In the dark


In the dark  – the night of Christian faith

I didn’t expect, at age 70, to have to contend again with the dark. Not the dark of my childhood, when I feared a dressing gown draped over the door was an alien axe-wielding murderer, but the darkness of not knowing the God of my Christian faith. 

Each time the darkness comes, I find it is easy to forget all I have been taught. Each time the darkness comes, I feel shame; shame as if the relationship with God I thought I had was sham; shame as if the faith I have taught I no longer experience; shame at the thought of having to profess publicly that I was wrong. 

Along with the shame comes fear. At age 70, my thoughts turn healthily to my coming death and whatever follows. What if there is no “life after death”? What if there is no “beatific vision”? What if there is nothing? What value then do I have? 

So it is good to be reminded by French Franciscan Thaddée Matura, in his essay An Ardent Absence, that darkness in Christian life is the norm, that grand encounters with God are infrequent and fleeting. Matura recalls us to the teaching that God is a fiery furnace, and if we were to encounter him as he is, we would immediately be burnt to nothing. It is his grace that we do not see him face-to-face in this lifetime. 

Father Matura also reminds us that despite the darkness, we can continue to follow the paths to God to which we are committed. We are to prepare for the beatific vision, for the great meeting that will raise us to God’s presence. 

The darkness is hard. As we pass through it, we do not know what we are doing. We experience both fear and boredom. We may encounter the ‘plague that destroys at noonday’ (Psalm 91), the acedie of the desert fathers and mothers, as we question the whole of Christian life; we wonder if this darkness is the normal, then why? Why? 

But I hang on to those fleeting moments of revelation, those traces, hints of reality. A realisation grew through 1969, the year of the Leighton Ford crusade, that friendship with Christ is the heart of Christian living. I remind myself of the dove I saw [in my mind] flying up and expanding its wings over the congregation after we had received communion one Sunday in 1974 in St Mark’s, Fitzroy. I revisit my tears when, meditating in the hard seats in the chapel in Perth’s Wollaston College, I felt enveloped by love. I feel my heart jump when the icon of St Francis behind the chapel of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Brisbane appeared to move and gaze back at me. 

And I can simply be affirmed by Thaddée Matura, as I am by St John of the Cross, by St Francis, by St Richard of Victor, by a lengthy list of Christian teachers, that we make our way through this world blind, in darkness, and our joy is real — but anticipatory.  

George Appleton, the prayerful Archbishop of Perth during the 1960s, once wrote, ‘I go on in cold faith only because you push me.’ That push from an-Other keeps me going. 

Last Things – and more Last Things


At church yesterday, it could easily have degenerated into a heated argument about the end times. ‘What did I think of Trump deciding that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel?’ was the question that initiated our discussion.

We quickly agreed that:

  1. Tel Aviv was of no importance in God’s plans.
  2. If God could work through Cyrus, I said (Isaiah 45:1-13), he can surely work through Trump. ‘And Darius,’ added my interlocutor quickly (Ezra 5-6).
  3. My interlocutor argued that making Jerusalem the capital put paid to the two-state solution. I replied that it is not beyond human ingenuity to have two states and a Jerusalem capital. One possibility was that Jerusalem could be capital of both Israel and Palestine. Surprisingly, he conceded this point.
  4. I learned from my friend that Mr Trump had spent time with African-American churches in the South. We agreed that it is easier to see the worldly influences on the President than the Christian ones.

I tried to argue that our modern idea of the nation-state was not the same as the Bible’s. I don’t think I won that point, even though it’s obvious to me that the ‘goyim’ (nations) in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are more tribes than geographical locations delimited by boundaries.

As we talked, my companion revealed a belief that God’s plan included a battle, presumably on the plains near Jerusalem which some scholars identify as Armageddon. I agreed that this agenda could well have been pressed on Mr Trump by his evangelical supporters. It may even have been the reason that Trump’s ‘recognition’ of Jerusalem as the capital was precisely to hasten this outcome.

