Monday, 2 March 2015

St Barnabas AGM, Sunday 8 March

Our Parish Annual Meeting will be held following our Service on Sunday 8 March. Nomination forms for Vestry available from Jean and Alistair. Reports and apologies to Jean please.

--
Louise Booth

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Second Sunday in Lent

March 1                      NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Second Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 13-25; Mark 8:31-38*

[The Lectionary offers as an alternative gospel passage, Mark 9:2-9, relating to the Transfiguration, without suggesting any alternative Lessons to go with it.  There may be some advantages in having the Transfiguration a week after the Baptism, but I have never found them particularly convincing.  On the contrary, it seems to me that the "consequence" of Jesus' decision in the wilderness to resist the temptation of other ways is his suffering and death on the cross: hence it is more appropriate to have the reading concerning the first of his predictions of his Passion.]

Theme:  Something simple and straightforward, unadorned, seems more appropriate for the Season of Lent.  Perhaps "Trusting in God" is what it is all about this week (and every week?).  More theological, perhaps, could be "Life in Death", or "Life out of Death", but that may be getting ahead of ourselves.  "Taking God on Trust" has some rich possibilities.

Introduction.  We begin this week with one of the multiple "annunciations" to Abram (a.k.a. Abraham).  Read chapters 15-17 and count them for yourself.  Today's version reminds us that Sarah was not the only one who laughed hysterically at the very thought of having a child at their age.  So when Paul waxes lyrical in his letter to the Romans about Abram's unquestioning faith in God he is guilty of re-writing history just a tad.  But the point is clear enough.  The question is always about the authenticity of the revelation, not about whether something is or is not feasible.  If the message is from God we rely on it in faith, however crazy it might seem to our logical brain.  That is a lesson Peter had to learn the hard way in today's gospel passage.

Background.  Once again this week the ODT World Focus came up trumps with a reprint of an article from The Guardian headed "Get high and higher grades".  It taught me a wonderful new expression "cognitive enhancement" which is to intellectuals what "performance enhancement" is to participants in the Tour de France.  The article opens with the anguished cries of an Edinburgh student named Suzy, still three months away from her finals exams, already feeling the pressure.  "I feel like I wouldn't even have a chance if it wasn't for modafinil," she says.

For what?  "Modafinil: a prescription-only medication for narcolepsy that the NHS' website describes as a central nervous system stimulant [that prevents] excessive sleepiness during daytime hours".  It's apparently the "narcotic of choice" for this generation, according to the author of the article, and not just among tertiary students.  In the USA students in high school (no pun intended), where drugs of this kind are widespread, call them "study aids".  The article goes on to raise the many ethical issues surrounding the use of such drugs, and the near-impossibility of drawing reasonable boundaries.  In Duke University in North Carolina the student body lobbied the authorities to amend the academic honesty policy to make it clear that "using drugs to enhance academic performance constitutes cheating".  Which sounds all very right and proper, until the next question comes along: what about antidepressants, or medication for ADHD or anxiety?  And then there's caffeine and nicotine, both well-known "cognitive enhancers", apparently.  And what about sleeping pills, since a good night's sleep before an exam is also a great aid to cognitive performance in the exam? 

Of course, there are medical worries about side-effects, and little is known about the effect of long-term use of these drugs.  But the ethical issues arise because of the increasingly competitive nature of society.  That in itself deserves far more reflection and consideration than the drug-use itself, but is unlikely to get it.  Given the burden of student-debt, the increasing exploitation of unpaid internships, and the sheer difficulty of securing well-paid employment in their chosen fields of study, the author finds it understandable if today's students see nothing wrong in seeking out such "study aids":  "And in this scenario, if you were offered a small white pill that held the promise of enhanced productivity, greater focus, more hours in the library, and, ultimately, the potential of a better degree, well, it's not hard to see the attraction."

Ah, yes, the lure of the pill!  The simple fix to the complex problems of being human.  The dream of a Nobel Prize winner whose name now escapes me (the co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule) was to create a pill that would enable us to eat as much as we wanted without getting fat!  So much easier than resisting the temptation to give full reign to our greed!  We live in a society that refuses to accept the limits of our physical nature, including those that are a natural part of the ageing process.  Here's another question from the article that all of us of a certain age might wish to ponder: "if you take one of these drugs, are you enhancing yourself?  Or restoring yourself to what you were?"  The implication seems to be that the latter is more acceptable than the former, but is it?

The whole article is well worth getting hold of and pondering at some depth; but for me the most interesting bit comes near the end.  Here is a quote from Anders Sandberg, a computational neuroscientist at The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, who strongly believes that cognitive enhancement "is absolutely part of our future": "But we could be thinking about enhancements that make our lives happier and more fulfilled.  We asked people if they would take a supplement that enhanced their kindness and empathy and only 9% wanted that."

Today giving birth regardless of age is no longer a laughing matter: it's a scientific challenge, one it seems, that some are determined to meet (I think the present record is 62, isn't it?)  If only there was a pill that Jesus could have taken to avoid the cross, wouldn't that have been tempting?  Even Peter would have gladly swallowed that.  Who wouldn't?

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.  As hinted above, I've never quite bought into the idea of Abraham as a paragon of unquestioning faith.  What I call "Abraham's Annunciation Saga" goes on through 4 chapters, and includes, let me remind you, his own plan B, which resulted in the birth of Ishmael (chapter 16), and took place after God's first promise to Abraham (chapter 15).  Then months and quite possibly years later God again promises Abraham an heir, spelling out that it will be Sarah who bears him, prompting, not thanksgiving and praise, nor Mary-like submission to the will of God, but outright disbelief accompanied by hysterical laughter.  So, with all due respect to St Paul, Abraham's faith went through a long and difficult gestation period.  But here, surely, is its true value for us.  Such faith does not come easily to us either – it usually requires years of struggle, often because we struggle with the wrong question.  The real and only question should be: is this truly the voice of God?  But so often we take the same route that Abraham takes in this passage: how can this be?  In his case (and even, with deep respect, Mary's case) the obstetrical difficulties distract him.  He does not doubt that God is speaking to him, but he doubts that what God is saying is feasible. 

