Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Reflections on the Tsunami - 2004

They rise and fall on the ocean waves: the children in the sea, the ones who ran to the great harvest of fish on the open coast, along the receding waters edge, before the flood. That is the image that stays with me this morning, after the news, radio and television, text and pictures, after coffee, email, breakfast and mass, after the news that one American friend who was there is found and, with his family, survived. After the numbness and the tears and the prayers: this abides.

It is an event of biblical proportions; earthquake and flood: people torn from one another, the coming plagues, the sea giving up its dead; all images found in those black-bound books that have accompanied Christendom around the world and - even if we are vehemently post-Christian - resound in our common memories, our hearts and minds.

How can there be a just or kind God in this world, either in its creation or in its workaday operations? Maybe the clock has run down, maybe the demons have come forth, maybe we are on that “darkling plain… where ignorant armies clash by night.” But this obscenity seems to put the myth of any caring God to flight.

I have seen the pictures of the dead, waving in the ocean, waiting to come to land. I wait for the news of people in this parish who were in Thailand, my pharmacist who was looking forward to a vacation on the beach there. I hear the stories of the dead prince, the grandchild of the television commentator, the football player on honeymoon. And this is only the surface: for thousands of dead wait in rubble, under mud, amidst the limbs of broken trees. The world of hope has turned upside down: so many lives rising and falling.

Where can faith come from today, in this world that watches, bound together once more by tragedy as the tube witnesses in our living rooms? Where can hope be found? Where can I stand while the world drowns in such awareness? What can I say? How can I pray?

I am some sort of Christian, ‘though most days I despair of the church, wonder about the traditions, doubt the phrasing of the dogmas and doctrines, and am disgusted by the more moralistic of my people. There is a story that Frank Lloyd Wright was taken to see the Civic Center of San Francisco years ago. He turned with disgust from the large classically French-inspired domed building on a large rectangular plaza: “Only a city as beautiful as this,” he said, “could survive what you are doing to it.” In my experience he could have been speaking of the church. But something survives.

Jesus doesn’t survive, not even in the biblical account. Killed by mediocrity, geo-political, hegemonies like those that surround us now. Factions came together to agree that his expedient death would be in order. And it was easily accomplished. There may be more to the stories, and I believe there is, but there’s a dead man in the center of it.

He may live beyond death, but we can all agree that he died. And if he did live in some new largesse of existence we can’t yet envision, then that’s not much help now. In a world where dead children surf towards broken land, where mass graves are being prepared, where this tectonic uprising that certainly intended no death or destruction brings mourning and grief beyond belief for people beyond number.

St. Paul, who wrote many stupid things, and was probably as psychologically damaged as most of the people I see every day, said, “mourn with those who mourn,” and I think that is a safe bet today. It would be a terrible thing to meet anyone with some pre-packaged re-assured hope at this time, but we can remember ourselves, remember our connection with the dead and dying, and those whose lives are torn and broken. We need instead to witness this act with them: we need to stand together.

It would be wonderful if all peoples and nations would put away the implements of war for some few days right now, could meet at the edge of the waters and watch the children rise and fall, as they come home to land; if religious leaders of all and any sect and tribe could stand together with tears and mourning for mothers and fathers, families over all the earth who are one in mourning. It probably wouldn’t matter much in a week or so, the inevitable pull of powers and principalities would resumes, nation make war against nation, and children die in dust and fire as well as water and the limb of broken trees. But, if just for a day, we could mourn together and remember.

Earlier this year I attended a memorial services for a visiting American student who had a virus-caused infarction that killed him instantly while he was working out at the University gym near where I live. As an American who served as a chaplain at several US campuses, I was invited to the service. Afterwards I talked to some students and staff who knew him. And the only thing I could think of was a beer commercial where someone took a swig of fresh brew and smiling, said, “This one’s for you.”

I told several people, young and beautiful students who have lost a friend they had just come to know, that they should say this to him when they saw a sunrise, drank a beer, made love, cried, lived life. That was my theological perspective and my ministry that morning; with tears and prayers, it was the best I could give them. That and some dumb conviction (that stays with me against all the noisy voices that tell me it isn’t so) that the dead do rise, and nothing and no one will be lost at the last.

