Saturday, February 06, 2016

Silence at the Cathedral

On Thomas Merton, an early draft for an article in The Melbourne Anglican 2015

I never expected him to be a hero for me, but after almost fifty years and in so many ways I can easily say that reading the Trappist monk, writer and poet, Thomas Merton has changed my life for the better.

He does not start out looking like an advertisement for saintliness. Born in France during World War One to a New Zealand father and an American mother, his family were peripatetic artists with a tendency towards tragedy, moving to the suburbs of New York City, where a younger brother was born and where his mother died when he was six years old. After a time staying with his maternal grandparents his painter father took him on extended trips to Cape Cod and Bermuda, finally returning to France where he was enrolled in a French boarding school. In his early teens his father (who would die of a brain tumour when Merton was fourteen) moved him to board at a day school in London, followed by moving to a public school a few hours away. He attended Cambridge for a disastrous year at Clare College, after which his London godfather/guardian advised him to return to the US and continue his education there. All this was not a propitious start for any kind of religious figure, certainly not one who might be a saint for some.

At Columbia University he acquired a reputation as a gifted writer, aspiring poet and serious thinker who played loud jazz on any available piano. He loved Gandhi, T. S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, James Joyce, William Blake, modern art, and most Marx Brothers movies. A book by Aldous Huxley’s opened him to the idea “there such a thing as a supernatural order [which]… which could be reached most simply, most readily by prayer, faith, detachment, love.” At the same time a Hindu monk led him to read to Saint Augustine and Thomas a’Kempis. Along with the influence of several significant university teachers, this led him to be baptised in the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 21. With his customary boldness and enthusiasm several years later he joined the Trappists in their monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, taking vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and conversion of committing to a daily rule of frequent prayer, worship and manual labour in community.  Later he would write, “I wanted to give God everything... to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

Merton joined the monastery intending to spend his life as a simple monk. But found “there was this shadow… this writer who had followed me into the cloister…. He rides my shoulders … I cannot lose him.” As he goes on to write, “An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop. And he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck.” But Merton’s abbot encouraged him to write his autobiography, telling the story of how he found peace in the hills of Kentucky,  and The Seven Story Mountain became a world-wide bestseller. Although the work of a young man and recent convert, it is still a refreshing and engaging read. Merton’s enthusiasm might have got him in trouble on two continents, but it also opened him to seeing God’s glory in the most surprising places and his account of the journey is a consistently joyous and enjoyable one. His tone changes a few years later in his next spiritual journal, The Sign of Jonah, where he shares his daily theological reading and reflections as well as questions, triumphs and times when nothing makes sense. It is both a touching and an honest account of one man’s prayerful journey following Christ.

The journal that followed, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, adds a new dimension of love and acceptance when Merton is opened to a new understanding of God’s love for the world on a busy downtown street in Louisville following a dental appointment. He wrote:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….

Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion… though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race… And if only everybody could realise this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things.… My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

The more than forty books that follow - dealing with sanctity, spirituality and prayer, eastern and western mysticism, war and peace, economics and ethic, racism and materialism - are increasingly hallowed by his substantial studies in Christian Scripture and tradition, as well as a deep and disciplined life of prayer, and a graceful and growing sense of his own witness in God’s love for the world. He had reached a crucial junction in the journey. As Merton said to his young students in the monastery; “You have to know you have a heart before you can give it away.”

His writing after that was both grounded in silence and prayer as well as a more compassionate understanding of the world. As he wrote: “It is not difficult to sit in a quiet monastery and meditate on love, humility, mercy, inner silence, meditation and peace. But ‘no man is an island’… Therefore my meditation on love and peace must be realistically and intimately related to the fury of war, bloodshed, burning, destruction, killing that takes place on the other side of the earth.”

The French poet, Charles Peguy, writes that, "Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics." But for Merton it ends in something deeper than politics, born of the gift of knowing and loving himself as a part of a world found and reconciled in Christ.  By the mid 1960s Merton  found his way home in the world in a manner that would have never seemed possible in his earlier life. “To choose the world is to choose the work I am able to do, in collaboration with my brother [and sister] to make the world better, more free, more just, more liveable, more human.” His writing became more politically aware, even his poetry found nourishment from newspaper headlines.

By 1965, after twenty years in community, Merton moved to a small house not far from the monastery. Paradoxically this new hermitage meant he was free to be with people -- more than he had been for years: It was a new rhythm where days of silence and solitude were varied by joining old friends for picnics; and when official ecclesiastical visits outside the monastery might end up with listening to jazz in a Louisville nightclub.

By the late sixties Merton was also writing about  other world religions, particularly Zen Buddhism and Sufism, finding that this opened him to deeper understanding of the mystical tradition within Christianity. In late 1968, twenty-seven years after entering the monastery, he left on an Asian pilgrimage, meeting with Christian, Sufi, Buddhist and Hindu monks and practitioners, including the Dalai Lama. He found them  practicing a quality of life and relationship that seemed very close to what he had found in the monastery. As he had written years earlier, “We are all one silence, and a diversity of voices.”

