Christmas Thoughts - Santa

It is a mistake to underestimate Santa Claus. He didn’t get a part in the Bible, but he’s sure a big part of Christmas.

On Christmas Eve there is a children’s service here. It’s one of the biggest of the year. Children and chaos abound, and the atmosphere is charged. We sing, we laugh, and we tell stories of cribs and candles and Christmases past. We also have Santa.

For years I’ve had trouble with Santa. No, it’s not the reindeer parking problems or the resultant pooh… it’s finding Santa himself. It takes a special person to don the red suit, and frankly some of them haven’t been up to it. There’s more to being Santa than sticking out your stomach, chuckling ‘Ho, ho, ho’, and answering smart seven year olds. But – and this is the interesting bit – Santa is never a flop. He never falls from the grace the children extend.

On Santa’s entrance – from the roof of course – the energy levels rise. Whatever he says is listened to. Whatever he does is received with rapt attention. The power of Santa is quite formidable.

Many people take a low view of Santa. He is paraded in every shopping mall in the country encouraging people to buy, and buy more. He doesn’t say, “Pay off that car you drive” or “pay that phone bill”. No, he’s saying buy new and buy now things we know we could do without. Santa is a slave of rampant consumerism.

Then there is the bribery brigade. “Listen boys and girls, if you aren’t good [read: do what I say] then Santa won’t come this year.” Santa’s morality is reduced to the suspect morality of these parents. Everything in life has to be earned. Including love. Including Santa.

Max, my neighbour, also takes a low view of what he calls “the Santa myth”. He objects to the portrayal of vertically challenged people merrily working in cramped sweat shop conditions. He objects to reindeer being used as promotional aids with no benefits accruing to the threatened herds of Northern Europe. He objects to an obese elderly man being given, firstly, license to enter any home or premise, secondly, a monopoly on the disbursement of gifts, and thirdly, an annual parade in his honour. Santa to him is a symbol of inequity.

The original Santa was, of course, a saint. Dear old wealthy Bishop Nic lived in the ancient city of Myra and gave generously to others. One story has it that an angel visited him one night and said, “Nicholas, you must take a bag of gold to the pawnbroker’s, for he is very poor and has three daughters. Unless they have a dowry, they will be sold into slavery.” Nic took the gold and rushed to the pawnbroker’s house where he discreetly dropped it through a window. Naturally, the parents were overjoyed; now their eldest could marry.

As you would expect in a good story this angelic visitation and discreet dropping of gold happened three times. But on the third and last drop the Pawnbroker, curious to discover the identity of his benefactor, locked all the windows of the house. Nic not being short of ideas climbed up on the roof and deposited the bag down the chimney.

It’s a story about sympathy for those in poverty, about practical assistance, and innovative delivery systems. It’s about compassion. It’s about shedding wealth. It’s about the virtue of anonymous giving – a virtue that in our modern world of sponsorship seems almost quaint.

Personally I take a high view of Santa, and not just to infuriate my neighbour Max [which it does]. I simply believe in Santa Claus. And, like most beliefs, it has been refined and tempered by experience, especially year by year sitting with children at Christmas and trying to explain in simple, precise language the meaning of life, faith, and flying sleighs.

There comes a time in most children’s lives when some of the mathematics of Santa seem insurmountable. Consider the number of children in this city, the quantity and size of presents, the dimensions of your above average sleigh, the distance from Auckland to the North Pole, the aerodynamic potential of reindeer… So, inevitably the questions arise: “How come…?” “How does he do that?” And, looking at me as though I was deranged, “Do you actually believe in Santa Claus?”

If the inquisitor is worth their salt they won’t stop there. “What about the down the chimney bit eh?” “Yep,” I reply, “I’m into it.” “Look Glynn,” my young friend continues, “our chimney is designed for someone who only eats lettuce. It has a metal pipe of some 20 centimetres in diameter. Are you telling me that Santa can squeeze down that?”

“Well,” I respond, girding myself for the challenge, “tell me how your favourite music group can sing their stuff through cyberspace, enter your computer, and morph themselves onto a CD for you to enjoy whenever? And you think a bit of chimney pipe is a problem?” Around now my young friend will roll their eyes, code for ‘my silence is not my assent’. Failure to appreciate the fertile imagination is as big a problem in our society as consumerism.

The better questions for the young inquirer to ask are about meaning. For Santa means giving. Giving to others. Giving to those we don’t know. Giving with no strings attached - including no reciprocating gifts.

Santa is about dreaming that nothing is impossible when it comes to helping and sharing. No elf, no chimney, no amount of snow, or consumerism, or cynicism, is going to stop it. This is why I believe in Santa Claus.

The Santa saga is more powerful than any factual findings by the geek who sat for three consecutive Christmas Eves with a telescope and camcorder on a rooftop. Santa inspires and encourages the best in humanity, the best in you and me – selfless giving to others.

Christmas is simple really: Give what you can and then some. Don’t believe in the barriers to giving. Set your imagination free. Dream of a world where all can have enough and be satisfied with it.

These are the gifts that Santa brings time and again, time and again.

Christmas Thoughts - Mary

“With God all things are possible,” said the angelic Gabriel to a distressed Mary. Viewers of the recent movie Nativity might paraphrase Gabriel’s message: “With technology, cinematic license, and funding all religious fantasies are possible.”

Nativity is a marked improvement on its forebears, particularly in its portrayal of the repressive governance of Palestine and the patriarchal culture that impacted on women. However Nativity reminded me of a parish Christmas pageant, uncritically splicing the two infancy narratives together and using unbelievable tricks to explain the miraculous. Unlike the parish pageant though Nativity masquerades as history.

Liberal scholars have for decades told us that most of the supposed facts of the nativity are fictions. Angels, wise men, heavenly hosts, the census, Bethlehem… are all part of the story-telling craft, weaving meanings derived from Jesus’ life back into his birth. It makes for great stories, encapsulates great truths, but is lousy history.

As for the paternity of Jesus, these liberal scholars denounced the biological miracle thesis that Nativity went to some length to replicate. We all know that fertilized eggs don’t drop from the sky into wombs, despite what some in the Vatican think. Joseph, said these scholars, was the most likely father.

Scholarship has since moved on, now less concerned about history and more concerned about what the texts actually say. It makes no sense, for example, for both Matthew and Luke to sow doubt about Jesus’ paternity if Joseph was his actual father. The scandal that accompanied the pregnancy, as the movie Nativity showed, would have diminished if Joseph had owned up. Indeed the pregnancy of a betrothed girl by her fiancé was viewed as more positive than negative, for it was thought to guarantee children and ensure the male line.

Who then was the father? For those who like to use God, as the movie does, to explain the supposed unexplainable please note two things. Firstly, the words used by Gabriel “come upon” and “overshadow” have no sexual connotations. It’s not saying that Mary had sex with the Holy Spirit. Secondly, divine paternity and human paternity are not mutually exclusive. God is the power of all life. In other words, as with King David being called “Son of God”, it is possible to have human parents and still be hailed as of divine origin.

There has been growing acceptance during the last decades of the validity of Jane Schaberg’s work. Jane teaches at a Roman Catholic university. She posits that Mary was seduced or raped, a child was conceived, and that God owned, and declared as blessed, both mother and babe. When the Magnificat sings that God has looked with favour on the lowliness of Mary, and the Greek word for lowliness usually is translated ‘humiliation’
[i], one has to ask how she was humiliated. Illegitimacy, despite the indoctrination of multiple Christmas pageants, is probably the answer.

You can read the rest of my article at http://www.stmatthews.org.nz/?sid=74&id=681

Further reading:
1. Schaberg, Jane The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Sheffield Phoenix Press 2006.
2. Summary of Schaberg’s work
3. Reilly, Frank “Jane Schaberg, Raymond E. Brown, and the Problem of the Illegitimacy of Jesus” http://muse.jhu.edu/about/publishers/indiana
4. Spong, John Born Of A Woman: A bishop rethinks the birth of Jesus, New York Harper Collins 1992

[i] The word is used in Genesis 34:2, Judges 19:24 and 20:5, II Kings 13:12, 14, 22, and 32; and Lamentations 5:11. These passages all address rapes.

Christmas Thoughts - Shepherds

There were some hands camped out in a paddock nearby, keeping an eye on their mob of sheep that night. Their eyes popped out on stalks when an angel breezed by and lit up the sky like Xmas-in-the-Park.

“Jeepers!” they said.

The angel replied, “Stop looking like a bunch of stunned mullets. Let me tell you what’s going down. Today in a one-horse town over the hill a kid has been born. No ordinary ankle-biter. Gonna turn the world upside down. You’ll find him wrapped in a blankie and lying in a feed-trough.”

