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WALKING IN SACRED GROUND

By Ian Robinson

Travellers often report a spiritual experience in the desert. As one friend said about her visit to Uluru, ‘I am the least religious person I know, but something definitely spiritual happened to me at Uluru, and no one can tell me different.’[1] One journalist concluded, after attending a birthday party in a desert night, ‘I’ve been here before and felt the magnetic pull of the landscape… But I still haven’t fathomed how a place so empty can feel so complete?’[2] These secular spiritual people made their profoundly positive statements somewhat in personal self-defence. The sacred in their life was a kind stranger. If we had in our culture a better dialogue about spirituality of place, their reluctant spiritual experiences could have been better understood, they could have coped with its intrusion, and then they might have seen a path forward to grow spiritually.

This dialogue is already under way in a number of ways:

a. A widespread interest in ‘Sense of Place’, including a caring attitude to the place where one feels one belongs.

b. Christian Theology of Nature/Creation have made a number of new beginnings in recent decades.

c. The popularity of Pilgrimage is rising in many traditional places.

This article will explore each of these and identify some elements which can guide the exploration of the spirit of the Australian deserts.

Sense of Place

John Cameron’s social ecology project[3] cited eleven reasons why it remains hard for European Australians and others to have a sense of place on the Australian continent. His aim was to foster a sense of place with sufficient depth that it motivated a sustainable environmental ethic and engaged with people about the continent we share. These reasons were:

· the remoteness of the colonies and the farms from each other

· the long journey from the UK

· the conflict between convicts and settlers

· the strange new flora and fauna

· the rapid decimation of the indigenous people (so that the landscape was changing as the immigrants watched)

· a poor understanding of the indigenous culture, technologies and country

· the battle to establish agriculture

· immigrants bring the memory of their homes with them

· globalisation threatens the distinctiveness of particular places

· the internet disembodies communities and communications

· the current population and economic shift from rural to urban effaces the natural[4]

Against those eleven influences Cameron noted four factors which are bringing the study of ‘sense of place’ or ‘spirit of place’ to the fore:

· Art has undergone a renaissance in Aboriginal communities. This bridge of understanding has raised the desire of some Europeans to be reconciled with a defeated first nation, though all attempts fall short in different ways.

· Environmental concerns have increased in the general populace raising the desire to re-consider how to live sustainably in it. These concerns are strengthened by the changing weather from global warming which questions the viability of our current lifestyle.

· With Judith Wright and Les Murray in the 1940’s and 1950’s, a lyrical sense of landscape emerged in Australian poetry alongside a new post-war appreciation of painting landscape. Cameron echoes Haynes (above) in this.

· Post-structuralism as a post-modern philosophical trend seeks to rediscover raw experience upon which to base non-institutional constructions. The key twentieth century concepts of Feminism and Self-determination are generating new theologies of place, gender and race.[5]

All of these points are in agreement with the picture that has emerged from the work of Haynes (1998), Brown (1991) and Tacey (1995). In colloquia held over several years, Cameron gathered academics and cross-cultural practitioners to reflect on their sense of place. They gathered together authentic responses to places in Australia, useful both for their breadth of viewpoint and the sensibility of their experience. They brought personal stories as well as perspectives that were cultural, psychological, spiritual and literary.

All contributors were seeking a way out from the use of land as an object for wealth-creation which is a pattern of exploitive practice and personal alienation. ‘Reconnecting and reanimating the world has great healing potential’, Cameron said, ‘while the denial of a deep connection with land produced alienation and loss in both the land and the people’.[6]

The ways of ‘healing’ and ‘alienation’ were explored by Sr Veronica Brady (2003). Appropriating Helen Cixous’ two ‘economies of perception’, Brady showed that attitudes to place can move in two different directions.[7] On the one hand ‘the economy of the proper’ is concerned with property, appropriation, and propriety. This objectifies land as an ‘it’ which is economically ripe for exploitation. Within this perceptional economy, poets are subjects in search of an object to write about, artists hold up a brush at arm’s length to get the perspective right, which Victoria King calls ‘agnosis’ – a Western condition of ‘being able to look but not see’.[8] Critics from within this economy call lyricism the ‘pathetic fallacy’, where inanimate objects are metaphorically attributed the feelings or thoughts of the human author. The land has no meanings except what people bestow for themselves – by legal possession, psychological projection or cultural subjugation.

