- The Advantage Being a Christian: It Has Kept Me Safe, And Given Me Some Useful Skills.
- On ‘Transcendence’ and Christianity: A Philosophical Reflection
- Dissonance In Reciting The Great Prayers of Thanksgiving at the Eucharist
- Tears, Authenticity and Authority in Prayer
- What “Pale Rider” Told Me About Violence, Non-Violence and Trusting God
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Monthly Archives: May 2012
We are always aware of body language, even if unconsciously. Recently a person criticised me because when a ‘lady of great age’ approached, I stayed sitting! Now tell me posture doesn’t matter!
Last Wednesday, we were chatting after Church. One person said ‘Oh, I am getting old, I can’t stand up all the way through the prayer of thanksgiving. I have to sit down’. ‘Bravo’ I said ‘What happens in Church is a recommended posture, but of course if it is painful, no one is going to think any the less of you if you sit.’ But this interchange did stimulate another person to ask about the meaning in the change of our posture recently, from kneeling to standing. The norm for many people has been to stand for the first part of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, and then to kneel for the section that introduces the words of consecration. At the request of this member I thought that it would be worthwhile saying something in this reflection about ‘posture’ in church and what it means.
The first thing to say is that ‘it does matter’. We are always aware of body language, even if unconsciously. Recently a person criticised me because when a ‘lady of great age’ approached, I stayed sitting! Now tell me posture doesn’t matter!
The meaning of the posture of standing, sitting or kneeling for humans derives from the fact that our heads are on top of our bodies. To be higher than another person gives us an advantage over them. If we were bottom dwelling fish with our heads on the same level as our tails, it would be an advantage to be ‘lower’ than another person, but not for humans.
So making one’s self low or lower than another is, as we know a sign of obeisance. In Japan, great store is laid upon the depth of a ‘bow’ of greeting. Equals ‘lower themselves’ equally. To a great superior one lowers oneself in proportion to the difference in status. Hardly anyone has not laughed at the Mikado, and the ‘grovelling in typical Japanese fashion’ that goes on in front of the Mikado.
So what are we doing in Church. Who are we in relation to God on a Sunday morning and what posture should we adopt when we present ourselves before God?
Views have changed over time.
At one time, when the arbitrary caprices of kings was the norm, people did a lot of bowing and scraping to God as well, as a type of king. It was also the time of Christendom, when everyone was a Christian, so that when a person went to the Eucharist, it was a more individual action that a corporate one. What is more, the words were mostly in Latin, so the tradition grew up of the people saying their own prayers in English, on their own while the ‘show’ went on in a foreign language ‘out there’. Going to church was a private devotion’.
We have some of that carried over into our practices of worship from the 1662 Prayer Book. People ‘knelt humbly on our knees’ and at the most holy time of the Eucharist, knelt in personal devotion and humility before God. This view had the benefit that it gave us a sense of the awe we should have before God, and to make a change risks losing a sense of reverence and awe. But more of that later.
So things are different now. We have re-thought our stance before God. Who are we now? Now, we take our cues from other parts of the New Testament. The Church is described in the New Testament as ‘..a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy Nation’. All of us together have the right and responsibility of ‘standing in the House of our God’ and offering our thanks and praise. When we ask ‘Who is the ‘priest’ in the Eucharist, the correct answer is ‘all of us together’, the ‘priestly people of God’. So we are not recipients of the action of another, but we are the priestly ‘doers’ of the actions.
There are also other sections of the new Testament that give us a clue as to who we are. They are summed up for me in Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘And can it be’. He talks about how his spirit had been imprisoned, but that now, God has set him free. So he says
‘No condemnation now I dread,
Jesus all in him is mine.
Alive in him my living head
and clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold I approach the eternal throne
and claim the crown
through Christ my own.
No one can do this kneeling down.
The good thing about the Wesley hymn is that it gives theological weight to the change in idea about posture. There are some who think that the battle lines are drawn in this way. There are two sides: Those who respect the majesty of God and kneel, and those who have ‘dumbed down’ the Eucharist and have domesticated God by all this frippery of standing!
