Wednesday, November 20, 2019

“Get out of Jail, Free”

What a passage! The Gospel reading for today makes somewhat depressing reading (Luke 21:5-19). 0f course, I doubt that was the author’s intent. I think it was written to inspire and help a people under persecution. The list of what was to be endured is quite horrendous — wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues and, on a more personal level, being arrested, persecuted, betrayed, hated and death. Quite a list! 

Yet, the message of the text is it will all ultimately be worth it.  Hopefully, this was to bring comfort to the early followers of the newly emerging Christianity.

When I read the list of horrors, I realized that it contained nothing new. If one reads the Old Testament, or studies ancient and modern history or even reads a newspaper or online news report, all the same horrors are happening today and have happened in the past. The list in the Gospel of Luke simply reflects the way of the natural world and the inability of humanity to live peacefully with all. 

So, as I shake this passage — looking for a blessing — I started to reflect on the way contemporary Christianity has viewed suffering and hardship. It occupied most of my time pondering this text.

I wondered:
Has modern thinking led to the idea that because a person embraces Christianity, they should have some special protection? Is Christianity viewed as a monopoly game, “Get out of Jail, Free” card?  Sadly, I sometimes think it is. 

Please, don’t read this as me saying that it is not worth praying for those in hard circumstance — of course, it always, always is worth praying. I will always pray for those in need.

I just don’t think that playing the Christianity “Get out of Jail, Free” card will exempt anyone from bad things happening. Like the rest of humanity those who embrace the Christian religion get sick, they get betrayed, they get caught up in wars, they experience floods, fires and earthquakes. I have experienced some hard times, as I’m sure almost everyone else has. The message of the text to early Christians is that their beliefs do not make them exempt from any of these things. I think it is a message to heed for contemporary times.

So where is the blessing? I found it in one word — wisdom (15). One can’t avoid wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, being arrested, persecuted, betrayed, hated and death. (Hopefully, not all experienced by the same person for which I am very grateful and thankful) Yet, in the face of sufferings there can be wisdom. 

Wisdom in words to be spoken or, in our world of social media perhapss words not spoken. Wisdom that will bring endurance as hard things are embraced. 

Rensho posted to the community’s email list this week. I was impressed by his closing phrase which I mused on along with today’s reading. Rensho wrote, “We have many profoundly wise women in the Lindisfarne Community, for which I am exceptionally grateful.”

Today, I want to extend that from “women” to “people”. People full of wisdom to know how to handle those times when suffering bursts, often unexpectedly, into their lives. 

To close, I want to join Rensho and say, “We have many profoundly wise people in the Lindisfarne Community, for which I am exceptionally grateful.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

In the Lindisfarne Community everyone’s spirituality is equally valued.

In the Lindisfarne Community everyone’s spirituality is equally valued.

As I write this it is the closing morning of our weekend retreat on spirituality. We have had some great conversations together. One thing I realized is that, in one sense, spirituality is elusive, it defies a concrete definition. Even the quick google search we did in preparation for the weekend revealed that there are as many different definitions as there are websites trying to define it! Spirituality is an inward knowing which is hard to express through the limitations of language.

So, how would I try and define spirituality? My best attempt is to say that spirituality is an individual’s experience of connecting with the Divine, the Other. Yet, it is not simply reaching outward, there is a deep inner aspect. PsychologyToday acknowledges that spirituality is an “experience that involves [people] getting in touch with their spiritual selves through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or time in nature.”

At the retreat, on Saturday morning we talked about the many different aspects of spirituality. This was followed by Monos (alone time) where each person pondered their personal spirituality. In the afternoon we shared our musings. It was revealing, each person’s spirituality is perceived in a different way. Each person’s spirituality is deeply personal and meaningful. It was a helpful exercise as each person’s perception of spirituality broadened our understanding of spirituality.

So, I return to my introductory sentence as I feel it is important. In the Lindisfarne Community everyone’s spirituality is equally valued. People have different callings, different manifestations and different understandings, yet all are valid and all are meaningful. There is not a hierarchy of spirituality. 

What is important is that the spirituality embraced by each individual sustains them in their daily life.

I want to take just a brief glance at the lectionary reading. Today is the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 1-10). I always smile as I read this story as it reminds me of the children’s Sunday School song we used to sing. 

“Zacchaeus was a very little man
And a very little man was he
He climbed into a sycamore tree
The Saviour for to see
And when the Saviour passed that way
He looked into the tree
‘Now, Zacchaeus, you come down
 I'm coming to your house for tea’”

As Spirituality is our topic for the weekend, (indeed for the whole year). I thought it would be interesting to cast a glance at Zacchaeus’ spirituality. What is the quality in Zacchaeus drawing him towards the Other?  Perhaps, that is the first aspect of his spirituality — he was drawn. There was something in him that was reaching out. It reads like it was almost a desperation. Imagine, a respected (possibly!) and rich businessman climbing a tree to get a better view of someone. Something in that action speaks of a lot of humility. 

