Friday, 23 February 2018

Making Journeys.

Making journeys is not so unusual these days. People move to find work. People move to study. Young people think nothing of travelling for gap years. We’re a very mobile society. Not so in Abraham’s day. What a statement of faith that he should pack up his whole life and, with his family, go where God calls. So, I have great sympathy with Abraham when it seems that God calls for one more incredible stretch, makes one more demand— to believe that he could start, not just a family, but a whole nation.

It’s something I have done many times in my adult life. I moved to various places in Aotearoa (New Zealand) for education and work and then moved to the Solomon Islands, always accepting that God called me to make these changes. Then I moved to Australia twenty odd years ago to make a new start little realising I would be called into marriage again and we would follow my wife’s occupation to various parts of Australia, leading me to various ministry positions on the way.

It’s clear that Abraham seldom had much clue about what God was up to. Although we read of Abraham spending time in discernment and building altars in testimony, there are occasions when he tries to second-guess God and short-circuit the process. And yet, Abraham has become one of the exemplars of faith, maybe precisely because of his cluelessness. Although he didn’t know why, he did as God asked.

Sometimes those asks were huge asks that some of you may have experienced in your lives.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m a bit clueless like Abraham. We are told that Abraham was asked to pack up his whole life and travel, asked to believe that he could father a nation, asked to sacrifice his one and only heir with no idea that God would provide an alternative. Abraham might well have been clueless about God’s plans, but he certainly wasn’t found wanting in his faith.

Sometimes I have thought about Abraham and Sarah as I have reflected on all the shifts I have had in my life. I have found that some do not understand moving where God calls as it looks like to them you are unstable in some way because you move a lot. In Romans 4: 18, we see Abraham held up as an exemplar of “hoping against hope.” God’s people are called to practice such unlikely faith today so that God’s improbable will can come to pass.

Then if we move on to the reading from Mark this week we find we are being told life is difficult. Awakening to personal complicity with evil in the world cruelly adds to the difficulty. Aligning with God against injustice, oppression, exploitation, and violence propels us toward the cross. In Lent, giving up illusion is probably the primary sacrifice. It seems that we are being called to give up our illusions about God, the world, safety, self-satisfaction; or, even the illusion of clinging to the easier, friendlier Jesus of Galilee and Epiphany rather than traveling with the suffering Jesus of Jerusalem and Holy Week.

Peter tries to cling to an illusion. “God forbid you should die!” Jesus’ harsh rebuke is devastating, and the harshness reflects a continuing struggle. Certainly, Jesus does not want to die a criminal’s death by torture. Why wouldn’t he lash out as Peter witlessly touches this raw nerve? From time to time, it is necessary to abandon the illusion of what we previously called faith.

Faith draws us to a dark realm behind reason. Reason is merely a placeholder of discernment; the content of the pages can shock with their unreasonable wonder, complexity, beauty, horror, emptiness. But dark faith is not the same thing as blind faith. Blind faith draws on ignorance and illusion, while dark faith draws us toward the crucible of liberation from fantasy, compulsion, and self-justification.

To go forward in dark faith sometimes means risking faith itself to face truth. Difficult truths, perhaps like the one that tells us our personal complicity with evil mentioned earlier is a problem. In any case, dark faith leads to the cross. There’s no way around the darkness. And maybe just maybe the cross does stand at the heart of darkness. And then, God’s will for wholeness, for shalom, places the empty tomb at the heart of life itself.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Life, Liberty and…..?

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness— words deeply embedded into our Australian ethos which is also embedded into the North American ethos. Maybe we Australians are emulating the North Americans when we follow this ethos. Yet, like them we hold doggedly to the notion that we have certain inalienable rights endowed by God (although we don’t want any mention of God, a higher power or being), including freedom and the opportunity to pursue prosperity.

Some believe these ideals have been adopted as Christian values. If so, then today’s passages may threaten our culture-laden view of Christianity. In Mark 1, Jesus submits to baptism by John the Baptiser. This was a baptism of repentance. Jesus, being sinless by followers of Christ, had no need to repent, but he submitted as an act of obedience that demonstrated the path humanity needed to take. After Jesus came up from the water, the same Spirit that descended upon him drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested.

