Monthly Archives: August 2012

It is the night before th…

It is the night before the ‘Big Race’ and the driver, Derise, is naturally anxious about his performance. He asks the coach ‘How will I know when I’m enough?’ The coach replies ‘When you cross the finish line you’ll know’.

The thing is that this could be seen as just another piece of sugary pap which doesn’t really say anything. But then I can hear echoes of someone else who asked exactly the same thing about his vocation: Moses! He is talking to God at the burning bush. He asks ‘How will I know that it is You, God, who sent me?’ God replies ‘When you have done all that you have been asked to do, you will worship me on this mountain.’

So for both people who are about to take risks and who are looking for reassurance, there can be no guarantee of the ‘rightness’ of taking the risk till after the risk has been taken. This is a bit tricky, because in taking a risk, what is put in play is my life!

Sometimes the movie channel brings us a movie that is in the category of ‘an oldie but a goodie’. Recently I watched ‘Cool Runnings’ again. This movie is about the performance of the Jamaican Bob Sled Team at the winter Olympics.

The movie has some of the usual themes of movies of redemption: The coach who cheated and has come back to coach the bottom ranked team, the Jamaicans; the Jamaicans who are not expected to do well, and are forced into a European way of bob-sledding, which doesn’t work, until they are able to find a Caribbean way of bob-sledding.

But at this viewing, a piece of conversation caught my ears. It is the night before the ‘Big Race’ and the driver, Derise, is naturally anxious about his performance. He asks the coach ‘How will I know when I’m enough?’ The coach replies ‘When you cross the finish line you’ll know’.

The thing is that this could be seen as just another piece of sugary pap which doesn’t really say anything. But then I can hear echoes of someone else who asked exactly the same thing about his vocation: Moses! He is talking to God at the burning bush. He asks ‘How will I know that it is You, God, who sent me?’ God replies ‘When you have done all that you have been asked to do, you will worship me on this mountain.’

So for both people who are about to take risks and who are looking for reassurance, there can be no guarantee of the ‘rightness’ of taking the risk  till after the risk has been taken. This is a bit tricky, because in taking a risk, what is put in play is my life!

When I think about our ‘experiment’ here, I feel the same sense of insecurity. Wouldn’t it be lovely if I could say ‘Well, If you follow me in this experiment, you will have an increase of 10% on the congregation each year for the next ten years. Here is the tried and true pattern.”

But it doesn’t work like that. Here we are subject to our context: We don’t have a natural constituency like an embassy or a company like Nestlé that will direct people into our church. We also have some historical circumstances to deal with. So part of our job is not only to invite people to come, but also to discover who our new constituency might be. These processes are not easy, or sure.

We have to take risks, not knowing what the outcome will be. This is tough, but it is the way God works. When the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they were guided not by a map, that told them where the beginning and the end was, but by God’s leading of a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire.

I was reminded of this driving to Lausanne on Tuesday. I used the G.P.S. machine, without a map, and so I had to simply trust the instructions of the voice coming out of the little box. ‘After 200 metres, turn left!’ More and more these days I am reminded of the John Henry Newman hymn  ‘Lead kindly Light’ He asks God ‘Guide thou my steps, I do not ask to see the distant scene, One step enough for me.’ We need a plan, sure, but the outcome of the plan is in God’s hands, not mine or ours. Our job is to try to follow.

 But about the risk taking, one thing is sure. We cannot not do it. The only option that is not on the agenda is staying the same as we were. This is what the search committee here at St. John’s called me here to do. This is what your chaplaincy council has also realised.

Doing what we have always done will get us what we have always got! And people are getting older and more tired. Unless we do something to renew our corporate life and numbers, we will go the way of hundreds of other  places.

But the thing that makes me take heart is the other part of this story. Both Moses and Derise in ‘Cool Runnings’ took their risks after some discovery. Derise discovers that he has to be ‘Caribbean’ in his bob-sledding. He has to do this sport from the inside out. How he drives is an expression of his particular genius. The same is true of Moses. It is Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush that gives him he task of bringing the people out of slavery. So in renewing our life here, I hope that we will be able to radiate a spirit of ‘encounter’ with God, that the people who come into our Church will be able to capture.

