Maundy Thursday, 17th April 2014

Paradoxial power

Bible readings: Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I have two boys, aged eight and ten and we have just spent a few days away together down at Philip Island, which has made for quite a different Holy Week in some ways. And yet, entering into the world of my boys has prepared me for this evening in a surprising way. Eight and ten year old boys are deeply into stories: big, mythological stories with dragons, heroes, battles and big, big themes about what is important in life.

These stories we read today, are our hero stories, our mythology, the tales we tell each other and our children, to bring meaning and order into our lives. We tell these stories because they bring light into our darkness, meaning into our mediocrity, love into our brokenness.

Jesus of course, was not just a story, he was a man who lived and breathed and walked the earth. He was born into a story though, and stories were born through him, through his prosecution, his death, his lying in the tomb, and his rising again to life on the third day. So let us consider these stories.

This Maundy Thursday liturgy is a remembrance of Jesus last supper with his disciples, a celebration of the Jewish Passover, and an invitation to a new kind of supper in the Kingdom of God. The Passover Feast of the Jewish people was a fairly solemn affair, with lots of readings of the old stories, symbolic lighting of candles, symbolic eating of particular foods to match elements of the story. It commemorated the evening that God rescued the Jewish people from a terrible life of slavery in Egypt. They were in dire, desperate circumstances, having lived four hundred years as foreigners in the land, the privileged relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh long forgotten.

On this evening God had given Moses instructions for the people, that they were to eat knowing they were about to leave, and be ready to depart their homes at a moment’s notice. Blood across the doorway to their houses would indicate to the dark angel of death that their household was to be saved from God’s judgment on the cruelty of Egypt. They were to be spared from death in order to embark upon a new life as God’s people, a life where they would worship God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and no foreign power would restrict them otherwise.

The Passover, like most stories that make sense of our lives, is a story about power. God is the hero of the story. God wields the strongest power. Worldly power, even that of the infamous Egyptians, is no match for this God. God will defeat injustice. God will vindicate the righteous. God is generous with those faithful to his way. God wants good and true relationships with this people of his own making. God alone is to be worshiped and honored. It is an image of God’s power that befits the ancient world from which this story comes.

In this last Passover though, when Jesus institutes a new story, or rather reinvents the ones of old, Power is described in very different terms. When we retell the story of that last meal with his disciples, like we have in the words from 1 Corinthians 11, we read about Jesus taking a loaf of bread and then after supper taking a cup. Scholars think that each of these actions are referring to specific symbolic actions in the Passover Meal. Before the meal, bread was prepared without yeast. All the leaven in the household is removed, as a ritual representation of consciously removing sin from the household. Jesus is the body from whom sin has been removed. A body to be broken, shared, consumed for the same of God’s people. The cup after the meal is most likely to have been the ‘third cup’ of the Passover, the Cup of Redemption. This cup reminded all who drank from it that they needed a gift from God, to cover all the unavoidable mistakes and shortcomings of being human. In ancient Israel God provided for this in the ritual sacrifice of a lamb. Jesus is initiating a new pathway, a pathway through his own sacrifice.

It is probable that the washing of the feet, which we enact again on this evening to remind ourselves of the type of God we worship, was also part of the Passover Meal, as it was a regular part of dining with God’s people. After an initial blessing, the diners would all ritually wash their hands to symbolize their religious cleanliness. That is, it was a declaration that one had obeyed the religious rules and done one’s best to come to the meal with a clean heart.

But Jesus takes on all the cleaning himself. He is the one who makes people clean, it is not something we do for ourselves, and probably the fact that the ritual hand cleaning was never a completed action should have informed everyone at the last supper of that fact. But they were still surprised that Jesus takes this on for himself.

Jesus takes on the dress of a servant to wash the feet. This is not the Mighty God who swept through ancient Egypt with the angel of death. This is the Compassionate God, who does WHAT EVER IT TAKES to bring his people to the place of worship.

Why the feet? Well, perhaps it was because it is the dirtiest part of us, especially in a world of dirt roads and open shoes. Certainly, Jesus went to the most extreme lengths to redeem the ugliest and most evil parts of humanity. Not a day after this meal he descends to the depths of hell, to redeem all who have fallen into the greatest pit of despair.

Perhaps also, I like to think, it has the metaphorical significance of walking with God. Our feet signal our intentions. The people of God had to walk out of Egypt, in order to go and worship. We too, need to set our feet upon the right path, and walk into worship of the Almighty, through the way of Jesus.

So when we tell this story of the foot-washing to each other and to our children, we tell of a hero who sacrificed himself. A hero whose love knew no limits. A hero whose sacrifice forged a new pathway to life

Note now though, if you haven’t already, of the very different kind of power in this story. This is paradoxical power. Power by service. Power by sacrifice. This is the power of non-violent protest. It’s not that Jesus is an anti-hero – that is, a hero who we are to learn from by what he doesn’t do – Jesus is a hero in whom we marvel, at the greatest power of all – the power of Love to bring us into worship with the God who is Love, the God who loves us, and has sent his only beloved Son into the world to redeem sinners.

