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. 

Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN II


A young mother, grieving for the death of a baby, asks the question, ‘Will I be reunited with my Olivia in heaven?’

An elderly widower expresses certainty that he will be with his bride in heaven.

It’s almost as though Christian faith depends on after-death reunions of loved ones. The guidance, however, that Scripture gives us on this is vague and contradictory.

So, the totally honest answer to this question, especially as no-one has returned to tell us, is that we don’t know. But when faced with the direct question, ‘Will we be reunited in heaven?’, I hesitate.

Of course, the temptation for us pastors is to give the easy answer, the answer that people want to hear. The reality, however, is that we understand so little about life after death: what does time mean in life and after we die? What does resurrection mean for us as individuals? Will there be a different experience for those who do not identify as Christians? How will we connect with those from whom we have been estranged in this life? Cynical Sadducees asked Jesus a similar question, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ (Matthew 22:28)

Many people believe firmly that the church teaches that we, as individuals, will be united after death with loved ones. Many clergy taking funerals, without directly endorsing this view, allow it to stand as an implication of their pastoral message. I understand this prevarication: we are motivated to tell good news. I am deeply uncomfortable, however, with its dishonesty. This teaching falls short. There is better news.

The idea that we will be united with loved ones after death springs from a good place: it is an idea that the best God has given us in this life is love, and the one thing that we should expect from the eternal God is ongoing love.

In this life, we love with our bodies: we make love with our spouse with our body; we are present in the body to our friends. When we are absent from our loved ones, we project our bodies through space to continue the contact – our image on FaceTime, our voice on the telephone, our hand-writing in a card. These symbols of our body tell our loved one that we yearn to be present in the body.

Death destroys the body. Dust we are, and to dust we return (v. Genesis 3:19). The body is then transformed in resurrection. We know almost nothing about what Saint Paul calls the ‘resurrection body’, only that we would be a ‘foolish person’ to imagine it to be the same as our current body. It is as different from the natural body as the wheat plant is from a grain (I Corinthians 15:36-37)!

Love, after death, will also be the same and categorically different. While our bodies can love gloriously, God promises a love after death that is different in degree and in expression:  a much better love. All bodily limitations to love will be removed and transformed. Who knows whether we will rise as individuals, or as love promises, somehow joined in love? Or something entirely different, and, as yet, unimagined?

My plea is that we settle for more than the idea that we will be reunited with loved ones, and that we take the Bible at its word (I Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), that God will exceed our imagination as to how wonderful love in the resurrection will be. It will be heaven!

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The Snake’s Sin


The snake, in his tempting, makes us confused,
What is the sin, what punishment to come?
Is it pride, or wisdom or God’s traits to be used
that we deeply desire with our heart’s sum?

The snake, in his tempting, is skilled at misleading,
Look here, I’m a snake! Flabby sin at that address!
Is it sex, is it shame, is it clothes now receding?
Our focus is blurred by cold thoughtlessness.

The snake, in his tempting, makes our souls judder,
Shining skin in its blackness pretends to go deep:
Is it fear, is it self’s fickle flutter
that we dunk our souls in ourselves to steep?

Banish this snake, his crooked advance and sick ways,
Place God at the heart of our loupes’ precious gaze.

  • Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-6
  • Luke 4:1-13
  • (Lent 1, Year B Lectionary)

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Photo jeweller’s loupe: Courtesy mazaldiamond.com

Helpful Whiff of Heresy


5111brslwkl-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Lorraine Parkinson,
Made on Earth: how the gospel writers created the Christ, Richmond, VIC: Spectrum Publications, 2016.
ISBN 9780867862546
Online: Paperback $49, Kindle $11.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

For some years, I’ve held lightly to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. It’s not that I wish to demote the importance of Jesus, which was the purpose of the original dogma. It’s more that a pre-modern conception of divinity does not do justice to the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth actually  connects me with the sacred world.
Lorraine Parkinson’s new book Made on Earth helps me on my journey of belief by adding to the ways in which I can articulate my unease about Christology. She systematically works through the gospels in the order of their writing – Mark, Matthew, Luke and John – to show how the message of Jesus about the kingdom was deliberately transformed into a message about the identity of Jesus as the expected Messiah.
Lorraine Parkinson is a retired ordained minister in the Uniting Church based in Victoria, and is in demand as a speaker for meetings of progressive Christians around Australia.
She tells the story crisply of how the infancy narratives appear to have been added to Matthew and Luke inventing the idea of Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thereby being God’s Son. She reveals how the life of Jesus was fitted into the typology of Moses or Elijah to further the argument for Jesus’ more than human status. The gospels

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incomprehensible?

were a sermon to persuade readers that Jesus had transcended Judaism and that his followers needed to distinguish themselves from the Jews.

 
She makes a plea for ‘progressive Christians’ to turn back to the original teachings of Jesus. The gospel of Jesus as the one Messiah  has led to a church that

  1. relies on fear (making sure you are right with God so you can enter the afterlife),
  2. that promotes anti-Semitism (the Jews are depicted as Christ-killers), and
  3. that ends up as Christendom (the Church as a new Roman Empire focused on power).

