Friday, May 31, 2013

Talk for Synod, Diocese of Wangaratta 2013 - Education and Formation

In 1977 I went to visit a monastery in Santa Barbara California because my life was at a crisis: as a student, as a worker, as a man trying to figure out what my place was in the world; what I had to get and what I had to give.  I had no answers and I wasn’t even sure how to ask the questions. And something happened to me. If you’re interested, I can talk you about it another time, but the end result was, I found the God believed in me. And that made all the difference. 

After that it was time to return to my life, my work, my studies, my wildly open future. As I was preparing to leave the monastery that morning I  saw the oldest monk  walking outside the chapel: a monk for 70+ years, Bishop Campbell had retired as a bishop from Africa,  was around 92  at that time and still going strong.  I went up to him and I thanked him for his presence during my time there, then said, and now I’m going back to my life.” He looked at me steadily for a moment then said, “Yes, another beginning!” And I’ve always remembered that.

I've also been very fond of a one liner from a Rhodes scholar who went in a different direction. Kris Kristofferson, in the song, “Me and Bobby McGee”, said “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” and there’s a real wisdom there. 

Now we’re in a funny place as a church. We were a cultural necessity for so long, part of the official definition of the good life, had some real glory years, and now they seem to be gone. There may be some sadness that so many things that seemed to be eternal have come to an end; but as a 92-year-old monk said to me some 36 years ago, it is another beginning.

I am no longer a young man, Bishop Campbell is long gone, even the monastery burned to the ground a few years ago and a smaller number of monks have renewed the ministry in an disused convent closer to the center of Santa Barbara. And we are no longer part of the official definition of the good life, the Anglican church is hardly fashionable anymore. We have good memories as we look for another beginning where the old answers might not fit, and the new questions are just coming into focus.

But there is a tremendous freedom in the beginning again, in looking around and wondering what the gospel will look like in the 21st century, as long as we keep fast to the graceful hope that God believes in us more than we believe in ourselves; that God holds our church in love; then by God’s grace we have nothing left to lose and a new beginning to gain.

And where do we go from here? My personal hunch is that we have lost the battle of Sunday morning. 40 or 50 years ago, the market was closed, the playing field silent,  and sleeping in or taking brunch was not such a popular option. That world has changed and there are new and noisy gods on the horizon; the mall or the web, the media and big business, sex and popularity and money are so often the new meaning. 

And while most people have left religion behind, some others stick to a strident fundamentalism, an evangelical fervor that often strikes me as a defense mechanism against the possibility that God is calling us to something new, something larger than vision of the church we found such comfort in so many years ago. That gives me hope too. I think it must’ve been like that when the Christian community left its Jewish parentage and went among the nations; it must’ve been like that when Christians started to speak out for pacifism, against slavery, for women’s rights, against multinationals and ecological outrage. Perhaps another beginning for God’s people is growing in the heart of the church. And where do we go from here?

I think the best thing is to start small. A few years ago we started a four-year program with the bishop certificate and over 40 people enrolled. We’ve lost a few and gained a few since then. But I realized that most people are not ready or able to make that kind of time commitment. In my ministry for the diocese I’m building 4 week templates, weekend templates, one day templates, even online classes that can happen any time for anyone, anywhere. 

We’re meeting people where they are and when they can join us  by offering options for Tuesday nights or Thursday nights, Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon: short sequences that can awaken curiosity and hope, seed community and commitment, so that we can  remind people that we stand offering a tradition that carries the greatest tradition of justice, mercy, hope, community, that the world has ever seen. 

But this is not easy and there is a danger that we are so caught by our history that we could almost lose hope, we’ve already lost so much, but “We are the body of Christ” and God believes in us so much more than we believe in ourselves, so carrying this hope can be such good news, this freedom of nothing left to lose gives us everything to gain as a gift from God.

