Anyone who is not against us is for us.

This last week I made my first visit to a Mormon Church, where I attended a funeral service. Among a wealth of impressions and unanswered questions that played in my mind, the experience left me with two key  impressions. I felt humbled by the deep interpersonal quality that pervaded the gathering. I felt I was in the presence of a religious culture which witnessed to God’s presence through the personal connections between people. Everyone around me appeared to feel as if they belonged together. The worshipers seemed to me to be bound together not only by a tangible experience of gratitude to God for his love, but also, by an everyday experience of showing one another the power of that love. I will return to the second off my two key impressions in a moment.

As it happened, later that same day a new member of our congregation came to speak with me. In the course of the conversation he told me about his Mormon upbringing and  his early adult years spent in the Church Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.  In the course of our conversation he said something that really surprised me. He told me he was finding in the Episcopal Church a deeply felt resonance to the Mormon culture that he could no longer be a part of. He noted that both religious cultures shared an experience of the importance of place. He grew up in a town in Utah where the only church in town was Mormon.

Episcopalians in the U.S. never enjoy the exclusive experience of being the only church in town even thought sometimes we like to behave as if are. Ours is a tradition that was formed in a context the English village and town where for hundreds of years the only Church was the Anglican Church.

The surprise of the last week, for me, has been to realize that Mormon and Anglican Traditions have things in common. Both emphasize the importance of  place and the importance of identifying with the local. The locality is the setting for the world of  everyday life. This is the setting within which God speaks to us. Here, both Mormon and Anglican Traditions emphasize the centrality of being in right relationship with one another.

My second key impression from the funeral service was reaffirmed in my conversation later in the day. As I sat sensing the deep interpersonal bond that tied the worshipers together I was also profoundly disquieted by the knowledge that the interpersonal bonds were only extended to those who shared the Church’s beliefs. Because Mormon belief is that homosexuality is a sin against God, both the person I went to the funeral to support and the person who spoke with me later that day had experienced rejection from the Church when they reached that point in their lives when their integrity as persons required an open acknowledgement of being Gay. For both of them this became the point where the loving community they had grown up within, and to which they had devoted much of their lives, closed its doors to them and left them on the outside.

Mormonism and Anglicanism both stress the centrality in the Christian life of being in right relationship with one another. However, this is where the similarity ends.  Mormonism is among the many examples of religious cultures that are truth based. In a truth based culture it seems that right relationship can only extend to those who share right belief.

As Episcopalians our Anglican Tradition emerges out of an experience where people with very different theologies and political ideologies were compelled by the law to sit alongside one-another in the same pew Sunday by Sunday. Historically we refer to this as the Elizabethan Settlement. Over time, the Elizabethan Settlement broke down, and it eventually became possible for English men and women to express their differences in the choice of the Protestant chapel and eventually the restored Roman Catholic Church. However the mainstream of English culture continued to be dominated by its identification with its National Church, expressed at the local level of the Parish Church.

Over several centuries the necessity of tolerating religious and political differences under the same church roof led to what we today recognize as the distinctly Anglican compromise.  This need for compromise and tolerance has prevented us becoming a truth based religious culture. Instead we became a worship based culture.

What makes Episcopalians stand out in the current American religious landscape is our distinctive emphasis on worship as the context in which we find our commonality. Over generations the rich and poor, Tory and Whig, those with High Church sympathies sitting next to their Low Church neighbors were all moulded into a common culture of worship through the linguistic and imaged richness of the Book of Common Prayer.  Like Mormons, we too stress right relationship. However, for us right relationship is not predicated by shared truth. Our foundation of right relationship rests on the experience of praying together. We are people committed to praying with any person who wishes to pray with us.

Gathered together in worship we hear God speaking to us through the proclamation of Scripture. This morning’s Gospel is rich in potential preaching themes. As we move Sunday by Sunday through the central chapters of Mark’s Gospel we see a pattern repeating itself. Jesus teaches the disciples about what it means to be his disciples and they, the disciples, then graphically demonstrate in behavior that they have miserably failed to understand. If Jesus’ disciples could get it so wrong and still come through in the end, then there is hope for you and me.

The disciples are pissed-off not only that someone else is healing in Jesus’ name, but healing successfully where they previously had failed. They try to do what groups always try to do – protect their territory by attempting to silence any opposition. Yet, Jesus tells them:

Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.

