I sit here today, snuggling under the doona, trying to process what has happened in the last week. I do have a cold so it’s my excuse for doing some reflecting today.
Sometimes we go on in the world as though things won’t change, that everything will stay the same. Sometimes that’s because we are in the depths of despair or grief or loneliness or self-destruction and we cannot see a way out. Sometimes it’s because life is so good, we never want the moment to end.
And sometimes it’s because the life we are leading seems right, and the people in it seem right and we think that these people will always be around. Always be there to consult, to share with and laugh with.
This is especially if you have a job like mine, helping to lead a church community in a world that probably doesn’t care that much about the call of Jesus. Yet the people in my church care very deeply, and have cared for a long time, working to support one another as well as those marginalised in our society. But the congregation is aging, and the years are catching up.
One person who I just assumed would go on forever died the other day, suddenly. What a shock, not because I didn’t think that 84 was an age that this might happen, just that I could not really see a world in which she wasn’t in it.
One day she was here, the next she was gone. And everything you thought about how life was going, goes out the window.
Both Marg, who died and Nev have been important people in my life for about 35 years, sharing the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows of being friends, mentors, travelling companions, and seekers of the divine in life. And in between we had such fun.
No matter where we were, or what we were doing, the topic always seemed to come back to God. Where, when , how and even what?
We would have many, many discussions, frank discussions on our doubts, our difficulties and our trust in the faith that was part of their lives from very early on.
They were never dogmatic, never not open to a new idea, never afraid to explore the meaning of life and now death, as I slowly developed my own thoughts and feelings on God, and my role in the world, coming from a scientific and non churchy background.
And they were never ones for a traditional view. They were always trying to fashion new words and images for the reality that sits under all reality. That drives us forward towards one another in love. That maybe we can touch and sense in our most aware moments.
Yet suddenly it’s finished…..
We did talk about death, and what it might mean. Actually we talked about it endlessly as Nev is 88 after all! Not a heavenly home for some and hell for others, as many believe, but a mystery at the heart of life.
Rob Bell, one of my favourite authors, writes..
We are both large and small
Strong and weak
Formidable and faint
Reflecting the image of the divine
And formed from dust.
We are a paradox. We are made of dust and stars and energy and atoms, and then maybe something else . When I now speak of God, I believe it is a presence that has to be embodied in us because that is what we are, human beings. God’s creative effect has to be lived out in the world by us. if you see Jesus as that embodiment then you will see Gods message not as a dogmatic calling to another life, but a calling to this life, to make it better.
This is what Marg did, and countess others do every single day.
We do what we can, when we can, within the confines of our humanity. But once we have gone, we have gone. That is sometimes how I think. How many think. How I think Nev thinks. But then I feel a stirring.
If God’s spirit is eternal, from the very beginning of time, and found in all things, then maybe there is more.
A mystery at the heart of life. A living on not just in those left behind, but a mystery at the heart of God.
For me, as for others, there seems to be something more, hidden under the surface of our reality. Of who we are, and what the world is. There seems to be something resonating, a call if you like, that draws us forward to look over the edge.
And when we do, it speaks of love that goes on, whatever and however that happens.
Maybe Marg’s spirit is adding to the collective consciousness that surrounds us all, who knows. All I know is that she was bonded to God when she was alive and somehow that bond will remain. Looking over the edge gives me a sense we are all one in God, forever, and that is enough for me.
I will so miss our sharing over cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, and Indian dinners, although I will still share with Nev, as he fashions a different life out of the one he knew with Marg. But Marg will go on in the hearts and minds of all who knew her and loved her, and in those lives she touched. The rest as Nev would say, is just poetry. Or mystery.
As I go forward myself, there is a realisation that life is always changing, and grief and sorrow is part of the journey. But so is love and friendship and joy. Nothing stays the same.
Maybe the only thing we can do is enjoy the ride, contribute where we can and tell those who travel with us how much they mean to us, every single day.
I haven’t written for a while because things have been pretty busy, with both my secular employment and my role at the Uniting Church I attend. Easter is always a busy time!
