Messages of Hope

Month: September 2020

The Divine Centre

Published / by Sandy

Richard Rohr offering some simple but urgent guidance. It’s written in the context of the U.S. in the lead up to the November election and the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. It also insight and wisdom more generally for the global community.
(from a post on Center for Action and Contemplation, 19 September 2020)

He writes:
I awoke on Saturday, September 19, with three sources in my mind for guidance: Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943), the young Jewish woman who suffered much more injustice in the concentration camp than we are suffering now; Psalm 62, which must have been written in a time of a major oppression of the Jewish people; and the Irish Poet, W.B.Yeats (1965 – 1939), who wrote his “Second Coming” during the horrors of the World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic.

These three sources form the core of my invitation. Read each one slowly as your first practice. Let us begin with Etty:

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too … And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.
—Etty Hillesum, Westerbork transit camp

Note her second-person usage, talking to “You, God” quite directly and personally. There is a Presence with her, even as she is surrounded by so much suffering.

Then, the perennial classic wisdom of the Psalms:

In God alone is my soul at rest.
God is the source of my hope.
In God I find shelter, my rock, and my safety.
Men are but a puff of wind,
Men who think themselves important are a delusion.
Put them on a scale,
They are gone in a puff of wind
.
—Psalm 62:5–9

What could it mean to find rest like this in a world such as ours? Every day more and more people are facing the catastrophe of extreme weather. The neurotic news cycle is increasingly driven by a single narcissistic leader whose words and deeds incite hatred, sow discord, and amplify the daily chaos. The pandemic that seems to be returning in waves continues to wreak suffering and disorder with no end in sight, and there is no guarantee of the future in an economy designed to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and those subsisting at the margins of society.

It’s no wonder the mental and emotional health among a large portion of the (U.S.) population is in tangible decline! We have wholesale abandoned any sense of truth, objectivity, science or religion in civil conversation; we now recognize we are living with the catastrophic results of several centuries of what philosophers call nihilism or post-modernism (nothing means anything, there are no universal patterns).

We are without doubt in an apocalyptic time (the Latin word apocalypsis refers to an urgent unveiling of an ultimate state of affairs). Yeats’ oft-quoted poem “The Second Coming” then feels like a direct prophecy. See if you do not agree:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


Somehow our occupation and vocation as believers in this sad time must be to first restore the Divine Centre by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. If contemplation means anything, it means that we can “safeguard that little piece of You, God,” as Etty Hillesum describes it. What other power do we have now? All else is tearing us apart, inside and out (no matter who wins the US election or who is on the Supreme Court). We cannot abide in such a place for any length of time or it will become our prison.

God cannot abide with us in a place of fear.
God cannot abide with us in a place of ill will or hatred.
God cannot abide with us inside a nonstop volley of claim and counterclaim.
God cannot abide with us in an endless flow of online punditry and analysis.
God cannot speak inside of so much angry noise and conscious deceit.
God cannot be found when all sides are so far from “the Falconer.”
God cannot be born except in a womb of Love.
So offer God that womb.

Stand as a sentry at the door of your senses for these coming months, so “the blood-dimmed tide” cannot make its way into your soul.

If you allow it for too long, it will become who you are, and you will no longer have natural access to the “really deep well” that Etty Hillesum returned to so often and that held so much vitality and freedom for her.
If you will allow, I recommend for your spiritual practice that you impose a moratorium on exactly how much news you are subject to for a while – hopefully not more than an hour a day of television, social media, internet news, magazine and newspaper commentary, and/or political discussions. It will only tear you apart and pull you into the dualistic world of opinion and counter-opinion, not Divine Truth, which is always found in a bigger place.

Instead, I suggest that you use this time for some form of public service, volunteerism, mystical reading from the masters, prayer – or, preferably, all of the above.

You have much to gain now and nothing to lose. Nothing at all.
And the world – with you as a stable centre – has nothing to lose.
And everything to gain.

A ‘greening’ of the spirit

Published / by Sandy
Hildegard of Bingen

A post by Kate Kennington Steer, originally published on Godspacelight.