Taking It Personally.

  • Take time this week to go slowly through the whole of Abraham's Annunciation Saga (chapters 15-18), looking at it as a prolonged struggle of faith.  Are there any parallels, do you think, between this story and the story of the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness?
  • In broader terms, what does this saga tell us about the faith journey?  How might the birth of Ishmael represent our human tendency to seek apparently easier, but false, paths to spiritual growth?
  • Looking back over your own faith journey so far, what parallels do you see between Abraham's experiences and responses and your own?

 

Romans 4:13-25.  This is a wonderful (if rather difficult) example of a biblical reflection carried out by a master teacher.  (The author of the Fourth Gospel is also very good at this.)  The issue for Paul is clear: how can we be weaned off the idea of earning God's love through obedience to his Law, thereby understanding that our relationship with God is about grace on his part and faith on our part?  Who better to call in aid than Father Abraham himself!  One of his great virtues is that he "pre-dated" the giving of the Law to Moses.  So whatever difficulties we may have in seeing Abraham as a model of immediate and faithful response, we can at least rely on the fact that his virtue owed nothing to lawful obedience.  He (and Sarah) came eventually to believe in the promises of God through faith.  Moreover, those promises extended way beyond the birth of a son and heir – they extended to many generations of descendants and could never have been entirely fulfilled in Abraham's lifetime.  Yet, says St Paul, he believed: and it's worth us pausing to remember that St Paul is writing this when the "children of Abraham" were still very small in number, certainly not "countless as heaven's stars".

 

 

Taking It Personally.

 

  • Read slowly though this passage in the light of the Genesis story.  Notice how St Paul is reshaping that story to suit his theological purposes.  Does that bother you?  Or is it more important to "get" the truth that St Paul is drawing from it?
  • Is "hoping against hope" the same as "believing against belief"?  Is that what we are being asked to do in stories of this kind (and "miracle stories" in general)?
  • Reflect deeply on verses 24 and 25, the conclusion of St Paul's argument.  What does it mean to you?

 

Mark 8:31-38.  It's a pity the Lectionary begins at verse 31, when the passage only makes sense if we start at verse 27.  It is in response to Peter's proclamation of faith in Jesus as Messiah that today's action takes place.  It is also through Peter that we see the struggles of faith so well illustrated: having asserted his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, he then proceeds to argue with him – contradict him – as if he is just another wrong-headed mate!  The one through whom the Spirit has just spoken now becomes the mouthpiece of the devil.  Notice that Jesus does not explain why he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious elite, and be killed, nor what he means by rising again three days later.  He simply states what is going to happen to him.  And then he spells out the consequences of all this for those who would like to become his followers.  The passage is about the way things are, not the reasons why they are that way.  It is about his acceptance of what must be; and the question for each of us is whether or not we are prepared to accept the consequences of becoming one of his followers.  It is a stark yes-or-no choice.  We are not invited to negotiate terms of enlistment.  For this reason this passage could be said to be the very heart of the gospel – the most important part of it.

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        A great passage for praying with your imagination.  Put yourself in the story near Jesus.  Hear Peter assert that Jesus is the Messiah.  What tone of voice does he use?  How do you react to those words?  How do you feel about Peter at that moment?

·        Now listen to Jesus as he announces what is to happen to him.  What is your immediate reaction?  Shock? Horror?  Fear?  When Peter protests do you join in, or at least nod vigorously?

·        How do you react when Jesus rebukes Peter?

·        Now listen to Jesus as he addresses his would-be followers.  How do you feel at this point?

·        Are you one of his followers today?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

First Sunday in Lent

February 22                NOTES FOR REFLECTION             First Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Theme:  The most obvious choice would be "The Temptation of Christ", but in my view we should resist it.  It's too easy.  "Facing Temptation" or "Resisting Temptation" would be better.  For reasons that will become clear shortly, I'm going for "The Temptation of the Body of Christ".

Introduction.  If there is a common thread running through these three readings this week it is surely about the essential foundation upon which confession stands.  We do not come before God in fear and trepidation "hoping against hope" for a fair outcome – much less, a lucky break.  To pinch a phrase from our funeral liturgy, in confession we come before God "in the sure and certain hope" of forgiveness.  Our reading from Genesis, therefore, is very much post-Flood: punishment is in the past, and now we have the gracious promise of God our Creator to the whole of Creation that never again will God give up on us.  The baffling verses from Peter extend God's forgiveness in Christ backwards in time, so to speak.  Even those who died in their sins are not beyond the saving reach of Christ.  And we finish with some helpful swot-notes from Mark: forget the details, he seems to say, and just grasp the basic facts that Jesus was baptised, tempted to deviate from his mission, but did not do so.

Background.  Most of us, if we think about Lent at all, think of it as a time for personal (individual) stock-taking, reflection, remorse, confession (in the strictly private Anglican sort of way), and perhaps a vow, or at least a desire, to do better in the future.  We also have some sort of "race memory" that we ought to "give something up for Lent" – something like cake, chocolates, or alcohol – but to what end is not always entirely clear.  One of my favourite priests, who had a well-earned reputation for enjoying such delicacies, once told his congregation that he had no intention of giving up any of them for Lent, but he was intending to give up gossiping, grumbling and criticising during the Lenten Season, and invited them to do the same.  They assumed he was joking and laughed.

Over the years I have tried to teach the idea that in corporate worship we confess our sins as one body, not as individuals.  In large part our three Eucharistic liturgies support me in that.  In the first one, we "call to mind our sins", and we confess that "we have sinned in what we have thought and said..."  In the second one, there is an unfortunate lapse into individualism – "I will confess my sins to the Lord, I will not conceal my wrongdoing" – but the rest of that section returns to corporate confession thereafter.  The third liturgy makes the point most explicitly: "We come seeking forgiveness for all we have failed to be and do as members of Christ's body."  There in a nutshell is my case, and now in support I call my first witness.

