‘Talk is cheap’, they say, ‘but money buys the whisky’.

There are various forms of this adage. The earliest one written down is from P.T. Barnum the circus tycoon whose antics were recently told in the movie The Greatest Showman. He said, ‘Talk is cheap, until you hire a lawyer.’

Speaking of whisky and illusionists, if you have ever worked with an addict you will know just how cheap talk can be. Especially if the talk can buy whisky or any other addictive substance they need to survive. The cheapest talk from addicts are their words of apology that roll out so easily when they’ve been exposed in some dishonesty. Addicts regularly paint themselves into some corner by lies and deception in support of their habit. Usually the apology follows a standard form, “I am so sorry for the hurt I have caused”. Said with doleful face and cast down looks the words mean nothing and will be repeated just as easily next time the addict is cornered.

The most effective method ever devised for dealing with addiction, any addiction, are the Twelve Steps. This recovery map first used in Alcoholics Anonymous is now applied in almost any self help programme where people are trying to curb their destructive behaviour. When you examine the twelve steps surprisingly there is not a single mention of apologising. The word is never used. Not that addicts have nothing to apologise for either. If you have lived with an addict you know how much damage they can cause.

So why does AA not speak of apologising for the harm? Because recovery from addiction doesn’t happen by talking.
No significant change in behaviour or circumstances comes from cheap talk. A fact politicians and preachers know only too well. Talk changes nothing. What changes anything is action. So if you want to change, alter your behaviour and attitude.

Oh and by the way, don’t tell me, show me.

The twelve steps calls it making amends. It’s step nine of the twelve and right after, ‘We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.’ Having completed the list in step eight the person in recovery is reminded by the old timers who have gone before and who are now their sponsors how ‘We made direct amends to such people (we had harmed) wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.’

No cheap talk apology here. If you are serious about recovering from your destructive behaviour don’t apologise, make it right. Make amends. Fix what you broke.
Who can count the parents, spouses, children, employers, friends, and family repeatedly suffer the destructive effects of some deeply addicted person they care about? They pray, they care, they rescue, they enable and through it all the addict simply mouths some cheap apology whilst stealing their money to buy the whisky.

Recovery lies in making amends and not in apologising.

Tolerating Intolerance

TOLERANCE“You get what you tolerate”, was tattooed on the inside of her forearm. I suggested “You get what you negotiate”, she was adamant and anyway it was her arm! I didn’t argue but I did ruminate.

We really are becoming less and less tolerant. Especially in matters of faith. Fundamentalism,a relatively new phenomenon and a reaction to the Modernism and Humanism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is deeply suspicious of change. It attacks any new viewpoint in ethics, social behaviour and human rights and yet is the fastest growing sector of all religions not just Christianity.

In Judaism it’s Zionism and Askenazism and in Hinduism the Indian BJP movement. In Buddhism the 969 movement in Burma is extremely intolerant of Muslim Rohingas, and Islam is disproportionately caricatured as only producing Jihadists.

It would be naive to assume that fundamentalism is about religion. These zealots may practice their faith aggressively but in almost every case fundamentalism pursues some nationalist agenda. Religions falter when they lose their essential focus on spreading goodwill and making the world a better place, and are instead seduced by power and privilege for only their members. At that exact point a nationalist agenda will embrace religion to spread the lie that only certain lives matter.

But how do these nationalist-fundamentalist intolerants find a foothold in civilised democratic countries as they do? The ironic answer takes us back to my friend’s tattoo. “You get what you tolerate.”

Some of the world’s most sophisticated nations have fallen prey to militant fundamentalism simply because they regard religious tolerance as the politically correct thing to do. Religious tolerance in Europe only appeared after the French Revolution when one of the proto-republic’s founding philosophers Voltaire was banished from France and lived in England for two years. There he penned twenty four “Letters concerning the English nation” to explain the islanders to a friend back home.

A surprised Voltaire writes, “This is the country of sects. An Englishman, as a freeman, goes to Heaven by whatever road he pleases.” The statement had profound implications for any citizen of France, a nation that had almost destroyed itself in order to establish Catholicism as the only practised religion. Now Voltaire saw that English society was as bigoted as his homeland and how only Anglicans made it in politics and power, but he noticed when it came to business, “the Jew, the Mahometan (sic), and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel only for those who go bankrupt.”

So in England religious diversity was easier to tolerate than financial failure and where politics always bedeviled religion, money made anything tolerable.
It was this free market and business openness that created the religious tolerance which empowered progress in the West.

Sadly with the rise of fundamentalism and the reactive intolerance of America and Brexit so evident, one can only expect the reversal of that progress in years ahead.

The power of the feminine to save. Even from Hell

We all enjoy a love story.

This one from medieval Italy is similar to a million others but is special because it happened to a great poet who recorded it in the most beautiful language. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is famous for writing the “Divine Comedy” which shaped Christianity’s ideas of heaven and hell forever.

He describes how he began to write the epic poem while he was walking along in the afternoon of his life and fell into a deep hole. There is no better description of the midlife crisis than going along with your life when suddenly you fall into a hole. These crises are usually about our unfinished business or unlived life. For Dante it was his incomplete relationship with Beatrice whom he had met when he was only nine. Years later as an adult Dante was standing near the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge that crosses the Arno River in Florence when he saw Beatrice as an adult and fell deeply in love. Dante did not speak to her that day. In fact he saw her very little, and then Beatrice suddenly died, carried off by plague.