But I was recently asked to write an article for the cover of our preaching plan, which details who is taking our worship service for a quarter of the year. We operate with only me, a part time pastor, visiting preachers and lay people, if you were wondering. So I duly wrote something, and then forgot about it.
Yesterday I was reminded of what I wrote when a person sent me a card, detailing her epiphany about Easter and about the resurrection, not only from what I wrote but also from a service she attended. As she said, “its amazing that learning can come at any age”, she is 83, and she says its the first time she truly understands what resurrection means for her. I was amazed and touched, and realised one never knows when we are going to even make a small difference in someones life. The thing for me is to continue to explore and ask questions, questions that I have and many other have about our faith. Faith is not cast in stone, as some would have you believe, but a growing dynamic and at times amazing journey of discovery. At any age.
So I place here the cover that I wrote…
The idea of these short writings is to talk about worship. But we know worship is much wider and deeper than going to church. We can focus on our place in the world and the place of the unseen mysterious more we call God anywhere. Outside, inside, when we are happy or sad or when things are going well, or not so well. When we are studying or playing, when we are lazy or productive, when we are caring for another or caring for ourselves. Anywhere. Suddenly we become aware that this is part of something bigger, grander, more universal, and for a mere moment we might feel humble, comforted, amazed or just thankful we are alive to experience it.
I for one seek wisdom and insight in lots of places, good literature (and sometimes bad), in walking and talking to people, in caring and sharing with others. I am also a product of my technological age and I listen to programs, podcasts and videos that can give me greater insight into what it is to be human and a follower of Jesus.
One such podcast is by Rob Bell, who interviews people, from his own family to the most outrageous or most committed and influential in the faith and justice space. One of these is Peter Rollins, a philosopher, theologian and incredible thinker and speaker from Belfast. He recently spoke to Rob about parables, which I listened to while walking around the lake…
Parables are stories that turn things upside down, and which change the way we see things. Jesus used them to wake up his followers, and Peter writes many himself. In fact, he has produced a book of them, called the Orthodox Heretic.
While there were many that spoke to me, one in particular stood out, since it’s just been Easter. I will summarise it here, as it’s a bit long.
A group of disciples were despairing after Jesus’ death and leave Jerusalem, never to return. They find a place and set up a community, vowing to keep the memory of Jesus alive in simplicity, love and forgiveness, just as he had taught them. And they did this for a 100 years. Eventually a group of missionaries find them, and when they discover that this group had no knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, they eagerly share this good news.
What follows is a great celebration, but the leader goes off on his own and is found by one of the missionaries, weeping and praying. “What is wrong, he asks?” He explains that for so long the community has followed the ways taught by Jesus, even though it was costly and despite the belief that death had defeated him and would one day defeat them all. Each day they have forsaken their own lives for him because they judged him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of their being. But now, following the news, he is concerned that his children and his children’s children may follow Jesus, not because of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because his sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life.”
“With this the elder turned and left the hut, making his way to the celebrations that could be heard dimly in the distance, leaving the missionary on the floor.”
Worship, we worship the wrong thing if we “worship” Jesus. Or if we dream of another life somewhere else. Jesus was pointing to something a great deal more amazing, and more radical. He shakes up our ideas of what gives life, and turns them upside down. Powerless rather than powerful, poor rather than rich, weak rather than strong, forgiving rather than revengeful, nonviolent rather than violent, humble rather than proud, crucified rather than crucifier. We expect the leader in the parable to be happy but he’s not, which shakes up our own thinking about what the resurrection really means. I love it!
What if we only had knowledge of the crucifixion, and not the resurrection?
What if we are not called to believe the resurrection, but to live it out, every day!
What if we are to be Christ’s resurrection!
Makes one think about the meaning of resurrection, and the aim of worship. Which is the aim of parables!
I was going to write a blog today on the statement “God loves us just the way we are, as long as we believe certain things, are the right colour or without blemish, physical or psychological or anything else. Otherwise we may be separated from this love for all eternity.”
