Up, up and INSIDE!

Luke 24:44-53

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

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

When European missionaries came to South Africa, they were faced with a theological conundrum.

The indigenous people, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Mpondo et al, believed that “God” who they named Nkulunkulu (The Biggest One), Camata, Modimo or Vulindhlela (The Way opener) lived in the ground. Caves and holes were sacred spaces which is why they were adorned with lithographs which in turn were animated by flickering fire in the caves. To this day the traditions of Africa see their beloved dead buried in the kraal, (corral). When an African is facing life’s challenges, a sacred ritual is to return to the kraal at one’s home and pour the froth of traditional beer into the earth before asking advice of the ancients who are buried there amongst their cattle.

The European missionaries were creed bound to teach that God lived in the sky, and also that there was a place called hell (which African cosmology had no reference, or need for)  deep in the earth. The way they did this “preaching” was to literally turn the psyche of Africans around from the God of the deep to the God of the sky, thus creating a deep tear in the soul of Africans who were already, by their very nature, profoundly theistic people.

What the missionaries did not have the insight to examine in their time was how they, as Westerners had come to believe in the God of the sky. Our post-modern deconstructed age has given us that insight and we understand how those early, pre-biblical thinkers could have concluded from their environment that the earth was a flat disk standing on pillars in the midst of water. This water threatened the earth and was kept back at the shore and in the sky by a dome that held back the chaos and destruction. This theme has been interestingly revisited by Stephen King in his latest novel “Under the Dome” but this time the chaos comes from within the dome and not from outside!

On a flat earth it was easy to point to where God lived. God was up beyond the dome and in fact was partly the dome itself holding back the chaos that seemed so close in that early world devoid of simple scientific rationale.

Coming with this middle-eastern cosmology to the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection and re-assimilation into God it was easy to speak of him having “ascended” back to God. Back beyond the dome.

In 2010 it is not so easy to speak of the notion of the ascension.

I remember one of my sons as a junior school learner, looking at a globe of the earth and asking who had decided that the North Pole should be on the top. “There is no up or down in space” was his insightful comment. Of course he was quite correct!

Now that we know what we know about third millennium cosmology, to speak of Jesus ascending is nonsensical. Where is up from a ball? Also given what we now know about the size of the Universe, ascension gets us into all sorts of problems such as how far, how high, which galaxy? Silly stuff.

As a concept the ascension is almost unworkable in our day. Thank God that there are only ten days between the Feast of Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost. Wherever Jesus goes dimensionally, it is only for ten days, and perhaps that is why Jesus, knowing the complexity of this phenomenon, blesses the proto-church disciples and tells them not to do anything until he gets back!

I am tickled however, by the African notion of the abode of God in the earth and not in the sky, so indulge me while I play with an idea that is every bit as speculative as the Ascension doctrine has been.

What if Africans are correct and Jesus came from God who lives in the earth? He would then have descended on this Feast day, back into the earth from which he came. I wonder how that simple change of orientation would have changed our world history?

What if the Africans had sent missionaries with this message to Europe and her Industrialised siblings instead of the other way around? Would the earth be groaning as she is now? Would we have raped and pillaged the abode of God as we have, all the while believing that God was “up there” blessing our “taming and subduing” of our island home in space”?

Of course, I have no way, and no mandate, to alter our doctrine nor our history, but I can’t help musing about the possibilities of a saviour who is earthed more deeply than the one I am duty bound to point to somewhere up there.

Perhaps after I have preached this Ascension Sunday I will go and have a beer in a kraal and wait for the Pentecostal breath to save our land.

Advocating Motherhood

John 14:23-29

Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 
And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

For the past two weeks Jesus has been speaking to us from the context of the Upper Room. In this post-resurrection period, which the church calls Easter, we, like the disciples, are given a season to contemplate the mystery of what it could mean to live in a world where death is not feared and where love is able to replace fear as the primary motivator of human existence.

In these two weeks of speaking from the Upper Room, Jesus has been speaking about love. Not mere eroticism which we in our have allowed to eclipse love, nor the altruism of humanitarianism which can still be an extension of our egos. No Jesus has been commanding, yes a new commandment, to agapetos one another as he sacrificially and unconditionally loved us.

It was Alice Miller who died last month (April 12th ) who taught us that for the early years of a child’s life, parents take on divine status. For the child parents are gods, and when a child witnesses parents fighting and at worst witnesses domestic violence, that child may be scarred and scared for the rest of their life. Fortunately the opposite is also true. Because of the divine impression parents can make on small children, healthy parental relationships can imprint good, true and beautiful images that console and comfort us for all our lives and make us believe that we are wanted and welcome in the skins we inhabit.