This is power-in-vulnerability. Because Jesus is who he is, he doesn’t need to prove anything, he just needs to offer himself. He is God, he doesn’t need to do anything to become powerful, he just is, and so by making himself available to us, we are welcomed to encounter God in all God’s powerful majesty. Jesus unleashes his power upon us, just by being himself, just by opening his arms in welcome.

Now, centuries later, we who walk in his footsteps mimic this power in vulnerability.

An excellent example of this from the past week are the Christian leaders who staged a peaceful Easter “pray-in” in Julia Bishop’s office. They refused to leave until she answered their question on asylum seeker human rights. Last Sunday, thousands of Christians walked through the city in peaceful protest of a different kind, asking for a change in government policy over its treatment of asylum seekers. This is the power of love not violence. It will bring about change.

A different example comes from our inner walk with Jesus. In the prayers we experience in hard times, we discover a special power, gentle yet life-giving, which enables us to move on, even if its just the next step. In letting everything go and trusting that God hears the very cries of our heart, we discover the shape of the spirit there, we know God within, and we come to trust that the source of love is never far away in the darkness.

You see, this liturgy tonight, is an invitation to join Jesus in making yourself vulnerable. Vulnerable to God. If there is ever a time to embrace darkness, to embrace unknowing, to grieve for your losses, to feel the pain of disappointment, it is this next forty-eight hours. Don’t fear it, God is with you. Don’t avoid it, it is the pathway to resurrection. Just make yourself open to it. And let Jesus the Almighty, stoop to wash your dirty feet.

 

Lamentations: a call to prayer

Oh my goodness!  How did it get from July 19 (my last post) till October 9?

Bertram_Mackennal_-_Grief

Bertram Mackennal [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, first of all, PhD land has its own particular time zone!  Second, it’s been a big couple of months for me, with my Dad passing away on July 28.  Grief has been a dominant part of my life recently, as it is a part of every life from time to time, sometimes a long time.   I mention that to introduce this post of writing that I did for a sermon last Sunday (lectionary readings for 6 Oct 2013), in the hope that you can note the theology done through experience: scriptures and life operating together in the crucible of prayer.

Actually, this is a sermon that is less about personal grief than it is about the grief involved in being the People of God, and that too has been a painful part of life for me, as it is for so many Christians.  The Church lets us down, Life lets us down, and sometimes we even feel like God lets us down.  So we need Lamentations as part of our prayer repertoire.

This was an important piece of writing for me, so I offer it in the hope that others find some encouragement.

With love,

Chelle.

Lamentations 1:1-6

How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate; her priests groan;
her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly.
Her foes have become the head;
her enemies prosper, because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed.
Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture;
they fled without strength before the pursuer.

These are the opening lines of the Book of Lamentations, and I thought today I would say a few words about that book, because its not one we are often encouraged to read.  So, I would like to try and convince you today, that Lamentations might be something you want to open up at home and not only read, but pray with, reflect upon, and let God speak words of comfort to you through.

These verses we read give quite a good indication of what you will encounter in the rest of the book:

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!”

In the Hebrew bible, the books are labeled by reference to the very first word, and the first word of Lamentations is ‘ekah, meaning – Alas, how, or oooh – it is a cry of despair, a word whose meaning is conveyed by its sound, a deep, heart wrenching sigh –  argh.

Lamentations is a book of poetic prayer, about those moments in life when all seems lost.  In terms of the history of Israel, scholars believe that it relates to life after the fall of Jerusalem, when the Hebrews were sent into exile in a foreign land.  Theologically, the people were forced to question where God was, what happened that their God had seemingly abandoned them.  But coming to an intellectual understanding of God is never enough, especially in times of deep grief, so this is theology that must be done with feeling, and this language of poetic prayer is heart language.  It is the deep sigh of grief.

My father died in July this year, and a friend of mine warned me that when her father had died, amongst other things, she found herself walking around the house sighing.  Deep breaths in and almost guttural breaths out.  Oohhh.  Lament.

“Like a widow she [Israel] has become, she that was great among the nations!  She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.  She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks”

There are times in the life we live with God, where we find ourselves in grief.  It is a normal part of every life and every relationship.  When you experience grief in your relationship with God, you should take heart that is a sign of genuine connection with your heavenly Father!

In the verses we read from 1 Timothy, for example, we see a hint of difficulty that comes from running the hard yards – sometimes we need encouragement just to keep going, as Timothy is urging his readers – don’t give up!  Rekindle the gift of God within you.  Join with me in suffering for the gospel by relying on God.

In the gospel reading we have a different scenario hinted at in the sometimes troubling advice about the mustard seed.  Jesus says, you are like a slave in ancient times: a person who has no control over their own life, subject to the will of her owner.  He would not have intended the negative judgement we automatically read into this passage with our twenty-first century western lens, rather, he is simply stating the way things were.  There are slaves and masters.  One obeys the other.  It’s just he way things are.  And sometimes the way things are in our lives are pretty unpleasant but there is nothing to be done about them, and no judgment to make – the onset of serious illness, the happening of a tragic accident, unrequited love – they are all outside of our capacity to remove them.  We have only the choice to respond as best we can.

