Peace

Peace

Saturday, 21 October 2017

You Are Not Alone.

Here’s something I like about Moses in this week’s Sunday Scripture readings. No matter how many times he saw or heard from God, he wanted more. Not content to rest on the burning bush, or the magic powers, or the pillars of smoke and fire or the receiving of the tablets bearing The Law, Moses says to the Lord: “Show me your glory, I pray.” I understand this. I am one of those people who cannot hear enough times that I am loved and I am one of the beloved. I appreciate displays of affection.

I get Moses, and I love the way God responds. “Okay, mate, I’ll show you my glory, to the extent you can take it in, and I’ll even protect you from looking at me too directly, sort of like one of those pinhole things people use to keep from blinding themselves during an eclipse.” If you have ever needed to reassure a child who did not want to go to school or to day-care, you probably know why one could picture God as an Awesome Mama here. This image is one I read in Margaret Spong’s writing and I find it apt. Little one, go and stand over there where it’s safe, and just to be extra sure, your parent will cover your eyes for you with their Big Giant Hand.”

Much of the time, this is what we need. My observation is that even for my wife it seems at times, she wants to do this for her two grown boys. Yes, they are far away, but there are times when she still wants to do this for them, and not being supernatural, I cannot see how she can wave a magic wand to achieve it. Instead we need to pray for them, pray that they will find their way in this adult world as creative young people and not starve to death. Frankly, we could use a dose of proof right about now, and I’m guessing many of us, worried about the general state of the world, could use it, too.


But Moses! Why did he need it? Hadn’t he gotten more than enough? Can you get enough of God? Perhaps not. Perhaps they had a relationship so intimate that one appearance could not suffice. Because apparently God enjoyed their little talks, too. Another thing I love about Moses is that he talked to God the way I do when I am driving the car or doing the cooking of a meal. “Oh, Lord. What can I do to guide those whom I have care of in this world?” “How can I best help the people at church?” “Why can’t that person see things the way I do when the answer is so clear?”

Moses came to God over and over with his doubts and his frustrations, and by doing just that, he found favour in God’s sight. It doesn’t matter that he was impulsive. It doesn’t matter that he was initially doubtful and frankly resistant. He gave God his all, his flawed and human all, and he found favour with God. Maybe that is something I can do.

In the story of the exodus, presence is also a constant theme. The wilderness was disorienting. The goal was so far away, even after years of being nomads. In the cloud and fire, they somehow found strength and presence. They could sense the connection between their selves and God, and they could also see that God never left, day or night, whether they were traveling or staying still. Sometimes God’s absence is more palpable to us than God’s presence. We look for God but find . . . nothing. We long for God but feel nothing. We pray to God and maybe we hear nothing.

But then there are moments. Moments when in the midst of a horrendous day we have the sense that we are surrounded by a warm cloud of God’s love. Moments when in a sleepless night we think we might see the flame of God’s peace that has not been extinguished. When these moments come, we latch onto them, so we can remember them when neither fire nor cloud is visible.

For me, the moments of cloud and fire usually come through the love and actions of someone else. A kind word from someone. A look of understanding. The touch of my hand and the response of the person in a hospital room as I sit with them and as they face the end of life or a long time of healing. It would be wonderful if we would be able to know the presence of God in those around us, and at those times offer God’s presence to those who need it. From all this remember, you are not alone.




Saturday, 14 October 2017

Everybody Loves a Party, Right?

Everybody loves a party, right? Wherever there is food and fun, people will follow. The words “You’re invited” have a welcome ring to them. This Sunday’s readings from scripture abound with images of celebrations, feasting, food, and of course, humankind’s uncanny ability to make a mess of things. In Exodus 32, the people of Israel are tired of waiting for Moses and start their own “party” with a god of their own creation— a golden calf.

“They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel,” says the writer. But things don’t go so well for the impatient partygoers, and they end up drinking the dust of their own idol. In the Gospel scripture from Matthew, Jesus speaks of a wedding banquet and unwilling and unprepared guests. Again, things don’t go so well for those who fail to follow proper party etiquette.

Fortunately, outer darkness, weeping, and gnashing are not the last word. The Lord of Hosts is much bigger than our messes and will not permit us to spoil the divine banquet. God has other plans and, as the consummate host, continually invites us to the divine party. The Hebrew Scripture Isaiah 25 and Psalm 23 speak also to us of feasting, of bountiful tables spread, of overflowing cups, of well-aged wines and rich food. There are no tears and no fear when God is the host, only goodness and mercy.

