Mum, is God up in the sky?

My friend Celia Caughey has written a delightful little book for children and their adults introducing them to the wisdom of the great spiritual disciplines - particularly Christian and Buddhist. The book is called "There's Lots of Love" and will be published in the next month or so. Details of it will be on the St Matthew's webite www.stmatthews.org.nz Here's a little poem of Celia's that I enjoyed this morning:

Mum, is God up in the sky?
Do you think that he can fly?
Does he have a long white beard?
Is he someone to be feared?

The mystery some call God
May be found inside your head
Don’t go searching far and wide
Search your own heart instead.

Think of electricity
That makes the dark turn bright
So energy flows through you
Tune in and see the light.


Simply Good

"In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer" Albert Camus

+ There is a serenity to be found in some of the simplest of pleasures. I am sitting outside at 6.30 a.m., looking at the trees, with a cup of coffee in one hand and the morning paper in the other. I hear the birds and some distant morning traffic. Closing my eyes I listen to my heart and it is peaceful.

+ Table-tennis in the garage is always a boisterous affair, deliberately so. Here young verse older can tease, laugh and compete. There are two lessons I want to teach. Firstly that fun is something you determine and then create. Secondly the real triumph of any game is the mutual enjoyment. The desire to win always needs to be kept in check, lest its destructive force is unleashed.

+ I try to laugh every day. I therefore need to put myself in the company of or communication with people who are as seriously twisted as I am. That takes discipline, but is manna to the soul. It helps too to know authors that are similarly twisted. Today it is Christopher Moore.

+ In the office it is the trickster who contributes more than she or he knows. The ability to release laughter into the common atmosphere is a divine gift, sowing the possibilities of hope and transformation. Churches in particular need lots of pranks – just to piss the pious off, and remind us what piety is.

+ With age comes the ability to enjoy rich, strong flavours. Insipid food and beverages lose their appeal. It’s great to see kids progress from cheddar, to Colby, to Tasty, to Stilton. I wish their theology would too. Usually they try the cheddar equivalent then give up on cheese.

+ With strong flavours too comes the realisation that a little is all that is needed. A dram of Glenfiddich can last a whole sunset. When you get stuffed on anything – food, drink, or religion – you miss the beauty on the horizon.

+ Enjoyment is not always assisted by money. Big toys can lead to big stress, and big maintenance. Bigness is also part of the illusion that the grand is always preferable to the simple. A car will give you the pleasure of arriving quickly. A bicycle will give you the pleasure of feeling the wind. Walking will give you the pleasure of noticing the flowers. All are pleasurable, but some cost more. Generally the more it costs the worse off your heart is.

+ Beauty is the artists’ gift to the city. These gifts stimulate our eyes and imagination, and goddishly invite our souls to be transported beyond the ordinary. Sculpture, in particular, offers us the vulnerability and intrigue of three dimensions, inviting touch and reflection. Sculpture is the foil to utilitarian design, suburban routine and soulless consumerism.

+ Working downtown it is important to misplace your diary and cell phone, walk out and get lost at least once a week. In the world of noise and demand we need a silence break, or we will break. That’s why it’s important for churches, art galleries, and large book stores to be open in the city – for the quiet. It is a prayer to walk from noise to silence. Our souls simply need it.

When We Disagree With Jesus

I was reading Luke 20:27-38 this morning. Luke and/or his Jesus make some claims in this text about heaven – namely that there is no marriage, plenty of angels, and is only for “the worthy.” The interesting thing of course is that many Christians, like me, don’t believe what Jesus/Luke believed.

I’m agnostic about life after death. I hope there is, but my faith isn’t shattered if there isn’t. I am though very sceptical about a heaven for “the worthy”. Determining who is “worthy” has always been a political game. At its best the Church has said that’s God’s call and God’s call alone. However, the Church being the institution it is can’t resist the temptation of judging others. It has damned anyone and everyone who doesn’t fit with the beliefs, morality, or authority structure of the ruling ecclesiastical elite. I personally think that if an afterlife exists everyone is going to be there. For some that will be heaven, for others it will be hell. As for angels… I really like angels, I just believe in literal metaphysical messengers.

If we don’t believe what Jesus and/or his editors believed does that make us non-Christians or heretics? When it comes to Jesus are some of his beliefs optional for us? Did he get it wrong about some things?

Let me sketch some things about the historical Jesus. Firstly, he was Jewish. He was a Jewish rabbi no less, of the Pharisaic tradition - albeit a liberal critic within Pharisaism. The idea of his followers departing from the Jewish faith would have been anathema to him. Jesus’ editors, and the writings of Paul, try to disguise this inconvenient truth.

In a similar vein I think it would be a mistake to imagine that Jesus saw no difference between Jews and Gentiles. The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman where Jesus says to her, ‘Why should I take the Jewish children’s food and throw it to you Gentile dogs?’ indicates some of the common racial prejudice that existed. Whilst Jesus was inclusive for his time and culture, to assume he was without prejudice is a statement of conjecture.

Thirdly there is his maleness. Although he was critical of the patriarchal family and the denigration of those who transgressed the purity laws, to say he was a believer in the equality of men and women is a fanciful reading into the text. Again, like with his relationship to Gentiles, in his time and place he crossed cultural and gender boundaries, and thus modelled for us an imperative to do likewise. But he was not your non-sexist, mutuality-committed, pro-equality male that we fathers all want our daughters to marry.

Then there is his theology. Jesus had a personal, male god whom he called daddy. Further this anthropomorphic deity lived above the clouds, in the top tier of the universe, called heaven. The second tier of the universe was the earth, and the third hell. We might like to imagine that he thought of these metaphorically, but I doubt it. Jesus also believed that he was going to ‘come again’ during the lifetime of the disciples. Of course as a good Jew he wouldn’t have had any truck with the Trinity, or the great schemes of sanctification that involved his literal blood making God accept and love people.

