So that no one may boast

This is the text of a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is Ephesians 2:1-10.  

One of the nice things about being a curate is the support and focus on ongoing professional development which is built into the role. I received a particularly timely example of that this week; the diocese sent out to all of us curates a “log book” of competencies which we should be developing, to be completed in consultation with our supervising vicars. It runs to sixty-five pages and includes such detailed thoughtful questions as whether I include copyright information on orders of service, and whether I’m aware of the parish demographics. (You can quiz me later).

The reason I’m calling it timely is that it came as I was pondering our epistle reading this morning, and Paul’s statement that we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. I am fairly confident, even after a quick glance through this enormous log book, that each curate is going to feel that indeed, no one may boast!

So taking this kind of inventory is – for me, at least – a useful exercise in humility. But it left me wondering where, for this parish as a whole, we tend to sit on the spectrum from humble to boastful.

We are not, it must be said, particularly loud in trumpeting our strengths. That would be, after all, a bit crass. But it seems to me that we are, as a group, fairly confident about our own quality. We do liturgy well, the choir are a treat to listen to, we’re friendly over a superb morning tea, and we have the kind of ethos which inspires a quiet confidence that we are the “right” kind of Christians; open-minded, liberal, intelligent, well-resourced.

It left me wondering whether we actually feel we need God for very much? Or do we, perhaps, subconsciously expect that we are doing God a favour by inviting Him to join us?

Forgive me for asking hard questions. It is Lent, after all; the season for hard questions and careful answers.

It is a normal human longing to want to be appreciated, valued and recognized for our potential. And humility does not mean thinking demeaning and low thoughts about ourselves. It’s not denying the truth of our achievements or thinking less of ourselves. Humility stems from an honest understanding of who we are. Coming back to Paul’s comment about boasting, humility comes from remembering our total dependence on God; that we stand before his throne no better than any other in that great crowd, and each receiving even life itself as a gift from His hand.

Longings to be appreciated and valued can motivate us to establish our identity in secondary things – things we are proud of but can lose. But those who follow Jesus are chosen, loved, appreciated and important to the creator of the universe. We are the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. We are free to be who we are, no more and no less, in an unforced way which has nothing to prove, at home with God and in our own skin, and not looking to others against whom we can measure our quality.

So if there is amongst us any temptation away from humility, how can we respond to it? I think the absolute foundation has to be time with God. As we keep company with Jesus, more and more we will see ourselves in the light of his grace; and our identity will be shaped not by secondary, external things, but by our relationship with Him. There’s no quick fix to this, no short cut. It takes giving real time to it. But, on the other hand, there’s no wasted time either. If you can start by only finding a little time, God will be at work in you even in that little time. (Although now seems a good time to suggest that the quiet afternoon next week is an excellent opportunity to set aside some solid time, and to encourage you to consider coming along).

Another suggestion I came across is the idea of writing a resume, not of your expertise, but of your character. To take an inventory of your integrity, your willingness to help others, your generosity, your compassion, and so on, and to notice where you might have some growing to do. Because you see, so much of a Christ-like character rests on humility as a foundation; you can’t be willing to help others when you’re afraid they’ll then be better than you. You can’t be compassionate when you’re more concerned with your own standing. Taking such an inventory can show you your blind spots. I’m not saying it’s easy; just that it can be worthwhile. And it is Lent, after all; the season for things which are not easy, but worthwhile.

And all of this focus on humility does have a purpose. Paul finished this section of his argument by pointing out that we are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Just as curates are assessed on their competency so that we can eventually emerge from this time ready for the good works which lie ahead of us, time for reflection on our weaknesses and working to strengthen them – which is really a form of repentance – is all part of getting ready for what comes next.

We might be a community which does many things well, but of this I am sure – new things to do well await us, prepared by God to be our new, improved, way of life. We only need to be willing to look for them and take them up; to catch enough of the vision ahead to be eager and enthusiastic about what God is making us.

Not a lolly bar

(I should note that this blog post was spurred by discussion on another blog post, here.  I was asked there about why I believe that the creation account in Genesis is not a literal historical account, but the resurrection of Christ is.  That’s not something susceptible to sound bite answers, so I am providing the beginning of a response here and inviting further discussion to develop).

One of the criticisms often levelled at Christians – particularly those of us not at the extremely conservative end of the church – is that we “pick and choose” what to believe.  That we decide to take literally the bits of the Bible and Christian teaching that we like, and redefine or explain away those which are distasteful, challenging or incompatible with a well-informed contemporary world view.