I have long been fascinated by and inspired by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), not least because despite her struggles with persistent ill health, she was a writer, a composer, a scientist, a preacher, a prophetic visionary, and an Abbess of two Benedictine convents; and because, for me, she personifies what I called back in 2016 ‘expressive strength in creative weakness’. Here’s my concluding passage from that post:

It seems to me that it takes a very particular type of strong personality to be able to continue to live a creative, fruitful, flourishing life in the service of God and others; and that such a life-force is only found in those whose strength is based on a recognition of their absolute vulnerability and powerlessness. For Hildegard this life-force came from what she idiosyncratically identified as ‘viriditas’, a ‘greening’ of the spirit that forms the innate connection between God’s goodness in the heart and God’s goodness in the earth; a connection Hildegard personifies as Grace. ‘Greening’ is the epitome of God’s blessing to those God loves… As I struggle to find ways in which I might join every day with the Creator in creating and healing, Hildegard’s expressive, exuberant celebration of the ways in which we may all still be greened continues to echo down the centuries to encourage me this day.

Hildegard’s earthly ambitions were tempered by persistent ill health, and yet, her trusting perception of viriditas beyond the surface of all things, is what helps me, hundreds of years later, see the ‘greening power of God suffusing all life and creation’.

Christine Valters Paintner describes viriditas as the force sustaining life each moment, bringing newness to birth. It is a marvellous image of the divine power continuously at work in the world, juicy and fecund … The prophet Isaiah writes that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Is 35.1-2) This abundant blossoming is the provenance of viriditas. We are called to wander through the desert tending to the abundant gifts of viriditas, the creative life-force of everything alive. Hildegard’s wisdom is for living a life that is fruitful and green and overflowing with verdancy. She calls us to look for fecundity in barren places …(Christine Valters Paintner, Illuminating the Way, 161-2, 164, 170)

In one of her books of visions, the Liber Vitae Meritorum, Hildegard receives a dialogue between two characters: Heavenly Joy and Worldly Sadness. In the opinion of Heavenly Joy, Worldly Sadness is sad because she does not ‘observe the sun and moon and stars and all the decoration of the greenness [viriditas] of the earth and consider how much prosperity God gives man(sic) with these things’. By contrast, of herself Heavenly Joy says: “I possess heaven, since all that God created, and which you call noxious, I observe in its true light. I gently collect the blossoms of roses and lilies and all greenness [viriditas] in my lap since I praise all the works of God, while you attract sorrows to you because you are dolorous in all your works.

Hildegard’s viriditas reminds me to notice the gifts I am given in the ordinary details of my life around me. Viriditas reminds me that the Spirit always waits in readiness to ‘green’ my soul’s barren places and our planet’s damaged earth. There is always hope within viriditas. In the action of the Spirit’s ‘greening’ I am becoming who God longs for me to be. In the light that is itself a gift, I am called to notice and collect together the incidents of greening around about me, like where ‘moss trails over flocked rocks/ inviting me to clamber into depths of evergreen’. The Spirit’s ‘greening’ invites me to open my eyes, to see where the Spirit ‘sets me down’ to find even more green, and though at first I may appear surrounded by ‘lostness’, the ongoing ‘greening’ of my soul promises always to lead me into the heart of God’s calling for me.

Viriditas symbolises the continual flow of emergence and re-emergence of gratefulness in me, which inexorably leads me to pause to praise my Maker the Great Artist, with thanksgiving in my heart, before I move on, powered by viriditas, into the day God lays before me, welcoming whatever it may bring. Today, using Hildegard’s words of praise of the Holy Spirit, I ask that viriditas will bless us this day, and all the days to come.

An extended version of this post can be found at Kate’s blog here.

In the silence

Published / by Sandy

September is the time to celebrate the Season of Creation, and the 9.30am service is focussing on water, wind, earth and fire. Sunday 13th was ‘wind and breath’ and the Bible reading was 1 Kings 19:11-12.

The narrative takes place at Mt Horeb, ‘the mountain of God’, a place closely associated with the presence of God. It was to this place that the prophet Elijah had retreated, to hide in a cave – tired, depressed, despondent, overwhelmed, alone, uncertain, discouraged. That was then, this is now. We may identify with many of those feelings in 2020, where the dominant dominant narrative is the ongoing pandemic, and the associated experience of scarcity, fear, greed, and violence. In response, many of us will have experienced the emotions of tiredness, depression, despondency, uncertainty, loneliness, and discouragement. When we see the reality of our collective life (the virus, the economic meltdown, the crisis of climate, the loss of confidence in democratic institutions), we no doubt feel overwhelmed and helpless, because the issues are so big, and there is low confidence in the capacity of leaders to address them.

Elijah’s outlook from high up, in the cave, was breathtaking. He could look out over the vast desert, the rough and stony plain devoid of plants, the great mountain walls of red granite, the peaks reaching up into the blue sky, the magnificence of the night sky. The cave to which Elijah retreated was surrounded and protected by granite cliffs. And there was silence. Sheer silence. You may have been in such a place of silence and experienced awe.

