Monday, 16 July 2018

On what biblical basis can we justify the decision to marry same gender people?

The Uniting Church in Australia recently decided at its recent National Assembly meeting that Ministers could marry same gender couples. As ordained ministers in this church, my husband John and I have received a number of requests for the biblical basis of this decision.

To answer this, we have prepared what follows. We hope that it helps.

For people within the Uniting Church, the Basis of Union provides a foundation for careful and prayerful thinking about scripture. The Basis affirms that the witness of scripture is to be understood through the work undertaken by scholarly interpreters, by insights that have arisen in scientific and medical investigation, by understandings that have developed in society, as we better understand how human beings operate and how they function. All of these are important matters to consider when we think about human sexuality.

We need to think about the witness of scripture, and in particular, those sections of scripture which explicitly address the matter of sexual relationships between people, in the light of this way of approaching the biblical texts.

It is possible to summarise the key points of critical scholarship and the understanding of what is, and what is not, explicitly referred to in these passages.

The first thing to note is that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek languages, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. Many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.

A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written.

“Homosexuality” is a modern, enlightenment concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts. They did not write anything which related to the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender.

The oft-quoted verse about same-gender sex in Leviticus (18:22) is not about same gender relationships, but about cultural shaming practices, using power to create inequality in relationship. That verse provides a critique of the practice in which a stronger male seeks to subordinate and demean a weaker male, through sexual activity. That activity is what is declared to be an “abomination”. This abusive and shaming action is not what we are talking about in discussing same gender marriage—which is a committed, loving, longterm relationship between two equal people.

The same applies to the story of Sodom (told in Genesis 19). The prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the spirit (Ezekiel 16:49-50) declares that this is not about sexual sin, but about the sin of not providing hospitality. Another story, of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19), makes it clear that hostile men did use this breach of hospitality protocols as a weapon against other men, seeking to shame the strangers in this way. This, again, is not about a same-gender relationship where equality and mutuality are paramount.

God made a good creation, and encouraged human beings to enter into positive relationships with each other within that good creation (Genesis 1–2). Our human expression of sexuality is one way of expressing the goodness of that creation. We ought not to exclude people who are attracted to people of the same gender from this understanding.

References to sexual sins in Paul’s letters (Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6) sit alongside a range of other sins, which are equally condemned, and equally challenging to our discipleship. Why single this one out? Paul related all of these sins to idolatry, which, for him, was the fundamental sin. A loving same-gender relationship is not idolatrous, but rather it can strengthen a sense of the value of human life which God desires for us.

Jesus does not discuss sexuality very often, not in much detail at all, and this area rates as of only tiny significance for him, alongside the greatest focus which Jesus had—on wealth and poverty, and the importance of serving those on the edge, those who are in need.

From this very brief survey of key passages, we are able to affirm that the most important conclusion to draw from the scholarly explorations of relevant biblical texts, is this: what God wants from human beings, is a commitment to loving, respectful relationships, a commitment to longterm, hopefully lifelong, relationships, and that the specific genders of people in relationships is a less important matter.

In the Church, we affirm that God is faithful—that those who diligently seek to know the will of God, will be upheld and loved by God. God is not disturbed by differences of opinion; God made a diverse creation, and God honours our search for truth within that creation.

In Jesus, we see the key attributes of God, lived out in a human life: self-sacrifice, humility, and love. These are the controlling lenses through which we should read the biblical texts, and develop our understanding of sexuality and marriage. A heterosexual relationship, at its best, will exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first.

So, the various passages which describe marriage as taking place between a male and a female, provide the basis for a claim that heterosexual assumptions were normative for those who wrote the biblical texts. That makes sense, in their own time and context.

However, the insights of medical, psychological, and social explorations points to the fact that a homosexual relationship between two people of the same gender, can itself exhibit the best of human qualities, and demonstrate the finest moral values in human relationship.

It is thus possible to conclude that a same-gender relationship, at its best, can certainly exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first. And since this is what is at the heart of a heterosexual marriage, it can also be at the heart of a same-gender relationship.

Throughout the New Testament, we can see places where NT writers offer radical reinterpretations of the norms of their cultural and religious practices. The accounts of the ministry of Jesus tell us of Jesus’ affirmation of women, his willingness to break religious law by healing on the Sabbath, and his redefining of aspects of Jewish law in the light of his message of the coming kingdom.

The accounts of the early Church include instances where redefinition and breakthrough took place: most strikingly, in Acts 10. This chapter tells the story of Peter, who was a faithful adherent to a long-established pattern of eating in a the manner that was set forth in the laws of Leviticus. He was told that what he did not eat—because it was “unclean”—he was now free to eat—because God had declared such food “clean”. This opened the way, in the early church, to a new way of inclusive table fellowship where Jews and Gentiles are welcome to eat and share together.

Who is to say that the spirit, which once moved in this way, is now not able to move in a similar way, and to declare what some consider “unclean” to be “clean”—and that we can rejoice in this!

