Messages of Hope

Month: February 2018

The changing of the seasons – autumn

Published / by Sandy

Autumn begins on March 1st in the southern hemisphere. In 1995 Parker J. Palmer wrote a reflection on the four seasons. Here is his autumn reflection, which seems most appropriate in this season of Lent. 
Autumn is a season of great beauty, but it is also a season of decline: the days grow shorter, the light is suffused, and summer’s abundance decays toward winter’s death. Faced with this inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring – and she scatters them with amazing abandon.
In my own experience of autumn, I am rarely aware that seeds are being planted. Instead, my mind is on the fact that the green growth of summer is browning and beginning to die. My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around. I am drawn down by the prospect of death more than I am lifted by the hope of new life.
But as I explore autumn’s paradox of dying and seeding, I feel the power of metaphor. In the autumnal events of my own experience, I am easily fixated on surface appearances – on the decline of meaning, the decay of relationships, the death of a work.
And yet, if I look more deeply, I may see the myriad possibilities being planted to bear fruit in some season yet to come.
In retrospect, I can see in my own life what I could not see at the time – how the job I lost helped me find work I needed to do, how the “road closed” sign turned me toward terrain I needed to travel, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meanings I needed to know. On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.
This hopeful notion that living is hidden within dying is surely enhanced by the visual glories of autumn. What artist would ever have painted a season of dying with such a vivid palette if nature had not done it first? Does death possess a beauty that we – who fear death, who find it ugly and obscene – cannot see? How shall we understand autumn’s testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand?
For me, the words that come closest to answering those questions are the words of Thomas Merton: “There is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.”
In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of the “hidden wholeness.”
In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other—they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter, and the Faustian bargains we make fail to sustain our lives.
When we so fear the dark that we demand light around the clock, there can be only one result: artificial light that is glaring and graceless and, beyond its borders, a darkness that grows ever more terrifying as we try to hold it off. Split off from each other, neither darkness nor light is fit for human habitation. But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing.
Autumn constantly reminds me that my daily dyings are necessary precursors to new life. If I try to “make” a life that defies the diminishments of autumn, the life I end up with will be artificial, at best, and utterly colorless as well. But when I yield to the endless interplay of living and dying, dying and living, the life I am given will be real and colorful, fruitful and whole.
Parker J. Palmer is a writer, speaker, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change. The article was published here.

Winter Olympics

Published / by Sandy

(originally published by Christine Sine, Godspace)

Like many, I have had my eyes glued to the TV watching the Winter Olympics over the last few days. I have rarely been impacted so much by a sports event. Maybe it is because it began as the season of Lent was getting underway. Maybe it was just that I needed something to relax me in this challenging season. Whatever it is, I have been impressed.

The commitment of these athletes, their endurance and stamina which comes through discipline and perseverance is incredible. For love of the game they are willing to endure incredible pain and suffering. Some performed with broken bones and massive bruises. Others like Belle Brockhoff had just recovered from major injuries they chose to ignore because of their desire to reach their goal and walk away with a gold medal.

Australian Belle Brockhoff leads the field in her snowboard cross quarter-final. (Reuters: Issei Kato)

They are also willing to fail. I was fascinated to learn that the judges gave higher marks in many events to those who tried the most difficult jumps and fell than they did to those who chose simpler jumps. To try for the best even if you don’t make it is very important.

As I watched them I wondered: If athletes are willing to endure so much in order to compete for a medal in the Olympics,  why is it so hard for me to persevere with my spiritual disciplines? Why don’t we, as followers of Christ have the same level of commitment?

Not surprisingly the scripture that comes to mind is Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

We are indeed surrounded by a cloud of  2,000 years of persevering witnesses who have run incredibly disciplined races. The results of their commitment still enriches our lives today.

What I am challenged with today is to prayerfully consider what disciplines I must persevere with during this season of Lent that will enable me to reach my goal of a deeper and more loving relationship to God and God’s world. What setbacks and pain am I willing to endure because of my commitment to this goal?

Talking about Lent and sausages

Published / by Sandy

(This article was originally published by Mike Frost on his website)

Ash Wednesday is the traditional commencement of the Christian season of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance in readiness for Easter. I’m occasionally asked why not all Protestants observe Lenten fasts and I explain it’s basically about freedom from legalism. But it’s also about sausages. Yep, a lot of Protestants don’t observe Lent because of the humble wiener.