The Hebrew Scriptures say that God told Elijah to stand on the mountain, for God was about to pass by. How would Elijah recognise God? Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but God was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but God was not in the fire.

God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. God is Spirit, known in the eye of the storm, where there is silence – even while the storm rages on the outer. God is to be found in the still small voice, in the sound of gentle stillness, in the whisper to Elijah’s soul. God spoke to him, to tell him to go home for there was more God wanted him to do. That is what you do after a tragedy or challenging times. You survive it and go on living, and you look for ways to put your life together again.

How do we recognise the presence of God? How do we make space and time to do so? Many people recognise the presence of God in the beauty of nature. Indeed, during COVID-19, getting out for walks in the parks, at the beach or even smelling the roses on a walk around the block has been life giving, promoting resilience and positivity. Everybody needs beauty, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. Nature inspires awe, and the measurable impact of awe in nature is resilience, the capacity to face and deal skillfully with the difficulties of life.

Elijah was to learn that God would be revealed not in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary. God is in the quiet, in the gentle influences which are ever around us, without any visible or audible signs of God’s presence. So much in nature that is life-giving happens in silence. And so we seek the gentleness and silence as a means to be present with God. It is the practice of sacramental living.

Ironically, time and silence are two things that many people have had during this COVID19 time of trial and yet the gift of time and silence has for many people been held captive by fear, anxiety and loneliness.

The psalmist says, “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” (Psalm 61:1)  “Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?” (Lawrence Durrell). Where some find only silence, absence and emptiness, others sense the presence of God. Love is found in the eye of the storm.

These lines from Paul are words to remember when storms rage: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (fires, storms, earthquakes) will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.38).

May it be so. Amen.

(adapted from a sermon by Rev Sandy Boyce, 13th September 2020)

National Child Protection Week (6th-12th September 2020)

Published / by Sandy

A prayer for all those who work in child safety and protection
Christ Jesus,
You welcomed children and brought healing and hope to their lives.
We pray that as your Church, we will create places of welcome, care and safety for all children, reflecting your love and compassion.
God of love and comfort,
We pray for children who have been neglected or abused.
We pray that people will come into their lives who love and nurture them in healing and life-giving ways.
We pray for child safety workers and all those working in child protection. We thank you for their dedication and the gifts they bring to their vocation to protect and improve the lives of children.
We pray that you will sustain their vision, and uphold them in love and grace.
Christ Jesus, as your church, you call us to be a faithful embodiment of your care and love.
We lament when we have failed to be communities of safety and care.
Challenge and correct us in our failure, and reform our life.
We commit ourselves as your Church to being places of safety, free of abuse and exploitation.
We commit ourselves as your Church to be communities, where people can flourish in ways of trust and love.
We pray that your Spirit will empower us to be advocates for a society in which all children can flourish.
Through Christ, Our Light and Life, we pray, Amen.
(Source: 2017, Dr Deidre Palmer, current President, Uniting Church in Australia)

From the SA Synod website:
The gospel for the 6th September is Matthew 18:15-20, beginning with ‘if your brother or sister sins against you’ speak to them when you are alone, and then describes the process if they fail to listen. It ends with promises regarding answered prayer (19) and the promise of the continuing presence of the risen Jesus (20). The passage is part of the five major discourses that are a feature of Matthew’s gospel and this one focuses on the nature of community.
At the beginning of the chapter there is a clear statement about the inclusion of children in the Christian community, which would have been counter-cultural in Jesus’ day. Then in verse six there are the robust warnings about not putting stumbling blocks in the way of these little ones. The parable of the shepherd follows, and in this context it strengthens the importance of pastoral care, especially not causing little ones to be lost.
When we talk about processes for protecting children in our communities, such as screenings, increasing the number of adults in any Sunday School class, increasing the oversight of Church Council over activities and the like, some people murmur about government regulation and compliance. Matthew 18 reminds us that Jesus, from the very beginning of the Church’s life, placed a high priority on protecting the vulnerable in our communities. It is not only about compliance or the fear of being sued, it is a basic gospel value. People thrive when they feel safe. It is even more difficult to become the person God intends you to be when you first need to be healed from abuse and neglect. National Child Protection Week is an opportunity to pause and commit afresh to being communities where vulnerable people feel safe, are protected and are encouraged to become fully alive in response to the generous grace revealed in Jesus.

Music: O God, when trust is shattered
(Tune: PASSION CHORALE 7.6.7.6.D, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”)
This 2018 hymn responded to news of abuse by clergy; it was written with input from survivors and counsellors. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Permission is given for its free use with acknowledgement of the author (see below).