In the letter to the Ephesians, a standard Hellenistic pattern (“the household table”) is used, but significantly adapted, to instruct husbands and wives. Ephesians 5, while appearing on the surface to reinforce patriarchal norms of wives submitting to husbands, actually instructs husbands to love their wives with self-sacrificing love (“as Christ gave himself for the Church”) and encompasses all marriage relationships under the heading, “submit yourselves to one another”. This was a radical reinterpretation of the marriage relationship itself, even within the first few decades of the life of the church.

The biblical account shows that the spirit comes to faithful people, offers a vision of a new way, and opens hearts and minds to a greater vision which broadens the impact of the good news and reinvigorates missional activity.

That is what the Uniting Church has sought to do in the present moment.

Let us rejoice in this moment!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Holding up the mirror: why Western countries need to take a long, hard look at themselves in regard to terrorism

Today I have a guest blogger, Mary Elizabeth Fisher. Mary is a theologian, biblical scholar, deep thinker, and promoter of peace and reconciliation among all people. Mary lives in the city of Sydney, and has worked hard to make relationships there with her Muslim neighbours. Mary is greatly appreciated and loved by her community.

Mary has been very concerned about the direction our world seems to be heading in. This blog is the result of some days of thoughtful reflection.

The lack of historical perspective in the world today worries me greatly.
And I am not talking about the Crusades and Islamic Invasions prior to European and Corporate colonial history.
Let me preface this by saying I have no support for or excuse of Terrorist activity.

What I am concerned about is:

1. we look at the ideology and history of Islamic communities

2. we also need to look at Western colonial history over the last 600 years including Corporations colonial history

3. As we look at that history we also need to recognise that the supposed freedom of the colonised Muslim world from the control/influence of Western powers including the USA goes hand in hand with the Western training of military powers within Muslim nations - some of which have used that training for vile purposes.

It also has included the sale of military weapons from the West to Muslim countries that have then used that training to suppress their own people and neighbors.

While the West gained jobs and wealth (as with the sale of 110 billion dollars of armaments to Saudi Arabia by President Trump) internal dissidents and neighbouring countries have been traumatised by such sales.

Make no mistake our hunger for oil and our wealth from arms industry has made us partners in some of the worst oppression in the world.
As we selectively critique those at any level who participate in the horrific drugs trade (including addicts, doctors who prescribe addicting drugs, pharmaceutical companies who provide drugs, the alcohol industry, the cigarette manufacturers, drug runners, drug suppliers of legal and illegal drugs, etcetera, etcetera.) let us not forget the millions who die each year from arms industries that supply Western nations and Russia with wealth through industry creating jobs.

As we in the West celebrate our freedom, relative stability and wealth let us realise how much we benefit through the poverty and pain of others. Manufacturing in the majority world provides us with extremely cheap goods while workers live in poverty and work horrific hours.
Over the last 600 years Western colonial history is a history of glory and acute degradation. It continues today with Corporate colonialism.
And it goes hand in hand with our hunger for oil.

As I look at our Western freedom, stability and wealth, I also consider our critique of corruption in other countries, our disdain for their lack of human rights, the suppression of women across the globe, our polluting of our planet, our militarisation of the world and I confess I believe our greatest problem is hypocrisy.

We have no idea how our comfort and militarisation and training of the world has enabled violent oppression of domestic peoples and neighbouring countries in the areas of the Muslim world.

Look at a map of the Muslim world and name the nations and you will see very few if any nations where the shadow of Western enabling has not facilitated totalitarianism, oppression, and violence. It may come from inhumane ideology of fundamentalist Islam but we have help grow it.

Why am I writing about this?

Because I am weary of how we accuse to exclude.

There is no innocent nation. Let the nation without sin "throw the first stone".

The Gospel of the Kingdom calls us to rejoice that we know the Creator is enacting New Creation through the entire narrative of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit.

But the Gospel also enables us to acknowledge the radical brokenness of our world, a brokenness in which we all participate.
And that causes me to lament.

As we recognise the destructiveness of terrorism let us understand and acknowledge we have much that benefits us at the cost of others.
And so I seek to make the Gospel known and say:

Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.
And Creator of the world during this season of fasting in the Islamic world may your compassion and mercy particularly be manifest to the world of Islam.

Mary Elizabeth Fisher, 10 June 2017

Friday, 3 April 2015

Finding light in the darkness: the paradox of Good Friday

As a minister in the Uniting Church of Australia (UCA), one of my tasks is to create liturgies and sermonic reflections for Sunday worship. In the UCA, there is a great deal of room for creative services and creative ways of telling the narrative that constitutes the Christian story, especially at Easter, one of the high Christian festivals in the liturgical calendar.

