As At The Dawn


As At the Dawn

 

Because you love them free as they are
They say you have nothing to say

 

Because you put on a human face
They say you’ve hidden yourself

 

Because you’re all heart God
They say you’ve gone to sleep

 

Because your Spirit cannot be grasped
They say everything has gone wrong

 

Because you refuse to collude with evil
They say you’re good for nothing

 

Because you don’t crush people
They say they haven’t called on you

 

Because you’re not just any God
They say you’re just anything

 

Because you made me in your image
You are also everything they say

 

Dear God won’t you take pity on me?

 

Original French P. Fertin “Comme à l’aurore”, Paris: Desclée, 1974, p. 17
Translated by Ted Witham 2013

 

Francis the pastor


Of course the name chosen by the new Pope, Francis, has encouraged me to think that his ministry will be different from his predecessors. In his first 100 days Francis has behaved like a pastor, like a parish priest, encouraging his flock in following the Gospel.

In his informal style Francis has also used some charming and helpful images: while encouraging bishops to be exemplars to their people  of Christian living, the Pope also shows that he trusts the faithful to be the faithful: “they have the scent of the Gospel anyway,” he has said more than once. That’s refreshing.

I know that a faraway personality can become simply a blank screen on which to project our own hopes and values, I can see that his apparently off the cuff homilies are actually quite studied,  and I hear the warnings that despite the gestures of austerity, he is governing like an old-fashioned Jesuit (listening to all but making decisions by himself), and that his theology on issues I care about is still conservative (I am certain he disagrees with my views on the ordination of women, and the acceptance of LGBT people in the Church!), however, what counts is clear: Francis is a pastor encouraging all Christians in their faith.

In this address to the Cardinals Francis shows that he trusts God with the future of the church, and for that we can be encouraged:

Let us never give way to pessimism, to a sort of bitterness that the devil offers us each day; let us never give way to pessimism and discouragement: let us have the firm certainty that Holy Spirit gives to the Church, but her powerful breath, the courage to persevere and also to look for new methods of evangelism to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth (cf Acts 1:8)

–          Pope Francis  at Rome, 15 March 2013

As an Anglican, I am in the nice position of being able to pick and choose what I like from the Pope’s leadership, and this Pope is showing forth Gospel values in his reported lifestyle and gestures, and is speaking about the Gospel from the heart. I thank God for him.

Keeping alive the rumour of God


One of the few vestiges of “Establishment” in the Anglican Church of Australia is the authority of clergy to act as Commissioners for Declarations. [This authority is unlikely to be withdrawn as it is one of the requirements of Marriage Celebrants.] Several times a year fellow residents of our retirement village ask me to witness their signatures on legal documents. I am glad to oblige. I have even had a stamp made to save me from having to write by hand “The Reverend Edward Peter Witham, Registered Minister of Religion W-ZZZZ.

As a CD, my responsibility is to witness that people have correctly signed their documents. For that I need to know the form of the document – will, passport photo, statutory declaration, bank business, etc. – but not the content. However, most people when they come to sign want to share the background to the document. For my part, I assure them of confidentiality.

So people in the Village do know now that I am a priest – or at least, a handy person for witnessing their signature!

However, when we moved into this village five years ago, we decided we would downplay our faith. We had heard an anecdote about one of the village owners who apparently declared that a public area in the Village Centre would be ideal “for Bible Study or the like”. This remark evoked a strong reaction, almost outrage, among some people.

We thought that if there are people outraged by the thought of Bible study, being public Christians in the village could be counter-productive.

We have discovered the other church-goers in the Village, and we encourage one another in conversation and with cards at Easter and Christmas. We continue all our practice of Christianity outside the Village, both in church attendance and in our involvement in the Franciscan Third Order.

But I treat the Village as though it were a country where wearing distinctive religious garb is banned. I have only once worn my dog-collar in the Village or twice, if you count my performance as the Vicar in the murder mystery one year! I rarely advertise church events within the Village, and if I do, I do it discreetly.

Our stance of being so coy about our faith has been challenged. Once a colleague at church loaned us a DVD of a Passion Play performed in the gardens of Government House. We watched it in our house. When we returned the DVD to our friend, he asked why we had not had a public showing of it in the Village cinema. That was his idea of evangelism. I tried to explain that it might be seen, in our Village, not as an invitation to the Gospel but as an intrusion.

Inspired by Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, we just try to keep alive the idea of God in our village. The challenge in that is to evangelise simply by presence requires great holiness. If I am not steeped in prayer, and if my lifestyle lacks integrity and sacrifice, then keeping my Christianity quiet in our relatively benign environment may just be an excuse not to talk about Jesus Christ at all.

I am encouraged that people ask me to witness them signing legal documents, and in doing so, to witness something of their trials and difficulties, but, as Lent begins, I am conscious that I have to use my praying and my decisions to be more transparent to God and the Gospel. Brother Charles de Foucauld has set a very high standard!