(Comment: Several years ago in Lent the Pilgrim community cooked sausages for a breakfast program we were running, premised on the following story about sausages. While it couldn’t match the radical and illegal act of cooking sausages in 1522, it was an imaginative way of recognising the strictures of ‘religion’ as distinct from freedom in Christ). 

Way back in the 16th century, a dissident group of Swiss Christians were putting together a new translation of the Epistles of St Paul. The edition was being published by a very prominent citizen of Zurich, the printer, Christoph Froschauer. Printing was still a relatively new trade, and wildly popular, so Froschauer had become a wealthy businessman, prestigious and influential. He was also a Protestant, having been caught up in the liberation and excitement of the Reformation that had begun to sweep through Germany and was creeping into eastern Switzerland.
Froschauer’s priest, the forceful and charismatic Ulrich Zwingli had brought the teachings of Martin Luther to Zurich, and he had seized upon the need to publish the New Testament in the vernacular, as well as distributing tracts and sermons to the citizens of the city. The priest and the printer became a formidable duo.

Anyway, in the spring of 1522, as the first copies of the new edition of Paul’s letters rolled off the printing presses, Zwingli and Froschauer were in the mood to celebrate. Together with his exhausted staff and his apprentices, and in the presence of a number of church clerics, Christoph Froschauer had his table loaded with beer and sausages (and presumably cheese and potato and sauerkraut) and threw a party.

Except…
…and this part is going to be hard to fully understand…
…eating sausages during the season of Lent was against the law.

Not just frowned upon, illegal! And Froschauer and Zwingli knew it. That feast was an incendiary act. They had just published Paul’s epistles, for goodness sake! So they knew Paul’s teachings against the imposition of ritual fasts and festivals. They knew his words from Galatians 4:
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (7-11, emphasis is the author’s).

And his even more pointed advice to the Colossians:
Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind… If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2: 16-18, 20-23).

Having just rolled those pages through his press, Froschauer was in no mood to kowtow to the Roman Catholic Church authorities. They had turned the Christian faith into a repressive system of social control. If you’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or seen the Netflix series, you’ll know how vile and soul-crushing toxic religion can be.

Froschauer’s sausage dinner, or wurst abendessen, was a big “middle finger” to those very authorities. It was an intentionally provocative act, designed to show the city of Zurich that he wasn’t only prepared to print the words of Paul, he was going to follow them.

His partner in this act of defiance, Father Ulrich Zwingli, immediately prepared a sermon entitled On the Choice and Freedom of Foods and soon after, he climbed into the high pulpit at his church, the Grossmünster and unloaded both barrels.

There is no such thing as Lent in Scripture, Zwingli announced. The draconian rules imposed on you by the authoritarian clerics have no biblical support. If you think you can earn the church’s favor, and by extension God’s favor, by observing these rules, think again. You have been saved by grace, not by somehow achieving some required level of righteousness.

Or as Zwingli might have put it, you can take your Lenten fast and shove it.

Boom.

It’s hard for us today to fully appreciate the stifling religiosity under which men like Froschauer and Zwingli were living, and the enormous sense of liberation they felt when they realized Scripture freed them from all this dreadful rule-keeping and religious anxiety.

I spent a bit of time with Russian Protestants in Moscow some years ago and heard them speak of their revulsion for Great Lent, Clean Monday, Ash Wednesday, Lazarus Saturday, etc etc. They felt they had been set free from the slavish observance of these feasts and from the veneration of saints and the use of icons. When I asked them whether, in order to share their perspective with their Orthodox friends and relatives, they could still engage with these feasts and practices, showing that their salvation is assured in Christ, not via legalism, the answer was a big fat, NO.

When you’ve suffered under legalistic religion, you want no part of it again. Ever. It’s revolting.

There are a number of hallmarks of a bad religion. They include being chiefly concerned with things to avoid; measuring quantities (of observance etc.); locating our identity in our behavior; constricting life; simulating holiness; promoting suspicion; suppressing thought; isolating dissenters.

These are the very things Christoph Froschauer was done with when he dished up those bangers. No more bad religion for him, even if it meant risking arrest.

I’ve just watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Netflix and I’ve gotta tell you, it isn’t for the faint of heart. It is set in a near future when fertility rates have inexplicably plummeted, and a cruel and misogynistic religious state has been established. Fertile women (or handmaids) are used like cattle for breeding purposes, their dreadful treatment being veiled by grand-sounding religious jargon. The penalty for disobedience is torture and death.

