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 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.

Believing: a tangled skein


I heard of a priest who was asked recently, ‘Do you ever have moments of doubt about your Christian faith?’ The priest replied, ‘On some days I have moments of faith.’

I am intrigued by atheists who seem to think that if they can knock one argument out from under a Christian, they will have of necessity knocked the person off their Christian stool. Comedian Ed Byrne, for example, talking to agnostics, ‘If you haven’t heard God speak to you in a sunset or a beautiful landscape by the time you’re 40, you’re an atheist.’ His assumption appeared to be that just one thing could make the difference between being a Christian or not.

I experience being a Christian not as a series of skittles to be knocked over, but as a tightly tangled skein of meaning-making, experiences and fellowship. Included among my persuasions are doctrines, ethics and aesthetics, the ever-fascinating engagement with the Bible, my identity and my incorporation into particular parts of Christ’s Church.

So atheists sometimes try to win the argument by asking what I would believe it were proved that some bones were definitively identified as the remains of Jesus. The empty tomb is only one little part of my believing, so, depending on the day, my answer is either a confident argument from logic, ‘It will never happen’, or an answer from conviction, ‘It would make no difference to my foundational belief.’

Some Christians trip over philosophical wires by trying to solve the puzzles of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. What does it mean to call God a Trinity? The Prophet Mohammed was one person for whom the doctrine of the Trinity disproved Christian faith. He founded a new religion with monotheism front and centre. Five times a day, his followers now proclaim the Shahada, ‘There is no God but Allah.

trinityflyer‘One God in three persons’ makes less sense for our times because of the philosophical assumptions at the time the Creeds were written. Faith that God is one in three is always faith, however, and Christians can choose simply to believe it, or like Catherine La Cugna or Karl Rahner in the 20th Century devise completely new philosophical pre-suppositions for the doctrines of Trinity.

Other Christians recite the Creed each Sunday, ‘We believe in One God’ – the Trinity – as a statement of the historical faith of the Church. This is the Church and its beliefs in which I choose to belong, even while holding lightly to the details of these dogmas.

I have many moments of not believing or understanding how Jesus Christ can be completely human and completely divine: there are just too many paradoxes in the doctrine to contemplate at once. However an atheist who shows me how irrational this belief is will not therefore persuade me out of being a Christian.

Bedrock to my faith is the person of Jesus, yet many atheists join me at the core of acclaiming Jesus as a provocative teacher of good living, although some atheists try to make Jesus interchangeable with other gurus and guides.  I do stick to the uniqueness of Jesus. This comes partly from my ongoing fascination with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Many atheists find they can reject Christian faith without reading the Bible. I find its books more and more intriguing as I read them, whether it’s unravelling the insights of Wisdom literature or attempting to interpret the Book of Revelation.

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Saint Jerome – courtesy brittanica.com

As I read the Gospels, I find more and more to surprise me. In the ‘Good Samaritan’, Jesus tips the world of loving upside down. Unlike his peers, Jesus calls us loving outsiders as equal a duty as loving our families. Another surprise: Being a neighbour is not so much about those whom I can help, but about who I allow to be neighbourly to me.

Much of my experience of being a Christian comes from the Church which has shaped me, paid for my theological education, and which continues to give me support. Just this fortnight with my wife away, I am experiencing the practical help of the local congregation bringing me meals. Of course, such do-gooding is not limited to Church people, but the fact that it is Church people living out charity as part of their faith reinforces my Christian identity too.

I cannot undo my experiences. I have discovered God in the music of Olivier Messaien. I can try to explain it away in psychological terms, but nothing can change what Messaien has revealed to me.

There are days when I try to persuade myself out of faith, but it can’t be done, I don’t think, because my faith is too vigorous a garden and grows by weeding and digging out old growth. One-punch atheists don’t get the complexity of religious faith as they believe it is a single flower.

I offer this short piece as one flower of my thinking as a Christian.

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Sit back and receive from God


And we think we are being called to greater efforts in hospitality, but we are not listening to Luke, we are not listening to Jesus in the gospel sections. Jesus is calling us to the opposite.

Hospitality was one of the key virtues in Jesus’ society. I would like to think it is one of the key virtues in ours. Last week the gospel began with an example of a Samaritan village refusing to give hospitality to the disciples en route to Jerusalem. Then Jesus tells the Scripture scholar the story of a Samaritan who did treat his neighbour with hospitality. Or at least that’s how the story is usually interpreted. ‘Go and do thou likewise.’

But as so often with Jesus, there’s a twist. The neighbour has become not the one receiving hospitality, but the one giving hospitality. How are we to treat our neighbour? Our neighbour in this case is the Samaritan, the stranger giving us hospitality. How do we receive the gift of kindness from strangers? Especially strangers who we are pre-programmed to distrust, even hate?

In the story, we are called primarily not to be good Samaritans, as worthy as that vocation is, but to  learn to be recipients.

Luke provides a similar twist in today’s gospel concerning Mary and Martha. All the usual interpretations about our hospitality to Jesus – are the tea and scones perfectly cooked and well-supplied? Are we ready to focus on spiritual teaching? Are women important in the church? are secondary issues. The primary issue, it seems to me, is how are we to receive the hospitality of Jesus to us?

In a sense, Mary in the story gives the clue. She is prepared to be a guest in her own home. She is prepared to allow Jesus to host her in Mary and Martha’s family home.