And before you could say, “Gimme a break!” the whole sky was filled with more angels than Aucklanders in a traffic jam, and making just about as much noise.

When eventually the whole show had moved on, the hands looked at one another: “Reckon we’d better check this out.”

The Christmas story is more than a slice of ancient history. Its power reaches across time and culture to speak even in our language. It’s a story that can both comfort and challenge.

The country location of this angelic announcement was offensive. The appearance to the shepherds happened not in the holy temple in Jerusalem where religious, financial, and political power coalesced. Rather it happened in some unnamed rural setting, among people of little wealth.

The country location tells us that God’s business doesn’t revolve around the ‘Wellingtons’ or ‘Washingtons’. Nor is God closeted, and cosseted, in fancy Cathedrals, colleges or holy cloisters. God is out and about. God is not just in flash places, but also round the back, in the kitchen of life, among ordinary people, pitching in, using the tea towel, and having a natter.

In 1850 John Everett Millais, one of the English artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites, painted his Christ In The House Of His Parents. He tried to realistically depict the lowly life of a carpenter and his family – tools and wood shavings clutter the earthen floor.

The painting met with a storm of protest. Fancy the idea of Jesus living in such an unhealthy and primitive environment!! Millais threatened the boundaries of the class-structure still firmly embedded in 19th century English society.

The agrarian location of the angelic visit caused similar offence.

Shepherds were likewise offensive. While the word ‘shepherd’ may evoke Christmas card and nativity pictures of sandaled saints adorned in white headdress, caring souls with lambs tucked under their arms… the reality was otherwise.

Shepherds were a dodgy lot. Shifty. You wouldn’t buy a used camel off them – you might burn yourself on the bridle! They were known for their fencing, and I’m not talking about the sport or No. 8 wire. Maybe the words ‘crook’ and ‘fleeced’ originate from those times? Shepherds were social undesirables. In general they had the social standing of our tow-truck drivers or repossession agents.

The insertion of shepherds in the birth narrative alludes to the connection between the baby Jesus and the great King David, who was called from tending sheep to ascend the dizzy heights of monarchy. It’s the old poverty to power, or rags to riches theme. This little baby, born in a Bethlehem shed, was the one who would be great.

Yet the theme, as you read the whole gospel, works in reverse. The greatness of God, as seen in this baby and the adult Jesus, chooses to associate with marginal and undesirable people. Jesus was building an upside-down kingdom full of nuisances and nobodies. His vision was for a huge Christmas party, with plenty of good tucker – lamb, Pavlova, mince pies, joy, and laughter - to go around. A party where everyone, particularly those who were vulnerable, suffering in poverty, or despised by religion and society were made especially welcome. The sign on the door read: “Losers Welcome”. And the winners didn’t like it.

The shepherd story has a simple message really. God turns up in the most unlikely places and among the most unlikely people and saying the most unlikely things. You’ll probably find God round the back rather than out front, pulling weeds rather than pulling rank, looking grubby rather than looking grand. If God can visit shepherds God can even visit you, and just might.

If you go looking for God here are some hints: Firstly, avoid powerful people who think they can stuff God in their pockets. Secondly, don’t discount those in trouble with the law or who tell you about seeing white-winged apparitions. Thirdly, be mindful of the little things in life, like babies and animals. That which is small, local, fragile, and unpredictable is, in God’s upside-down scheme of things, often where hope is to be found.


Defying Sense

You get some cents. But it also defies sense. Why should you receive money for teeth? Teeth aren’t recyclable or usable in a commercial sense. There is no economic reason for the recompense.

Jim, my friend, is also suspicious about the recompense. “Why,” he asks me, “must we mark each transitional stage in a child’s life with gifts? We give them gifts at birth, baptism, and birthdays. Money, money, money. Why can’t we value children differently than this? Isn’t the Tooth Fairy just a manifestation of capitalism: everything has a price - even teeth!”

There is some sense in what Jim says. Yes, we could try and close down the whole gift-giving industry putting the Tooth Fairy, Santa, the Elves, and hundreds of Warehouse employees out of work. We would also close down part of ourselves. The part that wants to give to others.

In Tooth Fairy thought the cents, the coin under the pillow, is undeserved. It is gift. It is not earned. The tooth doesn’t earn money. But the gift does acknowledge the pain of the past. And it is a vehicle for the giver to express practical compassion.

The role of Tooth Fairy non-sense is to help us live out and encourage each other in compassion, undeserved giving, and providing recompense for pain and hardship. Justice needs to be cultivated, and at some point needs to be about cents.


Simple Theology - courtesy of the Fairy

There is a myth that most children discard somewhere around the age of eight: the Tooth Fairy. They write off the Tooth Fairy as nonsense. The cents gained from the story have been spent. It was good while it lasted. Now on to other things. It’s like a cell-phone with no battery: throw it into a baby’s toy box and forget it!

I like the Tooth Fairy. She or he performs a simple function, for no apparent reasons, inspired by no apparent motive, save to compensate children for the pain they have endured in shedding a tooth. The Tooth Fairy stands for justice.

There are many questions one could ask of the Tooth Fairy and her/his admirers. A seven year old interrogates his father:

“Dad, prove the Tooth Fairy exists?”
“Well, Johnny your teeth disappear from under your pillow and money appears.”
“I know. You do it.”
“So, you think I’m a fairy?”
“Ahhh.. Yes.”
“Well, I know it seems difficult to believe but the Tooth Fairy is bigger than me.”

And so continues the dance between logic and illogic, between sense and nonsense.

The more sophisticated seven year old moves the questions up a notch:
“Dad, what use does the Tooth Fairy have for teeth?”
“Dad, what’s the going rate for teeth and who sets the rate?” [I have yet to hear an adult-to-adult conversation on this one].
“Dad, why must my tooth go under a pillow? Why not leave it beside my bed? Why’s the Fairy into pillows?”
“Dad, why does the Tooth Fairy leave money?”

The last question, in particular, is one that, similar to the opening of a curtain, allows the world to be seen differently. The horizon starts to expand. The Tooth Fairy leaves money as an acknowledgement that children suffer pain. That such suffering is as unfair as it is inevitable. The Tooth Fairy is a mythic figure of compassion and justice.

Tooth Fairy theology, when you think about it, has some great advantages:

1. It’s simple. Teeth for money. Only a pillow required. No sophisticated belief system with creeds, clergy, and churches.

2. It deftly avoids the politics of dress, gender, body, and religion. Our imaginations shape the Tooth Fairy. S/he doesn’t need a historical, cultural context, or a pouncy red suit with matching beard and reindeer, in order to be authentic. S/he can just do their own thing: conservative or camp, trendy or trashy. The Tooth Fairy fits every size, every political persuasion. S/he is user-friendly.

3. The Tooth Fairy has a single message: practical recompense for pain.


'Servant Leadership'??

The word “servant” or “serving” needs to be carefully used in relation to Church leadership. As a friend once said, “When I see cleaners, waitresses, and rubbish collectors becoming bishops and priests I’ll believe the Church has servants as leaders.” He has a point. ‘Servant’ has socio-political implications.

What do we mean in the Church by the word ‘serving’? Does it mean that our priest should be on every committee? I would say that reflects an inability to trust others. Does it mean that our priest knows every parishioner’s needs, and where possible attends to them? I think it is the vocation of every Christian to be a good neighbour and care for one another. By expecting the priest to do it we are neglecting our baptismal vocation.

I remember one vicar who for twenty years had a wonderful reputation among his parishioners. He was always there for them, always caring, always available. However in the 20 years he served that parish both his family and his health fell apart. He had succumbed to an uncritical understanding of ‘servant leadership’. There’s little chance that any oppressive government will crucify clergy like him because they’ve already laid down their lives for the Church!

Self-care is not optional. You live what you are. The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. If reality is solely your business or your Church then you have failed to understand what spirituality is and the importance of the transformative love called God permeating all of your life and relationships. I think a priest’s job description should be simply “To pray Jesus’ vision into being”. Period. But please don’t think I mean something passive when I use the word ‘pray’.

When you are, like me, a recipient of privilege (and it is a privilege to lead) you have the obligation to use that privilege and its power wisely. This is what ‘serving’ is. ‘Serving’ doesn’t mean necessarily doing the dishes. Often it is harder to make small talk with the dignitaries out front than pick up a tea towel out back. ‘Serving’ is about being conscious of the good fortune and grace bestowed upon you, and treating all others with grace and dignity as equals. The opposite is arrogance, which unfortunately is all too common.