This seems to be happening. Last week we had some visitors from Greece and France. Their English was all right, but it was not their first preference. Nevertheless they stayed for coffee. When I asked them how things went they described the whole experience of being in church in that particularly European word of ‘sympatisch’. It’s a great word meaning ‘welcoming, and radiating something that invites another person into the circle.’ That’s exactly what we are trying to do. Our Church building and our Sunday mornings are our front door or showcase. How we express the presence of God on Sunday morning will be what communicates to people. This is the essence of the ‘experiment’. First of all, the ‘experiment’ says that we are willing to let ourselves ‘play’. There are few things that are so fixed in stone or ‘right’ that they cannot be played with. An atmosphere of serious ‘playfulness’ will communicate something of itself. But then the ‘experiment’ is designed to help us to liven up our worship, and to increase the sense of participation among all the members of the congregation. This helps them to worship God better by increasing their participation. So that is the ‘genius’ that is at work in our experiment. It is my particular genius, admittedly, but then that is what you got me here for, what you knew you were getting, and what I add as leader.

The idea of discovering the rightness or otherwise of taking a risk, after the risk has been taken also prevents boasting and self justification. Can we boast about what we are doing? No. Because we are taking a risk. We don’t know the outcome. Should I justify the taking of the risk? No. Because it is what your chaplaincy Council has also agreed upon, what I said I would do when I came in March 2011. But more, we have not ‘done what we have been asked to do’ or ‘crossed the finish line’ yet. We can suspend judgement till afterward. Everyone is invited on this journey. Who will get on board?

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But what happens to the s…

But what happens to the significance of Baptism when it becomes a nice thing to do for a new baby? What happens to baptism when the process of initiation into a new way of life is just as foreign to the members of the congregation as it is to the people requesting baptism. If there is only ‘acceptance and inclusion’ then the order of baptism and Eucharist makes no difference at all. If all we know is ‘Everyone is perfect just as they are’ then there is no distinctly Christian life into which anyone can be initiated: there is no Christian life that has to be learned and practised.

When I was younger, I remember walking around the house at home during the holidays saying ‘Mum! I want to make something!!’ She would say ‘Oh you dear! You must be craving for something.’ So I’d go underneath our house and pull things apart or make things out of what we had to hand.

I remember once reading about the positive value of boredom! The author says that boredom is the ‘pre-condition’ of creativity. When I’m bored I am saying ‘I would rather be doing something other than what I’m doing, but I don’t know what it is just yet!’ But once the ‘Ah Ha’ moment comes, the creativity flows, and I’m in the moment, and flowing as a person. I’m not bored any more!

Later on, this sense of unfulfilled desire was transferred to relationships. Being single for a lot of my life, I used to long for the love of a good woman (which thankfully I’ve found!).  But my friend said to me ‘You know, the monks say that all longing is really longing for God!’ Well that might be true. But since we are not just ‘spirits’ but have bodies, longing for God is also longing for physical touch and intimacy. That is why marriage is a sacrament. This is what the monks did not understand. God can’t give you a hug. Or better, God can give you a hug, but it comes in the form of another person. Then I can get the picture. The hug is God’s hugging of me as well as my spouses!

These thoughts were suggested to me by an article I read in a Church magazine in Canada. The article was discussing the fact that now, some parishes are admitting unbaptized people to communion. The argument goes ‘All are included at God’s table. The Eucharist is a ‘converting sacrament’. The Eucharist and the font are part of the same reality. The font leads to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist leads to the font (for some people). Both sacraments invite us to participate in the life of God.’

The other argument about allowing everyone to come to communion derives from the picture of a little child kneeling at the communion rail. They hold out their hands in innocence with their mother beside them. The priest distributing the elements is torn. The first question is one of self interest. “What does the mother think? Is she encouraging the child or not? Can the priest stand the thought of being accosted after church by a mother saying ‘You denied my child!!!! Jesus said ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me!’ And on it goes. The second question is ‘Here is a person holding out their hands for God. Can I refuse them?

Well one of the respondents to this set of ideas said ‘Well, who said that longing and yearning were bad things to be satisfied as soon as possible?’ This author knew about the positive value of longing which drives us to creativity. This person knew about the positive of value of longing that makes us value what is offered, because it is not just available to everyone ad libidum. Reading the early Church Fathers, one most often reads about ‘not offering what is holy to the dogs’ or ‘not casting your pearls before swine.’ These are not popular ideas, not least because the people who are denied are identified with ‘dogs’ and ‘swine’. Little people reaching out their hands for communion are not ‘dogs’ or swine’. But none the less, the early church is unanimous. The order is Baptism first, then Eucharist.