We are always too anxious, like Martha, to get things right. But these two stories are saying that God already has got things right. He is inviting us into the heart of his universe. He is the host. He is the one offering hospitality. And it is not always easy to receive, but what gifts are ours if we are open to God’s hospitality to us. What healing at the roadside; what feeding, what divine spiritual teaching, all are ours. The first action is to let God be God, let God be host, and to prepare to be not in control, not in charge, but to allow God to lead and provide.

 

[Luke 10:38-42 and Luke 10:25-37]

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Image courtesy: https://thevirtualabbey.wordpress.com/category/ora-et-labora/

Isaiah 42 for Western Australia


Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:

6  “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,

7  to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

8  I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.

9  Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.”

10  Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from one side of Australia to the other,
you who go down to the Indian Ocean, and its leviathan surf,
you who explore the wave-carved gaps and blow-holes of Torndirrup National Park.

11  Let the Sandy Desert and places up north raise their voice,
the towns of the Great Western Woodlands cry out to God;
let the wild-flowers of the  south-west sing for joy,
let the climbers shout from the top of the Stirling Ranges.

12  Let us give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in Geographe Bay.

– Isaiah 42:5-12 based on ESV

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The Great Western Woodlands

 

Why the Resurrection is not a Metaphor


The kiss

Two pairs of lips approach and make contact. A dry sensakissingtion soon melts into a warm moist pressure which sets off a reaction throughout the bodies of the owners of each pair of lips. There are changes in core temperature, heart-rate, perspiration. There may be increased blood-flow to genitals and our bodies remind us that we are priority-programmed to reproduce. Hormone levels change: cortisol goes down, reducing stress, oxytocin levels rise, increasing feelings of closeness and intimacy.

Then, at a level that scientists can’t measure, for some of those people, the kiss will affirm the quality of their relationship, will inspire their love, and they will remember the sacramental love at the heart of their life together, and God as its source.

Much more happens, physiologically, emotionally and globally, every time we kiss, far too much to compress into two paragraphs.

Rae and I make a point of kissing every morning and night, and every time we part and meet. For us, this ritual is essential to keeping our marriage alive; not the only essential, but one which we value highly.  I know of many couples for whom kissing is likewise a serious business.

When we say kissing is important, the statement is literally true. But an alien seeing two people kiss might wonder how the pressing together of pairs of lips is valued by earthlings! If you only see the obvious and visible event, you may distort the wider truth.

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I read recently the phrase: ‘of course preaching the resurrection as metaphor’. This drew me up short.

Some years ago I was asked to preach and address the question: ‘Did Jesus rise in body or spirit?’ I disappointed by answering in the affirmative. Yes, I said, Jesus rose in body and in spirit.[My notoriously liberal host was hoping I would reject the notion of Jesus’ bodily resurrection!]

The shorthand for the central article of our faith might be ‘Jesus rose from the dead’. ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ is true. Some require acquiescence to that statement as proof of orthodoxy. But that is like the alien looking at the kiss. It is true. But by itself it distorts the truth and can become a lie. It is true only in a larger context.

We ‘progressive’ Christians are often rather smug about how intelligently we avoid the narrow focus of the fundamentalist. But however we describe the resurrection of Jesus Christ, metaphor is inaccurate, belittling and close to heresy.

When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, in the deepest structures of creation there were deep changes that we now only just glimpse (Romans 8:21, Colossians 1:10-16). The invisible powers that poison human society were neutralised (Ephesians 6:12). The life of Jesus of Nazareth was revealed as a far-reaching liberating plan that transcends his place and time. The heart-beat and love of God are uncovered and our true identity as his children is seen.

Much more, much more has happened and is happening, that will take eternity to explore.

These may be mysteries, but they are not metaphors. The kiss could be a metaphor for the resurrection. The resurrection is God’s kiss of life.

 

 

The benefits of English, history and so on…


7117626-3x2-220x147I am very happy for scientists to promote science education. I have been a fan of the ABC’s Science Show since Robyn Williams started broadcasting 41 years ago. I am excited by modern technology, and am happy to use its latest tools and gadgets.

Science education can achieve what is claimed for it: clarity of thought based on evidence and the ability to evaluate and patiently work through new ideas.

“The benefits of learning about science for young kids are enormous, says Kevin Squires, a teacher at Tamworth Public [School in NSW] who is employed especially to teach science at the school.

“Science involves a lot of talking and listening to others; it develops patience, too – a lot of the time in science things don’t happen overnight,” he says.

Add to the mix are skills for life such as perseverance, problem-solving and researching.” 1

My problem with this advocacy is not that it isn’t true, but that it implies that education in the humanities does not provide students with equally powerful thinking skills.

I spent a total of 10 years in tertiary education in the humanities. The courses (French the_rice_psalter_use_of_sarum_in_latin_illuminated_manuscript_on_vellu_d5460632hStudies, Theology and Religious Education) may seem to have little in common, but the theme running through all my University studies was the close analysis of texts. Whether those texts were the Bible or Madame Bovary they all taught me how to use the evidence of words and ideas to gain insight in human behaviour.

The key to success in the humanities, like science, is drawing conclusions from evidence.

Studying languages and what people have written in them has many benefits for young people. Like science, language and literature develop patience because maturity and life experience will add to the meaning of texts. Like science, studying languages and texts develops puzzle-solving skills. Like science, the humanities develop a focus on the evidence. The humanities help students uncover human motivation and foster empathy. They give information and human context about other human cultures and faiths.

It seems to me that the study of humanities, perhaps even more than the study of military theory, can contribute to the bringing about of world peace. It can certainly equip young people to be better husbands and wives, lovers and parents.

Yes, studying science opens up exciting worlds and our world need scientists. But we need people who can read the human heart as well.