On the other hand the ‘economy of gift’ is characterised by gratitude, acceptance, holding without the desire to subdue or possess, and ‘loving attention’. Land-sympathy in this view is not a ‘fallacy’ – land does actually speak to an imaginal sense, which is beyond the bodily senses.[9]

Brady’s point in this comparison was that people could change attitudes by moving in the direction either of the economy of the gift or in the direction of the proper. The two attitudes could co-exist, she adds, but Australian history has been almost all dominated by ‘the proper’.

A number of authors on ‘sense of place’ broadly concur on the change process. John Cameron called the change of direction towards ‘gift’ a ‘deepening into place’. It involves ‘a willingness to let go of mental and visual preconceptions and dream into a mutual relationship with country in the manner of the poet and the artist.’ By its inward response it is distinct from a moral commitment to an abstract principle like ‘sustainability’.[10] The environmental scientist Peter Cock (2003) echoed this view, concerned that motivation can not be sustained when involved in the environmental movement without a personal eco-bonding.[11] Susan Murphy, a writer and film director, called this movement of attitude ‘opening into place’.[12] Psychologist David Russeldrew from Martin Buber’s classic text on modernity to claim that instead of an I-it relationship, people need to move to an I-thou relationship with the land.[13] An example of this is from a novel by David Malouf, An Imaginary Life:

I must drive out my old self and let the universe in. The creatures will come creeping back… then we shall begin to take back into ourselves the lakes, the rivers, the oceans of the earth, its plains….then the spirit of things will migrate back into us. We shall be whole.[14]

Furthermore, this dynamic of ‘drive out/let in’ was the precondition ‘for a mutually respectful dialogue with people about what it means to inhabit this continent in the new millennium’.[15]

The contributors to Changing Places moved away from technical and literal views received from the empiricist and imperial tradition, and focussed upon the change of human consciousness through the importance of imaginal perception as well as perception through the bodily senses.

It is possible to summarise the process of change in three different stages:

a. From the structures of culture and memory which had already been received, they spoke of story-sharing with those whose experience of place is different from their own.

b. Secondly, they allowed the awareness of the richness of wonder and gift arising from those stories.

c. Thirdly they accepted the spirituality of this wonder, in whatever way they imagined ‘spirit’. There was no agreement on this third step and their levels of discourse vary. We will return to this issue when considering Cavan Brown’s contribution, but these three stages form the backbone of the attempt to synthesise the processes of transformation in Chapter 5.

In Christian circles, both the American Walter Brueggemann (1977) and the Australian Geoff Lilburne (1989) set out to elucidate the meaning of the land in biblical terms. Brueggemann’s theology of land was extensive, and concluded that the land (Hebrew eretz or adamah) is ‘a central if not the central theme of biblical faith’, which has often been overlooked in biblical theologies which are more interested in an inward spirituality or an ethnic narrative.[16] In this observation he joined several others who have observed a lack of interest at this level during the period of the European Enlightenment. He does, however, see the land in dialectical terms with the ongoing significance of the ‘dispossessed’, which will be discussed later where Jesus takes the standpoint of the ‘landless’.[17]

More particularly, Lilburne focussed on the meaning of land as a ‘place’, with a particular history, as distinct from a ‘space’, a calculable piece of geography.[18] This storied particularity is at odds with the genericised way in which Bible translators render the Hebrew words for desert localities (to which we shall return in chapter six). Lilburne’s most creative contribution is the intellectual centring upon the ‘Christification’ of place (though that term itself may not be a great contribution), that is, the alignment of the Incarnation of Christ with the meaning of embodied and grounded life. This is a call for a new epistemology and takes its place alongside many others who call for the same radical intellectual change. His purpose in writing also included the care of the environment and indigenous land rights. Sally McFague ( 1993) went further to call Creation ‘the Body of God’. Hamma (1999) provided practical ideas for reflection on how this sense of place can be uncovered for oneself.[19]

Writers on ‘sense of place’ have provided a rich phenomenological vein of insight which removes ‘land’ from narrow empirical categories of physical possession, visual art or ecology. The theological world is similarly diverse with new approaches to Nature, a recovery of the doctrine of Creation.