These words are familiar to us because we usually hear them being misquoted. Instead of Jesus’ actual words whoever is not against us is for us, we invert the phrase to whoever is not for us is against usThis reversal communicates the opposite meaning. Anyone who is not for us is against us expresses a narrow need for exclusive control. It maintains that those who are not on the inside are automatically on the outside. So Jesus tells the disciples, don’t exclude him because he is not one of your band, but include him on the strength of his actions and purpose being the same as yours. Exclusion is replaced by inclusion.

The disciples were operating from the principle that those who are not for us are against us. They intuitively define being for us as being the same as we are. They want to form a self-selecting, truth based group.   Self-selecting groups have to keep clarifying who is in and who is out. Whereas, Jesus is inviting anyone into relationship with him on the basis of the way he or she behaves.

The disciples are only seeking to defend themselves against the fearful message of Jesus. If everyone is included, then how will we control the message and keep the truth clear.  Perhaps its desperation that forces Jesus into graphic hyperbole?  The sin for which drowning by mill stone, severing of limbs and plucking-out of eyes is the atonement is the sin of thinking and acting in ways that put stumbling blocks in anyone’s path to God.

Mark portrays a sequence of events in Chapter 9 in which the central linking theme is following Jesus. We follow Jesus when we welcome and receive others into relationship with us. Sin is our human need to draw sharp distinction between those we consider with us and our consequent desire to exclude those we are not the same as us. It’s a short step from here to defining   them as those who are against us. For me this is the sin of falling out of right relationship with another because I am not able to tolerate difference and diversity in community.

Children, Discipleship, and the Kingdom of God

I remember my father delighting in repeating two old world sayings which summed up his need for an easy solution in relation to his argumentative children:

Do as I say, not as I do!  and  Children are meant to be seen and not heard!

I don’t think for one moment he really believed these saying to be true. In fact he would always laugh as he recited them. Yet, I suspect like a lot of parents he felt torn. Not believing these sayings to be true he nevertheless resorted to them in the hope that they would provide him with a simple solution in dealing with the challenges his children presented.

What are your memories of the world you grew-up in? I grew up in a world of solid suburban values supported by the social provisions of healthcare and universal education accessible to all and free at the point of use.  Looking back in hindsight the N.Z. I grew up in seems from this distance a place where life was sweet, uncomplicated, and safe. I grew up in a golden age of national prosperity funded on the back of a forty-year economic boom which began to unravel only after  Britain’s entry into what was then called the European Economic Community in 1973.

As a child, the world I grew up in gave me freedom. I was free to go out on my bike, which was my only form of transport for both getting to and from school and for exploring the world around me. My friends and I rode the country roads and explored the disused water filled and overgrown gravel pits and pine forests that surrounded the area where we lived. No-doubt many Americans of my age remember growing up in a similar kind of  (suburban) world.

The world I now find myself living in seems such a different place from the world of my memories. The prospect of allowing my granddaughter a freedom to roam about on her bicycle exploring the world around her is beyond thinking about.

As I look around me I see a confused picture of a society where we are both obsessively anxious and at the same time, callous in the extreme in our attitudes towards children. Millions of children are the obsessive focus of anxiety driven parental over indulgence. We are beginning to note the fruits of anxiety-driven, intrusive parenting in a prolonged period of adolescent dependence now extending for many into early adult years. At the same time the results of the recent American Survey reveal that in 2012 16.4 million children now live in poverty.

Child poverty is not simply being monetarily poor. After all many of us can legitimately claim that: we may have been poor but we were loved and happy. Therefore, child poverty is a relative term inclusive of multiple deprivations effecting a wide rage of life experiences. At the risk of stereotyping myself as a frequent listener to NPR, I heard this last week a commentator speaking about research findings that show clearly how poor life prospects can be linked to the effect of early poor nutrition on brain development.

It has been said that the truest picture of any society or other social grouping can be seen in its attitudes and treatment of children.

The images created by this morning’s gospel reading evoke a deep sympathy in me for Jesus! He hears us arguing about which among us is the more important. I imagine him in desperation taking hold of the child nearest to him and confounding those around him, he proclaims whoever, welcomes this child welcomes me and not only me but the one who sent me.  Mark (:30-37

Mark gives us a glimpse in two places of Jesus’ attitude towards children. In two weeks we will encounter the second and arguable the more famous – Mark 10:13-15 suffer the little children to come unto me. In the context of 1st century Palestine Jesus’s comments about children run strongly against cultural assumptions. In doing so Jesus once again is standing in the prophetic tradition which presents women and children as the ultimate symbols of vulnerability and dependency – and thereby powerful images of an essential quality of God.