The task of the Christian leader is to articulate a vision and to lead people in the transformation of society in line with that vision. Further, and intimately connected with this, is the ability to live and engender the spirituality that will sustain both the struggle and its outcome. This is how Jesus led. When he died he left others to manage. Thankfully some of them had the courage and tenacity to lead.


Management or Leadership

Two stories, one of good management and one of good leadership:

“An influential British politician kept pestering Disraeli for a baronetcy. The Prime Minister could not see his way to obliging the man but he managed to refuse him without hurting his feelings. He said, “I am sorry I cannot give you a baronetcy, but I can give you something better: you can tell your friends that I offered you the baronetcy and that you turned it down.”

Good management. Now for good leadership:

“Of the great Zen Master Rinzai it was said that each night the last thing he did before he went to bed was let out a great belly laugh that resounded through the corridors and was heard in every building of the monastery grounds. And the first thing he did when he woke at dawn was burst into peals of laughter so loud they woke up every monk no matter how deep his slumber.”

Good leadership. A leader defines reality - both for him/herself and for others. That’s what that laugh was doing. How much laughter is there in your Church or workplace?

[i] De Mello, A. The Prayer Of The Frog, Anand : Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988, p.154
[ii] De Mello, A. The Prayer Of The Frog, p.172.


Jesus not managing contd.

Jesus promoted a political and spiritual vision of an upside down kingdom where the last are first and the first slaves. It is a place where the CEO’s wash the feet of the unemployed. It is a place where the outsiders are in, and the insiders choose to be out. It is a place where the 99 sheep are deserted in order that the lost one is found. It is a place where the despicable find a home.

In this vision Jesus, despite the wishful thinking of many of his followers, will not sit on a throne with his trusted lieutenants beside him, sycophants serving him, and his heavenly army available in the wings. Rather it is a vision that led to the cross. The forces of oppression nailed him. Two thieves were beside him. Roman soldiers took his meagre assets. His only faithful ‘army’ were a few wailing women. Siding with outsiders made Jesus an outsider. He died an outsider’s death. By threatening the powerful Jesus became a threat. There is a terrible cost to ignoring ideological safety.

The leadership of Jesus demanded something of his followers, and demands something of us. It demands commitment to making his vision a reality in our lives. As Ghandi said, “We must become the change we want to see.” It demands a commitment to stand with outsiders and both criticise and seek to dismantle the structures that keep them there. When you stand with outsiders in time you become one.

Most of what is called leadership today in the Church is a blend of management and leadership. We need both. The worry is that, firstly, in the order to maintain ‘productivity’ we will nurture risk-adverse strategies. ‘Keep doing the same things but just do them better!’ And secondly we will encourage our clergy to be managers more than leaders. Despite rhetoric to the contrary the Church employs pastors who primarily serve its institutional needs.


Embracing Life

To embrace and enjoy life is a holy act. Here are a few ideas about how we might do that.

Firstly, make time to stop. There is a child’s road safety maxim to be recited on the kerbside: “Stop, look, and listen.” This saying could equally be applied to those on a spiritual journey. We need to stop when the pressure of life says go. We need to look when we are told to act. And we need to listen when we are being exhorted to speak.

Cycling around the waterfront in the morning, as I often do - penance for all those pastries - it only takes a few moments to stop, dismount, look, breath deeply, listen, say “Gee, its good to be alive”, and then remount and cycle off.

In this busy, noisy world we need the courage to pause and give time to our soul.

Secondly, make time for the earth. Remember the days when most rural towns had a bend in the road when metallic debris was discarded. There was a belief that rubbish would decompose or rust away. The earth would cleanse and renew itself.

That belief is now dead and gone. We now know that we must care for the earth like we care for our aging parents. We can’t presume that the earth will always be able to do what it once did. To be faithful to life requires faithfulness to that which nurtures life’s plants, animals, water, and climate.

Thirdly, make time for outsiders. There are numerous people who feel themselves to be outside of the boundaries of ‘normal’. Whether it is due to wealth, health, sexuality, race, or circumstance, they experience life very differently and often oppressively.

We need to nurture the kindness that steps over or around barriers. ‘Normal’ is a word we need to be wary of. Kindness is a word we need to put into practice. Smiling at people, saying ‘Hi’, communicates that they matter. It also conveys the hope that we all will become better more hospitable neighbours to each other.

Lastly, make time for humour. Absurd and ludicrous things happen every day. We just need to pause and let that tickle touch our funny bone.

I remember once receiving a letter from a misguided environmentalist concerned about the impact of burying bodies in a cemetery. Being the curator of a cemetery at the time I responded in a somewhat warped fashion commenting upon the spirituality of worms. Imagine my amazement when I received an additional letter from the lady taking worm religion very seriously. I hope, and like to believe, that she was smiling when she wrote it.

Make time to laugh.

So let us enjoy and embrace life by remembering what is faithfully worth preserving: our soul, our earth, our hospitality, and our humour.


Jesus didn't manage

“Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing.”

Jesus was a leader, not a manager.

Good management is essential in any organization. People need to be heard and understood. Good processes, protocols, and safety provisions need to be in place. Conflict needs to be mediated and resolved. Employees and clients’ hopes and expectations need to be taken seriously. Good management usually leads to increased productivity and profit. This is what many people understand to be leadership.

There is no evidence in the biblical texts that Jesus was a manager. There are few stories of him patiently mediating in conflicts between the disciples; or emphatically caring for those who gave up their jobs and businesses to follow him; or sitting down and listening to the hopes and fears of his followers. Commentators who believe Jesus pastorally coached his disciples are largely arguing from what is unsaid in the texts rather than what is said.

However there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jesus lived and preached a vision, and challenged others to follow him.

I think the Church has a bad habit of trying to domesticate Jesus. It paints him as meek, mild, and obedient, a kindly shepherd unifying the sheep, always ready to listen and comfort. It tries to portray him as apolitical, as if that was possible in 1st century Palestine! Similarly the Church has wanted its leaders to be meek, mild, and obedient, always ready to apolitically pacify and console. ‘Servant leadership’ is the term.

The Church wants to be safe. It wants leaders who will make people feel safe. It asks its leaders to faithfully adhere to the traditions and understandings of the past in the mistaken belief that repetition will bring security. It asks its leaders to care for the members. It asks its leaders to coach and equip the members in caring. And it asks its leaders to care for outsiders - but not at the cost of neglecting the members. Like a well-run club the wellbeing of members is paramount because the highest value in the Church is continuity. Is it accidental then that we appoint people into positions of authority who have highly developed managerial skills?

Jesus wouldn’t have got a job in the Church, and if he had he would have turned it down. The Bible portrays him as confrontational, challenging, and disturbing. He was rude to those in authority. He disregarded the rules. He spent more time with the unfaithful than he did with the faithful. He got into heated arguments and said outlandish things. He had grandiose ideas that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. He was impractical. The bottom line was: Jesus served no one but God. An employee of the club needs to serve the needs of the club.


Guy and the Sheik

Guy Fawkes Day is fundamentally not about fireworks, family, and frightened animals. It is about religious dissent. It asks what are appropriate expressions and responses to religious dissent, and whether even today diverse beliefs can coexist in the same society.

Guy Fawkes was born in Yorkshire in 1570 into an upper middle class family. At age 23 he joined the Spanish Army and spent ten years serving on the continent. It was during this time he converted to Roman Catholicism. Upon returning to England he was subjected, like all Catholics, to the repressive decrees instituted by Elizabeth and continued by her successor James I. One decree passed in 1604, for example, imposed heavy fines on Catholics and confiscated their property.

The prevailing 17th century orthodoxy was that England was Anglican and all other expressions of faith were evidence of allegiance to foreign powers and the doorway to treason. Monarchy, nationalism, race, and religion were blended into one. Plurality was not tolerated, and where difference existed it was persecuted.

When Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters failed with their explosive plan they were hung, drawn, and quartered. Not content to punish just a few the authorities rounded up thousands of innocent Catholics and imprisoned them too. In the paranoiac traditions of religious scapegoating Guy was called the “Great Devil”, and for centuries his stuffed effigy was annually burnt on November 5th. Only in recent years has ‘burning the Guy’ gone out of fashion.

The delineation of the world into goodies and baddies, and good and bad religion, is unfortunately all too common. Fed by the surety of conviction, and satisfying the simple-minded with the promise of security, it has led to the justification of all manner of violence towards those who believe differently. Persecuting religious dissent is a symptom of a weak society, unsure of itself and thus defensive.