So Wesley, in the hymn, is talking about the boldness that comes from the assurance that we will not be condemned, rather than talking about the fear that if we are not careful, at any moment we might still be zapped if we don’t act humbly enough.
Clearly there are some who have domesticated God too much, and there is a sense that we are all ‘fluffy’ before God, and that there is nothing at stake. That is not me! Every Sunday there is something at stake. As I have said, being in Church is like being at a football game: the question at stake is ‘will the reality of God take root in our lives this week or not?’
It is also true that some who want to argue for the grandure of God have also domesticated God, because the words that are said are valued because they are the comfortable old ones. This domesticates God as much as being ‘fluffy’.
The difference in posture, from kneeling at the prayer for thanksgiving to standing throughout is aimed to give expression to the reality of who we are before God: God’s priestly people, boldly approaching the throne of grace.
Once that has been established, then it is also highly desirable to kneel at certain times. Just as a good marriage is characterised by the capacity of the couple to be vulnerable to one another, to be able to admit fault when it is ‘my fault’ without feeling diminished, so too we can freely admit to God how we have missed the mark this week. To kneel here is proper. But it is not grovelling, but the proper vulnerability of a Child of God with God or friend with friend. Then we stand up again, and say ‘now we have peace with god’ let us boldly approach with ‘complete freedom’ God’s ‘most holy place’ (See Hebrews 10:19 – 22. That is why we stand for the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.
When I am on the receiving end of having to admit something that I have done, I find it easier if the person giving the difficult feedback says ‘I love you. You know that. I appreciate you a great deal and here is something I would like to say…’
I saw a documentary once that opened my eyes. It depicted the function of the colosseum in Rome. First, the documentary showed in blue the civilisation in Rome, and the empire that surrounded the Mediterranean. In red, surrounding the empire, was depicted all the dangers that threatened it: wild tribes, wild animals, conquered and rebellious peoples and slaves.
So the scene switches to the colosseum. Now, all that is threatening to the empire (in red) is placed in the centre, and the Romans are encircling them in blue. Of course the threats are defeated and the power of Rome is established, at least on a holiday afternoon in the arena. This is the liturgy (ritual) of Roman religion: our team wins, we are safe. (Sound familiar?) Every Western movie is a replay of this ‘containing on the screen’ the drama of what threatens the ‘good’ cowboys: the Indians and the outlaws. Even in Shakespeare the chorus in Henry V invites the audience to consider that ‘…this O’ (the globe theatre) could contain the ‘vasty fields of France’, so that the English can see Henry’s victory against the threatening French and feel safe against the present Spaniard threat.
Psychologically this process is known as ‘projection’ and it works every day to protect us from the pain of too much reality. We say ‘We are the good ones.’ ‘They’ are the baddies.’ Even children do it in their games. Remember they rhyme ‘I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal?’
In order to avoid the painful truth that I, or parts of me, might be a dirty rascal I have to send all that onto some one else or somewhere else.
But here comes a complication. The aim of the game is to be able to own the truth of ‘dirty rascal’ parts of myself. Karl Jung asked ‘How would it be if the ‘enemy’ I am asked to love is me?’ This is not easy, and requires another kind of very safe environment, like the colosseum, only gentler, in order for us to find the strength to admit the truths of life that have been projected onto others.
The other thing is that my self esteem is so weakened, that the process of owning my projections is hindered because I need to project the truth in order to feel any good at all. You know the way the sentence goes: ‘So I am like X, Y, and Z am I? That’s right, I am, and I am nothing!’ Here is another children’s game ‘No body loves me, everybody hates me, I’m gonna eat some worms!’
This is not true. There is no necessary connection between being fundamentally ‘ok’ and always being right. Just as there is no fundamental connection between sometimes expressing our dark side or projecting it onto others, and being ‘totally wrong.’ But the fundamental ‘ok-ness’ of ourselves has to be established first, before we have the strength to admit other, more uncomfortable truths into our lives.
When I am on the receiving end of having to admit something that I have done, I find it easier if the person giving the difficult feedback says ‘I love you. You know that. I appreciate you a great deal and here is something I would like to say…’
In any difficult circumstance what needs to be established first is the affirmation of a person’s ‘ok-ness’ before anything else happens. This is a step that is often left out in common language.
