I was seated casually in the closed cabin of my Rotoroa Island alcohol and drug counsellor, David's office. The aluminium light of afternoon pierced the Venetian blinds, striping the pressed lazy air. Dust idled fitfully in the light hot space. My throat was dry. My fingers prickled. My palms moistened. My head felt spun out. My mind seemed stretched like lumpy spaghetti.
David's vibrato voice bumped through the thick air, "Justin. It's a paradox. What is the way out? There are many gateways to Heaven ... if you'll excuse that rather quaint anachronistic term. So too there are many signposts to Hell. Sometimes there is a choice, which is never obvious to the afflicted, the dysfunctional, the inattentive, the addicted, the oppressed..."
His wandering basso profundo lost itself in the air. "Remember Justin, that your addiction is a negative focus, no a compulsion, a mind-set ... a fixation." His eyes focussed on a point near the centre of my forehead. I shifted my body to one side, attempting to shift his gaze, to prevent a cerebral derailment.
The movement worked. He resumed. "Addiction is a negative fixation on a disability or dysfunction, a not focussing on reality. The afflicted … the addicted is tossed rudderless in a sea of swirling competing false messages. Above all it is driven by a set of nasty little demons that drum incessantly on the mind. And each set of demons is unique to each single personality. The outcome is continual dependence on the subjectively perceived calming effects of alcohol and recreational drugs. Alcohol is in fact a cunning little messenger that warps and alters reality. And remember, 'humankind cannot bear very much reality'."
David paused. He stroked his temple. Our eyes met. He quietly finished his exposition: "Remember Justin, alcoholism is an addictive process, not a personality, character or moral flaw. And also, remember St. Paul: 'straight is the gate and narrow is the path'." He paused, flicked his drowsing eyelids and sighed, "and remember too, the therapist is not God, not even a priest -"
I stabbed the air with the interjection, "David, but ... but... how can this be so, can this be the case? If this is-"
"Wait, let me finish. The therapist is not God. I am not your only guru. I'm not even a priest or a sage, and I can only prompt you, the alcoholic, the sufferer, to heal yourself, and this, at the end of the day, involves finding and searching for the meaning, the mystery ... of God." David clasped his entwined straight fingers across his Buddha-like belly. He beamed his wide-open smile, like a whale basking contentedly in its warm watery pod. The dust in the air hovered, uncertain which way to wander.
My mind sat in its own hot air-pressed cocoon, blotched, baked and blurred. Words slipped out of my bloated lips, "Are you saying there is no instant automatic salvation, as of right, as a Christian?" David cocked his head, " 'fraid not. We leave that to the rescuers, the Salvationists." His eyes glistened with wry irony. "Remember Christ's: 'I am the Resurrection and the Life'."
I felt my choler rise, then subside. The air in the room sweated against the walls. The room swayed and swam. I closed my eyes. My mind was drowning in a warm lake of reeds and quaking amoeba and grotesque protoplasmic blobs and swollen forms bound in white ribbons, banded shrouds, and swaddling clothes. A swarm of images swam in my heat-oppressed brain: the raising of Lazarus, the Nativity scene, the slow agonizing torture of Jesus by crucifixion, the groaning gurgle of the un-bandaging of great giants in agony. The noisy clunk of an executioner's axe jolted my photism out of its mind-frame. I erupted, "David. Stop. I'm hot. I'm hallucinating. I'm in a clammy stupor. I'm feeling sticky. I'm very uncomfortable. I'm strung out. I'm feeling sort of ... whelmed." I creakily stood up and stretched my exhausted limbs. Through the window I glimpsed the cool pine-green of the sea. My eye zoomed into its cooling vastness. My mind dived into its cooling salve. The blue washed, caressed my mind.
"Ah-h-h-h!" I soared in tingling hope. "The sea! The sea! I'd love to go for a quick dip. It will jolt me out of my stupor." With measured irony I added, "I want a quick fix."
David calmly breathed, "I understand perfectly. But ... but you should go to Heather's relaxation class. No sudden jolts there. Just calm beneficent healing. It will soothe like soft new milk. And like the sea (but unlike a quick dip or quick fix) over the time of a long immersion, it unties all knots. No instant fixes there. It will be time to focus, to meditate" I nodded like an automaton.
"You see, Justin, meditation is refuge, quietness, purification, replenishing, a return to whiteness. On the other, contrary hand, prayer is struggle, pleading, even ... grovelling. That... the latter… involves being caught in an inexorable wheel of psychic machinery, the machinery of guilt and repentance. Most efforts at virtue, which, imperfectly understood, can grip and destroy. Just let go, and let God."
"And fall into the abyss."
"Yes, but it is the abyss of faith."
"I'm not certain that I have any."
"Then find some. Erect some yourself. Make yourself your own ideological construct. After all, you are the sociologist. You should understand the power of the abstract imperative." And he smiled; he beamed his cherubic smile. I was intrigued. I was quietly confused. He was smiling. I felt irritable, yet passive. He smiled the confident moral superiority of the chess player who is letting his opponent know he made an error in the previous move.
I slumped out of David's room like a wet over-flowing cake-mix subject to too much quick heat. I stood on the threshold. I was in stasis. I stole another yearning look at the sea. Milk jade. Pounamu. The emerald Buddha. David's belly. David's wise (but maddeningly cryptic) words. David's chess-victor's glow. But the sea! But the sea! But no! No! Heather's class! Relaxation! Oh no! Oh Hell Such soothing soporific seances of sentimental swill. Pagh!
Clay, our 'new' American 'been-there-done-that' counsellor cruised past me. He cast me a querulous glance. I returned a glazed stare. The sun beat down. The hot iron roof creaked in a dulled shriek of pain. Seagulls returned the metallic groans with carnivorous cawing. Down the hill Max started his tractor engine. Its roar was like that of a demonic un-tuned orchestra. A cacophony of mechanic mayhem. What stupefied equilibrium I had had, was unbalanced by the crackle of exhaust retorts. My mind was so loaded, so pressed, so explosive. The sun scorched my raw fibre. I felt cooked, sweated. My God, I cried inside, the pressure, the p-r-e-s-s-u-r-e forces me to melt. Thoughts dried up in the heat. Feelings fought each other like birds caught in a golf-driving practice-net. The sun beat mercilessly on and on. I felt I was falling into despair and humiliation and driveling insanity.
I was in turmoil. Yet my body cried, "The patient must minister to himself." Max drove away. The air quieted. My panic stilled. Heather glissaded past, as if on an uphill escalator. Her example stirred me. I zapped out of my brainstorm, my mindset. I brought myself to attention. I clicked my heels. I threw back my head. I strode up the hill.
My good friend Bob stopped me near the entrance to the relaxation therapy room. "How is it with you old friend? The bloody battle within your mind still raging?" He gently tapped my shoulder with his closed fist, a little soft reminder of the intolerable sumo-wrestling inside my skull.
I expelled a rush of embattled air from my lips. "I feel the thumping has lessened, almost stopped. Perhaps a truce between the wrestlers has been called, perhaps God has called a cease-fire."
"Good. But perhaps your mind will run away again into those dark gladiatorial theatrical places."
"I don't think so. I certainly hope not. It's as if I've been in a dark wrestler's stadium, looking at the spotlit dazzling bodily enmeshed contestants thumping and graunching each other. Now I'm sort of out in the lovely gently lighted real world under the sunny open sky?" I pointed gleefully upward. "It's a fever that has perhaps run its course; more like a play in which I had to act, all the way through, until what was so plainly the end."
"The stage full of corpses?" No, I just walked out of the theatre."
I heard a quote which says; "I'm not a vegetarian because I love animals, I am a vegetarian because I hate plants."
I want to talk to you today about food. It is one of the great social markers of any culture. More relationships find their beginning and their end over a meal than any other activity. We are told that families which eat together stay together. Groups gather around meals. In our Anglican tradition eating is a central theme in our gathering and our worship.
The food we eat expresses all sorts of ideologies and beliefs. Personally, eating is one of my favourite pastimes. I eat too much, then I feel the need for diets. Diets for me come and go and rarely achieve anything. I came across a great diet the other day. Eat whatever you want - just don't swallow any of it. The act of eating or not eating also expresses much about our selves.To what extent is food a social object and eating a political act?
Recent movies would suggest that food is a central social theme. In the last decade there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in cannabalism as a theme in movies. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, The Silence of the Lambs, and Delicatessen are just some of those movies which have explored cannabalism as a metaphor for human power relations.
And not just in movies. I came across a fascinating study of food and eating in the writing of Canadian author, Margaret Atwood. Atwood writes about women who use food as a means of both naming and fighting their oppression. She explores the power dynamic of eating and non-eating, the relationship between consumer and consumed. In her fiction, the powerful not only eat, they eat the powerless. Atwood's work is filled with images of the body as food. Teeth - the body's tool for consuming food - are particularly potent symbols. One character tries to murder her husband by short-circuiting his electric toothbrush. As the article concluded this "is humorous but simultaneously signals the power dynamic inherent in teeth. After all, you cannot eat much without teeth." Being toothless becomes a symbol of powerlessness.
Speaking, like eating, is a source of power. Diet and language converge in the mouth. Again the theme is that women have been suppressed by being denied a voice just as their appetites have been repressed. One character who is raping a woman stops her from protesting. Atwood describes the mans "teeth against my lips, censoring me".
Clearly food is a social object, and eating is a political act. You are what you eat! I guess the cliche would hold then that our world is what it eats. Come with me then as spectators at a global feast. I have gathered together 100 people from around the world for a round table feast.* They are invited in proportion, so that the 100 present represent the make up of our world. 61 of those at the table are Asian, 14 American, 13 African, and 1 Australian or New Zealander (depending on who wins the tri nations that year). There are 50 men and 50 women. 33 of them are Christian, 67 not. 6 of those present own 60% of the entire wealth of the group. 13 at the table are hungry or malnourished. 14, most likely including the 13 hungry people are unable to read. Only 7 at the feast have secondary education. You can be sure this 7 doesn't include the hungry ones. 25 of them are living on $1 a day or less, and 47 are living on $2 a day or less. Back in their own homes, only 25 of the group keep food in a fridge.
There are a number of other logistical problems. Saying grace before the feast is problematic. Whether to say it or not, and then which god to say grace to are both political decisions. In the end grace is said at the request of some of the 33 Christians. While men and women are equally represented at the feast, there are more women preparing the feast and serving the round table than men. Of the 87 who are not malnourished, some will have eating disorders of various kinds. Currently in the world there are 7 million women and girls with eating disorders, and 1 million men and boys. There could well be some at the table. What food is served at the round table? McDonalds which was prepared by young and poorly paid workers. The food stands as a reminder of the sort of cultural imperialism which has created the make up and demographics of the group present.
Again, food and eating are socially complex. So with that in mind come now to the world of Jesus 2000 yrs ago. This was a world where food was a marker of being an insider or not. The food laws of Hebrew religion were a guide to separation of food for health reasons, yet also a mark of a righteous person enjoying God's favour. Jesus revolution was a response to this religion as well as to a Greek way of thinking which was so quick to separate and polarise people.
Feasts were powerful social occasions. The respectable ate with the respectable. Again separation and purity were paramount. There was an order for seating, communication and eating. Eating was gendered and class based. Jesus on the other hand ate with sinners and lowly people, even with women. The act of eating was for Jesus a powerful symbol of his revolution. In his system people would not be judged by their religious purity, not by the social status and not by their political power. Jesus broke all the rules to turn the power of eating on its head.
Consider the last feast of Jesus, those gathered were an odd collection of misfits, and the socially stigmatised. At that meal food was simultaneously a symbol of solidarity and betrayal. At that meal our own communion celebration was given its power as a feast manifested in token morsels. Token for a reason. For free from desire, we realise the mystery of partaking in Jesus revolution, a movement which broke down status oriented privilege and sought the heart of people and structures. Free from desire we explore the mystery of our own centre, our spirit.
Our communion celebration is a feast of diversity. Some come forward and kneel, some stand. Some dip their bread, some drink from the cup. Some simply come forward in silence. We come forward as individuals, yet we stand alongside our neighbours, as a mark of solidarity and community. We stand in our difference to signify the open and radically equalising revolution of Jesus.
The great feast is a metaphor in the Bible for heaven, the ultimate ideal. Whatever heaven is it must be the realisation of the Jesus revolution, the actualisation of the mystery of life. All of which brings to me my point, which grows out of the saying of Jesus in today's gospel, which I modify a little. 'Nothing which enters a person can alone make them unclean. It cannot mark them as a special or powerful person. It is what flows from a person's heart which marks them as individuals.'
The point: Seek the things of your heart. Realise the mystery of your spirit. Follow the revolutionary call of Jesus. Feast on all the good things of life and together we can create a world of spirit and substance. Feast on the token elements of Jesus life and death, and together we can work towards a world where people aren't hungry because they are born in a certain place, or a certain gender, where all people have equal access to the world's resources. From our hearts first, spirit and substance. From there to a world where spirit and substance are primary concerns.
Seek the things of your heart.
Ian Lawton, Vicar, St Matthew-in-the-City
"You are what you eat: The politics of eating in the novels of Margaret Atwood"
Today we celebrate our festival of St Matthew. It's a day to reflect on the distinctive focus of St Matthew in the Bible, St Matthew in the City as a church with a proud history of activism, and St Matthew in the midst of a world in crisis.
Matthew had a distinctive teaching. He above all the gospels broadened out the God focus from one nation to many peoples, even the outcast. His was a gospel with a keen eye for historical detail, and Christ as the culmination of this history. Therefore for Matthew God could no longer be called on for nationalistic favours. This prejudiced God is for Matthew unthinkable.
Yet when it suits our world don't we fall back on this God. I know from friends that in America last weekend Psalm 27 was quoted in many churches-
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread?
When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh,
my adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell.
Though a host encamp against me, my heart will not fear;
though war arise against me, in spite of this I shall be confident.
An unthinkable connection, between attacks on America and the favour of God.
Matthew's interest in historical detail is for a purpose. The Jesus story is not told in isolation, rather it is connected with the story of Israel. The violent reaction to Jesus was in part because of his radical challenge to the super power of his day, his move away from nationalist fervour, partly because his was a world still caught up in the violent world order of the prophets and the exile and partly because he pushed too far and too hard and would not relent.
And Matthew shows us Jesus teaching on life and faith matters; a reworking of old faith concepts. Where before eye for an eye was the standard, now Jesus reframes this as a universal call for non violent solutions to conflict.
It was Ghandi who said 'An eye for an eye will leave the world blind'. Our world leaders stand at a crisis point where they will have to make a decision to fight fire with fire, or to seek a new way, a non violent way, a way which breaks the cycle of violence.
Matthew tells an intriguing story of a fist fight. Jesus paints the scene of a person being punched on their right cheek. The obvious options are either stand and deliver, or give in to the onslaught. Rather he suggests a third way, what I would call creative and non violent resolution. He says offer the left cheek. Think about it; this is brilliant.
If a person attempts to hit the left side of a person's bent face with their wrong hand, they will be forced to shame themselves. They will either have to resort to a punch which is weak and ineffective, or a back handed slap which is similarly weak and more importantly in that world was a shameful act. Either way they would lose face and be forced to re think their strategy.
It is a story which has intriguing application for personal, social and global conflict. If by pacifism we mean being walked over, this is impractical and in my view not the Christian approach.
Far better is to change the focus, creatively shift the energy.
Last week we witnessed a terrorist attack on the most public symbols of western power and economics. Of course it was a counter attack, and of course the US has terrorised other nations and bombed buildings which were only smaller than the WTC because the countries could not afford to build WTC's of that size.
Who started it? Well it is clearly a spiraling violent mode of living. Far better to ask who will end it and how will it be resolved.
The battle lines have been drawn, an eye has been taken, the right cheek has been hit, however you interpret world events of the past decades. The response could be stand and deliver, fire with fire. This response will exacerbate the violence spiral. Eye for an eye. The world may well go blind. Another response could be to stand back and allow tyrants to have their way. This too is inadequate.
Far better to take a step back and say that this was not an act of war. It may suit some causes if it was called that. Yet in reality it was not. It was a criminal act and an act of horror. Yet not an act of war. Rather than respond with war, respond with the good will of most nations to stamp out such illegal actions, work with the UN and other human rights groups. Approach it as a crime to be punished; people to be brought to justice.
At the same time address the foreign policy of the US. Re visit the connection with Israel. Face up to some tragic power plays of the past and present and vow to do better, act more justly and less violently. To do so would be to disarm the forces of terrorism, expose their crime without glorifying their deeds, and refuse to play their game.
I declare myself an advocate of non violent response. World peace may seem unattainable. Yet it can begin with the US right now, as they make a choice which will shape the world we all live in. Play the violent games of the terrorist and watch it spiral. Shift the focus and we can find a better way.
St Matthew in the Bible offers us the God of all nations and all peoples, without prejudice. It offers us the creative and assertive way of non violent resolution to local and global conflict.
St Matthew in the City offers us the inspiration of those who have gone before us; activists in their own rights. Leaders in breaking down the nationally limited God of the past. Leaders in creative problem solving, and social change.
St Matthew in the world has had the opportunity for leadership already as we opened our doors to grieving and anxious people. Now we can offer leadership in calling for a just response and outcome to all acts of terrorism, however they are justified and whichever nationalistic God and cause is being invoked at the time.
I finish with a quote about peace from Dorothy Thompson
'Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict -- alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence. '
Today, as every day, here and throughout our world peace be with you, peace be with your loved ones, peace be with the people of America and the people of Afghanistan; peace be with world leaders and ordinary people alike.
To innocent victims of violence, rest in peace to those anxious about future violence, live in peace to those who lead our world, respond in peace. Go in peace, live in peace, respond in peace.
Re-writing the Script: Alternative to Violence And Antisocial Behaviour
September 9, 2001
Ordinary Sunday 24 Exodus 32:1,7-14 Luke 15:1-10
I once heard a stand up comedian mocking the television and violence debate by saying, "I watch a hell of a lot of comedy on television. That doesn't mean I'm seeing comedy all over the streets."' Cute joke, yet maybe it ignores the facts of the matter.
It is now a common view that violence begets violence. The average child we are told watches over 1500 murders on television before the age of 12, then we wonder why there are 12 year old children committing horrific acts of violence in the community. Violence in the home, violence in the media, oppressive social structures, beget the same attitudes in the community. Violence is a learned response, it is a tragic cycle of abuse. Yet it is a cycle which can be broken.
I heard a wonderful story proving this point from a family therapist who uses the 'narrative therapy' model. He had been called to a family's home to speak with them about their young son who was out of control, and didn't respond to anything his parents tried. The parents had been told that their son had a medical condition which made it impossible for him to control his own behaviour, let alone his parents attempting to control his outbursts. The family sat in the living room with the therapist and sure enough before long the boy was rioting, tearing the room to pieces, hitting and screaming and oblivious to his parents pleas. In between screams, the parents said to the therapist in desperation, "He's impossible. There is nothing we can do to break the pattern. We've tried everything."
The therapist challenged them and asked if he could prove to them that the pattern could be broken. They agreed and the boy was taken and locked in his room where he screamed blue murder and began taking the room apart. The therapist walked over to the stereo and tuned the music up to its highest volume. He just left it blaring out and the parents looked at each other and him and wondered what the hell he was doing.
After a few minutes of loud music, he very suddenly turned the music off, and they found that the boy had gone silent. After a few moments, the boy started up again, and again he turned the music to its highest level. After a time, he suddenly turned the music off and sure enough the boy had stopped. This pattern was repeated several times, after which the therapist said to them, "Playing loud music is no answer to anyone's problems. The point is that patterns can be broken. We've just seen that happen. You don't have to accept that his behaviour is uncontrollable. You've just seen your son control his own behaviour. It can be done. Lets work on this dilemma together."
The Bible presents a story which also has a pattern of violence and abuse. The story tells us that one nation's freedom came at the expense of another nation. Violence begets violence. Our Exodus reading is a vision of genocide, and it serves as the foundation for the whole Bible story. We have always assumed that the Exodus story is a positive freedom story. Yet consider the cost of this freedom. The Israelites would be delivered from their oppression by turning their tyrants into their slaves.
The world Jesus lived and moved in was a world where the patterns of self-righteous violence were well and truly in place. Those who believed they possessed the favour of God would do anything to maintain their freedom and their privilege. It must have appeared to be a pattern, which was beyond redemption. Yet Jesus did precisely that. He turned the violence ideology on its head. He offered an alternative, non resistant, creatively non-violent response to conflict.
He forced those who ruled by force to face their own hearts. He exposed their abuse, named their corruption for what it was, and offered another way of leading and changing. Ironically, the cross is the ultimate symbol of non-violence. The Apostle Paul described the cross wonderfully as disarming the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them (Colossians 2;15)
Today's gospel is a call to take up our crosses. It is a call to make creatively non-violent responses to power abuse. The land of milk and honey is not so much our right to freedom by oppressing others, as our responsibility to live peacefully and challenge others to offer the same respect.
Non resistance is a strong theme in many religious texts. The two which impact me most are Jesus saying- 'Do not resist an evildoer' and the Tao saying 'give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.' Another Tao text states-
'To reduce someone's influence, first expand it; To reduce someone's force, first increase it; To overthrow someone, first exalt them; To take from someone, first give to them. This is the subtlety by which the weak overcome the strong:'
Let the practical implications of these texts impact you. The principles apply to all relationships. There is always more than one option or response. The considered response will so often be more creative and effective. And the same principles apply to our global community as it still seeks to come to terms with the causes and effects of terrorism, territorialism and ongoing conflict.
The challenge is there for us a year on from the fateful events of September 11. The challenge is there as we celebrate the foundations of our church to commit to lives of peace and respect for all people. Conflict is inevitable, if not necessary. Conflict is a necessary condition for change. As Dorothy Thompson said, "Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict -- alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence. "The key word is alternative. We have choices. Our life stories and the story of churches and our world are scripts which are in our control. We choose how the story will pan out. We choose our responses. We choose non-violence.
I finish with an extract from a letter to the Herald which appeared yesterday, capturing amazingly well the point of my reflection today. "By the time I was 10 I knew my family was not like any other because my dad was a violent, abusive man, mainly when he had been drinking. By the time I was 14 I got thrown out of school, by 15 I was in trouble with the police. I was sullen, sometimes violent, angry and frightened. After a short stay in a woman's hostel at 16, I realised this was a path I didn't want to follow. Something within me changed; I didn't want to remain angry for the rest of my life or blame other people or society for the way I felt. It was up to me to make the change. I went on to learn a trade, run my own business, get married and have a beautiful daughter. Unfortunately I was the only one in my family who broke the pattern of violence. It has been lonely, is sometimes still scary and yes the anger is still there. But I did learn that you can turn the anger into something positive. It can give you determination to make changes." NZ Herald, 31 August 2002.
What wonderful courage. What inspiration! The call of the gospel is a life of non violence. God save us from all forms of violence. God bless us with peace, not the absence of conflict but the presence of all that makes life whole. God, give us the courage to write the script for our lives, for our church and for our world.
I really like St Matthew's - I always feel at home here - I always feel a sense of belongingness in this place - I like your sense of hospitality, your unapologetic liberalism and your very public theological witness for those marginalised, disenfranchised, vilified and despised. I like your critical analysis of our political institutions and I like your intuitive sense for effective and relevant contemporary urban mission. I think your communications efforts are simply wonderful and certainly if I were not constrained by my role as Ahorangi and therefore by having to virtually live and work at St John's College, this would indisputably be my choice of parish home.
I am deeply appreciative of your invitation to be with you this morning - and so after all that effusive flattery I hope you don't mind too much if I bring a somewhat depressing message - but I bring it to you with clean hands and an open heart and I bring it to you because I know I need help and to be honest I don't actually know where or who to go to for that help- so I figured it might be as well for me to start asking around wherever I am and St Matthews feels like a very safe place to start …
Just on 10 years ago I found myself teaching at St John's College. I didn't ever plan on a teaching career and certainly I did not plan on one in a theological college but time and circumstances and the loving hand of God all conspired against my own strongly held personal and professional determinations and so it was, that the week after the revised Constitution of our Church was blessed into existence, I began down the path which led eventually to my appointment as Ahorangi or Dean of Te Rau Kahikatea, one of now three Heads of College - the College being St John's, the Church's prestigious residential theological college - the College known for it's elitism, it's rich legacy of ecclesiastic greats.
It is true that over the years many fine church leaders began their careers at college - many attribute their 'success' in ministry to the quality of their 'formation' at St John's College.When I first went to teach at St John's College I assumed that everyone who went there was taught 'proper' theology - a sort of theology for life, a theology for sustaining prophetic public witness against injustice, a theology for compassionate and pastoral service among those who suffer in our communities, theology for young people, theology for our increasingly pluralistic society … I was in absolute awe of theological educators - I never ever imagined I could or would be one - I mean why would I? - lay Maori women don't 'do' theology so why would I ever imagine I could or would teach in the discipline? Well, as I said earlier, for reasons known to God alone, I have taught and studied theology, specifically theological education for the past 10 years and together with just a handful of courageous colleagues have attempted to transform the college from its former state of institutional imperialism to becoming a site of intellectual endeavour where theology might assume its rightful place as the 'queen of the sciences', where a diverse community of teachers and learners might celebrate the life of the mind through intentional engagement with deep theological wisdoms drawn from across the spectrum of religious thought, where the richness and uniqueness of our own ecclesial tradition can be creatively adapted into the context and multiple social and political contours of this beautiful land - so what's my problem?
My problem is that I don't know whether or not the transformative struggle occurring within St John's College is ever going to make a difference or if it really even matters to our church. I don't know whether or not it matters to our church that the assumptions popularly held about St John's College might just need significant critical re-evaluation. Is it really a site of three tikanga equality - can it ever truly be? Is it true that Te Rau Kahikatea has become effectively the dominant force within the College and that this reversal of power is proving disconcerting to many?
The College has over the past ten years been a crucible for intense struggle as the impact of the revised constitution has resulted in not one but three Deans. Each of us leading one of three constituent societies, each of us attempting to create space and opportunity for cultural expression and yet together remaining committed to holding to a fragile and often undefinable sense of unity. The substance of our unity is in fact the taonga of theological education.
My own feeling is that in our church's understandable haste to redeem its legacy of racial injustice it has, by default, given undue emphasis to uncontested race politics while simultaneously abandoning its precious residential site of teaching and learning to the predatory interests of right wing cultural purists and of theological conservatives (of all colours). As a result, in spite of the Constitutional imperative toward bicultural partnership and the hoped for resultant relationships of mutuality and interdependence, our only fulltime residential theological college still finds itself unable to confidently and biculturally teach a coherent theology for life, a theology for sustaining prophetic public witness, a theology for compassionate and pastoral service among those who suffer in our communities, a theology for young people, a comprehensive theology for our increasingly pluralistic society?
What has happened to quell the emergence of a radical, free thinking intellectual sector within our Church community? Where is the constant challenge to the life of the mind emanating from our theological academicians? Have we as church capitulated to the pragmatism of our times? Is this why we are suffering a concomitant loss of vision within our theological education enterprise? Has the prior agenda of becoming a three-tikanga church compounded the problem? Has our preoccupation with pressing contemporary complexities to do with 'highly distributed knowledge production systems' or 'receptive cultures', or even 'positive value systems' - all those jargon terminologies and ideologies which overwhelmed us as the Knowledge Wave circus came and went? Has any or all of this effectively silenced or muted our finest theological thinkers and teachers? As a theological educator, my concern is to ask: can St Matthews, can any of our parishes, our places of worship and ministry, continue to offer transformative and socially just ministries without a 'production centre' - without a theological college upon which it can depend for a steady stream of critical thinking, theologically literate, prophetically bold compassionate graduate agents committed to social change?
I feel so sad sometimes when I ponder the enormity of the problem and when I experience the paucity of tangible and passionate church support for the college. Yes, of course, I wonder about whether or not its time has perhaps come. Newer forms of education mean that access to theological education is no longer restricted. Regionally based training is now extremely popular in the Pihopatanga and within Dicoeses. The old residential pseudo-seminary model is no longer attractive nor perhaps pedagogically sound. Those of us responsible for teaching may well be the real problem - too radical, too dull, too academic, too gay friendly, too evangelical, too liberal - we hear it all.
What I do know is that among the Heads of College there is a deep and commonly held resolve that fidelity to the task of quality bicultural theological education entails a serious, sustained and intentional response to the new situation in which God has placed us.
In our efforts to respond well to the intense and often unclear demands of our various Ministry Boards and various hierarchical bodies I think perhaps those of us with leadership responsibility, and I am talking specifically about myself, may have failed to take good care of crucial community based relationships such as those with places like St Matthew's. Relationships which were often originally established by mutual friendship and were nurtured over many years of commitment and association. I guess I realise that in responding to your invitation to be here I want first to honour the history of relationship between our institutions by genuinely acknowledging you as I understand you to be. Secondly, because of the history of friendship and mutuality which does exist between us, then I figured it would probably be OK to lay before you something of the ongoing struggle confronting those of us entrusted with leadership within our College - and to ask in all humility, can we help one another?
When I said earlier that I do wonder about our preoccupation with tikanga politics - I find an analogy in my understanding of the Isaiah text - here is God's legal suit against God's people for their apparent breach of the Mosaic covenant. The most potent aspect to this prophetic tirade is essentially God's rejection of ritual worship unless that worship is reflective of a profound and genuine change to the moral behaviour of the people. So I ask, has our Constitutional revision ever led us to examine whether or not what we now do as Anglicans is perhaps little more than culturally specific tikanga performance pieces - ritualised enculturated liturgical worship? Have we as church ever bothered to critically examine whether our moral behaviour toward one another has fundamentally altered as a result of the new Constitutional covenant established some 10 years ago? Isn't it true that, in some ways, we have arbitrarily racialised our relationships in order that we can avoid confronting the ongoing moral dilemma posed by race politics - 'when you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you' - and sadly, I believe we have inadvertently created structures which actually enable us to avert our gaze from one another with ease.
How can we 'cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow', when we begin from a position of racialised indifference to one another?
While I wish in no way to minimise the outstanding problem of racism, I also believe that in the myriad ways in which we daily encounter one another as human beings, it ultimately ought not matter to which tikanga either of us belongs. It ought to be sufficient at a profoundly theological level that we are simply sisters and brothers in Christ! That has to be the goal because we must not forget that whoever we are as created beings, it is only through our encounter with the stranger that our tendency toward self-absolutism can be broken. The encounter with the stranger at the Lord's table is the beginning of life, the possibility of justification before God, the stuff of redemption. There are two ways to encounter a stranger or someone who is radically different - Sartre claims we encounter the stranger when we come upon a look, a look that threatens us because the other might define us and take away our identity and freedom. Thus Sartre claimed that 'hell is other people'. On the other hand Levinas claims we encounter the stranger when we come upon a face - the face is the expression of the way another person is in the world - while the face of the stranger may shock us, it is the only true way of ourselves becoming fully human. Our salvation is wrapped up in the face of the stranger. We do not discover ourselves and our salvation by looking deeper into ourselves but in encountering the face of the stranger. The other's call or appeal is the beginning of life - it is this call which gives me the opportunity to be free and just, instead of allowing myself to be self-absorbed in terms of institutional form and policy.
When I first read the Gospel for this morning what struck me were the unambiguous themes of preparedness, reassurance, humility, sacrifice, self-emptying, servitude, hospitality, compassionate leadership. When I examined the first part of the text I realised it comes at the end of an admonition by Jesus to the disciples to stop worrying themselves needlessly about clothes, life, money, food and so on. 'Do not be afraid for it is your Father's pleasure to give you the kingdom; sell what you have and give the profit to the poor, make a metaphorical purse for yourself into which you might place the unbounded "riches" which inevitably accrue from acts of kindness, generosity, unselfish love, hospitality, friendship, compassion and tenderness because no-one can steal these things from you and ravenous vermin have no appetite for these things - these incalculable riches are without doubt simply things of the heart'.
Luke demonstrates unerringly the symbolic function of possessions in human existence. It is only out of deep fear that the acquisitive instinct in us grows monstrous. Why is it that regardless of our cultural backgrounds our lives seem so frail and contingent that we imagine we need many possessions in order to be secure? It is only when the fear is removed by the reminder and the acceptance that life is a gracious gift from God that we can begin to exemplify the spiritual freedom symbolised by the free and generous 'giving away' of possessions.
Then the Gospel turns quite sharply to the second piece which cautions us to be alert, vigilant, ready to serve, ready to act. The shift to a more eschatological framework reminds us of the nature of living in expectation - the fulfillment of God's promise will happen but the timing remains uncertain. I love the image of the servants or slaves waiting 'so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks'. Regardless of the hour here are these lowly people ready to serve and then appears the boss and instead of exploiting the workers, this boss, this leader, this master, sets about serving them: 'he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them' - a stunning example of authority being expressed as service to others - beautiful theology - transcendent theology - not dependent upon tikanga nor class, nor clerical status, nor sexual preference. This is the kind of servanthood theology which ought to permeate any self-respecting theological educational institution because it is this sort of theological wisdom and praxis which can assure the St Matthews of this city and of our church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, of the continuation of a group of future church leaders in whom we can all have the greatest confidence.
I believe the time has come for us to name that - if it is in fact a shared vision. If quality future church leadership is what we want then our theological college must be empowered to take its rightful place. I have no wish to minimise the task ahead of us all in attempting to ensure justice prevails for all and not just for some. I realise also that within each of our institutions there exists unresolved tensions, hurts and anger - occasions like this are life-giving opportunities and I thank so very, very sincerely for providing me this precious moment to share just a little of the St John's situation with you. I remain hope-filled as I encounter some very dear friends among you.
I feel very much as Alice Walker does as she concludes her wonderful new book entitled The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart. In this powerful semi-autobiographical novel, Walker deals with the pervasive sadness she feels over the loss of a relationship she once knew with the man to whom she was once married and with whom she shared children.’ I certainly feel this. I also feel, as though someone I know has said, that there are losses that mature us. We are no longer young, Stranger who was the husband of my youth. It is as elders that we are left behind by the young who are everywhere dying ahead of us, whether from starvation, war, suicide
We are not the only ones not speaking to each other. Across this land elders are not speaking to each other, though most will find we have a lot to say, after we've cried in each other's arms. We are a frightened and at times a broken hearted nation, some of us wanting desperately to run back to the illusory 'safety' of skin color, money or the 1950s. We've never seen weather like the weather there is today. We've never seen violence like the violence we've seen today. We've never seen greed nor evil like the greed and evil we see today. We've never seen tomatoes either, like the ones being created today.
There is much from which to recoil. And yet, Stranger perhaps who I am never to know, the past doesn't exist. It cannot be sanctuary. Skin colour has always been a tricky solace, more so now the ozone has changed. After nature is destroyed, money will remain inedible. We have reached a place of deepest emptiness and sorrow … we see that everything that is truly needed by the world is too large for individuals to give … we find we have only ourselves … our experiences …. our dreams … our simple art … our memories of better ways … our knowledge that the world cannot be healed in the abstract … the healing begins where the wound was made.
Now it seems to me we might begin to understand something of the meaning of earnest speaking and fearless listening … in the sure knowledge that our people, lovers who falter and sometimes fail, are nevertheless, all good. Amen.
Set Free From Literalism for Life: The Bible and Child Abuse
July 1, 2001
Ordinary Sunday 13 Matthew 10:34-42
Today I want to do the good evangelical thing, and give a three-point sermon, or reflection. My three points will be 1. That literalism is absurd 2. That literalism is convenient and 3. That literalism is tragically dangerous. Overall I want to suggest that literalism runs counter to the style and content of Jesus life, which was a triumph of freedom, reform and contextualised teachings.
Literalism is absurd. There is a radio personality in Canada whose name is Dr Laura Schlessinger. She made some recent comments that the clear teaching of the Bible is that homosexuality is a sin, leading her to be censured by Canadian anti hate laws. A lecturer in religion at the University of Sydney posted an open letter on the Internet to Dr Laura. The letter exposes the absurdity of literalism. Here is an extract……
Dear Dr Laura
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's law. I have learnt so much from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do however need some advice from you, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.
a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Lev 1;9). The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21;7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15;19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.
d) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev 11;10) it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
e) Lev 21;20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20 or is there some wiggle room here?
f) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19;27. How should they die?
g) I know from Lev 11;6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
h) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19;19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/ polyester). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24;10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev 20;14)
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help me. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.
Your devoted disciple and adoring fan
Literalism is absurd!
I had a religious nut in the church during the week; in fact I had several. It must have been the full moon. One of the first questions a young guy asked me was 'Did I read the Bible literally?' He asked whether this was the church that accepts gay and lesbian people? When I said yes, he told me that the NT expressly forbids this and that I was going to hell because of it, and all the gay and lesbian people were going to hell as well. Lest we think it is only the non-mainstream churches which read the Bible literally, think again. A leader in the Anglican church in Sydney was heard by a friend of mine recently saying that no candidate for ordination who supported the ordination of woman would be accepted, as it was clearly against the teaching of the Bible. In fact it was more serious an issue than whether the candidate believed in the resurrection of Jesus. It would seem that literalism is a moveable feast of absurdity. Literalism is not only absurd; it is used as a tool of convenience to justify just about any ideology.
Yet most significantly of all, literalism is tragically dangerous. Take for example our Genesis reading for this morning. (Genesis 22:1-14) Literalistic interpretations of this text would suggest that nothing is more important than obedience to God's law; not even our children's lives. It would most likely go further and suggest suffering is in some way connected to redemption, so justifying any manner of evil and abuse in the interest of salvation. The son would become collateral damage in the interests of the purification of the Father. Of course if literalists are honest they will admit that their ideology involves a dualism of men on the one hand and women, children, animals and the environment on the other hand. The one group serving the needs of the other. Literalism is a political position to take on the text. It is an ideology.
A literal interpretation of this text offers particular offence to families who have suffered the tragedy of abuse either within the family or in the church or some other social group. Here was Abraham, the great patriarch of many nations, standing at a point of power, at the point of abuse. We can only wonder whether that darkness permeates the life of the church today in the discovery of power abuses amongst the church patriarchs. Such a reading of the text is unthinkable, as it leads to the view that God is an abusive God who demands abuse in the interests of salvation. The cross would be tainted in the same way by such literalism.
I prefer a symbolic understanding of the event which may or may not have actually occurred in the way it has been reported. Abraham stood at the point of decision. He stood over the ultimate symbol of his own immortality; his only son, Isaac. It wasn't as much about the sacrifice of his son, as it was about the giving up of his own need for permanence. Freed from that need, Abraham would be free to live life now and live fully without the need for a place in history. In the process the son Isaac might be freed from the need to fulfil his father's immortality and simply live his life as it unfolded.
This of course is a symbolic attempt of mine to reconcile the text to our Gospel passage which speaks again about the value in caring for the little ones. It fits for me with the liberation message of Jesus, as well as with my experience of being a father. The gospel message of care for children, freedom from legalism, liberation from darkness make a literalistic interpretation of Abraham and Isaac dangerously tragic. Families' experience of abuse make a literalistic interpretation of Abraham and Isaac unthinkable. This God would have to be abandoned as cruel and manipulative.
Literalism is absurd, convenient, legalistic, dangerous and tragic in its consequences. The gospel is liberating, life giving, common sense affirming, always open to change and context. It's a message which moves you forward rather than holding you in the past. It opens up possibilities rather than locking you into rules and systems. You choose which makes sense for you. You choose which offers the most to life. Today in Catholic churches an apology will be offered to all victims of abuse at the hands of church leaders. It could well be done in Anglican churches as well, and in most denominations. We can only wonder at the role of the ideology of literalism in such devastation.
The church too will choose; choose to follow literalism or the gospel.
Last night I lay in bed looking up at the stars, pondering the wonder of creation, the intricacy of each of these tiny lights in the sky, examining my small place in this cosmic marvel, and then the thought struck me - where the heck is the ceiling?
When I reflect on the reaction of the disciples to the event we call Ascension, it seems to me that they would have had mixed feelings: political victory … miracle of miracles … just as he said … but also Where the heck is he going? and What the heck are we going to do now?
We so often picture Heaven as a place in the clouds or beyond the clouds, or at least somewhere high, which is very strange when you think about it. Yet it's no wonder when we have stories such as this in the Bible. I want to explore this passage with you now, and I want to replace the vision of up, up and away for miracles with the notion of inside and outside experiences. The thought I am working with is this - Each moment happens twice - once on the outside and once on the inside'. Is it just possible that rather than looking beyond our comprehension for signs of spirit, that the connection will be made as we connect the outside and the inside worlds? Let me put it another way.
If the Ascension is about the coming together of two spheres, with Jesus symbolising the connection between high Heaven and low earth … is it just possible that the journey of Faith is the growing awareness of ourselves to the point where our inside vision becomes more and more in tune with our outside reactions?
Let me first take a step back. Where the heck is the ceiling? What is going on in this episode? There is enough inconsistency between the Gospel accounts of what we call 'ascension' to at least cast doubt on the literal occurrence of Jesus' ascension. This strange episode may need some other explanations. But I'll leave that question to the liberal scholars. It doesn't interest me. Far more intriguing and far more fruitful is the question - what was going on for those first disciples? What profound experience and insight did they gain to lead them to articulate their faith as being somehow like their leader rising right before their eyes and lifting their heads to the clouds in wonder. It seems to me that they had one of those collective moments of such power, an inside and an outside connection, that telling this story was the only way they could express the depth of their delight.
Of course the disciples had minds full of ascension. It was hardly a new concept. After all, in the Hebrew Scriptures the stories of Enoch and Elijah would have immediately brought to mind ascension moments of mystical visions. And Greek legend had Hercules deified through ascension and Zeus lifting Ganymede to heavenly immortality. And don't forget that these same disciples had seen Jesus talking with the ancient Elijah high up a mountain. And remember that these disciples had already seen Jesus, the dead man, walking in their midst. So, that they would articulate their wonder as ascension is little surprise.
What can we take, in this day and age, from such an unlikely story? It's about connections. It's about what Ignatius of Loyola would call the 'via positiva'. Rather than trying to encounter God by leaving behind our senses, our imaginations, and our intellect, instead we seek an awareness of God through the everyday objects in creation and the ordinary events in history. Sensory prayer brings understanding of God, using imagination in reading the Gospel stories to enter into a relationship with Jesus and his family and friends. These are the things of a connected spirituality. Working towards finding grace in our own lives, and recognising the power of this grace. Connection of life and attitude, right and wrong, private and public issues, contemplation and action. Involvement in political action and basic compassion and kindness become matters which are not worldly, or profane, but deeply spiritual matters. In fact the distinction between spirit and flesh begins to evaporate. And there you have the connection. The outside and the inside. The growing integration of the two. The finding of God inside and out, expressing grace inside and out.
Let me be as blunt as I can be. God is in all things, and found through all things. That is a basic fact of creation. God is rarely found in the miraculous, the Ascension-style experiences. Yet God is often found in ordinary matters which offer such profound insight that our only means of expression is in image and emotion beyond comprehension; Ascension-style stories. As it was for the disciples, so it will be for us.
Ignatian spirituality urges journeyers to live each moment as an act of grace. The thought I offer today: each moment happens twice - once on the outside and once on the inside. Live each one. Subject and object, instinct and reaction, vision and practicality, surrender and control, high and low, myth and fact, fate and chance, insight and confusion, future and memory, being and becoming, contemplation and action.
With this open and honest living will come confidence, tempered by humility, to make difficult decisions. Sometimes they will be counter-cultural choices, often creatively proactive. Bringing together the outside and the inside.
I finish with a poem / prayer from Michael Leunig:
We search and we search and yet find no meaning. The search for a meaning leads to despair. And when we are broken the heart finds its moment To fly and to feel and to work as it will Through the darkness and mystery and wild contradiction. For this is its freedom, its need and its calling; This is its magic, its strength and its knowing. To heal and make meaning while we walk or lie dreaming; To give birth to love within our surrender; To mother our faith, our spirit and yearning.
Trinity in Terms of Idea, Expression And Recognition
May 13, 2001
Easter 5 John 13:31-35
There is an old Yiddish Proverb that states, "If triangles had a God, he'd have three sides".
Once a year in the church we tie ourselves up in knots trying to get our heads around the three sides of God on Trinity Sunday. Being rostered to preach on Trinity Sunday is akin to drawing a preacher's short straw. In fact I had carefully put myself down for Pentecost this year and our student Helen down for Trinity; which was a fate I suffered as a theological student. Alas Helen had to do a swap. Too many assignments this week. Yeah right! I tried the same one when I was a student but my vicar was not so kind.
So what do we do with the three sides of God? The three persons of the Godhead, the three natures of God, the multiple personality God, or however it is you see it? My interest is in moving past pointless questions of natures of God and Jesus and who really died on the cross, and instead ask the question - what can the notion of Trinity mean for our lives today? How can it inspire us to greatness and seek the collective good of the world we live in?
Dorothy Sayers, who is not usually on my most mentioned list, offers this year my 'big idea' for Trinity. She equates God in 'the Mind of the Maker' with a creative artist. God's work is seen best in creation, where there are three stages- idea, expression and recognition. God the creator is the idea, or Essence of all reality. We learn about God from all of creation, yet it is only in Jesus that we have the perfect expression of the idea or essence of God. The Spirit of God, coming to fruition at Pentecost, abides inside human creatures offering them recognition of the Idea. Idea, expression and recognition.
I will come back and follow through these three stages with a concrete example. But first to the end; to recognition; for only there will we have reason to reflect in the idea and equate our experience with the expression. The best example I have heard of recognition was Playwright Arthur Miller. He would never relax about a play until he sat in an audience and looked in people's eyes. It was when he looked into the eyes of a viewer and saw their eyes connect with a character, lighting up as if to say- 'My God, that's me!' that he saw recognition and knew that he had succeeded.
Maybe you know what I mean by recognition; maybe you have seen in a character or even more profoundly in a neighbour something which has sparked for you- 'My God, that 's me!' or 'My God, that could be me! Or, "That was me," or "if only that could be me!" That in a nutshell could be called 'empathy'. It is not just empathy, but is also inspiration. Let me take an example and work backwards from recognition to the idea of God.
Some of you sat in this church and were transformed by the experience of hearing Nelson Mandela speak from this very pulpit. Like some of you I have only seen photos and listened to a tape of his speech. To sit in this church and hear words from that man must have been a moment of recognition for so many people. A man who had suffered so much for justice and freedom was standing here as large and as human and as free as a person could be. And if you heard Nelson Mandela speak of justice and freedom, as I know he did, would you not recognise the justice and freedom of God; the source and essence of justice and freedom. Would you not reflect on the Christlike nature of the man- living out values which Jesus suffered for. Did you not reflect on Jesus being courageously himself for the sake of freedom and justice? Jesus living perfectly the essence of freedom and justice. Maybe even privately you wondered if Nelson Mandela had attained the perfect expression of this divine essence.
God is the ongoing source and creator of love and goodness and hope. Jesus embodied those ideas. We now see glimpses in ourselves, in our neighbours and in our world. We have moments of recognition that drive us back to the Idea. And the real challenge - to be bold enough to acknowledge the Idea when you recognise it in yourself? To be humble enough to affirm the Idea when you recognise it in your neighbour, even in a neighbour disliked or looked down on.
I have spoken to you before about seeing this on the streets of Sydney and Auckland. Recently I have been visiting several refuges on the streets of Auckland and the surprising message I continually hear from the refuge workers is that they have found untold kindness in the street community. Now, like me, they also have been stabbed in the back by the street community. There is no sense in glorifying it. Yet I have been stabbed in the back many more times in the church than I have on the street.
Pentecost reminds us that the recognition comes in surprising places and in astounding ways. Love and goodness and respect; self determination and empowerment and justice and freedom. These are the qualities of recognition which drive us back to the Idea and perfect expression of these divine qualities.
The call this Trinity Sunday- to be bold enough to recognise the Idea of God in our midst.
The last word to Nelson- an extract from his inaugural speech
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ' Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?' Actually, who are you Not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; its in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear Our presence automatically liberates others."
Having arrived at a city parish in Auckland I have not been surprised to see 14 year olds on the street and many urban social patterns being played out. Those who work with young people say that the numbers on the street are growing in Auckland at present and that some practices, such as glue sniffing, are on the rise. The current debate over 'Prostitution reform' needs alongside other things to address the situation of minors in our city.
As a priest in the city I know some 'street kids', some of whom would prostitute themselves as a part of life, but only as one part of their intricate lives. They wouldn't work the street every day or even every week. Rather it is a random act of necessity, much the same way that glue sniffing or heroine use, broken families and despair are aspects of these young lives.
There is always an assortment of city dwellers lined up at the communion rail; life experience written into lines on hands which reach up for the bread and wine of hope. One particular girl took my attention. She could have been 14 or 24. She had track marks down her arm and a quiver in her outstretched hands. These hands reached out to me again but this time on the street begging for change. She works the street in what might be described as 'survival sex'.
'Survival sex' needs to be distinguished from 'commercial sex' which is a chosen occupation of consenting adults. A feature of 'survival sex' is that it is not necessarily money which changes hands; drugs, companionship and favours could be other styles of payment.
There are a number of social and political issues effecting young people on the streets. The Prostitution Law Reform Bill is currently under discussion and explores the decriminalisation of prostitution. The effect of the Bill will be to clarify who the criminal is, as well as standardising the different arms of the sex industry. For example escort agencies and massage parlours will be forced to work within industry guidelines for safety and health, where currently they may not.
Most child prostitution however takes place on the streets. The significant point effecting minors is that the penalty for the adult offender, or paedophile, is a major deterrent. The Bill, if passed, should help in the battle to keep our young people safer on the streets.
Harm minimisation is an important concept. It involves the notion that young people will continue to end up on the street, and that the dangers need to be minimised. It is not as much a moral issue as it is one of seeking practical answers to profound problems.
The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) has run a pilot program for minors involved in 'survival sex' for the past four years. The focus is gaining access to health services for young people who would not normally seek this support. The philosophical model is partnership and harm minimisation, and the focus is safe sex, information on sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol treatment, dealing with abusive relationships and self esteem.
The great advantage in the Pilot is that it is run separately from other statutory organisations. Because these young people have lives which are enmeshed in illegal activity, they are hugely suspicious of organisations which at the least have reputations as being abusive and hard line. This is a non judgmental program which assumes prostitution amongst minors and seeks to minimise the damage done. The challenge is to place minors and prostitution within a broad social context. In some cases the experience of loneliness, violence and outright abandonment within dysfunctional families means that there is some kind of support found on the street.
In other cases it is the boredom of life in the suburbs which means that there is a romantic buzz surrounding life on the street which, even for a short time, can seem attractive to a young person. Then again many therapists agree that most people under 16 who are involved in child prostitution have been sexually abused to end up in that position. Problems associated with street life would include sexually transmitted diseases, poor self-esteem, corrupted views of sexuality and body image and a transactional attitude towards sexual acts. Education is part of the solution to these problems.
Most youth workers would agree that the window of opportunity for reclaiming the lives of young people on the street is within the first month, before the street life is entrenched. Police would only be involved if there has been a complaint laid and they have few options other than home available to them. Home could in some cases be the site of many of the problems leading to life on the street.
Children, Young Persons and their Families (CYPFS) likewise have limited funding and avenues for positive action. The recent budget saw increased funding for CYPFS, yet the strange situation that the income threshold for receiving assistance has remained unchanged since 1988 at $27000. For some reason family assistance, unlike national Superannuation, is not inflation indexed. If it was the figure this year would be $70 per child per week, and not $47 as it is.
Young people living on the streets and engaging in 'survival sex' is a social tragedy. It is an end point of major dislocation and damage in the family and in individuals. The solutions must be found within the broad concerns of eliminating poverty and teaching young people life skills and self worth. Our legislation and government policies must send out the loudest possible message that young people matter most to society, that poverty cycles are in place by the time young people become adults. It must be seen as a health issue, and harm minimisation as an essential companion to all the social solutions we can dream up.
Poverty and despair are inevitable in all societies, as is the occurrence of 'survival sex'. What is not acceptable is the sweeping under the carpet of a whole range of social causes which lead young people to poverty and despair. No less than a partnership of government, welfare and drop in centres, religious groups and families will stem the tide of young lives lost. The Prostitution Reform Bill will help as a harm minimisation tool. One life lost to abuse, poverty and despair is one life too many. Our utmost effort is demanded to keep striving for practical solutions.
Everybody's free to feel good. A little oversimplified, yet true. It could even be a summary of Jesus message. If I was to suggest to you that the Christian message is all about feeling good, you might suggest that I was a hedonist. Yet stop a moment and consider the question- What is it that feels good? It feels good to be authentic to who you are, to be yourself, true to the person God made you. Feeling good may be Jesus message, yet it is often not a summary of the mainstream church's message.
A new Anglican Archbishop of Sydney was recently elected. Among his opening press statements was the equation of homosexuality with alcoholism. He said, "Homosexuality is not very different to something like alcoholism. Someone may be genetically disposed towards alcoholism but that doesn't mean they should get drunk."
The only question is whether its his lack of compassion towards alcoholics or the out of date notion that homosexuality is a sickness which offers greater offence. It seems that the policy of his church is that everybody is not free and that if it feels good and right, its probably immoral.
Of course his is an extreme view on sexuality. A more moderate voice is Sy Rogers, who I would describe as being compassionately intolerant. Listen to this statement of Sy Rogers who has since 'going straight' made a career out of helping others 'go straight'.
"Homosexual orientation is one of many weaknesses affecting humanity. (Judgment) Those with this orientation are NOT excluded from God's love, nor are they less of a person in His sight. (compassionate) Those wanting to enter religious service should be allowed to do so, provided they are not homosexually active, and they control, not cultivate their homosexual orientation.(intolerant) It is clear from Scripture that all who claim allegiance to Christ are required to obey God's general sexual standard: No sex outside of the covenant of heterosexual marriage. Why? For protection of self and others, as sex has the power of life and death."
I have any number of arguments with these words. My biggest beef with Rogers however comes out in the next sentence…
"Additionally, those who follow the way of Christ have been purchased by God, and are not free to live in any manner they wish. They are to honour God and the creative / destructive power of sex by keeping themselves sexually pure."
If I might take a phrase out of context here, yet I believe retain its meaning, those who follow Christ he says
'Are not free to live………'
There could be no message less life affirming, and more enslaved to legalistic religion- which are the two points Jesus makes in today's gospel reading. Gospel truths- free to live, and also free to live outside other people's boundaries of faith and sexuality.
Jesus in the gospel passage for today encounters a woman who has been bent for 18 years. I'm sorry, but the punning potential was too tantalising for me. I couldn't help thinking of Sy Rogers going straight, as I read of the bent woman.
Here Jesus sets free a woman who has been suffering physically and chronically for many years. He heals her, and he does this with his presence and with his touch; in a world where a woman and particularly a bent woman was not worthy of the presence or the touch of a male religious leader. After all she was most likely bent because of her sin, her shame and her demon possession. Jesus sets her free from physical torment, but so much more as well.
He called her forward the text says. Remember that they are in a synagogue. Coming forward was a bold act of walking to the centre of the holy space and standing amidst the religious elite. This woman was restored to community, to religious acceptance, to social status and above all to her own sense of dignity. And all of this on the Sabbath.
In the face of this wonderful moment, the religious elite could only grumble that their religious expectations were offended. The bent woman may now be straight, but this is all wrong.
What a beautiful story. A woman is restored to life; freed from physical pain; and she is restored to being her true self- and to hell with other people's expectations.
Come back then to Sy Rogers and hear the wonderful news of Jesus our healer. In his presence and with the touch of his grace, we are set free to live. Physically healed? Maybe for some of us. Others will continue to live with both chronic and sudden painful torment. All of us set free to be the people God has made us to be, even in the face of other's expectations.
Healed from sexuality? There's nothing to be healed from. Free to stand in the centre of the holy space and in the midst of the religious elite and to celebrate boldly who you are. That's the gospel message.
I have one final point. As a community of Christ, we are the face of Jesus to each other and the touch of grace for each other. So the exciting news is that we can set each other free, as we ourselves are freed.
I finish with the words of Nelson Mandela:
"As we let our own light shine
we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear
Our presence automatically liberates others."
Everybody is free! Free to live, free to be, free to feel good, free to celebrate the person God has made you to be.
We celebrate God as creator of all life and love.
God is to us as a father, all justice and mercy.
God is to us as a mother, life force and sacrifice.
We exist by the power of God, we live in the image of God;
Potential for creative, honest and fulfilling engagement.
We treasure Jesus as our reconciler, God in our space, God feeling our pain.
Jesus offering peace in our relationships, meaning in our lives.
We live as followers of Jesus, the face and touch of Jesus for others.
We hope in the Spirit as God's presence for us;
Within us, assurance and guidance.
Among us, community strengthened by diversity.
Around us, a life of service.
We live in time as lovers of life,
We live beyond time, with hope for life eternal.
Ian Lawton, anticipating being Vicar of St Matthew's