This is where I part company with my friend. Obviously, there is likely always to be violence in the background as God’s plans are played out – that’s human nature, sadly. It is unlikely, however, that God would intend violent collateral damage (such as the destruction of the Palestinians), or that God would choose violence to further God’s plans.

What made up my mind some years ago were the pleas of Palestinian Christians: wouldn’t you imagine that God had a better plan than their destruction? As I thought about that, I realised that God would not plan the destruction of any Palestinians, Christian, Muslim or Jewish. On the contrary, God wants all Palestinians to flourish.

I cannot countenance violence because in the Bible Jesus accomplishes his victories only by non-violent methods. Love your enemy, Jesus insists.

‘You have heard that it was said, love your neighbours and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies.’ (Matthew 5:43-44).

This non-violent love is for me the end of my searching the Scriptures; the point where I come to when I have exhausted all other possibilities for God’s plans.

My interlocutor of yesterday, however, at the end of his searching the scriptures, finds four points, including God’s use of violence, that indicate when the end of all things is at hand. I didn’t argue this point with him; I doubt I could change his mind.

I don’t spend energy searching for indicators of the end-time. I take seriously Jesus’ injunction that we ‘do not know the day our Lord is coming’ (Matthew 24:42). Why spend time on a search that will end up being fruitless?

The thing about God is not his timing at all. For God, all time is one. We are not to worry about when God is coming, we are to be concerned about whether we are ready today. We show our readiness by loving our enemies as well as those who love us (Matthew 5:46-47).

refugee_camp
Refugee Camp

Advent’s Four Last Things: JUDGEMENT


JUDGEMENT

The last judgement takes place on the first page of the Bible: ‘in the beginning,’ speaking of the creation, ‘God saw that it was good… God saw that it was very good.’ (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 24, and 31 (‘very good’). God’s judgement that creation is good is a refrain that echoes throughout the first chapter of Genesis.

tob_ Hebrew letters

The Hebrew word ‘tov’ is full of rich meaning. The meanings of ‘tov’ include ‘righteous’ and ‘right’ as well as ‘fitting’ and ‘beautiful’. ‘Good’ is a good translation of ‘tov’ if we hold in our minds both moral and aesthetic goodness.

God’s judgement is that what God has made is morally and aesthetically very good.

Michelangelo’s great painting gives us a picture of a ‘last judgement’ taking place at the end of time, with the righteous received into heaven and the wicked being cast out of Christ’s presence. [See below.] It is a powerful but misleading metaphor. The ‘last judgement’ in the New Testament is not so much an apocalyptic judgement at the end of time as the revelations of the ultimate judgement. The Latin word ‘ultimus’ means both ‘last’ and ‘ultimate’. Ultimately, the wicked are never close to Jesus, the good always proceed from his presence.

Jesus’ imagery of sheep and goats show what has been right and beautiful from the beginning to the end of time. It is always good to feed the hungry; it is always good to visit the sick and imprisoned; it is always good to clothe the naked. It is always bad not to (Matthew 25:31-46). It is always wrong and ugly to refuse to give to those in need.

My Grandad once sat me down on a pew in our little bush church and admonished me that God is judging me now as he always will right until I stand before God at the end of time. (I must have been naughty to get that lecture!) I don’t remember Grandad telling me, that, in the end, God’s judgement of me is that I am good; I am very good.

The good news is not some version of Father Christmas where the good will get their presents and those who have been naughty will miss out. The Last Judgement as described in the Bible is far more serious than that. The Judgement is that God’s world ultimately reflects the nature of God, God’s goodness in the richest sense of the word (Genesis 1:27). In the end nothing can extinguish that light (John 1:5).

The baby Jesus embodies the Last Judgement. Despite his poverty, homelessness and human vulnerability, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and magi are judged by the infant Jesus. He brings out their goodness. The death of Jesus spotlights human cruelty, greed, jealousy and fear. It shows them for what they are, and that evil cannot stand against the love that flows from God’s goodness.