I have often wondered how much liturgy really does ‘transform the people of God’. Creating a liturgy theoretically should reflect the transcendent creator, and the whole thing should be a spiritual and an inspired experience, reflecting the original Greek word where inspired meant to literally breathe in God.
Liturgy also allows for the possibility of creating a space in which we ‘lose ourselves’ and where we might imagine, through prayer, what other people’s lives are like and walk for a time in their shoes. Such imagining hopefully gives us empathy for the problems which face the world, and allows us to become collectively empowered by our experience to find sympathy and compassion for them, and by ‘seeing’ the world in a different light, be prompted to act upon this individually and collectively.

Creating a liturgy for Good Friday is always a challenge. Exploring how the story of Jesus’ suffering and death relates to people in a contemporary world, and how it might help us to make sense of our suffering in a world that is deeply flawed and broken in so many ways is not easy. Transforming the people of God through such a story looks near impossible.

This year it was much more challenging. Less than two weeks ago I experienced first hand the brokenness of this world through the suicide of a cousin who was also a good friend. For me, it was totally unexpected. I offered to take her funeral service, and found myself among a family equally bewildered by her action, and the notion that for some of us, life too easily falls into despondency and collapses into a despair that is beyond the reach of even the people that loved us the most.

Violent death by one’s own hand carries with it many stigmas and unresolved issues. Denial, anger, guilt and unanswered ‘what ifs’ haunt the minds of those left behind. Hope and healing can seem a long way away.
All of us know that the story of Good Friday is too good to be true in that it resolves on Easter Sunday with a happy and rather miraculous ending. Hope and healing are just two days away.

So while the miraculous might cause congregations to go ‘phew’ and vault over the darkness that is Good Friday, I found myself instead wanting to stay in the darkness for a while, aware of the hurt and the sadness that sat within but had been suppressed over the last week.

Too often religion is used to dodge these so called ‘dark emotions’, by focussing on praise, thanksgiving or restitution. The story of Jesus’ final days is an important narrative that can allow people to become mindful of their own emotions and the effect on their bodies, and to experience them rather than avoid them.”One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of Light, but by making darkness conscious” Carl Jung once wrote.

As I sit here with my story of grief and despair, listening to the evening news where there are many such stories in our broken world of grief, despair and fear, I nonetheless attempt to find a defiant hope, and of connecting with an apparently austere and absent God through the story of Jesus’ violent death.

At the moment, Good Friday seems to me to be more about ‘endarkenment’ rather than ‘enlightenment’. It is about pondering the deep paradoxes of Christianity, and remembering that our lives are not neatly divisible into two halves, where pain is bad and pleasure good, brokenness is failure and wholeness is good, and light is desirable in our lives and dark is sinful. If we are committed to fullness of life, then we must embrace both halves of the equation. And through this we can find healing.

Today was about entering the symbolic darkness that is Good Friday and learning to sit with the brokenness and pain that sits at the heart of the Good Friday story.

Today was about simultaneously facing the terrors of the cosmos whilst defiantly claiming God is a God of personal love. Today was about exploring the paradox of suffering not by deciding that God is indifferent to our fate, but by proclaiming that the same God willingly suffers that fate. In one of the great paradoxes of Christianity, God’s presence and divine consolation is found in the cross, and it is this that sustains a living faith. The story has indeed become redemptive.

I ended today’s liturgy with a poem, The Coming by RS Thomas, as it seemed to express something of the truth I was grasping for.The Coming has a strange effect on me: when I read it, it creates a moment where I just ‘know’ its meaning, something viscerally reacts in me and in a flash of understanding, I get what it is about, but generally fail to articulate in words. It is a sensory rather than a definitive thing, where the possibility that the cross shows us how an absent God that is longed for but seemingly absent can in fact be known to us through his identification with our suffering. It also makes the death of Jesus somehow his own choice, rather than an enforced destiny by a vengeful God needing a blood sacrifice to forgive humanity’s sin.

The poem also invites us to hold out our thin arms to the starkness of the bare tree, and it articulates the son’s simple but profound declaration of empathy with humanity. “Let me go there”, says Jesus, a request that somehow identifies with the question of Simon Peter in John 6:68, who in his humanity and his lostness says: “Where else could we go, Lord?”

The Coming

And God held in his hand a small globe.
Look, he said.The son looked.
Far off, as through water, he saw
a scorched land of fierce colour.
The light burned there;
crusted buildings cast their shadows;
a bright serpent, a river, uncoiled itself,
radiant with slime.
On a bare hill, a bare tree saddened the sky.
Many people held out their thin arms
to it, as though waiting
for a vanished spring to return to its crossed boughs.
The son watched them.
Let me go there, he said.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Righting the right - or is that the left?

When did a fact become an opinion and an opinion become a fact? In the last few weeks during engagement with social media, I found opinions masquerading as facts quite frequently. Further, the owners of these factual opinions were often dogmatic, ignorant and uninterested in any real fact that might spoil the fantasy they had constructed around them.