So we’re starting small from here. If you are a small congregation, 3 to 12 people meeting every week or once or twice a month, I ask you to consider  having a one-day program once or twice a year. We can do it as part of the Sunday service and try to nurture your existing membership and maybe bring in a few new people. If you’re a larger congregation, think about having a few four-week series on Bible study, on meditation, on faith and films,  on making your own rule of life: come talk to me about who you are and what you like and we can try to make a program that fits for you; and if I can’t do it, I can help you find somebody who can.  

if you’re a larger congregation this offer stands too, but I would also ask you to look at your own membership, clergy and laity, and think about, what talents or community you might share from within your congregations, amongst your sisters and brothers in the diocese, what gifts you might have to give. 

This can be a very rich moment to be in the church, a lovely time to think on these things, and while there is much that may be ending, it may well be that we are privileged to witness a new beginning, an opportunity that comes to us with a great freedom and an equal responsibility. But I am convinced that we are under an obligation, under the gift of grace, to recall who we are, what we carry, why that matters, for God believes in us, and that shall always be our heritage, our heart, and our hope.

Rob Whalley + 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Easter 7C

Six months ago today I had a total shoulder replacement. The surgery was amazingly easy, the recovery process much more complicated than I expected. I was on sick leave for 3 months, the Bishop told me it would take more like 6 months, I’ll be doing the physiotherapy for the rest of the year, probably forever, to get the maximum effect from the 2 hour operation, and it keeps changing. 

I had planned the time after the surgery for reading, writing, meditation, prayer. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t even read a book for the first few weeks, writing was no easier, that changed as time went on, but the time for quiet meditation just got noisy, with ideas, old memories, distractions and dumb ideas all leading me astray, and my prayer life turned around too; partly because I was being away from the regular places I worked and prayed, but partly there was this lingering hunch that God was using the change of scenery to change something in me, deeper  than I knew - and it wasn’t easy. 

Now six months later I am back at work, but still not back in old routines, trying to stretch out in the  old places with some new habits, letting life move and breathe in them in new ways. And all that is Eastertide stuff.

We’ve just been though seven weeks of living with uprising. Jesus is alive, Christ is risen from the grave, and life gets confusing pretty quickly. The Gospel readings after the resurrection have some strange encounters: Jesus telling Mary Magdalene, “do not hold on to me,” asking Thomas to touch his open wounds, walking and talking with the disciples  on the road to Emmaus,  enlightening their hope and understanding, arranging a surprising fishing expedition, even serving  the disciples with a breakfast barbecue at the beach. It looks like He just might show up anywhere. And then today, as we move to the feast of Pentecost, Jesus says:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me...that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

And that sends us in a new direction: to take in the chance, the Pentecost promise, that God comes to dwell, pitch his tent, in the middle of our daily journey, here and now, everyday. And how do we stretch out to take that possibility, to live life with God in the middle of it all?

I am doing four things to get ready for Pentecost, for this new season of the church year that leads us all the way to Advent, get us through the winter and spring us into new beginnings. Four things: one private ritual that’s an addition to something I’ve done for years, two old routines I’ve brought back, and something new I never thought of before, surprising me with me great pleasure, fresh breath, new insight, and I want to share these four practices with you today. 

First a story. Some thirty years ago I was living in a seminary in California with students from a variety of faith communities: Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, Congregational, even a Coptic Christan. Julian was from South Africa, had been politically involved in fighting apartheid, racial segregation, and when he finished his Master degree in Berkeley he invited some of us to a celebration, a prayer time together, where he prayed in a way I had never seen. We gathered around a fireplace, and he lit some twigs, then he chanted the Lord’s prayer very quickly, almost muddling the words together, ‘Father in heaven, may your name be holy, may your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.Give us today daily bread, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, save us from the time of trial but deliver us from evil.Amen.’ then he prayed some other prayers, moved some wood around the fire, maybe bowed, and again, “‘Father in heaven, may your name be holy, may your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today daily bread, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, save us from the time of trial but deliver us from evil.Amen.’

And I thought, this is pretty different! It's like you’re rushing like refugees away from an army, or you’re trying to turn around on a dangerous path, or you’re looking at the likelihood of your own death and trying to remember, quickly, what matters most.  And it’s come back to me now.

For some years, since I trained as a chaplain in a psych ward in 1989, I’ve often prayed when I washed and dried by my hands during the day, not many words, sometimes thinking of baptism and what that means, sometimes remembering St Theresa of Avila where she says. 

