Monthly Archives: June 2012

We do not ‘make up the f…

We do not ‘make up the future’ because what the future looks like is given shape by the person of Jesus, who comes to announce its ‘arrival’, and in his own person actually to be what this future looks like. This is the meaning of ‘Zukunft’ in German and ‘Avenir’ in French: their words for the future!

Learning languages other than English heightens my sense of the meaning of words in both German (which I learned as an adult) and English (my mother-tongue) and now French.

When I was learning German we paid particular attention to the way that some verbs can become nouns, and some nouns are derived from verbs. Take for example the German word for ‘Information’: ‘Auskunft’. This is the noun that comes from the verb ‘auskommen’ which means of course ‘to come out’. So ‘information’ is stuff which ‘comes out.’ True! The same goes with ‘ankommen’. That means ‘to come to or ‘arrive’. So on the same principle, ‘Ankunft’ means arrival. But what about the word ‘Zukunft’?

By now you can do the logic yourself. ‘Zu’ in a similar way to the English sound means ‘to.’ The ‘kunft’ part of the word is the noun form of the verb ‘kommen’. So the ‘Zukunft’ is something that ‘comes to’ us. True! But what is this thing that ‘comes to’ us? Well the common meaning of the German word ‘Zukinft’ is…wait fo it… Future!!

When a German person unconsciously thinks of the ‘future’ they are thinking of something that ‘comes to’ them. I recently discovered that the French language has the same conception. The French word for ‘future’ is, as many of you will know, ‘L’Avenir’ which looks like it is also derived from the words ‘to come to’. (venir, to come)  So I am wondering, ‘Is this picture of the future useful?’

The idea of the future is related to the idea of the past, and how the process of change relates the one to the other. The first thing to say about this is that the idea of change is at the heart of this relationship. There are people who want to talk about ‘the end of history’ like Hegel and Fukiyama, but in this context I think that Karl Marx is right. When Hegel said ‘There can be no more history, because I have understood the process by which history works’, Marx answered ‘But you forget that it is human beings that create history!’ (This is to say nothing about Eastern views of history as a ‘wheel’ in which ‘everything old is new again’ and nothing changes, in essence.)

In Marx’s picture the future (history) is conceived of as totally open. ‘There is’, as T.E. Lawrence famously said in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ ‘Nothing written, unless I write it!’ The way that the future goes is a product of the actions of human beings and because we have ‘free will’ we can create whatever future we wish. Some people want the future to look like their past. That is, they want to stop change altogether. They say ‘The world as it was in “X” time is the way I like it, no nobody move!

Other people do not care what the future looks like, but try to ride the waves that they see generated by the activity of the present so that they may ‘catch’ them early, and take advantage of the ‘trends’.

Other people develop a ‘vision’ for the future and try to make that ‘dream’ come true by their actions.

But the thing that these three responses have in common is that they all see the future as being generated out of the present or the past. The ‘arrow of time’ goes forward from now.

But the picture of the ‘future’ in the words we have in French and German are more Christian pictures in my view. Here the future is seen as somehow already existing ‘out there’ and that the events that happen ‘now’ are the result of that already existing future ‘arriving to’ us.

This exactly describes the picture we get from the Bible. The future is described in various metaphors ‘The Reign of God’, ‘The Heavenly Jerusalem’, ‘The Wedding Feast of the Lamb’, ‘The New Heaven and the New Earth’ or ‘The New Temple’. This vision is given to us in revelation. We do not ‘make it up’ because what the vision looks like is given shape by the person of Jesus, who comes to announce its ‘arrival’, and in his own person actually to be what this future looks like.

One of the meanings associated with the resurrection is that the ‘general resurrection of the dead’ has begun in Jesus, so  that the coming of the Reign of God, and the transformation of the old Heaven and the old Earth into the ‘New Heaven and the New Earth’ has already begun. We sing ‘Changed from Glory into Glory till in heaven we take our place.’

So from the past we have the beginning of this new future in Jesus. In the present we have the Spirit reminding us of these things about Him. We have the future of God as secure in principle, but not yet come in power. Our job then is not to create God’s future, but to anticipate it!