He is known to us as Pope Francis.  Just before Christmas I saw on the TV News a short item about the Pope's address to the pre-Christmas gathering of the Curia in the Vatican.  Not for him a few polite words thanking them for all their hard work and bidding them safe travel and a good break over the holidays.  Pope Francis took the opportunity to share his thoughts about the "spiritual diseases" that all-too often afflicted the Curia.  The full text of his extraordinary address was published on line by The Tablet on 30/12/2014; and if you are looking for something to use as a Lenten resource this year, I recommend this.  I can't do it justice in these Notes, but here are some points that struck me.

He began with Paul's image of the Church as one Body, and he applied it to the Curia.  The Curia is a complex body comprising many congregations, councils, offices, tribunals, commissions, and so on, made up of people from diverse cultural, national and linguistic backgrounds; and yet it is called to be one body within the Body of Christ, and must act as one body.  It can only do this, he said, if every member understands that without Christ we can do nothing, and that means that each member requires daily nourishment from a diet of prayer, scripture, and reflection, and the "assiduous receipt of the sacraments".  Without such practice a member will become a mere "bureaucrat, a formalist, a functionalist, a mere employee".

And that was just to warm up!  He then proceeded to list what he called 15 "curial diseases" (spiritual diseases that can afflict any body of Christians), and he certainly didn't pull his punches.  Included on the list were what he called the "pathology of power", manifesting in a sense of superiority, power games, and even "rivalry and vainglory".  Others he called "Spiritual Alzheimer's" (forgetting what God has done for us), and "Existential Schizophrenia" (basically, hypocrisy).  Two that particularly struck me were not, perhaps, quite so dramatic, but certainly familiar within my experience.  The first he called "the Martha complex", throwing ourselves into work and more work, and forgetting the "one thing that matters".  How often have we been too busy to go on retreat, keep a scheduled appointment with our spiritual director, or even have our daily prayer time?

The other is "excessive planning".  How many times at parish or diocesan level have we thought that one more plan, one more seminar or conference, one more study, one more flow-chart or pie-chart will help us up the 5-step, 10-step, or 12-step ladder that leads to a "successful" church!  Prayer, waiting on the Spirit, retreats – who has got time for all that stuff?

So perhaps this Season of Lent, in addition to our own spiritual stock-take, we should encourage one another to look at our own faith community, and our own diocese and our own wider church.  We, too, may need to remember that we are a complex body, comprising congregations, social agencies, schools, colleges, offices, and a whole lot more.  Are we afflicted by our equivalent of curial diseases?  Are our social agencies so busy helping "their clients" and pursuing Government contracts that they have forgotten their need for daily nourishment?  Are our schools so committed to teaching their pupils "useful" subjects" that they are neglecting their special character as cells in the Body of Christ?  And are our local faith communities really distinguishable from other clubs and social gatherings of kindly people?

This Lenten Season may we all daily "come seeking forgiveness for all we have failed to be and do as members of Christ's body".

Genesis 9:8-17.  It is fashionable, particularly among many "Greenies", to accuse the Church of propagating a message of exploitation of natural resources, often quoting Genesis 1:28 in support of their criticism.  Today's passage is generally overlooked by such critics, yet here we have the clearest possible statement that God's covenantal commitment is to the whole of creation, and not just to humanity.  (Pedants might want to suggest that the covenant is limited to the animal kingdom, and that plants are not mentioned, but pedants should chill out and enjoy rainbows more.)  More importantly, as people of faith should we not, whenever a rainbow appears, see it as a reminder of God's mercy to all of us?  And, like the author of our next reading, see it as a reminder of our baptism?

Taking It Personally.

·        Call to mind the victims of the terrible tsunamis of recent years, and pray for those who are still trying to rebuild their lives after such devastation.

·        Pray for those, especially in the South Pacific, whose lives are threatened by rising sea-levels.  What can we do to help?

·        Where was God in those tsunamis?  Where is God in the rising sea levels?  What is the purpose of praying about these disasters, past and pending?

·        Reflect on the whole Noah story.  What is it really about?  What does it mean to you?

 

1 Peter 3:18-22.  I have never met anyone who claims this passage as his or her favourite passage of Scripture: in fact, I'm not sure that I have ever met anyone who claims to understand it.  But as I have pondered it today I keep getting in my mind the wonderful icon of the Resurrection showing Christ bursting out of Hades pulling Adam and Eve out with him.  And if those two can be saved by the resurrection of Christ there is surely hope for those who laughed at Noah until it was too late!  But whatever we are to make of verses 19 and 20, the message of the other verses in this little passage are wonderfully clear and encouraging.  Through baptism we become "people of the ark" saved from death; we become like those brought out of slavery through the Red Sea; we become the people of God through the saving action of God.  Let us remember all this every time we see a rainbow, and give thanks!

 

Taking It Personally.

 

·        Give thanks for your baptism.

·        Reflect on verse 21.  Write out your own version of it.  Bring out in your own words what it means for you.  What difference has your baptism made to your life?

·        What would you say to someone who is worried about a friend or family member who has died unbaptised, or as an avowed atheist? Would verses 19 and 20 help?

 

Mark 1:9-15.  In just 6 verses St Mark covers three major events.  He begins with his account of Jesus' baptism.  Verse 10 is subjective: Jesus "saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him".  There is no suggestion anybody else present saw it.  Verse 11 is, by implication, also subjective: the voice addresses Jesus alone.  The second episode, the temptation in the desert, is even more terse.  It is recorded as an objective account: but who, other than Jesus himself, could have been the source for this story?  Thirdly, we have the launch of Jesus' public mission.  Notice that there is no indication of the time lapse between the second and third episodes.  I am also struck by the use of the word "came" in both verse 9 and verse 14.  Where was "Mark" in each instance?  Change the word "came" to "went" in each case and you'll see what I'm driving at.  If Mark was a resident of Galilee, then, from his point of view, Jesus "went" to the Jordan to be baptised; if he was not a resident of Galilee, then Jesus "went" to Galilee proclaiming the message.  The use in both cases of "came" is perhaps theologically rather than geographically correct: it stresses that wherever we are we experience Jesus coming to us rather than going from us.  The language of verse 12 is particularly strong, echoing the language of exorcism.  Jesus does not seem to have any choice in the matter.  The "wild animals" could be literal, or symbolic of Jesus' human instincts and emotions.  The whole thrust of verses 14 and 15 is to show continuity between John and Jesus.