O God, when trust is shattered
by wolves among your sheep,
when youth and children suffer,
when those remembering weep,
when victims tell their stories,
when leaders hide abuse,
bring healing, love and mercy!
Bring justice, God of truth!

When leaders side with evil,
when people do their worst,
may we reach out to victims
and put their healing first.
If any member suffers,
we all will suffer, too.
Bring healing, love and mercy!
Bring justice, God of truth!

We pray that the abusers
will learn sin’s awful cost,
and – making no excuses –
will know that they are lost.
Then may they find redemption –
as we all need it, too.
Bring healing, love and mercy!
Bring justice, God of truth!

May all who serve in churches
be careful, watchful, wise.
May we prevent abuses
and hear your children’s cries.
We pray that institutions
will seek your way anew.
Bring healing, love and mercy!
Bring justice, God of truth!

Tune: Hans Leo Hassler, 1601; harmony by Johann Sebastian Bach, 1729
Text: Copyright (c) 2018 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Email: bcgillette@comcast.net New Hymns: www.carolynshymns.com

The essence of divine activity

Published / by Sandy

(A sermon presented by Rev Sandy Boyce on 30th August, 2020 at the 11am service at Pilgrim Uniting Church)

Moses was introduced to the reader as a baby, born to Hebrew slaves. According to the biblical account, Moses’ parents were from the tribe of Levi, one of the groups in Egypt called Hebrews. Originally the term Hebrew had nothing to do with race or ethnic origin. It derived from Habiru, and described a class of people who made their living by hiring themselves out for various services. It made sense in the context of the Israelites living in Egypt and needing to secure work. The biblical Hebrews had been in Egypt for many generations, and had become a threat because they were so numerous, so the Pharaoh enslaved them. Then, Pharoah ordered that every male Hebrew child be drowned. Moses’ Hebrew mother placed him in a little makeshift basket in the reeds, where he was found by a royal princess and adopted as her own child. We are told his mother was enlisted by the princess to nurse the infant, so she continued to be in his life. Moses enjoyed all the privileges of growing up in the royal household. So far so good.

But then, when he was 20, he saw a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian overlord. In anger, he killed the Egyptian official. Fearing retribution from the Pharaoh, Moses fled to Midian, in what today we call Saudi Arabia. He was in exile for the next 50 or so years.

By chance, he encountered some shepherdesses being harrassed by shepherds and rescued them. Their father Jethro invited Moses to stay in Midian with them. No doubt he could recognise the qualities of the well educated man from Egypt. Jethro was a Midianite priest. The Midianites were descendants of Midian, a son of Abraham through his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25:1-21). So, the Midianites weren’t in the chosen line, but they would have had knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It seems likely that the Midianites worshipped a multitude of gods. Moses ended up staying, and married one of Jethro’s daughters, Zipporah, and settled down for the next 50 years or so to raise a family – in exile, in Midian.

I’m intrigued about the religious influences in his life – his Hebrew mother, the royal Egyptian court where the Pharoah himself was considered a god, as well as the complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals framed around the many deities believed to be present in, and in control of, the world. And finally the religious traditions of the Midianites.

Which makes Moses’ encounter with Yahweh in the burning bush remarkable.

In our reading today, Moses should have been ready for retirement, surely. He’s reported to be 80 years old. He’s had a good working life. And that’s where the story might end. Put your feet up and relax. Possibly a round of golf? Well, you know the story of Moses is really just begining at this point. The burning bush, a divine calling, and a long journey. Mischief, murder and mayhem along the way. More of that in the weeks ahead. I encourage you to read the story as it unfolds in Exodus in the Old Testament.

Retirement as we know it today is a new concept. In the past, people kept working, paid or unpaid, until they ran out of puff. Work until you die – or until you can’t work anymore. That was how it worked until the late 19th century when German Chancellor Bismarck introduced modern pensions. He wasn’t really motivated by compassion for the plight of the working class but wanted to pre-empt a growing socialist movement in Germany before it grew any more powerful. Now, retirement seems normal in many countries. Even so, many modern retirees are as busy as they were in earlier life. Some will enjoy 20 or 30 years of life after retirement in which to enjoy good health. But perhaps not all retirees have a sense of meaning that animates their life and gives them a sense of purpose. In his book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi suggests that retirement is a time for “harvesting life,” taking time to reflect on ways that God has worked in our lives, celebrating the contributions we have made and acknowledging the wisdom we have gained through life‘s difficulties and losses. It is also a time for the rest of us all to recognize the unique and often undervalued gifts and wisdom our elders are able to offer. As people of faith, perhaps these retirement years might be a time for spiritual growth and renewal?