What? That’s not what we would expect to happen. God’s Spirit sent Jesus to be tested by Evil? And to many that seems so unfair. Does the fact that God set up this severe time of testing stand at odds with our pursuit of happiness? If, in the quest for success, God’s Spirit sent you into a difficult place that prevented you from obtaining “achievable prosperity,” would you resist the Spirit’s leading?

Ancient Jewish belief held that a righteous person prospered, and a sinful person suffered— it was simple cause-and-effect thinking. Do we presume the same? In 1 Peter, Christ volunteers to suffer unjustly for sinful humanity. Again, this seems contrary to the agenda of Western ideals. Which of us, in pursuing happiness, would voluntarily abandon that quest to endure suffering to benefit others, who may despise us? How many would question God for expecting selflessness?

The message of the two passages from this week’s readings disturbs the peace: God’s Spirit may drive us into difficult situations to test our character, and imitating Jesus may require voluntary suffering. What holds more sway over your life, the quest for personal achievement or imitation of Christ? So, what did Jesus find out on his walkabout in the desert?

I know how my mind works when I am away from home and disconnected:
• I wonder what they’re doing right now.
• I wonder what the weather is like.
• I wonder what they’re having for dinner. (Maybe this one especially.)

The questions get more serious when we use the time away to contemplate the future, as Jesus must have done on his rather extreme retreat. Driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, Jesus stayed until the time was right to come out and begin declaring the kingdom of God to be at hand. To get from baptism to revolution— what desert path did he walk? Hungry, thirsty, thrown back on whatever he could remember.

Perhaps he whispered this week’s psalm 25:
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.

Well for me after Jesus’ walkabout ended; he emerged, declaring God’s kingdom at hand. The big question is, are we ready for that? Or do you still crave what our society sees as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Faith Story Mantle.

We’ve all been there ... the mountaintop where, for the briefest of moments, all seems right with the world. We have “arrived,” and we want to rest. We want to set up camp and stay there forever. So, we can certainly sympathise with Peter when, having arrived at this critical moment with Jesus (found in Mark 9:2-9), he wants to put some stakes in the ground. He asks to build three dwellings—one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah—so that they can all stay there, happily ensconced on that mountain, forever. “Nope,” says Jesus. “We still go on.”

As is typical in Mark’s Gospel, there is always some next thing to be getting on with. What Peter has been able to glimpse here is some fullness of time; some thin and holy scenario where these three critical moments in the Hebraic narrative are drawn into a single place in time. Perhaps he also glimpsed there the way that Jesus would soon join the company of these other two prophets, gone on to God and present only in memory. The power of that must have been as heartbreaking as it was dazzling.

Of course, he wanted to stay there forever and keep Jesus in the safety of some mountaintop haven. But, of course, they couldn’t stay. No perfect moment can stay. Maybe to help us get to grips with this reading we can all explore a few of our own mountaintop moments. Maybe, the last night of a church camp, the answered prayer, the return from some long wilderness, the healing of some broken connection ... In those places we are able to glimpse some holy fulfillment of all God’s promises, all of our hopes, and all the mystery of creation. It is natural to want to put up a flag and stay there forever.

But since we can’t—what truth can we take from the mountaintop that will sustain us for the journey ahead? From our Hebrew Scriptures Text this week, 2 Kings 2:1-12, “Elisha went over.” So much narrative potential in those three little words. In addition to setting the stage as a prequel to the transfiguration story, this episode could stand all on its own. The mountain top talks to us about transitions, or maybe it could be about leadership and legacy.

If the transfiguration leads us to examine what we take with us from the mountaintop, then perhaps this reading about Elisha from 2 Kings might engage us in questions about what we leave for those who come after? In what ways do we equip the next generation of leaders to “carry the mantle” of our faith story? How do we help people in their ever day life to understand the good news of Jesus? I would like to turn to things Harry Potter even though I have only watched parts of the movies and not read the books. The readings for this Sunday make it a great time to talk about Dumbledore.

All those times when he gave Harry some small glimpse of truth—without giving away the punchline—that would sustain him for the journey ahead. In other words, Dumbledore did not get to destroy all the Horcruxes in his lifetime; but he made sure Harry had the tools, and all the pieces of the story, to accomplish the thing on his own. Are we giving our children the right tools? And the right pieces of the story? It challenges me not only as a Christian but as a person as to what I am doing about passing on the right tools and the pieces of the story of my life that may support others on their life’s journey.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

In the Stillness

If this week’s passage from Mark 1:29-39 was played out on the big screen, it would be a montage: a series of brief images, in rapid succession, that imply the passage of time and the progress of the narrative. After healing Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus heals people in a large gathering from a wide range of maladies. Although these other people may not have names and faces, it would seem that the sheer volume of those healed in quick succession bears the far-reaching implications of Jesus’s ministry.

