Advent’s Four Last Things: HELL


HELL

To be trafficked, and forced to live and work where you have not chosen; this is hell. Your captor counts your value in dollars, not in your humanity, and so treats you with the indifference a bad tradie treats his tools.

To be in pain, constantly without end; this is hell. Pain holds your body prisoner and you are unable to live as you wish because of the pain.

To be abused, and to live with memories of abuse; this is hell. Someone you trusted violated you and treated you just like a willful child stomping on a toy.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the descent through the circles of Hell (L’Inferno). In a region called Ptolomea are those who have been thrown deep into Hell for treachery to their guests. These are people who insinuate themselves in a position of trust and use that power to take advantage of their victims. Significantly, Dante believes that these people die at the moment of their crime; their body may live on, but their soul is thrown immediately to this bottom part of hell.

In the world of Dante’s poem, there’s justice in this punishment. The Australian churches now must allow justice to be dealt both to the perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also to those who, by action or inaction, covered up those crimes.

I want to give little oxygen here to perpetrators, however.

Rather, consider the hell of being a victim of abuse: the inability to trust; the devaluing of the self; the trauma of being violated, and the secondary, and sometimes worse, trauma of remembering it. There is a shocking trauma for those who recover a memory long repressed. There’s the ongoing trauma of flashbacks and dreams. Relationships take on extra challenges. Some victims become hypervigilant, expecting at every moment something bad to overtake them. Taken together, this is hell lived out in daily experience, like a young woman trafficked, or the person experiencing high levels of pain every day.

Is ‘victim’ the right word? Many prefer ‘survivor’. While a person remains without hope, then they are in hell: they are a victim of the violence done to them.

Being destroyed by abuse, or corroded by pain, or forcibly held become hell when the victim can see no way out. This person understands that their situation will go on unchanged for ever. It is hell, and one of the four last things: an ultimate reality.

Christian faith reveals God who can undo the final reality of death. Death, the end, is no longer the end. The God who has power to raise Jesus from the dead has power to release victims from hell. The person who believes there is a future becomes a survivor, literally, one who lives beyond.

Christian faith bears witness, in the hells which people experience, to the reality of hope. This is the key which unlocks the door of hell. Hope is the secret ingredient which explodes the murderous captors of this world.

We must believe in hell because it is part of people’s lived experience. We are invited, however, to grasp hope, because hope turns victims into survivors, and eventually into joyful survivors; hope destroys hell.

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Joy!
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Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN II


A young mother, grieving for the death of a baby, asks the question, ‘Will I be reunited with my Olivia in heaven?’

An elderly widower expresses certainty that he will be with his bride in heaven.

It’s almost as though Christian faith depends on after-death reunions of loved ones. The guidance, however, that Scripture gives us on this is vague and contradictory.

So, the totally honest answer to this question, especially as no-one has returned to tell us, is that we don’t know. But when faced with the direct question, ‘Will we be reunited in heaven?’, I hesitate.

Of course, the temptation for us pastors is to give the easy answer, the answer that people want to hear. The reality, however, is that we understand so little about life after death: what does time mean in life and after we die? What does resurrection mean for us as individuals? Will there be a different experience for those who do not identify as Christians? How will we connect with those from whom we have been estranged in this life? Cynical Sadducees asked Jesus a similar question, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ (Matthew 22:28)

Many people believe firmly that the church teaches that we, as individuals, will be united after death with loved ones. Many clergy taking funerals, without directly endorsing this view, allow it to stand as an implication of their pastoral message. I understand this prevarication: we are motivated to tell good news. I am deeply uncomfortable, however, with its dishonesty. This teaching falls short. There is better news.

The idea that we will be united with loved ones after death springs from a good place: it is an idea that the best God has given us in this life is love, and the one thing that we should expect from the eternal God is ongoing love.

In this life, we love with our bodies: we make love with our spouse with our body; we are present in the body to our friends. When we are absent from our loved ones, we project our bodies through space to continue the contact – our image on FaceTime, our voice on the telephone, our hand-writing in a card. These symbols of our body tell our loved one that we yearn to be present in the body.