The Ultimate Judgement is for all time: goodness was the judgement in the beginning, we judge the present by the standard of God’s goodness, and goodness will be the criterion until the end of time. It is a judgement not of punishment, but of grace. Our response is not fear, but joy.

A joyous Christmas!

michelangelos-last-judgment
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), The Last Judgement (1536-41)

 

 

 

 

Advent’s Four Last Things: DEATH


DEATH

In the New Testament, resurrection is key. Its light transforms all the life described there, placing all things under its spotlight, and revealing the extent of God’s love for us.

Without shadows, it is hard to see death in its full harshness. It’s there, of course: the young man at Nain, Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, are all stone-cold dead. Lazarus has been dead for so many days that there’s a stench. Jairus has brought in the professional mourners. The townsfolk of Nain are already wondering what will happen to the bereaved widow without a man to belong to. (Luke 7:11, John 11:39, Mark 5:38.)

The New Testament depicts death as final and irreversible. Lazarus is not sleeping. Jesus told the disciples plainly, “Lazarus has died.”’ (John 11:14)

A humorous old spiritual, The Deacon Went Down to the Cellar to Pray, has a chorus which claims ‘You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates, You’ll go right past them pearly gates.” Underneath the humour there’s a serious point: If you fail to take death seriously enough, you’ll miss out on the resurrection.

Despite popular culture’s love-affair with murders, we are reluctant to talk seriously about death. Our unexamined fear of death makes Western society especially vulnerable to, say, Al-Qaeda’s acts of terror.

At Christmas-time when absence scratches at people’s wound of loss, our unfamiliarity with death prevents us from providing comfort and community to the bereaved.

Death has the last word. We are the stronger for facing its power. Classics like Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying admonish Christians to face death full on as a powerful way of growing spiritually.  It’s not good enough to say that we will be raised with Christ. First, we die. We must experience the reality of death: no-one escapes it.

Eugène Ionesco’s play, Exit the King, is a powerful meditation on death. The King comes to realise that the whole world dies when he dies. Trees, people, stars, the universe, all disappear with me, me! he complains. Each death is indeed an appalling loss. Each individual is of cosmic worth, and her or his unique talents and personality are plundered from the world at death. All ceases to exist when we die.

As Christians, we shout, ‘Death may have the last word, but God has the last last word!’ God reached into the tomb where Lazarus’ earthly remains were starting to rot, and brought him back to the world of the living.  Jesus himself was dead and buried: gone from existence. Yet God called Jesus back into existence so triumphantly that the raising of Jesus is a guarantee that, if we stick with him, we too will be called back into life (I Thessalonians 4:14), a life that is even more glorious than this life.

Believing in resurrection is not enough. It’s like being sure that Houdini will escape from the water-tank. Of course, he will: that’s the nature of illusions. But our dying is real, not an illusion. Jesus, like us, was born to die, and it is only in the spiritually-bracing acceptance of death, death as final act, that we can open to the possibility of being raised from the dead.

Our response can only be ‘Alleluia’.

sebastiano_del_piombo2c_the_raising_of_lazarus_28cropped529
Raising of Lazarus, Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (Wikipedia)

Advent’s Four Last Things: HELL


HELL

To be trafficked, and forced to live and work where you have not chosen; this is hell. Your captor counts your value in dollars, not in your humanity, and so treats you with the indifference a bad tradie treats his tools.

To be in pain, constantly without end; this is hell. Pain holds your body prisoner and you are unable to live as you wish because of the pain.

To be abused, and to live with memories of abuse; this is hell. Someone you trusted violated you and treated you just like a willful child stomping on a toy.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the descent through the circles of Hell (L’Inferno). In a region called Ptolomea are those who have been thrown deep into Hell for treachery to their guests. These are people who insinuate themselves in a position of trust and use that power to take advantage of their victims. Significantly, Dante believes that these people die at the moment of their crime; their body may live on, but their soul is thrown immediately to this bottom part of hell.