But God has the capacity to engage in the world of God’s creation.  Faith can move mountains because it is faith in God, and God can move mountains.  Deep grief comes to us in those moments when we experience the full impact of our own powerlessness in the world – when we are diagnoses with a serious illness, when a loved one is struck down in an accident, when a friend decides they don’t want to see us anymore.  Oohhh how that hurts.  We lament.

Lamentations assures us that deep grieving is part of life, and is urges us to make it part of prayer.

“among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.”

Not just her, singular though.  Lamentations is a book for public prayer, for grief is also a part of being the people of God, first the Hebrew nation, now also, the Church of Jesus Christ.

“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”

Israel were sent into exile because God judged them and found them wanting: that much is clear from the prophets Jeremiah and others, which we’ve also been reading in the lectionary lately.  So, we have to be careful not to turn self-indulgent in our grief, we have to be honest about our circumstances.  The Church of God makes mistakes, gets caught up in power plays, gets too involved with the world and hence subjected to ebbs and flows of the culture around it – we are not immune from being human.  But the response, the invitation offered by the book of Lamentations is, don’t resist the sadness – grieve and grieve well, it’s part of staying in relationship with God.

Every gathering of the Lord’s Church that forms community is subject to the same disappointments, and every church community is called to live the same life.  In the era of deep grief, we pray.

“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals”

[The pray-er is lamenting the fact that the city of Jerusalem is empty, because the people of Jerusalem have all been taken away into exile]

all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.”

We grieve our empty church buildings, we grieve the unbelief of our sons and daughters, we grieve the broken relationships in our fellowship.

“Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty.  Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.”

Grieve for what has happened, know your own part in the terrible mess, know the limits of your own part – for as much as some of it will be about your sin, it will also be about things much bigger than you!  Grief has an uncanny way of putting us in our place – we are as insignificant as slaves in the first century, when it comes to running the universe.  And so we cast ourselves onto God.  We trust fully in God.  We have faith in God, as the only place of redemption and new life, and then, we discover, that kind of faith, even in the midst of the deepest grief, can move mountains!  There is life after death!

Mindfulness and Prayer – an article in TMA

I was pleased to have this article published in the June edition of The Melbourne Anglican newspaper this week.Chelle 9/5/2013

“Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment non judgmentally.”

~Jon Kabat-Zinn

It is easy for Christians to bemoan the secularization of Western culture, but is the unshackling of spiritual practice from religion always such a bad thing?  Since the 1970s, there have been a number of health professionals exploring the benefits of ancient meditation practices for physical and psychological wellbeing.  I recently took an opportunity to attend a five day mindfulness retreat in the mode of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – an eight week course which is now run in many and varied contexts across the globe – which was an opportunity to explore this question.

The aim of this silent retreat was to maintain five continuous days of mindfulness drawing upon ‘sitting meditation’; walking meditation; mindful eating, drinking, listening and all other -ings involved in living.  As a non-religious meditation tradition it focused on the resources of the body for slowing down the conscious mind and accessing more of the sub- and un-conscious resources of the brain and body.

By focusing on the breath, or some other single point (a candle flame, a mouthful of food, a movement) the ‘thinking’ part of your brain is invited to ‘rest’ and let other parts of your brain’s capacity come to the fore.  By allowing the body to ‘speak’, or perhaps better said, setting aside time to ‘listen’, I became aware of desires and hurts that I’d not realized I’d been carrying, weighing down my body and tiring my mind.

The brain controls more than just limbs and ligaments: it is the command centre for the body’s emotions, instincts, memories and it translates all the information coming into the body from the senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.  Mindfulness is a strategy to move our conscious attention from physical sensations of the body to the feelings more difficult to categorise: a strategy that is acknowledged by the contemplative traditions within all world religions.

When the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating introduces ‘centering prayer’ in his book Open Mind, Open Heart (2002), the first thing he says is that silent prayer is not the same as relaxation.  Prayer is always relational; it is an intentional opening of oneself to the divine, which for Christians is known through the person of Jesus Christ.

 “When we say, ‘Let us pray’, we mean, ‘Let us enter into relationship with God’, or ‘Let us deepen the relationships we have’, or ‘Let us exercise our relationship with God’.”

In meditation I seek to make conscious my deeper, fuller self in relation to the universe, which I can then in turn, convert to prayer.  This is ‘offering your body as a living sacrifice’ at the same time as ‘renewing your mind’ (Romans 12:1-2).

It takes a lot of concentration and a certain amount of determination, to gently lay aside rational (and irrational) thought in order to give room for sensation to arise without judgment.  MBSR instructors will tell you that you need to ‘practice’ mindfulness for at least an hour every day in order to develop the habits that sustain these kind of physical and emotional benefits in everyday life.

This might include a half hour of sitting/lying meditation morning and night, in addition to brief exercises of mindfulness through-out the day: taking the time to notice the process of eating your lunch for example; or pausing at your desk for two minutes to notice what is happening with your posture; or slowing down to wash your hands in the bathroom, noticing the feel of the water on your skin, the movement of the muscles and ligaments in your fingers, the change in sensation from dry to wet to dry hands.

Everyone can benefit from knowing themselves better and stress management is now a health priority for many.  MBSR has been shown to be an effective pain management technique when incorporated into an overall treatment plan for chronic illness; for example, it is proving to be a successful therapy for suffers of fibromyalgia (chronic, undiagnosable pain).  How could the world’s religious object to such great health outcomes, even as they themselves are sidelined by the secularization of mindfulness as a tool for human flourishing?