It seems to me that this accusation rests on a couple of premises; first, that constructing a sense of the shape and content of Christian faith is an individual, rather than communal, exercise.  And second, that the understanding of much of Scripture as conveying theological (but not necessarily scientific or historical) truth is a new thing, a retreat from the progress of science and a way of attempting to preserve some credibility for a discredited faith.

Neither of those premises is, to my way of thinking, sound.  My aim in this post is to set out some explanation of how Christians go about building a way of understanding the Bible which is in keeping with a basic “rule of faith,” and some of the principles by which Christians decide how to read particular parts of Scripture literally, or to draw meaning out of the text in various other ways.  I do not have the time to set forward a full introduction to hermeneutics (theory of text interpretation); Christian hermeneutics is a rich discipline in its own right, with roots both in classical philosophy and Jewish rabbinic scholarship.  I intend to only put forward a few basic ideas and invite discussion on them.

So.  First let me address the idea that Christian faith is an exercise in picking out the bits that I, personally, like and find easy to integrate into my world view and lifestyle.  Undoubtedly, there are people who take this “lolly bar” approach, taking on board the chocolate-coated ideas about God and love and rejecting the aniseed-flavoured bits about genocide and death penalties, without a criterion much more robust than what tastes (or feels) “good.”  Some of these people end up as syncretists, some as heretics, some muddle along basically orthodox but without realising it or giving it much thought.  These, however, are not the people with whom I think my discussion is concerned, because these people are not really thinking about their faith claims (or the claims faith might make on them) in a very critical way.

For those of us, though, who do engage in critical thought about our faith, we very quickly encounter a basic reality; we do not do so alone.  We belong to a community which has had since close to its beginning agreement about the essential content of our faith.  Whatever else we have argued about (which is just about everything), the Apostles’ and (a bit later) the Nicene Creeds have been the litmus test of orthodoxy in the east and west, for Catholics and Protestants.  Churches with a liturgical tradition have kept these creeds at the heart of baptism services and as an integral part of regular public worship, because they are a guard against the picking and choosing which we might otherwise be tempted to do.  These creeds provide the “rule of faith” against which our own personal readings must be measured.  They do not seek to define every doctrine or answer every question, but they seek to set forth the essential matters against which we can measure our own ideas and readings of Scripture to see if they are in accord with what Christians have affirmed in every time and place.  This discipline – whatever other criticisms you might make of it – is the exact opposite of picking and choosing.  Here are the non-negotiables, and whoever claims to know and turn to Christ must work to accept them (you will note that the resurrection and ascension feature in both of these creeds).

So much for the essentials.  But there’s a great deal of Scripture beyond what defines the essentials, all of it (Christians believe) God-breathed and useful for teaching etc.  But clearly, not all of it can be read directly as if it is dictated by God, to be understood literally and accepted unquestioningly.  (And if you want to argue about that, have a look at Psalm 137:9 and its celebration of the violent death of infants; and get back to me about how you understand that).  So how does one decide how to understand a given text?  (Note: for this part of the discussion as well, the answer is always – partly – not alone; we are in a community of faith; we read, study, reflect, live and grow together and our understanding can never be idiosyncratic).

– Genre, genre, genre.  What type of text is it?  Is it a song, a poem, a letter, a historical record, a satire?  What are the conventions for that genre of text?  For example, the conventions for poetic expression are very different than for a military report.  “The Bible” is in fact a collection of many works (many of them composites of older texts), written at different times, in different cultural settings and languages, and these works are in a large range of genres and conform to very different conventions of expression.  Identifying the genre of a text and the conventions that pertain to that genre helps the reader to “decode” the meaning of the writer.

– Context, both of the writer and his/her concerns, and of the events recorded in the text (sometimes described as its Sitz im Leben).  For example, the Sitz im Leben reflected in much of the book of Job is that of a legal dispute; the imagery and conventions of speech used place Job as the accuser in an ancient trial, in which he calls on God to answer as defendant.  This presentation of the question of suffering as an ancient courtroom drama is an interpretive key for the reader.

– How does a particular text relate to the “big picture” of the essentials of Christian faith?  If we take a verse about killing infants, do we give that higher interpretive priority than the verse that says that Jesus came that we might have life, and have it in abundance?  All Scripture might be God-breathed, but each Scripture needs to find its place within a clear theological framework.

– Other relevant information.  Are there textual variants, and if so, what do they suggest about how the text might be read?  What do other literary or historical sources tell us about a text?  Do they shed light on its sources, its composition, its dating?  Do they confirm or challenge its account of various matters?   How does all of this affect how we make sense of what the text has to say about God?  (This is also where – for example – scientific considerations might come into play.  The “two books” principle – that God authored two books, that of nature, and that of Scripture, and that, since God does not lie, if interpreted correctly they cannot disagree – is a useful starting point for reflection on these matters).