Another aspect of his spirituality is that he was welcoming. He opened his home and heart to a stranger, albeit a well-known one. Finally, he assessed his life with a willingness to change. So, if I was going to define Zacchaeus’ spirituality in a few words I would say; drawing, humbling, welcoming and life-changing. 

Actually, those words pulled from Zacchaeus’ life form quite a good understanding of spirituality. Spirituality is that quality that draws us out of ourselves towards the Other. Spirituality reveals our limitations and we are humbled. Spirituality causes us to reach out and welcome others. Spirituality is always life-changing, not a big once in a lifetime event, but constantly, causing daily growth moving towards maturity.

In whatever way it is perceived spirituality is the bedrock, the foundation on which lives are lived. In the Lindisfarne community everyone’s spirituality is equally valued.


Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nevertheless, She Persisted

“Nevertheless, she persisted” has become a popular political slogan. It is oft quoted and seen blazoned on T-shirts and other similar items of apparel.

The quote originated in 2017 when Senator Elizabeth Warren was reading a letter penned by Coretta Scott King. It was objected to, but Warren was allowed to continue reading until finally after another objection a vote silenced her. In summing up the reason she was silenced Senator Mitch McConnell explained, “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” (see below)

“Nevertheless, she persisted” immediately caught the public’s attention and has been used multiple times since. Persistence in the face of adversity is seen as a good thing. Maybe, “good” is too mild a word, maybe I should substitute excellent or exemplary instead. Over the last two years as a practice, persistence has been highly esteemed.

As I read the lectionary passage for today the phrase came to the forefront of my mind and thinking. The parable is the tale of a judge and a widow (Luke 18: 1-8). Persistence is exactly the virtue being celebrated in the text. The story tells of a judge who feared and respected neither God nor humanity and a widow who wanted justice against an adversary. Ultimately the widow received justice only because she continued to badger the judge. It could be said of the widow, “Nevertheless she persisted.”

The text continues telling those early disciples to persist in a like manner, crying out night and day until, ultimately, they will receive justice. This may be manifested as the return of the child of humanity. 

An interesting parable As I read it through, it seemed to me that this particular passage was a later addition to the gospel. It reads like a story added to encourage the people who were by then under severe persecution.  They were not to give up crying out to God. Their hope was that they would eventually receive justice. This text was to encourage them on their journey through persecution.

Yet, like most texts read, it will yield a blessing. I think the blessing here is to be found in encouraging the virtue of persistence especially in the face of adversity.  Adversity can describe anything from life-threatening persecution to mild discomforts. It is part of the human journey, and persistence can bring great reward.

I think most people reading this will have heard me tell a little about our hike in the summer. It was an incredible experience. The first day on a cliff top path we struggled through high winds (my sister and I were both blown over) and driving torrential rain. We needed persistence to continue. The ensuing rewards of warm and shelter when we reached our first night destination were great.

Of course, that example is a little flippant as we chose to hike for pleasure (although we did hope for better weather!). More seriously, Elizabeth Warren must have felt devastated. It must have seemed that she had been treated unjustly when she was silenced. Yet, look how her persistence turned out. Warren was given “a far bigger megaphone than if they had simply let her continue speaking in what had been a mostly empty chamber . . .”  (see below)

Many times, the adversities we face are not of one’s own choosing. Yet, the message of this text remains the same — persistence. 

“Nevertheless, she/he/they persisted” has become a wonderful adage to live by.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

Increase my Faith?

“Increase my faith.” 

That is the plea of the disciples to Jesus. There was no supernatural impartation of faith. Instead, the reply they received probably surprised them. They were simply told that if they had faith as small as a mustard seed they could uproot a big tree and replant it in the sea. The example seems a little ridiculous — obviously hyperbole. I have never heard of anyone moving a tree other than by some pretty hard work. 

I do remember many years ago an older woman telling me that if she had enough faith she would never die. In her eyes, any lack of healing and renewing of the physical body was due to insufficient faith. There was no moving her from her belief, or as she considered it, her faith.

So, reading today’s passage causes me to ponder what is meant by faith here? What is it the disciples are seeking? Of course, it would be easy to say they wanted more faith in God and leave it there. However, that would not do justice to the text. It simply does not read that way.

The example given points to faith being paralleled to obedience. The passage says that the tree would “obey” the command to move to the sea. The second illustration is about slavery. Obviously somewhat distasteful to twenty-first century eyes. In the story the poor slave came in from hard labour and was expected to do more work around the house and serve their owner. The text even makes it clear that there was no kindness or consideration for the slave simply an expectation of obedience to their tasks. 