In the fast-paced rhythm of Mark’s Gospel, we are led to assume that what happened here, happened in many places. Thus, the montage effect. In the span of thirty seconds, we glimpse the bigger picture of what life was about in those days. Notice, then, the importance of the “quiet place,” where Jesus takes himself to pray. That Sabbath moment appears as a stark contrast in what is otherwise a flurry of activity. The eye at the heart of a frenzied storm. And, of course, they come looking for him. “Everyone is searching for you.” Well, wouldn’t they be?

After they’ve seen what can be done in his presence? Renewed in prayer, Jesus gets up and goes to the next place. There will be more teaching, more preaching, more healing of the masses. Perhaps he is ready—renewed in the spirit by his brief time of silence. While here we are certainly focusing on the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law—and the way in which she went about her work after being made well—this could also be a valuable opportunity for us especially in the church to examine our focus and practices – our mission if you like.

It’s something to reflect on for all people in their daily lives. Are we rushing through a packed program year, trying to be all things to all people, engaging in a flurry of high-energy activity, without pausing to fully renew ourselves – and as Christians this would be in worship, prayer, meditation, contemplation or at a retreat.  If we are rushing then, how can we realign and re-imagine our shared lives – to focus on the meaning of life – as Christians to look at ministry in ways that more faithfully mirror the Jesus kind of rhythm—seeking a stillness in the heart of all the movement, where we can be made new for the journey ahead.

Turn on the news and see if you can find an up-to-the minute story of peaceful protest: people showing up for racial justice, an end to hunger, or a ceasefire. Any place where people are standing still and silent in the midst of chaos. What can we learn from those modern-day images, and similar figures throughout history, about how to be a prayerful presence in the midst of great movement and change?

And, we don’t need one of the writers of Isaiah (also part of this week’s readings), acting like a prophet-in-residence, to remind us that “the grass withers, and the flower fades ...” The Israelites and us have lived with withering and fading for years! Climate Change is certainly making that real for us. We know, in our weary bones, that even a return from wilderness does not mean immortality. But that communal awareness of finitude renders the poetry of this writer in Isaiah all the more powerful: all is not lost. God still holds power over all the oppressive powers of earth, and even transcends the body’s weakness in age.

Even the oldest and most frail among them will be given flight. This passage from Isaiah, has the potential for us to be reminded that in our human smallness, the grandeur of God is made known. If we need to see how this works in real time, maybe a field trip to a national park is in order. Or at the very least a guided meditation. Again, that thought of having time for prayerful presence, a time for mindfulness.

For me the I see in my mind the refreshing waters cascading down mountains into green bush areas in the Southern Alps of NZ or in the Deserts of Australia or even in some small chasm of Zion, as places where we glimpse that thin place where we end, and the next holy thing begins. So, as you read this I hope that God may come to you and be known to you in the stillness and that we all may find the holy in our smallness and be made known to us in our ordinary rhythms of life through love and grace.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

“Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

We are in the year of Mark’s Gospel in the three-year lectionary and Mark is not known for wordiness or narrative excess. Mark’s is the Twitter Gospel of his day and no I am not likening the writer of Mark to a certain President. The story told by Mark is done so in as few characters as possible, with little embellishment. The result is an abiding sense of urgency: Let’s go. We’ve got work to do. I’ll explain later. Which is how Jesus, seeks to engage with the unclean spirit in this week episode of Sundays readings. Succinctly, authoritatively, and with zero drama. “Be gone with you,” he says, as one who has the authority to command such things.

Which, of course, he does. He does not have time to mess around, over-explaining his every move. Follow him now and figure out the details later. Even the spirits obey him ... This notion of “possession” is so foreign to our contemporary context that many preachers are tempted to substitute the unclean spirit with a modern-day mental illness. A cautionary word in that regard: exploring mental illness as a sort of otherworldly influence can be dangerous territory. Even with the best of intentions, such interpretation can be fraught with all sorts of unintended implications for the hearer. And this I warn from observing an experience while an Ordinand.