It was to be an open-ended journey, but ended tragically  on December 10 1968. After giving a talk on “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives” at an inter-religious conference in Bangkok, Merton went to his room for a midday shower and fell against an ungrounded fan, which electrocuted him, killing him instantly. In a sad irony, his body was flown home alongside the bodies of young men who had just died in Vietnam, a war he had protested against for years. Perhaps this was his last act of solidarity within the world he had come to love so much. Mourners from all over the world came to his funeral at Gethsemane and one writer said a surprisingly large and wide variety of people looked like they had lost their very best friend.

I understand this completely when I consider Merton’s life, what I have learned from him over the years from his writings, his reflections, the gifts of a life of prophecy, penance and prayer shared with the larger world. He offered a disciplined mind, a discerning spirit, an open heart: and the gift of his witness has changed my world. Perhaps we all need to know we have a heart before we give it away, but Merton’s lifelong courageous witness means I can walk the way of Christian faith to seek and  share with less caution, and with more candour and honesty. I know I am not alone in this.

For me he is a prophet, one of those times in the history of the Church when the windows open and old ideas get blown away with a fresh spirit of renewed understandings and possibilities. So in all the diversity of his life and vocation as a monk, writer, poet and priest, Thomas Merton calls out as a rather delightfully inconsistent saint and prophet to the whole Church and to the wider world, calls out both for a wider and a  deeper understanding of the primary aims and attitudes of the religious life. With all the breadth of his early wanderings he found a home in the heart of Christianity and in his deep solitude he shared his pilgrim journey with the whole world. As a pioneer of interfaith conversation, his wide-open appreciation of how different spiritual traditions might breathe together continues to deepen our understanding of spirit, much as a trip to a foreign place will help us to know  - and love - our homeland anew.

As the Buddhist master Bankei writes, “the farther one enters into truth, the deeper it is.” Throughout his life Thomas Merton journeyed in search of the face of God. His prayerful considerations on the way still bear fruit, continuing to nurture and enlighten new readers and seekers in fresh  ways. Almost fifty years after his death, newly published journals, poetry, letters and essays continue to be released, enlarging our understanding of  Merton's vision of a world reconciled in Christ.  This twentieth century spiritual master makes a delightful companion on our faithful journey and I commend him to you.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Troubles in Paradise: Jesus of Montreal, Satan and the new community of the Gospel

In the 1980s there was a movie called "Jesus of MontrĂ©al.” which placed the life of the Lord in the middle of contemporary Canada, which is a pretty radical move in itself. But one of the great moments in the film comes when Jesus is tempted by Satan - here a kind of public relations-advertising genius: unctuous and smiling and smooth to the point of slimy with very big plans for the church — outlines of glory and vivid visions of how this brand of religion can be a resounding winner. But in the film, Jesus tells Satan he can, essentially, go to hell, and goes on to live out what the writer Frederick Buechner calls this “magnificent defeat.”

I thought of this when I heard the part in todays Gospel where James and John are making their bid for power positions in Jesus’ new community.  “Put us right next to you,” they say, “and success is assured.” They are so sure that they are right, that they know what to do, and they are so very wrong, so missing the point.

The disciples do that a lot. Peter – just a while ago – goes up to the top of the mountain to see Jesus with Moses and Elijah and then, quite logically, wants to start the first church building campaign. But God basically says, "shut up and listen” and Jesus  tells him they're going to Jerusalem to face a future that will feature everything that Peter’s ever feared. When Peter protests, Jesus tells him that God sees an entirely different kind of opportunity in the coming crisis and Peter better learn to look at this in a whole new way.

So maybe the truth is that Peter, James and John and some of the rest of us disciples are still somewhat deaf and blind to what God might want here, in this new style of leadership and community, with this new definition of success in ministry. At least that is where I am today.  For there is still something in me that stands with James and John and even envies the plans of the advertising man in the movie: I look at our church and I want to improve our corporate image and our community outreach in innovative ways. I want to do something successful so that world round us realises what an eternal treasure we have in these fragile  earthen vessels.

Because in the last hundred years or so we have come into a future that is like a foreign land, where we have to learn to sing the Lord's song in a new way, to meet a new people with this timeless message, this precious Gospel. And I feel sadness and some fear for the process of death and resurrection that the church must – I think  – undergo in this new Jerusalem. So even though Jesus seems to say we have everything we need in the cup we drink and the  baptism we’ve undergone and the ministry we share,  I am just not there sometimes.

Woody Allen once said that he wasn't afraid of his own death, he just didn't want to be there when it happened. I understand that completely, but I also know there is a bigger truth than death: I am just not sure how to get there sometimes. But maybe hope comes in the three things Jesus says are central to the life of the church in today’s Gospel: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.

Because St Paul rightly says that all of us who are baptised in Christ are baptised into his death, and at each and every Eucharist we celebrate our incorporation in the life of Jesus, the body of Christ, to become who we are, the bread of life and the cup of salvation – but there’s a cost in getting to this truth. For, as one English theologian says, we are “invited to exchange our living death for Christ's dying life,” to give away our closely-held plans and join with Jesus in the dying-rising rhythm of a life given in the hope that the resurrection shines in the darkest places in the earth. Nobody ever said it would be easy to get there from here, but I think that’s where Peter, John and James, Nicodemus and you and I have to be born again.

For as the Gospel goes on to say,

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.

And this is not easy.