One most recent example I encountered was on Twitter, where a not so nice bloke tried to convince a number of us – including a scientist who studied the changes in the Great Barrier Reef – that there was nothing wrong with the Reef and that we all were deluded in regard to the danger it was in. Apart from thoughtfully informing us that everything we said was bullshit, he posted a ‘paper’ for us to read which he claimed vindicated his point. Anonymous, with no data given and no methodology, let alone any references to studies of the Reef, this paper stridently claimed the ocean was becoming alkaline. The Reef scientists and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s reports were dissed as ‘that is the opinion of one group’. Dismissing us all as deluded lefties, and telling us there was no room for any more ‘warmists’ in Cairns, he only vanished when outnumbered by tweeters concerned with the future of the Reef. I was left pondering why someone could so vehemently argue against a scientist that had studied the Reef for decades and had seen the changes in it firsthand.

And God forbid any female express an opinion or cite a fact on Twitter when a right wing troll is lurking. Only today an Aboriginal woman stated that she had experienced racism in Queensland and Western Australia. She was immediately informed that was impossible. She replied that her lived experience was her own, and he had no right to dismiss it. She was immediately challenged to prove she had ever been in Western Australia, and called a liar and other names I will not repeat here. For someone to deny racism does not exist at all in two of our states must be wishful thinking. To attack an Aboriginal woman who had experienced such racism by denying that her experience was impossible is bizarre. Just what is going on here?

On this last, the final example I offer is a Facebook interaction where a man insisted that Scott Morrison was ‘more knowledgeable’ about asylum seekers than anyone else therefore should never be questioned. I asked how ‘knowledgeable’ equated to ‘always correct’, and suggested that how one used one’s knowledge was just as important. His response – which he made to three women on the thread who expressed a lack of confidence in Minister Morrison - was the same: “I am not going to bother engaging with any lefties on this issue or any issue for that matter”. He was happy to engage with my male spouse, though. Men apparently cannot be ‘lefties’.

Just before Rob Oakeshott (the former Federal Member for the electorate of Lyne) left the political arena to write his book, I interviewed him for an assignment. He made some interesting observations about this type of behaviour.

In Oakeshott’s opinion, Rudd and Abbott became the ‘merchants of doubt’ and turned what should have been genuine debates on issues into a values war. Words that clearly resonated with the ‘frame’ of the more conservative voter, such as ’trust’, ‘truth’, ‘honesty’, were used against the female Prime Minister. For example, statements such as ‘She can’t control the parliament’; ‘She doesn’t have the numbers’; ‘She can’t be trusted’, were assiduously circulated. These statements effectively denied the existence of parliament to make decisions and regulate its own decisions and behaviour, and shifted the blame to Julia Gillard.

His next observation was the unrelenting criticism and negativity from the then Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, whose own vested interest was to destabilise the government and force an election. When he stood in front of signs saying ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ he effectively legitimised an extreme right wing fringe and gave them a voice into the mainstream of politics and media. Was this coincidence or coordinated? Oakeshott believes this was a deliberate strategy to set a certain tone. It signalled it was acceptable to use insulting language and question a woman’s capability in derogatory terms. Oakeshott also pointed to Abbott’s statement that the Government was ‘dying of shame’, a repetition of the ugly expression Alan Jones (an opinionated shock jock) had previously used of Gillard’s father. Oakeshott believes the evidence trail suggested it was a coordinated strategy to set a particular tone that unlocked a lot of ugliness with no better reason than Tony Abbott’s personal gain.

Eighteen months down the track, this ‘lunatic fringe’ appears not only to be far more vocal, but also far more illogical. No longer are ‘facts’ and ‘values’ separate things, but have become inseparable and intertwined. ‘Facts’ are often seen through a lens that is much more about the ‘values’ that people adhere to generally. Issues such as refugees, the environment, Islam and climate change have become rusted onto discrete political positions rather than being debated on their merits. It would seem that Rob Oakeshott was right about a tone being set by political leaders which legitimised anyone with an opinion to claim it as a fact, and which delineated certain issues as having only two positions that were not only designated as either ‘left’ and ‘right’, but also decreed that ‘left’ and ‘right’ would be sworn enemies deaf to the other’s opinion.

In an era when even journalists neglect to check facts before writing a story, how is this disregard for science, information and truth to be dealt with?

Social science has been saying for some time that people will mostly act more on their beliefs, even if presented with a set of irrefutable and provable facts.

And when the leaders that you should be able to trust lie and deceive for their own personal or political purposes, is it any wonder that many find it easier to simply ignore objective facts if they go against their own personal belief system? Or if those facts are not endorsed by someone you trust?

It would seem that facts don't matter that much anymore. But your politics does. Rob Oakeshott’s comments suggest that political allegiance can affect what people believe. When an ALP minority government held power in Australia then conservatives saw it and the female PM as incompetent, chaotic and bad for the economy. Now a conservative government is in power, more progressive ALP and Green types see it and the male PM as incompetent, chaotic and bad for the economy.

I will go out on a limb here and say that the facts about the current party suggest that not only its economic competence is somewhat lacking, but it is generally in disarray. But as a feminist and social scientist, I would say this, wouldn’t I?

