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.

Walking over the Ovens River

Old signposts that can signal future actions

In my retirement reality I am looking around for guideposts and guardrails, principles that can guide as  I look at where I am going from here. I wrote this for our diocesan synod several years ago and it still serves me as a template of where the institution might go, what it can look like, although I am not sure how and where it might fit in my own future ministry. I note it here as a reminder.

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 to you about it another time, but the end result was, I found the God I believed in believed in me more. 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 he said, “Yes, another beginning!” And I’ve always remembered that. A great one liner.

I've also been very fond of another 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, we're hardly fashionable anymore. But 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.

And 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.

So 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; with the mall or the web, the media and big business, sex and popularity and money are so often the new meaningful icons. 

And while most people have left religion behind, some others stick to a strident fundamentalism, a conservative evangelical fervour 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, even now 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's certificate and over 40 people have now enrolled. But I think that most people are not ready or able to make that kind of time commitment. So 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 hope of justice, mercy, 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 medium sized 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 + 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On the Baptism of Jesus. Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta

It’s good to be here today and it’s been awhile. Since the end of October I’ve been taking a kind of sabbatical marking the start of official retirement: time to listen, to rest and renew, to consider and reconsider where life might be going from here on. So I’ve slept late and napped often, I’ve read old books that used to mean a lot and explored new authors I’ve recently heard about. I’ve taken room to be surprised and refreshed, and what I’ve found so far — with at least seven more weeks to go — is that nothing really changes!

I’m ending up in a place very much like where I started when I was baptised in Northern California in late 1967 at the age of 21, so many years ago, and, it’s somehow still brand new! In those days I didn’t know what I was getting into, and I still don’t. But I take that as good news, for the journey of faith takes us on to new ways, by new paths, to become new people and that means we don’t know where we’re going until we get there, and sometimes not even then!

Baptism is odd: you might not even remember your own baptism, but every time you come to church, receive communion, say your prayers, bless yourself, ask God to remember you, you can renew your baptism. It is one of those doors that is always open, inviting us to come into larger life. We might have made it a fairly tame occurrence, but at heart it is a wild gift. 

It has to do with turning around, beginning again, seeking a new life with new eyes as a new person born by grace after all that has gone before is dead and gone  — and we forget that. In the liturgies for baptism used in the first few centuries of the church the Baptism was generally full immersion and when the Bishop or Priest or Deacon put you under the water they kept you down for awhile, so that when you rose up, and took that breath of fresh air  you knew if was fresh and very new! “For” as Paul writes, “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation,” and we can forget that. 

Years ago, the poet, Whystan Auden wrote a Christmas Oratorio called “For the Time Being” and I’d like to use the last three stanzas to highlight three ways I believe we are called to live as newly baptised persons, no matter where we are on our journey with Jesus.  Auden starts like this: 

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

The Land of Unlikeness can sound like a very scary destination unless we keep remembering that God is always bigger than we think.  In my early twenties I remember an English Benedictine named Dom Aelred Graham quoting a Zen Buddhist Patriarch and telling me I didn’t need to keep such a tight rein on my faith and to cherish my opinions quite so tightly.  “Can you just trust,” he said, “that God is taking you on a journey and that you can trust God? - You don’t need to control the road or even always know where it is going, can’t you just follow?” 

I took a breath then, and said yes, and that enabled me to loosen my ego, my grip, in some ways, just a little, and allowed God to be God anew and let me be new in some ways as well. Then ten years later while visiting a monastery chapel on a quiet evening I had the gift of a wider sense of how God loved me. I used a fictional monk to tell the truth I discovered on that pilgrimage. That monk said:

Allow the possibility that God is not only loveable, but that he is likeable, and since he is, so are you, St. Paul says that we are hidden in Christ, and the reverse is true as well. Christ is hidden with us; the wedding feast, the last supper, crucifixion, resurrection and pentecost are all hidden in our lives as well. We are the life of God acted out in time and space, the grace of God happening outside eternity, God dancing God's dance in perfect time, the epiphanies of God in process of happening, the eyes of God in the process of seeing. 

Just let God be God and watch what happens! “You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.”

So Auden goes on to write:

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

And that reminds me of what a friend told me a very holy woman, famous spiritual adviser and writer, said to him in the early 1980s. “If you want to know where God is,” she said, “go where the tension is!”

And it was in the late 1980s I started to believe that the Eucharist and Baptism  are patterns and living parables like so many other sacramental moments in life where God says, “Where do you find me here?” It might easy to find holiness and hope in the times when God says Yes, but it can turn into a different  and difficult and sometimes more valuable journey when life says No. For I am convinced (and most days I believe) that it is in the Kingdom of Anxiety, or Fear, or Depression — in the moments where hope falls short and life falters — where God can best lead us beyond everything we know into a deeper embrace of that eternal love which will renew us. Some thirty years ago after a youth group meeting I remember talking to a suicidal teenager who felt like he had hit a wall. I said, “Please don’t give up, God has larger living answers to things you’ve never even questioned yet; just hang on, and let life get bigger!” Just honour anxiety or fear, desperation or depression as doors open to a new creation, to a hitherto unknown great City, a wider world of wonders, than you would ever have expected. 

And finally  Auden finishes:

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

In the Fourth Century Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, "The Son of God became man so that we might become God… He became what we are, so that He might make us what He is.” And that’s where it all gets tied together.

Baptism washes us up, makes us fully human as Jesus is fully human, so we can live as he did, as honest and fragile flesh and blood in the ephemeral shadowed journey between life and death; in good times and bad, with all the broken endings and tentative beginnings, in all the moments that hope like heaven and all the times that hurt like hell; in tears and in glory, walking all the way with Jesus: that’s exactly where our lives and God’s love meet here and now and always.

So, over 47 years ago I was baptised and that’s what I’ve learned on the way: that Baptism and Eucharist and our very own God-given lives are gifts we are given for the journey, as well as the place where we start. 

May you always know that God is with you on the way.