St Augustine gave some good advice to Peter some 1600 years ago. Maybe it stands for the rest of us as well. He writes:

Come down, (from the mount) to labour in the earth; in the earth to serve, to be despised, and crucified in the earth. The Life came down, that He might be slain; the Bread came down, that He might hunger; the Way came down, that life might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that He might thirst; and do you refuse to labour?

Because Jesus bears forth, labours with, a new order of creation, a new language of relationship and membership and ministry that was never heard before in Jerusalem or Rome or London or New York or Melbourne: a language of love forged by a man who would be nothing but a servant and friend to all, a man convinced that this is the true, the basic, the only way to show the saving work of God, to simply give his life away — and we are called to live that same life.

But two thousand years have gone by and we have forgotten a lot and learned more, and the Spirit continues to blow us into new beginning, I always think of a bumper sticker I saw many years ago that said “Please be patient, God isn't finished with me yet,” and the question is still, “How do we get there from here?”

A recent translation of the fourteenth century “Book of Privy Counselling”  says:

“My dear friend in God,, go beyond your intellect’s endless and involved investigations and worship the Lord your God with your whole being. Offer God your very self in simple wholeness,  all that you are and just as you are…”

So maybe it does all goes back to Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry.

According to Fr Gregory Dix, the Eucharist has four parts: “take, bless, break and share,” as a pattern of countless ways in which God reaches out in love to embrace the whole creation. That fourfold model can enable us to pattern our whole ministry as the baptised body of Christ as well.

We simply take all our questions (along with the old memories, new pain, unknown futures, wanting faith, needy neighbours and our very own selves) and we present them all to God as a corporate offering. Then we  lift up our lives and  everyone else's and let God bless us all, sharing this ongoing journey with family and friends  and any passing stranger, and helping them lift their light and love up too. Then, by Grace something happens, and knowing ourselves to be surrounded by such a cloud of unlikely witnesses (including Peter, James and John and the rest of us), we find the faith to break apart and share, to minister, the gifts God gives, to look at what we have with hope, to aim to let it spill the seeds of love so that each moment of time might also be a newborn message of good news for ourselves and for many others

For most days I am convinced that every moment of life contains seeds of heaven, gifts of God, of new faith and hope and love; and that we are called to share, administer, in all the times where life asks living questions and offers loving answers in the midst of all these old crises; that we are called to make new beginnings, to share food and hope and love; to gather as the body of Christ to make Eucharist and ministry, to start the faithful journey beyond Jerusalem one more time. In the end what a gift it is that life can be this big, and that love can come so close.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pentecost 18B. Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta

Ten or twelve years ago I was drinking tea in the chaplaincy lounge with Sister Virginia, the Senior Chaplain at RMIT University, Melbourne, when a serious evangelical woman turned to her and said, “I just want to save this campus for Jesus.” Sr Virginia continued pouring tea and said, “Jesus can take care of himself.”  For an instant I wondered if she were being rude, and then I was struck by the depth of her faith, how large her Jesus was, how much he loved the world, and I wanted to live there too. But I admit there were two ways to take that statement.

I think there are two kinds of people: those who divide everything into two parts and those who don’t. I do. Sometimes I do because it helps me to see all the other options and choices, right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no. But I often find that God’s real world  seems to resist my tendency to find black and white answers by making me realise, again and again, that we live, by the Grace of God,  in a very colourful cosmos,  But today’s Gospel is still very easy to divide into two parts.

Part one comes when the disciples ask Jesus about someone else who is casting out demons in His name because he is not in their inside group, and it seems to me that the deeper question they’re asking is “Who can we keep out, disregard, or regard as a potential enemy?” And here their question is much like the lawyer in Luke’s Gospel who, wanting to know what he has to do to earn eternal life, asks: “Who is my neighbour?”

Just like the lawyer these disciples learn that a neighbour is anyone who does neighbouring acts, here in the name of Jesus, whether healing people, saving those lost on the road, or sharing a cool cup of water, is offering a  blessing, an opening for God’s grace, a birthday where the kingdom of Christ’s can be celebrated.

Jesus seems to be saying that He can be seen and He can be served, can be magnified and manifest, in people and places we might very well overlook as outsiders, in people and places who don’t look like us. because they just might still believe in and (more importantly) belong to the God we are trying to follow.

And this means I can relax our grip, stop the list-making, cease judging so stridently, because God can call out in those we might want to cast out! So Jesus seems to say, “Don’t judge others so rigidly.”

But then He goes on to say if we “go against’ or provide obstacles against these little ones. “it would be better… if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.[and it gets worse here!]  If your hand causes you to stumble (King James says ‘offends you’), cut it off; And if your foot offends, causes you to stumble, cut it off. And if your eye offends, causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.”

So Gentle Jesus meek and mild just went out the door and we seem to see an entirely different  voice and view: not a hopeful “yes” but a stern “no;” not a tender look at the stranger who might be a friend we haven’t met yet, but a suspicious and angry look in the mirror at the betrayer who might just hang out in our skin and bones and lives.  And are we’re back to the two piles, two ways of thinking: almost two versions of God? Today’s Gospel leaves me with that question.