Deep questions may arise on the journey of ageing: “What is the meaning in this ageing process?” What is of eternal value? How might we discern a fresh way to see who God is and what God is doing? How do we reflect upon the words of Jesus in our Gospel today: set your minds on divine things, not on human things; if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me; those who lose their life for my sake will find it. When we hold these words up like a mirror to our own lives, what do we learn about ourselves, our values, our priorities, our concerns?

Some of you may have heard about the ancient practice of writing ‘ethical wills’. We are all familiar with legal wills by which we make clear our wishes in relation to financial and material matters. In contrast, the ethical will, which can be written at any point in our life, is an opportunity to record the values and beliefs, experiences and life lessons by which we want to be remembered. It is a kind of spiritual legacy to family and friends, and church communities. What is important to you? What do you want to be remembered by? What of your life counts, and has eternal value? Perhaps you might put aside some time to begin this reflection process?

Back to Moses. In his senior years. A man with family responsibilities. Still tending sheep. And then, this encounter with God in the burning bush in the desert – burning but not consumed. “Take off your shoes, Moses; this is holy ground”. Given his diverse religious influences and practices he is right to wonder who has called his name. Who wanted his attention in the middle of desert country?

The speaker is identified as the God of Moses’ father, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is immediately followed by a call to a very costly call to help the Hebrew people in Egypt – Moses’ own oppressed people, whom, up until that point, he had probably not given a second thought to in all those long years in Midian. The enslaved Hebrew population had to work very long hours daily for minimum wages in order to meet the economic objectives of the Pharaoh. God said, “I have heard the groaning of my people in Egypt. You, Moses, are to go confront Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go” (Exodus 3:9-10). This call from God asks Moses to leave his comfortable and predictable life, and go back to Egypt, to confront the cruel and demanding Pharoah – leader of Egypt, and to demand he let the Israelites go free from slavery. No wonder Moses came up with so many convincing excuses not to go!

Why this man – why not one of the Hebrew people living in Egypt? Because human life was cheap and disposable. Anyone who raised their heads on behalf of the people, for basic human rights, was quickly seen as a threat to be eliminated. Only a few days ago (17th August 2020), a Filipino human rights activist, Zara Alvarez aged 39, was murdered, one of many extra-judicial killings, outside the law but condoned by Government. She was a legal worker and human rights champion with the ecumenical group Church People-Workers Solidarity, working on behalf of landless farmers in the Philippines. Bishop Gerardo Alminaza said, “I bleed of this never-ending injustice and violence, when someone closest in my work with the oppressed is murdered. I just cannot believe this continuing madness of senseless killings! These systemic killings of human rights defenders and activists must be condemned and must stop. I thank the Lord for knowing you, Zara, my dear little child of struggle. I promise to ever continue our work in the service of God’s poor. You inspired me in many ways to be a pastor of the anawim [the poor] of God’s kingdom. Your active involvement in the Church People-Workers Solidarity is worthy of emulation – always reminding us to be prophetic in our work of evangelization and social justice.”

This week, the world remembered the anniversary of the ‘March on Washington’ 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on 28th August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial. Listen to how it resonates with the experience of poverty and slavery of the ancient Israelities.

I quote: ‘Five score years today, Abraham Lincoln, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition’.

These words resonate still in the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Moses may have been slow to respond to God’s call, but once he does he holds fast to it with conviction until his death. His particular call had social, economic, historical, and political dimensions. The Israelites were oppressed, enslaved. God entered the human arena as the compassionate liberator. Moses was to be the means by which this liberation would be achieved. Moses needed to know for himself the anguish, hardship and suffering of the Hebrew people, and then to play his part in their liberation. Over and over again,the biblical God is revealed to be on the side of the oppressed, not the powerful.

Indeed, the Exodus story continues to inspire and sustain political struggles for liberation all over the world. Oppressed and marginalized people see themselves in the story. They are moved by the compassion of God who hears the agonizing cries of people crushed under the weight of oppression, the God who sees their plight and takes their side, and acts to liberate them from a life of subjugation, dehumanization, and bondage. This is the God who particularizes divine universal love by preferentially opting for the poor and the oppressed. This is the God who stands with the marginalized against the Pharaohs of this world and their life-negating powers.

The pioneer African American theologian James H. Cone maintained that “the liberation of the oppressed is a part of the innermost nature of God. Liberation is …the essence of divine activity(Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 67).

May we all, young and not so young, find our part to play in God’s reign of justice and liberation – the essence of divine activity. Amen.