Dante was stricken with the loss of his vision. She was the intermediary between his soul and Heaven itself. Dante went on to marry, and he and Signora Alighieri raised three children. Then, suddenly, at the midpoint of his life, he fell into a deep depression. Here his work began.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante is led down through the nine levels of hell by the poet Virgil, symbol of reason and intellect. Dante discovers surprisingly that the lowest level of hell isn’t fire, it is frozen. That arctic wasteland the intellect will bring us to. So he leaves Virgil behind and is led out of hell by none other than his beloved Beatrice. The message is clear. The soul, not the intellect leads out of hell to heaven. The moist, soft feminine soul, not sterile male logic is the way to salvation. Love not reason saves Dante, and us all.

dante out of hell.jpg

Six hundred and fifty years later, during World War II, the Americans were chasing the German army up the Italian “boot.” The Germans were blowing up everything to thwart the progression of the American army, including the bridges across the Arno River. But no one wanted to blow up the Ponte Vecchio because Beatrice had stood on it and Dante had written about her.
So the German army made radio contact with the Americans and, in plain language, said they would leave the Ponte Vecchio intact if the Americans would promise not to use it.

The promise was held. The bridge was not blown up, and not one American solider or piece of equipment went across it. Crazy, isn’t it? Completely illogical. But life isn’t a rational story, it is a love story. Hardened warrior men were turned by creative feminine emotion. In a modern, ruthless war, the bridge was spared, because beautiful Beatrice had stood upon it.

(Many thanks to Robert A Johnson for the bulk of this from his Inner Gold)

Stress will kill you

South Africa is stressful. The Centre for Health Journalism reports the country has a high suicide rate, psychiatric illnesses are on the rise and stress has become normal.
Every day, an estimated 21 South Africans commit suicide and, according to experts, stress could be a significant contributing factor. Studies done by University of KwaZulu-Natal researcher Lourens Schlebusch, show an estimated 7 582 South Africans die by their own hand every year and 20 times that number attempt but fail to take their own lives. Marthé Viljoen from the South African Federation for Mental Health says new data suggests this is because South Africans have unusually high stress levels.
A recent study, conducted by international research company Bloomberg, ranked South Africa as the second “most stressed out” nation in the world, following Nigeria. El Salvador was ranked third.
Another study, conducted in 2014 by Ipsos Global and Reuters, showed that up to 53% of South Africa’s workforce do not take their allotted annual leave. “High stress levels have been linked to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and can also lead to substance abuse. In severe cases, these problems can lead to a person becoming suicidal,” says Viljoen.
Reflecting on the challenges of stress I have come up with six simple steps that can significantly reduce it. The steps can be remembered by using the word STRESS as a mnemonic.
STOP. There is no need for the frenetic pace at which we live. Marathon running taught me that it’s never the distance but always the pace that breaks you. If you are experiencing high stress levels it is important to structure stops in your day, your week, your year. Times when you cease and desist from business and do nothing for a while.
TIME. I remember as a child having a book called “Pastimes for Boys”. It showed simple crafts like carving soap figures and how to make cotton reel tractors. Ironically, now there is no time to pass! To destress requires an appreciation of time. Take time. Sit and watch the second hand of a clock sweep its face for five minutes. It will give you a sense of just how spacious time can be.
REFLECT. Once you have stopped and taken time, practice reflecting on your life. I find journaling is invaluable. Others sketch or doodle. Step back from the canvas of life and look at the whole journey. I call it the helicopter view.
EXERCISE. Walk, run, gym, stretch it doesn’t matter, but time off the chair is great to reduce stress. Remember sitting is the new smoking.
SLEEP. Shakespeare summed it up in Macbeth, “ Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast”. Every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after.
SENSE. Allow yourself to touch, taste, smell, see, and hear what brings joy and peace.
Stress isn’t worth dying for.

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.

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?

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.

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).

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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.

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?

Good News? Ouch that hurts! Luke 3:7-18 Advent 2 C

Luke 3:7-18

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

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

This has to be the most tongue in cheek ending to a scathing prophetic proclamation, “…with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”! John has just made it clear that God is not a nepotist, that he axes trees of tradition, and that he burns all that is not fruitful from his presence, and Luke suggests that is good news?

Surely this must be wry Middle-eastern wit?  Either that or Luke knows something that we don’t.

The secret to understanding that these purifying and pruning practices could be good news, the gospel, comes from moving their reference from outer collective religious practice to the internal and personal realm of divine development.

It was Richard Rohr who woke me up to understanding that one of Jesus’ greatest contributions to our understanding of God was that he moved our location for God’s presence from the outer to the inner.  From temple to heart, from observance to lifestyle.  And, Rohr concludes, when I am the temple where God resides then the only sacrifice required is myself.

So Jesus, says John the Baptiser, does not disrespect culture, tradition, lineage, or any social register that is so important in our outer lives. Jesus doesn’t disrespect them, he ignores them.  They are irrelevant.

Who of us has not smarted or winced at some moment of humiliation in our journey. Just when we had made it.  Right after the ordained us, or called us Reverend (what the heck does that title mean anyway?) Just after we became Senior Pastor, or Superintendent, or wait for it Bishop; along came Jesus and called us by our birth name.  He called us what our parents and siblings called us, and then he told us to leave it all behind and follow him.

That is the axing, winnowing and burning John is talking about.  It is the threshing of our pride and ego.  It is the burning of our BS. (Yes, you KNOW what that stands for and I meant to use it like that)

There is just no escape from the confrontation with pride and arrogance if we are to follow the King of Love.

That great Lebanese soul Kahlil Gibran got it spot on when he wrote in The Prophet.
“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself. He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness. He kneads you until you are pliant; And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast. All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart. But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

Advent is not for the arrogant and powerful.  You and your ego, have to stoop low to enter the stall.