Saturday, 30 July 2011

The Gift of God

The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 6:23

The central point of Christianity is that in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have the clearest picture anyone is going to get of that from which all things derive. What is at the heart of all things? Why is there something rather than nothing? The answer is not a concept or a principle or an idea or a law but a person. And the overarching theme of that person's life is continuous, unconditional love. The universe is formed in Love. We are formed in Love. Which all sounds a bit syrupy and naff unless we are careful about what we mean by "Love". Scott Peck uses a definition which seems accurate to me: The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth. We seem to be formed to grow and develop; and the movement towards us from the universe itself ( and from the Great One who is the beginning and cause and end of the universe) to bring about that growth is what we Christians call Grace. Our tendency to try and evade that growth is what we call sin.

Well, so far so good. The trouble is, we in the Church tend ceaselessly to separate these two things which make no sense without each other, and in doing so, make a travesty of the message we are supposed to be proclaiming. It is the tendency of some parts of the church, for example, to emphasise sin and forget about grace; so the horrors of human weakness are emphasised, and formulaic appeasement is made to a vengeful, intractable, irascible God. The overcoming of sin depends less on God's unconditional love for all people (that is, God's movement towards us) than on our making some clearly defined set of commitments or on our keeping of some set of rules or other (that is, our movement towards God). In contrast other parts of the church stress grace but seem to have forgotten why Grace might be needed. The universal human  tendency to evade what is actually in our own best interests is ignored and the life giving impulses in our personalities are accepted as limply as  our viciousness is excused. Both are explained  as accidental variance in the human condition, to be understood and valued with even handed acceptance

If I have no conception of Grace, I will forget that the tendency I so acutely observe in others to vigorously evade the light is an unconquerable characteristic of my own soul as well.  If I have no clear perception of sin, I will not understand the seriousness of my own or anyone else's behaviour. In either case, I have lost all sense of Paul's powerful words. My actions matter, says Paul, and if I get them wrong, as I invariably do, they can be deadly to myself and to others, but, he continues, in the same sentence, without pausing for breath, God's movement towards me is ceaseless and powerful and restorative. To find life, all  I need to do is to stop running for long enough to recognise who I am, and who God is..

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Wages of Sin...

Lately I have been thinking of the almost abandoned Christian concept of sin. Sin is not a popular term anymore. In a society whose greatest good seems to be the right of anybody to do just as they jolly well please, uttering the word "sin" conjures up all the adjectives which are most despised in liberal Western democracies: judgemental, narrow minded, uninclusive, self righteous. Sin is a term which seems, to many, to come from some lesser, undeveloped, unreflective religion, and is not to be taken too seriously by more advanced spiritual people, (such as whoever is saying this stuff, for example).  But I don't think you can get very far along a path of spiritual development without a concept of sin. Not sin as some sort of arbitrarily drawn up list of prohibitions, mind you; but sin as a description of a propensity or an attitude of mind. At a certain point in any regime of spiritual practice you will have to face your own humanity and become aware of  those bits and pieces of yourself which are hindering your progress: the bits of you which would subvert, distract, argue, seduce, tempt and betray you away from wholeness. The pieces which prefer the dark warm comforts of illusion to the hard edged clarity of Truth. A basic working definition of Sin is: Anything which keeps me from God. So, for example,  as I struggle in the early morning to settle in the half light and present myself silently to the Divine presence my overwhelming desire to get up instead and make some coffee and browse Google is sinful - or at least, it is a temptation to sin.

Whatever keeps me from God.

Now this may seem a little too introverted and esoteric and precious and hardly worth bothering about, if sin is just about whatever keeps Kelvin from his prayers; and so it may seem until we remember the terrible events in Norway this past week. What makes an intelligent young man commit such an abominable and atrocious act? He sits in court, looking smug and calm, seemingly perfectly at ease with the pain he has inflicted on the 98 people he killed, on the many others he wounded, on  their families and indeed on a whole nation. Who knows? To say that he is mad is a truism, and doesn't help our understanding one bit. No doubt the psychologists will pore over the whys and wherefores for years to come, but my guess is that somewhere sometime long in his past he has made choices; and continued to make choices which have  subverted, distracted, argued, seduced, tempted and betrayed him away from wholeness. He has adopted patterns of thought which have wrapped him in the dark warm comforts of illusion and he has grown so used to them that the hard edged truth of the humanity of of his victims is beyond his knowing - or at least it was  on Friday July 22. He has progressively chosen darkness and illusion instead of light and truth. He has, in other words, sinned and moved progressively further into sin.