Politics really has ruined things for so much — including the truth.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Between a rock and a hard place: exploring Exodus 33

This week's Rural Reverend blog is brought to you courtesy of the male half of the rural reverend duo.

It is said that the eyes are a window to the soul. If you look a person in the eyes, and look carefully into their eyes, you will see deeply into their soul.

Look into the eyes of the young, newly-engaged couple, and you will see them sparkling, dancing with the excitement of unchartered waters and the promise of fulfilment yet to come.

Look into the eyes of the parent with a growing family and increasing work responsibilities, with a mortgage to meet and with hopes drifting away, and you will see weariness, anxiety about the present, perhaps even fear about the future.

Look into the eyes of the grieving partner, mourning the loss of the one who had been the soulmate, the lifelong partner, and you will see the satisfaction of a shared life, overlaid with the grief of the separation, tinged with a yearning for just a little more time together.

Look into the eyes of the calm, contented elder, eyes surrounded by wrinkles that chart the years of experience, eyes that exude a wisdom crafted through the decades and the perception shaped by a lifetime of experiences.

For the eyes are a window to the soul. If you look a person in the eyes, and look carefully into their eyes, you will see deeply into their soul.

In the ancient world, there was a flip-side to this belief, expressed through the notion of the “evil eye”. The evil eye, it was believed, was the capacity to cause misfortune, or even inflict harm, simply by looking at another person. It was not everyone who possessed this ability; rather, it was something that magicians, holy men and women, were able to exercise.

In some Mediterranean cultures, where the vast majority of eyes were dark in colour, those people who had green eyes, or blue eyes (like me), were regarded as the possessors of the “evil eye” capacity.
In this custom, the mere act of looking, through the eye, was believed able to convey some force, some power, which would affect the person who was being observed.

So the power of the eye is embedded into our human consciousness. The eyes can convey a force for the worse. Or the eyes can open a window into the soul. If you look a person in the eyes, and look carefully into their eyes, you will see deeply into their soul.

It is no wonder, then, that we learn that Moses, honed by the experiences of the years, has made this request of God. “Show me your glory”, he says – a very Hebraic way of asking, “let us go face-to-face ... let me look you in the face ... let me see into your eyes.”

And why not, we might think? Did not Moses have every right to request this most direct, most honest, way of relating to God?

For central to the religion of the people of Israel, was the recollection that it was Moses who was the one who had climbed to the top of the mountain, where God had entrusted him with the Law, to guide the lives of the people of Israel. The tablets of stone, on which God had written the ten great words, were God’s gift, mediated through the prophet Moses, to guide and shape the life of the people.

And it was also Moses, as the story goes, who was the supreme general of his people. Over generations, the story had been told and retold about Moses, about how he had led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt, escaping the pursuing army, and leading his people through the wilderness as they moved towards the promised land.

And as time went on, the story of Moses had been expanded and developed even further, to include the miraculous origins of the baby Moses– in the manner of all ancient stories, the birth of this child was a moment of divine intervention into the pattern of human affairs, as the basket containing the baby who would grow up as Moses, was miraculously hidden, discovered, and treasured.

So it is clear, throughout the book of Exodus, that Moses was no ordinary person; as leader, general, prophet, and miracle-baby, he has every right to front up to God, and place his request. “Show me your glory”, he says to the Lord God.

And this request, in chapter 33 of the book of Exodus, comes after all of these earlier events have been recounted. The request from Moses stands at the climactic moment, as the pinnacle of the life experience of Moses.

Now, at the end of his lengthy and profound encounter with God on the top of the mountain, Moses has returned to his people. He has found them engaged in the sinful act of worship an idol which they had made. He has called them to account, and they have repented, removed the offending ornaments, destroyed the idol, and returned to honour and worship the Lord.

Now they are able to venture forth, into the land that has been held out to them. Now they will enter the promised land.

So Moses stands before the Lord, advocating for his repentant and contrite people, pleading with God to forgive them and to equip them for their future. And he asks God to give him the assurance that God will support and sustain the people; that God will forgive the people and go with the people.

And as he asks, he pleads with God to give him the deep-down assurance of God’s ongoing presence. Because he wants this to work – and he needs to know that God will ensure it is going to work. “Show me your glory”, says Moses, to the Lord God. “Don’t muck around with me”, we might paraphrase it. “Be fair dinkum; tell it to me like it is.”

When Moses asks God to “show his glory”, to look him fair-and-square in the eyes, Moses asks what so many human beings desire: to look into the window that takes us into the very heart of God. Despite his superior qualities, Moses stands and speaks on our behalf – asking to look into the eyes of God, yearning to see into the depths of the very soul of God.

Is not this what we would all desire? To know God, to really know God, to be confident that we have access, direct and unmediated, into the very being of God? Here, in this ancient story, Moses functions as a spokesperson on our behalf, making the very request of God that we, each one of us, would dearly love to have come true.

“Show me your glory” ... “help me to really know you, my God”.