This seems to be the expectation for the disciples that they do all that has been ordered them. In this passage obedience is faith. I turned to the previous chapter to read the whole dialogue to try and get an idea of the things they were expected to be obedient in. 

It is quite revealing. The stories there are all of care for the poor, sick and needy. 

I think faith is multifaceted Today’s story seems to illustrate one aspect of it — faith has an outworking of care for the poor and needy. It is in obeying this command that faith is increased. Therefore, I can join the disciples of old and say, “Increase my faith.”

(Photo: Bald Cypress Trees: Trap Pond, Delaware 2019.)

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Confusion, Confusion, Confusion!

What a confusing parable! The fact that it is confusing seems to be the one point of agreement from all the various expositors of today’s lectionary reading (Luke 16: 1-13). 

The story is a strange and unsettling one. On first reading it feels wrong. The parable focuses on a rich landowner and his manager. As was the custom of the day, the manager (or steward) stood between the landowners and the peasant farmers and tenants. The manager negotiated the sale of oil, wheat and other goods plus collecting the rents. Managers were in a privileged position. It was customary for the manager to add a little interest to each bill for personal gain. As long as the landowner continued to get wealthy, they tended to ignore this practice. The custom of adding interest was commonplace although was spoken against in several places in the Jewish scriptures (example Leviticus 25: 36-38). 

Of course, in all these transactions the people who suffered were the tenants and peasant farmers — they were voiceless and powerless. 

Yet, the manager too was in precarious position depending completely on staying in favour with the landowner. Although he enjoyed the benefits of additional finances it may not have felt a secure lifestyle. 

I want to interject here with a comment which I have made many times before. I feel it is important to keep in mind when interpreting—or trying to interpret—parables. Don’t assign God or Jesus as the principle character. Simply understand parables as little stories told as illustrations of point, albeit sometimes an obscure point. If one assigns roles it often leads to complications when the leading character exhibits traits one would rather not associate with God. This parable is a wonderful example of that. If all parables are seen as containing veiled references to God, then right at the outset problems would occur in this one. If God is assumed to be the rich landowner, then God is getting wealthy by exploiting the poor tenants. Personally, if I wanted to assign roles, I would prefer to subvert the parable and find God/Jesus in the peasant farmers and tenants who were powerless and voiceless. 

Anyway, back to the story — the landowner told the manager that he was going to lose his position. There are no details given as to what prompted this, but I will make the assumption that dishonesty of some kinds involved.  The manager is later referred to as dishonest, which shouldn’t be confused with shrewd which is lauded. The manager reflects that he is unfit for other means of subsistence so makes an alternate plan. Immediately he met with all the debtors and lowered their bills.  He wanted to ensure he would be welcome in their homes in his altered circumstances. This is quite interesting, as he is starting to identify with and presume help from those previously exploited. Maybe the beginning of change.

Rather than being annoyed by this action the rich landowner commended his manager for acting shrewdly thus ensuring that he kept his position. It is a difficult story to understand, I doubt there is any one definitive understanding.
I am going to offer for perusal a couple of thoughts I had while reading the parable.

Firstly, whatever the reason it came about the main beneficiaries in the parable are the poor who had their bills lowered. I think it is important that this point is not lost. Whatever the motives the poor benefitted. 

Maybe, the accusations of dishonesty served as a challenge to the manager. His lowering of the bills was presumably by removing the interest — the percentages given in the parable were the normal percentage charged for oil and wheat. Could the manager be showing a newfound compassion for the poor? 

In turn, perhaps the manager challenged the landowner about his practices. Maybe it even served as a reminder of the law about interest which would leave no alternative but to commend the steward. 

In the Gospel of Luke this parable is certainly grouped with those showing compassion for those who are oppressed. If I view the parable this way it can offer me a challenge for contemporary times. In what ways are the poor exploited?  Something well-worth pondering about in both the local and global arenas. 

Secondly, I thought about the steward being commended for being shrewd. His shrewdness focused on planning for his future. I think this is a point worth noting. Certainly, I have met people who believe that it is wrong to plan for the future, trusting in God for provision for their older age. I have even heard people try to make others feel guilty about future financial plans they make, even to the point of seeing future planning as a lack of faith. Of course, I respect their personal views. 

Yet this parable highly values responsible planning for future well-being. It is heralded as a very good thing. It is not a lack of faith. In the parable it is even rewarded. Provision for the future is well-worth thinking about. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Kindness Matters.

How people relate to each other is important. I suspect everyone has at some time or other met an unkind person, maybe even been wounded by their words. Or seen an unkind action towards a child, or a dog or a friend. It is not pleasant to witness. The media often highlights unkind deeds or words. So much so that if one hears about or sees an unkind act to another human or non-human it jars the psyche. It simply feels wrong.