This is what we do in Church every Sunday. As best we can, by the participation in the Liturgy, we anticipate the future of God whose shape is given to us in Jesus. That is why we have a certain ‘shape’ to the Eucharist. As the hymn says ‘Those dear tokens of his passion, still his dazzling body bears. Source of endless exaltation, to his ransomed worshippers.’ The way of Heaven (the future) is the way of the cross because Jesus, who now reigns, still bears the marks of the cross. So in Church we learn to follow this way. We learn to be ‘broken’ and ‘rebuilt’ through the love of God in the Eucharist, because this is the process of transformation that is called ‘changed from glory into glory’.

The way that we do the Eucharist is not a product of the past, but a product of the future which ‘arrives’ at us. The closer we are at anticipating God’s future in worship, the less steep will be our ‘learning curve’ when that future arrives in power.

In my sermon of two weeks ago, I offered a brief picture of how I see this happening here.

‘I see a congregation gathered: joyfully celebrating the Eucharist all together because there is no where else they would rather be than in the company of Jesus around his meal table where forgiven sinners are welcomed. I see a congregation that knows who is coming and going because we love one another and who meet in small groups to support each other during the week.I see a congregation whose witness to Christ is so vivid that others will want to join us and that those whom we ask will have their lives transformed by a regular engagement with the reality of God in Christ. I see a congregation that can recognize and stand against destructive structures in its own life and in the world and be known because of it.’

To the extent that this picture matches the coming Reign of God we will be ok!

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Every question is really …

Every question is really a statement

In the 1970’s I did a lot of what was then called ‘Group Work.’ It had to do with learning to communicate, and to come to know one’s self through talking together in groups. The very first day I went to this group process, we were getting ourselves organised into groups with a pair of ‘trainers’ in each group. I happened to be talking to one of the trainers. He asked me hoe I was doing. I said ‘Well, when you come to a place for the first time, you feel a bit anxious.’ He replied “Who?” I’m not sure if you want to tell me some thing about yourself or about me” I said ‘Of course, I’m feeling anxious.” “Ah, he replied. You’re anxious. I am a bit too. I always am on the first day of a new group.’


That was my first group lesson in communication: if I want to say something, then make it a statement about what I notice of think. The effect of this is that it leaves the other person free to respond without feeling as if someone else is saying something about them.


The second part of this interchange (which was later elaborated many times) taught me something about the nature of questions. They are so much a part of normal life aren’t they? ‘What time does the bus go?’ ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Why are you doing that?’


In group work I learned that each question is really like a fish-hook into another person. The classic is ‘When did you stop beating you wife?’ In group-work they taught us Every question is really a statement and some information about yourself that has been turned around.’ It is true. “When does the bus go?’ is really the statement ‘I am not sure of when the bus goes. I would like some help please’.


At the trivial level of information swapping the asking of questions does not matter, but saying I…” is good practice for more important matters. For example, I have not preached from the pulpit. Some people have asked ‘Why are you not preaching from the pulpit?” Another person said ‘I am a bit confused by your not preaching from the pulpit. I would appreciate hearing what you are trying to do.” One asks something of me. The other shares something of the other.


So the rule I learned was ‘to share my perceptions’ It means that I own my own thoughts and feelings and leave the other person free to respond.


But there is something more important at stake in this manner of speech: the learning of self awareness. Here is a quote about self awareness that we had in an article by Daniel goldman in the Harvard Business Review of 1998. It says “People with high self awareness are able to speak accurately and openly –although not necessarily effusively or confessionally- about their emotions and the impact that they have on their work. For example one manager I know was sceptical about a new personal-shopper service that her company…was about to introduce. Without prompting…she offered them an explanation ‘It’s hard for me to get behind the rollout of this service,’ she admitted, ‘because I really wanted to run the project, bit I wasn’t selected. Bear with me while I deal with that.’ The manager did indeed examine her feelings, and a week later, was fully supporting the project.”


Learning this kind of communication helps us in the Church in two ways that I want to share with you.


First of all there are always decisions to be made. It is important that all the parties to making a decision be able to offer their views. How those views are expressed will determine how they are heard. If everyone makes ‘I” statements about their feelings and thoughts, then to the benefit of everyone they will be received better. If a person makes ‘You’ statements then I find that my response is to want to limit, and minimise the effect of that person’s contribution. We move away from communication into politics.