Sheikh Alhilali is a close-to-home example of religious dissent. His views to the sensibilities of most are repugnant. ‘Misogynist’, ‘anti-Semitic’, and ‘supporter of Islamic insurgents’ are all labels that have been stuck on him, and not without some justification. He and his supporters protest that he is misunderstood. Most Australians and New Zealanders though can recognise bigotry in religious drag. Anglicans know plenty of examples from our religious past and present!

In the deservedly strong response to the Sheikh’s comments there is a significant number who want to gag him. If the Muslim community to which he is accountable want to censor him that is one thing. When politicians however suggest revoking the Sheikh’s permanent residency status and deporting him that is something else. We need to ask whether we believe in a society where strong and offensive viewpoints can be exchanged.

I don’t want to live in a homogenized society where viewpoints are always sanitized before publication. Bigotry will always be among us. When expressed it is ugly. Yet it won’t go away by muting or banning it. Bigotry needs to be confronted by the reason and experience of others.

Religious history is peppered with the repression of minorities. Some groups within these minorities occasionally responded with violence, like the Gunpowder Plotters. No civil society can tolerate that. However civil society can treat minorities equally before the law and allow minority views to be aired – even the obnoxious ones. It can also then share one of the great gifts of a secular democracy by criticising those obnoxious beliefs to hell.


Is God a cat?

If you are not a dog/god fan read this from my friend Celia's feline:

Is God a Cat?

One of the oddest things about humans is the way they anthropomorphise their God. If you listen to them talking about God (any main religion god) you get a picture of a sort of super human - almost always male, a person, a father, a director, sometimes even new employer. My thoughts were prompted from sitting on Celia's desk reading the blog of Ruth Gledhill of the Times. It is as if humans can't imagine a God that isn't human. I say what if She was a Cat. If God was a Cat, things would be different. For one thing, She'd make it clear that some of the human activities had got to stop - trapping and killing cats, shooting cats with air guns, kicking cats, etc. Instead churches would open their doors not just to church mice but to church cats. They'd take collections and go and buy cat food for strays. And all the starving little strays that scrounge a living in busy towns would know there was a sanctuary for them - a dry sheltered place with lots of room and cat food given out free. There'd be less church ritual (what's the point of if?), less standing up and kneeling, less human music (though some caterwauling would be lovely at midnight mass), and more practical charity. Humans would be allowed in to serve others (cats) and, if they persisted with their 'services" (which aren't really anything of the kind in practical terms) we could sit on their warm laps for the duration. Some churches already have their resident felines. At the Tower of London chapel there is Teufel, a black tom who is known for enjoying weddings. He often sits down for a nap on the bride's train. Rupert was assistant organist at St Lawrence, Ludlow. And Lucky is a convent cat. She joins in as the nuns sing Alma Redemptoris Mater. As humans no longer go to church, perhaps we could take over.

Of course, it is pretty bad news for mice if She is a Cat.
And even worse news for us, if God was a Mouse.



Entering the Theological Dog-House

If you want to judge a religion firstly judge how many constraints it puts upon God, then judge the religion by its mercy. The untameable God who pushes us beyond our boundaries has always and continues to prod and shove us towards the exercise of mercy and compassion.

Jesus was a reforming Jew who rebelled against love being turned into legalism. His ministry was one of constant and unbridled compassion. Nowadays it seems that many Christian fundamentalists are trying their hardest to turn love back into legalism!

Every religion needs to examine its beliefs to see whether they encourage adherents to be more or less merciful, more or less tolerant, and more or less compassionate. This is the touchstone of faith: does your church make you kinder? Does your church make the world a kinder place? And if it doesn’t my advice is to ditch your church and go looking for God.

Kindness and compassion led St Francis of Assisi well beyond his comfort zone. There is a story told of Francis
[1] and a savage wolf. The citizens of Gubbio were wary and frightened to venture beyond the city walls. Francis, both compelled by and trusting in God, went out alone to meet this wolf. The brute appeared. Francis made the sign of the cross and spoke, calling the beast “Brother Wolf” and telling him off for all the suffering he had caused. The wolf, having made ready to pounce, became very quiet, and in the end lay at Francis's feet. The tradition records that “[the wolf from then on] lived in the city ...and was fed by the people ...and never a dog barked at him, and the citizens grieved... at his death from old age.”

Let us note that, firstly, Francis was pushed by God to confront his fears. He ventured out, beyond where it was safe. Beware of the God. Secondly, Francis engaged with the wolf that others both feared and excluded. Risky behaviour. Thirdly, he brokered a deal that was of mutual benefit to both the wolf and the townsfolk, and built a lasting connection between them.

There was another solution available to the citizens of Gubbio: hire a hunter to kill the wolf. Time and again this has been what humans have done. Rather than befriend our fears we have killed that which has threatened us. It has led to the depletion and extinction of many animal species. It has led to many wars and generations fed by hatred. The story of the Wolf of Gubbio, on the other hand, invites us into building relationships of trust and mutuality with those we fear.

There are similar Francis stories around poverty and sickness – like when he hugged a leper; and around enemies and Islam – like when he visited the Sultan of Babylon. Each of these stories is about Francis being pushed by God beyond the limits of safety to embrace humans or animals others were frightened of and wished to exclude or destroy.

Our actions towards animals, or towards those who are labelled as deviant or different, or towards those with little status or power, or towards those of other religions or none… is the measure of our faith. This is not an easy or comfortable faith. Frequently you will find yourself consigned to the theological dog house. By siding with outsiders you become an outsider yourself. Ask Francis. Ask Jesus. Ask God.

[1]Almedingen, E.M. Francis of Assisi: A portrait, The Brodley Head: London, 1967.


Beware Of The God

“Beware of the God” reads the bright red sign outside our church. The kennel beneath it and the subscript advertising the upcoming animal service give the sign its context. Adults and children smile as they pass by.

Our detractors also love it. “Ah,” said one chap last week grinning at the thought, “at last, a theological health warning outside St Matthew’s.” He thinks visitors should be wary of the God within.

I agree with him. The God we worship here is not safe, and will not make you safe.

There is a deep Hebraic truth that God cannot be contained or tamed by our desires to have an orderly, secure, and predictable life. What Christianity often does to God is what Governor Reagan of California in the 1970s tried to do to the Redwoods, namely make them into lounge furniture. That which is wild, wonderful, and free is an affront to our worst managerial instincts. It needs to be cut down, domesticated, and made into something comfortable to sit on and sip our coffee.

Proponents of Christianity throughout the ages have tried to keep God under control by creating fences out of the Bible, the Creeds, synods, clergy, hymns, and liturgies. Yet, we need to be aware of who and what we are dealing with. For God continually breaks out of our constructs and language - popping up in others’ holy texts, speaking through social and political outcasts, refusing to favour any one race, religion, or sexual orientation, and generally being a darn nuisance to those who like decency and order. Be aware, this God is not safe.

If you want to judge a religion firstly judge how many constraints, collars, leashes, and fences it puts around God.

p.s. check out Deborah's site in the land of Oz www.bewareofthegod.com


What do you see?

"There was once a holy man in India who lived in prayerful state – so much so that everyone thought he was nuts. One day, having begged for food in the village, he sat by the roadside and began to eat, when a dog came up and looked at him hungrily. The holy man then began to feed the dog; he himself would take a morsel, and then give a morsel to the dog as though he and dog were old friends. This was an extraordinary sight in this part of India at the time. People with nothing didn't share their food with dogs! Soon a crowd gathered to watch.

One of the men in the crowd jeered at the holy man. He said to the others, "What can you expect from someone so insane that he is not able to distinguish between a human being and a dog?"

The holy man replied, "Why do you laugh? Do you not see Jesus seated with Jesus? Jesus is being fed and Jesus is doing the feeding. So why do you laugh, oh Jesus?"

This is a story about vision, about what you see. One could see just an old man foolishly giving what he cannot afford to give to a dog. This way of seeing invites one to either deride or reprove the old man. On the other hand, one could see that God or Jesus is in everyone – the man, the dog, the spectators, and even you. This way of seeing invites one to treat every living creature as holy and worthy of respect and dignity.


Beyond Pluto

In ancient times the word ‘planetai’, meaning wanderers, was applied to the seven heavenly bodies that moved. They couldn’t see Neptune and Pluto. Also, being pre-Galileo, it was assumed the sun was one of the seven and the earth wasn’t. The definition of planet was therefore not fixed but was to be influenced by changes in science and thinking in the years ahead.

This is not so different from the Christian history of God. Within the pages of the Bible God progresses from being a personal deity, to a tribal deity, to a deity who was pan-tribal, to one that transcended all human constructs. The location of God moved from the desert, to the Temple, to a literal realm in the sky, to the presence of the historical Jesus. Later in the early centuries of Christianity, via an intricate weaving of Greek and Hebrew thought with the experience of transformative love in Jesus, God was woven into the tapestry called Trinity. But the development of God didn’t stop there, locked in the 4th century. God as ‘process’, as ‘go-between’, as ‘liberator’, as ‘matrix of grace’… were all still to come.