However, Christians lose something precious if completely buy into the secularization of our spiritual practices.  Christ reveals something beyond the mysterious depths of human wisdom; God is beyond the vast limits of human knowing.  The mindfulness movement is an invitation to recover our own contemplative traditions and practices geared towards the contemporary world.

As a precursor for prayer, mindfulness illustrates that our relationship with God has at least two distinct movements – opening to ourselves and opening towards God – both of which are critical before a further dynamic opening ourselves up to the world.  Taking the time to connect with oneself in such a deep way before turning towards God invites God into the deepest recesses of our hearts, mind, body and soul.  It is consciously choosing to relinquish autonomy and alienation from the divine.

Towards the end of the mindfulness retreat I found myself convinced that every fiber of my being was Love, by no means an unfamiliar concept to me as a student of theology.  However, this was knowledge I discovered held in my flesh, not just the pages of Scripture; and it is knowledge that directs my every move as the brain directs the actions of the body.

‘Love in Prayer’ by Adrianne von Speyer

(extract from chapter 9, ‘Love and Fruit’ in Adrianne von Speyer, The World of Prayer (Ignatius Press; San Francisco, 1985))

Right now I am in the midst of reading nothing but Hans Urs von Balthasar for my doctoral work.  It’s funny how reddresstheology has got out of step with my other reading, but there is so much I’ve read that I still need to share, and so much to digest before I can write sensibly about von Balthasar!  For now, I’m still on the love theme for the blog, but it is by no means unrelated to Hans.

The following is an extract from a book written in 1951, by a woman mystic named Adrianne von Speyr, in which she describes the relationship between love and prayer.  Adrianne was close friends with von Balthasar and he insisted on more than one occasion that his systematic theology should be read alongside Adrianne’s mystical writings.  Her particular mystical gifts included numerous stigmata, healings and other miracles.  Together she and Hans started a ‘lay’ order to encourage the total integration of faith, knowledge and a life lived for God.  Their spiritual partnership is a crucial entry into understanding von Balthasar as a theologian – systematic theology cannot be divorced from spiritual experience, mission and ministry.

I’ve shared a large slab of Adrianne because it’s beautiful in and of itself and I found it such an inspiring piece of spiritual writing – a fabulous description of how we encounter love in prayer.  This encounter is the gift of love as absolute value and essence (think Plato) through the reintegration of our whole selves with the ground of our Being – God.  If you’re like me, you will bristle at the gendered language, but just take it as a reminder of the original context of the writing: post-war Switzerland in the Roman Catholic tradition.  May Adrianne be a blessing to you today.

When God speaks out of love, his word is a word of love, and the person praying will try to receive and return it as such.  It is remarkable that he often tries to speak a word of love to God, but rarely realizes in his heart that he is also hearing and receiving a word of love.  In prayer he fulfills a kind of duty forgetting that that deepest meaning of this duty is love.  Many people had the joy, as children, of praying with their mothers.  Later on, life knocked them about, and they have forgotten how to pray.  In some time of need they recall the warmth and security of their childhood prayers; perhaps they use their mother’s love as a bridge to get back to the love of God.  But somewhere they get stuck in human emotion; they scarcely touch God’s sphere because they have forgotten to listen for God’s word of love.

If the man who prays knows that the essence of prayer is love, his attitude in prayer will be one of openness to love.  He will try to be accessible to love: not by straining to catch special and extraordinary signs of love, but in a simple attention, not letting slip any proof of love which God gives, refusing nothing, misunderstanding nothing, whitewashing nothing, reinterpreting nothing.  If he is a beginning in prayer he should be so inspired by the thought of love that he is never is a hurry, but takes his time.  He may pause a while after each prayer, picking some thought, some idea, some word out of the world of love: However small and insignificant it is, he takes it into his daily life in order to fill that life with the love of God.  In many ways modern man lives his life automatically.  He at least ought to learnt not to pray automatically: He needs to rediscover a sense of wonder at the love of God, going on to impart a sense of eternity to his world once again…

God’s love is offered to men like an overflowing vessel from which they may draw.  But there are different ways of encountering the love of God in prayer: Some are more central and others are more peripheral.  Believers know that God is love and that the closer we get to him the closer we get to love.  They know that, since he is love, this love is found at his very core, in the innermost being of his godhead, because in him this love is the very heart of truth.  They also know that they too can be taken up into this central core.  But as well as this – and perhaps in a more experiential way, through feeling – they know that they ought not only to become acquainted with the innermost center of love (indeed, they are probably not strong enough to resist this rushing torrent, this intense heat) but should also get to know all the scattered drops and rays which this love emits.

