thinking theology

Listen

One of the toughest disciplines for any person is to actively engage the art of listening without planning our own next statement, without already judging the merits of the other, without thinking about what we will be doing next. Another description of this kind of listening is prayer. True prayer does not send the Divine a shopping list of demands or pleas. True prayer opens the soul for the indwelling of the Holy One, an ecstatic and terrifying experience.

True prayer requires an honesty and a willingness to reveal our deep selves to ourselves so that God can be present in our inner dialogue. And then we need to listen to the voice within because the true voice from within says, “It’s going to be all right. You are all right. You are okay. Now I have a task for you. And I know you can do it.”

For us to hear each other, we need to know that we have been seen by God in all our beauty and our brokenness. And then we are ready to hear each other in love, with mercy and with understanding. And then we can safely turn to the world with our wounds that are being healed and hear the needs that swirl around us in every community and around the globe.

This transfers to how we make decisions in the church. Are we listening to each other or just to our own voice in our head, demanding our way, our security. Prayerful decision making hears the other without prejudice, with open hearts and minds. Prayerful participation in a congregation is an act of humility, of service, of discipleship. It requires that the needs of the moment centre on the world outside our buildings. To be faithful disciples, we must be willing to give everything away so that we can engage the works of love. 

Being a disciple means making sacrifice and commitment our life work. By sacrifice, I mean a willingness to offer our pride, our traditions, our assets to further the good news in word and in action. If it doesn’t pinch a bit, we are holding back. God calls Samuel many times before Samuel can openly say, “I am listening” which really means. “What do you ask of me?” 

Paul talks about us as clay jars, creatures made to hold the astonishing gift of Light and Spirit. Clay jars are easily broken and cast aside but the content of these jars is only released, not destroyed with the jar. Lately I have noticed obituaries that speak about how a person used their life to serve. I think we are remembering that that is how a healthy world works. 

Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist, talks about sacrifice as essential to life on earth, The difference for us as humans is that we are invited to choose our paths, choose what we mean when we say in prayer, “Speak for I am listening.” What will we do with what we hear? What will we do when God asks us to stretch the wings of our faith to learn something new, to engage in new work, to become new people? If we really mean to say, “Here I am!” are we prepared to accept the challenge we will be offered? Or will we find a tradition or a piece of scripture, or our age or circumstance to refuse the call we hear in our hearts? When a member of the social justice network dies, people often say after their name, “Presenté” which says that this person has offered their lives, been present to share the works of love. 

Wouldn’t it be amazing for people to say that about the church in general, that we are present, physically financially, prayerfully, with hearts containing both joy and struggle.  Let these clay jars contain the curiosity of Samuel, the courage of the prophets, and the love of Christ, meant to be broken so that Light and spirit can be revealed and the world can be born again.

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Love in the Fire

The first mention of Pentecost as a feast of the church comes in the second and third centuries. Before that, it probably remained a Jewish feast migrating from a harvest festival celebrated fifty days after Passover, to a celebration of the giving of the Law. 

In both the Orthodox and Western churches, Pentecost is a celebration of the animation of the church by the Holy Spirit. At one time, it was considered the second most important feast after Easter. In Canada, it has had a struggle as it often coincides with a major secular holiday —the first long weekend of the warmer season — Victoria Day. 

I was ruminating on how the people of Hawaii would react if they heard the Pentecost lavastory this year for the first time. The early experience of the God of Israel was that of a thunder god who spoke from his mountain. I sometimes reflect how frightening it would be to actually experience uncontrollable, unexpected fire and gale force winds. We call out to the Divine to come to us, but I think we would like God in manageable pieces, not overwhelming like the magma from the earth’s core or the hurricanes and tornadoes that devastate the land.

The incarnation begins the conversation by inviting us to open ourselves to the divine, letting ourselves be filled and inspired from the inside out. Jesus attempts to encourage the disciples to make themselves part of the storm, both on the sea and in the courts of society. Standing apart leads to terror; embracing the storm with love and forgiveness brings power.

And so these peasants, these very ordinary people who have moved from cowardice to bravery, from doubt to faith, from simplicity to complex thinking, are now invited to embrace a new storm that will lead them to inclusivity and change, and for most of them, martyrdom. What makes what they do different than charismatic cult figures? Its the context. They are not living for their own glory or status any longer. They exist only to serve Jesus. 