So the reply that God offers to Moses comes as something of a surprise: “I will make all my goodness pass before you ... I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy ... but you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

This most heartfelt, and understandable, request, from Moses, is dismissed by God; the nature of God is such that it is just not possible for a human being to look directly, face-to-face, into the eyes of God.
We should note that this response from God is quite curious, because of what is said earlier in this chapter. The verses in question recounts what took place when Moses goes into “the tent of meeting”, pitched outside the camp. This was the place, when he was meeting with God, where Moses received the guidance and support that he needed, in order to be an effective leader of the people. In that tent, he met with God, and he spoke with God.

And in those same verses, we also read the clear declaration, that while they were together in the tent of the meeting, “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend”! How curious, that in the tent, Moses looks without any hindrance, directly into the face of God; and yet, outside of the tent, Moses has to hide his face from God, for as God declares, “no one shall see me and live.”
And the divine voice goes on, we are told, to offer these instructions: “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

It seems that God is looking for a way to make it happen, despite all that he has said about not being able to look directly at him and live. So God offers Moses a plan. Yet it is going to require commitment, determination, and patience, from Moses.

“I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by”, says God. What do we make of these words? God is seeking to find a way for Moses to encounter him, after all.
These words point to a simple truth, that is, at the same time, both discomforting, and yet quite comforting. The discomfort, of course, is powerfully conveyed in the imagery of the words: Moses is placed in the cleft of the rocks; or, we might say, Moses is between a rock and a hard place. It is there, that he will have some form of encounter with God.

But that, of course, is a most uncomfortable place to be; that is the place where our familiar comforts, the things that we most often appreciate and enjoy, are not to be found. Perhaps that is a powerful image for the walk of Christian discipleship, that all too often is the experience of faithful human beings.
In the cleft of the rock, between the rock and the hard place, is where faithful, trusting followers of Jesus, will often find themselves – taking a risk, stepping out in faith, trying something new and different. That is what faith calls us to undertake.

In the cleft of the rock, between the rock and the hard place, is where discomfort reigns supreme, where we are always on edge. It is where we find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances, where we are called to undertake unsettling and disturbing actions, where we encounter people who are troubled or distressed, where our Christian discipleship is put to the test in many and varied ways.

When do we find ourselves in such situations? You may recall that I spoke, some weeks ago, of the three congregations that meet most weeks in the Wauchope Uniting Church building. I think it would be fair to say that the Sunday morning worship congregation is not, in the normal run of things, the place where we people of faith find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances, pressed by discomfort or distress. After all, this is where we come because of the familiarity and comfort, of the place, the people, and the experience of worship.

Perhaps more often, the possibility could present itself, in the Friday lunchtime community meals congregation, for an encounter which makes us feel uncertain, uncomfortable, out of our familiar surroundings, immersed in a different and unsettling world? The people who come to this weekly meal can be people who present us with challenges; the possibility of discomfort, for us, is real in this gathering.
Certainly, I know that for myself, and perhaps for others who attend the Friday night youth club congregation, there are occasions each week, when I have the feeling of being “in the cleft of the rock”, between a rock and a hard place, uncomfortable and unsettled. Yet, it is very clear that such a situation is precisely where I am called, and others are called to be, as we seek to share the grace and mercy of God with others.

The unfamiliar and the uncomfortable are situations that we may not encounter each and every day; but if we risk our faith to follow the way of Jesus, it is certain that on a regular basis, we will encounter this very unease, this discomfort, this disturbance. Any one of us could find ourselves in such a situation on any day of the week. Indeed, if we follow our call to faithful living, we should expect to find ourselves in such situations!

So the story contains sharp edges of discomfort. Yet the imagery that is used also conveys a sense of comfort from the story: it is, quite literally, in the very hardships and struggles of life that the grace and mercy of God is best known to us.

Indeed, the end result of the story is an assurance that, right in the very midst of faithful, committed discipleship, the very qualities of God that we most desire to know, are with us. Right at those very times when what we are doing seems so difficult, when what we are yearning for seems so unattainable, God is with us. We are called to seek out such uncomfortable places, precisely because of the faith we hold.

And when we find ourselves in the cleft of the rock, between a rock and a hard place, we will not be looking directly into the eyes of God, staring into the very soul of God. And yet, as we stand between a rock and a hard place, we will have the assurance of God’s presence, and the knowledge of God’s goodness, to sustain us in our walk of faith.

And that is surely a powerful, and comforting, message for us to take from this story that we have heard today.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Transforming the heart: stardust in thin and wild places

Around 15 September I wrote about an epiphanic experience involving the land of my ancestors. For me, the experience of becoming deeply rooted to land and family was unexpected and transformational. It surely involved something of soul or spirit, as nothing tangible was discernible, and certainly not to any observer. So for me, part of this journey was to try and connect this experience with my own faith tradition and spirituality.