I was going to write it after reading Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins”, a great title, a great book, and one that sparked a whole new journey for him.
Then I had second thoughts, not about the fact that most of the statement can be tossed out, except for the first part, because I truly believe God is ever present, has been and always will be, a divine mystery at the heart of life, whatever, where ever and no matter the stage of life we are at. Divine love is unconditional, full stop. But because there is more to it.
The more important question is what do we do with this information?
So I have put on my sermon from last week. Sorry its long, and maybe some parts are not relevant, but I hope it points the way….
Lent, we started this journey a few weeks ago when we shared in an Ash Wednesday service at the Church of Christ. It was a beautiful service led by Dennis Ryle, and perhaps not as dire as many of you might think. Because both Dennis and myself, along with countless others see the Easter story differently from what the mainstream community imagine.
As Dennis said in his service, he wanted to take us from atonement to Theosis. Huh! I hear you saying. What the heck is Theosis? Well, it’s to become more like God, more like Jesus. More whole, more loving and giving in this world, with each other and with ourselves. It is union or at least participation in the divine project of life.
So what was Dennis getting at, when he spoke about going from atonement to Theosis. It was the idea that we have to revisit and reject many of the notions and ideologies put forward about Jesus, to capture the essence of him, and the essence of God in our lives and in the lives of our fellow travellers. It is to understand that Christianity is a path, a way of transforming ourselves and the world for the sake of all. Not a set of beliefs to which you attach yourself for a ride to heaven, or dismiss for a ticket to hell and fiery damnation.
So many people that I have listened to recently have been on this path of renewing and revitalizing our faith story. If you were at Bill Loader’s talk on Sunday night you would have heard him speak about fundamentalism, and the dangers of it. I have recently watched a documentary on Rob Bell, an evangelical Christian pastor, the golden boy of American evangelical Christians who left his mega church, Mars Hill, after writing a book called “Love Wins”, which dismissed the idea of hell altogether. He has gone from the golden boy to a heretic, the name of the film, because he speaks of Jesus life, and teachings and way, rather than a set of rules. He speaks of Jesus, not as a blood sacrifice, but as a pointer to God, a God of each and every one of us, black, white, male female, rich and poor, slave and free, gay and straight. Wait, that sounds very familiar doesn’t it? Unfortunately the very conservative Christians just can’t seem to get rid of the idea that rejecting Jesus won’t send you to hell forever.
And of course Nev Watson, minister and peace activist, has opened our eyes for years about the distortions to the Christian faith which makes it unbelievable and dangerous for so many people. No text without context. No dogmas and doctrines without exploration, particularly in the 21st century.
So what am I saying here? Well, you know. I know you know. Jesus is not dead on the cross in some sort of payment plan for humanity’s sin. That somehow by believing in him, saying a prayer, or joining a church, will save you for a trip to somewhere else, while the millions and millions of people, many who live a very Jesus like life are doomed for all eternity.
We have to look and explore and discover the truth about Jesus ourselves, and ask some very deep questions, about what does he bring to us and our world, if we leave some of this other stuff behind? I for one, believe that his life and teachings bring so much. And his death teaches us so much, about love, and nonviolence, and the hatred that can corrupt and blind people. And in all of this the God of the universe, the God of you and me is still there, before and after.
So if we are going to do some exploring we have been gifted some of the most famous verses today with which to do it.
The John reading comes after the Nicodemus story, but somehow just taking this part of John without the previous bit seems wrong.
So let me remind you of Nicodemus the strict Jew who wants to speak to Jesus about faith and life.
Nicodemus just can’t get it into his head that faith is not just about rules, think of Jim’s sermon from last week, or doing things in a right way, or the miraculous. Rather it’s about the spirit within us guiding us, leading us to light and life in the here and now, with one another. Jesus is keen to counter this form of literalism for love and action in the world.