– Reception of the text.  Why was this text included in the canon of sacred Scripture?  What did the earliest Jewish and Christian communities value it for?  How have scholars in various traditions understood the text?  Has it been read universally as a literal account, or has it been read typologically, anagogically, tropologically or in other non-literal ways?  What reasons have scholars given for their readings of it, and how do their readings accord with all of the above considerations?

And so on.  That’s really just a very quick run down, off the top of my head, of some considerations in a very complex area.  I hope that what it demonstrates is that a robust Christian faith is a disciplined intellectual endeavour.  It takes hard thinking, it takes education, it takes dialogue, it takes costly integrity, it takes humility and the willingness to be wrong and the openness to being corrected.  What it is not, is a sojourn at the spiritual lolly bar, picking and choosing on a whim.

Transfiguration

This is the text of a sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany (Transfiguration), in the parish where I am now licensed.  The Scripture it is based on is Mark 9:2-9.  Observant long-term readers might recognise that it has much material in common with last year’s Transfiguration sermon; normally I try not to recycle, but in this case I had received poor feedback on last year’s and had set myself the challenge of trying to use the good bits of it in a way which came across much better.  Not sure whether I was entirely successful!

My brothers and sisters, I’d like to invite you, this morning, to pause; to set aside whatever worries and concerns you have brought to church with you, and to come with me, in your imagination, up the mountain path with Peter and James and John, following Jesus. It’s a strange encounter, the transfiguration, out of the round of everyday life and events, and it invites us to stop and see what it might have to say to us.

The gospel account tells us what the disciples saw – that Jesus’ face changed, that his clothes became white, that he spoke with Moses and Elijah. But what do those things mean?

Consider that light is an important symbol in Mark’s gospel. Think of Jesus’ teaching, where he said: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” Light is an essential attribute of God and points to God’s final salvation dawning already in the darkness of the world, through the splendor of Christ.

This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope. For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation. It really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them the foundations for their own understanding and proclamation of the good news later on, after the resurrection. This event then is a potent reminder that God’s last word in Christ is one of life and joy, even if what we experience in the interim is otherwise.

Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present. He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.

In order to make sense of the vision of restoration and hope which the transfiguration offers, we need to remember that back down the mountain, there is the reality of a fallen world, and human beings alienated from God. This is why, after the bit we read this morning, Mark tells us that immediately after descending the mountain, Jesus is called on to perform an exorcism. It is in that context of fallenness and alienation that, like Jesus, we are called to live and work, always reminded of and holding out to others the possibility of reconciliation and restoration. The light of God, reflected in the face of Christ who is the source of creation in its original goodness, turns its beams upon human beings at the point of our violence and degradation, our oppression and escapism, our loss and alienation, our fear, pride, anger and despair; choose your poison!  In the end, human beings are saved through the dual revelation of their own disfiguration and the hope of their transfiguration in Christ.

In the meantime, this in-between time in which God’s purposes for creation are not yet fulfilled, it is in our work and worship (which really are two different faces of the same coin, which is our total commitment to God), that the meaning of these things becomes immediate and present to us. When we participate in the reality which has been revealed, walking by faith (if not yet by sight) in the light which shone from Jesus, then the glory which shone from Jesus’ face, and the future glory of a perfect creation, come together in the glory which is the praise of our hearts and the work of our hands. These are not isolated incidents of glory, but are part of an unbroken strand of faith and hope and love, binding together the whole household of God, in every space and time.

So there is a call to action, here. The hope which is brought to life in us in the light of Christ’s being is not just for our comfort, but is also supposed to spark a way of life in keeping with that hope. We’re not just meant to feel the hope, we’re meant to live it, as active love which yearns for the fullness of that vision at the end of time, and shapes our lives to move and act and speak always in accordance with that vision.

As the community of the church, we are called to make that a reality amongst ourselves, in order that we can then hold it out to the world as their hope, and an invitation to participate in God’s healing of human brokenness.

As Gregory of Nyssa put it, “It is not the sky which has become the image of God, nor the moon, nor the sun, nor the beauty of the stars, nor any other visible creature. You alone have become the image of the nature which surpasses all intelligence, the impression of true divinity, the receptacle of the blessed life: become, in regarding that light, what it is.”

It is the same light of love which overflowed from the inner life of God in creation, and again at the incarnation, which should draw each of us out of an enclosed individualism into the beauty and luminosity of Godly relationship; with God, with each other, and with all of creation.