Like serving sausages during Lent in 1522.

Today, Lent holds no such revulsion for Protestants who’ve never suffered under religious legalism. For many younger Protestants, Lent can be a season for bearing the burden of one’s sin in readiness for a fresh experience of God’s grace in Christ on Resurrection Sunday. The fasting element is designed to foster that sense of carrying a nagging need or hunger. Every pang of desire for whatever you’ve given up is meant to be experienced as a call to prayer and repentance. It’s a beautiful tradition when truly practised with the devotion of the penitent. And it makes the freedom and joy of Easter Sunday so much more enjoyable (especially if you gave up chocolate for Lent!).

I see no problem with Protestants reaching back into church history and pulling out ancient observances like Lent or Advent or traditional practices like the Stations of the Cross. I hear the concerns some people have about us adding to Scripture. But it’s possible to engage in traditional practices in a way that enhances our faith without diverting us from the freedom we have in Christ. While I have found the observance of Lent very enriching in the past, I’m not practising it this year. I think one of the ways to find it spiritually profitable is to avoid it becoming a routine, or worse, a slavishly observed ritual.

As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

‘This is my beloved:Listen to him!’

Published / by Sandy

(A sermon at 11am by Dr Tanya Wittwer, 11th February 2018)

Mark 9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

There is mastery in the way Year B of the lectionary introduces us to Mark’s story, capturing the structure of his narrative. We meet Jesus on the banks of Jordan. The preaching and actions of the charismatic Baptiser, John, become merely background when the heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit appears, accompanied by the voice of God: this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. After a sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus calls disciples, controls and expels the demonic, heals, teaches. Then, in today’s Gospel, we reach the turning point and hear about the Transfiguration – an account of mystery, where three of the disciples hear the voice of God, extending the baptismal message. This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.

As we leave the mountain we turn our faces to Jerusalem. On Wednesday some of us will walk through a portal of ashes to start the journey. The Lenten journey will end when we hear that darkness covered the land from noon until 3, when Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last, and the centurion took on the role of carrying the message: Truly, this man was God’s son.

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t want us to miss that point, but actually, it’s not the key point.

You may recall the first verse of the book of Mark reads, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

That little phrase, good news, is theologically loaded: the people have been expecting this, in the light of God’s actions in the past. Israel has been yearning for good news. Isaiah had put words to their hope: “How beautiful … are the feet of the one who brings good news, who declares to Israel: your God reigns.” (Is 52:7) Or again “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Is 61:6) They have hung onto their deep longings through exile, decimation and occupation. In verse 14 and 15 of Mark 1, we hear, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

So it’s not the claim that Jesus is Son of God that is important, but that this hoped for good news is somehow to be linked to Jesus’ life, because of his identity as the Christ, the Son of God.

So when we return to the mountain and to the words “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him”, what is it that we should listen to that is answering the human yearning and human hope? How is God acting in that time and space? And what on earth can this strange transfiguration event, and these words mean for us, today?

Listen to him!” Moses had said that Israel should heed a prophet whom the LORD God would raise up (Dt 18:15). So to what should Jesus’ disciples pay attention? Presumably, everything that Mark records that Jesus says and does.

Jesus has arrived to bring about God’s reign. Somehow God will be acting through Jesus’ activity. And just as John had called for repentance, so does Jesus. People are being asked to change. They are being invited to believe in the immanence of the reign and to trust in God’s action in Jesus. It’s not a one person fringe event, but Jesus gathers people around him to share his joy and task, people that believe Jesus’ message and live as if they can see God’s reign already accomplished.

Jesus is setting people free. He has the power to exorcise and to heal, to call away from loneliness and addictions and to call to love and community. But, there is more.

Listen to him” the voice calls. In the section before the story of the transfiguration, Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the promised one, and instead of a grand military parade, ticker tape procession or celebratory party, Jesus tells his disciples of his future suffering and vindication, and of the need for cross-bearing discipleship. It seems these hard things are to be listened to.

Is this why we have this strange story? In some mysterious way, three disciples, the core of Jesus’ leadership team, are being prepared for the unthinkable. God’s generous and overflowing love gave the community, through the three, a glimpse of something that would sustain through the hardest of times. The story is loaded with symbolism: six days, the mountain, the cloud, the two ancients who have not seen death, Jesus radiant as the righteous one, the light of God that has come into the world. Those for whom it was first recorded would have known all the hope and expectation loaded into that symbolism, and already knowing the end of the story, the connections to death and resurrection.