Returning to a simple reliance on the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus will invigorate individual followers of the Way of Jesus and remove the weight of having doctrinal commitments to a divine Christ.
She asks us to remember that the Gospel writers were ordinary human beings who believed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Her arguments here appear to be based on common sense alone and I would have liked her to wrestle with the theology of inspiration a little more deeply. As followers of Jesus, understanding God’s truth and how we know it is an important issue.

 
This book is dangerous. It emits a whiff of heresy. I admire Lorraine Parkinson’s honest courage in questioning the 3rd and 4th Century interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel. We need prophets to show the way forward for followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and Made on Earth is an important step on that path.

sermon-on-the-mount
Sant’Apollinare, Ravenna – mosaic

Transfiguration


Transfiguration

I walk this distant red gorge path alone.
My feet seek strength but I fear its sheer side,
I reach out searching for my God: unknown.
I touch nothing and weep; my faith has died.

I trudge on with the bread and blood and Word
These connect me to the church not to God.
“Scriptura sola” is literally absurd
My only joy is that others have trod

This way; and overstepped the bounds of linking.
I’ve lost the power to feel where God creates,
Abandoned zeal, fearing downfall, am sinking —
Instead of love, my worship isolates.

I falter, fall, free-fall down the chasm deep,
I faithless, God grasps me, who makes the leap.

  • Luke 9:28-36 (February 7, 2016)
    “Scriptura sola” – Latin tag meaning “Scripture alone”.

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Image courtesy http://www.australiasnorthwest.com/Destinations/The_Pilbara

God and Chronic Pain


I wrote this back in 2009 – and thought it worth sharing again:

The worst thing that the Western church has done is that we have turned God into a man. Ask any six-year-old to draw God, and she will emulate Michelangelo and draw an old man with a white beard. The orthodox Christians, the Jews and Muslims have taken much more notice of the second commandment: “Thou shall not make of the Lord thy God any graven image.” (Exodus 20:4).

And God said…

We may not believe that God is literally a human being, but we picture a transcendent God in physical terms. Children may believe God is the “Friend for little children//Above the bright blue sky” in an absolute literal sense, and adults often believe transcendence describes God’s distance from the physical creation.

It’s true that the Bible often anthropomorphosises God: God walks out before the armies of Israel; God picks up and cuddles the human person, like a mother and baby (Hosea 11:3-4). In general, however, the Bible has a sophisticated notion that God is (a) holy, that is set apart from his creation, and (b) intimately involved in creation.

God is a wind (Genesis 1:3), an unseen and uncontrollable energy that stirs up of the raw materials of creation. God “sits above” the thunder and lightning (Psalm 39), more powerful than the raw energy of the storm. God stills the seas (Psalm 65:7), not with a giant hand, but with an irresistible will.

If you have chronic pain, your picture of God matters. If you think God is a sophisticated human upgrade, if you make God in the image of human beings, your God will not be strong enough to make a difference to your pain. Your picture of God will limit your ability to receive the powerful healing God wants for you.

In the last ten or so years, my picture of God has changed radically.

Sometimes this journey has been dangerous. I have wondered if I have lost my faith. The God I had believed in was not big enough, and certainly not powerful enough to positively affect my pain, and I had to let go of that picture of God.

In Peter Jackson’s 2001 film, The Lord of the rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, an underground sequence has the wizard Gandalf confronting a Balrog on a crumbling rock bridge. The hobbits run as fast as possible to get to safety. Gandalf falls with the monster to their death. Growing your faith in God is like that rush across the bridge of Khazad-dûm. When you let go of your picture of God, everything crumbles and precious ideas die.

But let me encourage you. The only way to have a picture of God adequate to your pain is to stop believing in the God you think you know. There is a well-trodden path to this believing atheism, and it is the path of mysticism.

1. Any picture of God you have is by definition too small. To continue to believe in it is to commit idolatry. You have no choice but to let go your picture of God.

2. When you let go of God in this way, you become an atheist in the sense that you have no God to hang on to. What you must then believe is that God is hanging on to you. You cannot know what manner of God this is, you need to trust only that you are being held.

“Blessed be the Lord day by day,

who bears us as his burden;

he is the God of our deliverance,” says the Psalmist (68:19)

3. As this trust develops, so you may begin to grope towards a new understanding of the God who is holding you. You may for example, begin to find new metaphors to describe God. God is energy; God is universal heartbeat, God lives as the tiniest cell in living things. These God-cells begin a process of healthy change in your body, and your pain is reduced.

4. But these are again pictures of God. The irony is that the process of letting go of your new pictures of God must continue.

I invite you to image a Spirit, a larger reality and to open yourself to encounter this Spirit. In this process, you may experience the reality of how deeply you are loved, how surely you are held, and how extraordinary is your future in this compassionate universe. This is what I call, and only for convenience’ sake, “contemplation”, the experience beyond muscle relaxation and centring.