Taking It Personally.

  • Go through each episode separately and slowly, beginning with the first.  Try to visualise it.  What impression of the Holy Spirit is conveyed by the image of the dove descending on him?  Have you ever experienced the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit resting on you?  What might that voice sound like?  How would you describe it?  Have you heard a voice from heaven speaking to you?
  • When you're ready, move to the second episode.  Now what impression of the Holy Spirit are you left with?  Is the Spirit within or outside Jesus?  Have you ever felt "driven" by the Holy Spirit to go somewhere or to do something?
  • When are you most aware of being tempted to do something, saying something, or think something ungodly?  Do you more readily associate temptation with doing something you shouldn't, or with not doing something you should?
  • The "Good News" has been proclaimed in this country since 1814.  What exactly is the "Good News", and when did you last proclaim it to anyone?  When will you next do so?

Thursday, 12 February 2015

NOTES FOR REFLECTION

February 15                            NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

Theme:  In the last week before Lent, something to do with “cleansing” seems to be called for.  Perhaps “Outer and Inner Cleansing” might do.  Alternatively, the two main readings might invite us to reflect on our willingness or otherwise to seek and accept help; perhaps “Recognising our Need for Help”.  More generally, I am leaning towards “The Wisdom of Humility”.

Introduction.  Two great stories with another awkward interlude with St Paul this week.  Whoever wrote up the story of the great military leader, Naaman, struck down with leprosy and the ensuing farce of his attempts to find a cure deserves to win the St Luke Award for Storytelling.  I never tire of reading it, and it still makes me laugh.  I don’t feel the same about this passage from St Paul.  In this week of the Halberg Awards his analogy drawn from the world of athletics shows again his great gift for timing, but his treatment of his own body perhaps explains why he was never likely to win a perishable wreath.  The gospel reading comes with a sting in the tale (pun alert!): the leper receives his healing but is unwilling or unable to comply with the healer’s instructions.

Background.  “Portentous” is not a word I use often (in fact, I can’t now recall ever having used it before) – apart from anything else it’s hard to spell and even harder to pronounce.  But it might just be the right word to describe a week that began with Tony Abbot’s self-described near-death experience, continued with the teaching of theology briefly hitting the news headlines in the company of, um, hairdressing, and moved on to a multi-media spectacle of a meteor flashing across the sky and self-destructing with a loud sonic boom off-stage east.  And we’re supposed to believe that there is no cosmic significance in all this?  With all due respect to Murray, Bond, McCallum & Ko, who is going to remember their awards in a week of such earthly and heavenly events?

But wait, there’s more!  The British Establishment is apparently so rife with paedophiles that they have had to ask New Zealand to send over one of our judges to head an inquiry; in France the former head of the IMF has described himself as a “Libertine”, but insisted that he had only participated in organised sex orgies about four times a year, and he had no idea that the young women who apparently joined him in his romps were actually paid to do so (who would ever have suspected that?).  Meanwhile, the latest breach of privacy has revealed that very rich people (some of them even Aussies!) have been salting away money in foreign bank accounts to avoid paying taxes in the countries of their domicile; and on the home front the collection tins are out for Sky City to meet its “unexpected shortfall” in its budget for the convention centre (who would ever have expected that?)  Perhaps they should apply for Lotteries Commission funding?  (They’re too late for the Pub Charities loot – that’s already been cleared out, apparently.)

So, yes, the need for cleansing is widespread – social and personal leprosy takes many forms.  St Paul says “athletes exercise self-control in all things”, but he was writing long before the invention of performance-enhancing drugs, match-fixing, and over-exuberant after-match celebrations.

I’m not sure why, in such a news-crowded week, my mind keeps coming back to the decision of the Tertiary Education Commission to reduce funding to private institutions offering tuition in theology and/or hairdressing.  Part of its appeal, I must confess, is to my sense of humour.  For some reason it sounds funny, don’t you think?  It sounded particularly funny when I first heard about it on the radio because the newsreader referred to “courses in theology and hairdressing”, and for a moment I thought...  Well, it’s possible – I know of a Dunedin dentist who also has a degree in theology – although probably after undertaking separate courses.  And I have a personal interest in all this: I have a degree in theology, and, despite appearances to the contrary, I do have my hair cut reasonably regularly (though “dressed” is not a word I would use in that context – I go to a “barber”, not a “hairdresser”!)

The Commission explained that we have an “over-supply” of people with skills in theology and hairdressing and so reduced the numbers of student places it would fund by 107 (theology) and 124 (hairdressing), with a predicted saving of $1.8 million dollars which could be applied towards other courses (such as croupiers?) It’s a brave move: there may not be much likelihood of marches in the street demanding more theology students; but who among us has not smarted at being kept waiting at the hairdresser/barber?  How can this be if we have an oversupply of hairdressers/barbers?  Is it really a coincidence that the Minister of Tertiary Education is bald?

Of course, there is another side to this argument.  The hairdressing industry, in large part, is a vanity industry.  As long as our hair is clean, and of a length that does not impede our sight or hearing, it doesn’t NEED to be artificially coloured, set, permed, blow-waved, or whatever, does it?  We could, if we wanted to, choose to send more money to the Leprosy Mission than we spend each year on our own crowning glory – health, like beauty is more than skin-deep.  And if that’s too much to expect, what about just during Lent?