We would, all of us,  be justly offended if any comparison was drawn between our own petty misdemeanours and the monstrous acts of Anders Behring Breivik, but while differing in scale and effect, all sins are essentially of the same species, which is, I think Jesus' point in Matthew 5:21-22. Sin is not so much about the individual acts as about the attitude of mind which lies behind those acts; the attitude which sees the truth as an affront to our own self determination and  which would do anything to mask the truth. The Christian tradition is unequivocal about the corrosive and destructive power of sin. Just as rust may show in a small pimple on your car door or in a hole in your chassis which causes the whole car to be towed to the junkyard, so sin may show in seemingly innocuous or in catastrophic ways. Like rust, sin needs to be assiduously watched for, taken seriously, and treated early at each and every appearance.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A Nice Little Drive In The Country

It is the school holidays and with the encouragement of those who watch over me I have taken a break. My Sunday schedule being what it is, I could only take a few days, so rather than take a real holiday we have gone for a bit of a drive in the country. On Sunday, after a service at St. John's Milton we drove north to Rangiora and stayed with Clemency's sister Bridget. The inland route is longer but going that way, the roads are deserted, there is snow on the mountains and they are very close. Then early on Monday we drove up through the Lewis Pass to Nelson. There was enough fog to make the early sunlight picturesque and once it had cleared, an absolutely cloudless sky all the way. Patches of black ice. A wonderful little cafe in Maruia selling vegan meals and little items for our imminently new grand daughter. Outside temperatures wavering between -1 and 7. Mountains and winding blacktop. Chatting. Then my brother Alistair's house and a quick tour of the new Jag and the latest additions to the motorcycle collection and a long evening drinking good red wine and laughing and more chatting.

We have just a couple of days here. There is time with my mother in her new apartment in a (pause for irony, let the one who has ears listen) Ryman's rest home, time to visit the new Gompa being built on Stuart and Roz's property, time with my Sister Val and then back home to see if I can artfully catch the dozen or so balls I currently have in the air.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Naked Now

"The enlightenment you seek in other religions has been present in Christianity from the beginning." So states the bit on the back cover of Richard Rohr's The Naked Now which seeks to move the book store browser towards the till. Rohr presents a very good explanation for the disappearance of mysticism from mainstream Western Christianity and an equally convincing case for its presence in the New Testament and in the writings of the church from the earliest days. He also gives a cogent psychology for contemplative prayer, speaks helpfully of method, and contains it within a robust theological framework. All this in a mere 180 pages. This is some book. It manages the rare double of being readable and profound.

Mostly for me though, Richard Rohr has given me one more way by which I can connect the view of the universe which is slowly emerging, like a photograph in a tray of developer, from my meditation practice to the Christianity which has nurtured me for nearly four decades now. More than any book I have read for a while, this one ended up filled with underlinings and highlightings because he keeps on presenting views which surprise by their innovation and which give voice to misgivings, half insights, questions and observations I have been mulling over for years. Consider this for example:

"Theism believes there is a God. Christianity believes that God and humanity can coexist in the same place! These are two utterly different proclamations about the nature of the universe. In my experience, most Christians are very good theists who just happen to have named their God Jesus...
Christian revelation was precisely that you are already spiritual ("in God"), and your difficult and necessary task is to learn to become human...
it is in our humanity that we are still so wounded, so needy, so unloving, so self hating, and so in need of enlightenment."

And also:

"Prayer [in our extroverted, "can do" culture] too easily became an attempt to change God and aggrandize ourselves instead of what it was meant to be - an interior practice to change the one who is praying, which will always happen if stand calmly before this uncanny and utterly safe presence..."

I heard  an interview with Richard Rohr some weeks ago in which he said that all religions are systems for personal transformation. When they cease to be about personal transformation they become instead systems of belonging. He says this has happened to Christianity, and in this book not only makes a plea for us to return to the heart of our faith but offers a way in which we might do so. It would be well worth your while moving from the bookstoore shelf to the till if The Naked Now was in your hand

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Little Bit of Chaos

It's a bit chaotic down at the office at the moment. At Peter Mann house on our groundfloor are the administrative staff, and upstairs we have a library and offices for our ministry educators.While those who administer are performing a vital ministry without which none of the rest of us could function properly, I think  the present arrangement gives the wrong signal. When most of our people utter the phrase "Diocese of Dunedin", I think they think of administration and desks and bits of paper. I have long hoped for something else. So we are moving the downstairs folk upstairs and the upstairs folk down.