Every genuine life of prayer manifests two experiences: that of the central fullness and that of deprivation or aridity which, regarded as experience, seems peripheral.  At some point the man who prays will be touched by some knowledge or experience of love which causes him to desire to come nearer the fountainhead and awakens in him the longing to be cast into the center.  But it terms of tangible experience the center is the exception, an exception that becomes the rule that one can return to and live from the memory of what one once received.  Such was Paul’s Damascus road, Ignatius’ conversion, Pascal’s “night” – and, on another plane, John’s Apocalypse, which is perhaps one of the deepest explorations of God’s center and which John himself found inexhaustible.  All that he saw, heard and experienced here, all that he merely indicated as a background, was the center of the love of God, a center into which he was cast by his prayer.  So the Apocalypse remains the experience of prayer kat exochen for all succeeding Christians, not because of it’s mystical quality, but in spite of it: Where the center is concerned, transposition into the mystical is only one possibility; by the Apocalypse belongs by right to everyone who prays, to such an extent that everyone can find nourishment for his prayer, and direct experience of the love of God, in the Apostle’s mystical experience.

Every praying person who loves and strives toward the love of God has his share in it.  The love of God becomes everything to him, to such an extent that from it he can form his life decisions.  Because God loves him he can take the risk of some particular surrender; because God loves him he can follow this or that path; because God loves him he can put up with a life which would be otherwise intolerable; because God loves him he can renounce the world and lead an apostolic life; because God loves him he can die as a Christian; because God loves him he can daily love his neighbour as himself.  Everyone who prays is given such a share in love that it becomes his center, and his whole existence manifests traces of this central experience.

Spirituality of Love #4 – ‘Love’ by Sebastian Moore

a snapshot of material presented at solace ‘tuesday stuff’ may-june 2012

see spirituality of love #1 (20 June) for more details

spirituality of love #4:  

happy love relationships negotiate the space between you and me with freedom and grace 

There is a line in this prayer that I kind of think is heresy, but all in all I think it is an extraordinary piece.  I’m afraid I have to give it a strong language and sexual references warning though – so don’t read on if you need your prayer tamed!

LOVE by Sebastian Moore

Christ! I’m ready now –
ready to get lost in the evangel of people’s bodies
accuracy of the flesh
kiss of truth
we cannot say what we are
we can only be to each other
touch each other with truth
and a miss is as good as a mile.

When I was a kid
that is yesterday
I kept myself within bounds
and sowed the dream out of bounds
the pleasure of the flesh without the bone
and thus was straddled between two childhoods
of the law and of the flesh
straddled, castrated, unmoving
unable to embrace
for the dreamed-of-lips were without truth
and truth without flesh
and I nowhere.

When suddenly is the new power
to bone the flesh from far-off galaxies
and quiver each to each
in the inerrant star-dance of people true to each other
and true to me who hardly know myself
the child who paddled in the still pools of the flesh
soft flesh soft light the still forbidden poison
as I laugh now at the forbidden nowhere.

O the wretched rag-bag of the unresolved
containing ‘I love you’ and ‘people are important’
and the absurd Law which filled the one with guilt and tried to bone the other
while the whole thing collapsed in a heap of shapeless me.
Now I am shaped to you and you
and we give each other the bloody obvious kiss
written in light years of the beginning.

Now we begin to love
and old God groans like a teacher who has laboured
from the beginning a lesson that was too obvious for the class
‘At last you’ve understood? You don’t say!
I gave you a law when the semen splashed off the vaginal wall into galaxies of direct speech
and you made the futile roundabout, the rules
in which it was impossible to say what you meant or what anything meant
and so I gave you my bloody obvious Christ
and still you kept your clothes on and went round and round
Him: honestly I was almost prepared to junk him and try again,
anything to get that one thing from you
to sing each other’s names
in the ribbed glory of my eternal making.’

‘I love you’ we said in the old world
and forgot the world, clinging to me and you,
but now the world invades
crushes the ancient sentence into a word
that is you me him
the universe has caught up with us and caught us up
into the word flesh crash –
Christ! how I love you.

In Sebastian Moore & Kevin Maguire, The Experience of Prayer (London; Darton, Longman &  Todd; 1969)

You may or may not have noticed that Sebastian Moore is a reddresstheology favourite.  Here’s some others of his poems:

wisdom

this, the call

if I could just be one, no longer two

in the body

and one of his theology monographs:

let this mind be in you


Holy Week: Palm Sunday

I know It’s been a bit quiet on the reddresstheology front lately, but I will refrain from apologising for my own blog!  Not only have I been a little preoccupied with moving across town and opening a new chapter of my life with PhD (and several other things besides), I’ve been doing more writing than reading, and it just hasn’t made it back here yet.  Having said that, I will start blogging again about my reading after Easter, so be prepared for some Continental Philosophy!

Meanwhile, I’ve decided I would set myself the discipline of writing each day in Holy Week.  Since the Easters of my youth, I have enjoyed popping into the church for 1/2 hour each night of holy week and feeling the build up towards the great Easter Day celebration.  In recent years I have focused on stepping into the story and letting the drama of the passion draw out the passion of my own life: triumphant entry into Jerusalem; cruel betrayal; the garden of tears and the trial; death; silence; and the greatest day that ever was.

Holy Week starts today with Palm Sunday, and I am preaching in my new parish community.  I felt it as a burden to invite these strangers into an experience of God which is so central and personal to my life.  What could I say that would free people to trust themselves to the spiritual process of encountering God.  For better or worse, these are the words I came up with…

Come any way you want, but come.