In the world of Dante’s poem, there’s justice in this punishment. The Australian churches now must allow justice to be dealt both to the perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also to those who, by action or inaction, covered up those crimes.

I want to give little oxygen here to perpetrators, however.

Rather, consider the hell of being a victim of abuse: the inability to trust; the devaluing of the self; the trauma of being violated, and the secondary, and sometimes worse, trauma of remembering it. There is a shocking trauma for those who recover a memory long repressed. There’s the ongoing trauma of flashbacks and dreams. Relationships take on extra challenges. Some victims become hypervigilant, expecting at every moment something bad to overtake them. Taken together, this is hell lived out in daily experience, like a young woman trafficked, or the person experiencing high levels of pain every day.

Is ‘victim’ the right word? Many prefer ‘survivor’. While a person remains without hope, then they are in hell: they are a victim of the violence done to them.

Being destroyed by abuse, or corroded by pain, or forcibly held become hell when the victim can see no way out. This person understands that their situation will go on unchanged for ever. It is hell, and one of the four last things: an ultimate reality.

Christian faith reveals God who can undo the final reality of death. Death, the end, is no longer the end. The God who has power to raise Jesus from the dead has power to release victims from hell. The person who believes there is a future becomes a survivor, literally, one who lives beyond.

Christian faith bears witness, in the hells which people experience, to the reality of hope. This is the key which unlocks the door of hell. Hope is the secret ingredient which explodes the murderous captors of this world.

We must believe in hell because it is part of people’s lived experience. We are invited, however, to grasp hope, because hope turns victims into survivors, and eventually into joyful survivors; hope destroys hell.

child
Joy!

Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN I


‘Twenty thousand kilometres; two thousand dollars.’

Like us, the signora in the pensione had travelled to Assisi for Christmas. Her annual highlight was driving herself 60 kilometres. She had never been further from home than her annual trip south.

She kept wondering aloud in Italian the statistics of our journey:

Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari. Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari. 

The world is a big place, and our overnight flight from Perth to Italy had disguised how huge the distance to Assisi is. It is, as for our friend the signoraa cause of wonder.

Scientists tell us there are 300 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. The size of one star, one sun is hard to imagine. The trip from Perth to Assisi would take only a fraction of the sun’s circumference. 300 stars are hard enough to imagine, but 300 billion… Then, astronomers estimate, there are between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies. How many stars there must be.  My digital calculator puts it at 4.5e16 stars. The number is meaningless, staggering in its scope.

Many scientists then tell us that our universe may be one only of an infinite procession of universes, coming in and out of existence at a fantastic rate. At this point, I’ve lost the power of imagination completely. The best I can do is stand outside and gaze at the night sky. I see red Mars, 10 years of rapid travel away. I see bright Southern Cross 350 years ago, its light just now reaching me, light that started on its journey when Charles II finally became king and the 1662 Prayer Book was promulgated.

This colossal creation can be a starting point in our journey searching for heaven. No, I am not suggesting that heaven is a place, perhaps hiding behind one of Saturn’s moons or in a 10-lightyear distant galaxy! But such a startling and amazing universe can flex our sense of wonder. Like the signora at Assisi, we can contemplate over and over the complex and awe-inspiring cosmos of which we are part, and yield to wonder.

This is the universe our God is creating. Spectacular and lovely.  A Creator God of such power has intentions. He has an agenda that his beautiful universe should more and more reflect God’s own qualities of love and goodness.

And if God is prepared to pour Godself into the making of such a spectacular and lovely universe, we can begin to imagine how wonderful are God’s intentions for you and me: to be more and more the love, goodness and beauty we discern in the physical universe. In fact, God promises it. God promises that we shall see face to face. (I Corinthians 13:12) God promises that his agenda for us is better, more delightful, more caring than anything we can imagine, just as his universe is more than we can imagine (I Corinthians 2:9)

Venti mila chilometri300 billion stars, God of a wondrous universe. Let us find heaven in our wonder.