In theological terms, a baptism with its three elements of instruction, water bath and ministries in the Spirit is the sacrament that makes a Christian person (a Church person) out of an ordinary (civil) person. The Eucharist is the repeatable part of that sacrament. The Eucharist derives its meaning from Baptism, because in the Eucharist, we repeat the process of Dying, Entombment and Rising that is first given to us in Baptism.

But what happens to the significance of Baptism when it becomes a nice thing to do for a new baby? What happens to baptism when the process of initiation into a new way of life is just as foreign to the members of the congregation as it is to the people requesting baptism. If there is only ‘acceptance and inclusion’ then the order of baptism and Eucharist makes no difference at all. If all we know is ‘Everyone is perfect just as they are’ then there is no distinctly Christian life into which anyone can be initiated: there is no Christian life that has to be learned and practised.

It is true that ‘God shows such love towards us that even while we were sinners Christ died for us’. It is baptism that ‘plunges’ us into that life of dwelling in God which has been opened up for us by Christ. As the letter to the Hebrews says ‘We have complete freedom to go into the most holy place by means of the death of Jesus. He opened up for us a new way, a living way through the curtain, through his own body.’

Those who want to enter the ‘most holy place’ with ‘complete freedom’ must first of all be plunged into the body of Christ and be baptized into his death. They must learn to let Christ be the determiner of their reality. This begins with ‘Just as I am without one plea’ and continues with ‘I want to walk as a child of the light. I want to follow Jesus’

The power of the order Baptism the Eucharist comes from the context of a congregation that knows how to be disciples.

Listen to this quote from Ralph Kiefer, who wrote as long ago as 1975 He says “ There is the pastoral difficulty. The conception of the church as the local community of faith, as vehicle of the experience of the risen Lord …exists only in official text and clerical rhetoric, not as something perceived by the great majority of churchgoers. Our operative model is still that of established church: a bastion of conservation, convention and respectability. For most of us the church is not a dynamic and communal reality but a static institution which ministers to the needs of individuals. The standard by which church life is measured is not conversion but conformity…That conversion should be a matter of any kind of experience is not expected and not really desired.’

St. Augustine said ‘Do not baptize anyone until they are really eager to get into the font’ I agree. Allowing for the yearning for God to grow by keeping the order of ‘Baptism then Eucharist’ is a good thing. But this makes real sense only within the context of a community of disciples who have been initiated into Christ and ‘together seek his face’

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God defeats Death and the…

God defeats Death and the forces of destruction (the image of the crucifixion) not by rejecting them but by integrating them. God’s love and holiness are not destroyed or tarnished by this embrace, but it is the opposite. Evil and what is ‘not God’ is transformed by God’s embracing love. This is wonderful. When we participate in the Eucharist, this is what we are saying. Instead of the bread and wine becoming us as with normal food, we are integrated, as sinners, into the ‘Body of God’ in Christ. It is there that we are transformed and ‘’cooked’ into God’s likeness. Eucharist is not about our holiness or worthiness or desire, but about how we allow ourselves to be embraced by what we ingest.

Reflection 12-8-12

 

Before I was 35 years old, I could eat what I wanted, drink what I wanted and do no formal exercise and not put on weight. I used to say that I had a ‘fast metabolism.’ Until I hit 35. Then I remember being very anxious for a while because I shot up to 80kg! Oh, what I would give to be 75 kg again! No matter what I do, I can’t get below 85 these days! As a colleague of mine said to me once, when lamenting this state of affairs, ‘Learn to love the flab!’

 

Now this phrase ‘learn to love the flab’ bears within it a great power of psychology. ‘The flab’ is something that I have previously considered ‘not me’. I reject it. I try my best to be rid of it. ‘I’ have no flab. The anxiety I felt when I discovered that, with age, my metabolism was changing results from these two pictures of ‘me’ struggling for space. The one I know I now am, and the one I want to be. To ‘love the flab’ means to draw into my picture of ‘myself’ the picture of myself as being heavier than the 75 kg I used to be! A new element in the picture of me must be integrated into the old picture of me. The pieces of the jigsaw must be re-arranged to accommodate the new reality, or I must live in denial of what the scales tell me is the truth: something that takes more long term energy than admitting the truth!

 

A similar thing happened when I injured my back. My toe went numb. I went to the physiotherapist who had been looking after my slippery disks for a long time and he said ‘I don’t think that all of the feeling I going to come back.’ Over the year or so it took for me to recover, I had some terrible moments. Could I live with myself as ‘disabled?’ Over the years since that injury I have come to ‘own’ the slight numbness in my big toe. I said ‘I don’t like it, but I can live with this.’ I have integrated a new piece of information into my sense of ‘self’.