I often refer in my thinking and writing to the fact that the gospels record only two moments when the Father speaks to Jesus, his baptism and his transfiguration. At both times the Father says the same thing, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased“. “Was it this“, I ask Alice Miller, “that got Jesus through all he had to face? Simply knowing that he was unconditionally loved of God?”

As the Ascension and the feast of Pentecost draw close, the church invites us this Mother’s day (in the majority of countries ) to reflect on the fact that a departing Jesus, will petition the Father to send an Advocate who will teach and remind disciples in every age, of what Jesus has taught.

What did he teach? The unconditional love of a parental God who wants nothing more than the wholeness and blessing of all God’s children.

I understand that Jesus, when he described the Spirit, used the word advocate (parakletos) to capture the idea of intercessor and spokesperson on behalf of another but in terms of teaching and reminding us of all that he taught of the self sacrificing, unconditional nature of God, he could just as well have chosen my mother as a metaphor.

She taught me my first prayers, she reminded me to say them and she intercedes for me in her devotions, this I know. Knowing that is as good as hearing God’s voice and seeing a descending dove.

Sadly, I realise that not everyone has the experience of Christ revealing, life affirming, parenting from their mothers, and for that I feel an unspeakable sorrow and pain. My work as a minister, listening to the stories of stunted lives caused by unskilful parents makes me realise that I need to speak carefully and prayerfully here.

Yet acknowledging the frailty of human mothers, is an added reason to celebrate how these ordinary women also are able, by grace, to be Advocates of God, teaching, reminding and interceding.

In my dark and dread-filled times (and there have been enough) it has sometimes been my only comfort, to know that there on her knees, and in my heart is a woman advocating my cause and my pain to God, and whenever I am with her. I have known that I fully belong, at least here in her heart and in God’s.

My mother is the Advocate and the Spirit’s gift of God.

Let not my heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

You gotta practice man…

Luke 9:28-43

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.  They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.  Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.  While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.  Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.  Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.  I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”  Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”  While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

And all were astounded at the greatness of God. While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, …

I enjoy telling the rather “corny” story of the man carrying a violin in a case, who emerges from Grand Central Station onto the streets of New York. A visitor to the city, he stops at a homeless man propped up against a wall on the sidewalk and asks him, “Excuse me sir, can you tell me how I can get to Carnegie Hall?” The drunk squints up at the man and the violin case and answers, “You gotta practice man, practice!

Today’s reading has something of that ironic misunderstanding about it. It is a passage of contrasts. Luke, our gospel writer/editor frames the narrative in a way that enables us best to glimpse the contrasts. There is a mystical drama unfolding on the summit of the mountain, and a very human drama unraveling at the mountain base.

Jesus has been teaching the disciples and sending them out on practical ministry events. He has been feeding the crowds and encouraging them in the simplicity and struggle of their daily existence. He has been testing the disciple’s understandings of who he is, “Who do you say that I am?“, and he has been spelling out the cost of discipleship with the gruesome analogy of carrying a cross.

After all the activity of the opening verses of Luke 9, we now find Jesus taking three close disciples and going up “the mountain” to pray. After all the hands-on and direct encounters early in the chapter, the events on the mountain take on a very ethereal mood. There is what the mystics call the “Tabor Light“, the glorious radiance of the Shekinah glory of God associated with moments of epiphany and transformation. The disciples are sleepy, just as they will be portrayed in the garden of Gethsemane the night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. What is it about our psyche that wants to fall asleep at the very moment we are faced with moments of enlightening growth and challenge? “Can we not watch one hour, because the weak flesh cannot keep the pace of willing spirit?” (Matthew 26:41) Here, at least, says Luke, the disciples manage to stay awake and see the transforming glory of Jesus as well as the meeting with archetypal characters Moses and Elijah, who embody the pillars of Judaism, namely, the Law and Prophets.

This meeting has all the power of that classic encounter of Frodo with Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

Simply exchange the word cross for ring and Moses and Elijah for Gandalf, and you have one of those timeless moments when vocation and destiny collide and the inevitable consequences of obedience are glimpsed in all their fearful reality. How consoling to know that the faith ancestors, will come to us at those times to steel our shivering spines!

When Peter decides to build a mountaintop monastery, it feels to me that our proto-church leader, is simply verbalizing religion’s motivation to settle in moments of God’s blessing and to avoid the ongoing, cross-carrying journey which all encounters of this nature are designed to fuel. We who, thanks to Luke, know what is happening at the foot of the mountain recognize that Pilgrims and not Settlers are needed for this enterprise of healing the world.