Person A has a problem which they express. Person B goes straight to a solution. ‘Don’t feel like that’ ‘Why don’t you try A. B, or C?’. What is missing is the first step of establishing the ‘ok-ness’ of the person with the difficulty.
In the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatious of Loyola, the first week of a month long retreat is spent in experiencing this first and most important truth: that before any ‘work’ is done to own our projections, or to change our lives, the foundation of knowing ourselves loved by God is laid.
Projection is not all bad however. I love drawing pictures. I do not mean artwork that looks beautiful, but pictures that enable me to do what the Romans did: to project onto a screen something of my life so that I can put it ‘out there’.
Often it feels as though ‘my life has got me’ rather than I have ‘got my life’. One way of recovering my sense of being ‘ok’ and to a degree in control is to make a decision that the things that cause me pain are not untouchable. They are not inexpressible. This takes a bit of courage in the first place, because what makes fears ‘inexpressible’ is the belief that ‘If you knew who I really am, you would hate me’. But the Scripture says ‘perfect love casts out fear’. A loving environment which is based on the foundation of God’s love for us, and then is replicated by a loving Church community can be the place where something that needs to be ‘projected’ can be expressed.
That is where the pictures come in. Drawing pictures in a playful environment is one way of getting a look at what causes pain in a way that is safe. After that it is possible to ask ‘So what does the Scripture say about this situation? What does the wisdom of the ages say about this situation? What do my friends say ‘about this situation’ (and not necessarily ‘to me’).
So the Romans had the first two steps in the process correct. They were confident enough not to blame themselves and then to go off and commit suicide. They had the capacity to project their fears into the arena. What they did not go on to do was to reflect critically on their lives. The same is true of the ‘Westerns’. Nothing was going to stop the westward push, at the cost of the First Peoples of America, of white civilisation. The same is true in Australia. Nothing was going to stop the killing of Aborigines and the taking of their land. What makes the Australian situation so much more difficult is that we have not often had the strength even to ‘project’ our history into movies. We are still unconsciously conflicted by all ‘arrivals by boat’ on Australian shores.
But the spiritual disciplines of the Church give us the opportunity to be free of those ‘fears and phantoms of the night’ which make us believe other than that we are unconditionally loved by God, and that in the context of that love, we are given the strength both to ‘project’ our lives onto a screen to ‘get a look at them’ and then to take them back, or go into ‘problem solving’ mode about them.
Reflection 20-5-12 I was away last weekend with a group of people. We met for a dinner of fish and white sauce, with vegetables on Friday night. As we gathered for our first session together on Saturday morning, the leader asked … Continue reading
Morality derives not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Christianity tends to the nature of the ‘inside’. As Monika Furlong has written (a paraphrase here) ‘The church’s best thing is to offer people life in Christ, everything else is decoration’
Last week we had a dinner where the topic of ‘Christianity’ came up. The conversation turned on what Christianity actually is. In Australia, the history of Christianity is a bit vexed, because of the presence of the ‘flogging parson’ Samuel Marsden. Deeply ingrained into our psyche is the idea that in Christianity, hypocrisy is rife! The idea goes that there are lots of people who ‘go to Church on Sunday’ but who do terrible things on Monday! They say one thing with their mouths, but do not behave in a way that corresponds with what they say (according to what can be observed, and in the judgement of the ‘non-church-going observer). Christianity is fundamentally about morality and behaviour
Another facet of the thought world of normal Australians is that the ‘reality’ is represented by ‘The Community.’ The most important thing is to ‘be a member of the community’. This comes out in all kinds of ways. I remember one priest telling me in an astounded voice about a member of his congregation who told him after a lovely Sunday Eucharist ‘You know Father David, the Church is one of my favourite charities!’ As well, when one is working with Local Government one will often hear the phrase ‘Well, in order to implement this policy, we will need to work with most of the ‘community groups’ like kindergartens and the Churches. Do you see the logic at work here? The main reality is ‘The community’. Within that reality there are various ‘groups’ who play a part as members of the community.