 

This is what the Swiss are on about too at a social level when they talk about ‘integration’. Society is like an organism with a body. New people who come to live within a recognised set of boundaries like ‘a country’ are a source of anxiety for the people who are already there. Like my injury, the question arises for my already existing self ‘Can I live with this?’ The same is true for a society. They ask ‘Can we live with this ‘new element’. The problem lies not in the nature of the ‘new element’ itself, but in the fact of its being new. Then there must be an exchange of information on both sides of the deal. The ‘new’ element in order to decrease the anxiety of the existing body has to offer some signs that it is not dangerous. The existing body has to make room for the new element and let them know how much they are prepared to change in order to make room for the new. They also have to say where they are not prepared to change.

 

The process of ‘integration’ is a process of turning a ‘not me’ into ‘part of me’. Put another way, integration is about the process of turning a ‘them’ into an ‘us’.

 

This happens in church congregations too. We say we would love lots of children, yet act as if they are hostile germs when they come. We want them to come to make us look good, like a piece of jewellery, but we have the normal difficulty in ‘integrating’ the new element into our sense of what it means to be ‘us’.

 

I remember once a person in a congregation who always complained that no one would help her to do the flowers. From time to time people would offer, but after a short time they would stop. Why? Because the person who was already in place had no way of integrating a new flower helper into her world. She gave them such a hard time that they always said ‘I’m not putting up with that!’ And they stopped doing the flowers.

 

The funny thing is that after a while, we all laughed about it! We would say ‘Oh, there is Lucy being Lucy again! What a funny old dear she is. When someone would come in distress about how Lucy had been with them about the flowers, we would say “Yes, she’s terrible! Ha Ha. We will find a ministry for you to do. Lucy is terribly conflicted about the flowers, but we think it’s a scream! Come and have a coffee!”

 

At this point, even Lucy’s bad behaviour had been integrated into the body of Christ, and we could laugh about it.

 

This process happens a lot. At the beginning, when new people come to congregations (including clergy) their quirks and funny ways are matters for comment and dissonance and even rejection. But if they are not too bad, after a while instead of people’s saying ‘Oh, that X, aren’t they terrible’ people say ‘Oh, that is just X being X. don’t take any notice of it.’

 

When I first arrived I was often told “We don’t do that here.” I thought “This ‘we’ excludes ‘me’ as part of the ‘us’ ” I too had to decide what parts of the existing ‘body’ I was going to accept, and what parts of the existing body I was going to change, in consultation with the Chaplaincy council, in accord with their own request to me to come to help to renew St. John’s. The process we are in is one of creating a new ‘us’ out of two formerly separate ‘bodies’. That is why the Archdeacon spoke about a new ministry as like a marriage. In a marriage, following the pattern of Christ and the Church, two ‘bodies’ ‘marry up’ into one flesh. 

 

Sometimes this goes awry. Since coming here I have heard about a lot of people who have left because the picture of ‘here’ has not been able to be integrated into their sense of themselves. They could not see an ‘us’ that included them and St. John’s. Sometimes this was our fault because our ‘body’ could not find room for them, sometimes it was their fault because their ‘bodies’ were so narrowly defined and rigid that nothing new or disturbing could be ‘integrated’. Wither way, the failure in these cases is a failure of the natural process of adjustment. As the saying goes ‘What is more important is not where you stand, but how you move.’

 

There is one last thing to be said about this process. The events of Good Friday may bee seen in this light. God defeats Death and the forces of destruction (the image of the crucifixion) not by rejecting them but by integrating them. God’s love and holiness are not destroyed or tarnished by this embrace, but it is the opposite. Evil and what is ‘not God’ is transformed by God’s embracing love. This is wonderful. When we participate in the Eucharist, this is what we are saying. Instead of the bread and wine becoming us as with normal food, we are integrated, as sinners, into the ‘Body of God’ in Christ. It is there that we are transformed and ‘’cooked’ into God’s likeness. Eucharist is not about our holiness or worthiness or desire, but about how we allow ourselves to be embraced by what we ingest. That is how ‘in these holy mysteries we come near to the uttermost depths of God.’

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If you really want to mak…

If you really want to make me feel terrible for weeks at a time, all you have to do is to pick an issue where you differ from me and attach some moral failing to it.