An Anglican (Episcopal) priest in the US, Father David R. Henson, writing on the webpage Patheos, offers this interesting answer - and I quote at length:

It seems the disciples have clearly missed the point again, so Jesus offers them two exaggerated and hyperbolic scenarios for understanding what the life of faith is really all about…. Now, we understand we aren’t supposed to take these saying literally. They are obviously exaggerations, both the cup of cold water and the self-mutilation. …But I do think Jesus is saying something profoundly important about the way we understand faith.

Notice how ridiculously high the bar is when faith is centered in the avoidance of punishment and sin… You’ll have to cut off parts of your body, pluck out your eyes, and disfigure yourself. Essentially, Jesus is saying if you want a perfect life, the only way you will be able to do that is to incapacitate yourself completely, …Seeking perfection will cost you everything, in other words.

Now, notice on the other hand how ridiculously low the bar is when faith is centered in acts of generosity. One cup of cold water. That’s it. One cup is enough for an eternal reward… the way of perfection and punishment with its impossibly high standards or the way of generosity and reward with its comically low standards…. One cuts and divides, maims and kills. The other cleanses and revives, refreshes and gives life.

And I keep thinking about what I call the Silver Rule - it’s close to the Golden Rule but different: what if we just do unto ourselves as we would do - in our best moments - to others? What if if we stop judging, as Paul puts it, another persons servant?  What if we just stop judging ourselves, or even judging God?

My mother once told me that her best friend’s brother always told her that he “never went anywhere he couldn’t take Jesus.” I was in my early twenties and a new convert to Christianity, trying hard to combine the worst of Anglo-Catholic piety and the serious solemnity of an evangelical. But it was also the sixties and exciting things were happening and I wanted to explore life. But the Jesus I knew then was pretty stained glass, tended to say thee and thou and  would have crossed himself at tense moments in his life. And I wanted to follow Jesus, but I wanted to exlore!  So I remember praying, “God, I hate to leave you behind, but I’ll be back later”.. and I walked away from my understanding of God, sort of like the people who used to sow their wild oats on Saturday night and pray for crop failure on Sunday morning,  but I found to my surprise that out there beyond my judgements and fears was this same God, but bigger than I knew, waiting for me in the world which I had feared was outside Gods grace.

Jesus can take care of himself, but he can take care of you and me and the stranger too. I can relax into that when I realise that the eyes which offend me - sometimes my neighbours but so often my own eyes - are the eyes through which God sees me; when I recall that the mind which makes all these distinctions is still called, as Paul puts it, to share  the mind of Christ, and  when I remember that at every Eucharist we proclaim that we are the body of Christ. How can I be offended by that? How can I look at my neighbour or the stranger or myself with anything less than a growing and tolerant love? How can I not try to share and give myself and any neighbour my life to share with love as best I can?

In the name of Christ.

Friday, April 24, 2015

More on Post-Chaplinesque and Old Man Me....

What I am doing here?

Part of it is the messy existential stuff of a newly retired man, looking back to make summary statements what happened and what it meant, and finding to his surprise that looking at old and incomplete ideas lead on to new and inconclusive beginnings.

So, to start on a much smaller scale: clarifying the frequent use I make of Chaplain, Chaplinesque and Post-Chaplinesque.

I started using Chaplinesque as the name for my blog on an autumn afternoon in 2005 when I began ministering as a chaplain at La Trobe University, Melbourne and I noticed the sign outside our stairway: “Chaplin’s Office.” I took that sign as a sign when I began blogging about what my ministry looked like at that time and place. So much of it still stands true:

Chaplinesque. My spell-checker even recognises it as an anomaly, though it offers no alternative or definition. Googling brings: “reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, the English comedian who walked, danced, marauded through the world cinema from the 1900s to post WWII, the shabby tramp who made light of politics and pretension, aspirations and art.” 

So maybe that is close to my mode as a chaplain here in the northern region of Melbourne in the autumn of 2005: a clown as well as a cultural critic, someone who’s spent time being alternately amused and terrified by the depth of pretension and hollowness in the modern world, but aiming towards some greater clarity, integrity and freedom. 

I see myself as a teacher and minister of the parables: highlighting and exploring the biblical tales that Jesus tells to remind us who and whose we are; as well as helping others in their own moments of choice and chance when life – or God - drops a direct question in the midst of history, identity, or community and says, “So, where do you find me here?” 

I have worked well there because I have been there too: sustained struggles in my own history have taken time but it has often turned out that the raw material of my own life made me a better companion and minister for others going through the same or similar territory. I am convinced that God can use every experience in moving towards a new creation, and so can we!

So sometimes I think I work as a minister simply because it gives me such great pleasure: to talk and pray and play with people while offering them a safe place to consider their relationship and response to what God and life may be asking of them. It is a joy and delight as well as an awesome responsibility. 

In looking back I think the various definitions of Chaplin and Chaplain here constellate in the exercise of a ministry of support and presence aiming to help to represent new visions and revisions that come as we relate and respond to life in all its amazing array of choice and chance.

But the most personal definition of chaplain or minister comes before I ever joined a church. Because, for me, the place for family gathering and learning, for seasonal celebration and education, was the local tennis club. So the primary model I carry on ministry is the teaching professional tennis pro and the swim coach. I mean those men and women who give lessons, made room for meetings and meals, offered opportunities to work on basic strokes, footwork and follow-through with how we jumped into the pool and played the game was at the centre of it all. It was never stated but it turns out that my model of faithful intentional ministry and sacerdotal priesthood owes much to this framework.