So when the church is approved of by Australians who are not members of a Church the approval comes in two forms. First is has to do with being seen to be doing good works in such a way as to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. Second, the aim of the good works needs to be seen to be for the benefit of the community.
Now at one level which I will come to later, there is much to commend this view as a strategy for the Church. But at a theoretical level it is wrong and has nothing to do with the ‘reality’ of the Church.
First of all we need to deal with the question of morality. Being a Christian is first and foremost about being ‘In Christ’. Here is the idea. The future of the whole world is going to look like Christ. Here is Colossians 1:15 – 20 that gives the sense of it.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Those of us who have been baptized are ‘in Christ’ and look forward to and share in this New Heaven and New Earth to come. No amount of ‘doing what is seen to be good’ can make and difference. In St. John’s gospel the people ask ‘What ‘work’ can we do to be pleasing to God. Jesus answers ‘The work that is the work ‘of God’ is to believe in me!’ The difference lies not in the ‘morality’ but in the answer to the question ‘Into what are you Baptized’. Another way of putting this is to take the image of the vine and the branches from last week and ask ‘What is the nature of the ‘sap’ that is flowing through you? Morality derives not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Christianity tends to the nature of the ‘inside’. As Monika Furlong has written (a paraphrase here) ‘The church’s best thing is to offer people life in Christ, everything else is decoration’
This leads on to the second part of the wrong assumptions that people make about the Church. The Church is not a’ part of the community’ but an alternative version of it. Do you remember the course of sermons on the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a ritual, a ritual is a series of repeated actions that creates ‘a World’. This is the real world and is a symbolic and intense version of the less symbolic and extensive life that Christians live in the fake world.
It is just not the case that ‘all people are the same and some choose to go to church and some don’t’ but in the end it is a matter of Choice. As today’s Gospel says ‘You did not choose me but I chose you. God has invited us into a world that not many people know about and then called us to be representatives of this ‘world’ for those who are captive to other kinds of ‘sap’ which is flowing through other ‘vines’ into which they may be grafted.
But there is a problem which has to be attended to. Learning to be ‘flown through’ by the ‘sap’ of Christ alone is not easy, and in fact is a lifetime’s work! In the meantime there will be ‘wheat and tares’ within our own life, as well as among us in the Church.
As well, it is a fact that our ‘outside’ behaviour is a reflection of our ‘inside life’. (Unless we really are dissemblers and hypocrites who speak with a double tongue). St Paul says ‘If we are driven by the Spirit, then let us walk by the spirit.’ This is not a matter of ‘walking the talk’ but of letting the life of Christ, into which we are baptized flow through us.
But the judgement about this ought not to come form people who don’t care about us or understand us. In the Gospel reflection Group that I am setting up on Wednesdays, we try to let the images and words of Scripture ‘into’ us, so that our inner lives will be transformed and our ‘outer actions’ then correspond to the ‘inner life’ that is flowing through us. What ever our ‘actions’ ‘look like’ from the outside is not a reliable guide to anything. It is only when everyone is let in on the motivations of others and there is mutual fellowship and sharing. It is in this kind of a group that hypocrisy can be reduced, and the relationship between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ can be examined.
In the long run, God’s invitation for everyone is into loving fellowship with one another, instead of into a situation where bricks are thrown from a distance.
Where do beggars go at night?
Last Sunday there occurred a ‘first’ for me in ministry. A beggar came into the church and after having sat through the whole service began to ask each person present for money. At the coffee hour.
This kind of thing sets up all kinds of conflicts in me. The first thing I thought of was to say ‘We have no money. Go away.’ This is because clergy are so often asked for money by people who have wonderful stories, but all of them are the same. People will always say ‘We will pay you back’. And they don’t.
But this kind of worry comes to me partly because I do not know the ‘back story’ of the people who are doing this kind of thing. In Australia, for example, we were regularly warned about hoards of Englishmen coming over to there selling cheap ties!