But the other reason that practising self awareness is important is that it plays a role in how God changes us. There is a way of reading the bible that has lots in common with the Ignation Exercises, as well as the Benedictine ‘Lectio Divina’. This method however comes from Africa. Here is the model. A reading from the gospel is read aloud. Each person says the thing in the reading that captures their attention. Then the reading is read again, and each person says how that part of the reading touches them. Then the reading is read a third time, and each person says what they think god is asking them to do differently that week.


The thing that I notice that most people have difficulty with is the part that goes ‘How does the thing that I notice affect me? What is going on inside of me that this thing should stand out at this time?’ It is true that the parts of Scripture to which we are unconsciously drawn, will be the places that light up where we need to pay attention.


It is not often however that we are asked to give an account to others of the ‘inside’ of our awareness. Tis is the skill that can be learned. The value in learning this skill is that a person’s faith gradually becomes something that is ‘theirs’, about which they can speak from experience rather than something that remains ‘mysterious’ but which is just accepted.


St Peter asks us always to be ready to give an account of the faith that is in us. It is this being able to give an account to others which both strengthens our faith and is a credible witness to others. This process of becoming a credible witness begins with being aware of how the Bible speaks to our lives in such a ways as to make a difference. Self awareness begins with learning to say “In situation X, when you do ‘Y, I feel Z. Right now I am feeling (Sad, Mad, Glad, Scared: there are four feelings or mixtures of them).


When trying this out in congregations, some people reject the process because they call it ‘navel gazing’. I reject their rejection. Navel gazing is designed for self gratification. Self awareness is aimed at effective communication. This for me is one of the marks of love.

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Can you imagine Jesus ‘c…

Can you imagine Jesus ‘cleansing the Temple’ saying ‘take from our lives the strain and stress’? In this I am with Zorba the Greek. Life is trouble! It is not in avoiding trouble that God’s will is done, but in how we negotiate our way through it. This is the meaning of the incarnation. So not to put too fine a point on it: John Greenleaf Whitier’s poem is soothing, but heretical.

Reflection 17-6-12

Hymns are always a mater for interesting conversation in the Church. They are a combination of words sung to God, which mean something, and music, which touches our emotions. As St. Augustine said ‘The one who sings, prays twice.’ This is true. The addition of a tune to words gives the words added force.

But a hymn is a thing to which the maxim ‘Let not human beings put asunder what God has joined together’ applies. There are those who say ‘The tune does not matter, it is the words that count!’ While on the other hand, there are those who also say ‘Let’s have this tune’ regardless of what the words say.

Well I am one of those people who say first of all ‘When we sing something, it is the meaning of the words that we have to be able to put ourselves behind first.’ A tune on its own does not convey meaning, but the emotional force that re-enforces the meaning. If the words are terrible, no good tune can save them.

I remember once I was preparing a funeral for a person whose wife had died. Her name was Margaret. He said “I think I would like to have ‘Maggie May’ by Rod Stewart at the funeral. Now the tune for ‘Maggie May’ is very good. But I said to him ‘Have you thought about the words? They go

‘Wake up Maggie I think I’ve got something to say to you, It’s late September and I really should be back at school. I know I kept you amused, but Maggie I’m being used, Maggie I couldn’t have tried any more…’

I continued. ‘We are in the presence of a person who has died. Do you really what to have played ‘Wake up Maggie I think I’ve got something to say to you?’ ‘ He agreed that this would not be the best thing to do, and we had other favourite music of hers to play as we exited the Church.

All this serves as an introduction to some comments I would like to make on the words of two hymns: one that we have sung, and one that we will sing. Both of these hymns have lovely tunes, but I have trouble with the words.