So, since we have as our hope a vision of perfect peace and human flourishing, that commits us to work for these things; in the big picture, in supporting movements for social justice, the ending of war, and the overcoming of poverty; and in the small details; it calls us to make peace within ourselves, within our families and circle of friends, to nurture the tender new shoots of the reign of God wherever we find them. We’re supposed to be on a lampstand, not under a bushel basket; and if we’re on a lampstand, we’ll be effective in bringing light to the spaces we inhabit.

The transfiguration is God’s answer to the world’s disfiguration, and we are entrusted with it.

May we be faithful stewards of it.

 

Anzac as ‘civil religion’

I wrote this article for the ANZAC Centenary Peace Coalition, and they have graciously given me permission to publish it here as well (I have edited it slightly for this blog post).  To give some context, particularly for international readers, “ANZAC” stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,” and refers to a group of soldiers in the First World War who have come to hold a defining place in Australian history and identity.  As we approach the centenary of the events in which they participated, many observers are concerned at the way their legacy is being used to promote certain attitudes in our society.  This piece is part of an effort to critique this public discourse.

Anzac has been widely described as Australia’s “civil religion,” providing a secular country with a mythology, set of rituals and memorials which together help to shape a sense of national identity. In religion, it is a well-established principle that the stories we tell ourselves, the rituals in which we participate and the monuments we erect shape our thinking in ways which flow out into our actions. This will happen whether we are conscious of it or not; but becoming conscious of it allows us to be critical, and to choose how we engage with our traditions, in ways which align with our core values and ethics. It is with that aim – of raising consciousness of the influence of Anzac, in order to equip people to be critical and empowered in their engagement with it – that I offer this analysis.

First, some background. The Anzac landing at Gallipoli, on 25th April 1915, was the first action where Australians fought as Australians, from an independent sovereign country, rather than as British colonials. The attempted attack on Turkey was poorly planned and executed, and ultimately unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the Australians drew pride from having done what was asked of them, and blamed their British commanders for the lack of success. From very early after the war, British and Australian views of this action and the behavior of the soldiers differed, and at times sharp historical disagreement has broken out. However, within Australia, a consistent view of the Anzacs and the “Anzac spirit” has become established in the public consciousness.

Mythology

The mythology of Anzac has a number of strands interwoven in a complex pattern. Former Prime Minister John Howard could describe the Anzacs as having left a national “creed” of personal courage, initiative and common purpose. The rhetoric of sacrifice is strong around occasions of formal commemoration. But if we speak of sacrifice, should we not ask to what, and for what, those sacrifices – a noble euphemism for death, injury, trauma and grief – were made?

In the first place, the language of sacrifice was a valuable psychological defence against the trauma of war and the despair of grief; the thought that all the death and destruction had been for nothing was unbearable to grieving families and responsible leaders; it was necessary that it be given transcendent meaning.

It is generally not well remembered today that at the time of the outbreak of World War One, war was often justified in terms drawn from social Darwinism (popular at the time). According to the social Darwinists, the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest meant that struggle between national groups was inevitable, and war was the ennobling mechanism by which such struggle would be furthered and humanity improved. It was to these ideals, much more than for democracy and freedom (often referenced today in speeches and writing around Anzac) that these young men were sacrificed.

More than that, Anzac has often been identified as the “creation myth for White Australia.” Australia Day, and the colonization of Australia by British settlers, have become divisive in the Australian community, particularly over the issues of the treatment of Indigenous people. In contrast, Anzac day allows the glossing over of a problematic colonial past, and the marginalization of other formative experiences for the nation, in favour of the “one day of the year” on which Australians can be united, across racial, cultural and religious barriers, in celebrating a supposedly inclusive national identity.

All of this was repackaged in the politics of nationalism in the 1980s and onward. Anzac Day took the focus off the issues popularized by the “black armband” view of Australian history, and put in the spotlight something against which there was less resistance (although critique was not entirely absent).

National identity

The first key part of the national identity supported by the focus on Anzac is that of distinctiveness from England. The stereotypical Anzac is an idealized Anglo-Celtic male; tough, with a wry sense of humour, leery of authority but loyal to his mates; practical and hard-working. He is independent, rugged, made tough by the sunburnt country which produced him, in contrast to English men who were not formed in such tough conditions. The celebration of Anzac is a celebration of a nation come of age and come into its own.

In this vein, it is worth nothing that the British monarch sends a formal message to Australia every 25th April acknowledging the occasion. In the early decades after the war, when Imperial praise still mattered, these messages were published on the front page of newspapers. Although the messages continue, their relevance is not still such that they are published at all.

There is also the question of how war relates to national identity. A nation which sees a battle as its wellspring of identity is likely to normalize militaristic values and support for past, present and future war. All wars become an extension of the one event, animated by the “Anzac spirit,” in which all Australian military personnel participate. This is reflected in the involvement in Anzac day ceremonies of veterans of later conflicts, and provides a justification for the ongoing deployment of Australian forces overseas in conflicts not directly touching Australia (“wars of choice” rather than necessity), and particularly the “war on terror.”