So they accost people on the street and we can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as we wish. The same is true of Buskers or those ‘Statue’ people. They do their thing and we are free to give or not. This is a clearer transaction. But I don’t know what beggars lives are after the ‘begging’ transaction is done! Is it legitimate for me to say ‘Go away and sell ‘The Big Issue’ Lots of homeless people do this to make a living, and to build up their self esteem, precisely because of the degrading effects of begging. But who actually begs? Is there an organised tribe of beggars, like Fagin’s boys, who live permanently in the caravan park near Villeneuve and have quite good self esteem in fact and support one another? I would like to know this. Maybe the next time this happens, I will follow the person to see where they go and what their life is really about. Perhaps that would help me to understand what is going on with them
The other part of the conflict is that God’s generosity and my sense of justice collide! I always ask myself ‘What if this person were Jesus who is coming to me asking for money?’ Or if I were Jesus, there is the old question ‘What would Jesus do?’
So my initial reaction is to say ‘I wish you would stop bothering me. But like the householder in Luke’s Gospel, if kindness does not make me give, then asking ‘Is this person Jesus’ might make me give.
But there is that other story in the Bible too, of the beggar at the Gate Beautiful. Peter and John say to him ‘silver and gold have we none, but that which we do have we give to you…in the name of Jesus, get up and walk!’ Now we do have silver and gold, but there are times I have said to people who have come begging at the door ‘Why do you come here spinning a tale of woe which I know is not true, asking for money, when if you were a Christian and a member of this congregation, you would be supported physically prayed for spiritually as of right, because you are a member here!
This goes to the question of the’ back story’ of people who come asking for money. Would they take up this offer?
The other thing that the events of last Sunday pint up is that as a congregation we are not prepared for such eventualities. In other parishes where I have worked there has been a fund of say 30CHF per month which is used for such purposes. When the fund is gone, the help is gone. This was often a resolution for me. This is not yet part of my administration. Often too there were arrangements made with grocery stores to buy vouchers that could be offered for food. This would go some way to preventing the money being spent on alcohol or tobacco. We could also do this. I think this is a good solution, because it allows us to be generous, but within the limits of our resources.
But the new thing for me was that the begging person came in to ‘our space’ and broke some kind of rule. The rule that he seemed to me to break was ‘We ought to be able to go about our business after Church without being accosted and asked for money, in a place where we can’t ‘get away’. I felt a bit like this at the Opera in Milan and at the Eifel tower in Paris. There, there were lots of people selling flowers. I did not want to buy a rose, but they were very insistent and would not go away. I was not in ‘rose buying’ mode but ‘going to the opera’ mode. I resent being forced to say ‘no’ to insistent people when I am not in ‘rose buying’ mode. In a shop, I can look at the goods and say ‘I am just looking, thankyou’, but on Sunday we were trapped. I don’t think that this is fair. I aid so to the person who was begging.
Is this action ‘trespass’? I don’t know. Do we ‘forgive those who trespass against us?’
In some ways too I would like to change the circumstances of people so that no one is reduced to begging. There is social security that we all provide through our taxes. Why does this person beg instead of going onto social services? Are they illegal immigrants? If so, what has happened to them such that they are reduced to begging?
My suspicion, and what makes me resentful is that this person is part of a ‘gang’ of people who are not really in need, but find the trade off between a degrading occupation and the money to be made begging is worth it. That I resent.
So I don’t know how far I have come in this reflection. I do know that at the next Chaplaincy Council I will put on the agenda something about providing for people who ask for money.
I am severely tempted to follow the next beggar to find out what kind of a life they lead. That would break their ‘rules’: I beg and see your life, you give and don’t see mine! There is a doctoral thesis in uncovering the contours of this life.
I still think it is unfair that we as a congregation do not have time to ‘be ourselves’ without being asked for money or without being asked to consider other issues. But I get a sense of the dismay with which people viewed Jesus when he broke the rules, and the woman came into the house where he was having dinner and began to wash his feet with her tears! Was not Simon right to say ‘What is this woman coming into my dinner party!’ But she ‘loved much’, and was not begging.
So there you go. In the end, I have to be thankful for the intrusion on Sunday: Difference leads to reflection!