In the long march of time some things remain constant. At the level of social attitudes and actions children evoke powerful ambivalence in us. Our 21st century Western ambivalence towards children is exemplified in a number of ways. Social ambivalence towards children is an expression of the fact that children are our future, yet, in the present moment they are often experienced as an inconvenience, a burden on our patience and our pockets.

We sharply distinguish between our experience as parents and our attitudes as general members of society. As parents we draw a too sharp distinction between my-our children – and children in general. Towards my-our children we are often over-anxious, over protective, and over indulgent. As taxpaying members of society we tend to think about children in general.

As a society we express attitudes of callous neglect towards children in general. We think little of cutting social welfare provisions in child and family healthcare, and in education because we claim they are too expensive. When we act at this level we are not thinking about my-our children. We are thinking about all those children in general, whose parents should be able to take better individual care of their children and not expect me or us, to do if for them!

The Episcopal Church is greying. For generations we have neglected the formation of our children. Sunday School as a form of child minding that is an insult to the natural intelligence and curiosity of our children does not qualify as an adequate response to the formation needs of our children.

One of the strengths of our Cathedral is the long commitment to Children’s Ministry. Often this area has been the focus of tension and has been the context for strong contention.  While this is often difficult to manage I see this as an indication of the passionate importance that our parents and teachers place on the formation of our children. Children and youth formation is important enough to passionately disagree over what is best.

The Diocese of Arizona has one of the strongest commitments at diocesan level to children’s education and youth ministry. Nevertheless, despite this, a survey of parish budgets would still reveal how little actual investment is made by many of our parishes in children and youth ministries. As a result nationally among the mainline churches the Episcopal Church has the poorest retention rate among adolescents and young adults. Now this is saying something in a culture where according to the Pew Religion Survey 2010, all churches, whether mainline, nondenominational or evangelical, are irrelevant to 30% and rising of mellennials, i.e. people born since 1981.

The same ambivalences towards children found at large in society regrettably also find expression within Church communities. Most churches when asked about their number one priority will say, growth. Thinking generally as members of a congregation we connect our desire for growth with encouraging families with children and young people. When asked more individually to reflect on the shift in our personal attitudes required to encourage growth, our increasingly greying Boomers rail against the interruptions to the dignity and contemplation of their worship occasioned by the presence of families with children and young people.

For Jesus, the child is not a focus of sentimental dreaming. Nor is the presence of children a cause of irritation. Jesus takes and holds up the child as an image of his own experience of vulnerability. The image coming to me from this morning’s gospel is an image of Jesus’s vulnerability and loneliness as he begins his long journey on the road to Jerusalem.

Jesus is not inviting us to become sentimental about the child as a figure of lost innocence. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is his lonely road and he invites us to become his companions on this road.  He is not holding up the child as a model of discipleship. He is not saying that disciples are those who become innocent like a child.  Jesus is showing us that when we welcome, love and support the child in our midst we welcome God into our lives and thereby become disciples.

Jesus is telling us if we want to be his disciples we will have to place ourselves at the service of others. The clearest image of serving others requires us, with all our hearts, to desire to welcome children into our midst.

What more powerful image is there of  service to others than an image of ourselves placing the interests of others before our own? The contours of this image are those of the welcoming of the child as an expression of the welcome of God into the heart of our communities.  This is what it means to become Jesus’ disciples and lovers of God.


Follow Me! Reflections on Mark 8:34

Exploring and reading around this Sunday’s Gospel from Mark 8 I came across this comment from Matthew Skinner, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St Paul:

As we journey soon into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to another. 

Jesus moves from touring the borderlands between Jewish and Gentile country. Here he has been confronting the generalized suffering of humanity through mighty acts of power and healing. This is the mid point of Mark’s story. From here Jesus turns his face towards the road to Jerusalem. He offers the disciples a prequel of what lies ahead. In a nutshell, the way ahead is one of conflict and death. The conflict begins immediately in the heated confrontation between Jesus and Peter.

Peter rightly intuits Jesus’ identity as Messiah. But his view of what this means is conditioned and imprisoned within his Jewish cultural and religious worldview. Within this worldview the Messiah is the liberator king who will restore Israel to its rightful place in the world and therefore, Jesus’ words of suffering and death not only make little sense but seem somewhat scandalous.