Fortunately, there is also a lot of kindness in the world. Most people are kind to each other, to strangers in the street, to animals. Hearing or witnessing acts of kindness make people feel good about the world they live in.

Today’s lectionary reading illustrates an act of kindness. The story (Luke 13:1017) is about a woman who for eighteen years had been crippled, unable to stand up straight. Jesus spoke to her and healed her. She immediately stood upright and began praising God. 

A good outcome, a woman healed and praising God. Surely all around should be rejoicing with her. After eighteen years she could stand up straight. Maybe her friends were all delighted but not everyone was.

The story continues, the leader of the synagogue was annoyed because she had been cured on the sabbath day. Jesus was told that he should not have healed her —shown kindness to her—on the sabbath day. 

The feminist in me can’t help but wonder if the response would have been the same if it had been a man healed. If one of their own had been the recipient of the healing and started praising God.  Would they too have been rejoicing? 

However, back to the text. Jesus responded by calling them hypocrites. Religion could not be used to justify unkindness. That thought alone causes me to reflect on all the times I have heard religion used to be unkind to someone who may believe or live a little differently. Right here, in today’s text, that thinking is condemned. Kindness matters.

Jesus reminded those opposing the healing that each of them was kind to their donkeys and oxen. Freeing them to walk and drink water on the sabbath. Was this women’s bondage less important?  

Happily, in this tale, the opponents in the crowd received the condemnation and joined in the rejoicing.

So, kindness matters. Jesus healed on the sabbath day. One could say that kindness was more important than pushing that law to extremes. Of course, I’m not advocating a Robin Hood type laying aside of laws and going out robbing the rich to feed the poor!  But sometimes, one needs to set aside ones’ own routines, one’s own rules to show kindness.

One of the small (but important) sections in the State teaching for new foster carers is entitled “Unspoken Rules”. It is intended to illustrate that everyone has personal unspoken rules which often need to be set aside to show kindness. Often, they are not recognized as rules until exposed as such. One of the mild examples illustrating this is seating — chairs around the dining table or around the television set. Often people have their own preferred seat. I know Andy and I nearly always sit in the same spot. It is an unspoken rule that Andy always goes to the end of the sofa near the window! A teenager or child, new to the household, may be told sit anywhere but could face unspoken antagonism if they picked someone else’s seat. The message is seating is unimportant. Our unspoken —unrevealed—rules are unimportant.  Kindness matters.

Maybe there is an outing planned for the day. Just as the search for the car keys begins there is a knock at the door. A friend stands there, “I’m sorry to interrupt but I’ve had an awful morning.” Immediately, plans for the outing are abandoned, the friend invited in and the kettle put on. Kindness matters.

I think the reading today illustrates this very important point. It is a rule to build one’s life on. Kindness matters.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

We have One Life.

We have one life. 

This phrase has been playing in my mind all week. I can’t get it out of my head. The thought arrived a few days ago as I was reading and pondering the Gospel text designated for today (Sunday).  

We have one life. 

In the lectionary passage (Luke 12: 13-21) a story is recited. It is the tale of a young man who has over-abundance produced on his land. He wonders what to do with the excess which far exceeds his needs. In the story, he decides to build bigger barns and store enough that it will last him for many years. His plan was to “eat, drink and be merry” but then, the story tells us, that night he lost his life and all his abundance of wealth amounted to nothing.

Now, I have heard this story pushed to ridiculous extremes where it has been said that it is wrong to have pensions (Social Security) or make any provision for the future. In contemporary times, that may not be the wisest course of action but I don’t wish to dwell there today.

My thoughts all focused around my phrase mentioned above — we have one life. 

There is no choice about only having one life — there is no second earthly life. Furthermore, no-one knows how long that life will be. Therefore, it is really important to live that life as well as possible. In the context of the parable, I think this could be summed up as live generously.

Although the text talks about the young man having an abundance of riches. I don’t read anywhere in the passage that it was wrong for him to have these riches. This is not a parable against having riches. The parable was told to illustrate this one point, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” 

So, live that one life generously. 

Generous with possessions,
generous with time,
people sharing what they have and what they are.

Currently, it grieves me to see the rise in racism and xenophobia.  Sadly, this was illustrated once again by many precious lives lost in two separate shooting incidents in the last 24 hours. 

As I read the reports I cannot help but link this to the message of this parable. This rise in racism and xenophobia reflects a need to be selfish, to be greedy, to not to want to share with others who may look or speak a little differently. Why is that a threat? Why not be generous? Why not open our arms and embrace all?  

Perhaps, in contemporary times, this also illustrates another area where living generously is necessary — being generous with our voices. Refusing to remain silent in the face of injustice. Raising our voices for those who have no voice.

We have one life.

Don’t waste that life,
Find joy in that life,
Be generous with that life,
Make that life count.