A better approach—and a more textually accurate one—would be to explore modern-day understandings of authority. What people or institutions influence our daily decisions, for better or worse? Where do we get our news? What sources do we trust, and why? Whose opinions matter to us? And what impact do all of these voices have on our faith life?

Let’s look at Mark as Jesus enters into that crowded circle of influence. What does he have to say in the daily barrage of messages that we and the people of Israel back then encounter? How might Jesus’ words transform the other voices we have to process, and what “unclean spirits” might we need to exorcise in order to fully embody his spirit of love and mercy?

Take for example a text about food law that is not really about food law. Or rather, does not have to be about food law, for the contemporary audience. The gist is that the community of faith is no longer bound by some of the ancient code that distinguished them as God’s people. God has deemed “clean” for them much of what was forbidden. 

However, it does raise the question of what do we follow and why? The question provides an opportunity for the modern-day faith community to explore its own messaging: What signs, symbols, or verbal cues do we employ, and what message do they convey to the community around us? In what ways do we hold on to ancient laws that no longer serve us? What do we follow and why?

The challenge is to explore deeply what we value and why. This challenge is something many Christians seem to struggle with. Many want to believe what they are told and stubbornly adhere to that although it may be of the mark. Whereas we are called and challenged to explore deeply the values Jesus taught and the context in which he applied them. Today a picture in a magazine will tell you that your look is not right—try this new wardrobe, or this new hair product. A radio ad will tell you that you need a new car. A TV commercial will insist that you must have a new cell phone.

The Open House sign on your corner might beckon, “This way to your dream home.” Reminiscent of the Rolling Stones song, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” You will hear hundreds of these messages today. And every day. They are all invitations to spend yourself. Not just your money, but your very self, in the pursuit of things that will not give you the life you seek. The invitation to constant, unfettered acquisition is an “unclean spirit” in the life of our faith and culture. Those messages keep us isolated and anxious and fill us with a constant sense of inadequacy.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Meeting People Where They Are.

As many of you will know, I love to tell stories and the following story talks about our faith and the way we treat people by meeting them where they are.  It also reminds me of the way I have always wanted to practice ministry albeit I won’t be riding a Harley. There was a bloke called Tom who had been in ordained ministry for more than forty years and served as a small church Minister in a smallish town. Tom had heaps of experience in ministry, but he was not a traditional minister. Tom was a tall, lean man with a weathered face and hands that have known hard work.

Tom was more at home in a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt than in a three-piece suit. He almost always wore a pair of scuffed cowboy boots, and in cold weather, wore a leather jacket. He drove a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and had an infectious laugh. Tom loved a good story or a joke better than just about anyone. He is not what most would think of when they think of a Protestant minister of his age and experience. The most wonderful thing about Tommy though, and what made him such a wonderful preacher, was his love of people.

Tom never met a stranger. Many wondered at Tom’s ability to get to know people he encountered. It doesn't matter where you went in town—a restaurant, the dry cleaners, or Coles or Woolworths—Tom could greet almost everyone by name. At some point in the past he had introduced himself, asked their names, and often learned a little bit of their stories. Tom recognised that all people’s stories were important and took the time to get to know each person he encountered.

He met people wherever he found them, and he offered them friendship. Tom was seen spending time with truckers, nurses, cashiers, and young mothers. He was heard laughing with them and was seen crying with them. He had prayed with them. These people hear about Jesus, and most important, they see Jesus, although many of them have never attended the church where Tom had been a minister. He meets all of them where they are in life. 

Tom's ministry reminds me of Jesus' ministry. This week’s Gospel account from Mark 1 about Jesus’ calling of his first disciples is striking in its simplicity. Mark tells the story very briefly. There aren't many details about the conversation between Jesus and these potential disciples. Jesus simply gives an invitation to follow and they respond. We don't learn much information about their backgrounds, their motivations, or any questions they might have had for this itinerant preacher. Jesus speaks, and they follow. We can speculate all we want to about how Simon, Andrew, James, and John came to be disciples, but the one thing we know for certain is that Jesus met them where they were that first day.