Death destroys the body. Dust we are, and to dust we return (v. Genesis 3:19). The body is then transformed in resurrection. We know almost nothing about what Saint Paul calls the ‘resurrection body’, only that we would be a ‘foolish person’ to imagine it to be the same as our current body. It is as different from the natural body as the wheat plant is from a grain (I Corinthians 15:36-37)!

Love, after death, will also be the same and categorically different. While our bodies can love gloriously, God promises a love after death that is different in degree and in expression:  a much better love. All bodily limitations to love will be removed and transformed. Who knows whether we will rise as individuals, or as love promises, somehow joined in love? Or something entirely different, and, as yet, unimagined?

My plea is that we settle for more than the idea that we will be reunited with loved ones, and that we take the Bible at its word (I Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), that God will exceed our imagination as to how wonderful love in the resurrection will be. It will be heaven!

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Advent’s Four Last Things: HEAVEN I


‘Twenty thousand kilometres; two thousand dollars.’

Like us, the signora in the pensione had travelled to Assisi for Christmas. Her annual highlight was driving herself 60 kilometres. She had never been further from home than her annual trip south.

She kept wondering aloud in Italian the statistics of our journey:

Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari. Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari. 

The world is a big place, and our overnight flight from Perth to Italy had disguised how huge the distance to Assisi is. It is, as for our friend the signoraa cause of wonder.

Scientists tell us there are 300 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. The size of one star, one sun is hard to imagine. The trip from Perth to Assisi would take only a fraction of the sun’s circumference. 300 stars are hard enough to imagine, but 300 billion… Then, astronomers estimate, there are between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies. How many stars there must be.  My digital calculator puts it at 4.5e16 stars. The number is meaningless, staggering in its scope.

Many scientists then tell us that our universe may be one only of an infinite procession of universes, coming in and out of existence at a fantastic rate. At this point, I’ve lost the power of imagination completely. The best I can do is stand outside and gaze at the night sky. I see red Mars, 10 years of rapid travel away. I see bright Southern Cross 350 years ago, its light just now reaching me, light that started on its journey when Charles II finally became king and the 1662 Prayer Book was promulgated.

This colossal creation can be a starting point in our journey searching for heaven. No, I am not suggesting that heaven is a place, perhaps hiding behind one of Saturn’s moons or in a 10-lightyear distant galaxy! But such a startling and amazing universe can flex our sense of wonder. Like the signora at Assisi, we can contemplate over and over the complex and awe-inspiring cosmos of which we are part, and yield to wonder.

This is the universe our God is creating. Spectacular and lovely.  A Creator God of such power has intentions. He has an agenda that his beautiful universe should more and more reflect God’s own qualities of love and goodness.

And if God is prepared to pour Godself into the making of such a spectacular and lovely universe, we can begin to imagine how wonderful are God’s intentions for you and me: to be more and more the love, goodness and beauty we discern in the physical universe. In fact, God promises it. God promises that we shall see face to face. (I Corinthians 13:12) God promises that his agenda for us is better, more delightful, more caring than anything we can imagine, just as his universe is more than we can imagine (I Corinthians 2:9)

Venti mila chilometri300 billion stars, God of a wondrous universe. Let us find heaven in our wonder.

Wesleyan Treasure


9781501835643Elaine E. Heath,
Five Means of Grace, Experience God’s Love the Wesleyan Way, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2017, 80 pages.
ISBN 9781501835643,
E-Pub and Hardback
available from Cokesbury Bookstore for $US 6.79 + postage.

 

One of the unfortunate unintended consequences of the Uniting Church in Australia is the invisibility of all things Wesleyan in Australia – no more Methodists, no more reminders of John Wesley!

Elaine Heath, Dean of the Divinity School at Duke University in North Carolina, as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, is keen to share the treasures of the Wesleyan tradition with the widest possible audience. This little book is a gem from that treasury.

The book explores Wesley’s five spiritual practices, prayer, searching the scriptures, the Lord’s supper, fasting and Christian conferencing for a contemporary audience. She outlines Wesley’s original conception for these five disciplines, and explains simply how Christians today might apply them to their lives of faith.