I told them that when I was eight years old someone told me about the primary sexual act, how babies are born. I responded that I didn’t believe it, my parents would never do that, and I would never do that! I did change my mind, came to believe, but time had to take place and my body had to turn and change before I knew that this wild story might be true.

So it may be with the resurrection of the dead. Old St. Paul may be right on this one as well. We might need to get to a further maturity, some deeper ripening on the road ahead rising up within us before we can ken this truth; but it may be there, whether we know it or not. Most days I do believe that love will prevail, ‘though I am not sure how, and I try to base my life on this hunch, faith, whatever. This may not be true for you and I am not out to convert anyone to anything. I just want to stand alongside, by the edge of the sea, with you, and hope that all the children find their way home.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

2006 and the RMIT Chaplaincy

Dear Friends and Associates of the RMIT Chaplaincy,

As we come to the end of the year and the beginning of a well-earned time for reflection, recreation and renewal, I wanted to write a bit about our chaplaincy in 2006.

To put it simply and to quote Frank Sinatra, “It was a very good year”. So we look back fondly as we look forward to the year ahead. This year we began a variety of educational, pastoral and prophetic offerings with a number of programs and activities that will continue in somewhat different forms for the autumn semester. Opening Scripture will merge into Opening Conversation, Morning Prayer will move into the celebration of the weekly Eucharist. Our Friday offering, RMIT Prays, will transmute into a weekly “Peacemakers” meeting and hopefully connect with a local group of Amnesty International. Opening Silence, co-ordinated with Philomena Holman and Lyndon Medina, expands from two weekly meetings with offerings at the Business School and at the Bundoora campus. In addition, there are plans for a quiet day or two during the year, some short courses on the Enneagram, Thomas Merton on the Christian-Buddhist connection, and a series of meeting on Group Spiritual Formation.

So it has been a busy year and it is important to note the help and support received from our chaplains: Robert Miller, Tony Salisbury and Peter Collins; as well as Agus Effundy, Okie Tranupradja and Libby Austin during this year. Our numbers will be growing next year as we welcome Chi Kwang Sunim and Father James Grant to the Bundoora campus. Chi Kwang was born in Western Australia, trained as a sculptor, and worked as an art teacher before spending 19 years living as a Zen Buddhist nun in Korea. She returned to set up the retreat centre "The Seon Centre" in King Lake, where she is currently Abbess. At this point we are hoping that she will be involved in “Opening Silence” on the Bundoora campus. James Grant will be working with staff and students at Bundoora as well as supervising a deacon, a member of the Sundanese community who will be a presence on the campus. In the coming year we will also be welcoming Riad Galil, the Imam of the West Heidelberg mosque and a member of the Victorian Board of Imans. With a long history in multi-faith concerns, Riad will be a coordinator of the Jewish- Christian-Muslim conference in 2007 and has been nominated by the Islamic Council of Victoria to sit on the Council for Chaplains in Tertiary Institutions. His ministry will be a real boon to the whole RMIT community.

And if I thanked everyone who supported the chaplaincy by friendship, attendance, meeting over a cuppa or a coke sharing questions and answers, then this letter would be far too long. But please know that you have made a difference in who we are and what we do on the ground floor of Building 11, in the Spiritual Centre, and all around RMIT.

We wish you well during this holiday season, and a very good new year.

Merry Christmas!


Monday, December 04, 2006

Sermon, Advent Sunday. St. Peter's Eastern HIll

Let’s begin today with some questions: What was most important to you 24 hours ago, or two months ago, or on July 11th 2004? What will be next Wednesday at 2:00pm or next February or ten years from now? What or who will you love, hate, fear? What will hold your interest or bore you, what changes will happen in the world around you or in the intimate connections that are crucial to you right now? What changes, what remains the same? And where is there an insight or a vision that will speak to this swiftly passing world?

Those are Advent concerns and questions and relate to the reading from the Gospel that we just heard, which is a form of biblical writing called Apocalyptic Literature; visionary, poetic, image-laden accounts of the end-time (and we will hear more during this season). This sort of language, prophecy and prediction comes when the people of God go through tough times. When the temple is destroyed, when kidnappings occur, when terror reigns and the future seems so different from the past that it is almost beyond belief, when hope gets thin and you need a vision that makes room for beginning again, opening the door a little for some new hope when all the old options seem to be closing fast. The Advent lessons bring visions of enforced endings and perhaps tentative beginnings.