It looks a bit of a mess at the moment, but in a few weeks, what people will see when they enter the Diocesan Office is a library, comfy chairs and small tables around which people may sit and gather and meet. There will be a retractable screen and an unobtrusive data projector and access to the vast collection of excellent resources built up over many years by Alec Clark. We will have a daily program of worship, open to those who work in the building and whoever else wants to join us. I hope that between Alec, Benjamin Brock Smith, John Franklin, Bronwyn Miller and myself we can produce a program of ministry enhancing events that people will wish to take advantage of.  I intend that Peter Mann House will be a place where people will feel welcome to sit for a while if they are visiting Dunedin (or, for that matter, if they live here) and have a cup of coffee and chat. I hope it will be a relaxed and friendly and invigorating environment for our truly superb administrative staff to spend their days in.

There will be a little period of chaos while we sort it all out, and I hope that no-one will be much inconvenienced; Mostly I hope that the chaos will resolve into enhanced ministry in the Office and throughout the Diocese. Why not drop by and have a look next time you are passing?

Monday, 4 July 2011

Common Sense Is What Tells Us The World Is Flat

Galileo got into trouble in 1632 for writing a book which a) insulted the Pope and b) suggested that the Sun, and not the Earth was the centre of the universe. He was  sort of right about both points, but not everyone saw it that way, especially the Pope, and Galileo ended up spending the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo's problem was that the theory he was propounding, heliocentrism, seriously undermined the status quo and ran counter to common sense (everybody could see that the sun was smaller than the earth and rose on one side of the world, set on the other, and presumably nipped around the back during the night). Further, Galileo's theory depended on some rather arcane mathematics which very, very few people could understand. Those who could understand the maths, and this group included the guys who advised the Pope, could see something else: that  Galileo's sums did not quite stack up.Galileo believed that the earth and other planets moved in perfect circles, but observations did not quite confirm this. Rather than agree with the theory of Kepler, now recognised as more accurate,  that the planets move in ellipses not circles, Galileo adjusted his geometry.

Galileo's theories were hard to accommodate to the plain reading of scripture but that wasn't the only problem most of his contemporaries had with him. His idea that matter was composed of atoms and behaved according to immutable laws was hard to reconcile with the doctrine of transubstantiation, and his idea that the Moon and was covered in craters and mountains - and were thus made of stuff pretty similar to ordinary earthly matter - ran counter to the prevailing idea that the heavens were some sort of perfect realm where things were made of perfect materials.

So Galileo got into trouble not so much because of people's reluctance to adopt new ideas as because of their inability to let go of old ones. The ideas he ran up against: that the Earth was the centre of the universe; that matter is of four kinds (earth, air, fire and water) and has two forms (heavy and light); that the heavenly bodies are perfect in all respects; all these ideas were false, but were popularly and firmly held because people could clearly "see" that they were true. We have a compelling need to make sense of things; to form the disparate facts of our existence into some sort of coherent whole.  From the time we are born we do this, making up a world from the information presented to our senses, and from the ideas presented to us by our family, friends and culture. Even Galileo himself did this, allowing his preconceived ideas of planetary motion to blind him to the truth presented by Johannes Kepler.  We all do this. All of us. We make a world that is "common sense", and scorn those who see things differently, failing to see either the provisional nature of our own worldview or the way we have cobbled it together out of the guesses and assumptions of those we live amongst. So when we look back on the Galileo controversy with the perfect view afforded by 400 years of hindsight it's pretty easy to forget that if we had been alive at the time, probably 99.9% of us would have sided with the inquisition. It's pretty easy to overlook the painful lesson that all of us, every last man Jack and woman Jill of us, glimpses the truth dimly and only through the fog of our self imposed falsehoods. It's easy to forget that the path to truth involves as much unlearning as it does learning.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Arianna Savall: L'Amor

Last time we were in the car together driving from one bit of the diocese to another, Clemency and I started thinking in earnest about the second half of the Camino Santiago. Northern Hemisphere Autumn next year would be a good time. We will walk from Sahagun to Santiago and maybe, if we have time, onto the coast. Of course for P personalities such as us, the planning and the gathering of information is the best bit, and there are many happy hours ahead picking the right alberges to stay in, and finding new packs and new shoes for Clemency and just the right sort of polyprops for wearing when walking among all those fields of ripe barley and mature grapes and falling olives.

This morningI woke with images of the long walk across half the Meseta still to come and the prospect of the hill country beyonbd Astorga and as I was just emerging from sleep, the Concert program played this song: L'Amor, written and sung by Arianna Savall. She sings in Catalan, and if you want to know what that part of Spain is like, just listen.

It seemed auspicious. And if not auspicious, at least beautiful