The bible, the sacred text of the Christian tradition, is full of stories and laws about special feast days, holy people and sacred places. These sacred places almost invariably happen outside of ordered society, in what the Hebrew language calls ‘in between’ places – that is, places in between civilisation (towns). It is in such wild places that the divine is encountered most often. These places are also ‘in between’ places as they allow the earthly to glimpse the heavenly. Like Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10ff), such places mediate between the divine and the mundane. And no character in the biblical stories ever emerged from such encounters unchanged. Often, the change was formally recognised by a change of name; for example, “Jacob” became “Israel’ after encountering the divine in one of these sacred places.

It is interesting that most of the encounters with the divine are in wild, untamed places, when the bible itself is very keen on ordering chaos and structuring it. God forms the world from its chaotic elements into a world of order and symmetry. As well as Genesis, this fact is mentioned many times in psalms. It is clear that order is good, chaos is bad.

Yet transformation always happens in the biblical story through moments of chaos. When the floods ravage the earth in the story of Noah, it is because the waters of chaos are unleashed by God. In the story of Job, God appears in a whirlwind to disrupt Job’s ordered view of the universe, informing Job that his black and white view of a just universe is wrong; in fact it is a universe of moral ambiguity and random elements. Even the day of judgement itself is structured around chaos involving earthquakes, wars, famines and heavenly portents. It is a dangerous thing to encounter the living God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

The Celtic mystics talked of such wild places as ‘thin places’, a place where the veil between heaven and earth was momentarily lifted and the divine glimpsed. Such glimpses were always transformative for the subject.

In a blog entitled of life, laughter and liturgy, a contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge is quoted with this description:

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

It is a fascinating concept, and has gained some currency in mainstream scholarship. The New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, writes about "thin places". He describes them as "anywhere our hearts are opened." Thin places can be actual places, or an activity, such as worship or meditation.

Sometimes one just walks into a thin place. They can’t always be planned.

Part of the transformative experience for me in this encounter was its unexpectedness. Firstly, the place chose me. Secondly, part of the experience was a mystic one – an experience that was profoundly sacred and revelatory, a transcendent moment that connected me with not only place and family, but with the divine. It was chaotic, not ordered. There in the wild place of the northern Pennines, the veil between heaven and earth unexpectedly and inexplicably lifted and my heart was opened. Lastly, I realised that I was part of a vast array of humanity, an extended family all connected to the earth and each other.

Our communities, whether they be city, suburban or rural, need ‘thin places’, places where spiritual connectedness with earth and community can be felt.
Such places hold a future promise of blessing for the whole of humanity.

By providing us with a conduit to the divine, such places connect us with the breath or spirit of God, the ruach, the divine spark of life that permeates all life.

Many of the psalms speak of this. The most famous is Psalm 104, where in verse 30 the psalmist writes of all creatures:

When you give them your breath, life is created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

The idea that we all contain a spark of the breath or spirit of God is very appealing to me. In Genesis 2:7, God places ‘the breath of life’ into the man.

During the story of the flood in Genesis (see 7:21-22, 7:15 and 7:22, for example), the narrative describes all the creatures of the earth as also having ‘the breath of life’, and in each of these examples the breath is equated with having life itself, and that it comes directly from God. The word ruach in Hebrew means both breath and spirit, and is not just about being alive, but having a spark of the divine within. Elihu, in the book of Job, responds to Job’s challenges to God by informing him that “the Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty has given me life” (Job 33:4 NRSV).

In Isaiah 42:5, The Lord God is described as the one who “gives breath to the people upon [the earth], and spirit to those that walk on it.”

Perhaps it is this divine and creative power, the breath of God, which is the spark that we share in common with all life on our beautiful and complex planet. After all, scientists who study the origins of our universe speak of all life as having atoms of stardust from the time of the Big Bang present in their physical being.

Our physical and spiritual reality is that we all belong to an intricate web of life, and that the well being of humanity is dependent on understanding and appreciating our place in that web of life. By appreciating that all life contains that spark of the divine should more deeply connect us as part of, not apart from, the natural world.

Our relationship with the earth and our natural environment needs to be understood, and nurtured, and felt by us all. For it is only when we recognise that we are in such a web of life, that hope for humanity and the living plants and creatures of the earth will blossom and bear fruit.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Navigating the neighborhood – an exercise in natural humility

One of the challenges in my current course in Ecopsychology is to examine and develope what I see as the connection between me and the rest of the world. Do I see myself as part of nature? And how does that relationship work and can it be developed?

In many ways I like to think that I understand that I am part of nature, that I interconnect with other living things, and have a relationship with them. I know I cannot exist outside of an ecosystem that produces food and clean water through all its intricate relationships. With the evidence I have available, I try to consider the impact of my decisions on other humans, animals, fish, plants, ecosystems and even some micro organisms (gotta love compost) before eating and buying things. In some ways I would call it mindfulness, as I try and be mindful of how my actions impact other people and creatures. I did think this, until I tried an exercise in one of the texts I am using.