Some of Jesus’ theology we might resonate with and some we might be repelled by. A personal daddy god doesn’t do much for me. A three-tier universe doesn’t literally exist. Jesus didn’t come again during his disciples’ lifetime. However the complicated formulas of the Trinity and sanctification devised in the first four centuries of the Church don’t do a lot for me either.

Can I then still call myself a Christian?

I find the description of Jesus by the writer of Hebrews [12:2] as the ‘author’ or ‘pioneer’ of our faith helpful. The Jesus of history was a trailblazer, an exemplar, and a model for us. However as with all authors and pioneers of radical social change thought we need to be selective about what we wish to emulate. He wasn’t perfect. The love he preached and lived in his context might have been, but in our context revision is needed.

This is where the writer of the 4th Gospel is helpful in telling us that the Spirit of Jesus will lead us into all truth. ‘Spirit of’ as distinct from ‘the man’. Truth was not fixed in 1st century Palestine. It was not fixed in a male Jewish rabbi. It is something that continues to unfold as we engage with the Spirit of God in our context in the light of what he taught.


Choose Which Road To Travel

The Bible has long been used as a barrier to prevent gay and lesbian people feeling beloved of God and welcome in the Church. Using verses in particular from the books of Leviticus and Romans Church authorities have condemned homosexuality.

However scholars in the 1970s and 1980s looked again at the texts. They found that none of the passages addressed the permissibility of consensual committed love in a same-sex relationship. Rather most of the passages were concerned about the violation of hospitality, rape, and pederasty. The texts were written within a patriarchal culture obsessed with purity. It tried to regulate for example what went into and out of the body, the latter including menstrual fluid and semen. Wasting semen was a crime whereas sleeping with multiple wives, concubines, and prostitutes was not.

These scholars also noted that Jesus made no reported comment on homosexuality. He was though critical of the patriarchal family, and what that institution did to those it rejected. He also talked about the importance of love and how we treat one another.

Conservative scholars have tried to counter these arguments. In short they argue that because the Bible is silent on committed same-sex relationships does not mean it permits them. The Bible endorses a heterosexual perspective, albeit within an ancient patriarchal context that most today would not want to wholly replicate. They think the Church needs to be very careful in how far it deviates from the literal words of various biblical texts.

In the end, I believe, it comes down to us making a choice. We can choose to follow a God who wants us to conform to one particular way of being human, as defined by heterosexual norms. This God stands opposed to the direction of Western democracies as they seek to acknowledge the human rights of all their citizens. There are a number of biblical passages and preachers that will endorse this choice. Or we can choose to follow a God who in the name of love breaks through the barriers of prejudice and leads us on the road to justice. There are a number of biblical passages and preachers that will endorse this choice too.

Making a choice regarding biblical texts and moral direction is nothing new. The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, a man not known for his liberal tendencies, was faced with a problem. The Bible’s unequivocal denunciation of usury, i.e. earning interest on money, was preventing the economic development of Europe. Whereas originally these texts were framed to stop the poor falling into debt-slavery, they were in the 16th century preventing people from borrowing to finance enterprise. Calvin reasoned that although these verses made sense when they were written, times and understandings had changed, and the texts needed to be ignored. Further he regarded the moral principle of equity as taking precedence over these biblical texts.
[i] In other words Calvin, the great pioneer of Protestantism, and champion for many modern-day conservatives, blatantly disregarded the clear teaching of Holy Scripture and gave preference to the principle of equity.

We need to have the courage of Calvin today to set aside biblical prohibitions that stand in the way of people flourishing. This was the same courage that Jesus showed in setting aside biblical texts regarding the Sabbath, women, lepers, tax-collectors, dining, and adultery.

We need to choose which road to travel. There is a narrow conservative road that requires conformity to one understanding of Scripture and faith. You won’t have to think too much – it will do it for you. This road denies that any other road is Christian.

Then there is a broad highway littered with churches and bishops that is designed to keep everyone happy. In the name of unity dissension must be avoided. It is risk-averse. It tries to be tolerant. Those who don’t fit with the majority however are discounted.

Then there is the difficult road to justice that St Matthew’s is travelling. On this road unity does not precede justice, but follows it. On this road the Bible does not precede truth, but serves it. On this road God’s will is not frozen in the 1st century but is unfolding among us. This is the road that I and many of my predecessors have chosen. And we still have a long way to go.

[i] I have drawn upon an article by Alan Billings http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=39331


Lunch with Bishop Gene

Last Saturday I dined with Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire and his partner Mark. They are in New Zealand on holiday. It’s not often one is privileged to have lunch with a famous person.

Gene has a big infectious smile and is very gracious when talking about those in the Anglican Communion who make life difficult for him. He is very committed to the Church – which I suppose is obvious when you remember that he was ordained wearing a bullet-proof vest!

He told us about the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So” in which he features. See
http://www.forthebibletellsmeso.org I cried when I watched the trailer. The movie tells the Bible story in a way that affirms God’s love and embrace of gay people and their relationships.

I sat next to Gene’s partner Mark. The American House of Bishops has a strong spouse’s group who have warmly welcomed Mark into their midst.

I gave Gene a gift on behalf of St Matthew’s. It’s a little greenstone Manaia. The Manaia is traditionally depicted with the head of a bird, the body of a man, and the tail of a fish – representing sky, earth and sea and the balance between them. It is said to protect the wearer from evil. It’s also controversial. It seemed the right thing to give to Gene.