Despite this, Anzac as a civil religion does not make great moral or spiritual demands on its supporters; except one, that of loyalty and respect. Questioning of Anzac Day or its associated mythology is likely to provoke a strong response. It would seem that the minute’s silence – “Lest We Forget” – is ironically extended to muffle those who would seek to remember that the national identity promoted by Anzac is not one in which all are equally able to see themselves reflected (including many feminists, pacifists, proponents of multiculturalism, and those who are suspicious of aggressively asserted nationalism, all of whom find themselves attacked for their views).

Rituals (in particular, Anzac Day)

Anzac Day ceremonies have changed over time. Originally, they were largely an occasion for personal mourning, for the expression of grief, regret and remorse. However, as those who participated in World War One have died, this has allowed others to shape the ceremonies to meet a changing set of needs. Today, Anzac Day is just as much a festival of national pride and national identity in the form of the “Anzac spirit.”

These ceremonies do not take this form accidentally. Significant government funding, publicity and official rhetoric goes into shaping these events. Commemoration programmes have been seen as creating significant job opportunities. School resources have been developed by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. (This department also funds and administers “commemorative missions” to overseas theatres of war, which are part of on ongoing programme of public rituals). The inclusion of children and grandchildren of veterans in the marches extends Anzac beyond its historical context and promotes the sense that the “spirit of Anzac” is perpetuated and extended through the general Australian community.

“Pilgrimage” either to Gallipoli, or to the Kokoda Trail (a World War Two site), has also become a popular ritual associated with Anzac observances. This sort of pilgrimage is seen as a character-building exercise, a forging of a personal identity in line with the Australian identity. Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke described this practice as a “regeneration of the spirit of Anzac,” and the Australian government has worked hard to ensure continued Australian access to these sites for this purpose.

The Anzac mythology and the national identity which it promotes are – at this level – official government policy. “On this day,” according to Former Prime Minister John Howard, “we enrich ourselves” by drawing on the resources of this part of our past.

Memorials

World War One memorials began to be erected before the war had ended, in part in order to inspire or encourage (or indeed shame) other young people to be prepared to serve. This was particularly an issue in Australia, where two referenda on conscription were defeated and all soldiers were volunteers. In New Zealand, where conscription had been introduced, there were fewer memorials, they were erected later, and they tend to carry only the names of those who died. In Australia, memorials often also carry the names of those who served and survived; shaming those who did not serve by their omission.

In addition to this, there were restrictions on the type of monument which could be erected. Those deemed “inappropriate” – that is, those which might undermine support for the war on the home front – were refused permission. Such restrictions were maintained after the war, for example, in the NSW Local Government Act, which required all memorials to be approved by the War Memorials Advisory Board. One of the sculptors commissioned to make several memorials is recorded as finding the restrictions difficult, “an incentive to effort but not art.”

Records of the unveiling of memorials describe speeches which expressed hope that the memorial would inspire the young to emulate the men whom it honoured. And yet, even then, some local newspapers reported such unveilings in headlines like “War Glorifier Unveiled”; local communities did not always gather around such memorials without disagreement as to their meaning. War memorials were often opposed by veterans who felt that they glorified war, rather than being honest about the reality of it.

There is one very unusual aspect of war memorials in Australia, and that is their ubiquity in churches. Church “honour boards” listing those of their congregation who served brought this aspect of Anzac into explicitly sacred space and claimed for it a level of sanctity not otherwise seen, creating a nexus between civil religion and the church on this matter.

Conclusion

This brief survey has attempted to tease out some of the psychological, historical, and political ways in which the Anzac story and related observances have been developed and used to shape the attitudes and behaviours of contemporary Australians.

The question, for readers, is whether the values of nationalism, militarism, and the marginalization of all but a very narrow view of Australian heritage, identity and values, are those which they wish to adopt as their own? Or do we each individually, and together as a community, need to do more work in order to shape a national identity which will articulate different values and reward different behaviours? That is a conversation in which I hope I can encounter – and be enriched by – a great diversity of viewpoints and values.

For further reading:

Lake, M. et al. “What’s Wrong With Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History.” University of New South Wales Press: Sydney, 2010.

Melleuish, Gregory. “Religion and Politics in Australia,” Political Theology, Vol. 11 Issue 6, 2010, pp909-927.

Rainbird, Paul. “Representing nation, dividing community: the Broken Hill War Memorial, New South Wales, Australia” World Archaeology, Vol. 35 Issue 1, 2003, pp22-35.

