out. Really?
  • A mother who doesn’t become offended by the dismissive comment of her son.  Really?
  • Six hundred litres of ceremonial ablution water that become wine without incantation or intercession by Jesus.  Really?

It is a story that just cannot be taken at face value.  At least not whilst you are sober!

Maybe that is the whole point.  This is not a story for sober judgment.

It is a miracle of intoxicating import.

It is a story of hope for those embarrassed hosts at life’s party who find themselves under resourced and red-faced at the possibility that the celebration has exceeded their most careful planning and logistics.

It is a story of detachment by a wise rabbi who realizes that miracles don’t require interference or intervention.  All miracles need is willing participation in the unfolding of the mystery.  To be open to the possibility that hospitality can supersede holiness and that vessels are better filled with joy giving wine than justifying washing rituals.

It is a story of extravagance where the cautious vintage of the careful caterer crashes out before the sparkle of the spontaneous appearance of grace.

It’s an inebriating insight into the life of Jesus.

It is a miracle of the Divine Domain. Drink up!