The influence of science and philosophy on the definition and development of God is not to be underestimated. Indeed it is the interplay between experience, history, and science that has pushed at and shown as puny the simplistic notions of God.

God is a word that defies close definition. Language being a system of signs and codes is based around the visible and tangible. When language has to be found for the invisible and intangible then multiple metaphors are used. We say the thing we are trying to describe is something like this, but also not like that. It is also something like this, but also not like that. No one set of metaphorical clothes quite fits. In theology we surmise that such is the nature of God that no sets of clothing will ever quite fit.

The other word in theology that defies close definition is soul. Soul, or ‘heart’ as it’s sometimes called, is an attempt to talk about God in us and us in God. It blends passion, feeling, wisdom, and wholeness. A person can gain the whole universe, be as rich and successful as he or she could possibly imagine, yet without attending to their soul they gain nothing. To nurture the soul, the task of spirituality, is therefore very important. All sorts of little things help – walking in the bush, conversing with a child, smelling the coffee before you drink it, laughing often… Yet answering the question of why these things help is harder. It is as if the universe is inside us, and all the spinning, pulling, moving and amazing wonders need to be held together in some way.

When I was a teenager I spent many nights each year sleeping under the stars. There is nothing quite like falling asleep beneath an enormous canopy of twinkling lights, variously arranged, and different each evening. Being a child of modernity I knew that the blackness of the sky was not a great dome that encompassed the earth and above which a kingly God sat. I knew the blackness was all I could see of the fathomless depth beyond, where the experience we call God might or might not be. For everything that astronomy could tell us there was always more it couldn’t. Yet, like the best of theology, its purpose was to ignite wonder and imagine limitless possibility.

Should Pluto be relegated? The debate will continue for some time yet. The pragmatists will probably triumph over the purists. They usually do. Yet the former need to be cognisant that their revised definition will in time also change. Heavenly bodies are not always what they seem.


To Pluto

“Honk if you love Pluto” declares the T-shirt. Not too dissimilar from the ones promoting honking for Jesus. And, like so often happens with discussing heavenly bodies, the Pluto debate is up and raging. The International Astronomy Union (IAU) meeting in Prague last month adopted a new definition of a planet – one that knocked Pluto out of the club.

Living on the extremities of planetary imagination - even with the Hubble Space Telescope it is still merely a bleary sphere in shades of grey - Pluto didn’t join the club until 1930. That was the year when a 24-year-old American by the name of Clyde Tombaugh mapped movement where movement had not been mapped before. A young girl from Oxfordshire suggested the name of Pluto, Roman God of the Underworld. Beyond Pluto was the abyss of unknowing.

Since the 1930s Pluto has shrunk. With each advance in technology Pluto’s measurements have diminished. It’s now smaller than our moon. Hence the T-shirts, without the honking, that proclaim ‘size doesn’t matter!’ and ‘is a dachshund not a dog?’

What does matter to the astronomical elites is the discovery in the 1990s of other Pluto-like bodies on the edge of our telescopic vision. And not just one, or five, but hundreds, and probably thousands!

This naming debate has spilled over into popular consciousness. The public wanted a voice. Pluto was not just a bleary dot out in space it is something people love. It inspired and inspires myths, art, and poetry. It is part of astrology charts – ‘Pluto direct’ is a way of talking about transformational energy. Kids identify with Pluto’s smallness. In particular adults who forlornly hope that ‘whatever has been will forever be’ find its demotion out of the Big Nine major league of planets difficult to accept.

The pragmatists of astronomy suggest that instead of knocking Pluto out of the club that the IAU change the rules. In other words expand the definition of planet to include not only the eight and Pluto but also Eris [formerly known as Xena] and Ceres. The purists though argue that this will open the doors to hundreds maybe millions of potential new planets. This is a debate about not only who can join the club and who controls who joins the club, but also the fear of loosing control of the boundaries. Sounds very much like Christianity me!


Colouring The City

Sun breaks through the clouds
Igniting the rain-drenched road.
The world looks new
Washed and gleaning
Glistening as the fairies dance.

Pink is a powerful colour
Favoured of the young princess
Pirouetting in the privacy of her room.
Yet it is largely absent from the tie racks
of downtown business.

Colour is political in the city
Blue and red compete for allegiance
Green is a brand without a billboard.
Brown, bent, and cold are
the colours of poverty.

The fairies dance up the road
Dodging the traffic, slurs, and unbelievers.
Only little children hold their breath as
imagination confronts the colours
offering an inkling of hope.

The hope of the city is found in the contrasts – of ideology, beliefs, people, and colour.

Drinks on the House

Jesus on a beerglass to spearhead Christmas campaign - ekklesia news service 14/09/06

A Christmas poster campaign aimed at getting people talking about God is to feature a picture of Jesus on a beer glass.The image of Jesus in the froth left on the sides of an almost empty pint glass next to the words 'Where will you find him?' will spearhead the Churches' Advertising Network (CAN) initiative.

The poster picks up on the current media preoccupation with finding images of Jesus in everything from egg yolks to currant buns. Next to an empty beer glass in which a face can be seen are the words "Where will you find him?" and pointing to the web address myspace.com/isthisjesus.


Where is Jesus at the Dinner Table?

Anglicanism at its best is into diversity but not apartheid. You can’t go off into your corner, erect your security walls of right belief, and stay there. We are not the ‘closeted brethren’. Like it or not you have to relate to the hetero-orthodox. You have to relate to those you find repugnant. We call it being in communion.

All of us are invited to Jesus’ cosmopolitan dinner party. You are invited along with the weird, the wacky, the wonderful, the heretics, the harmful, and the harmless. And we don’t sit in silence eating our own pre-packed sanitized meal. We talk, we share food, and we listen... Some have washed their hands. Some have washed their hearts. Others are dirty. Infection is possible. Purity is out the window. If you don’t want to risk getting grubby don’t come.

Jesus is there too. But, and this is the hard bit, he’s in disguise. None of us are sure who he is. It’s not like he’s got a crown plastered on his head or a cross strapped to his back. Is Jesus that nice person or that disagreeable one? Is he the pain in the neck that won’t shut up, or the quiet morose one sipping his merlot? Is he a she? And which she is he? Like I said, this is hard. We don’t know whom he is agreeing with, if anyone. All we know is that he is there. This is what I think our new archbishop, David Moxon, was meaning when he said recently that “in any discussion the first principle is that Christ is in the room.”

The hard part of not knowing what Jesus looks like is that in our discussion and arguments around the dinner table each of us will have to find authority within ourselves. We can’t turn to Jesus and seeing him or her nodding in agreement with us. There will be no external reference point, no judge or encyclopedia to determine right and wrong. On second thoughts I wonder whether any archbishop would really want that.

My punt is heaven’s going to be a little like this. For some it will be hell.


Dining with Jesus

With compassion and acceptance at the core of his values Jesus got a reputation for wild dinner parties. Around the same table would sit a rural fisherman, a one-time leader of the Synagogue, a prostitute, a local bullyboy, a Roman soldier, an immigrant woman from over the border…. Jew and gentile, male and female, strange and familiar…

The Hebraic purity system had strict boundaries in place: “Don’t eat with them, don’t touch that, don’t fraternize with her… Look out or you’ll get grubby… and then you won’t be able to eat with us!” Purity was about rules. Piety meant adhering to them.

For Jesus purity was constituted by what was in one’s heart. If compassion was in one’s heart, then piety meant being hospitable, generous, and willing to suspend one’s prejudices in order to meet with strangers. For Jesus it wasn’t about keeping to the rules; it was about letting love be the measure of all you do.

It’s not that Jesus was into a tolerance that said, “Everything is okay”. It is possible to find verses that infer, for example, that Jesus was opposed to the Roman occupation and unsupportive of bullying and prostitution. At the same time I don’t think it is possible to categorically say that every soldier, tax collector, and prostitute Jesus dined with had renounced the morally disagreeable aspects of their professions.

In other words, at the table with Jesus the agreeable and disagreeable sat together. The sinners and saints broke bread together. The ideas, comments, and chat were not religiously sanitized. I imagine there were some pretty colourful words and some pretty novel views bandied around. The good, the bad, and the grubby were all together.

“What makes a person holy,” Jesus intonated, “is not who you mix with or what they say. What makes a person holy is being true to the God of compassion that wants to include everyone. It’s the words you say and things you do that will reveal that God.”