Rickard, J. and Spearritt, P, (eds). “Packaging the Past?: Public Histories.” Melbourne University Press: Melbourne, 1991.

Thomson, Alistair. “History and ‘betrayal’: The Anzac controversy,” History Today, Vol. 43 Issue 1, 1993, pp8-12.

The problem of change

This is the text of a sermon for third Sunday after Epiphany, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Jonah 3:1-5, 10.

How are you going, my brothers and sisters, with your New Year’s resolutions? We’re nearly at the end of January, so there’s been time, I would think, to establish new habits of behavior, and to be comfortably settled with your commitments as just part of the new normal.

Or is it just possible that in fact, New Year’s resolutions have been all but left behind? Bent a little at first – “just once,“ of course – and then gradually relinquished as you realized that the demand for change was too high, unrealistic and unsustainable in the face of everything else going on in life?

If your reality is closer to the latter, please, hear no judgement from me. As it happens, I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions, in part because I know that dynamic all too well!

Change is hard. It is costly. All too often – to turn the advertising slogan around – even when it does happen, it doesn’t happen overnight. Which presents us with something of a problem; because we are committed to a faith which is all about change. The kingdom of God is amongst us, and as it grows, nothing it touches is supposed to ever be the same again. Whenever we encounter God, changed hearts, changed lives and changed community are supposed to be the result.

How are we, limited humans who struggle with change, even positive and necessary change, able to engage with God’s imperative for change in ways which are going to last, to become part of us, to become our new normal?

Perhaps we can find some insight in the story of Jonah. In the snippet of it that we heard this morning, Jonah hears the word of the Lord – a second time, this is after the episode with the big fish – and sets out and goes to Nineveh, where he cries out that in forty days, the city will be overturned. The people of the city believe, and fast in sackcloth. The city is indeed overturned; not by God’s wrath, but by changed hearts and the abandoning of evil and violence.

This is, we know, not an easy thing for Jonah. He goes off to have a mighty sulk, even asking to die, apparently finding death less objectionable than having to change his attitude towards Nineveh! It is not an easy thing for the people of Nineveh either; fasting, formal shows of repentance, and – most importantly – changed behaviours would have made demands on their strength, their resilience and their egos. And – ultimately – we know it didn’t last. They weren’t destroyed in the time of Jonah, but some time later, their time was up, and in this theological reading of history, God’s patient concern for them was overtaken by his demand for justice for the victims of their cruelty (and they were a cruel people).

It strikes me that in both of these cases – Jonah, and the Ninevites – they don’t engage in the new, desired behavior because it comes from within them, from who they are. Jonah hasn’t been given much alternative! And while the Ninevites initially respond positively to his message, it’s a shallow change, one which dissipates only slightly more slowly than the threat extended over them.

Perhaps this is like our New Year’s resolutions? Things we decide to do because we know we “should,” to fit our society’s, or our family’s, or even our own ideas of what a “good” person should be; but not because the desire to be those things is burning within our hearts; not because we cannot stand to be anything else a moment longer; not because failure in these resolutions would be an unbearable lack of integrity with who we are, fundamentally, in our heart of hearts.

And what of the gap between our ideals, as a Christian community, and our reality? What about all of the times we fail in hospitality, in generosity, in kindness, in patience – all of those things? Is it possible that the gap is because we know, intellectually, that we “should” get those things right; but that knowledge hasn’t taken root so deeply in our hearts that it has moved us to genuine change?

Note: just because, this morning, I am addressing the question of change, and this means that I need to talk about the fact that there are always areas where we do need to change, I don’t want to be heard as saying that we don’t do anything right, either. We do a good many things very well. But while it is good to recognize that, it is not good to let ourselves stop there, and fail to address the rest of it.

There is a song by the Christian musician Matt Redman called “The heart of worship.” The church which produced this song was well known for its proud music tradition. It had produced many worship songs which had become popular around the world. Its musical production on any given Sunday had everything you could want in terms of band and sound system and all the rest of it. But their pastor felt that they had lost their way, lost their connection with what was most fundamental. So he decided that for a while, they would use none of it. No band. No sound system. No accomplished singers leading. And he challenged his congregation: “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” That decision, and that question, were the beginning of a time of renewed and deepened worship and connection with God for the people in that place.

And after this time, one of their musicians wrote this song, which runs: “When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come, longing just to bring something that’s of worth, that will bless your heart. I’ll bring you more than a song; for a song in itself is not what you have desired. You search much deeper within, through the way things appear; you’re looking into my heart. I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you; it’s all about you, Jesus.”