This isn’t as far out as it might seem. Thomas Merton, when asked about the Mass at the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood, said it was a kind of ballet. If that worked for him then I feel much more at ease with my own image of a tennis club as a kind of sacramental and liturgical  space where we learn to “live and move and have our being”  in a graceful and intentional process of patterning that help us understand the “countless ways God uses material things to reach out to creation".

Now to return to about educational chaplaincy: with some years as a student, chaplain, staff member and occasional teacher in tertiary education, I have been both a product of and a participant in campus ministry. In the early years of the process several Anglican (Episcopal) chaplains, one Unitarian professor, and a Jesuit lecturer each modelled a model of continuing pilgrimage where heart, mind and wit could connect the deep wisdom of the church with daily life and contemporary issues:

The chaplains and teachers I knew in University and Seminary changed my life and my way of faith, how I followed Jesus, by offering a ministry of continuing reflective models in the daily context, the duties and delights, of their personal lives and professions. Their witness integrating theory and practice, exploring images and ideals and insights, opened me a to a friendly community of searchers and scholars, giving me my own options for visions and actions and plans in building my own life. They were also surprisingly countercultural in the mainstream of higher education in the United States.

For all these chaplaincies were embedded in large institutions with their own well-known signs and markers; for an academic calendar can offer as serious a liturgy as the church year for its people — providing seasons of planting and harvesting, casting seed and gathering seed together. Academe might not have a well-defined or celebrated sacramental system as the church defines it, but it does offer, at the best of times, a refined and systematic way, often derived from Christian tradition, of learning from and living into the crises and choices which life brings. These pregnant questions are the places where we learn to live our lives, and this is where we can also meet the ministry of parables that Jesus shared with his community of followers

A parable, as I understand it, tells a story, produces a narrative that asks the listener a question they must answer in a way consistent with all components of his or her life: a parable demands that we answer with all that we have and all that we are. In doing so it aims to break apart the often separate nature of how we see reality and open us to consider our lives as integral whole, as a vibrant experience shared with and reflective of the spectrum of the life we share within the widening circles of family, neighbour, friend, enemy, stranger and God. The chaplains I met in my long sojourn In education helped me respond to God and life more fully because of their ministry.

The other model for Chaplain I want to consider more about is one that Carl Dudley writes about in his classic, Making the Small Church Effective. For him, the “chaplaincy model” in ministry refers to a particular style of small “family” parish with an average Sunday attendance under fifty. Here the cleric presides at regular liturgical occasions and serves as personal chaplain to the gathered congregation as needed in the traditional road of baptism, confirmation (with the encouraging of a youth group), marriage, more baptisms, house blessings, hospital visits, home communions, and all the business of ageing and dying which lead  to the funeral service and final sendoff.

Now this parish model of chaplaincy is well-known, traditional, often a vital and valuable ministry, and much good can be seen in churches that live and work like this. But this kind of community can sometimes turn into places where local customs and received traditions become the primary focus to the detriment of the communities larger spiritual health: hence the tired but true joke about the Anglican tendency to offer unchanging veneration to relatively  unimportant things: “Change that light bulb?  My grandfather donated that lightbulb!”

In a world where present chaos and fast-changing futures shake the foundations of everyday life, a comfortable chaplaincy can do valuable work. The strength of customary liturgical services in their regular times and places offer both hope and peace: there is a very good reason that the Holy Spirit is called the comforter! But the breadth of Scripture and tradition tells us that earthquakes and fires can also signal the advent of the spirit as much as the still small voice, that those chaotic surprising times can also be avenues for spiritual grace and growth. And if this call to confront chaos while looking for grace is a true aspect of our pilgrimage as followers of Jesus, when the ministry of the church must balance between (and here I creatively misquote the letter of James), both “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

If we tend to look for God’s presence only on those occasions worn smooth by long custom and cherished tradition, then we can miss the very surprising places where Jesus often shows up. For it is in the times of tempest and trial, both in the Gospels as well as in the deepest traditions of the church gathering over the last two thousand years, where God can both call and challenge us to encounter a wild grace in a newborn world. Those can be the surprising places where the Holy Spirit blows away our old certainties with unexpected life and new beginnings.

This wide Christian way commits us to encounter the God of glory and grace in both cherished traditional practices as well as in newborn and unforeseen opportunities of ministry which the traditions of the cherished family church and chaplaincy can overlook. But it is these unsought for opportunities which often turn to be the very crossroad where we are offered the dangerous and ever new opportunity of connecting with the resurrected Jesus.

So even if a cherished ancestor bequeathed that special luminescence as a signpost of their own their spiritual journey, it turns out that light bulbs have changed in the last few years, to say nothing of the 140 years since Thomas Edison patented incandescent bulbs in the 1880s. And if we aim to share the light of Christ we might need to review current theories and practice of optics. This doesn’t mean we need to leave the past behind. I know one church, not far from where I live now, that cherishes the kerosene lamps hanging in the sanctuary, and makes sure they burn brightly for special occasions when family and friends of the original community gather to celebrate special occasions, even while the viability of that beloved building is under consideration by the larger parish of which it is now a part.