Jesus has to disabuse Peter in the strongest of terms – get behind me Satan!  There now follows the invitation to discipleship in verse 34 : Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must deny self, take up their cross and follow me!

Some of you may be familiar with The Message Bible. It describes itself as a contemporary rendering of the Bible – crafted to present its tone, rhythm, events, and ideas in everyday language. I commend to you its interesting translation of Mark 8:34-35

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering: embrace it. Follow me and I will show you how.                                                                                                                                                                                               Self help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.

Like a knife, the Message translation, slices away layer by layer our self-protections from the real meaning of Jesus’ call to denial of self. What self-denial means is to recognize that we are not the ones in the driver’s seat. Following Jesus is not about us exercising our free will from a Smörgåsbord  of heroic choices. In the immortal words of the Carrie Underwood song we are being called to let:

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this all on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
To save me from this road I’m on
Jesus take the wheel.

We are so anesthetized by the traditional Biblical language exhorting self-denial and cross carrying that most of us do one of two things. Either, we let it in one ear and out the other paying lip service to it in the process. Or, we moralize and/or spiritualize its meaning.

We moralize self-denial when we imagine ourselves as heroes personifying the virtues of fortitude, courage, or humility, or projecting those virtues into our spiritual heroes and concluding that these heroic virtues are not for the ordinary likes of us. We spiritualize self-denial when we picture ourselves valiantly achieving control over our desires through delayed gratification, or some form of spiritual hair-shirt discipline. We spiritualize self-denial when we imagine it means embracing a life of suffering, a lying down in front of others inviting them to do their worst to us.

To moralize and or spiritualize self-denial is to individualize it as something we do through our own self-assertion. We imagine that we can triumph over the our suffering. I refer anyone who might be interested for an excellent analysis of what Jesus does and does not mean by suffering to  Matthew Skinner’s paper: Denying Self, Bearing a Cross, and Following Jesus: Unpacking the Imperatives of Mark 8:34

In approaching Jesus’ call to us to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses and to follow him I draw from my formation as a psychotherapist. Now I want to issue a warning here: undisciplined use of psychological analysis of biblical texts may damage your spiritual health. I am extremely cautious about submitting Biblical passages and language to psychological interpretation. Psychological language, in my view, is generally overvalued in our popular discourse because it can feed our craving for explanatory solutions. Having stated this reservation, I want to bring a psychological lens to bear upon the picture Mark paints of what Jesus means by denial of self.

Mark uses the word aparneomai – to disavowonly twice in his Gospel. The first time is in today’s passage. The second time is when Peter denies Jesus three times in the court of the High Priest.

In his assertion of Jesus as Messiah and later in his disavowal of Jesus in his Passion, Peter embodies the psychological concept of ego. Ego – ‘the I’ -was originally coined by Sigmund Freud to refer to a part of the personality whose function it is to mediate between the demands of our inner and outer worlds.

The ego’s function is to navigate between the conflict between our inner desire and constraints of the real world. Freud understood our internal world to be governed by what he called the pleasure principle and this comes into sharp conflict with our experience of an external world governed by what he termed the reality prinicple. The ego’s skilled function in negotiating between the internal world of our desire for pleasure and external worlds of social constraint, ensures our survival and self preservation in the world.

Through our ego we conform to the values of the world. Worldly values promote self-assertion in the face of competition in a world of scarcity. They reward self-protection, self-promotion, and dangle before us the ultimate promise of self-fulfillment.

Roberto Assagioli, an early follower and later critic of Freud, founder of the school of Psychosynthesis, more aptly termed the ego function as the survival personality – that part of us that ensures our survival in a world of competing demands.

Jesus is calling us to disavow our over identification with our ego-survival personality. He is asking us to hand-over the direction-setting of our path in life, to God.  My often used phrase – God’s dreaming of us into that which is yet to become known captures in essence what this looks like. Through letting Jesus take the wheel a different road opens up before us. We are now on the road of transformation. As the fear driven grip upon us of our over-identification with our individualistic ego loosens, this transformation results in us becoming, not only more closely connected to God, but also, to one another!

This psychological approach now helps us to see why Jesus goes on to talk about winning and loosing our life. Once again, the translation in The Message cuts through our over familiarity with the standard text.

What good would it do to get everything you want and to lose you, the real you?

What is the real you?  Psychologically, it goes by many different names depending on whose system (Freud, Jung, Assagioli) you are working within. A general term might be the real you is the true as opposed to the false self.