The argument about theology is much more intriguing.  I remember in one of Thomas Merton’s books his answer to a question he was asked once by an interviewer along the following lines: “But what use are monks?”  His reply was equally clear: “None at all.  We monks are completely useless.”  I can still remember how shocked I was on reading that little exchange – and I tended to dismiss it.  I have always been ambivalent about the “cult” of Thomas Merton – I struggle with the concept of a Trappist monk being so well-known.  But the more I have reflected on his remarks to this woman, the more I think my original judgment that he was just being smart was wrong.  He was speaking in and to a society that thinks only in terms of dollar values, productivity, inputs and outputs, and so on.  In those terms, monks have no value, perhaps – except those who produce and sell high-quality wines.  Perhaps Merton’s answer was really a refusal to accept her criteria of usefulness.

And that’s the issue here, I think.  What possible use are theology students if they cannot contribute to the economic wellbeing of New Zealand, or even find a job that will provide them with enough income to support themselves and their families?    Isn’t that the real meaning of life?  We don’t need theology to reveal that truth to us.

2 Kings 5:1-14.  Just the first verse shows the narrative genius of the author of this book.  The portrait of a great military leader is immediately before us with such clarity that we might not notice the first of three jarring notes.  First, this is not the commander of Israel’s army: he commands the army of Aram (Syria) who is an enemy of Israel.  Secondly, his great victory is not due to his military gifts, but to the Lord’s gift to him.  Think about that for a moment.  Then, thirdly, we discover that this great man has the dreaded leprosy.  Verse 2 confirms this strange scenario.  The Arameans have attacked Israel, and carried off at least one young girl, who is now Mrs Naaman’s maidservant (or slave, to be more precise).  Yet, this enslaved nobody is the one who can point the way to a cure for Namaan’s disease.  So desperate is he for a cure that he embarks on the journey to his enemies’ land, on the advice of a slave-girl.  He naturally assumes the medical bill will be astronomical and goes well-loaded.  The interlude with the king of Israel having a fit is quite wonderful with his protestation “Am I God?” (Echoes of Pontius Pilate – “Am I a Jew?”)  The farce continues with Elisha sending out a messenger: when we go to the Medical Centre we don’t expect to be treated by the receptionist!  The “green prescription” seems designed only to humiliate, and again the critical role of persuading Naaman to submit is given to his servants.  Only when his submission is complete (signified by the seven-fold dunking) is he cured of his “leprosy” in all its manifestations, spiritual as well as physical.

Taking It Personally.
·       Take your time with this story.  Journey through it with Naaman.  How might he have reacted when he first saw signs of leprosy on his skin?  Fear?  Denial?  Have you had a similar experience?
·       How might he have reacted when he discovered that his wife’s slave-girl knew of his condition – presumably his wife had spoken to her about it? How concerned are you to keep your own medical issues private?
·       What might he have felt about the suggestion that he should return to Israel, this time as a supplicant seeking medical help?  What steps might he have taken to hide his true identity?  Have you ever been concerned that you might be “recognised” going to a medical centre?
·       He was obviously outraged when Elisha gave him the cold-shoulder.  Have you ever felt that you were being “dismissed” in this way?
·       How do you think Naaman was changed as a result of this whole experience?    How might it have changed his attitude towards Israel?  Could this case be used as an example of the value of cross-cultural experiences in breaking down international hostility?

1 Corinthians 9:24-27.  In the land where the Olympic Games were born it is no surprise to find that St Paul should make himself like an Olympian to win Olympians; but perhaps this is one of those cases where he allowed himself to be sucked into difficulties by pushing an analogy too far.  The basic idea, that spiritual growth, like athletic prowess, requires regular training, commitment, and energy is clear enough.  But are we in competition with one another, like runners in a race?  Surely not – everyone who enters genuinely into the Christian race wins the prize.  Certainly we need to keep focused on that prize, rather than running aimlessly or beating the air.  But verse 27 goes too far – there is surely a difference between training the body to perform better, and punishing it, or even enslaving it.

Taking It Personally.

·       How does your spiritual fitness programme compare with your physical fitness one?
·       Would Lent provide a good opportunity to deepen your commitment to spiritual practice?  What might you feel able to commit yourself to for the next 6 weeks or so?
·       What help or guidance might be available to you through your local faith community in this regard?  Could you suggest the establishment of a “spiritual fitness group” within your fellowship?

Mark 1:40-45.  A very short simplified version of the Naaman story here.  The leper takes an enormous risk: if he has “read” Jesus wrong he could find himself beaten or killed for approaching a man like this while “unclean” from leprosy.  Unlike Naaman, he is a nobody, with no letter of introduction to provide any promise of safe passage.  But he is also free of Naaman’s hubris: he kneels before Jesus and asserts that Jesus can heal him if he chooses to do so.  Jesus is touched by this man’s approach, and chooses to touch him, healing him as he does so.  He asks (demands) only that the man will not rush straight to social media, but to no avail.  The result is that Jesus is now the one excluded from the town: he has, as it were, swapped places with the leper.

Taking It Personally.

·       How easy do you find it to ask for help?
·       How easy do you find it to keep confidences?
·       Are there any “lepers” in your faith community – those whom you try to avoid socially?  How well or otherwise does your faith community welcome those who are “challenged” in some way?

·       Do you or your faith community support the Leprosy Mission or other organisations seeking to cure leprosy and support those who suffer from it?

Thursday, 5 February 2015

NOTES FOR REFLECTION

February 8                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Theme: No obvious front-runners this week; but something about compassion, openness, and relating to people as they are, I think.  For what it's worth, the theme that popped into my mind fully formed a moment or two ago was "All are Welcome in the Heart of God".  Something a little more whimsical, but possibly quite productive, might be "Christ's Open-door Policy".

Introduction.  Once again we have the joy of starting with Isaiah at peak form; who will you compare with him or who is his equal?  We then have a rather difficult passage from St Paul, who sounds to our modern ears rather more like a politician than a religious leader.  But the point is clear: it is the gospel message that is important – nothing else is worth arguing about.  We finish with this wonderful passage from St Mark in which he gives a brief summary of Jesus' ministry – purportedly in one day.

