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.
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