So one of the questions is this: if Jesus calls us to be a light to the world, how do we let our little light  shine today? Is the family style parish with its chaplaincy model of ordained ministry, does the model found on higher education call us, or should we all take up our racquets and convene on the court? Which model is the one we need to follow, or is there a better way?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Easter 2015

The selection from the gospel we just heard is from Mark, the earliest one. Later additions add more words and definitive conclusions but this first record has an abrupt quality which witness something of critical importance about the chaos that comes when we're confronted with the possibility that life is both bigger and better than we might have thought before. Mark makes us see how very strange this whole story is.

Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

We forget that. CS Lewis wrote we’ve sentimentalised Angels in so many Victorian pictures, made them look sweet and fuzzy like they're about to say “There, there”: where in most of their biblical appearances these messengers have to begin by saying, “Fear not”. And Mark’s witness opens up, shares the real terror and amazement you might feel when the walls of the world you’ve always lived in start falling down to show new larger horizons.

“Do not be alarmed.” You are looking for the man who has been murdered but he has been raised. He is not here, he is alive! For followers of Jesus who had just had their hearts broken, this just might break them again. Because you thought you had known a new hope, and you had seen that hope die.

Because you had seen this man one day early in his ministry and things had seemed to turn ‘round. He offered a way into the deepest mystery of life, past all the tired ways where we fail to meet life or each other and where we waste  time. Jesus seemed to come just in time, to speak a word, to be a way to get past all the dead ends in the world into something that was new -- both more holy, loving, open, and involved with flesh and blood and community and relationship. More life: new life.

But it all went wrong so fast and what you thought was the face of a new beginning turned into a tomb with a stone put ‘cross the way — and you witnessed it all: the betrayal by friends, the sham trial, the worst aspects of what we see on our televisions and computer screens every day, but showing up with such contrast, because this death-dealing happened to the liveliest person you had ever hoped to know.

The man shone with a clear hope that enabled you to see your life, path, ministry and meaning with open clarity and depth, an enlightening embrace extending out like a beam of light widening out to exclude nothing and nobody! Because this Jesus made it all new and it was like you saw the world through his bright eyes: all connected, cleaned up and clarified, everyone and everything somehow born again. But all that went dark and dead.

What do you do when hope dies? Where do you go when the ideals and ideas, the stuff, the breath, the face, that gave you joy, started your heart jumping, led you to live; when all that falls away, and you see the dead-on possibility that personal, social, corporate, religious, political, bureaucracy, mediocrity, evil, might just win after all?

After the speedy execution, the friends peeling off to their confused solitude, the rich man offering a resting place for the one who had seemed to be such a beginning. And now a few faithful women stand ready to honour the body that had held such promise, because there seems to be nowhere else to go from here.

And a little bit of peace comes, bitter and filled with resignation, starting to heal the hurt, starting to close the hole where such hope had filled your heart before. Because that’s what happens: after the pain, after the death throes, making peace, letting it go, cutting the losses and closing the door.

Women are much better than men about this wisdom, the strength that comes from mourning, the bittersweet acceptance of accepting defeat and death, but now these three women coming to the tomb to anoint their last hope are shocked and terrified to find that the door that had been so carefully closed has broken wide open.

“Do not be alarmed. He has been raised, he is not here.”  And if this is true, then who he was and what he did still stands, then hope lives, then we can live there, and then this dead end turns out to be a new beginning, where evil will not win and where we don’t have to be afraid of death — or life, for that matter — ever again. “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

It turns out better, we know that. They tell Peter and the disciples, Jesus shows up and talks to Mary in another Gospel, he makes many appearances to the others,  up to and including Paul, even up to the present day, and Easter follows Easter for almost two thousand years and we have decorated chocolate eggs and I for one intend to eat too much lunch with friends followed by a good long nap. And, by Gods grace, I will make room to be amazed and hold a kind of holy fear at the possibility of his open grave, this open grace, and I encourage you to do the same.

Because if this is true then we (no matter who we are and no matter where we are on the way) can  build our lives anew with the faith that Jesus’ way of life will live, that right prevails, that forgiveness is the way of heaven, that death is not defeat and love will win. This is the almost unbelievable good news, that Christ is risen from the dead, and we must lift up our amazement and cast our fears away and rejoice,

So, to paraphrase St John Chrystostom in a sermon written some 1600 years ago:

First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice! For the Table is richly laden! [Therefore] Feast royally… Partake, of the cup of faith and enjoy all the riches of God’s goodness!

Let no one grieve at their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one can mourn that they have fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free…. O death, where is thy sting?  O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and death is annihilated! Christ is Risen, and evil is cast down! Christ is Risen, and angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! [and God’s love will win]

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Friday, April 03, 2015

Good Friday sermon I wrote but did not use...

This weekend makes sixteen and a half years since my mother died. She passed away in California on October 4, the feast of St. Francis and the beginning of the Northern Autumn, at the age of 81, after a few years of chronic and increasing illness and disability. In many ways her end with a quick heart attack  was a release. But it was also a beginning, and, in a way I cannot quite describe, since her death our relationship has grown and I've learned things from her, and about her love for me as my mother, that I hadn't seen while she was still with me.