Jesus met the people he called where they were in life, and he made them an offer. "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." What a wonderful connection Jesus made. He didn't ask or expect them to be anything other than they were when he met them. They were simple fishermen, but Jesus invited them to join him in work that would change their lives forever. Jesus' ministry is filled with stories of people he encountered along the way.

Jesus didn't seek out important people who held positions of power but spent most of his time with ordinary people. He didn't wait in the temple or synagogue for the people to come and hear him speak of God's kingdom. He walked among them, and told stories about sowers and seeds, things lost, and things found. He ate with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the lame, and the blind. Jesus' entire ministry was centred on meeting people where they were in life. He went to find them, not the other way around.

Jesus shared God's love with all those he encountered. When I think about my hope for the church, I think about how wonderful it would be if we embraced Jesus' model of ministry. All of us encounter people in the course of a day who are hurting, alone, lost, and discouraged. They need someone to be the presence of Christ in their midst. People need someone to share the gospel of hope with them.

People need someone to talk to them using their own language. They need someone to engage them in conversation about ultimate things. Many of these people may never darken the doors of a church or a house of worship. I confess that as a Minister, far too often, the temptation is to stay within the walls of the church, waiting for people to come and see me. All Christians not just myself need to be more like Tom, taking the church into my community. I hope we all seek not to miss the opportunity to be like Jesus, to meet people where they are in life.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Turning Over a New Leaf: Beginning Anew

As we head into the New Year I am reminded of the following story. There was a little boy with an ice-cream cone gets on a lift with his older sister. The ice cream begins to melt faster than he can eat it, and it's making a sticky mess down the side of the cone. The Lift stops, and an elegantly dressed lady in a full-length fur coat gets on. She turns and faces the door with the children standing behind her. The little bloke is now struggling to keep up with the melting ice cream. He looks at the back of the woman's beautiful coat and gently begins to wipe the ice cream off his hands and onto her coat. "Be careful, Billy," says his sister. "You will get fur in your ice cream."

This story illustrates for me the power of perspective and context. Sometimes how we see something depends upon where we stand. As we begin this New Year I’d like us to seek to live from the perspective of God's rich grace shown us in Jesus Christ.  Although we are at the second Sunday of the season of Epiphany and even though the set reading is telling us of Jesus call to Philip and Nathanael I would like to look at the exchange between a man named Nicodemus and Jesus over religious matters.

In the conversation Jesus says something that has guided our faith ever since. "I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above," Jesus says (John 3:3). Nicodemus is confused and questions what Jesus means. It is a fair question. Just what does it mean to be "born from above," or to use the more familiar rendering, to be "born again"? In a word, it means to live with a new perspective.

Nicodemus had a problem, but it was not that he did not have religion. After all, he was a Pharisee, the most religious group in Jesus' world. The Pharisees knew all about religion and could recite the law. Their lives were dedicated to following the proscriptions of the Hebrew faith. Nicodemus' problem was not that he did not try to be good or religious or righteous. It was something else. To this religious man, Jesus says, "be born from above." Poor Nicodemus does not have a clue as to what Jesus means.

Sometimes we don't either. Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to live from the perspective of grace. Jesus' invitation is to discover a faith that carries you rather than a faith you have to carry. Jesus is talking about the amazing grace of God that, when we see it and experience it, makes all the difference in our lives. Do we see life as a prize that has to be won or as a gift to be received? Are our days spent trying to acquire more stuff or becoming aware that all we need has already been given to us by the gracious hand of a loving God? Into a world caught up in keeping the rules, Jesus invited people to embrace the lessons of grace.

When we become aware that life is a gift to be received rather than a prize to be won, we become freed to live by cooperation rather than competition. In this New Year this is the perspective I would like us all to embrace. What if we lived as though everything we need has already been provided for us? There is enough air, water, and food for all God's children. There is enough shelter, and Jesus tells us to not worry about your life.  

In other words, God loves you and is looking out for your well-being. What a difference it makes to live from this idea with clothing, and money for all to live in comfort on this earth. We are challenged to live as if we are rich beyond measure, because we are held every moment in the hands of a love that will never let us go. Has there ever been better news than that?

There is enough, and we don't need to hoard or be fearful. We can share; we can give. There is enough. That is the perspective of grace. There is enough. We are invited to let that perspective birth us into a new way of living in this New Year. Be born again, and again, and again until grace fills every moment, every breath of your life, so you might show the world a new way of living.