Christ has no body but yours...Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world…Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

But now I am quickly adding the Lord’s prayer, like a pilgrim trying to practice resurrection and the promise of Pentecost, and it seems to lead me to more life. I offer it to you as a gift for this new season. 

Two other routines I used to practise have returned in my sick leave and recovery time; silently saying "thank you" and "I'm sorry" to God twenty times a day, sending that quick prayer to God like an email: but not just for me but for others in this world we share: it can be a tree's autumn colors, a child’s laughter, someone leaning on a friend, the lady driver who slows down to let me cross the street. I say I’m sorry too! For other people dealing with illness, age, anxiety, all the sad and wonderful business of being human. I watch people going the tough times and I pretend I’m “an authorized friend of Jesus” and I hold them in my heart like the Lord crying over Jerusalem, and I witness the compassion and hope and the rest we share in Christ with God. 

Jesus says: that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Before the surgery I usually started the work day doing morning prayer at the Bishop’s Registry. But home alone I found another way to pray, something that surprised me: how many of you remember chanting the psalms? 

(singing) Light dawns for the righteous * and joy for the upright in heart.
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, * and give thanks to his holy name.
It may be a little odd, sitting at my desk alone at home. But I think of all the choirs, the gatherings over centuries, in little churches and schools, monasteries and convents, cities and deserts, on the road to somewhere and in the middle of nowhere, how these songs of praise and prayer, lamentation and laudation, continue to sing out all over the world, even more than the world, and I add my voice to the choir and it gives me great joy.
Jesus says, that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

We are here to prepare for Pentecost, for the promise of God’s loving spirit, God’s very simple breath, in our lives, in our hearts. These are some stretches, basic aerobics to reach out and touch the spirit of Christ that longs to give us breath, offer a hand, enable hope, heart and glory, with the gift of the Spirit. 

Let St Theresa have the last word: 

Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.


Monday, May 06, 2013

Easter 6C

In 1977, when I was 31 years old, I went to visit a monastery in the hills of Santa Barbara California. It was a time in my faith journey when I was no longer sure that I had the right answers and I really was beginning to wonder if I even had the right questions.

So I went to visit this monastery. The monks, the brothers living in the house, were kind and hospitable and gave this sad young man a room in the dormitory, three meals a day and plenty of time. So I stayed there a few weeks, reading books, visiting with people, taking long walks; then    one of the brothers said to me, “you seem to have a fine intellectual understanding of the faith, in your head, but you’re not giving much time for prayer, in your heart. Why don’t you spend a half-hour in the chapel every night and just pray for guidance?” So I started doing that, without much expectation but giving it time, and one night I met God believing in me. 
That was more than half my life ago and I will never forget it: but I will always remember that it came when my heart was filled with sadness, my hands were open and empty,  and my life was left without a lot of hope.  But what I found was, even there, especially there, was that God was there believing in me.
The day I left to go back to my life outside the monastery I  talked to one of the older monks.  He had been a Bishop in the African church, retired to the monastery, was around 92 years old. I told him I was going back to the University, going back home to take up my studies and work, and he looked at me and said, “Ah yes, another beginning.” So I went back to make another beginning in the middle of my life and that was the end of my time in Santa Barbara.
The lessons for this Sunday have to do with beginnings, middles and ends. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles,  St. Paul starts a new church at the home of Lydia, “a worshiper of God and a dealer in purple cloth.” She is one of the reminders that the early church was full of strong and capable women, in the tradition of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, and up to the present day whom we remember and give  thanks for  their mission and ministry, in their birthing and building up of the Christian community.
  The reading from the Revelation to John has to do with the end of the world, The word “End” (the greek is Telos) here means both the final act and the final goal. This reading gives us a poetic picture of what we might finally hope for as we walk with God, with Jesus, in the spirit, today. It is a a place of perfect balance and perfect beauty, the hope of heaven. Interestingly, there's no church there, no need for a building, but when we're there, each one stands enlightened by God’s good light, we living eternally in the light of God’s love, in that heavenly City, joining together in that heavenly feast of which this Eucharist is a simple foretaste. 
But today’s Gospel plants us right in the middle of everything, in a difficult time, in that seemingly random parade of events from Easter to Pentecost, the weeks that follow from the resurrection of Jesus to the birthday of the church. And now, in this in-between time, Jesus is surprising people: telling Mary Magdalene, “do not hold on to me,” asking Thomas to touch his open wounds,  then showing up walking and talking with the disciples  on the road to Emmaus,  enlightening their hope and understanding. He arranges a surprising fishing expedition, even serves  the disciples a bonus breakfast barbecue at the beach. And then he tells his disciples, his friends, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ 
Sometimes it is difficult to deal with these comings and goings of the Lord. Sometimes it seems less of a dance and more like a conversation on a phone when the voice keeps fading in and out. We can try to learn to accept the rhythm of it, like the church seasons moving from feast to fast, from  penitence to celebration,  from dying faith to living hope, but sometimes it’s not easy. But Jesus says, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” 
And he also tell us, 
”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you... Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