Sometimes it’s comforting to be reminded that our instant-gratification culture is not a by-product of the digital age, nor a particular failing of “young people these days.” Unwillingness to wait, desire for immediate tangible results, and impatience with the mysterious slowness of spiritual life seem to go back millennia, rather than being a hallmark of the Millennial generation. we are worshiping something that is decidedly not God.

Part of the difficulty is that, at least initially, the idea seems to make sense. People desire a deeper relationship with God— how can we resist giving it to them? Resist we must, because no preacher, teacher, pastor, or parent has ever been able to simply hand spiritual depth over on a golden platter. Building a relationship with anyone let alone our God takes time. Even face to face, it took many days for Moses and God to get to know each other well enough to reach the point where the commandments could be delivered, let alone where they spoke to each other “as one speaks to a friend.”


Desire for relationship is the first step, and the Israelites certainly had that. But a spiritual life, whether that of an individual or a community, also requires effort, energy, honesty, perseverance, endurance, and trust. We have to be willing to wait, to “trust in the slow work of God,” to sit in silence, to put in the same amount of time both listening and speaking as we would with a human friend. But it is so much easier to work with something we can see and touch.

As a leader, it is so much easier to offer the cheap facsimile than to nurture true spiritual relationship. Look at our leaders not only around the world but here in Australia. After what appears to be too tough times we elect leaders who promise us the world, promise us that we will be great. These leaders don’t tell us the journey we need to go on to reach there. No, they tell us we can have it now.

But as we know if we have read this scripture, this story ends strangely with Moses convincing God to reclaim the people as God insists they belong to Moses. (God having apparently forgotten how much work it was to convince Moses to go back to Egypt in the first place!) Yet even knowing this story, the temptation is great. It takes a long time, and “we don’t have a clue” what is happening during the time when nothing appears to be happening, and suddenly we are sacrificing and dancing and giving our hearts to something hard, cold, and unforgiving.



We may tire of wondering what the golden calf looks like in our community. It is important that our own spiritual lives are strong, so we don’t fall into Aaron’s trap of believing we can provide people with anything more than tools and space to seek, no matter how uncomfortable or anxious they (or we) might be. The invitation is explicit though. God’s desire is to include us in the never-ending salvation celebration. Come with rejoicing and thanksgiving to the table for Communion, for a potluck and fellowship, and for eternity. Celebrate the goodness and mercy of God!

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Holding on to What is Precious.

The images of clean-up after a disaster are haunting and heartbreaking. Three days before I arrived in Invercargill, Aotearoa (New Zealand) to take up my first appointment as a clergy person over thirty years ago, a third of the city was flooded and that flood included a backwash of sewerage. It was a difficult and sad time for those people in the suburb of Waikiwi. But also, there came from this event many a story of kindness and compassion and people found the gift of being a neighbour come to the fore. 

Sadly, with the sewerage having been up to 2 to 3 metres on peoples walls the instruction came from the authorities to destroy all property and send it to the tip. For many, this was a devastating thing to have to do and to watch for that matter.  Someone from the churches had this bright idea to invite all people effected to bring their precious items of crockery etc. and linen to the church halls and members would wash them and disinfect them so that the people affected had something to hang on to. It was a time of grief but a time of great love and compassion.

During that time, my role was to help find people to ensure their well-being and help people find their precious property. I also assisted some of those people in getting their bits and pieces to those doing the washing and cleaning. One day I watched as a woman, who was ignoring the television news camera pointed at her, as she found something she recognised in the rubble. She exclaimed out loud that she had found her favourite object, and I watched as she ran to the object, dug her hands into the debris, and pulled out what could only be described as a fragment of what could have once been that precious item. She clutched it to her in shock as if it had been made of gold.

She seemed so glad to have found something she thought she had lost in the flood. In this place of loss and grief, even a part of a precious object that is recovered seemed like a treasure, for it may have symbolised for the woman a truth she had known but could not prove: “Once upon a time I lived here. I had a normal life, I had a job, I had a car, I had this object which was precious. This is a precious object.

Saint Paul, who wrote some of the letters in our Scriptures and has had many others attributed to him, gave a message to the church which comes in a time of turmoil and chaos; suddenly everything the followers of Jesus thought to be true about the fellowship of believers has been turned upside down, and St. Paul reminds the church to take stock, to count every earthly gain as loss, and to count any suffering that has to be endured for Christ’s sake as ultimate gain. What are the remnants of our earthly selves that we search for, in an effort to hold on to something that reminds us that we exist, that we count for something in this world? What scraps would we hold dear to our chest as if they were gold?