The one that we have sung is the hymn of St. Francis of Assisi ‘All Creatures of Our God and King.’ There are a lot of verses and they are long, so it makes sense to cut one or two of them. But the other Sunday, the verse that I think is the most important verse in the hymn was not sung. This verse goes

‘And thou most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath Oh praise him O praise him. Thou leadest home the child of God, and Jesus Christ the way hath trod, Alleluia O praise him Alleluia’

Many think that death is a gruesome subject to be avoided, and perhaps not spoken of in polite company. But for Christians it is the opposite. St Paul writes ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain!’ How can we be so unafraid of death? My answer is that all through our lives, since our baptism, we have been practicing the way of the Cross. We have experienced the Death, Entombment and Resurrection of Jesus in our own lives, since our lives have been sacra mentally joined to Christ’s in Baptism. He lives and reigns with God, and so will we. Our future is Christ’s future. As the hymn says ‘And Jesus Christ the way hath trod’. So to sing about death as ‘kind and gentle’ is the right phrase. It sounds shocking to us, who want to keep living, but it remains a fact of Christian life that the reality of Christ, into which we have been baptized, not only transcends family relationships (as we hard last week) but transcends death itself. Death is not the end, but part of a bigger process of the renewal of the whole creation in Christ. That is why, if we are going to leave out verses of hymns, we ought not to leave out this one from the hymn ‘All Creatures of our God and king.’

The other hymn that we will sing that disturbs me is ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’. Most of the hymn is ok, if a little sentimental. But the verse that I can not sing is this one that goes

 ‘Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm. Let flesh be dumb let sense retire speak through the earthquake wind and fire O still small vice of calm.’

I can sympathise with people who have very stressful or conflicted lives asking God for a bit of calm. But this verse runs contrary to all that makes us human in the first place. We are people full of desire. We are people who are bodies, that is, en-fleshed. We engage the world with our senses. Who says that calmness and the removal of our emotions and bodily existence from the scene is what God wants, and for which we should pray?

When God saw the problems of human kind God did not tell us how to extract ourselves from those very things that make us human. Instead God’s own life was poured into human life in the person of Jesus so that what we can be redeemed. That is why marriage is a sacrament. Do we pray of marriage ‘Please God, remove all emotion and physicality from married life so that we can have ‘the still small voice of calm’? No, we don’t indeed. When emotions are valued as ‘positive ones’ then we launch into love affairs with all their emotion and bodily expression with gusto, and we say ‘Thank you God for the joy of embodied emotional life.’ It is only when the emotions and flesh are negatively valued that we want to be rid of them. But it is not possible only to have the ‘acceptable bits’ of emotional embodied life and not the rest. Being human is package, and in Christ, God has taken up all that we are into God’s own life in Christ.

Can you imagine Jesus ‘cleansing the Temple’ saying ‘take from our lives the strain and stress’? In this I am with Zorba the Greek. Life is trouble! It is not in avoiding trouble that God’s will is done, but in how we negotiate our way through it. This is the meaning of the incarnation. So not to put too fine a point on it: John Greenleaf Whitier’s poem is soothing, but heretical.

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Fashion Dressing and Dressing for Church: Slavery and Freedom

This is the difference between the modes of dress and ‘liturgy’ of the Fashion industry and of the Church. One form of living sacrifice give space for all of our reality: God’s Spirit, our corporate life and our individuality. The other instrumentalises human beings so that ‘girls’ are turned into ‘clothes horses’.

One of the interesting things about having 50 TV channels is ‘Fashion TV’. In Australia, we would sometimes get puff pictures of the latest new season shows from Paris or Milan at the end of the news, and of course the Australian Fashion shows. But ‘Fashion TV’ is continuous ‘cat walking’. Watching so many girls walking down the runway has helped to dis-illusion me about the world of fashion.

First of all there is a kind of ‘reverse logic’ that operates. The people who are seen to have the most glamour(the models) have the least! Their hair is pushed and pulled in a thousand different ways, their faces have all kinds of different goo applied to them every day and they sometimes wear the most ridiculous clothes. Their bodies really are ‘a living sacrifice’  to the god ‘fashion’, or perhaps a living sacrifice to the god ‘Karl Largerfeld’ or ‘Dolce and Gabana.’ But these are the people at the ‘front end’ of the industry. Almost because they are the least important part of the fashion scene, they are compensated by the adulation of the camera.