The House, Sex, and Blessings

Tonight I have, once again, the privilege and duty of attending the annual Auckland Diocesan Synod. So today I’ve been writing speeches. The one below is seconding a motion on that in-house debate about who is allowed in the Anglican house and who isn’t. As well as, of course, the supposedly vexed issued of same-sex blessings.

Dear Members of Synod,

In seconding this motion I wish to firstly affirm the resolution of General Synod in its desire to include all Anglican bishops and churches in the two instruments of unity, the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council.

Certainly in the metaphorical construct of the Anglican Church as ‘family’ it is contrary to family unity and wellbeing to reject the errant children and refuse to admit them to the familial dining table. For resolution to occur all family members need to be invited to the table, and invited to participate.

Now, from my perspective, the errant children are not the American and Canadian churches, but those who are seeking their exclusion. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians have always been part of the Church. Of course a number of you won’t share my perspective, nor do I expect you to. I do expect though that as Anglicans in Aotearoa with our history of working at numerous issues of difference, like race, gender, and sexuality, we would encourage the wider Communion to make physical room at its tables for those who see and experience life differently.

Secondly, the last clause of this motion gives me the opportunity to tell a little of the story of St Matthew-in-the-City and how I understand the notion of blessing.In the 1970s the then vicar, Maurice Russell, allowed a group of gay, lesbian, and transgender Christians to meet for prayer in the Thomas Chapel. In time this group grew into the Auckland Community Church and held regular evening services. The effect on the ministry of St Matthew’s was significant. We were seen as a safe place for gay people and as a result many joined our morning congregation. The clergy were also affected. Apart from becoming targets for those who found such hospitality objectionable, we were privileged to hear something of what it was like to be gay and Christian and how destructive hetero-sexual norms could be. We were also approached by couples that wished to affirm their love, commitment, and fidelity to each other, and be prayed for and blessed by a priest. And so it has been for nearly thirty years.

In recent times being blessed has become more controversial than being welcomed or prayed for. At St Matthew’s we understand blessing to be simply, and profoundly, about proclaiming the love of God.

To bless or not to bless is therefore on one level not a moral decision. It is not about approving the lifestyle or morality of heterosexual or homosexual couples. Just as by dining with a great variety of people Jesus was not making a comment about their morality. He was rather making a comment about God’s morality. God’s love included them. Once that love had been experienced they were then free to respond however they chose.

“Hey, Glynn, what about someone we find morally repugnant? Should a priest bless them?” My answer is simply “Yes.” Of course offering a blessing in some situations is not easy. Yet most times we do it.

Any couple, gay or straight, saintly, sinful or somewhere in between, should be able to come to a priest for a blessing. The priest is not making a statement about their morality, but about the unconditional love of God.


Models of Church: House or Ship?

There are some who are attracted to Christianity by its perceived stability. In a world that seems to be constantly in flux here is a religion that has endured 2,000 years. With traditions, rites and orders dating back centuries, with buildings made to endure, here permanence is presumed. No shifting wind or whim is going to change the Church.

One well-known hymn of my childhood was “Christ is made the Sure Foundation”. It talks about the Church being like a house, a ‘Temple’, and Christ being ‘the cornerstone’. With sure foundations of Bible and tradition, centred on Christ, the Church will be rock solid, able to withstand the storms of change and doubt.

Much of the debate in the Christian world is between those who want to reinforce the foundations, strengthen the walls, and keep foreign winds and doctrines out, and those who want to open the windows and doors to the world and be prepared to change time-honoured methods and doctrines in order to do so.

Yet many of us tire of this debate, not because the issues are unimportant, but because the model of the Church as a house is not true to our experience of God, faith, and community. A building doesn’t move. It isn’t meant to. The model assumes that the land won’t move either. It assumes that change is peripheral to community, faith, and of course God.

I prefer the model of a ship. The late Archbishop Helder Camara wrote:

Pilgrim: when your ship, long moored in harbour, gives you the illusion of being a house; when your ship begins to put down roots in the stagnant water by the quay: put out to sea! Save your boat’s journeying soul, and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may.

If one considers the Church to be more like a ship than a house, then everything changes. The Bible ceases to be a brick to fortify your structure or throw at your enemy, but is food stored for the journey. It gives you energy for the challenges before you. The traditions of the Church are like a sailor’s almanac, helping you with the little tasks, teaching the theory of steering, but not doing the work for you. God too changes. Instead of being the property overseer and the gracious host, God is the wind in your sails and the beat in your heart.

The models of house and ship also have different attitudes to leaks. I think of leaks in the Church as the things that go wrong, the plans that don’t quite work out, and the hurt people who distribute their hurt around. In a house a leak needs urgent attention. It drips on your head and can rot your walls. It needs to be repaired before your dinner guests arrive, or are even invited. In a ship, however, a leak is expected. Bilge pumps are normative. You don’t stop the ship to attend to them, unless they are very serious. Leaks are part of sailing.

Yet the biggest difference between the two models is safety. The house, even an open house, speaks of security, stability, and safety. The inhabitants know where they are, what to expect, and even who they might meet at the door. The ship, on the other hand, is heading out into unknown waters. Its occupants are on a journey. There is significant risk involved. The familiar towns and headlands are no longer there. The good old ways become more irrelevant day by day. God, faith, and community all change, and become more essential - more of your essence.

[i] Camara, D.H. A Thousand Reasons For Living, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1981, p.40.


The Politics of Eucharist

The biblical antecedent of Eucharist is the manna from heaven story.[i] Manna, the food of liberation, is found not in the Big Red sheds of Egypt but in the wilderness beyond Pharaoh’s control. Manna is bread that is to be shared, not stored for profit. It is bread that comes courtesy of God, not from the machinations of the market with more landing on the palates of the rich than on the plates of the poor.

It has served the interests of the ruling classes to de-politicize the Eucharist and turn it into an individualistic private act of devotion. With our sins of disobedience confessed we were to kneel and bow our heads to God, as we would to the king. We were to receive of the king’s bounty and go forth quietly to live subservience lives. We dressed our bishops and priests like royalty: “Yes, m’ Lord, you know best.” From Constantine on the paramount political function of the Church has been to sanction, and thus sanctify, the power of the state.

As God said to Moses; ‘Stop groveling and get moving. I want my people to be free. I don’t want to hear about your shortcomings and guilt. I don’t want you to wallow in it. Saying sorry isn’t going to free my people. Decisive, confrontational, planned action is. When you act, you’ll find me acting with you. Together we will walk out of slavery into freedom.’

It is no mistake that Matthew’s Gospel pictures Jesus as the new Moses. It is also no mistake that Constantinian Christianity removed Jesus from the picket line, stuck a crown on his head, and plonked him in a starry heaven – as far removed from working class people as possible.

The Eucharist has also been de-politicized by debate. Is the bread and wine real flesh and blood, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or symbolic substance? Who can receive it – divorcees, children, gays and lesbians, Buddhists and Muslims, anyone? Such disagreements still divide the Church, diminish our potency, and serve those who fear our power.

The Eucharist is marching food. Think of it as a high-protein energy bar for those communities that passionately burn for justice. It brings us individuals, all the little spluttering, erratic flames and the torches that we are, into one bonfire. Together we can light up the sky bringing hope to those in darkness.

Eating is a communal act more than an individual one. Some days as individuals we can’t even amble to the clothes line let alone stand on any picket line. Yet we belong. We belong to a community that stands for justice. Newborn babes belong, folk stricken with ailments belong, the brave belong, the weak belong, and even those who don’t believe can choose to belong.

For too long the high-protein power bar for the visionary Jesus movement has been reduced to a pious after-dinner mint for individual penitents.

We need to recover the potency of the Eucharist. It is God’s gift and it’s divine. In eating we come together. In solidarity there is healing. With healing comes the ability to re-vision. With renewed vision comes the passion to plan and act. With action we live our prayers.

The Eucharist calls us to action. Not for action’s sake, but for all the forsaken. It is a holy meal for the sake of the whole world.

[i] Exodus 16


Joe Hill and Jesus

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me:
Said I, but Joe you’re ten years dead;
I never died said he.

In Salt Lake, Joe, Great God, said I,
Him standing by my bed;
They framed you on a murder charge,
Said Joe but I ain’t dead.

The copper bosses framed you Joe
They shot you Joe said I;
Takes more than guns to kill a man,
Said Joe I did not die.

Joe Hill ain’t dead he says to me,
Joe Hill ain’t never died;
Where working men are out on strike,
Joe Hill is at their side.

And standing there as big as life
A-smiling with his eyes.
Said Joe, what they forgot to kill
Went on to organize!