For St. Paul, the answer is this: “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” That’s it. That’s the bottom line. After taking stock of his conversion on the road to Damascus, after accounting for all the church plants he created, after being arrested and thrown in prison for the sake of the gospel, it all boils down to this one truth, and the symbol for it all is the cross. The cross is the piece of a precious object you see. In every church that ever has burned to the ground, or has blown away, the cross— or even the idea of the cross if we couldn’t find a physical, tangible one. And as Richard Rohr states, if there was one phrase to describe the Christian faith, it would be the “Way of the Wound”

It is the evidence that, God loved the world, came to earth and dwelt among us and died for us, and we have life because of it. We are good at rules: making them and then breaking them. St. Paul reminds us that, when we gain Christ Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we receive exactly what we need— forgiveness, grace, hope. God declared us beloved children which brings us a confidence that, whatever we do, we can do it well because we are already equipped and already approved— that’s a lot to live up to. We strive to fulfil the confidence that God places in us, knowing that God spurs us on, having already declared us winners.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Messy Ordinariness.

In this week’s reading set from Exodus, you can hear Moses’ frustration. So far in the readings from Exodus over the last few weeks, they have told us about how God delivered the people from Pharaoh’s army, delivered the Hebrews from starvation. And now, this week they are thirsty. Yet again the Hebrews doubt that God will see them through. So, we get the question, “Why are you testing the LORD?”  It’s a foolish question really. It’s a question for humanity today also. Why do we doubt God’s power or God’s favour? The Hebrews were very like us. This is the way humans seem to continue to act today in our relationship with our God.  

So, the question comes, why do we doubt God’s power or God’s favour? It seems to me that it has something to do with the fact that we are human and therefore fearful. We have experienced before in our lives times when our hopes did not work out, when things or people we needed were not there for us. And, truthfully, we know how frail our lives really are. Lack of water in the desert seems an occasion more appropriate for panic than for trust. But let us note the reactions and behaviour of Moses.

Does the reactions of Moses sound familiar? Does it sound like leaders we have known? Moses, like the people, is in danger from thirst, and he fears their anger: “They are getting ready to stone me.” In fact, while the people complain to Moses, Moses complains about them to God. One begins to wonder if Moses is more concerned that the people doubt God or that they’re on his case. Yet our God does not seem very concerned about the people’s testing, not in this passage or throughout the wilderness journey.

What is God’s response to the people’s need, their doubt, their fear? The response is water. It’s not more commandments, not punishment, not a new teaching. Just water. Here we see a difference between God and Moses. Moses, perhaps due to fear, questions the people’s faith and memorialises their quarrelling. So often we get side-tracked with our own baggage. God goes straight to the point of need: “You’re thirsty? Here’s water.” You doubt God’s care, God’s steadfast faithfulness? That’s okay. God’s graceful providence is not frustrated by our weakness. Have some cool water, straight from the rock.

You know, this ordinariness, the reality of everyday life is at the same time scandalous and appealing. If we move now from considering Moses and his ordinary problem with the physical need for water to Jesus response to human needs and ordinariness. The very Son of God is limited by the things that limit all the rest of us: time and space, living and dying, illness and health, the actions and expectations of others, good and bad relationships. Every day Jesus had to figure out how to get food, where they were going to sleep. Someone needed to be in charge of the money. They had to figure out what road they were going to take to the next town, and sometimes they were running late.

God chose not just to view the messiness that we call humanity from some other plane, but to enter this messiness and to be at home in it. The spiritual and the physical are so intertwined that they cannot be separated, not even in the Christ. Neither is holier than the other. Each is made holier by the other. Wouldn’t it be something if we could see the intertwining of spirit and physicality today? We do, but in an even messier way than Jesus lived it: it is called the Church.


The church is the body of Christ. We worry sometimes that we are not spiritual enough. And we’re probably right. But it’s also likely that we are not mundane enough. One without the other is not the body of Christ. The mundane must be infused with the spiritual, and the spiritual with the mundane. This gets messy, and we make lots of mistakes trying to get it right. We’re limited by our location, our resources, our personalities. Jesus, too, chose to be limited. That puts us in good company.


Saturday, 23 September 2017

Who Stands With Us?

This week in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus 16:2-15) the Israelite's are in the wilderness just six weeks when they start living in the past. Hungry and cranky, realizing they don’t know where they’re going or how they’ll get there or how long it will take, with no established religion or government, no social safety net, and no leftovers— they complain. “If only we had died in Egypt where we sat around and ate as much as we wanted!” (Ah, flawed memories!)