That church’s decision to do without all of the richness of their usual worship style for a while helped them to get beneath the surface and feel the need for change, feel the lack of integrity between what they proclaimed and how they lived, to long for something more faithful and more fruitful.

So here is my challenge: how do we get beneath the surface of our lives? How do we move from intellectual understanding of God’s holy demands on us, and know them burning deep within our hearts? How do we get to the point where we can’t stand still, unchanged, a moment longer? How do we create the change that is so deeply rooted that it becomes our new normal, without any desire to turn the clock back to yesterday?

We don’t want to be modern-day Jonahs, reluctant, sulking, willing to die before we let God’s new reality break in. Nor do we want to be like the Ninevites, changing in the short term but returning to our old patterns as soon as we’re not being pushed. The change that we’re called to is deeper, more real and more lasting. If we can be open to it.

How will we do that?

Special bonus for blog readers, which I couldn’t use in the sermon itself: here is a link to the song, The Heart of Worship.

Where are the women?

Warning: angry rant ahead.  Proceed at your own risk.

I am angry right now.  I just saw the list of names of people to be ordained deacon in my diocese next February.  I have no problem with any of those names, but I have a problem with the list as a whole; of the seventeen people, only four are women.  For the second year in a row, the proportion of women being ordained deacon will be less than a quarter.

It wasn’t always that way.  I can remember within the last ten years, times when the proportions have been about even.  But I have noticed, over the last few years, the proportion of women gradually dropping.  And people are starting to comment, and to ask why; to wonder if fewer women are discerning vocations, or if perhaps it’s a statistical blip.  Or whether there is something else, harder to identify, in play.

I’ve only very recently been through the whole selection-formation-ordination process, and I believe my own experiences have given me some insight into why women might not be coming forward in equal numbers to men.  My experience suggests that:

– When we first begin to discern a vocation to ministry, we are often discouraged from taking on leadership roles and developing our potential in our own parishes, while watching our brothers in Christ receive encouragement and opportunities to do so.

– If we have children, we discover that the formation system can be inflexible around the demands and juggle of parenting, necessitating long periods of deferment rather than continued progress during that time.  (I was forced to cease attending college altogether while pregnant, rather than being able to undertake a negotiated reduced load).

– We encounter resistance from clergy who might employ us in lay roles which would further our preparation and development; as was told to me: “It’s not appropriate for a young woman to do this job.”

– We find that colleges can prioritise their own convenience over working with candidates to enable them to study to their fullest potential: “Just stay home and enjoy your baby.”

– We find that examining chaplains often seem to assume a one-size-fits-all model of ministry, normed on traditional male experience, so that instead of accepting or even celebrating women who are young mothers offering for ministry, we find our care arrangements for our children while we are working criticised as “undermining your ability to set a good example of Christian family life.”  (Whose version of “Christian family life” are we expected to live up to, anyway?  And where is that documented as a diocesan standard to which we may all refer, for transparency and clarity?)

– Further to that last point, we find that our attempts to find our own identity, our own discipline, of life in ministry can be met with bafflement or judgement if they don’t meet other people’s ideas of normal.  Had to adapt your prayer life because quiet meditation doesn’t work while the toddler destroys the house?  Don’t expect your attempts to be creative, flexible and faithful to be well-regarded; instead, you’re more likely to be told that your prayer life is insufficient.

And so on.

This is just a quick sketch of some of my experiences.  It’s not exhaustive.  It doesn’t take into account the particular barriers and biases – conscious and unconscious – which my sisters also face when in this process.  And which I suspect may actually be increasing, given the dropping rate of women ordinands.

That some of us get through anyway is not an indication that all is well.  Some of us are able to find mentors who will encourage us and help us navigate the landscape of the contemporary church.  Some of us find decent men and women in positions of power who will shelter us and provide us with the space to flourish.  Some of us are gifted with more than the average quota of sheer pig-headedness.

But unless you truly believe that God is not calling and gifting men and women equally for service and ministry in the church, the numbers indicate that something is wrong.  And if we recognise that, we need to look at the structural realities in the church which are the institutional expression of that wrongness.

Each and every one of us is part of this system.  We each have the power to encourage or discourage; to create opportunities, to give chances, to be creative and thoughtful, to listen to people and honour the vocations in their hearts as well as the circumstances of their lives.  Those of us who truly honour the vocation of women need to be intentional about this; to work together, to do the hard thinking, the careful planning and the gentle encouraging, and the loud and public speaking which will not let these problems go unrecognised or unaddressed.

I am angry because I had to stare down every one of the barriers I listed above in order to be faithful to the call of God on my life.  I am angry because I believe that there are fine, gifted, called women out there who encounter these barriers and don’t have the resources I was fortunate enough to have, to get past them.  I am angry at the stupid, heartless wastefulness which will let that go by instead of realising that we need every one of us to make a difference in the mission of God for the world.