Natural Theology

Whereas ‘sense of place’ is a new concept to many, theologies of Creation are not. The church has always had much to say about attitudes to Nature, including many arguments about scientific developments that are either initially or actually inimical to that theology. The arguments are witness to the ambiguity of life. Even the songs of worship in the Bible, the Psalms, contain both bitter laments over the vicissitudes of earthly living and outpoured thanksgivings to the God who sustains the earth. Between these two phenomena, natural theologies are constructed.

In an early modern environment, William Wordsworth spoke for many in finding an easy metaphor in nature for the God of his faith. He was not naïve about the constructive role of the perceiver, but believed that God’s handiwork was fairly directly observed in people and nature, and that the God-held creation provided metaphors for faith. This excerpt is an example of Wordsworth’s natural theology:

Retrospect – Love Of Nature Leading To Love Of Man [20]

…Call ye these appearances –
Which I beheld of shepherds in my youth,
This sanctity of Nature given to man –
A shadow, a delusion, ye who pore
On the dead letter, miss the spirit of things…

In the generation that followed this poem, however, the theory of evolution began its ascent as the widely held explanation for the prima facie design of each creature of the earth. Parallel with this science, astronomy explained and distanced the heavens, and naïve natural theologies lost their appeal. In addition to the change of scientific view, there is also now a much stronger critique of the act of perception, of what persons read into their experiences, and certainly what they read into a landscape.[21]

This issue has an intellectual version and a popular version.

Intellectual trends hover between critical realism and deconstructionism. One intellectual view came from the multi-layered historical landscapes of Britain: ‘Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.’[22] Simon Schama questioned whether anything comes out of the landscape that wasn’t put there by the observer. The valid aspect of this view can be seen in the changing traditions of landscape art – the human eye sees different things in the same place as cultural epochs turn and change. Therefore, it suggests that any sense of connection with or design by or metaphor for God is solely a human projection. Thus some people are extremely sceptical of their experiences to add shape and content to their spirituality. This breeds either anarchy or fundamentalism.

On the other hand, Veronica Brady was not as completely sceptical about human perception. She agreed that she was not inclined to place her trust fully either in personal experiences or in history. She has learned

…about the impurity of mere reason, the ways in which it is entangled in history and can become an aspect of power and, at the personal level, of self-interest. I now understand better the dangers of subjectivity in general and religious feeling in particular; the delusions, dishonesties and distortions they make possible. Yet for me it remains undeniable that existence is dialectical, that there is an interdependence between what we know and some larger reality…[23]

No Wordsworthian expositor of the analogy of Nature, Brady seeks ‘the articulation of silence’, but expects that silence to have shape. For her, a genuine spirituality of land is possible.

At the popular level, there is another reason for the revision of natural theology. It is not the debate in the media and schools over theories of Origin, held between advocates of Creationism, Intelligent Design and Evolution. The issue of a purpose in Creation is much more pressing. Since nuclear proliferation and widespread pollution driven by mass technologies, technological Reason has lost its popular supremacy. Therefore, just as some distrust experience, some are extremely distrustful of intellectual constructs that are received from somewhere else. This breeds either subjectivism, where people select with their not-so-honest hearts the most appealing ideas, or it breeds cynicism, which opposes any perceived dominant view.

There are people in between, searching responsibly for ways to reach valid and satisfying balances. For instance, Colin Gunton describes the theological task as one arising from a perilous contemporary gap between the ‘docetic’ tendency of orthodox Christology, where ‘domination by treatments of the divine Christ… has often failed to do justice to Chalcedon’s ‘of one substance with ourselves’’, and the ‘immanentist’ culture, which ‘cannot easily come to terms with apparently transcendentalist thinking.’[24]

The discussion so far has formed a matrix formed by dualities including Christ’s divinity and humanity, perception and reality, experience and reason, origin and purpose, agony and ecstasy, time and eternity. To address these issues, theologians in this generation have begun to develop six distinct fronts in the recovery of a Natural Theology:

1. A revived dialogue with science.

Science has been allowed to make positive contributions to religion. Gregg (2000) cites Jean Danielou (1961) that technology ‘frees religion and the supernatural from a whole cumbersome burden of the pseudo-supernatural and the pseudo-religious’.[25] Conversely, the study of Quantum Mechanics (sub-atomic events) has challenged western rationalism’s methodology. Since being humbled by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, some scientific disciplines have looked to theology and Taoism for interpretive models.[26]

2. Creation-spirituality.

Matthew Fox (1983) revived the reading of leaders from the pre-industrial Christian Europe like Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen. As he reconstructed spirituality in tune with Creation he demoted the doctrines of redemption and church in favour of indigenous spirituality and of humanity in general. This position became known as Creation Spirituality, and was a corrective to a perceived over-emphasis upon doctrines of Redemption. In Coming of the Cosmic Christ Fox called this ‘Christo-fascism’.[27] His programme over-compensated for modernity’s emphasis on knowable doctrine (kataphatic spirituality), in favour of an idealized view of indigenous spiritualities. Traditional Christianity has said that both creation and redemption are accomplished by the same personal Logos, so some better synthesis of this duality is possible. In Australia, Eugene Stocktontook a middle way, both in the theology of reconciliation (1990) and in his spirituality of the environment(1998). His way is ‘Wonder’: ‘Wonder is a way open, not only to followers of conventional religion, but also to the agnostic, the unbeliever, the searcher, the carer.’[28] This direction in Creation Spirituality is not about structured content but about the well trodden path of contemplation through the Wonder of creation.

3. Theology of aesthetics.

While Matthew Fox was right in naming the need of the church to re-capture creation spirituality, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (1905-1988) addressed the need through his systematic theology of Aesthetics and Dramatics. ‘For him, the true and the good had to be joined to the long neglected third member of the trio – beauty – for without it the first two could be ‘gravely damaged’’.[29] His aesthetics sought to redress the balance in history of a theology focused on truth (knowledge of God) or goodness (righteousness, holiness and justice). Despite the biblical emphasis on ‘Glory’, he said, ‘the aesthetic dimension of theology has been gradually purged from western theology.’[30] Downing (2003) also sought to re-establish the biblical importance of ‘beauty’ or aesthetics in ecotheology.

4. Eco-theological ethics

There is a fourth nature-quest which presses even more sharply upon humanity, which is addressed by Eco-theology. Moltmann’s groundbreaking theology (1985) – God in Creation – an ecological doctrine of Creation – brought environmental ecology on to the agenda of trinitarian theology. He tackled scientific and psychological issues. In Australia, Norman Habel (2002) took up a broad-based project in political ethics called ‘eco-theology’. His Earth Bible project seeks ‘to read the Bible from the perspective of the Earth’ using ‘a hermeneutic of suspicion and retrieval’.[31] This worthy task has many co-labourers, including a dedicated journal EcoTheology.

The major critique is that these principles are ideologically driven towards a single ethical outcome, and therefore manipulate scripture to that end.[32] This programme bypasses the depth and richness of a broader creation spirituality and diminishes its motivating power for environmental recovery at the very time that the secular Cameron (2003) and his contributors are seeking a renewal of that motivational level.