God again listens to their cries and provides abundance they could never have imagined. This is the central wilderness experience, the first of many lessons in the making of a people. God says, “I will be your God,” calls them “my people,” then needs to teach them what that means— they have to work the vision making process and discern a mission statement (“Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself,” seems pretty good!).


They need to wander in order to discover that God will lead them if they will follow. They want to look back without rose-coloured glasses so they can look forward with hope. They need to learn that God is love and discern who God is calling them to be. This first lesson is learning to rely on God’s goodness and abundance. It sounds cliché and naïve now, and I suspect then, too— but alone out in the desert, the Israelites literally depended on God for their daily bread, their safety, their lives.

Even as they learn the stark truth that we are all dependent on God despite our perceived independence, they learn of God’s faithfulness. They learn that hoarding doesn’t get us anywhere. They learn that God’s abundance comes along with justice— not whatever I want, but what we, the community, need. The story is a familiar one. It happens again and again, not just on the Hebrew people’s trek through the wilderness, but in our communities today. When times are tough, when we are threatened, when we are afraid, it is hard to remember our blessings, and very easy to focus on what is lacking.

Nor should we underestimate the difficulties of life in the desert. The routines of Egypt— whatever their hardships— were a known quantity. Life as slaves is difficult, but survivable. The wilderness, though, has no known support system. But when the waters of the sea closed over Pharaoh’s army, God burned any bridge back to Egypt. The story of manna in the desert is rightly understood as God’s providential care, God’s mercy for the people, and God standing with them to see them through— bread from heaven, indeed. What are we to make, though, of the Lord’s purpose? The Lord speaks to the peoples. God needs to “test them to see whether they follow Instruction or not.”

“What is it?” the people exclaim, when they encounter this manna. Apparently, this is a test indeed. This manna is food (the Egyptian word mennu means “food”), but it is strange food (the Arabic man hu means “This is insect secretions”). God will faithfully send manna throughout the time in the wilderness. Is the “testing” a part of the Lord’s teaching process, reinforcing again and again that God is trustworthy and worth following?


Today it is enough to remember that we are tested like this all the time. More than a thousand years after this story, Jesus will teach that asking for daily bread is enough to pray. We might wish for a lifetime supply of our favourite delicacies, but can we be thankful for what God provides? For the gift of life? For all that God has done and has promised?

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Have You Really Been Saved?

We hear that phrase so often as a question tossed off by proselytisers. This is especially so in Sydney as some of our brothers remain so hung up and focused on the phrase. I bet some of you are surprised to hear me asking this question. It may just roll past, but I’m really asking— have you been saved? For an experience of being saved, of being plucked from the fire, is crucial to Christian faith. We’re not talking about finding a parking space when you’re running late. Perhaps that kind of experience might serve as a pale proxy, a way to imagine salvation.

Well, before Jesus’ resurrection, God was in the salvation business. The exodus (along with exile) is a central story that shaped Jewish faith as Jesus knew it. The God of Israel, the God of our scriptures which we Christians call the Bible, the God of Jesus does not make sense without this experience of being delivered from imminent disaster. The movie version cannot do this scene justice. Imagine yourself in the sandals of those Hebrew slaves. With your back to the sea, you can see the dust of the chariots coming. When they catch you, they will kill you and your family and everyone around you, except for the “fortunate” ones that they will beat, rape, and drag back to slavery.

If you have not knowingly been that close to the brink, I guarantee that someone you know has. Listen for those stories. Just recently I heard of a parent whose house went up in flames in the middle of the night. She’s not quite sure how she got out the window to summon help, but she is sure about the firefighters who went in and brought out her child, and about the medical teams who kept the firefighters’ lungs working past the smoke damage. To her, salvation is very real.

Part of salvation is to participate in forgiveness. In our scripture, this week from Matthew 18, Peter reflects on this. To show that he had a magnanimous spirit, he says, “[ Should we forgive] as many as seven times?” Seven times seems like quite a bit, doesn’t it?! In the Jewish mind, seven is a number that represents completion and finality. Surely this would be more than enough!

Jesus answers with a word play on the number seven and says that we should forgive seventy times seven. He doesn’t mean that we should keep track and forgive someone four hundred ninety times, but rather that we must throw away the calculator and live a lifestyle of continual forgiveness.