I will not let it go by.  I will think about it and talk about it and work together with those of like mind to make a difference.  I hope you will, too.

On the cusp

This is the text of a sermon for the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are Mark 1:4-11 and Acts 19:1-7.

In Tolkien’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins and his travelling companions encounter a perplexing stranger, Tom Bombadil; he has mysterious powers over nature and the weather, and they don’t quite know what to make of him. After a while, Frodo works up the courage to ask, “Who are you?”

Naturally, he doesn’t get a straight answer. Bombadil replies, “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?”

Frodo has no answer. And Frodo’s not alone in that. Who am I, alone, myself, and nameless? Who are any of us, once we get beneath the names on our badges, or the labels such as “curate,” “music director,” or “vicar”? Perhaps some of that angst, the desire to create identity, to know and be known, is part of what drives the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, blogging… I might not be sure of who I am, but I’ll tell you all about it!

As Christians who worship together in a liturgical service – by which I mean that the way we worship has been carefully thought through, and created to give us an opportunity for a dynamic encounter with God – all of the elements of our worship, the hymns, the sermon, the creed, communion, all of it, should tell us something about, and help us to become, who we are destined to be in Christ. The liturgy itself is designed in part to offer an answer to the question of identity.

But it is baptism above all which marks us, which gives us Christian identity, and which admits us to the fullness of Christian life and worship. In this day and age, where we encourage people to come to church and hope that the experience will allow them to encounter Christ, we forget that in the persecuted early church the practice was completely different. A person did not join the Christian community, was not present for communion, did not even hear the gospel read, until after being baptized; baptism was the watershed encounter with God which made all of the rest possible. Long periods of formal preparation – up to several years – were the norm, and very high ethical standards were expected of those preparing for baptism.

We’ve come a long way since then, and perhaps we are more confident of God’s grace and more humble about our own potential for perfection. But a look backwards at the early practice of the church can remind us that baptism is not a feel-good event, but a crisis moment which shapes everything that follows.

And this is where we can begin to see the significance of Jesus’ baptism. In a dramatic demonstration of his solidarity with fallen humanity, Jesus descended into the water which symbolises chaos, death, disorder and a place not regulated by God. But then he ascended into life in the Spirit. In the meeting place of chaos and the Spirit, there is the beginning of a new life, identified as the life of God’s beloved child.

This is as true for us as it was for Jesus, and as it was for those in Ephesus who were baptized by Paul. Living in accord with our baptism means being confronted with the chaos, the ugliness – dare I say the sin – in our lives, and facing that honestly. It means welcoming the presence of the Holy Spirit into that mess, and celebrating that presence in our brokenness as the beginning of new life, and the new identity to which God calls us.

The chaos of our lives isn’t resolved by a distant and detached God, one who is too holy and fearful to have anything to do with the darkest corners of our heart. With Christmas just barely behind us, we have still fresh in our minds the incredible intimacy of God’s involvement with us. St. Augustine put it as crudely as to say that Christ was born between feces and urine; but we tend forget that, and try to hold Christ at a distance from the grotty bits of our lives. We are tempted to let our sense of shame at our mess override any ability we might have had to yield to him.

If baptism has anything to do with our identity as Christians, then, it cuts across that shame and tells us that we ought to be suspicious of the kind of distance and control which is about hiding or fearfulness. The person alive to his or her baptism is aware of chaos, of the impossibility of being perfect by sheer goodwill and hard thinking. Aware that I must not pretend that my inner life is tidier than it is, or be afraid of confronting sin and chaos. We live amongst the mess of this life, out of which God calls us and forms us. We live on the cusp, as it were; able to look in joy at what God has done, and in hope to face honestly the forces of darkness, looking for what God will do.

To live according to our baptism, then, is daily self-examination and conversion, daily turning into the darkness which we have not yet understood, away from the comforting emotional and intellectual patterns that we can devise for ourselves and use to keep ourselves “safe;” the social structures which justify our individualism, our selfishness, and our complicity in injustice. This vision of what baptism means is not warm and fuzzy; it doesn’t cuddle up to our culture or make us feel good. Rather, it provides us with a lens which can bring the blots on our own life into sharp enough focus to be addressed.

In choosing baptism, in choosing to identify with human life in all its chaos, messiness, and brokenness, Christ found his identity as the beloved son, with whom the Father is well pleased. Each of us might struggle to give a full and complete answer to Tolkien’s question – who are you, alone, yourself, and nameless? – but looking to Christ’s example, we begin to have a sense of what it might mean to answer, I am baptized.