So, let me tell you about two visions I saw in the middle of the 1980s. Two television shows about the effects of a nuclear holocaust: one called The Endless Winter and the other called The Day After. Terrible visions: I remember the pictures of the light and the wind and the fire that would follow the dropping of the big bombs. And even if some of us were to survive that end-time, it would be to reap a miserable harvest in a silent world, because bees would not be there to pollinate the flowers and birds and animals would not know to turn away or close their eyes and would be blinded by that false light. So the spring following the holocaust would have fewer colors and little song after that infernal gray blossom fell from the sky.

I was taking classes in Berkeley, California then, where there’s a great bell-tower in the centre of the campus, and whenever I would hear the striking of the bells on the hour I would try to stop what I was doing and look at the possibility that it all might end right then. To look around while the bells were ringing, and people, animals, insects, trees and plants were moving together in the cool air and the soft light and think: "It could all be over, finished, end." And when the bells stopped ringing and the sounds of everyday came back I would look around and think; "There is a chance, we are not dead yet." And there is a chance that if we are not dead, then perhaps we are newborn, like children, full of new possibilities, full of graceful innocence and promise, full of beginning.

It is a strange place to base a code of conduct or an economy, in sight of the Last Things. But it is also a great place. For to live out the possibilities and the message of love, forgiveness and renewal, the way of beginning rightly in the face of all the endings, is to assent and assist in the birth of God’s grace, God’s very face in our daily and real world. It is to allow mystery and forgiveness and renewal of God's purpose, life and love, to begin once again. And it is to begin right where you are. No matter where you were yesterday, two years ago, wherever you may be three years from now, on the anniversary of your birthday or on the day you die. You are still right in the middle of your life. As the American baseball player Yogi Berra once said, Wherever you go, there you are! And there is the only place where we can learn to love, to let our love grow and ripen, and make our life and ministry matter.

It isn’t easy to live in a world lit up by birth and death. Most days we make our way somewhere down the middle between history and hope, doing what we can; cobbling together an identity from need and custom, meeting the marketplace and minimizing the pain; and though there can be a fleeting feeling that we’ve missed the sign for some important turn, we generally go our own way.

But an apocalypse or an Advent, the time and place where beginning and ending flash into consciousness, can be a kind of wakeup call, and a lens enabling us to see both farther into what might be and closer into what is. It clears our sight for a moment to reveal the present time as a world bigger then we know, more full of intent and information than we’ve supposed, more intimate than we could have hoped for.

And how do we prepare so that this new seed may come to grow? How do we receive this truth and live it out in the complex textures of our lives? It requires an ongoing openness, discipline and practiced ministry in three places: where we work, where we play, and where we fear.

These are the three axes on which we meet and bear and balance our highest hopes, our inner lives and our outward ministry: all in a universe saturated by the grace of a self-giving and all loving God. “Where we work” because that is often the best, although not easiest, place for practicing ministry; “Where we play” because that is so often where we participate in the joy of God’s creation; and “where we fear” because that is when we need to know that we are walking with the Lord in the middle of our life.

So “Wherever you go, there you are!”. It is one hope: of a world woven together by love: where we come to reach for Christ, and let Christ reach out to meet the world in our ministry. To get a grip on Christ so that we may learn to hand him to the world and hand the world back to him. As members of that body, proceeding into the world God loves, day after day, year after year, time after time, in our work, in our play, in our fear. In being present as we can with faithful hearts to family, friends and strangers; in tasks, hobbies, jobs and joys, in the times of frustrations and puzzlement and promise, in agreements that must be honored, in situations that must be met. All these are places where we act out, serve out, flesh out, and live out the reconciling life of Jesus - in serving love of every kind - in the ministry of acceptance, love, and forgiveness in the middle of our lives.

And this is our hope. That in all beginnings, middles and endings, the love of God in Christ recalls and remembers our lives so that our daily liturgies are transformed into that one great Eucharistic celebration. That we shall come to move like Christ in all these places with the grace of the God who comes to meet us this Advent. Right here and right now, in the sight of the end-times, we find our end, our goal. In sight of the last things, we have faith that this insight, this action, this liturgy, will last.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen