Puncturing Trump’s Power


If the idea of the weakness of God in the world of Trump offends you, please read on. The President of the United States has vowed to ‘make America great again’, and logically America’s greatness must be at the expense of the rest of the world. He wants to use his power to decrease the life-chances of Mexicans, Syrian refugees and the environment.

It seems that this is a man using excessive power to accumulate more power. He can bully everyone from a Prime Minister to a girl in the backrooms of the White House. Be sure, the psychologists tell us, that a man like that who can use his power over others will display that power.

The response to Mr Trump portrayed in both traditional media and social media is often hysterical. ‘When will someone exterminate that man?’, one exasperated Facebook post asked. ‘This Crazy Man,’ writes another, ‘will provoke Iran into war.’ Or another typical reaction, ‘I’m terrified for the world.’

For those of us, white Western males in particular, who think we have power in this world, Mr Trump is a challenge. We want to use our power to change Mr Trump’s thoughts and actions., just as we use our power more locally. We are accustomed to our politicians responding to our emails, to bending the way of the people, and to honouring the democratic will every three or four years.

We tell ourselves that we can change things. We fantasise that we are staffers in the TV series The West Wing. We ‘speak truth to power’, and power listens.

But Mr Trump reminds us that we delude ourselves. I think we should take some care how we respond to him for fear of setting off damaging reactions. To bring power against Mr Trump, however great that power, will result in a reaction of more power. We threaten Mr Trump and the violence ratchets up. His Acting Attorney-General defied him on his Executive Order regarding immigration. He sacked her. His Generals advised him of the power of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Mr Trump used a drone to kill 30 human beings.

It seems to me that we Franciscans have a contribution to make here. Particularly when a power-oriented President is breathing out fire.

We believe that the Divine way is the way of littleness, the path of humility.

Mr Trump, were he to encounter the concept of littleness, would not understand it. For him, being little is the worst kind of weakness.

The path of littleness eschews using all power over others. The path of littleness sees ourselves as fallible pilgrims seeking a way forward that will nurture those around us. The path of humility sees the other as the focus of my concern and not myself. If I have wealth it is at the disposal of others, not myself. If I have earthly power, it is to promote the needs and wants of the least in this world. (And as Australians, as whites, and as males, whatever we say we do have wealth and power).

This way of littleness was incarnated by Jesus. He ‘took the form of a servant and emptied himself’ (Phil. 2:7). He made no claims to overthrow the Roman yoke, or even to get stuck into reforming the Sadducean hierarchy. For us as for Jesus, the way of littleness leads to the greatest of power; but this kind of power is the power of love, not the power of violence.

My resolution – for myself – is to hold back from trying to use my little bit of power to change Mr Trump through outraged blog posts and emails to the White House and to pressing “LIKE” to affirm the violent language of my friends.

I see only two responses I can make: one is satire (but I have no doubt that satire is a form of power), and the other is modelling the humility that seeks to put others first. I think of certain pupils at Christ Church Grammar School, I think of Jews in Auschwitz modestly trying to create a mini-world of care and kindness in the harshness of their surrounds. That’s what will change the world.

 

The Fascinator: A sonnet for Christmas


The Fascinator

Tell the wild tale with vim and with panache
Chorus line of shepherds; veiled discerning
Mystics bringing gifts while earth’s cultures clash
To a baby: He our whole life’s learning.

Ring the bells, all people, stop! Now attend
to whispers of angels, meditations
Of mystics, fresh wisdom to us commend,
kindness of giving, godly fascinations.

Light the candle, we illuminati
with peace, earning goodwill to God’s masses,
Minding the child (He the celebrity)
with lambs and cows and companion asses.

All creation whispers the tale with awe,
All souls are responsive to His divine draw.

  • Ted Witham 2016

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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Gift in love: Saint Francis


Our joy in fervent prayer and stately dances,
In full-sung hymns and full-heart confession,
in earnest emotional expression,
all diverse ways to celebrate St Francis.

Liturgical wealth but poverty deep,
In all, radical Godward dependence,
Tangled in matter we find transcendence;
The sole way integrity to keep.

More in story than godly abstraction:
The Pope gives the Order’s permission,
The lepers’ care and pairs for mission,
In mutual prize and always loving action.

Thank God for blessings and seeing all in joy,
Our gifting for love we hurry to employ.

 

 

R.I.P. Colin Holden


Saddened today to hear of the death of old friend Colin Holden. I was at theological college at Trinity College in Melbourne with Colin, and then his colleague as a priest in Western Australia. I met him several times after he returned to Melbourne.

Colin was enormously talented as a linguist, historian and writer. He was a generous but fragile friend. One of the remembrances I still have from Colin is this hymn which he translated as a gift for me in 1974. Reading it again, I am impressed by his skill with metre and assonance, reminding me that he was a musician as well as all the other talents. 

May he rest in peace and rise in glory!

A votive offering for Easter for Ted

Dawn fires the east with glowing rays
The heavens rejoice in hymns of praise;
While earth exults, Hell’s furious roar
Proclaims his lord can rule no more,

For Jesus, clad in triumph, leads
The Patriarchs, ransomed from the dead;
Hell’s prey, once chained in bonds of night
Christ frees to rise in life & light.

A stone & seal secured the tomb;
For Christ’s new life it forms a womb;
First-fruits of all that sleep in earth,
He bursts the gates, to vanquish death.

Now mourning’s bitterness shall cease;
Christ’s rising tolls the death of grief;
His angels joyously proclaim
“Death’s end has come; new life now reigns.”

From sin’s dark death, O Jesu, free
Them that again are born of Thee;
Be Thou alone out Spirit’s guest
At this time of our Paschal Feast.

We praise the Father, who is one
With Jesus Christ, His only Son,
And laud as is forever meet,
The Holy Ghost & Paraclete.

(Aurora Caelum purpurat, Office hymn at Lauds from Low Sunday till Ascension – translated by Colin Holden, Easter 1974)

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Sermon: Ask, search, knock


Luke 11:9-10

I wrote this poem a few years ago, reflecting on Jesus’ teaching that our desire to love, when taken far enough, eventually leads us to see the world in ‘I-thou’ terms. 

– Ted Witham

I asked for a Mercedes, coupé 220, of course.
Received a mirror, 360, signed, with love, Yours.
Reflected… the shiny image that was my deep desire;
to climb up the world’s path, a higher flyer.

I searched for love in writing reviews,
Expecting my readers to walk in my shoes;
I searched for love, making Church work my life,
but found love closer in children and wife.

I knocked on the door of God, Father, King,
Insight opened: metaphor turns God to ‘thing’;
I opening saw God as all my ‘Thou’,
me to be present in the Eternal Now.

Asking, searching, knocking, all stones stepped
to draw near to the One so wind-swept,
Spirit-blown, tempest-tendered,
The ‘Thou’ who all my love has ended.

 

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/