The concept of the true self comes as close and psychology can come to the spiritual language of soul. It’s difficult to say they exactly equate. Direct equation across completely different discourses is not possible.  Nevertheless let me put it like this.  We have a soul and a personality, and they are not the same although they are interconnected.

Jesus is saying that we can win at the ego game, the projection of ourselves according to the values prized by the world, and lose our soul, our sense of who we truly are being dreamed by God into becoming.

The violence unleashed in the Arab World to what some claim is only an exercise in freedom of speech shows us an example of what an excess of individualistic, ego-driven, self assertion leads us to. Contrastingly, a direct result of giving up self-assertion enables us to make room in our lives for one-another – in Matthew Skinner’s words quoted above, we come to belong to (one) another. This is the principle upon which all community is based.

So then, what does it mean to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus?

Episcopalians are Christians of the Anglican Tradition. The Anglican Tradition is a transmission of historic (catholic) Christianity. What this means is that for us baptism is not so much something that alters our relationship with God, i.e. before baptism we are unsaved and after we become saved. Baptism is entry into belonging within the community we call Church. We are saved through becoming members of the saving community of the Church. As members of a saving community the spiritual journey is a journey we make in the company of others.

As Anglican Christians Episcopalians believe that God does not speak to us as individuals acting alone. As the Early Church Father Tertullian said: one Christian is no Christian. We believe that God encounters us through our membership of the Body of Christ in the world. God becomes knowable to us when we come together in worship at the Eucharist. God speaks to us as a community when we as individuals use our smart phones or tablets, on a daily basis, to plug-in to electronic versions of morning and evening prayer, which  is the common, as in, shared action of prayer by the sacred community we call the Church.

Coming back to Mark 8. When Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, he is not inviting us to embark on a solitary road of personal suffering.  He is inviting us into identifying ourselves with, and committing ourselves to belonging within, his Body in the world. This is the community we call Church. What this means is to become part of a cross-bearing- community which seeks to live in contrast to worldly values.  For Jesus and for Mark and his community this meant risking persecution by standing together in opposition to the worship of worldly power of Rome. For us it is to stand together in opposition to the our worlds valuing of isolated, ego driven individualism.

Now it might be a bit of a stretch to see the Episcopal Church as standing against the worship of worldly power. We whose historic privilege as a church caused others to refer to us as God’s frozen chosen. We are they who follow in the English tradition of tasteful elitism. Yet, the Holy Spirit has been powerfully moving is this church of ours.

We who at one time seemed the most unlikely seedbed for energetic social change now find ourselves in the vanguard of the engagement with the big cultural questions changing the way we view issues of gender, human sexuality, the dynamics of privilege and the challenges of injustice and poverty.

We may not all agree among ourselves about the solutions. Yet, we are a church that is no longer afraid to engage with the issues of our age. This throws us into the turmoil between the tradition we receive and the lives we actually live.  As a consequence, the Episcopal Church Community pays a price for carrying the cross. We are the focus of much attack and ridicule. The accusation is made that we have abandoned the Bible. We are frequently assailed by the prophecies of our premature demise.

All of this affirms for me that we as a Church are attempting to accept the invitation Jesus makes in Mark 8.  We are far from perfect, yet we understand that to take up the cross, as Jesus exhorts us to do, leads us beyond our ego defenses to a new and transformed manner of experiencing the presence of a relational God, a God-in community in the world. This is an experience that carries a cost at the heart of which is a daily discovery that we belong with one another. 

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering: embrace it. Follow me and I will show you how.                                                                                                                                                                                               Self help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.

Hopes and Dreams of Becoming

It is November 1916. On a wet and cold day a young 21 year-old Ulster woman sets sail from Belfast Docks to rendezvous in Liverpool with the ship that will take her away from everything that is familiar. She is beginning a new life in one of the self-governing dominions of the British Empire. She is contracted to work as the housekeeper for a wealthy farming family in Taranaki, a rich farming area on the southern west coast of Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Maui) or as most of us know it, the North Island of New Zealand.

My grandmother never spoke of the reasons for leaving home and venturing forth in the middle of a World War. One might assume that she had hope for a different and better life for herself. My guess is that she recognized something calling her into that part of her life, which for her, had yet to become known. One might assume she had hope. She certainly had courage.

Perhaps it’s from my maternal grandmother that I inherited the courage to make the reverse journey. At the age of 22 I left my hometown.  Christchurch is that most English of all New Zealand cities, now utterly destroyed by two years of continual earthquakes. The city is the principle city on Te Wai Pounamu, (the canoe of Maui) or the less imaginatively named South Island of New Zealand. In 1978 I set out for that part of my life, which at that time, had yet to become known to me.