Each section ends with questions for reflection and action.

Dean Heath concludes by commending the idea for every serious Christian of a simple rule of life.

The book is designed to fit into a pocket or stack of prayer books. The gilt lettering and embossed design make it a pleasure to hold and use. It is intended for frequent reference for a Christian implementing these spiritual habits for the first time.

It would make an ideal gift for a young member of the United Methodist Church; as well as for young members of the Australian churches with a Wesleyan heritage, the Uniting and Anglican Churches.

3698690

Hymn for the Feast of the Stigmata


I wrote this hymn for the Stigmata (17 September) 10 years ago in 2007, and I offer it again as a resource for you.

When singing this hymn, it really suits the tune ‘Kremser’ best. If you use ‘The Ash Grove’ you need to align the number of lines of music with the number of lines of text – not difficult!

Here it is for your meditation:

When Francis our father received the stigmata,
he climbed up Averna and prayed from the heart.
With all his believing, he now is receiving
the marks on his body of being in Christ.

So first there is Moses, who on our God closes
by opening his life to the power of the law.
He follows obeying, and does what God’s saying:
the marks on his body of being in Christ.

And next there is Jesus who brightness releases.
On Carmel he’s climbing and shines in the light.
The truth that he’s revealing, with serving we’re sealing
the marks on our body of being in Christ.

So when our Saint Francis on Averna dances,
He turns to the Lord and is won by the Cross.
Obeying and seeing, and turning and freeing
the marks on his body of being in Christ.

Now we who are living find joy in thanksgiving.
We seek out a place to pause and to pray.
The love that we’re gaining is expressed with pain in
the marks on our body of being in Christ.

  • Ted Witham © 2007

***

This hymn was inspired by Moses’ experience of the glory of God when he climbed Mount Sinai. This is described in Exodus 24:12-18 set for the Old Testament reading for the Stigmata (in the Australian Third Order Manual).

 

Now, And at the Hour of our Death


For the Feast of St Mary – at evening

(forthcoming in the Geelong Writers’ Azuria #7)

Now, and at the hour of our death // Maintenant, et à l’heure de notre mort.  

Mother Mary come to me
now, and when I die:
Mother Mary strum for me,
my death will make you cry.  

Mother Mary sing for me,
when I pass from here:
Mother Mary bring for me
new life heralded by ear.  

Mother Mary pray for me,
with loving susurrations,
Mother Mary stay with me
become God’s new creations.  

Marie Mère, approche-moi,
maintenant, en joie,
et aussi à ma dernière heure,
quand t’écoutant je meurs. 

Marie Mère chante pour moi,
en grattant doucement
les cordes d’une belle guitare
un cantique d’encouragement.  

Marie Mère c’est dur pour moi
de monter sur scène du départ :
j’ai peur de tromper la bonne voie :

de confondre l’absurdité, la Croix.  

 

The Annunciation as the Ordination of Mary

Beware the Megacorp


Behold the Megacorp! A person
without a beating heart.
He makes himself grow bigger
by ripping things apart.

He’s called a ‘legal person’,
unfettered growth his god.
He’s got the nerve to tell us
we’re the ones who’re odd!

He cuts down old-growth forests
and chips them to a pile.
He slices wood for buildings,
makes money all the while.

He cannot see the tree’s heart,
with beauty that entices.
All he sees is timber
return to him top prices.

He cannot see a mountain
is there to heal the soul:
He rips it down for profit
and yanks out all the coal.

He cannot see that hiking
down through mountain springs,
helps us thrive as humans
as we touch all living things.

He digs out all the umber dirt
to turn to brittle steel:
He points us to the deepest pit
and asks us how we feel!

He stops the earth from breathing.
He scorns if with joy we leap.
Yet his unrelenting pillage
is causing all to weep.

He says that I’m a socialist,
daft with dangerous features,
yet he’s the one destroying
our home and fellow-creatures.

So laugh with me at Megacorp:
with gold and growth he dances.
The only things that grow and grow
are called the worst of cancers.

  • Ted Witham 2017

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