The Hearth of God


My new translation of an old prayer:

Fill this house with your presence, Loving Lord, and keep far from us all the poison of the enemy. With your holy angels around us, protect us within the circle of your peace, and bless us always with your love. Through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[The Original:

Visita, quaesumus, Domine, habitionem istam, et omnes insidias inimici ab ea longe repelle: angeli tui sancti habitent in ea, qui nos in pace custodiant, et benediction tua sit super nos semper. Per Christum Iesus Nostrum Dominum. Amen.]

A human trinity


It’s Trinity Sunday again. I regard this feast as a tipping point in the church’s year. It’s our last chance until Advent Sunday to celebrate the life of God, God’s coming in Jesus Christ, and God’s ongoing presence in Holy Spirit. From Trinity Sunday on, we turn green and turn our attention to growing in the grace of Holy Spirit.

Trinity Sunday then marks a turn from God to humanity. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate God as Three and God as One.  We know that though God’s Threeness and Oneness may be logically incompatible, they say something important about God.

Trinity Sunday sends us back to the beginning. And for us humans, the beginning is described in Genesis 1 and 2. We humans, we are told, are made in the image of God. If God is Three and God is One, then there is also an aspect of our lives that make us a Trinity too.
Saint Augustine of Hippo
The great African Saint Augustine of Hippo taught that human beings are three in one. We are made, Augustine said, of
memory,
will, and
love.

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures who have a past to remember. Our memories are vital to us. We often hear people say that if their house were burning down, the first thing they would rescue would be their photo albums, because ‘they contain our memories’. Our memories, we say, make us who we are.

We are also the only creatures with a sense of the future, and the knowledge that, through our  wills, we can affect the future. Our will partly determines the experiences we will have from this point on. Our will and our desires are deep parts of ourselves.

But memories can be bitter. Good times of the past can be locked up by our sinful actions. To be truly human, we need more than memories: we need love. Love will lead us to be grateful for our memories. Love will empower us to forgive and be forgiven, so that our memories will shine with goodness.

The future can be uncertain. We can be horrified that our wilful actions can turn out to be destructive. At the same time, we know how little effect our wills have on the future. We can live in fear of what is going to happen. So our will needs to be coloured by love too. Love will give us the grace to will that which is good. Love will give us the confidence to go on in faith rather than in fear.

Love is what makes us truly human. It is the jigsaw piece that fits in between our memory and our will.

In the Creed each week we make the amazing affirmation that in Jesus, God became “truly human.”.Jesus carries in him the memory of all our pasts. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has opened up for us a future that is life and not death, glory and not shame. His love, memory and will, makes him truly human too, and makes us like God, “partakers in God’s nature”.

So let us celebrate the human trinity of memory, will and love. They are a way to God.

Ted Witham

First posted at Dunsborough Anglican Church (St George’s).

St Francis tells Br. Leo about the incident at Gubbio


My heart in my mouth I set off to meet Wolf.
He filled me with fear. He was Other.
I walked dark into the forest, so deeply looking
That at first I failed to see this Brother.

He appeared to be slinking around a tree.
In shadow, he looked all grey and black.
His eyes though lighted were lifeless,
And I froze, my feet bare on the mountain track.

I stared at the terrible empty eyes.
Brother Wolf still as a stone about to slide.
My eyes entered his and the space between melted.
We became one: my eyes and heart in Wolf’s inside.

He swallowed me whole. Yet I possessed him too.
Confused our hunger for love and humanity.
Crossed our praise of power in life and death.
Gubbio lay below in its simple vulnerability.

We stayed like that for time and a time,
Then slowly, gently in two came apart;
The same, yet different than before.
I burning with hunger and he humbled in heart.

I led him back like a lamb to the village.
Aflame, I rebuked him with voice and with prod.
“Share, show respect, live in harmony.”
The villagers rejoiced. I devoured God.

Ted Witham

Published in Assisi, Volume 2 Issue 2,3, the magazine of St Francis’ College in New York.

Picture by William Schaff.

Loss of Integrity


PSALM 12 PARAPHRASE
Help, Lord, there is nobody left with integrity.
Loyal and consistent people have vanished from Australia.

Everyone tells lies to their neighbours.
Their flattery is patently insincere. All they want is to get ahead for themselves.

If only the Lord would stop the lies and flattery,
and turn the spin into honest human talk.

They say, “We can talk our way out of everything.
No-one can stay in our way!”

Because of the abuse to Indigenous communities;
because the refugees are treated with disdain,
“I will arise,” says God, “and create safe places for Aboriginal children,
and warm refuges for those who seek asylum here.”

What God says is like tapping the bark of a healthy karri,
like the sympathetic vibration of a tuning fork.

You are sure to provide appropriate protection for us, O Lord.
You will keep us safe in this shifty world.

Though the ruthless strut on every side,
though the vilest call the shots in every State.

This paraphrase was written as an exercise in the Companions in Christ program. It also happened to be the week when Kevin Rudd was deposed as Prime Minister, and the backroom operators of the Australian Labor Party were briefly visible.