5. Everyday spirituality

Most people actually live their beliefs and values about the world in their everyday life, not necessarily in their academic thinking. Therefore, Natural Theology must interact with everyday theologies. In Australia, the Zadok Institute has published on this topic for thirty years.[33] The Macquarie Christian Studies Institute in Sydney Australia has implemented this vision in a tertiary training environment.[34] Ian Barns (1996 a and b) set out to reframe a biblical theology of creation in everyday life, which was not just about the ethics of public life: ‘A theology of everyday life does not involve simply legitimising people’s ‘responsible’ involvement in a capitalist society’.[35] Nor was it just a reflective activity, but a pro-active activity. Barns explored in scripture the levels of meaning beneath the pre-scientific cosmologies assumed there. In conclusion, he set forth a pattern of ‘Everyday Life with a Trinitarian God’ in three distinct dimensions – Worship, Sabbath and Community:

a. A life characterised by worship of celebration and thanksgiving for the eschatological renewal of creation

b. The reshaping of the political and economic life of the Christian community, to practise ‘Sabbath’. This includes giving a central role to reflection on one’s work practices, and conscious ‘dialogue’ with the surrounding culture rather than ignoring it or scapegoating it

c. Maintaining the tension of worldly engagement in the way the Christian community operates as paradigm, or as a sign of what the world is called to be.[36]

6. Contextual Theologies

Where the approach of Everyday Spirituality is aimed at persons and congregations, another approach arises from the slightly larger perspective of differing ethnic and cultural contexts. Barran (2007) reports a converging academic interest [37] on the significance of social location in biblical interpretation: ‘…widespread agreement on the contextual ‘locatedness’ of all biblical interpretation’.[38] In multicultural and cross-cultural societies, the quest for a new identity is simultaneously both subtle and compelling.

Out of this quest, new insights about Christ and his church emerge from the life of those persons and communities. Their agenda is not a systematic theology that sits in abstraction above the lived life, indeed such a quest has been abandoned in Contextual Theology. Clive Pearson said: ‘The Christologies and ecclesiologies that mingle with quests for identity are designed to stimulate the theological imagination and furnish part of the vision that will accompany the life of discipleship.’[39] There are some risks in this approach. It may become too pragmatic, or it may eulogise aspects of context that the gospel should be allowed to overturn. However the act of listening to other contextualized theologies creates the tension that enables a humble honest critique to continue, even without a single dominating view. Spencer describes the process:

Further, decolonisation requires a contrapuntal reading of shared histories to enable new and liberating discourses to emerge. Cultures are relativised in the process, guarding against the risk that a contextual theology can become captive to its cultural context and unable to offer critique. [40]

In this article my approach is be to prioritise Australian culture and settings, to be anchored in real place, but to remain in dialogue with international resources.

It is too soon to see what these six ventures in Natural Theology produce in the context of an ailing and diverse planet, but it is unlikely in this generation to be an overarching meta-narrative that claims to fit all contexts.

Desert spirituality places the theology of nature in a particularly strong light. Desert is so ‘useless’ . It is of little agricultural value and is devoid of the water-views that the housing market finds so appealing. Its Tourism potential depends on retaining its stark identity. Even if a company mines it for minerals, it is still desert when the mine is exhausted. In church life, the desert subverts the diocesan or parochial model, because very few live there.

A Natural Theology of the desert appreciates its stark beauty, its inhospitality and its fertile spirituality – sees it for what it is in itself and in any one place. When people do this they return home ready to appreciate other environments – the ‘sacred city’. The desert journey is a vital resource, therefore, within the task of environmental education, as well as within the spiritualities of the twenty-first century.

Pilgrimage

So far, many of the disciplines have focused on the sacredness of land and sense of place. This leads to another formative discipline – pilgrimage, a sacred journey to a sacred place. What is the transformation that this journey brings? We turn first to the anthropological dynamic of the concept of liminality, before analysing the structure of the journey. We close with how these apply to a journey across a desert.

In anthropology, Victor Turner (1967) observed how formative it was for a youth and his community to undergo a journey which was a ‘liminal’ experience. An individual departed to a wilderness area, endured some trial, and returned a different person, both culturally and spiritually. It held implications for how both they and their community adjust to the new roles and status (communitas). The expression was first observed in connection with initiation rites for Ndembu (African) youths, as well as the process by which the village resolved a crisis of authority. The ‘departure, endure and return’ rites were both a means of preserving essential values as well as a way of transcending what has been, an opportunity for creative exploration within the community.[41] These stages parallel the stages of pilgrimage.

‘Liminality’ is a term now used more widely for being on the ‘threshold of change’[42], and by extension, any life-changing or epoch-changing phase. One arctic adventurer described such a life-changing event ironically – ‘one man’s journey to the edge of the world and to the centre of his soul’.[43] Thus, it is not surprising that Turner turned to research on ritual and pilgrimage, and, later still, to a study of the meaning of performance.[44]

With the renewal of interest in pilgrim routes both in Europe and Asia, five studies of Pilgrimage in various religious traditions, [45] provide a structure of three broad stages which both receive and impart the meanings and values of the experience:

· Entering the journey, preparing oneself, facing the rigours of travel and the dangers both physical and emotional.

· Being on the journey, which may include performing rituals of arrival at a sacred place or simply the sense of journeying onwards until the mind switches over to the homeward journey.

· Returning home, which can be more dangerous than the outward journey. Arriving home may be the most difficult stage of all.

How does this apply to a desert journey? In a desert pilgrimage, the ‘sacred place’ of arrival may be a known locality such as Uluru in Central Australia[46] or Nungdrayo Ranges in the Gibson Desert,[47] or others.[48] More often the sacred site is the whole desert, gradually becoming known in its immensity in every day of travel and in its majesty in every sunset and night of stars.[49] Rituals of arrival, then, may be those of daily travel – lighting a campfire, praying together before mounting, or stopping to watch the sun set. The return journey needs support, as one first encounters the artifice of paved roads, then the cacophony of radio stations, the insistence of mobile phone signals, then the gradually increasing crush of traffic, the insult of advertising, and the imposition of large human constructions. ‘The red dust’, said Dr Howard Sercombe (of Edinburgh University who was at the time a youth-worker in the remote town of Laverton WA), ‘gets into the blood. Once you have been to the desert, you have that ‘dreaming’ look in your eyes.’[50]

Certain places almost always give this gift to the traveller, and these become sacred places. In ancient Celtic terms, the desert is a ‘thin place’:

In simple terms a ‘thin place’ is a place where the veil between this world and the Other world is thin; the Other world is more near… Whatever you perceive the Other world to be, a thin place is a place where connection to that world seems effortless, and ephemeral signs of its existence are almost palpable.[51]

The journey to and from these places is the pilgrimage. There may be no single site which attracts spiritual importance, but the tract of land in its entirety. The vast Australian desert is one of these.

PATRICK WHITE’S EPIPHANY

Patrick White is the only Australian to twin the Nobel Prize for literature. Until late in life he kept his experience of epiphany in the closet. He knew that talking about it was deviant from the social mainstream.

Awareness of God came to him in 1951 when he was nearly forty. He did not speak about it publicly until the publication of his self portrait Flaws in the Glass , thirty years later in 1981.

Epiphanies can be ordinary or they can be dramatic and visionary. White’s was ordinary. It occurred when he and his lifetime partner Manoly Lascaris were living on a farmlet at Castle Hill on Sydney’s outskirts. White explains what happened:

During what seemed like months of rain, I was carrying a tray load of food to a wormy litter of pups down at the kennel when I slipped and fell on my back, dog dishes shooting in all directions. I lay where I had fallen, half blinded by rain, under a pale sky, cursing through watery lips to a God in whom I did not believe. I began laughing, finally, at my own helplessness and hopelessness, in the mud and stench from my filthy old oilskin. It was the turning point. My disbelief appeared as farcical as my fall. At that moment I was truly humbled.

Prior to this slip-in-the-mud epiphany, White says he believed in nothing but his own egotism and ‘in my own brash godhead’. After it he and Manoly began attending worship each Sunday at Castle Hill Anglican church for a short while, and White came to view his novels as the artistic expression of the reality he experienced with his slip in the mud experience:

What I am increasingly intent on doing in my own books is to give professed unbelievers glimpses of their own unprofessed faith. I believe most people have religious faith, but are afraid that by admitting it they will forfeit their right to be considered intellectuals.

From Bruce Wilson REASONS OF THE HEART, p 3-4

Allen and Unwin and Albatross Books, 1998

Makes You Wonder Resources

Oh That Christmas Story

by Ian Robinson

Just hang on a minute! It is hardly the beginning of advent and already I’m dripping with lies.