So what does Jesus say? He talks about what it is to be born again, that to be born of the spirit is to see the world totally different. It is to embrace the divine presence in this life rather than another. It is to undergo a radical change that is like a new birth. Pretty amazing stuff! And remember Nicodemus still doesn’t get it, he asks, can a person be born twice? Jesus must be thinking, crikey, are you so stupid (well I might be), but he’s too nice, too forgiving for that. Instead he talks about being born of water and spirit. We are both human and divine, all of us. To be born of water is to be born into the life of the world and to be born of spirit is to step into a new dimension of what it means to be human. We are all both water and spirit. Jesus then identifies the spirit with the mystery of the wind, blowing where it will. The God who loves the world is the God who gives new life to those in it.
So this has gone on before. Then we hear the reading today which includes the famous passage about God who so loves the world he gives his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. How do we hear this statement? Actually many people now translate “so” as “in this way”. The reading then sounds like this, “For God loved the world in this way”… or “For in this way, God so loved the world”. Changes it a bit doesn’t it?
Coming after Nicodemus, it seems it is an overturning of the narrow vision of tribalism, the widening of our human limitations and awareness of what is possible in the world, light not darkness, love not hate, with Jesus (Alexander Shaia). Jesus represents a different way.
Yet both the born again statement to Nicodemus and these following statements have been taken by conservatives as doctrines to believe, about Jesus dying for our sins so that we may go to heaven. These passages and this interpretation has led to so much violence and discrimination and destruction over the centuries it is one of the reasons people have dismissed Christianity. It is exclusive and damning.
Was that what John was thinking, I certainly believe it wasn’t what Jesus was thinking. He would be horrified.
Just a couple of things about the reading to place it in context. So we can hear John’s theology. John’s story. And I thank. Reverend Dr. Carl Gregg for this background. The sentences at the beginning of the reading, about the serpent, refers to a passage from Numbers 21, in the Old Testament. It’s a great story. The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and were growing impatient. God responds to their complaints by sending poisonous snakes, which began biting them and stopped them whinging. They instead started praying that God would remove the snakes. God tells Moses to erect a serpent on a pole and that everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. Moses does what he is told, and makes a bronze serpent, puts it on a pole and people who are bitten live. Naturally!
How does the story fit? John knew the story, and in his gospel has God lifting up Jesus in the same manner that Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. So that people can also have life, eternal life.
The funny thing is, in 2 Kings 18, King Hezekiah of Judah, has the bronze serpent destroyed because people were making offerings to it. In his time it had become an idol itself and Judeans were worshipping the snake instead of the God to whom the statue pointed. That sounds very familiar!
When we hear these references we are hearing the writer of John’s gospel.
This is John talking, the most mystical of all the gospels, and the writing is reflecting his own community’s understandings of Jesus, while at the same time also being marginalised and isolated as a group. For he was a Jew, a Jesus following Jew. They were wanting to hold on to the truth about Jesus that led them to their place and time. They saw in Jesus a new way, but they described it in 1st century terms.
What about us…
If we focus on the death of Jesus we miss his life and his teachings. When we interpret eternal life as being somewhere else we miss the light and love that is needed here and now. If we turn him into an idol we will become hard as stone ourselves.
John 3:16-18 are still special verses within the reading. The first sentence and the last remain the most vital. For God in this way loved the world, that he gave his son, and son was used by these Jesus followers to express a deep connection, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. And for John eternal life started now, with the living. So Jesus comes to save the world, to give hope and love and light and justice and peace to the world and to everyone in it. Now!
And how does Jesus do that. By living and loving and teaching and eating with those others dismissed. By talking about water and spirit, and forgiveness, and inclusion and justice and peace. To realise we are all God’s children. Jesus showed what it means to have faith and believe in him. In his actions.
I could go on, but it seems clear to me.. It is not to rescue humanity from a weird story about a serpent and tree, and an apple, but to rescue humanity from ourselves, before it is too late. It is not atonement that we seek but Theosis, wholeness and oneness with the God of Jesus, to be on the way, in our humanness with the one who gives light and life.
As Frederick Buechner so aptly says….
“For those who believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead early on a Sunday morning, and for those also who believe that he provided food for worms just as the rest of us will, the conclusion is inescapable that he came out somehow the winner. What emerged from his death was a kind of way, of truth, of life, without which the last two thousand years of human history would have been even more tragic than they were.”