Did I have hope? What were my hopes? All I knew was that something was drawing me onwards. The result has been to spend 30 years, the greater part of my adult life, living and working in London. London and the U.K. became the context within which my hopes and dreams unfolded. Courage and hope have more recently lead me to Phoenix, which now, is the context for the continuation of hopes and dreams unfolding. I do not believe that I am unusual. Others’ reading these words will have similar experiences to report.

My grandmother was a formative influence in my life. She powerfully shaped my early view of the world. It is a world-view that highly values courage. Yet, my grandmother imparted to me something that I have found less helpful.  She was a walking compendium of old world aphorisms: a stitch in time saves nine, the devil makes work for idle hands, never a lender or a borrower be. But the saying of her’s that entered most deeply into my consciousness was: never expect and you won’t be disappointed.

Somehow what I internalized her view that the world was a place of scarcity. Therefore, it’s too dangerous to have hopes because hoping only leads to disappointment. I think, sadly, that my grandmother despite courageously setting out for a new life took with her, her earlier life experience of scarcity. What was the scarcity for her?

She came from an educated, school teaching class, members of the Church of Ireland. (Until my dog Charlie Girl decided to take up the discipline of the Daily Office I had inherited from my grandmother a tiny little Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern, both fitting together in a little traveling box. I still have them but now a little the worse for the exuberance of doggy devotion.) For my Grandmother Mary, poverty was not the scarcity. It was love. Despite her fierce love of me I remember her as a woman who could never really believe in the abundance of generous love.

Fears of scarcity and hopes for the abundance of generous love are major repetitive themes in my preaching. Like most preachers talking to my congregation is always a form of talking to myself.

While sitting with this gospel passage from Mark 7, my attention goes to the story of the Syrophoenician woman. Such a glorious name Syrophoencian – maybe we should start calling ourselves Arizophoenicians? My attention is drawn to her courage and her hope. It would have taken considerable courage to cross the racial and religious boundary line separating Gentile from Jew. We see in the tragedy unfolding in Syria how deep ancient communal divisions go.  In traversing this boundary of boundary lines – this Gentile woman is investing a quality of hope and expectation in Jesus. Her hope opens her eyes to seeing him for who he really is. She alone addresses Jesus as Lord – Kyrios, at a point when the disciples are still calling him Rabbi.

The story concerning the Syrophoenician woman is rich in multiple meanings. One significant theme in this encounter revolves around crossing boundaries, with a strong theme of inclusion and exclusion. Is it right to extend to Gentiles what until now has been reserved for God’s chosen children? There is a strong theme about courage to hope, risking the ultimate of disappointments – death of a loved one. However, my immediate focus is a related and yet, distinct theme –  one that connects this story to my memories of my grandmother -that of scarcity and abundance.

Using a form of words, which implies the opposite of what he intends Jesus appears to be denying the woman’s expectations. Thus he elicits from the woman a response that evidences the courage and tenacity of her hope. It is on the basis of her hope in him as Lord that her daughter is healed.

The capacity to have hope goes to the heart of our spiritual lives. For many of us hope is problematic. My grandmother’s folk injunction against expectation because it invariably leads to disappointment draws its power from our human experience of fear that there is no abundance. Fear that to be disappointed is something we might not survive. Fear that informs us that there is not enough available of what we need in this world and so we need to cut our suit to fit the cloth – another of my grandmother’s sayings.

Now, I know well enough the corrosive power of disappointment! In my daily spiritual practice, past disappointments surface like icebergs in a congested shipping lane. Icebergs of  grievance loom up out of the unconscious darkness at points where I have been unable to grieve a loss. I notice that I can remain very attached to my grievances. They can come to define who I think I am and they control what I allow myself to expect. I can seek to escape past losses. Yet, unless I also learn to grieve them, they remain as frozen points, blocks of ice inhibiting the onward flow of my spiritual and emotional life. The fears of scarcity chill the waters of the emotional and spiritual shipping lane through which my life proceeds.

In my personal experience and in my experience as priest and therapist, it is this fear to hope, and assumptions of scarcity rather than abundance of love which imperil our ability to participate in God’s dreaming us into becoming. The problem about hope is that the outcome is unpredictable. I am put in mind of the famous Rolling Stones song, You can’t always get what you want. The pertinent lyrics go:

You can’t always get what you want, You can’t always get what you want, You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.