Don’t you just love the precious parental presence that does not smite nor embarrass Peter? God simply envelops the entire community in a blanket of glorious unknowing which renders all our best building plans facile.

In that cloud of glorious unknowing, the Baptism voice of God again affirms who Jesus is, and encourages us all to listen to him.

In keeping with all mystical transmissions the moment is over as quickly as it began.

I would like to think that the silence which the disciples held about this moment they shared with Jesus, had more to do with profundity of the experience than with mere exclusive secrecy.

Perhaps I, in the evangelical church, could do with less testimony and more transforming silence? After all, how does one put these things into words. Like Mary, I would do better to “ponder these things in my heart and think deeply about them.

The Cross waits for Jesus, the gates of Mordor for Frodo.

Isn’t it ironic that the Only Son who will be lifted from the earth by evil shadows of power, is here at work restoring another only son who is being dashed onto the earth by the same dark forces?

A world oppressed by a plethora of unclean spirits meets me every time I come off the mountain top moments of transformation. There is no avoiding the encounters, but if I treasure the silent secret of what I have seen in the cloud, my heart will not break nor quake as I touch the darkness with the cross cutting into my shoulder.

You gotta practice man practice

Disturbing Tourists – Epiphany Year C

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I don’t know about you but I don’t like being disturbed.   Especially when it has taken me a while to get everything just the way it should be, and I can finally settle down into the comfort of the conditions I have created.   Whether it be the way my office administration operates, or something smaller like settling down to have a cozy evening read; I dislike disturbance.

On this feast of the Epiphany Matthew tells us that Herod and the whole of Jerusalem were disturbed.   It was all because some exotic Eastern mystics, called Magi, who drifted into Jerusalem, wanted to know where the child was who had been born as the king of the Jews.

I am puzzled as to why this should have made troubled Herod, and why Herod’s perturbation should have been so infectious as to disturb all of Jerusalem with him?
But when I remember how I dislike being disturbed I begin to understand Herod’s agitation.  He had built himself a comfortable kingdom that worked for him.   Obsequious enough to Rome, he was rewarded with “homeland” rule, much like the puppet leaders of the old South African regime were rewarded for their loyalty to the Pretoria Nationalists.

The mere thought that there was another “king” out there who could threaten Herod’s comfort was cause enough to disturb him.  The fact that the whole of Jerusalem was agitated too, is testimony to the fact that there are very few societies that embrace change.  Despite the graces of  a Gandhi, Mandela or Obama, we still find change from our familiar power bases disturbing.

As we read on into this chapter however, we are given deeper clues as to the reason for the agitation.  Herod like so many power players was agitated because at a deep level he knew that there were ethical issues at stake.

The research that Herod commissions from the scholars yields an interesting piece of prophecy, ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.

It would seem to me that Herod’s agitation is deepened into murderous intent when he realizes that this is no mere political opponent he is going to have deal with.  I infer this because of the phrase, “a ruler who will shepherd
Shepherding is not associated with political power is it?

Rulers rule. Presidents preside. Leaders lead. Executives execute.
They don’t shepherd!
Shepherding implies compassion, care and a courageous life-sacrificing quality that few powerful people would understand or want to practice.

Yet this had always been the basis of Godly rule from the inception of the monarchy in Israel.  The very first king David was called from the flocks to be the shepherd king, an archetype which was espoused and fulfilled in Jesus the good shepherd.

Herod, power player and man of maneuvering, could not begin to think of his leadership in those terms, and even though his scripture scholars may have pointed out that this was the scriptural paradigm, Herod knew that this was not how he came to power, and this was certainly not how he was going to stay in power.

So he turned his focus to bloodshed and destruction and is forever remembered as the butcher of the Bethlehem innocents.

I wonder how we are reacting to the reality that there is one amongst us who challenges our illegitimate power bases? This holy child whose birth we have totally over-celebrated, once again, last week.

Do we also want to “put him away” this Epiphany?  Of course not  in butchering bloodshed!  We are too subtle for that.  No we can simply pack this shepherd king away with the Christmas tree and lights, as we dismantle them on the twelfth day of Christmas and assign them to the musty cupboard till next Advent?

Are we also agitated and troubled by the thought that allowing this child to continue to grow in our “homelands” may cost us too much, and disturb our comfortable kingdoms more than we care for?

Herod hid from grace and terrible destruction was the fate and fruit of his life from then on.
Could we do it differently?

The mystical magi are knocking on the door.  They speak of stars and destiny, and shepherd kings who can lead us to God.

Will we allow them to disturb us enough that we might join their caravan of change?