Our challenge is to stay on the path!
Thanks to Rob Bell, Dennis Ryle, Emeritus Prof. Rev. Bill Loader, Alexander Shaia and a sermon from Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg.
I had an interesting day yesterday, or a day when I had to examine some things about myself, sometimes not a good thing!
As many would know, apart from all the other things I do I am a part time pastor at a local Uniting Church. Part time is a bit of a euphemism as church work never seems to end.
Anyway I was taking the service and I was planning to look at how we as people can transform our lives, to better be in touch with God’s spirit and the life of Jesus, using the path set out by Alexander Shaia’s work called Quadratus (more of that later). It is a path that acknowledges us as humans and that life will have its ups and downs.
Anyway I decided to hold that idea until the end of lent, when I am also taking the service.
Crap, I then had to organise a different service in about 3 days! So I looked at things I had done before, which can be a useful guide and direction to take. The reading was about taking up our cross and following Jesus into the world. A pretty substantial reading!
While I do think that the cross and Easter message is essentially about nonviolence, and love, a message that the world and ourselves need to hear, the sermon I was basing yesterdays on was quite old, and in some ways not how I would write now. It was too long for a start (I know you find that hard to believe, based on my blogs) and the message was delivered too harshly, without fanfare.
I was left feeling as though I had betrayed myself. I have changed from when I wrote it, to someone who wants to encourage people to see God working in their own lives, in the lives of those who wouldn’t step one foot in the church, in the world and even the universe, rather than badgering them. Therefore, my sermons are more about our life together, and about the world’s life together. Yes, I use the scripture passage, but I also use other writings, some from other traditions, poetry, music and silence. And my aim in a service now is to provide a space where we can sense this spiritual presence, and transform ourselves and our community for the better. More kindness, more compassion and more justice. That may mean people heading out from the church and participating with others from all walks of life, to speak up for refugees, the environment, the poor, and the marginalised, particularly indigenous Australia. To do something, no matter how small, to make change.
I totally get that the church and its voice has also to be a prophetic voice, calling the world to account for the things it is doing to its citizens in so many places. But I also realise that’s not me! It has been Nev Watson, who was a peace activist for many years, a huge supporter of aboriginal Australia, and a clear and inspiring preacher. And who has been a huge mentor for me in the role of the church and people of faith in social justice. We both preach at church and it is a good double act, with me as the junior partner I might add! Sadly, Nev does not preach as much now, but his words are readily available.
It makes me ponder the age old question, that particularly affects church goings, but everyone. What are our strengths, what are our skills, what gives us life and makes us happy and whole? What is our passion! Then when we have worked all that out, not easy, we are to take them and make a difference where we can.
We cannot be all things to all people, and generally we cannot be the sole driver of change. It takes a lot of people to make change, to encourage people to see the way differently, and to transform the norms of society into something new, something more inclusive.
There have been many leaders who have started movements that have led to great change for the better in our world. I mentioned them yesterday, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Oscar Romero. But also Gandhi. And there are many more, in places we would never know.
Amazing, incredible voices for change.
But when you look at what really invokes change it is the millions and millions of people who in their daily lives, choose love over hate, peace over violence, and community over individualism, sharing much both in terms of time and money.
Or those who in their workplaces and in their homes, in schools, and hospitals, and shops and offices, hold close the ideas of Jesus, and work every single day, bringing light where they are. Who through acts of compassion, and caring bring the kingdom of God a little closer.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it takes sacrifices of a far greater magnitude to make the changes that are seismic, the civil rights movement is a perfect example. Things have to be given up for others to have the freedom we do. I feel this is the case for refugees, and I will continue to protest and add my voice to the calls for a change of heart. And I will continue to work for the Boab Network, who walks with the Mowanjum aboriginal community and its kids to help give them a future in a country that for so long ignored them.
But on the whole we live and work and raise our children most of the time, and we who have gifts in so many fields and so many places, are to exercise our call there, in these places, every single day.