From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill –
Where working folk defend their rights
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me:
Said I, but Joe you’re ten years dead;
I never died said he.
I never died said he.[i]

There is obvious Christic allusions in this ballad eulogizing Joe Hill, a working class hero, who was killed in 1915. Like Jesus he was concerned about injustice. Like Jesus this concern rallied the forces of wealth and might against him. Like Jesus he was killed. Like Jesus he lives on, immortalized in song and deed.

Let’s imagine that Joe had been with his friends the night before he was arrested. Let’s imagine that he’d taken a pint of beer and a chunk of hard tack,
[ii] likened them to his body, and shared them round. And let’s imagine Joe told them that every time before they go out on the picket line, every time before they stand up to injustices, every time before they fight for what is right, they are to eat and drink and remember the spirit - that is Joe’s spirit, and the spirit of their forebears who struggled, and the spirit of those standing beside them.

This ritual is about re-membering, bringing together the past with the present, and the dead with the living. It is a ritual that empowers people. It focuses them on the tradition of protest of which they are a part. It focuses them on the cost of that protest. And it focuses them on the dream of life lived free of oppression, hatred, classism, and prejudice.

I don’t know very much about Joe Hill. I do though know his song. And I have met his spirit and joined with it. I know a lot more about Jesus, been taught his songs, and have met and joined his spirit too. While every spirit is unique, there is a resonance between these two spirits.

Here's one of our Eucharistic prayers:

“Here today, through bread and wine, we renew our journey with Jesus and his disciples. We renew our unity with one another, and with all those who have gone before us in this place. We renew our communion with the earth and our interwovenness with the broken ones of the world. We take bread, symbol of labour, symbol of life. We will break the bread because Christ, the source of life, was broken for the excluded, exploited and downtrodden. We take wine, symbol of blood, spilt in war and conflict, symbol too of new life. We will drink the wine because Christ, the peace of the world, overcomes violence.”

This is a call to political action. This is a call to stand with Christ on the picket lines of history – everywhere oppression is rampant, freedom is suppressed, and bread is not shared. The spiritual is political, it can be no other. This Eucharistic act re-members the past and binds it to the present in order to build the future. It is holy, and it is potent.

[i] By Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson
[ii] Hardtack is thick cracker made of flour, water, and sometimes salt.


Banks and Churches

I walked fifty metres down Zurich’s Hottingerglasse and into the local bank. There were two female tellers both sitting behind desks. They were on a raised platform in order that, when the customer was standing, they had a corresponding sightline. No one else was in the bank. ‘This feels different’, I thought.

What was missing was the obvious security. There was no burly guard with weapon ready. There were no doors that captured you in a capsule while an invisible camera checked your underwear. There were no grills, toughened glass screens, or obvious deterrents for bank robbers.

Now please understand, this was no cheap, run-down bank. This was a branch of Credit Suisse, in the largest city in Switzerland, the banking capital of the world. This was where one could expect state-of-the-art security. Instead I was treated to state-of-the-art service.

I did note however that security existed. After signing my traveller’s cheque the money arrived via a cylinder from, I guess, the back room. Security was there, it was just not thrust in your face.

I was impressed by this bank. Someone had sat down and thought ‘How can we make this bank as friendly and receptive as possible?’ and then did it. Other banks have sat down and thought ‘How do we make our bank as secure as possible?’ The type of bank you have will depend upon which of these two questions dominates.

When it comes to churches there is an equivalent pair of questions: ‘How can we make this church service as welcoming as possible to newcomers?’ and ‘How can we faithfully continue our religious traditions?’ The type of church you have will depend upon which of these two questions dominates.

If you were serious about welcoming newcomers – and here there is a big difference between what churches say and what they do – then I think as a starter you could give people on arrival a laminated card with the following features:

+ It would be in 3 or 4 languages
+ It would tell you where you could sit
+ It would tell you what’s available for children
+ It would indicate where the toilets are
+ It would tell you about hearing loops and wheelchair access
+ It would tell you the approximate length of the service
+ It would invite people to stay for tea or coffee afterwards
+ It would tell you how to stay in contact with our church
+ It would say what Holy Communion is, and who can and how to receive it.
+ It would tell you about the collection of money and whether you are obliged to give anything.
+ It would tell you about taking photographs and turning off cellphones.

That branch of Credit Suisse on Hotteringlasse proclaimed the message of people being more important than money. Not bad for a bank! How do we, the Church, proclaim the message that people are what we care about most?


A Day At The Beach

A family of five were enjoying a day at the beach. The children were swimming and building sandcastles.

In the distance a little old lady appeared. Her grey hair was blowing in the wind and her clothes were dirty and ragged. She was muttering something to herself as she picked things up from the beach and put them into her bag.

The parents called the children together and told them to stay away from the old lady.

As she passed by, bending down every now and then to pick things up, she smiled at the family. But her smile wasn’t returned.

Many weeks later they learnt that the old lady had made it her lifelong crusade to pick up bits of glass off the beach so children wouldn’t cut their feet.

Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The story is from A. De Mello Prayer of the Frog p.169


Walking The Imagination

There I was in Disney's world waiting for the darlings to finish a ride before dashing to the next one. I was licking an overpriced icecream and watching the world go by.

A 70 year old man came by, stopped, and asked me for directions. We chatted for a while. Long enough for me to learn that he was here by himself. He wasn't escorting grandchildren about. He was here for himself.

Now I know there are men who frequent children's play areas for evil reasons. Yet I would like to think that he wasn't so motivated. Rather I would like to think, as our conversation indicated, that he wanted a day off boules, wine, and adult talk. He wanted to give his imagination a day out.

I wonder if I will be courageous enough at 70 to go to a children's theme park or to the zoo when I tire of being a grownup. "Goodbye bills, housework, and normality, see ya later - I'm off to walk the imagination."


What's Happened to Disneyland?

Disneyland, Paris. America transplanted into Europe. It is a children’s wonderland with no leaf out of place, no discarded cigarette butts, no flaking paint, and no beggars at the gate.

Beggars at gates are quite common in Paris. The supermarket, next door to where I was staying, had a regular beggar, as do a lot of shops. I always tried to put something into her paper cup.

Disneyland is a fantasy world that is only for those who can afford NZ$700 per day [that was the entrance fee for my family!]

Yet I had expected this sanitized, expensive view of reality. What I had not expected was the lack of imagination.

Somewhere, at some time, creativity stalled. The Disneyland I visited 30 years was imaginatively similar to the Disneyland of today. Nothing very much has changed in three decades. Sure, there were a few more rides that went a little faster [sometimes a lot faster!] and there were the gimmicks from the latest Disney movies. However there was little in the way of cutting edge creativity and exploratory use of the imagination. One would have thought, for example, that after three decades they could put us in gravity-less bubbles and propel us into space?

What has happened? In these days when cinematically we can create just about anything, why isn’t it happening at the most renowned children’s playground in the world?


Bring An Egg

Hi everyone,

It’s good to be back in Aotearoa.

Here’s an interesting story I heard in Paris:

There are a few black African tribes that settle conflict with the symbol of an egg. When the conflict has lasted long enough for there to be significant damage to individuals and the community, the feuding parties are invited to come to a meeting holding an egg. The eggs are put together to form a nest. The idea is that the nest [community well-being] needs to be mended. The conflict has escalated to such a degree that children aren’t being feed and the market place isn’t working.

The eggs also represent fragility – they need to be carefully handled, just like people. And they represent, like other fertility symbols, the possibility of new hope - that a desire for the good of all might triumph over damaged egos and vested interests.

Maybe all the bishops could bring an egg to Lambeth in 2008?



Bear in Hibernation

Dear friends,

After 3 months of enjoying himself and making mischief in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside, Lucky is heading with all the little bears to Europe. On planes and trains, with backpack and sunhat, the bears are descending on Paris, St Martin de Salencey, Zurich, Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna, and Krakow. From Poland we return to Oxfordshire for 24 hours before heading back to Kiwiland via Bangkok.

This is a roundabout way of saying that this blog won’t be active again until the end of July.

So keep thinking your thoughts, live dangerously, have fun, and we’ll connect again before too long.



Blessing Churchwardens and other bears

“No, dear, the cuddly, cross-eyed one
with the well-worn look and wobbly head
is the churchwarden”
Cartoon: Noel Ford reprinted from the The Church Times


A Bear Prayer

God of holiness and love, of imagination and play;
We give thanks for Teddy Bears
And the wonderful ways love enters our lives.
May we value all that brings life and hope,
And be bearers of the same.