The real stars of the fashion world make a brief appearance at the end of the show, right at the back of the catwalk. No strutting down the runway, pausing, and walking back for them. No, they are permitted a ‘back of the runway’ bow and wave, like royalty, and then they are gone!

The other thing that I noticed by watching a lot of ‘Fashion TV’ is that the models are not conventionally beautiful. There are three criteria I have divined for being a model. First a girl must be about 1.9m tall. Second she must be very skinny (if not anorexic), third she must have wide set eyes and high cheekbones.

Everything else depends upon the particular ‘look’ that is ‘in’ this year. Like sacrifices of old, models are chewed up at a great rate. Apart from the un-mentioned ‘casting couch’ thousands of girls are looked at, chosen, used up and thrown away. They are paid very well if they get to the top, but most are not.

If a person matches these criteria, then something happens! I was watching Fashion TV the other night and I said ‘Oh, there’s that same girl again!’ It was a different girl, but after a while watching, all the individuality is drained from the models. They all become ‘that same six foot, skinny girl with wide eyes and high cheekbones.’ This must done on purpose because what happens is that the girls themselves disappear into the background, and all one sees is the clothes! It is no wonder that models are called ‘clothes horses’.

That of course is the purpose. A designer could simply, and more cheaply have lots of tailor’s dummies with pretty faces on motorised wheels going down the cat walk, but the ‘movement’ of the clothes, how they look on a human being would be missing. So somehow the human being must be enticed to be a living ‘dummy’ who can then disappear so that the clothes themselves, the object of the show, can stand out. That is the purpose of the standardisation of the person and body type, and the ‘look’ of each show. The uniqueness of each human model disappears in order to demonstrate the uniqueness of the ‘creation’ of the designer-god.  

In religious terms, this is exactly the opposite of what happens in a monastery and in the army. The monks and soldiers are all dressed the same. Unlike fashion statements, a monk’s or a soldier’s outward individuality is supressed because they as individuals are part of a body. In the case of a monk or nun he or she is part of the body of Christ. A soldier is literally part of a ‘corps’ (body).

But underneath this ‘uniform’ the individuality of each person can be developed. This is the opposite of the fashion industry. In the Church and the Army it is the whole group that works as one, and then the uniqueness of each person is able to be encouraged and developed over time.

It is the same with vestments which are worn in Church. The clothes are symbolic in their shape and meaning. They cover my individuality, so that I am no longer ‘Paul’ but ‘Priest’. Who I am for you in Church is not the ‘living sacrifice’ to a creator-designer-god or to my own ‘self’ but a living sacrifice to the God who is there ‘for you’ no matter who inhabits the habit!
What you meet in Church is a God beyond the individual ‘presenter’. What holds us all in Church is the structure of the liturgy in which we all participate.

But then each person’s individuality can shine through. How I am a ‘priest’ can bring my own special gifts for your sake on behalf of God. I, as a person can really ‘inhabit’ the form that has been ‘given’ in such a way that it comes alive and achieves the end (communion with God and one another) for which it was designed.

I saw a movie recently. It was called ‘I was Monty’s Double’. It told the story of an ordinary person who looked like General Montgomery. In order to fool the Germans, he could be in places that ‘Monty’ was not, so that no one knew where ‘Monty’ was at any given time. This person had to fool not only the Germans, but his own troops. On one occasion he had to learn a long speech in a short time. Of course it was impossible, so in the middle of ‘delivering the lines that were written for him’ he froze for a minute or two. Then the spirit of Monty’ entered him. He forgot the speech and began talking ‘in the spirit’ of Monty. The speech was true to Monty and far more moving because it was this person’s own words.

That is what is promised to us too. In Church the Spirit of Jesus inhabits (dwells in) us. We speak as individuals but outwardly clothed in the same clothing (each christian is able to wear their baptism gown each Sunday): our uniform of the body of Christ . From God it is the Spirit of Christ that inhabits us. We bring our individuality to bear as this Spirit flows through us.

This is the difference between the modes of dress and ‘liturgy’ of the Fashion industry and of the Church. One form of living sacrifice give space for all of our reality: God’s Spirit, our corporate life and our individuality. The other instrumentalises human beings so that ‘girls’ are turned into ‘clothes horses’.

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