So for me, I have changed in the past years, growing in my faith in depth and understanding, but also seeing where best I can effect change and be faithful.
And I see now it is sharing my life with others, the often rocky but at other times amazing life, offer as much care and compassion, love and kindness as I can, encourage those around me to look deeper and see that there is something hidden underneath what we can measure and hold. That connects us to our fellow human beings and with all of creation, and with the universe. And I will continue to speak about it in ways people can draw strength from, that maybe inspires them to journey out into the world to make a difference wherever they are. And I will continue to write (sorry!).
So in all of that I would say find your gifts and your passion, and work from there. Be the change there, be God’s hands and feet there. This is not a cop out. For if we can’t make change there, we won’t make change anywhere.
Again I want to finish with a poem, no, not from Mary Oliver but from another beautiful poet. I was going to use this yesterday but ran out of time. Yet I think this would have the better than all the other stuff.
It’s called “Famous”.
I was talking the other day to some friends, and they were curious about how long I had been in my “new house”. Actually we moved from our old house about 3 years ago! They were shocked, how could that be, they said, it only seems like yesterday! Time goes fast.
It made been think about the role of a house in our lives, apart from the obvious, and when does a house become a home? We had lived 22 years in our old house, one we had loved from the day we saw it, even though it had purple walls (always a great colour for hearty discussions), weird exposed beams and a very low roof line at the back. What it also had was these beautiful big trees, and lots of space, not that we had any kids at that time.
But as we lived there and time went on, had our two boys and grew as a family, our shared experiences in that house also grew. We had all the ups and downs that go with raising a family and working, but also the many times we celebrated milestones, whether they be birthdays, christenings, Christmas gatherings, anniversaries or just days when we went outside to play the endless games of cricket, or football or soccer, or laid on the trampoline to watch the stars. Many people came to that house, to share life with us, dinners, meetings, afternoons with the kids. In fact I think that sometimes we would have 20 kids running around the back yard, screaming and yelling and having a great time.
The house became a home, our home, and even though it took us almost 10 years to paint the purple walls, and do anything with the exposed beams and the exposed plumbing, we loved it.
So when does that happen, when does a house become a home! When we share the experiences of life within it. When we come together as friends, family and neighbours and give one another time, and love, and food and drink (yes of course the odd class of wine). When we share the sorrow and loss and the joy and hope that comes with journeying together. When we practise hospitality.
It can be the smallest house, the ugliest house, the messiest house (that’s us) but when it is open and welcoming it becomes a place of community.
So it takes time. I think our new house has finally become a home to us!
But the whole house/ home transformation led me to think about friendships in the same way. They also need time.
I love looking at the art of friendship because it is so essential to our lives. We are not meant to be islands, alone in the world, but connected at our core to one another. And that can be just 1 or 2 people, or it can be a whole lot more, depending on our personality and circumstances.
We have friends we have known a long time and friends who have travelled with us a short distance. Friends who were part of our journey in past years but who now have gone in a different direction. And friends who we lost contact with but are now again part of our day to day existence. This reflects the diversity of our lives and the people we meet along the way who enrich it, even for a little while.
But of course we cannot be friends with every single person that we meet, we would go crazy, but those who we are connected to, are to be nurtured as a gift to our lives.
So at any time and stage, friendship takes time. And takes shared experiences. And takes love and care and commitment for them to grow and be sustained. And sometimes it takes sacrifice, for life at times can be very hard and difficult and the only comfort people have is a familiar hand reaching out and holding them. Deep friendships, the friendships that will last a life time, the friendships that will see us sharing a park bench when we are 70 are those that survive the pain and sorrow of life as well as the joys.
I have seen this recently, when an older couple, friends and life partners were at church. Both stepped up to take communion, and the man, who has dementia, lost his way. He took the bread and the wine, which is in a small glass container, and suddenly did not know where he was, or which way he should go to find his seat. He started heading in the wrong direction, when a comforting arm was placed around him, a soothing voice suggested he turn around, a voice that spoke lovingly and one he could trust.