Their passion is for the story of Jesus’ incredible compassion, his sense of justice and his promise of abundant life for all people. It is love now that fuels them, not ego. Their purpose will draw them away from their own people, their own safe assumptions. Their past will be burned away and they will be given new ways to assess the world, because their vision is that of Jesus. Their future too has moved from the safe and predictable to the uncharted seas of the unknown. The wind that has whipped around and through them will become the breath with which they speak with the authority of lived experience in relationship to Jesus. 

And what will animate us as the church? What will burn away our prejudice and fear and open our hearts to love and reconciliation? Here is a reading from the Gospel of Mary in which Levi has scolded Peter for attempting to silence Mary: “Instead we should be ashamed and, once we clothe ourselves with our full humanity, we should do what we have been commanded. We should announce the good news as the Saviour ordered, and not be laying down any rules or making laws.” As the church, it is time to open the doors of our hearts and minds again, and admit all the people. We have only one rule: to love without limit or exhaustion.

I wonder how many people arose at dawn to watch the royal wedding? I know all kinds of folks who recognized that something had changed in the world to make this wedding possible; and this couple, regardless or because of their wealth and talent, could make this a seed for more changes to come.

We all need hope. Although the couple moved through certain traditional and privileged routes, they re-arranged the scenery along that route and they themselves represented grace and simplicity in their persons. I was delighted to see it because I have otherwise felt discouraged this week. The church that I love and to which I have given my life, seems to have returned to old debates that those of us with greying heads had hoped were behind us. I think we are witnessing the last desperate gasps of christendom. I just hope it doesn’t grab and drag us all down too.

There are three areas in which I hope we will watch and react. The first is inclusive language. To insist on language that does not exclusively idolize male, powerful, monarchical imagery, is to embrace the vulnerability of Jesus who confronted that very same dominance with his the sacrifice of his life. Language has power to lift up and to destroy. We give permission for violence whenever we allow one kind of  exclusive imagery to dominate over others. When we speak of humanity, we acknowledge our common source which does not recognize any difference, even in terms of worthiness. And we blaspheme every time we say that our naming of the Divine is complete and closed. We cannot speak of the Divine except in the metaphors of experience because the truth is too large for our cerebral context. Thus, Jesus becomes the Law for us; his life the model, his love for others our method.

The second is the challenge of experience over traditional doctrine. I say traditional because doctrine means a teaching, but true learning comes from the fluidity of the teaching, a reciprocal relationship amongst the thing to be studied, the learner and the teacher. We know that light can be measured in different ways. We know that our world is not as simple as we once thought, from the nanosphere to the “vast expanse of interstellar space.” (BAS, p. 201) We commit a presumptuous sin every time we say that we believe something in the sense that we think we have all the information we need so the book is closed. History has taught us that even our lived past has perspectives and different layers of fact. Contemporary biblical and historical scholars challenge us to open ourselves to deeper and more demanding insights. 

One example may be how we deal with the incarnation. When I first started as a priest, I was astonished at how many lay people had given up on the idea of an immaculate conception but thought they shouldn’t upset their priests. I was delighted when Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (“The First Christmas”) opened their analysis with an explanation of the underlying motivation, which was to challenge Rome’s presumption to divine authority. I offered this in the form of a little play called “A Tale of Two Mothers.” (It can be found on this blog site.) To see in this story not divine power but the holiness that lies within the creation waiting to be uncovered, waiting for us to become aware, waiting for us to open ourselves in joy and wonder. The incarnation is not about a simple girl impregnated by God but about a simple young woman who dedicated her pregnancy, her child to be, to the vision of God’s justice and favour; a devout person who gave her heart, in faith and trust. 

An example of how modern thinking can widen our appreciation for biblical insight is the story of the Ascension. Buckminster Fuller remarked once that there is no up or down in a round world. A theological conclusion now for the story is not that Jesus has “Gone Up” to a heavenly power, but that the good news of Jesus is released everywhere in the round world. Jesus’ love belongs to neither tribe nor culture but encircles the world with the blessing of compassion. It is yet another sign of how the good news is inclusive, available, without price or condition, or even awareness perhaps.

The third area I have alluded to is how we make decisions as a church. What informs our values? Is it obedience to the past, or deep attention to the stirring of the Spirit as the theological furnishings in the present house is rearranged? In Matthew 13:52, we hear the parable of the householder who becomes a disciple and brings out of the storehouse treasures old and new. I love discovering underneath something worn the possibility of something new. And I love seeing in something new the thing that will become tradition. We don’t have to force this. It is a natural process. We should neither have to rush this process nor delay it. More praying, less arguing; more creativity and “tinkering” and less fearful withholding and the erection of barriers. As we move from dualism to a sense of the whole world of God’s creation and love, we are invited to be less divisive and more a force of reconciliation. We need to stop thinking of darkness and light as opposites, but see them as balances for each other. No more us and them, no more orthodox and heretical. We will be in a state of holy chaos becoming order becoming chaos as long as we are part of this material universe that we know. Perhaps there is another doorway that leads to a less/more vibrant, less/more burgeoning path, but this is the world in which we live within the embracing love of God.

Finally, I think we need to learn how to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work within our institutions and within our lives. When I remember that, my serenity is restored. It is not up to me to save anything; the Holy is at work always and all ways. We can slow the process down by digging in our heels, “kicking against the pricks,” in the words of the old translation of Acts 9:4. We know how well that worked for Paul, who became completely bound to the inclusive, welcoming, demanding vision of Jesus. Even if we fight the innovation and passion of the spirit, we will only blind ourselves to possibility of life lived inside the miracle of Jesus, who brings the holy Trinity of Love, Life and Passion to those who would become his hands in the world.

What does the feast day of St, Matthias, Mother’s Day and these readings have in common? Maybe nothing, but here is what has been rolling around in my brain.

When I think of mothering, I don’t think particularly of myself, or even of my own lovely mother. Some of us were fortunate to have loving mothers and some of us have or have had very difficult relationships with our mothers. So I don’t think we should let a Hallmark greeting card hold us hostage to a sentiment that is either not enough or too much. I would rather look instead to what the bible tells us about mothering.
In Hebrew scriptures we hear about Deborah. Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, Bathsheba, Huldah, Esther, Judith, Susannah, who prevailed despite opposition. These women were faithful, courageous agents of change. They often spoke tough words and would rarely have matched the sentimental pictures of mothering that passing our world.
In Christian scriptures, there is Mary who calls for social upheaval, for a new and egalitarian way of life. There is Elizabeth who also will find her son executed for speaking the truth. Mary, after Jesus death, with the Magdalene, became not only witnesses to the resurrection, but leaders of the fledgling communities. There is Lydia, an independent woman who adopts Paul’s cause.
These are only a few of the names we could mention, without even speaking of the nuns and mystics of the later church. What these women do have in common is a profound sense of the justice and compassion of God.

So when we want to speak of mothering, I would ask you to look to those influences that have taught you to be bold, to live not only for yourself, but for others (Romans14:7), that showed you what justice might look like. The influences that picked you up when you were bruised or weary and waited until they could set you on your feet again. The mothering of God is both protective and sacrificial, both in the Divine Self, and as a model of true humanity.

St. Matthias maybe served in Ethiopia, maybe in Jerusalem, maybe in Georgia. He was beheaded and/or stoned to death, or maybe lived to comfortable old age. Nonetheless, we do know he served the church without fanfare or historical accolades. Like many women, his name would be almost unknown despite his courageous work.

And finally, this Gospel in which the model is for us to be in our social networks as agents of change, but also standing outside those networks as we remember we do this because Jesus taught us the grace of mothering communities and people, the grace of mutual service and hope. So please celebrate Mother’s Day today, holding in your heart that we know this is not about sentimentality, but about the fierce, protective determination of God to save us and all creation. I want to end with this incredible poem by Alla Renee Bozarth, one of the first women ordained in-the Episcopal Church.

Bakerwoman God,
I am your living bread.
Strong, brown Bakerwoman God,
I am your low, soft, and being-shaped loaf.

I am your rising bread,
well-kneaded by some divine
and knotty pair of knuckles,
by your warm earth hands.
I am bread well-kneaded.

Put me in fire, Bakerwoman God,
put me in your own bright fire.
I am warm, warm as you from fire.
I am white and gold, soft and hard,
brown and round.
I am so warm from fire.

Break me, Bakerwoman God.
I am broken under your caring Word.
Drop me in your special juice in pieces.
Drop me in your blood.
Drunken me in the great red flood.
Self-giving chalice swallow me.
My skin shines in the divine wine.
My face is cup-covered and I drown.

I fall up
in a red pool
in a gold world
where your warm
sunskin hand
in there to catch
and hold me.
Bakerwoman God,
remake me. Alla Renee Bozarth

From Wompriest: A Personal Odyssey, Paulist Press 1978,

In change, wisdom

Let me hear the question that teaches me to hear the question

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Source of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your intentions and commitment enlightened you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…. (Ephesians 1:15-23)

What was Paul suggesting to the community of the Way, the disciples of the resurrection? The first thing to unpack in this excerpt is that heart in Greek has less to do with feelings and more to do with moral character and resolve. 

The other comment to consider is the nature of wisdom and revelation. Wisdom traditionally means the capacity to learn from teachings, teachers,  and experience. To be wise in Hebrew Scriptures requires humility, discipline, and trust in the Holy One, regardless of the circumstances of our lives at any given time. 

Revelation, rather than being what we learn, relates more to our awareness of the working of the Spirit; it lies in our openness to recognizing the Holy and the activity of holiness in our midst. 

Paul and the early church were working through what it meant to feel this mysterious but powerful calling to Christ, and how to understand this calling in the light of their traditions. For Jews, Christ sounded like many of the Wisdom teachers. They recognized him as a rabbi. He embodied the qualities of humility, discipline, and trust that were the hallmarks of the enlightened person. His capacity for compassion and inclusivity challenged those first churches to be courageous, audacious even, in expressing their calling. 

This new sect of Judaism found its faith to be a way of life, more than a set of doctrines or cultural rules. In many ways, I think they could hear the message of the prophets in these new expressions of faith. They re-invented or dismissed practices that collided with the mandate to love, to connect, to tell the good news of the power of life, and the power of freedom from fear and guilt.  It must have been an incredible struggle as they sorted through what they valued, what had defined them and what they they were becoming. It is clear that Paul, too, was prodded by competing questions about traditional practice and worried about what to keep and what to release. 

Despite the condemnation of Rome and others with power, people were drawn initially to the spirit of liberation and compassion that prevailed in those first communities. Even with the enthusiasm of converts, however, the fledgling communities had difficulty maintaining their focus.If you read the first chapters of the book of revelations, you will see that they too had failures and confusion about their mission.

The church became an institution, then we became a failing institution, because we forgot the Way, we forgot our purpose; we lost our moral imperative. Whenever we find ourselves in trying times, we need to remember that historically, when we forget our task: to be bearers of compassion, to be orators of hope, to love everyone, we are failing. There is only one way and it will always be blessed with the presence of the Risen Christ, not up in the sky but in the lives and faces of others. Our spiritual focus must be fixed on the sacred in the ordinary, on an openness to revelation, and a conviction that it is in sacrifice that we find wealth.

The hope to which we in the church have been called is to believe, with passionate fervour, that when we are in error we will be winnowed until we get it right again. And when we are serving the one who loved all people, we will experience the abiding presence of love and life, community and peace.  

A prayer for Wisdom

Holy Wisdom, Sophia,
Word that is both intention and action
Be our guide
Teach us you truth, our experience broadened
by your insight, the breath that is Divine

In your gaze across the millennia,
The birth of and death of
Stars and civilizations.

Show us the holiness that began with you
That leads us to completion and new birth
Teach us to be slow as mountains and trees in knowing,
and quick to learn from your sacred teachers,
Who wear the marks of compassion and courage

Be our gateway and our companion
through our lives and throughout the
Garden of our world
May we learn Wisdom, the heart of the Maker
And the Spirit of Jesus

 

The Playground of the Gods

Ainu (Indigenous people of Northern Japan) totem located in Kushiro Park,Burnaby Mountain, BC. This is one of a group of beautiful sculptures that make up The Playground of the Gods envisioned and realized by Toko Nuburi, an Ainu woodcarver. Kushiro, Japan is the sister city of Burnaby, BC.

Perfect love

Let us begin our reflection today with a lesson in Greek. The word that we translate as perfect is, in Greek, teleios. More than flawless, the word means something completely executed from beginning to end, something fully realized. We do not have an English word that closely captures that concept.

When we speak of perfect love, we are speaking of a cosmic vision, that holds all of our history from beginning to end, in the loving, forgiving, empowering embrace of the Holy. In Jesus life, death and resurrection, we witness what happens when a human being lives entirely in the context of that love. We only briefly, hear of Jesus doubt or fear. Mostly, what his followers remembered was a person who lived boldly within his tradition, who was fearless in his criticism of oppression or injustice. Out of his own humility, Jesus learned to step outside the boundaries and limits of that tradition, to love others and be loved by them in return.

What does teleios love mean for us? Usually we think it’s a standard for us, something to be achieved, and we feel as though we never quite get there. I think this love, however, is what has already been achieved, or perhaps more accurately, what is the key to the design of creation. There is nothing for us to do except to allow ourselves to experience this love in our hearts and minds. When we stop resisting, we find freedom from the judgement and bondage in our heads.

Love is not a feeling so much as the relationship amongst all the participants in creation. It is not sentimental so much as tensile, resilient, alive. I sometimes think of love as a dance in which everyone is a partner. There are no formal steps to the music but everyone seems to figure out how to blend into the rhythm. Those who cannot hear feel the music through other bodies. Those who cannot see find themselves held in the dance by others. And those who have trouble with mobility find themselves swept up by the movement of the group. The dance only requires a willingness, not a skill. And the dance is the dance of life, the green shoots in the spring, the swirl of autumn leaves, the warmth of summer sun, and the crisp bite of winter. Love binds all of creation together. We are never alone. When we understand that this is reality, we can adjust our awareness, attune our souls, or we can pull away, but even the resistance becomes absorbed into what is.

To trust in this cosmic love that was the way of life for Jesus, his truth, will set us free to be lovers too, to delight in life, to be artists of restoration and healing. We will be hospitable, not out of duty, but from a deep urgency in sharing blessings. It is shalom in Hebrew, being at home with Holy around us and within.

Of course perfect love reduces fear and judgement, which are human constructs and insecurities. Living as the people of the Resurrection we know that there is only life and ultimately love. That is the beginning, the journey and the ending. That is God. Ursula Leguin wrote

HYMN TO TIME
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.
And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.
Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.
Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

Let us begin our reflection today with a lesson in Greek. The word that we translate as perfect is, in Greek, teleios. More than flawless, the word means something completely executed from beginning to end, something fully realized. We do not have an English word that closely captures that concept. 

When we speak of perfect love, we are speaking of a cosmic vision, that holds all of our history from beginning to end, in the loving, forgiving, empowering embrace of the Holy.  In Jesus life, death and resurrection, we witness what happens when a human being lives entirely in the context of that love. We only briefly, hear of Jesus doubt or fear. Mostly, what his followers remembered was a person who lived boldly within his tradition, who was fearless in his criticism of oppression or injustice. Out of his own humility, Jesus learned to step outside the boundaries and limits of that tradition, to love others and be loved by them in return.

What does teleios love mean for us? Usually we think it’s a standard for us, something to be achieved, and we feel as though we never quite get there. I think this love, however, is what has already been achieved, or perhaps more accurately, what is the key to the design of creation. There is nothing for us to do except to allow ourselves to experience this love in our hearts and minds. When we stop resisting, we find freedom from the judgement and bondage in our heads.

Love is not a feeling so much as the relationship amongst all the participants in creation. It is not sentimental so much as tensile, resilient, alive. I sometimes think of love as a dance in which everyone is a partner. There are no formal steps to the music but everyone seems to figure out how to blend into the rhythm. Those who cannot hear feel the music through other bodies. Those who cannot see find themselves held in the dance by others. And those who have trouble with mobility find themselves swept up by the movement of the group. The dance only requires a willingness, not a skill. And the dance is the dance of life, the green shoots in the spring, the swirl of autumn leaves, the warmth of summer sun, and the crisp bite of winter. Love binds all of creation together. We are never alone. When we understand that this is reality, we can adjust our awareness, attune our souls, or we can pull away, but even the resistance becomes absorbed into what is.

To trust in this cosmic love that was the way of life for Jesus, his truth, will set us free to be lovers too, to delight in life, to be artists of restoration and healing. We will be hospitable, not out of duty, but from a deep urgency in sharing blessings. It is shalom in Hebrew, being at home with Holy around us and within. 

Of course perfect love reduces fear and judgement, which are human constructs and insecurities. Living as the people of the Resurrection we know that there is only life and ultimately love. That is the beginning, the journey and the ending. That is God. Ursula Leguin wrote:

Hymn to Time
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.
And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.
Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.
Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.