Reflection 5-8-12

Recently, thanks to our Channel 4 movies, I watched ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ again. One way of looking at the movie is to see it as a description of what happens to “Life” when it confronts ‘The System”. J.P. Mc. Murphy, the extrovert protagonist, brings life and freedom to a mental institution where he is incarcerated (rather than jail) simply by ‘going out into the world’. Clearly his ‘going out’ is a threat to the existing world, which responds with ever increasing violence against him.

The other Character is Billy Bibbit, who is shy, dominated by ‘the system’ and stutters. He discovers his own power and potency by seeing what is possible under the influence of J.P. Mc. Murphy. But he too is hauled into line by ‘the system’ and attempts suicide.

What interested me this time was how ‘The System’ struck back. Billy Bibbit comes into the ‘day room’ full of life and confidence after having discovered his potency. Nurse Ratchet, who represents ‘The System’ says ‘Billy, I’m so ashamed of you!’ No longer stuttering, he says ‘I’m not!!’ But then comes the killer blow. ‘Billy, what would your mother think of this? I’m going to have to tell your mother’ The stuttering returns, and Billy is cowed.

Within me is sometimes Billy Bibbit, and J.P. Mc. Murphy. Within me is sometimes Nurse Ratchet. The relationship between these two forces in life is what the movie is about. What is going on in the play is an exploration of the question of how we ‘flow’ into life with all our strength and all our sweetness (to quote Andrew Marvel) yet need to get on with other people who are different from us, and have different views from us.

I remember hearing two brothers (Tim and Peter Costello) from Australia talking about their upbringing. Peter Costello became Australian Treasurer for the conservative parties. His brother, Tim, now heads up World Vision Australia. Talking about their upbringing, both brothers recall Sunday lunches, where debate and difference of opinion were valued. Both brothers were encouraged to express themselves with passion, yet passion tempered with respect for the other. It was as if difference of opinion was ‘out there’ and did not endanger the respect that the one had for the other.

This is a different picture of society than the one painted by the movie ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ I admire this picture, partly because my own internal experience is more like the movie than this one

There is an old saying in psychological circles ‘They do it to us, until we learn to do it to ourselves, and forget that it was them who did it to us.’ What I find that I have to contend with is my own susceptibility to the equivalent of ‘What would your mother say?’

Here is a secret. If you really want to make me feel terrible for weeks at a time, all you have to do is to pick an issue where you differ from me and attach some moral failing to it. These kinds of moral failings may in fact have a grain of truth in them, otherwise they would never ‘get in’, but they have nothing to do with differences of opinion. None the less, in recent times I have been at the end of my tether because the way people have argued, when they have a difference from me, is not one that conveys respect but one that uses this ‘moral defective’ accusation.

I do not want to go into more detail here about my own situation, but I can give you some examples from other  spheres of action. There is a saying that goes ‘The first person to mention the Nazis or the holocaust in an argument loses!’ You know. Person ‘A’ says something that person B disagrees with. Person ‘B’ then says ‘That’s just what the Nazis did.’ Game over!  Person B loses. Person ‘B’ has resorted to unfair play by reducing a difference of view to a moral difference. The same goes for Christians. As soon as some one says ‘That is not a Christian way to behave’, they have lost the argument.

Jesus, before the High Priest at his trial says ‘Yes, I am the Messiah’. He is struck by the guard who says ‘Is that any way to talk to the High Priest?’ Jesus says ‘If I have said something wrong, point it out, if not, why are you hitting me?’

That is the point! As soon as illegitimate forms of argument are used, two things happen: I am left debilitated and depressed for a couple of weeks. The second is that the person who has used such arguments has lost the argument. Their views are now associated with the hurt of a moral attack that has its origins in a difference of view.

As a Christian priest one might say that my worst failing is that I am too vulnerable to such attacks. The Archbishop of Canterbury says that the next incumbent of his role must have the hide of a Rhinoceros. He is going to be an Academic again, partly because of the injuries sustained by being him, in that role. I wish it were different for me, but it is not. That is what I struggle with.

In the movie, J. P. Mac. Murphy invites some kind of response because his ‘life-full-ness’ needs the relationship with others to modify it. ‘The System’ is so full of fear that it is really a death dealing system, rather than one that gives life. We need both: to ‘flow ourselves’ and ‘be respectful of one another’.

This is the image I have of the Trinity. A community of love, where the creative ‘going out into life’ is not hindered in God, but is also modified in love. I wish I could be like this, but the truth is: I can’t. I am both vulnerable to charges of ‘moral defection’ for having different views, and sometimes have used these charges against others. I do not think that this is a proper way to behave, either when I do it, or it is done to me. I pray daily for the grace to live like the Trinity.

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