He looked to see where the voice was coming from, and was reassured. He let himself be guided by his best friend, back to his seat.
In that moment, all the life experience they had shared, all the joy and sorrow, all the light and dark, was summed up in that care and love. I could not help but shed tears, for the sadness and the beauty of it.
But I have seen it in the love my old boss at university had for a colleague who was suffering from motor neurone disease. Every week for a long time he would take him swimming in the University pool, initially just helping him a little with balance, but by the end he was carrying him into the water and holding him up, so that for a little while he could feel free. What a gift.
And I have seen it in the love and care shown to my beautiful friends whose gorgeous boys have died.
So when does a house become a home, when does an acquaintance become a friend, and when does a friend become a lifelong friend.
I think it is pretty simple. It is when what we see on the outside doesn’t matter, when what is in the heart, in the centre, that connects us to the house or to the person, is the only thing that matters!
And I think that takes time, takes commitment, and perhaps takes a few glasses of wine shared along the way!
A song to meditate on!
Lean on me – Seal
I have just finished rereading Val Webb’s new book, “Testing Tradition, Liberating Theology”, as part of a book club I organise. A great journey through the history of the church and our doctrines, and how people at every stage have questioned, explored, and developed new ways of seeing God through the lens of their time and place. But it’s not just a history book, it also focusses on doubt as a catalyst for this change, and spirituality, and even what we mean by God in the 21st century, a challenge in itself.
I have returned to teaching after the summer break, back in the lab with students and cadavers, and realise again what a privilege it is to be able to see the human body in all its complexity laid out in front of us. Thanks to the generosity of those who have donated their bodies to science, and those family who have let them go.
I was thinking of giving up the teaching, as it is hard to combine that with church work as a pastor, and family life etc. etc. But as I went through a general overview of the human body with some first year students, blood vessels, muscles, nerves and various organs , I realised that the teaching reenforces the essence of my faith. And I need both.
Over the years, we have seen Christianity expressed in many forms, much of it focussed on some other life, some other existence, without acknowledging that the existence here on earth is amazing, breathtaking, and a gift to be cherished, with all its flaws and challenges. I have never ceased to be astounded by who we are and how we got here, even after all these years of teaching!
It is within this gift of life that I find God.
God, a difficult word to analyse, express, or even relate to. Sometime I don’t even want to use the term.
Yet for all my doubts, and over the years I have had many, I have always had the sense of a something more that drives life itself. Not a presence that disappears then reappears because of a sacrificial death, but a presence that is found throughout the life of the universe and creation, including the lives of every human being. Which is closer to us than our own breath but urges us to connect with one another with love and care and compassion.
Recently I have asked a number of people to define what they mean by God, people who have been faithful ministers, and people who have just been faithful followers of Jesus and his way.
All of them steer away from a set definition, because it is pointless. In some ways God is to be felt and experienced, rather than defined. But they have had a go.
I have, over the years, also had a go, using this blog to variously describe what I mean by God. But there is always new ways of seeing. I came across one attempt that really spoke to me which I would like to share. It is by Barbara Brown Taylor.…
Firstly, a picture….
“Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is. At this point in my thinking, it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity—the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that makes it all go. “
Rather a beautiful description!
Of course I always get a bit reflective like this at Easter time.
Easter, a time to place Jesus within my faith framework. Within this God framework. A human, living breathing, talking, acting, praying, suffering Jesus. A Jesus who confronted the powerful and paid the price. Yet somehow his story lives on in those that follow. A story that resounds in our own lives and the lives of everything that lives and breathes on this earth. Even in the 21st century.
For the resurrection story is not about Jesus and a divine resuscitation! It is so much more than that, so much more universal!
It is how God works in the world, within each of us. Giving light where there is darkness, renewal where there is decay, hope where there is despair, and new life where there seems only death. Even if it takes a long time!
To fit Jesus into my God story means seeing Jesus as one of us. A gift of life. A gift of God. With a message and love that couldn’t be beaten.