Background.  Thoughts of war and peace have not been far from my mind in recent weeks.  Over the holiday period I read one of the more remarkable books I have ever come across, from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  In its English translation its title is The Making of a Mind, and comprises a large number of the letters Teilhard wrote to his cousin, Marguerite Teilard-Chambon from December 1914 when he joined the French Army through to 17th September 1919 when he resumed his studies and work as a Jesuit priest and scientist.  The letters are astonishing at all sorts of levels; first of all, at the purely practical level, they show a regularity and speed of delivery unmatched by NZ Post today!  Many of them are quite passionate – he clearly loved his cousin very much – often writing to her two or even three times in a week – but, of course, in a "celibate", non-physical and non-possessive sort of way.

The second level of interest concerns his attitude towards the war itself.  As one who struggles to hold onto Christian pacifist beliefs I expected to find Teilhard very much in our corner, but there is little evidence of that in these letters.  It is true, of course, that he did not have a combatant role: he spent the entire war as a stretcher-bearer, resolutely refusing any promotion that would have taken him away from the frontline.  (He even avoided appointment as a chaplain for the same reason.)  His fearlessness was legendary, and he received the Croix de Guerre, the Medaille Militaire, and the Legion d'Honneur.  There is very little in the letters to suggest that he ever feared for his own safety: in one letter he records coming back from in front of the enemy lines, dragging behind him the dead body of an officer, then stopping in no-man's land as he was struck by the extraordinary beauty of the sunlight on a distant range of hills!

It may well be, of course, that he played down the risks he himself was facing so as not worry Marguerite or other family members, and he had to be mindful of military censorship; yet the picture he gives of life in those years is eye-opening.  To borrow a phrase from the All Blacks, there was a regular practice of rotation, so that a few days in the hell of the trenches would be followed by a week or two of relative rest and restoration in a farmhouse, a presbytery or something similar.  He never denies the real suffering of the men – he has a true pastor's heart – and he does occasionally refer in passing to the apparent pointlessness of some of the engagements with the enemy – gaining, holding, ceding and then regaining the same few yards of land to no obvious advantage.

But overall, his view is extraordinarily positive; and when it was over he wrote a long essay called "Nostalgia for the Front".  This was more than an enjoyment of the camaraderie of the men – in fact, he quite openly struggles with what he sees as their vulgarity – but much more a realisation that human beings are at our best when we are fully committed to a cause greater than ourselves.  He writes often of the need to overcome inertia – to commit ourselves to action – and recognises that war is a great motivating factor in that regard.

But perhaps the most astonishing element of these letters is the evidence they provide of the development of his thought – and the amount of writing – that he was able to achieve in the midst of all the upheaval and danger of the war.  It was in the context of trench warfare that he SAW the unity of all humanity!!  It was not that he saw such unity as an ideal to be pursued as the only antidote to warfare – he saw the underlying unity of humanity as a given fact, temporarily disguised or hidden by the war, but no less real for all that.  He was, of course, French and he recognised "the Bosche" (as he invariably called the Germans) as the enemy: he accepted that German imperialism had to be resisted, and therefore that the war was a just one.  His contribution to it was always whole-hearted.  As a candidate for Patron Saint of Pacifism he was a non-starter!  As an antidote to any of us tempted to adopt cheap and easy pacifism he was without peer.

I finished the book just after the somewhat muted commemorations of the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Perhaps the most interesting article I came across was one reprinted in the ODT World Focus, which featured the plans to revise the exhibitions in the museum at the former death camp.  The original displays, overseen by former inmates, excluded any mention of the guards, for perfectly understandable reasons.  They wanted those who built and ran the camp to be excluded from human memory.  But now there is a change in outlook.  It is time to address the terrible question that places like Auschwitz ask of us: "How was it possible that normal people, fathers of families, started murdering people on an industrial scale?"  That is the way the director of the museum phrases the question; but today there are many other ways of asking the same question.

How is it possible that brilliant scientists spend their entire working lives creating biological, chemical and nuclear weapons capable of killing all known forms of life on this planet?  How is it possible that the so-called developed nations make vast profits from the manufacture and sale of armaments?  How is it possible that "normal people", mothers and fathers of families, start torturing prisoners and taking selfies of themselves doing it?  How is it that we still struggle to accept that we are brothers and sisters not only of those who died in Auschwitz but also of those who built and ran the place?

Have we not seen?  Have we not heard?

Isaiah 40:21-31.  It was this passage that brought back to my mind the letters of Teilhard de Chardin.  We might think of him urging us, in the midst of all the present horror that bombards us through the TV News and other media, to lift our eyes to heaven where God "resides" above all our human mess.  But that is never his message: he believes, not in a God above, but in a God ahead.  What is happening now is important, of course, but is only a stage in the long process of the whole of creation converging and becoming one in Christ.  Isaiah's imagery is different – for him God is above – and yet the message is surely the same.  He appeals to us to see the vastness of God's vision, and to realise that even the most horrific tyrants of the present day will be blown away (in the old-fashioned sense of that term).  God, and God alone, is the source of all life and goodness, and we need to constantly "plug into" that source, the ultimate renewable energy.  Verse 31 says it all.

Taking It Personally.
·       Read the passage through slowly.  This whole chapter is about divine comfort.  Let it comfort you.   Above all, wait upon the Lord (for quite a while).
·       Bring whatever is troubling you, personally, nationally and internationally, before God in prayer.  Express to God the pain you feel, and seek his comfort.
·       Examine your own feelings about New Zealand's probable involvement in a response to ISIS.  How much are your feelings shaped by a sense of "us and them"?  Take a particular case – say, the killing of the Jordanian pilot and the response of Jordan in killing two prisoners – and examine your feelings about it.  Where do your sympathies lie?
·       On the home front, read this passage through on Waitangi Day.  What does it say to you in that context?