You wouldn’t know to look at me that I can be a perfectionist. But as a boy  — from the age of seven or eight —  every summer I would spend days at time practicing my diving at the local swimming pool; and it was very important to me than my mother saw me doing the perfect dive from the board. I could get quite nervous about it, starting to approach the end of the board and stopping and saying, “No let me try that again!” and she always waited and watched and told me I was wonderful. I didn't get consistently good grades in school either but when I got good comments on tests or written papers I would bring them home to her and she always shared my delight. Even when I was in my thirties I remember her coming to hear me preach at the Cathedral in San Francisco at a Sunday Evensong and being almost impatient for her praise: that I had done my best and that my best was good enough.

It was only after she died, looking back at the long years of laughter, good and quiet conversations, loud misunderstandings, tears and reconciliations, triumphs and tragedies, — all the intimate weaving that goes into any  deep relationship— : it was only in looking back at those years and taking some time that I realised that she didn't just love me when I was doing my best. She loved me all the time: when I was fearful, or undisciplined, or rebellious or just bad. When I was wasting time – and my God I wasted so much time! — her love was timeless, her patience was inexhaustible, her faith and hope and love for me knew no bounds. And I don't think I ever saw that, ever knew how true that was, until she had gone on.

When Jesus becomes flesh, enters into the human journey with each and every one of us, he does so to love us through all our days, and I think that is sometimes difficult to believe. Love that lasts not just in the love feasts or the healings, not just the joy on top of the mountains. but in the flat and falling times, in breakdowns as well as breakthroughs, when things don’t go well, in waste and void and fear of failure. In his human life Jesus presents a love that joins us in every gain or loss all the days of our lives.

I think that's why he's born as a fragile baby in an unimportant village somewhere on the other side whatever town looks to be the middle of nowhere for you. He comes to be nearer than our nearest neighbour, from, as Wystan Auden puts it, the “ranches of isolation and the busy griefs…, [to those] Raw towns that we believe and die in.”  Jesus Christ joins us in each and every  aspect of our lives and just as a mother feels for the children she has born, so the Lord has mercy, and love, and infinite compassion for the children whom he knows from the inside. Those children for whom, like a mother hen, he would spread his wings offering protection, compassion, and comfort in times of trouble, in any time, important and unimportant, feast and failure, good deed and disaster, in every moment of our living and our dying.

Jesus joins the human family to show us that God’s love can meet us in the real and final fragility of being flesh and blood. In Him we see love closer than our very breath, God’s breath in our lungs, God’s love in our life. Jesus joins us in our incomplete journey so that we may know our end in light of his living-dying-rising love.

So even when we come to the end of the story, to the ends of our lives, to the end of all the things we knew, even and especially when we don’t know what comes next, Jesus joins us to share the inside story all the way through. Jesus joins us in the end of all endings and into a new beginning where love will never end, where death will have no dominion. And in our deepest vulnerability Jesus unveils God’s love in the last place we would look.

This story we work though this week - when we hear the story of Jesus's entrance into Jerusalem, his trial, his passion and pain, his long trip to the tomb - is enough to break our heart. But if we let this story, this seed of God settle into our soul it can ripen to break open a new Hope, rise up in a surprising love that endures, for Jesus joins us in our incomplete journey with his unfinished love and is living proof that, as Dame Julian tells us: “all shall be well, and all show be well, and all manners of things shall be well,”

 Thomas Merton wrote a prayer such some years ago that I think Jesus might have prayed on a day like today. We might pray it too:

Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am
actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.

In the name of Christ. Amen.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Paul Klee, Sinbad the Sailor

Coffee Spoons

Is there a biological predisposition, a genetic marker, for loving coffee houses? I remember walking down Columbus Avenue with my father in the middle nineteen-fifties when North Beach was the centre of San Francisco’s beatnik culture. We walked past the Co-Existence Bagel Shop and I caught a scent of espresso and saw people with beards sipping from small cups, reading big books, gesticulating with closely held opinions, and a voice deep in my soul spoke up in my nine year old self and said, “I’ll have what they're having!”

It was the start of a downward spiral, though it stayed quiet for years,  only resurfacing when I was a student in Eugene, Oregon in 1969, with an evening visit a coffee house which had all of the above plus live folk music. I returned the next day with a slim volume of James Joyce plus my journal and it was the beginning of the end.

For most of the decades since then I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. In most of those years I knew exactly where to go to sit, drink and read and write: to fill numerous journals with innumerable outlines, epiphanies, confessions,  poetry, prose, plans for the future, laments for years past.

I will admit I spent too much time as a student. As one of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury characters said of his life as a sophomore, “They were three of the happiest years of my life,” and I understand that completely.  But a large part of that was the proximity to Coffee Houses. In the nineteen seventies at the University of California at Davis the Student Union had both a dining commons and a co-operative coffee house. I had a the habit of a regular table. After extensive peer pressure, to say nothing of strident urgings from the teaching faculty and University administration, I graduated in the late seventies but soon reemerged in a Master’s program at the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium one block north of the UC Berkeley campus. It was there my using escalated. It was just too easy with a cafe on every street, even on the sidewalk, walking one block in almost any direction brought easy access to latte’s, mocha, short cups of espresso. You could get an omelette, Italian pastries, even gelato. And it wasn’t just the drink and food. They had books and magazines piled in the corners, rotating art exhibits, windows to look out and the world going by. it was a glorious time, and at the Olde Egg Shop and Apple Press, a name that evoke some moisture in the eyes of old Berkeley alums, they gave free refills! I felt like I had arrived in my final spiritual home.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Melbourne Lane

Old Man Me: starting to explain why I am now “Post-Chaplinesque.”