I often ask myself. How do I do Easter, when I don’t believe the whole “sacrificial payment for sin” line. Or the “original sin” line, or the line about the “perfect Jesus who now sits at the right hand of God somewhere else”?
I do Easter because it reflects life in miniature.
And Jesus for me, is the ultimate guide.
Ps if you want to read just a little more about what I think, read the entry for Feb 21st, 2016, called “What I believe, really”.
I had a catch up with a friend the other day who reads my blog, and who complained they were getting far too long. So here a shorter one for you all…
I teach first year university students human biology, and, like so many universities, we ask the students to fill in a survey telling us how they felt about the labs and what constructive feedback could they give, either positive or negative. It is always a bit awkward, because they are really judging the tutor’s performance, whether they teach well, interact well with the students, along with the content and structure of the labs themselves, which are designed by the coordinators of the course.
I try to keep it low key, and suggest they stick to assessing my teaching, rather than commenting on my clothes or the colour of my shoes…
When I got them back, after the exam, I was pleased to see that no one had commented on my shoes, other than one who jokingly said they were great, and they were happy with my style and care and teaching ability. Phew!
But what really spoke to me, and maybe more than anything made me feel warm and toasty inside, is that a number of them said I was kind. I was quite taken aback, as they don’t have to write anything.
Yet what do they mean by kind? It is defined in the dictionary as a behaviour marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and a concern for others. I think maybe that means I respected them, listened to them, helped them as best I could, and maybe even had a joke with them, because it is a great subject and great unit to teach. Or at least I tried too!
Kindness, how I love to be called kind, because maybe I am doing something that makes a difference to someone else.
Yet kindness is something we have to work at, I have to work at, because too often life and all its troubles and tribulations get in the way. It is easy to let the little annoyances and big problems we are faced with affect our view of the world and of others. We can become more judgemental, dismissive, sarcastic and rude than we even realise, certainly not very kind. Ouch! The world suddenly becomes so black and white that we see people as being either with us or against us, rather than acknowledging that we are all on the same page, despite our differences. It is a paradox of ourselves which we must live with and deal with.
For it’s a paradox of being human.
We know that as humans we can love fully and hate terribly, we can forgive one another but are also capable of vengeance, and we can feel anger and strike out either with words or actions, then regret what we have done to others. We can seek justice for the poor, then live like kings or we can want to protect the planet then behave as though our resources are limitless. We can act in noble, selfless ways, then retreat to selfish and individual ways. All of us, each one of us is capable through circumstance or upbringing or from some unknown urge to do things we think we would never do.
This is who we are. But we have a choice. To live in freedom or fear. To tip the balance always towards goodness. To see ourselves together, as brothers and sisters.
To be kind. To look after the other, think of the other, and protect the other.
But how do we keep choosing the path of kindness. For it’s a challenge! Even in teaching.
Can religion help? Maybe, but certainly not in its judgemental, saved/unsaved version. Can the wise sages and prophets of our tradition help, who speak of a universal God, I think so. Can the life and teachings of Jesus help, definitely!
Rob Bell, one of my favourite contemporary writers says it better than I can,
“All down the centuries, religion has drawn out of men and women goodness and love and passion for caring and responding to others they didn’t know was within them. All down the centuries, religion has inspired the greatest and the best that is in people and despite all the misdeeds of religion, cumulatively I believe the world is a better place. Micah and his simple principles, and, even more, Jesus and his blessings and freedoms, have been central to the growth of goodness and transformation for those who are Christian.”
From the prophet Micah –
“He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”.
And from Jesus –
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
But if you don’t think too much of Christianity, it is also beautifully said by Mary Oliver, in her poem, “In the Storm”.
Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing
hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,
five inches long
with beaks like wire,
snowflakes on their backs,
in a row
behind the ducks—
whose backs were also
covered with snow—
they were all but touching,
they were all but under
the roof of the ducks’ tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,
for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away
out over the water,
which was still raging.
they came back
and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
stoop there, and live.
If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?
Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—
as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
Oh well, I tried to make it shorter, perhaps next time!