Believing: a tangled skein


I heard of a priest who was asked recently, ‘Do you ever have moments of doubt about your Christian faith?’ The priest replied, ‘On some days I have moments of faith.’

I am intrigued by atheists who seem to think that if they can knock one argument out from under a Christian, they will have of necessity knocked the person off their Christian stool. Comedian Ed Byrne, for example, talking to agnostics, ‘If you haven’t heard God speak to you in a sunset or a beautiful landscape by the time you’re 40, you’re an atheist.’ His assumption appeared to be that just one thing could make the difference between being a Christian or not.

I experience being a Christian not as a series of skittles to be knocked over, but as a tightly tangled skein of meaning-making, experiences and fellowship. Included among my persuasions are doctrines, ethics and aesthetics, the ever-fascinating engagement with the Bible, my identity and my incorporation into particular parts of Christ’s Church.

So atheists sometimes try to win the argument by asking what I would believe it were proved that some bones were definitively identified as the remains of Jesus. The empty tomb is only one little part of my believing, so, depending on the day, my answer is either a confident argument from logic, ‘It will never happen’, or an answer from conviction, ‘It would make no difference to my foundational belief.’

Some Christians trip over philosophical wires by trying to solve the puzzles of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. What does it mean to call God a Trinity? The Prophet Mohammed was one person for whom the doctrine of the Trinity disproved Christian faith. He founded a new religion with monotheism front and centre. Five times a day, his followers now proclaim the Shahada, ‘There is no God but Allah.

trinityflyer‘One God in three persons’ makes less sense for our times because of the philosophical assumptions at the time the Creeds were written. Faith that God is one in three is always faith, however, and Christians can choose simply to believe it, or like Catherine La Cugna or Karl Rahner in the 20th Century devise completely new philosophical pre-suppositions for the doctrines of Trinity.

Other Christians recite the Creed each Sunday, ‘We believe in One God’ – the Trinity – as a statement of the historical faith of the Church. This is the Church and its beliefs in which I choose to belong, even while holding lightly to the details of these dogmas.

I have many moments of not believing or understanding how Jesus Christ can be completely human and completely divine: there are just too many paradoxes in the doctrine to contemplate at once. However an atheist who shows me how irrational this belief is will not therefore persuade me out of being a Christian.

Bedrock to my faith is the person of Jesus, yet many atheists join me at the core of acclaiming Jesus as a provocative teacher of good living, although some atheists try to make Jesus interchangeable with other gurus and guides.  I do stick to the uniqueness of Jesus. This comes partly from my ongoing fascination with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Many atheists find they can reject Christian faith without reading the Bible. I find its books more and more intriguing as I read them, whether it’s unravelling the insights of Wisdom literature or attempting to interpret the Book of Revelation.

123166-004-87cb3f17
Saint Jerome – courtesy brittanica.com

As I read the Gospels, I find more and more to surprise me. In the ‘Good Samaritan’, Jesus tips the world of loving upside down. Unlike his peers, Jesus calls us loving outsiders as equal a duty as loving our families. Another surprise: Being a neighbour is not so much about those whom I can help, but about who I allow to be neighbourly to me.

Much of my experience of being a Christian comes from the Church which has shaped me, paid for my theological education, and which continues to give me support. Just this fortnight with my wife away, I am experiencing the practical help of the local congregation bringing me meals. Of course, such do-gooding is not limited to Church people, but the fact that it is Church people living out charity as part of their faith reinforces my Christian identity too.

I cannot undo my experiences. I have discovered God in the music of Olivier Messaien. I can try to explain it away in psychological terms, but nothing can change what Messaien has revealed to me.

There are days when I try to persuade myself out of faith, but it can’t be done, I don’t think, because my faith is too vigorous a garden and grows by weeding and digging out old growth. One-punch atheists don’t get the complexity of religious faith as they believe it is a single flower.

I offer this short piece as one flower of my thinking as a Christian.

m