1 Corinthians 9:16-23.  St Paul has got his toga in something of a twist at this point in his letter.  Look back to the first two verses of this chapter to take his temperature – it is dangerously high.  Clearly, he has been receiving some stick on the social media of his day.   The tipping-point this time concerns an allegation of bludging: it seems that his hosts may be feeling that he has overstayed his welcome.  Why should they feed and shelter him at their own expense – why doesn't he get a proper job and earn his own keep?  In short, it's the first recorded example of a dispute over stipended ministry.  St Paul stoutly defends his right as an apostle to some sort of maintenance, and then denies any intention of accepting it!  His one desire is to preach the gospel free of charge.  He then goes off on something of a tangent – as we are all apt to do when we are wound up – but perhaps part of the criticism he has faced is that he is spending too much time with those outside the fellowship (who do not put money in the plate, know what I mean, Vicar!).  To him only the proclamation of the gospel matters: every other issue is of lesser importance.

Taking It Personally.

·       How do you react to Paul's tone?  Does his temper tantrum turn you off, or does it make him seem more real to you?
·       What lessons might there be for the Church today in what he is saying?  Are we too inclined to pursue other agendas at the expense of proclaiming the gospel, or are those other matters natural out-workings of the gospel message?
·       Do we need to become more like other people in order to proclaim the gospel?  Can we, for example, speak to and for the poor if we are substantially better off materially than they are?

Mark 1:29.  This passage gives us 24 hours in Jesus' ministry.  Notice the movement from synagogue to private dwelling, from giving ministry to receiving it, from ministering to individuals to ministering to crowds, from activity to prayer, from being looked for to searching for others, and from teaching the disciples to preaching throughout Galilee.

Taking It Personally.

·       Reflect on your past week in the light of this "template".  Is there a similar wholeness and variety in your life of discipleship?
·       Jesus took Peter's mother-in-law by the hand and lifted her up.  When have you experienced the uplifting presence of Christ?
·       The "whole city" came to the door.  Do you sometimes fell overwhelmed by the needs of others?  How can you be fully engaged with others without becoming burnt out?
·       Very early in the morning, Jesus went out to pray?  Notice the faint hints of Easter morning in this language.  What do you make of that?
·       The disciples "hunted" for him.  When they "found" him, they said "Everyone is searching for you."  Are you hunting or searching for Jesus, or have you found him?  What would you say to someone who asked you how to find Jesus?
·       The disciples were, perhaps anxious that he should build on last night's success, but he leads them off to reach out to others.  What lesson may there be there for the Church?*

*Reprinted from the diocesan 2014 Advent Prayer Guide, pp. 54-55, with kind permission of the author.



NOTES FOR REFLECTION

February 1                  NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Candlemas

Texts: Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2: 22-40

Theme:  The title of the Feast, “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple”, is an obvious frontrunner this week, although it is rather wordy.  Continuing the theme of epiphany, we could go for “Revelation in the Temple” as a reasonable alternative.  I’m going for “The Law, the Prophets and the Holy Spirit”, for reasons that will become clear (I hope) shortly.

Introduction.  The trouble with St Luke’s one-off story is that there are no obvious link-in stories for use in the accompanying lessons.  Hence it’s a bit of a stretch to refer to the lesson from Malachi this week as “related” to the gospel.  Yes, I get the reference to the Lord coming to the Temple, but that could more easily connect with the so-called “cleansing” of the Temple.  Much of the rest of the lesson would seem to be more in keeping with Lent than with the Epiphany.  The second lesson, too, seems even less connected to the gospel than usual, with its emphasis on the Incarnation (Christmas) and Christ’s redeeming death (Passion).  Perhaps we are simply being reminded yet again that the Christian story is a whole package – we cannot break it down into self-contained pieces and expect them to make sense out of the context of the complete narrative.  St Luke’s masterful account of the Presentation in the Temple, drawing together the witness of the Law, the Prophets and the Holy Spirit, underlines this basic truth.

Background.  Trish and I spent last weekend in Wellington, our great capital city, where important buildings cluster together, housing important people who make big decisions of immediate and historical importance.  We walked past the Beehive and the rest of the Parliamentary Complex; we walked past the Supreme Court Building, still mysteriously shrouded in what appears to be an architectural cross between twisted scaffolding and dental braces; we walked past the Old Government Buildings, still, to my eye at least, the aesthetic gem in the whole area, with its own fascinating history, and now housing the University Law School; and, although we didn’t walk past it, we could see Parliament’s next-door neighbour, St Paul’s Cathedral, still frowning across the bottom of Hill Street, outshone, and largely ignored, by its more glamorous and powerful neighbours.

But we hadn’t gone to Wellington to mix with the powerful and the elite: we had gone to celebrate with people of real significance to us – family members.  On Saturday, with children (and their partners) and grandchildren we celebrated Trish’s birthday (a little late!); not in some expensive restaurant on the waterfront where people go to see and be seen, but in the cafe at Wellington Zoo!  A tour of the zoo in its modern form is a very humbling experience for those of us who like to believe that the human species is something special.  Most of the animals we were supposedly visiting were nowhere to be seen; like Elisha when Naaman dropped by, they couldn’t be bothered to come out to greet us.  Those that were visible either affected complete indifference to our presence (the baboons were particularly good at this, giving priority to nit-picking over any attempt at a simian powhiri), or tried to work out if we could be conned into giving them a choice morsel.  However, in body if not in spirit, from agouti to giraffes God’s creatures  were there (somewhere) as we celebrated Trish’s birthday.

The next day, Sunday, we didn’t make it to the cathedral or any other church; but we did attend a very important celebration – the third birthday of a grandchild.  Extended family and friends of the parents joined us, as was their custom.
We returned home on Monday, the 26th, the day between the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz; we returned home from the capital city of New Zealand to Otago and our own little township of Waikouaiti, where (as far as I know), nobody of any great power and importance lives, although two of our residents won prizes in this year’s Robbie Burns Competition, and our neighbour had remembered to collect our mail and newspapers while we were away.  We returned to a garden even more parched than when we left, to fruit trees attacked by blackbirds and possums, and to a bathroom with water pressure so low having a shower is not for the faint-hearted or slow-footed.  But we were home, back to normality, and we were thankful – for safe travel, for family and friends, for neighbours, and for a place of our own in which to rest and reflect.  