I imagine the disciples responded much as I would, absolutely dumbfounded at such a notion. Here’s the problem. We understand intellectually the notion that we forgive because we have also sinned and been forgiven, but sometimes the sins against us seem out of proportion and unforgivable. A person once told me that they had been seriously injured in a car accident. The person had gone through many hardships during recovery and had been very bitter toward the driver who hit them.

Guilt at the inability to forgive had plagued the person, doubling their misery. “Then one day,” the person said, “I realised that forgiveness is not a duty, it is the answer. When we forgive the grace comes to heal our hearts.” Working out forgiveness in the complexity of life is a subtle art. There are no simple formulas that will take care of the problem for us. Yet we can’t walk away from forgiveness.


Going through the process of forgiving is painful work, but so is living with the open wounds of unresolved anger and resentment. Forgiveness is not a virtue that comes from within, nor is it a duty we owe to someone else. It is a cry to God that says, “Lord, heal my heart.” Heal my heart and bring me salvation and I will be saved. Forgiveness is not an easy answer to our problems, but it is the most powerful answer.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Apply Minds Hearts and Duct Tape.

In the dynamic process of communicating our experiences of God we tell stories. These stories explain why things are the way they are: stories of our founders— how they coped with crises, triumphed or failed— stories justifying our present traditions. Stories are our common vernacular. As many will realise I find that story telling for me is the best way I can communicate my understanding and experience of God.

The Hebrews told stories about their formation as a nation and culture. They told of dialogue between God and Moses. But, did this communication happen as recorded? Did God really want all that blood and mutton? . . . Well this type of thinking gives me a problem. Is it what really happened? Storytelling continued for centuries. People close to the significant events relayed and recorded what happened. As the stories passed down, they picked up layers. These bits were accumulated and the story grew. They were attempts to justify present actions by claiming they originated by instruction of the founders.

The Gospel records Jesus giving instructions on church discipline at a time when there was no church. In the narrative, he damns unrepentant members to be treated like “Gentiles and tax-collectors,” the very people he ministers to. Furthermore, he suggests that coalitions of church leaders can act unilaterally as long as they have a quorum. Did Jesus really say that? . . .

And I wonder today whether the debate here in Australia over making marriage a universal possibility for all couples has been hi-jacked by this type of thinking and by statements condemning members of God's creation whom we are called to love. Statements that may have come from people who have layered things for their own purposes and not Gods. Remember we are all the beloved of God and we are to treat each other as beloved.

Well this thinking gives me a problem. As the story of God in human experience continues to unfold, we will continue to tell one another the stories of God. There are times when we will baulk at the blood and we will even go as far as to blackball the text we are telling. Does that mean we should quit? The Apollo 13 astronauts didn’t. They applied their minds, and duct tape! They put square boxes into round holes and survived. Perhaps we “Wordonauts” can do the same?

In light of the problems we have with the current text it’s easy to rush to the good stuff in Matthew’s passage from Chapter 18: whatever we bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever we agree upon, God will do. But trust me, that’s not the most important part of this passage. The most important part is the difficult but essential truth that community— real community in Christ— is hard. Real community demands that we confront one another in love, that we speak the truth to one another in love, that we be willing to accompany one another through difficulty and disagreement . . . all in love. 

That’s what Paul speaks about, too. All of God’s law— the gift of knowing what is right and wrong that we may tend one another’s well-being— is summed up in a commandment that is as clear and simple as it is challenging: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” That’s why I think that Jesus was not simply laying out a formula by which to resolve conflict. It’s rarely that easy. Different conflicts— and different contexts— will invite different methods of resolution. What’s clear, however, is the need to regard one another in love to keep the well-being of all in the forefront. And currently some of our brothers and sisters sadly are not able to do that believing they have the only truth and seem to fail to listen for Gods truth.

Why is that so difficult? The obvious answer is because of our sinfulness, the way in which we continually turn our faces away from God and Gods call to us. But it’s also more than that, as we need to recognise that we have little practice in demonstrating love during times of disagreement. We live in a culture that is far quicker to rush to judgment, preferring polarised positions and the rhetoric of blame and accusation than speaking truth in love.


One only needs to listen to Trump and some of his so-called followers on various issues such as race and gender. We face this same difficulty in Australia as our current government tries to side step giving all members of our community the same rights. As we face these issues laying out a formula by which to resolve conflict is not the answer, and as we have seen increases the acts of bigotry and hatred. For this reason, we will need to nay are called to practice patience, practice forbearance, and practice love. But if we do . . . what, then, can we not accomplish this in the life and love of our God?