Really Living After Death


One toxic idea that has seeped into Christianity is the belief that individuals survive death. This cane-toad of an idea has been introduced into the Christian faith either in its Greek form of the immortality of the soul, or in its post-Enlightenment guise of individual personalities somehow living on after death.

These ideas poison by setting our hopes too low. They arise from a careless reading of scripture and impoverished imagining of God’s cosmos. I am certain that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead has a great deal more life than pallid ideas of “me going to heaven”.

To reduce life after death to individual survival fails to do justice to the concept. Atheists like Richard Dawkins mock Christians for believing that I should survive death in some way and their objections have traction. Given our present time-bound experience of life, we have to ask:
• What would we do after death?
• How would we endure the boredom?
• What would it mean, if anything, to meet our loved ones after death?

There must be more to it than simple survival.

Paul tells us that we are “in Christ”. According to St John being in Christ is having “life more abundant.” (John 10:10) Life in Christ is attaining “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)

As individuals, we are cherished in Christ, and because Christ is eternal, then we too are eternal. But these New Testament ideas of more abundant life measuring up to the life of Christ show that we are the best that we can be not as atomised individuals but when we reach out to others and transcend our ego, our selfish nature.

Maturity in Christ means being more than just oneself. The next step in the development of human beings towards maturity is to stop being an inward-looking “I” and start becoming a functioning “we”. After death we lose our precious “self” and are caught up in the greater reality of humanity.

In Christ and Time, 20th-century Lutheran scholar Oscar Cullmann traces St Paul’s thinking on what impact Christ’s death and resurrection has on our own. He sees Paul begin with “primitive” ideas in I Thessalonians of being “caught up in the air… to meet the Lord” (v. 22) and developing into the more sophisticated “resurrection body” in I Corinthians 15.

Note what Paul actually writes: “we will be caught up”. The plural is used. “All will be made alive in Christ” (I Cor.15:22). We usually read these passages with post-Enlightenment eyes and so fail to see the significance of the plural.

To me, it indicates that our real life in Christ now is corporate: as his Body, We have glimpses of the love and unity that Jesus experiences with the Father (John 16, especially v.20). This oneness with each other and with God is the principal promise of the New Testament.

We can imagine different scenarios in which this promise will be fulfilled, all of them with far greater potential than individuals living for ever one way or another. Whatever we imagine resurrection to mean, however, it will be better than our imagination. Paul, paraphrasing Isaiah 64:4, assures us that “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived … God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)

Vine and branches: one life

Suffering unto death?


The comment was only half in jest, and it caught me by surprise. “You sound disappointed that you weren’t diagnosed with bone cancer or blood cancer.” My answer was the sanctioned one: “I am disappointed that they haven’t found something that they can treat. I don’t really care what its name is.”

The truth is, there is a little part of me that felt disappointed when the scans and blood tests returned negative. Of course, that’s partly explained not as a death wish, but as frustration with my symptoms, which have been powerful enough on some days for me to think that death would be easier to bear than the pain.

But my friend made me wonder. During those days of waiting for results I did rehearse my reactions to the possible diagnosis of a fatal illness. The prospect that I would not have more years with Rae filled me with pain. The thought that, though I might live to see Clare’s wedding, I might not see the children she will have with James and watch them as babies, toddlers, children, adolescents and growing to adulthood, seared my heart. The idea that I would not be around long enough to see Brendan settled and happy troubled me deeply.

No, I am not disappointed. I want the chance of more life. But I hope I am also strong enough to face my mortality, and to wonder what that now means to me as a Christian. These last weeks have reaffirmed for me the stark fact that I will die, if not soon, then in the coming decade or two. And whatever I believe, I cannot escape the reality of nature: death is the end. We live, we die. Anything that might be beyond our life span would be a sheer miraculous gift of the Most High. Resurrection is by definition surprise.

It is many years since I believed (if ever I really did) in my continuing existence after death as an individual. I hope I have not given false comfort to people over the years that they will somehow be reunited beyond the ashes or the grave with their loved ones in some happy valley. This false but widespread belief is both arrogant and petty: Arrogant to believe that human beings are so important in the scheme of the Cosmos, and petty to think so poorly of God’s imagination.

By definition, “eternal” cannot be after anything. The word itself tells us that the grace of God operates not after our death, but beyond our life – out of time. As far as we can know now, eternal life is about the intensity with which we live in this too short space between birth and death. Eternal life is about our gratitude now. Eternal life is about intentionally taking time to be simply in the Presence of all that is.

Looking forward to some second-rate paradise after death will in fact take away from the joy and brilliance of living in the now.

Instead, we should be journeying within to discover the broad and marvel-filled country of our souls. Instead of yearning for a union with those whom we love in the past, we could be yearning for a greater quality of loving those we are given to love now.

I am not afraid of the darkness to come. The problem is that sometimes I am afraid of the brightness of the light here and now.

Planetary nebula NGC 2818