And here was this story from St Luke waiting for me, to show me things that had never occurred to me before, not just about this story but about others we find in these early chapters.  Like the story of the census necessitating the uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem for the very pregnant Mary.  She wasn’t singled out, was she?  Joseph wasn’t singled out.  To the world at large they were just two people required to follow the same order as everyone else.  Their small lives took place within the big picture.  It was just one incidence of living in an occupied country.  It’s what happened to ordinary people trying to lead ordinary lives.  And, of course, it is one small illustration of the deep truth of the Incarnation.  There were no special rules or exemptions for the Mother of God.  Pregnant or not, it was the donkey or Shank’s pony for Mary.

This week’s story is along the same lines, but this time it is religious practice rather than lawful requirement that is at play, as St Luke, with great care for detail, makes clear.  The Holy Family travels to the capital city and enters the Temple, the seat of power for the Jewish people, where the powerful elite were to be found, priests, Levites, and their many functionaries and servants, and what Rome today would call the Curia.  Yet none of these are mentioned in the story – this small insignificant family gathering is of no concern to officialdom.  Only two elderly people are there to greet them with their strange, seemingly half-crazed utterances.  Only St Luke thought they were worth remembering, so much so that he gave us a short biography of each.  These, he is saying, were real people – they had personal histories, hopes and dreams.  Probably unknown to the chief priests, the elders, the scribes and all the other important people of the day, they were known to God, and God had taken them into his confidence, revealed to them great truths that amazed the child’s parents who thought they were simply following the religious requirements of the day.
“And when they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”  Back to normality.

Malachi 3:1-5.  In large part this is a “standard” Messianic prophesy, with the usual confusion surrounding the identity of the “messenger” (or, sometimes, “servant”).  The emphasis is on the “mixed blessing” of the Lord coming to the Temple/Israel/his people.  What seems like great news turns out to be heavy with danger, for the advent of the Lord is a time of refining, purifying, and ultimately judgment.  This passage is carefully structured to show the process, rather than the event, of the Lord’s coming, and to illustrate the good news/bad news nature of it.  He will be preceded by a messenger to prepare the way, and then the Lord “whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”.  Who is this messenger? He is “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight”.  So two ticks for the good news column.  But verses 2-4 bring the reality check: the people have to be purified before they can receive him.  Only then will he draw near to the people, and even then his coming will be a time of judgement.  [Notice how “Lenten” in tone this is.]  Perhaps the most striking verse of the passage is verse 5, with its list of potential offenders.  We might not be surprised to find sorcerers, adulterers and those who bear false witness on the list, but keep going.  Suddenly we find those who exploit workers, widows and orphans – AND “those who thrust aside the alien”.  Who saw that one coming?

Taking It Personally.
·        While we might think 40 days is quite long enough for Lent, this passage seems to be inviting us to start preparing for Lent now.  How might that work out for you?  What might you do by way of planning to make a deeper commitment to Lenten observance this year?
·        Is there something you would like your local faith community to offer during Lent?  This might be the time to raise the issue with your priest or Vestry.
·        Go slowly through verse 5.  Use it first as a personal spiritual stock-take.  Then widen your reflections to consider how the Church measures up.  How does the country measure up?
·        Is there anything you might do to promote the protection of workers, widows, orphans or “aliens” (migrants and refugees)?

Hebrews 2:14-18.  I haven’t checked but I suspect that this is one of those readings that turns up a few times in our annual lectionary.  It is a great summary of the significance of the Incarnation, and therefore it makes sense to have it fairly soon after Christmas.  It strikes me as providing the all-important link between Christmas and Good Friday.  Only if the man on the cross is God Incarnate does any of the Christian Story make sense: only in that case can Christ’s death and resurrection be seen as overcoming death.  And only if Christ is “fully human” (as the Creed proclaims) can he make the one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world.  The author’s task, it seems to me, is to bring Christ down to earth (he came for us not for the angels) so that we can understand how it is that Christ can raise us up to God.

Taking It Personally.

·        The verse that always gets me in this passage is verse 15 – “and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death”.  What do you make of it?
·        The only true response to this passage is surely praise and thanksgiving.  Pray accordingly.

Luke 2:22-40.  In these Notes a week or two ago I queried whether or not some of the biblical stories could be described, in the very modern vernacular, as “editorialised” or “overcooked”.  This one, I think, falls on the right side of that line.  It rings true; and that goes a long way to explaining its power.  St Luke has achieved in its telling a brilliant piece of theology in strictly narrative form.  At the heart of the story is the encounter between Mary and Joseph with Simeon.  How did this encounter come about?  Well, the Law guided the Holy Family to the Temple; the Holy Spirit ensured Simeon was there to meet them.  Moreover, each had a history – a God-infused history – which shows that this meeting was not pure happenstance.  We know of Mary’s preparation to become the bearer of the Christ-Child: St Luke tells us enough about Simeon’s past and character to see how he had been made ready for this day.  The Holy Spirit “rested on him”; he was righteous and devout; he believed in the promise of God for the future; and he had been personally assured by God that he would see the Lord’s Messiah before he died.  Now he is given eyes to see in this infant the fulfilment of that promise, and the words to speak prophetically of all that was to come about through this child.  Telling this story this way is St Luke’s version of the theological truth that the Holy Spirit, the Law and the Prophets all testify to the true identity of Christ.  The only response to such a truth is to break out in praise and thanksgiving, as Simeon does, seconded by Anna.

Taking It Personally.

·        Mary and Joseph are guided by the Law; Simeon by the Holy Spirit.  What do you make of that?
·        What connections (or echoes) can you find between this story, the Christmas story, and the Passion of Christ?

·        Meditate on verses 34 and 35.  Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into understanding how these verses apply to you.  End in praise and thanksgiving.