 And then sometimes he seems to leave us, even after Easter.  And our hearts can still be filled with sadness, our hands open and empty,  and our lives left without a lot of hope. He even left the disciples wondering a bit back then. It’s not an uncommon place to be.

But as we move to Pentecost Jesus still promises to meet us in the middle of the way with all our brittle doubts and our ragged faith, sad hearts, and empty open hands. And if we will still reach out he will join with us through the very center of this dangerous journey and accompany us all the way home to that enlightened city, that final heavenly festival, that great feast  that is in the middle and the end, of all creation. And Jesus promises that he will share with us the very breath that breathes the universe, that breathes through his own redemptive life, to turn us around, and that breath/spirit will join us on the way. So we wait in the middle of this Easter season to know the fire of Pentecost, that we may find here, in the middle of everywhere, that God creates another beginning to bring us home in the end.

St John Chrysostom writes this in an Easter homily some 1600 years ago, it's a good place to end:

Come…  enter into the joy of your Lord…. enjoy the banquet of faith… receive the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free...
Christ is risen and [death is] abolished. Christ is risen and... demons are cast down. Christ is risen and... angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life is freed. Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead... To Him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen. 

Easter 2C

Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe!” But it’s not always easy to believe, for the disciple Thomas back then or for us now. You can understand Thomas’s difficulties in our Gospel lesson for today; Responding to the other disciples claimed that they had seen the Lord; that he was alive!  Thomas has been through a lot: he was with Jesus at the raising of Lazarus, when a good friend dead three days was revived, brought back to life; he was there on the journey to Jerusalem, when cries of praise with waving palm leaves and songs of triumph turn to crowds calling for execution. Thomas likely was one of the disciples watching a distance from the  crucifixion,  watching their best hope die and not wanting to believe what they  were seeing.  God knows where they went after that. With that much life and death and life, blessings and betrayals all jumbled together, Thomas and the other disciples can be forgiven for wanting to hang their heads and hide.

Because sometimes faith is the last thing you want, because keeping hope alive can really hurt, because sometimes love seems to lose and you end up feeling lost. Sometimes resignation feels easier in the long run. After the pain, after the death throes, you make peace with defeat and death, you let it go, accept the fact, cut the losses, close the door. But if Jesus' back, then life opens up again! And that’s not easy to live with for Thomas; so he can be forgiven for seeming to resist hope. When you’ve been knocked down that many times, why bother to rise up again; why risk love and hope and faith? 

Still Jesus meets Thomas in all his unbelief and Jesus says, “I am here in this broken body, alive after all this tragedy, a new triumph, a new life awaits.” And  so Thomas takes up the burden of belief and begins again to live with the possibility of resurrection, believing and living in a world where love lives, where faith unfolds old burial clothes as it is born into new beginnings, where hope can rise up and make all things new. And Thomas reaches out for Jesus’ open, welcoming, broken hands and takes on the possibility of a life lived with new faith. And we are here to witness this and to follow in that path; and the question I want to ask today is “How do we, like Thomas, learn to live with resurrection faith?”

I want to talk about how we stretch out our faith using one imaginary page with four sides, each side with two words - eight in all: four latin words that Marcus Borg uses in his book, “The Heart of Christianity” and four english words that I’ve come up with, and to see if these eight words can open up some images and ideas to increase our personal faith, our understanding, our common ministry, as the church, the living body of Christ.