The lyrics make the same point it would take me several pages of complex psychological analysis to reach. What they succinctly highlight is that we often get confused between hoping and wanting. Hope is always about what we need, and the trick is to be able to spot that and let go of an attachment to what we think we want.

For reasons that still largely remain unknown to me, my grandmother wanted to leave the experience of scarcity in her past, behind her. She managed to escape her past. Yet, what was needed was for her to grieve her past. When we grieve the past we become open to a future that is no longer dominated by the residue of past feelings. We can often assume scarcity to protect ourselves from disappointment. Yet, when we do this we become closed off from God’s dreaming of us, which is always more than what we can dream for ourselves.

The Syrophoenician Woman grieves at the impending loss of her daughter. It is her grief that fuels her hope. The basis of her hope is that in Jesus she has found the abundance of love. Even in the face of Jesus appearing to question, or to ration her right to the love she hopes for, her answer displays a trust that he will give her what she needs.

God’s dream for us is a dream of the abundance of love. Like all dreams, it is always in the process of unfolding – of becoming.  I have spoken here predominantly about our becoming as a personal journey, which we are making as individuals. Yet, our becoming is also a communal journey, which we make as members of a community. For Anglican Christians, this aspect of community has a special importance because our Tradition understands that the principal way that God communicates his dreaming to us is through our membership of the Body of Christ- the community of the faithful.

Over the next three weeks I am inviting all members of the Trinity Community into an intentional conversation that will unfold during October and November, culminating on 25th of November, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Central to that conversation will be an exploration of assumptions of scarcity and the dream of the abundance of love.

This intentional conversation forms the heart of our Annual Renewal Program. Like all true conversations it is not pre-scripted and will develop over time in directions none of us can as yet imagine. As a community we are in transition to the next stage of that which God continues to dream us into becoming. Through exploring our community hopes and dreams, our assumptions about scarcity and abundance we enter into participation with God’s act of dreaming. I also trust that our intentional conversation will seek to open each one of us to our individual hopes and dreams of encountering God’s love more deeply in our lives.

Be on the lookout for your invitation to join us, it will appear in an in-box, or for the electronically challenged, a mail-box near you.

Matters of the Heart

It is the 15th October 1978. A fresh-faced 22 year-old man arrives in London. The Labour Government of Jim Callaghan is on its last legs. The right wing of the Labour Party is preparing to jump ship and join-up with the Liberal Party to form the Social Democrats. The far left, known by the name the Militant Tendency has begun a concerted campaign to destabilize the Government and to take the Labour Party in the direction of  the loony left. Militant already has control of several large municipalities, Liverpool being the most infamous example.

The country is weary of the last five years of weak and indecisive Labour Government leadership. The economy is in a downward spiral and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently had to go cap in hand to the IMF for a bail-out loan (echoes of a current Greece) just to keep the lights on. The Unions are militant and restive.

Flipping forward to May 4th, election night, 1979. The young man by accident finds himself following the crowds to Margaret Thatcher’s Chelsea residence. His heart is heavy with foreboding as the woman who would later become known as the Iron Lady fixed the crowds with her steely gaze. The next day outside number 10 Downing Street she would echo the words of St Francis of Assisi:

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

Former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, currently awaiting trial at the Old Bailey for conspiracy and incitement to murder, having been found out in the time honored  British political tradition of the sexual scandal – in his case of having and affair with a rent boy – reacting to Mrs Thatcher’s victory he said: “I am horrified. She makes [her predecessor] Ted Heath look like a moderate.”

During the election campaign, Mrs Thatcher said the Conservatives would cut income tax, reduce public expenditure, make it easier for people to buy their own homes and curb the power of the unions.

Some of you may wonder why am I remembering all this?  The more keen-eyed among you will have already spotted my likely direction of travel.

My reason for remembering is that this is the Labor Day Weekend.

Labor Day Weekend has an equivalent in Britain of the August Bank Holiday. Both mark the transition from summer vacations back into the rhythms of work. Both honor the contribution forged in the struggle of the Labor Movement for the improvement of the lives of working men and women.

The Labor Movement arose out of the classical age of entrepreneurial capitalism.  In order to create social stability it was necessary to force capital to concede some of its fruits to the engine of its success – its workers. Wise governments in the first half of the 20th century, despite their often deceptive rhetoric, understood that the best way of keeping Bolshevism at bay was to ensure a more level playing field in the imbalances of power between those who created the conditions for jobs (employers)and those who created the wealth (the workforce).