I invite you to relax further into this journey into the Unknown God. I encourage along the only path through deeper atheism, which as it unfolds leads to a deeper experience of the power of God in healing your mind/body.

Impossible Things for Breakfast


Gospel: John 6:1-21

You never seem to come to an end to this reading from St John’s Gospel.

When I was about nine years old, I discovered a book on my grandparents’ shelves called The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas… or was it A.J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom? The book explained the miracle of the feeding by suggesting that the little boy sharing his lunch shamed all the people into sharing the picnics they had brought with them.

And maybe that’s part of what John is saying to us: that when we recognise that people are hungry, we should share the little we have with our friends and neighbours and that will encourage a spirit of sharing in the community, and there will be enough to go around and more.

I think I knew even at nine that this explanation was a brush-off. Obviously sharing is a good thing, far better than the alternative, but a little disappointing if that was all Jesus was teaching. All the sharing that has happened since then has not made a dent in world hunger, and in any case, the people in the story were hungry, not for food, but for teaching and for a leader, a Messiah.

This is a story about two shocking events: a man who can feed 5,000 with virtually nothing, and who can walk on water. The story is firstly about who Jesus is, not about our puny efforts to feed the world.

I don’t know what to make of the two events. I don’t do miracles. But that in fact is the point. John is introducing a person who does things that cannot be done; a person who doesn’t fit the normal world we live in. We can’t go back in a time-machine and see exactly what happened, but we can be sure that Jesus was so far out of the ordinary that John shocks us into a new recognition: Jesus is no ordinary man. I may not do miracles; but I have spent my life trying to come to terms with who this Jesus is.

On the basis of John’s evidence, I can’t come to an honest conclusion. Jesus continues to escape my understanding. But if he feeds human beings with bread, and, not only with fish and bread, but with symbolic bread, himself, his presence, then, like the crowds, I want to keep following him. If his presence in stormy seas makes the journey more bearable, then, like the disciples, I’m glad to invite him aboard.

The crowds couldn’t pin Jesus down. They saw the signs he had been doing on the sick. These signs pointed to something important, something good, but exactly what Jesus was doing when you closely examined the signs was a bit harder to grasp. Not universal health-care; not every human being without health problems, but a sign that God’s kingdom was breaking in in a new way. While it may seem that evil and disease have the upper hand, the signs Jesus were doing on the sick were pointing to a different reality, and therefore worth following up, worth finding out more.

Maybe he was the Messiah who had come to throw off the Roman yoke. Jesus organised the crowd into men and women. In Mark’s version, they were in companies of 100 and 50, just like an army.

It’s a three-day forced march from Galilee to Jerusalem. There were, presumably, Roman spies in such a large crowd. The crowd acclaimed Jesus as the Prophet, and calculated that they could get to Jerusalem before spies could get to Roman headquarters at Caesarea and alert the Roman legion there, who would take many hours to prepare and then two days to march from Caesarea to Jerusalem.

A popular uprising could just work on that timetable. On the other hand, an uprising like that could be violently put down too. As soon as Jesus saw the way the crowd was thinking, he disappeared. He was not a political Messiah.

If not a political Messiah, then something else. The disciples stuck around to find out.

They were intrigued by Jesus’ handling of the fragments. Twelve baskets full. And of course John, as a master story-teller, is well aware of the symbolism. By the time John writes his Gospel, the Temple has been destroyed, the Jewish nation has been smashed, and only fragments are scattered throughout the Middle East. The twelve new tribes, the twelve fragments, so carefully and lovingly picked up by Jesus, are the new Israel, the followers of Jesus, the Church.

So is Jesus the new Moses? Like Moses he distributes bread to people in the wilderness. Like Moses he teaches on a mountain. As with Moses, the Passover is at hand. Jesus is to lead his people out of slavery to a new promised land. However, this cannot be a geographical Exodus. So what will this new Moses mean? What will his Exodus look like?

John doesn’t tell us that Jesus is God. He doesn’t make the equivalence. But he does tease us, and shock us, into asking the question, well, if not, what? If not God, what is Jesus? If not a political Messiah, what sort of Messiah? If not a new Moses, what sort of Moses? If not only a healer, then what sort of healer?

As I said earlier, I don’t have an answer. Of course, you can’t turn five barley loaves and two fish into bread for five thousand with twelve baskets left over. Of course, you can’t walk on water. But the response of the crowds, and the response of the disciples tells me that Jesus did things that cannot be done, and just like them, I want to know more.

In nearly 50 years of trying to find out who Jesus is, I have found that he feeds me. I gain an enormous amount spiritually and personally from exploring the scriptures and from sharing the Eucharist with you, my brothers and sisters. I have found that when life is hard, frightening, worrying, then in the midst of that, Jesus is there, and suddenly, I am through the storm.

And who Jesus is keeps just out of reach. I need to keep on following someone so intriguing whose only attitude to me is one of enormous love and goodwill.