About ten or fifteen years ago, we started to see movies in the cinema that differed from the traditional story-telling of the golden era. We are still most used to movies that tell a story, from the beginning, to the end, in sequence, the priority first and foremost is to entertain us. But there are now movies like The Tree of Life or the much less intense Love Actually, that play with linear time frame or story-line. We get snippets of the same story from different people’s perspectives, like the TV drama The Slap. Or we switch from present to past like in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – which keeps us in suspense but, if you are like me, can be more than a little confusing! By mixing up the narrative sequence the Director gets to make a point: expect the unexpected, everything is relevant, the web of life is complicated.

Palm Sunday feels a little like this, somewhat more unsettling movie genre to me. We have the Liturgy of the Palms locating us at the beginning of the Passion narrative, on the first of the final days of Jesus in the Holy City of Jerusalem. It’s a joyous occasion it would seem, but then the Scripture readings complicate the picture. We are cast into the future with the gospel to become aware that the elation of today is fleeting. We are thrust into poetic theology by the old testament and epistle to question a great array of questions: who is this man on the donkey? It is a day on which I am not quite sure where to rest my gaze. I feel the foreboding at the very same time that I hear the Hosanna. I feel the pain of my Lord’s rejection even as the crowds welcome him with their cheers. And I feel the questions: who is this man? Who am I when I welcome him?

During his ministry, Jesus consistently defied the expectations of the people: he would not be the Messiah of their making. And yet he received their acclaim, in great defiance of the religious authorities who rejected any notion of Jesus being the Messiah, and the secular authorities who would objected to any whiff of insurrection.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we enter Holy Week. We enter with mixed emotions, and, if we have been paying attention to the Jesus who walked this earth, we should enter with trepidation. For Jesus consistently defies expectation. Jesus consistently complicates things at the same moment as making them simple. In this week Jesus draws pain and suffering unto himself in contradictory triumph. And Jesus of the gospels shocks all creation, by defying death on Resurrection Day.

This is not the week for simple storytelling. It is the week to sit with every inconsistency and inadequacy of life and faith. Welcome this Jesus into your heart with your Hosannas, but bring your questions, your doubts, your anguish and your confusion. Don’t be tempted to dissolve the story into easy entertainment. Welcome the complexity and complications as you enter into Holy Week, and allow Jesus to surprise you.

If you need them, Kevin Hart, the Australian poet-theologian has provided some words:  a prayer to cry out with the chorus of the crowds: Come Christ Come.  But a prayer we speak with eyes wide open, alert to the discordances and disturbances of both our life and God’s Passion.

Prayer

by Kevin Hart, Young Rain (2009)

O come, in any way you want,

In morning sunlight fooling in the leaves

Or in thick bouts of rain that soak my head

         Because of what the darkness said

Or come, though far too slowly for my eye to see,

Like a dark hair that fades to gray

Come with the wind that wraps my house

Or winter light that slants upon a page

         Because the beast is stirring in its cage

Or come in raw and ragged smells

Of gum leaves dangling down at noon

Or in the undertow of love

When she’s away

         Because a night creeps through the day

Come as you used to, years ago,

When I first fell for you

In the deep calm of an autumn morning

Beginning with the cooing of a dove

            Because of love, the lightest love

Or if that’s not your way these days

Because of me, because

Of something dead in me,

Come like a jagged knife into my gut

           Because your touch will surely cut

Come any way you want

But come

Holy Trinity Brompton

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ll know that I’m not afraid to accredit quite a bit of good vibe spirituality to human nature.  I think the evangelical tradition I was formed in had a distorted view of sin which disallowed it to co-exist with human goodness.  Whereas I believe that every human being is capable of grasping and creating beauty, truth and goodness regardless of their Redeemed status, simply because they are made in the image of God.  Many times I don’t feel a need to label something as God’s work distinguishable from this innate human God-likeness.

It’s in that context that I want to say that the Holy Spirit is definitely doing something special at Holy Trinity Brompton.  God is present and active beyond what could be humanly explained and of course I am by far from the first to note the significance of the Alpha Ministries birthed there.  It’s the only worship I’ve been to in the UK that was genuinely multi-racial and multi-age.  It’s also the only service I’ve been to where it was possible to participate without being made to feel excluded by illiteracy, though I suspect most worshippers were quite well educated.  I was greeted with a warm and winning smile FOUR TIMES before I reached the front door and which made it impossible not to relax and start to expect something different by the time I reached a seat.  The music, praying and preaching was all done without a fuss and the building itself aided an emphasis on the whole congregation present, rather than the individuals up the front.

I was there for the parish’s annual (financial) gift day which, far from being awkward, was a great blessing for me as a visitor.  After a short welcome by one of the ministers, the band started playing to invite people into the liturgy with two old and familiar songs.  The minister returned to lead the congregation in prayer – for the church, the world and ourselves – then there was another bracket of three newer songs which coaxed joyfulness and humility out of my soul.   A great biblical sermon emphasised the heart of the giver – free and joyful. (Give it a couple of days and I’m sure you’ll be able to listen to the sermon by podcast from the HTB website.) There was just the right balance of story telling (including great use of video clips) and encouragement from the scriptures laid before the congregation without coercion. Then a substantial time was allocated for the actual bringing forward of the gifts, with joyful music and much celebration.   A final prayer and we were done, unless you wanted private prayer for particular needs, which was offered in a quiet(ish) corner of the room.