For Lovers of Bears

If you go down in the woods today you’re in for a big surprise. You’ll find the bears are being blessed. On Sunday 28th May, 10.30, St James Anglican Church, Ramsden, Oxfordshire, once in the ancient Wychwood forest, is inviting people to bring out their bears.

This is a wonderful opportunity for children and adults of the village to celebrate their cuddly friends. The service is a way to celebrate the gift of imagination and affirm that part of us that delights in giving and receiving love.

The idea arose on Easter morning over breakfast when a group of us thought it would be fun.

Bears are an important part of many people’s childhood. They come to us furry and clean and after seemingly only a little time start to lose both. As they’re cuddled, carried, sucked, and cherished they lose their pristine appearance and gain love instead. Then, smothered in love, toast crumbs and honey, they become real.

I heard last week of a bear being given to an elderly woman nearing the end of her life who had always enjoyed pets in the house. In her final months she directed her love towards that bear, and received comfort in return. The bear became real.

‘How can you bless Teddy Bears?’ asked one reporter over the phone, ‘They’re not real.’

Words like ‘real’ are given substance by our experience rather than by rational scientific method. We decide what is real. I base my decision to bless on what brings forth life and love.

And every bear that ever was will gather there for certain because…..

Blessed are the Teddy Bears and all who cuddle them.

Dear Friends

Dear friends,

A week ago Lucky fell down the stairs and broke two bones in his hand – as well as some bruises elsewhere. Silly ol’ bear!

One effect of this not being able to type at the usual speed. Another effect is Lucky having to be careful – since he’s taking all the little bears to Europe in a fortnight.

Which reminds me: from June 6th to mid-July postings are going to be pretty much non-existent as the bear family go visiting museums, art galleries, etc.



Act 1, Scene 2, the biggest box for God

God is often shut up in containers of our making. We create a judging God, a merciful God, or an avenging God. We create a European God, a male God, or a kingly God. We make these containers in order to help us understand our world and God’s role in it. Yet these containers and the thoughts with which we construct them need to be changed and refreshed generation after generation in order that God doesn’t get boxed in.

In pre-democracy times, for example, to acknowledge God as king was to relativize the monarch’s power. The monarch was not absolute and therefore, in theory anyway, was answerable to God.

Similarly Athanasius’ insistence that the man Jesus was, as the Nicene Creed puts it, ‘Very God of very God’ effectively elevated a humble Palestinian carpenter to a position superior to the Emperor’s.

Yet ultimately if these containers aren’t understood as time-dependent metaphors, potentially helpful and harmful, but are expounded as eternal truths, then God is boxed. God is reduced, squeezed into, our understandings of yesteryear. God becomes our possession.

One of the containers we continually dump God into is ‘a being’. We make God into a being, a super-version of us. God ‘smiles’, ‘chuckles’, ‘loves’, etcetera. Many Christians call God ‘Father’, and some ‘Mother’. Some have replaced God with Jesus, and address their prayers to him. Indeed ‘him’ is consistently and uncritically applied to God.

On the one hand making God a being is a convenient and helpful way to talk about the nearness and empathy of God. On the other hand the inability of Christians to talk about God without using anthropomorphic language should alert us to how close we’ve come to making God a product of our projections. God has been dumped in one huge linguistic container and we’ve come close to sealing the lid.


God - Act 1, Scene 1

God. That little three-letter word has caused unbelievable acts of selfless courage and kindness, and unbelievable acts of violence and destruction. In its name both the heights and depths of love and depravity have been achieved.

If we permanently deleted the God word, expunged it to eradicate the worst, we would soon need to find a replacement. For the word is a pointer to something mysterious, powerful, and ultimately unnameable in and beyond human experience.

That is the first thing to note: God can’t be contained. When a religious system creates boundaries around God, invariably God jumps the fence side. When a fundamentalist preacher proclaims, ‘Come tonight and God will heal you’, that impish God who refuses to be in anyone’s pocket smiles and says, ‘Maybe, maybe not.’ When a Pope, Archbishop, Synod, or academic says that God is on our side blessing the way we play and condemning our opponents, then God chuckles and says, ‘I’m not on anyone’s team.’

God however is not an open slate upon which any group or individual can write their own meaning. Each culture, time, and tradition has its controls on the story of God. Each say, ‘God is mostly like this.’ When the faithful adherents however leave out the ‘mostly’, they begin that slide into certainty and the condemnation of those who think differently. They begin to think they have a monopoly on God.

The Second Commandment in the Judeao-Christian heritage admonishes believers not to make any graven image of God. The Commandment is saying that God can’t be contained by our art or by our words. God can only be pointed to. Theology, doctrine, et al are at best pointers. When we enshrine them as absolutes we commit idolatry.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth similarly needs to understood not as a reduction of God – a compressing of the infinite into the finite – but rather a manifestation of God’s nature and power. There is universe of difference between saying ‘God is Jesus’ and saying ‘Jesus is God’. The former is an idolatrous reduction. This is why the Church avoids such a statement. The latter, at its best, is a pointer to the radical love, compassion, and justice that shapes the Christian understanding of God.

Despite the wisdom of the past, the revelations, the deliberations, the texts, and the people, God remains to a significant extent outside of our containers and our knowledge. God is not humanity’s servant or puppet. This is why we must always remain both open and sceptical to the faith and insights of others, particularly to those who don’t believe like we do.


Words didn't get in the way

I wandered into Dorchester Abbey the other night to a service unlike any other. It was called Contemplative Fire [www.contemplativefire.org] and was a blend of instrumental music, meditation, prayer and communion.

I wasn’t given a Prayerbook, hymnal, or notice sheet when I arrived. Instead a blank piece of paper and pen. This, we were told, was for doodling and writing anything we wished.

The 60 or so chairs were arranged in a semi-circle in one of the transepts facing the piano. It was here the service began with music, an introduction, and prayer. Importantly there was another similar semi-circle in the entrance area at the rear of the nave. After some 15 minutes we were invited to get up and walk to this area for readings and reflection. Later we would return.

The importance was in the movement. Unlike your standard Anglican fare we were being invited to move around. We would quietly chat as we moved; commenting to those we came with about this or that. We could look at the beautiful building on the way, or stop and sit in the main pews facing the High Altar. Like with the pen and paper inviting freedom of thought, the movement invited freedom to whisper, ponder, and pause in an un-orchestrated fashion. It respected our individuality and different spiritualities. We weren’t being squeezed through a sausage machine.

Later we had communion. It was both simple and profound. An unrobed priest simply took a large loaf of bread and offered a prayer of thanks – linking the bread with life, with the earth, with us, and with God. He then broke it into chunks as another priest recited Paul’s words, ‘On the night Jesus died he gathered with his friends. And after supper he took bread…’ We then filed past in silence, taking a chunk, dipping it in the wine, and walking to some place in the vast abbey to sit quietly and think.

There was no mention of blood sacrifice, there was no invoking of the Holy Spirit, there was no lambs taking away sin, there wasn’t even a Lord’s Prayer. Rather there was silence, and soft instrumental music.

Words didn’t get in the way of worship.


Did Jesus commit suicide?

The four gospel accounts of Jesus death can give the reader the impression that Jesus committed suicide. Rather than his accusers and murderers being in control, it seems he was. Rather than the Romans nailing him to a cross it seems he ‘laid down his life for his friends’. How are we to understand this? Can the victim of a felony have any control over the crime?

Jesus did not commit suicide in the sense of saying to Pilate, ‘Here I am, people need redemption from sin and I’m going to do this cosmic thing… so kill me.’ Yet Jesus did give his life in the sense that he stayed true to his vocation.

When Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem he determined to travel to his culture’s centre of political and religious power to proclaim his message. Confrontational love could not stay hidden under a Galilean bushel, safe in the rural backwoods.

Jesus was not naïve. He knew in all probability that he would be killed. Yet he also knew that he must go and confront the destructive forces with his vision and theology of radical love. This was a decision that his followers found difficult to accept, both before and after his death. It seemed to be that he was just throwing his life away.

I think many of the great leaders of social change reach a point in their lives when it seems that injury or death is almost an inevitable outcome. I think of Mahatma Gandhi confronting the policies and practices of the British Raj. I think of Martin Luther King confronting the segregationist laws on the Southern United States. These people did not wish to die. Indeed they were lovers of life. Yet they were determined to pursue the vocation that they had both adopted and had been thrust upon them. Similarly Jesus remained true to his vocation despite the cost.

It is due to the cost of staying true that Christians honour Jesus on Good Friday. Despite the threat and actuality of physical torture, despite being misunderstood by both friends and foes, despite being betrayed by people he loved, and despite the despair of feeling abandoned by God, Jesus remained true to himself.