The first word Borg uses for faith is “Fiducia,” related to fiduciary, a place we can trust. He uses a wonderful image here, saying we must learn to trust in God in order to live in God just like a young child must trust in the water before they learn to swim: you have to relax into the possibility that the water, that God, will carry you.  

My word here is “Formation.” The task here is learning again and again that we are formed in the image of God;  and that God’s love, God’s heart, God’s hand, creates, redeems, encourages us; all that we are and all that we do, every moment of our lives. In Christian formation, through prayer, study, and sharing, we come to see and believe, that God delights in us as we are and as God calls us to be who we are. 

Borg’s second word for faith is “Accensus,” related to what we assent to, say yes to, how we formulate and figure out our faith; and my second word here is “Education.” Just as in formation we learn who we are (God’s beloved), then we have to work, to study, to find out “where we come from, where we’re going, and why all the traveling” and that takes time and effort. 

I joke that no one would go to the gym for an hour and a half a week and expect to get fit (although I do just that!). In the same way no one would go to church for an hour and a half a week and expect to know much about the deepest wisdom, ethical, prophetic, political, poetic, compassionate, tradition that Western civilization has ever produced. We grow muscles, dexterity, stamina and faith as we learn our part in glory of our tradition, this ancient family company that works for mercy and justice, carries healing and compassion, brings the captives home, and has for over 2000 years, and this has to be seen, read, understood, rejoiced in in order to be believed.

The third word I use in this four sided model is “Celebration.” We are here because God comes to keep us company In Jesus Christ and that’s good news, especially in times when life turns corners and takes us on a new road, when we get lonely and need company, for, quoting one playwright:

In a world where so many are alone it would be an unforgivable sin to be lonely by yourself 

And every church stands as a sign that no one is alone. Jesus sees lonely crowds and feels compassion and so do we. That’s what it means to be church, the body of Christ. We come together to celebrate the Eucharist, to celebrate when a baby is born, when a couple marries, when life comes to an end: we set the space and fix the meals and tell the stories and gather the community in tragedy and triumph, in good times and bad, we honor the dignity of every human person, and we celebrate the gift of God in keeping faith, in celebrating and sharing that good news to all humankind.

The word Borg uses for this kind of faith is “Fidelitas,” We are here to keep God’s good news in growing faithful relationship with partners, family, friends and strangers who need us -- and maybe everybody needs us, needs what we have to celebrate. For as one parish put it in their mission statement: “God is love, we deliver!” And that good news has room for everyone.

Borg’s fourth and final word for faith is “Visio,’ related to Vision. We come to see better to envision more clearly, to live into our life as God’s faithful friends over time. This comes as a gift, taken up in hope and love, exercised with discipline and devotion, and leads us to a faith that works and changes and grows.

So my last word is “transformation.”  because that’s what happens. When we come to see how deeply God forms and calls us, when our ongoing education open us to see what a large company of faith, wisdom and practice we are part of, when we increasingly understand the ways we are called to celebrate God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done; then we come to realise in doing our daily deeds and sharing our daily bread, we’re slowly but surely changing the who world.

So faith in Jesus Christ can mean accensus, fiducia, fidelitas and visio; can lead us to formation, education, celebration, and transformation. This takes time and work and company and God’s good Grace; but we’re ok, because the Gospel assures us we already have that! We might worry that we’re too new or too old, but God’s truth is we have all the time in the world and quite a bit more as well. One theologian says that our Christian life is “a marinade rather than a glaze; we are being transformed by being soaked in the gospel!” So over time, letting God’s love, God’s hope, God’s faith soaks into our hearts and lives, we come to see the world the way God sees it from the  start, soaked in Christ’s incarnation, teaching, healing, his gathering, in his love and his loss and his triumphs over death. Sharing this ministry and his spirit, his hands reaching out to Thomas, to us too, and Jesus asks us to live faithfully into the light of resurrection, for that is what we are called to do as God’s beloved creation, God's spirited friends, the body of Christ.   Amen.