Instead of untangling those layers of meaning, instead of picking it apart, and making a declaration about what it means, I invite you to use the imagination the Holy Spirit has give you. Let’s not reduce it to a verbal explanation. Enter into the mystery, so that we are strengthened to live in this reign of God that we cannot yet see, strengthened to bring sight to the blind, to unlock the chains of the detainees and to set the oppressed free?

In Luke, when the angel visited Mary, she was told The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. On the mountain, the group were overshadowed … This is my son, the beloved. A cloud was the presence of the Most High. Through Jesus, the disciples shared this too awesome, too strong nearness of God. Some among us have been blessed with our own epiphany, our own moment when we have truly known God’s presence. But the promise of God’s presence is for all of us. The Holy Spirit has come upon us. Through our baptism we are joined with Jesus, and the Most High has overshadowed us. Maybe, with Mary, we have emerged from that overshadowing, pregnant with the possibility of the reign. Pregnant with all that is light and life-giving.

Dr Deidre Palmer has announced the 15th UCA Assembly theme: Abundant Grace, Liberating Hope, and I’d like to share it with you:

In a time where our world is overshadowed by violence, hatred and suspicion of the other, the Church is called to live an alternative narrative of hope, reconciliation and love.
As the Church, God’s grace at work in us liberates hope – communally, personally, in our society and in our world. We see God’s grace most fully expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ life and ministry, we see God’s hope for us and all creation expressed in the proclamation of the Reign of God. As the Body of Christ, the Spirit opens our eyes to God’s deep desire for our world, and we are led toward horizons of hope that expand our imagination into Spirit led ways of being and living that we had not thought possible!
“Liberating Hope” is an action of God in us, and it is a call for us to participate in God’s mission in the world. Liberation movements around the world have been inspired by the Gospel of Christ, to be communities of resistance and protest in the face of injustice and inequality.
The Uniting Church has been shaped by Christ’s call to be bearers of God’s justice, compassion, healing and hope in our world.
In the next Triennium, this theme highlights for us Christ’s call to be a church that embodies God’s abundant grace, compassion and love – a Church that is a bearer of Christ’s hope and light in the midst of despair and darkness. The overflowing of God’s abundant grace through us will be seen as we create communities and contribute to a world, where people experience God’s good news of reconciling love, healing and hope.
You are God’s child, the beloved. Listen to him!

“The prejudice of exclusion”

Published / by Sandy

As we turn towards Ash Wednesday and into Lent, it starts again… the self-righteous furore over Cadbury ‘removing’ the word Easter from the range of boxed solid eggs.
An old Facebook post by former Australian Senator Glenn Lazarus (he hasn’t been in politics for years but the post is still being circulated) says he’s sick of Australia bending over to ‘the rest of the world’ (??) to ‘appease everyone except Aussies’. (Presumably this is linking ‘the rest of the world’ with having something to do with removing the ‘Christian’ word Easter). What do solid chocolate Easter eggs have to do with Easter anyway (companies are making the most of a trading opportunity). Since when do Australians stand self-righteously against ‘the rest of the world’ (though it’s easy to work out that’s code for ‘people not like us’). The UK and other places have identical ‘outrage campaigns’ but tailored to their context. And the word Easter itself is commonly understood to have originated from pagan gods and goddesses associated with fertility (Easter being in Spring in the northern hemisphere).
The old fashioned hollow Easter egg could well be construed as a symbol of the empty tomb of the Christian story, but all the rest (like Cadbury’s solid eggs) are ‘seasonal’ rather than meaningful – meant for fun (and profit) rather than spiritual edification. No need for ‘Easter’ as a descriptor on the box.
My personal favourite ‘outrage’ was from @ChristineHodge2 who was trying to state the case that the word Easter had been removed so as not to offend other religions and poses the question, ‘since when was Easter offensive?’. Ummm, can I suggest you read the Gospels, Christine?
I’m much more interested in whether the chocolate is Fair Trade certified so that all stages of the chocolate harvesting and production are fair and just.
I came across this quote from Pakistani theologian Charles Amjad Ali: “We are all prejudiced. What changes in our dialogue with others is the focus of our prejudice. Can we be prejudiced towards justice, equality and respect, or do we always live primarily with the prejudices of exclusion?”
Can we stop contributing to the prejudice of exclusion and work towards a prejudice towards justice , equality and respect?
Ah, hang on, wasn’t that what Jesus’ life (and death) was all about…..?