I began with my memories of 1979 and the following 10 years because I want to make it clear that I know first hand the fear that fuels the current loathing in some quarters for Organized  Labor. There is a lot of the language of political scare mongering  painting a stereotype of labor unions that is pure fantasy. However, I also know what it’s like to live in a state where that fantasy has become a reality. Where the pendulum has swung too far to the Left. Where governments of both Right and Left are powerless to protect a society  held hostage by the corruption and tyranny of Union power.

But that is not the situation that faces us in the America of 2012. In fact the opposite situation pertains. SOme political  rhetoric seems only to recognize the rights of job creators as if they, by themselves, generate the wealth required for a healthy society. The language of the dignity of work and of legal protection for workers has fallen into a cone of silence. Entrepreneurs do not create wealth! They create opportunities for a collaborative enterprize with workers who through their labor create wealth.

In Mark Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus confronts the conventionally religious-political figures of his day. In criticizing the way the conventional religious party uses the Tradition of the Elders, Jesus is not attacking the heart of Jewish Law. He is accusing his interlocutors of misinterpreting the Tradition. He accuses them of reducing the Tradition to something small enough to suit their own purposes.

For the religious, religion has become merely a matter of external form. Jesus reminds them that religion is not a matter of ritual practice. Religion is a matter of the heart. The human heart is the source of all that is truly spiritual. The human heart is also the source of all that most profoundly corrupts. The corruption is not only an individual matter. The corruption of the human heart has wide ranging social ramifications.

Often its important to see Jesus’ voice emerging against a background of the Old Testament Prophets. The prophet Isaiah admonishes his hearers to:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).

You seem eager for God to come near you.  Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.  Yet is not this the kind of fasting I, your Lord, have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice…to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them?” (Isaiah 58: 2-7).

The language of the Biblical Tradition is neither the property of the Right nor of the Left. However, it can be captured and distorted to support worldly political agendas. Labor Day weekend is a celebration of the dignity of human labor. Our history shows us that that dignity requires protections. Our history also shows us that those protections can also become corrupted.

James goes to the heart of the matter. He is concerned that his hearers conform themselves to pure religion. Pure religion is not something that applies only in the bedroom but can be jettisoned in the boardroom, office, or factory.

James offers us three tests by which:

The Father looks to see the lineaments of his own life in the lives of those who claim to be his children (J.A. Motyer p75 The Message of James).

1. Bridling the tongue, i.e. avoiding speech that results in harming others.  James is not concerned with saying the right thing. He is concerned with the way the tongue is connected to the heart. The tongue is the royal road through which the resentments of the heart emerge unbridled to damage our relationships with others placing the common good in jeopardy.

2. Attending to the most vulnerable. This is more than a generalized expression of kindliness (Motyer). This is a prophetic stance that requires actions which may cost us dear. Championing the vulnerable among whom woman and children are emblematic is an actual demonstration of care for others that reveals us as bearing the characteristics that allow God to locate and trace the lineaments, the presence of the divine life of the Trinity- God-in-community, within us.

3. James’s third test is to keep oneself unstained by the world.  This is not a contemporary religious culture-warrior’s cry against contamination by a sinful world that allows contraception and gay marriage. If James were to use a more  more contemporary language he would be speaking about our implication in a society that perpetrates and perpetuates injustice.

James is saying don’t let yourselves become co-opted into the systemic abuse and corruption of power. Do not deceive yourselves that it is acceptable to justify  discrimination and exclusion through an uncritical stance towards wealth and privilege. Essential human dignity requires a means for leveling the uneven playing field upon which access to opportunity really depends.

I invite us all to put the political label of our choice to one side and take up only one label – that of being Christian. We need to reject the capture of the Bible by strident political voices. Their version of Scripture reduces it to a very narrow definition of what it means to be an American. To be an American in this view is to celebrate the rights of ones own self interest and to live in the pursuit of ones own personal well-being. It is to give oneself over to a language of fear and greed that flows unbridled from the human heart, polluting the public discourse.

James, invites us to become doers of the word and not merely hearers whose listening is distorted by the corruptions of hearts, rooted in fear. We need to pay close attention to the state of our own hearts.

Only the human heart, Jesus reminds us, has the true power defile us and to  obscure the lineaments of God’s own life in the lives of those who claim to be his children.

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