Why was I so moved?  Because of it’s inclusiveness – I saw a young woman signing the songs and a middle-aged man with dwarfism playing (skillyfully) his violin from the congregation!  I saw the children on stage at the end of the service dancing and mucking around as part of the joy of worship.  I sat surrounded by several others there on our own, young adults meeting friends with profuse hugs and kisses, bumbling families of three generations and couples in love.

But more than that, I was moved by the joyful giving – the celebration and expectation that God is willing and active to change hurting lives and the congregation’s desperate desire to be a part of that.  The singing was also part of this giving – a willing to let go of inhibitions and be swept up in the story of God, to allow one’s whole life to be a gift.  Money is a gift because of what other gifts in brings forth in people’s lives.

HTB are known for Alpha but Prayer and Worship is explicitly at the heart of who they are and what they do.  The experience of loving God and being loved by God is the human driver for their evangelism.  Relying on God to draw people into faith rather than convince by human means is the theological foundation.  Through my study I’ve been engaging with the concept of lex orandi: lex credendi – the rule of prayer is the rule of belief – what we believe is not only seen in what and how we pray, but it is forged out of that refining fire.  This applies also for the rule of our lives lived for God – what and how we pray shapes how we behave.  HTB exemplifies this more than any other christian community I visited in the UK.   And all I can say is, Amen.

PS.  You may have noticed I’ve not put in names of preacher etc. neither here nor  for other liturgies I’ve reviewed in the UK.  This is deliberate because I was interested in the overall effect of the sermon etc., not the individual’s wisdom or personality.  Just thought I’d explain in case you were wondering!

‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage

(Studia Liturgica 24 (1994) 178-200)

My first assignment for the session 2 unit on Worship and Liturgy takes it’s cue from this article by French Theologian and Roman Catholic Priest Paul DeClerck.  Lex orandi lex credendi is a latin phrase that has framed the theological questions of liturgy since the 5th century:  “the law of faith [is] the law of belief.”  DeClerck notes that this works really differently in a time of change such as our present.  In a time of stability it makes sense to say, ‘see how the church prays, and you will know what it believes.’  But in our time, “is it not in terms of certain new or renewed ideas that one intends to revise practices or texts which no longer, or badly correspond to them?”  My present experiences of church worship seem to circle around the theme: ‘see how the church prays, and you will know how disconnected what they believe and how they behave really are!’  (Let alone how disconnected from everyday life and the ‘outside’ world.)

So DeClerck raises the question, how do we understand the relationship between theology (what we believe) and liturgy, or worship, in it’s broadest sense?  Do we work out good doctrine and then re-write the prayer book?  Do we research the historical witness of the church through it’s liturgies and re-write our doctrine?  His answer is subtle.  When the lex orandi lex credendi rule is applied too tightly from one end, it tends to be redressed too tightly from the other end.  He illustrates by showing how Pope Pius XII did a complete backflip on a centuries old understanding of the adage in a 1950 encyclical which, from the middle ages to the twentieth century, was interpreted as “the rule of prayer determines the rule of belief”  (or liturgy is a source of authority for the construction of theology).  Pius XII was reacting against the kind of modernist definition of religion discussed here recently in relation to Schleiermacher.  George Tyrrell was an English Roman Catholic arguing for an understanding of the christian liturgy as “begotten by a mysterious, abiding contact of the human soul with God; and the Creed is but the record of the gradual unravelling of the meaning of that experience through the collective spiritual labour of the Church, guided by the Spirit of Christ, into all truth.”  Well, if that’s what your polemical partner is saying, the redress is to argue that no, Holy Mother Church is the keeper of the keys to all conceptions of god and She will determine therefore how and what we pray!  (Sorry, please forgive my gen-X, anti-establishmentarianism.)

So, strangely, I am back to a familiar reddresstheology theme – we are emerging from a time in history where the pendulum swung one way too far (Enlightenment Humanism) then, I think, another way too far (Authoritarian Response from Inherited Church) so that what we need to do now is stop, take a deep breath, and find the middle ground.  This is actually the exercise in liminal rationality that I wrote about in the liminality essay.  The task is critique and where possible integration, where not possible, a willingness to leave uncertain, integrating each of the snippets of wisdom available to us on their own merits.

The importance of non-dichotomous thinking is really well demonstrated by deClerck in this law of prayer:law of belief maxim.  He splendidly employs the language of this adage as an ‘avatar’  to describe the (Riceourian) way in which these words act as a kind of symbol.  For non-science fiction and gaming fans, you will probably need to do what I did and grab a dictionary!