I one of my last blogs, I talked of Brian Swimme’s book on cosmology. Brian, apparently, is having none of this guff about really living as a part of nature, as he made the seemingly simple suggestion that I ask a friend to come to my place from another place around 20 miles away. I was to give directions on how to get here. There was a catch, though. I could not use any object that was constructed by human beings. My directions had to use only the natural topography.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even give directions from a few kilometres away. I realised my knowledge of natural formations, other than whopping great mountains, exposed bluffs on the cliff sides or overly large and unusually shaped trees, was painfully absent. I didn’t even know where to begin. This made me understand that I actually have very little knowledge at all when it comes to my natural surroundings. Heavens, most of us can’t even use human-made topography now, relying on Google maps and satellite navigation to get us from point A to B.

This sort of exercise really does mess with my head. I think all of us who have the will can use various meditative techniques or connection with place to feel “tuned in” to our natural environment and to feel a connection with other living things. But how much a part of nature am I, and how aware am I really of the natural environment if I can’t even describe what it consists of outside of the confines of my backyard?
Humanity has irrevocably changed the landscape in urban and even in many rural areas. I now doubt that there are even any truly wild, pristine areas left on our planet. This exercise forced me to confront the fact that I am completely dependent on a myriad of human-made things to go about my daily life, and it is doubtful if I could exist without them. I can’t ‘read’ the landscape around me, and I certainly can’t describe it well enough to get someone from point A to B. I felt like an alien in an artificially constructed world. When he read the challenge, my husband also reported feeling completely inadequate, expressing the opinion that in urban areas we have basically obliterated the natural phenomena.

Of course I am part of the great web of life that is the living system we refer to as planet Earth. Everything is. But I am really feeling just how estranged I am from the great natural cycles and interactions of life on earth. No matter how carefully and mindfully I think I might be living as an aware Western person, the truth is my life is sustained by incremental destruction of living things and living systems, and by entrenched in justice to the poor.

I am very good at feeling terribly guilty about things I have done or haven’t done. This is has also made me guilty and despairing all at once. By an accident of time and geography, I have been born into an epoch that is seeing humanity change the climate of the planet and causing large scale environmental destruction in order that civilised, mainly Western people can have a lifestyle that is comfortable, and distanced off from nature as much as possible. And most of us do not even know that is what we are doing.
Ecopsychology proposes that our health, our identity, and even our sanity, is intimately linked to the health of the planet. A number of its proponents actively suggest that this must include sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships between humans and the rest of the living world. It seeks to encourage a new understanding of the human-nature relationship. It believes if we can resolve the guilt, renew the links between us and other life in mindful ways, it will lead to us living in more sustainable ways.

I am just not sure what I think of this right now after failing to even describe where I live. I feel more helpless in many ways, despite trying to make a difference in the way I live. While it may be true that healing ourselves and adopting practices to get us back in touch with our natural sides will lead to better treatment of the environment, the chances of entire populations adopting such practices seems remote right now.

So where to from here?

One of my textbooks takes on this challenge head-on. Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone talk of Active Hope in their book of the same name. Active Hope is presented as one way of addressing over-consumerism of our lifestyles and the environmental problems facing the planet. They believe that by building on our strengths, interests and skills, we can generate “our finest response to the multifaceted crisis of sustainability” (2012, p.4) and develop a spiritual connectedness with all life. They believe that we all have the capacity to emerge as Shambhala warriors, harbingers of an emerging kingdom of the mind where people of courage will enter the halls of power to dismantle the destructive weapons used to lay waste to the world. The two things that characterise these warriors are their compassion, and their insight into the interdependence of all things.

Perhaps that is what we are seeing with the various sit-ins and protests that have been generated by the common people or the 99%. Perhaps as the consequences of climate change become devastating enough that even sceptics can’t ignore them, the tide will turn.

Throughout history, powerful vested interests have been successfully challenged by people of courage and compassion, such as William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King and Ghandi. Is it still possible to dare to believe in a vision where we radically change our lifestyles, stop burning coal, develop renewable energy and really begin to nurture and cherish our Earth?

If we want to survive as a species, and preserve much of the life that supports us, we do need to challenge the business as usual model of governments and corporations and economists. We do need to be more mindful of what we are doing, and of our privileged lifestyles that require so many resources to support them. As well as living more simply, perhaps we also need to start some simple conversations around the issues of climate change, environmental degradation, and the threat we are posing to ourselves by eradicating species and habitat. It occurs to me that my own mind is just as likely to hold me back as political parties or the power of coal barons are. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I suspect he is right. The barriers to action in my mind are as great as those that guard the people in power in our corporations and parliaments.

If I was freed from fear and doubt, what difference would it make? Johnstone and Macy suggest we start with our own personal contexts and lifestyle, then move to the context of those around us, then to our societies and culture, and finally, the context of our connectedness with all life.

I may not be able to navigate via natural phenomena, but I can do something about my own lifestyle. And that is the challenge I am grappling with at the moment.