On Thursday evening, May 22, I will begin a talk on Thomas Merton at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne called “Old Man Merton” with the story of an ambitious musician who always felt depressed whenever he remembered that, “When Mozart was my age, he had been dead for ten years!” And when Thomas Merton got to be my age he had been dead for almost fifteen years! We don't know who he would have been or what he would have done, so when it comes using him as a model of ageing well, we have only our own projections to deal with and those projects are known to have pitfalls.

But in one of my favourite poems, Merton writes,“The pathway dies, the journey has begun.” So if Thomas Merton is no longer on the living map his spirit can still  enliven the unknown territory we must come to inhabit. For the life of Thomas Merton in the 21st Century is a story we must write within our own lives: the unfinished story of Old Man Merton must turn into the life of Old Man Me.

This is apt.  As of today I have thirteen months and one day until I turn seventy. I am now a retired gentle-person, senior citizen, a man of a certain age. How do I dance with disease, diminution, and death, and with days that are also  open, if I really look, to almost anything? There can be time for visions and revisions, time to write, take naps, serve my neighbour, love God and respond to love as if I had all the time in the world.

It’s still a rich and wide choice. Tennis may be off the list but from here I can take on a daily practice of writing, meditation and all sorts of ministry, while generally sharing the burdens and glories of the journey with others. I can stretch every morning, do centering prayer twice a day, tai chi at noon, tea at three and weekly mass at seven in the evening: visit the poor, sick and lonely, comfort my people — but then the question is both with what and how? Where is the particular Good News to share at this point in time in this specific cultural and geographical place, and what does a whole life look like here and now?  What would Thomas Merton say or do?

Because I deeply despair of the church in its present shape in the Australian bush, and I’m still surprised by what I find here. It is neither the church not the culture that formed me and my ministry. Because for most of my past parish life in Northern California and central Melbourne I was part of somewhat post-modern gathered congregations where people showed up because they really wanted to. These were enclaves located in a larger cultural and intellectual environment where being a Christian was seen as socially suspect, if not only dated and dowdy, and people often outed themselves with a shy smile, “I know it’s surprising, but I get quite a lot out of church.”

That was the world where I lived and prayed, learned and taught, worked and grew, where the old and established cultural cachet and accretions of being a Christian had fallen out of the nest. The congregations I knew had turned another corner; where the old attendees had died or dispersed and most of the new people came from somewhere else than the established pattern; from marriages that failed, careers that weren’t as expected, vocations re-visioned and visions renewed. They were like returnees from long trips overseas when the itinerary took then further than the expected destination. People at Grace Cathedral on San Francisco’s Nob Hill and at St Peter’s Eastern Hill in Melbourne showed up on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights because they had deep and personal experiences of God or love or loss; an encounter that set them on a search with their time in church a necessary part of a particular and crucial pilgrimage.

It made for different type of congregations; people on their own way, not there because a great grandmother had given a window or an uncle baptised before the war, not there because of a lingering expectation that the family would always attend in due season and on important occasions. In these post-Christendom communities the traditional expectations have echoed like old background music then faded away to leave a new silence open to be filled with other voices and choices by a newly re-focussed community of prayer, celebration and discernment.

But now I have retired in country Victoria, Australia, where the remnant of the institutional church still carries much traditional cultural weight, albeit with an ever smaller circle attending services. It is still a place where a number of parishioners come with inherited convictions of family tradition and lengthy associations, known and acknowledged in the larger existing communities for good or ill. This tradition can offer a rich web of associations, to be sure, but it is one that is quickly running out of steam and what worries me is that I can see no shared vision of community, no newly packaged kerygma, to take its place. And that leaves me wondering where to go and what to do.

For the life I live, the faith and ministry I practice as a Christian, as well as a priest of the Anglican Church, will happen here. And at this point I am not sure what direction this self-offering will take, who and how I should serve as I worship God. So I am in a time of personal and professional discernment, but this is nothing new: my whole life and ministry has followed wandering ways into pilgrimage; often with a destination in sight, sometimes intuitively going after a slight hunch or the hint of a vision, occasionally turning around when dumb or graceful luck opened a door or excluded an option. With that history I am not ultimately uncomfortable with ambiguous beginnings or endings either. I actually have more trouble with the middle.

In any case, after my post-retirement summer vacation, I want to take time to consider and share the current questions and answers, initial ideas and tentative explorations on my  own future work (as well as those of others), on some possible new missions and revised ministries that might make a difference for the church that waits to happen. This also means looking at the ministry I’ve done in the past, as a chaplain and occasional teacher in higher education, with a short stint in aged care, as well as several years as the chaplain to a diocesan Bishop. This has been work I loved and I give thanks for as I lay it down, but that pathway has died and a new journey begun. So that is also what it means to be “Post-Chaplinesque.”  I hope you’ll be with me on the journey.