1: the incarnation of a Hindu deity (as Vishnu)
2a : an incarnation in human form   b : an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a person
3: a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity
4: an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user (as in a computer game)
It’s the third meaning that DeClerck has in mind:  lex orandi lex credendi is shorthand for a certain understanding of the connection between theology and worship.  However, the blessing and curse of symbols is their slippery attachment to a definitive reference.  Hence, over a couple of millenia, the meaning of the adage has the opportunity to get completely disconnected from it’s original intention.  Herein lies my dilemma and the reason I am struggling to write an essay on this topic which needs to be submitted in 3 days!  How do we determine the reference point for definition?  Does there need to be a reference point for there to be any useful meaning in the avatar or is that just our addiction to Platonic epistemology?   Why is the original meaning of the avatar the reference point for all other meanings, particularly when it involves complex historical argumentation to unearth it?  And is there anything wrong with having more than one interpretation of an avatar anyway? 
Postmodern approaches to epistemology have much more subtle ways of dealing with these questions and even though deClerck is essentially arguing for the primacy of the original meaning above other historical avatars, I think he is on to something with the swinging pendulum.  There is usefulness in the notion that a definition does reach it’s limits.  Concepts, words, thoughts, definitions – all these things are finite as human beings are finite.  They are human constructions.  Therefore an apophatic definition might be the best starting point.  Apophatic just means ‘negative’  – we affirm what we do not know in order to define what we might know.  I use the technical term deliberately to allude to Apophatic Theology, which is an ancient theological method, and it is no accident that Emerging Theologians are re-discovering it value in a fragmented culture.
How then, do I understand the adage itself:  law of prayer:law of belief?    Well, they are a complex, interdependent human mystery!  Our heart, soul, mind and strength do not operate independently, though their relationship operates differently at different times and differently within different people.  So yes, our prayers reflect what we actually believe in our deepest selves, but also what we are told to believe by our socialised self!  Our theology reflects our conscious logic and careful considerations, but it also reflects our unconscious irrationalities and emotional motivations.  The up side is that when theology and worship go together – it enables us to sing praise and love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.

Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practie

Book 1 in The Ancient Practice Series  (Thomas Nelson; USA, 2008)

There are 8 books in this series on the Ancient Practises – Prayer (what I am calling centering and the series calls constant prayer); Sabbath; Fasting; Sacred Meal; Pilgrimage; Liturgical Year; and Tithing.  Brian McLaren provides a kind of introduction to and rationale for embracing these ancient spiritual disciplines in the postmodern context.  It’s something I love about the Emerging Church and resonates strongly with my own Anglican tradition. It’s an easy read, which is quite an achievement when you discover that McLaren is explaining key theological concepts like katharsis, fotosis and theosis!  A great book to get started on a well worn path.

Sebastian Moore, Let this mind be in you: The quest for identity through Oedipus to Christ.

(Winston Press: 1985)

One of the things I love about Emerging ways of being:doing is the discovery of ancient treasures.  Whilst a book from 1985 might not fairly be called ‘ancient’, Sebastian Moore operates firmly from a pre-modern Benediction tradition which brings me life and peace.  As you may guess from the title, he draws on insights from psychology as well as theology and the contemplative prayer tradition.  I’ve forgotten why my spiritual director suggested I read this book, but I will never forget the benefit I gained from it.

Contemplative prayer, for me, has been a way of finding security and stillness in my inmost being.  S.M. has provided me with an intellectual framework which explains what happens as I know myself intimately, and discover God in that space.  “The simplest form of awakening to God is described by Needleman: a new intense sense of self, accompanied with a desire for I know not what, a desire to do with the feeling of being a destiny.”

S.M. talks about ‘desire’, whereas I am more used to talking about ‘love’.  Although, the advantage of the term ‘desire’ is it is more explicit in it’s movement – attraction.  Created by desire (love) we as human beings are essentially desirable (lovable).  It is out of that desirableness that our desires for beauty, for relationships, for knowledge all come.  That is, we do not engage with life out of an inner vacuum, but rather out of fullness.  When we encounter people or experiences that we are drawn to, it is because we are reminded or connected to that inner desirableness that is innate in us, and a dance of attraction ensues.  We pursue that which connects us to ourselves, as we were created beautiful and loved by the wonderful Lord of the Universe.  “To feel the desire that motivates all my living, to feel my essential nerve of desire, is to feel the desire that motivates all people.  The nerve of my life runs through all the living.” From here it is easy to enter into the Ignation spiritual practice of ‘pursuing goodness.’

I love the way S.M. draws the human being as an image of God.  God created us so close to God’s own heart that it is almost like we encounter the very being of God when we truly encounter ourselves.  Almost, but not quite, for God is always distinct and so much greater and grander.  (Which leads me to thoughts of the Cappadocians Fathers and their contemplation of ‘theosis’.)  For me, ‘original sin’ is not the besmirching of this innate lovableness, sin is situated in the way we move out from this center.  Our inner beauty is designed to release us to love others because we are loved.  Sin’s distortion is that we grab the fulfillment of our desires for ourselves, inflating our own importance as an object of love, disregarding the connectedness we have with others, and denying the dependence we have on our Creator for the gift of lovableness in itself.

Finally, I valued S.M.’s practical suggestions for pursuing the gift of knowing ourselves and encountering God.  He suggested there are four ways in which desire (love) opens itself to the ultimate cause of desire (God).  1.  through an intimate relationship;  2.  through vulnerability in community;  3.  creative solitude (I love that phrase);  and 4.  through conscience, i.e. “the drawing of desire by something different from my obvious betterment, and often opposed to it.  It is the feeling of desire as my impulse toward a fuller, less self-centered life.”