Forget the context, just pile up the colourful myths – the unwelcome couple, the child born in abject poverty, the cold shepherds, kindly sheep, lowing cattle, all in the thatched little stable “out the back”.

Turn off the tap of waffle about the stable scene. Those ripping yarns for the unsuspecting visitors in overheated Christmas services are in serious need of re-imagining.

Probably most of it is not true.

Firstly, the bible story doesn’t say they were unwelcome, just that there was no room. You had to be there for the census if you wanted your patrimony to stay on record. Proof of identity and lineage was a big issue in the first century, just read Matthew 1 and Luke 3.

We know almost nothing from outside scripture about this census, how or when it was to be conducted. It may have taken years, region by region, but the story suggests that this was done on Jewish patrilineal lines (2.4), not on a street by street basis. So, at a few key centres, there was going to be widespread convergence of people (Lk 2.1-2). And with no fax or email booking system, you set out on your journey and hoped for the best, and were probably blessed with adaptability. Mary and Joseph may have been welcomed to Bethlehem like the long lost cousins that they were, but there was still no room. Forget the “unwelcome” tag, there is no evidence for it.

Secondly, the “inn” of those times were normally built in a walled courtyard arrangement, today called a ‘khan’. Not a motel or hotel with lots of rooms for each guest. Caravan animals were bedded down inside the courtyard, not farmyard animals. So camels and donkeys, yes, not cows goats sheep or horses. Few people slept in rooms, only the very wealthy, and most were under the verandahs, to keep an eye on their goods and animals. In Luke 2, it says, this whole menagerie was full at the time they needed to give birth ( 2.7).

They may have camped there in the courtyard for a long time before the crucial moment came. We don’t know how long they had been in Bethlehem before the child’s time came. If the call to census came at month six, for instance, and they travelled at month seven, they would probably have had to wait in Bethlehem until after delivery. Until then, they probably camped out, as pilgrims did near Jerusalem during festivals there. We are making it all up beyond that.

And when you made plans to deliver, would you want to be camping out or would you look for some place a little more out of the weather? Better to find a cleaner place where a midwife can attend. Tradition says they found a cave on the edge of Bethlehem( Lk 2. 15), and Joseph presumably found or made the manger. It may not have been a sign of their poverty – it might have been what everybody did – lots of cultures in the world don’t make nursery furniture. They might have used straw, but the story actually mentions cloth ( 2.12). If it was a sheepfold cave, of the type still evident around Bethlehem, the sheep were not in it. The story says they were out in the fields (2. 8). You can’t have it both ways– the sheep at the manger softly crooning, and the sheep in the fields getting amazed! To preach otherwise is either distortion or contortion, but not real.

Thirdly, the Magi see a child in a house (Matt 2.11), not a baby in a manger. The shepherds are long gone, the baby is now a toddler. We don’t know why they stayed in Bethlehem so long, why travel may have been prevented, or why they may have preferred to stay there. Presumably, Joseph has employment. The magi had told King Herod how long its been since they saw his birth-star, and Herod despatches a squad of soldiers to kill all males under two years old. There’s the confirming clue on how long it has been since the shepherds visited – just under two years. The orthodox churches are right to separate Christmas and epiphany. And there were three kinds of gift – gold, frankincense and myrrh – no clue as to how many gifts or how many magi. Next time the Sunday Club has a few spare children for the nativity scene, throw in six more magi!

Maybe there is a place for helping people to imagine the story, and for adding new twists or points of view (the local cat, a wandering mouse, the baby donkey ). But they have as much connection to the actual events as The Da Vinci Code. Jesus (Yeshua – Saviour) was really born – blood, mucus, pain, danger, poo, vomit – and by this we are really saved. That other Christmas of wild waffle is a fable, and so too is its salvation.

People deserve a real gospel that can be lived out in the real world. Imagine that!

A Liturgy for Easter Sunday

Four readers, one prayer, one 5 min sermon, 7 songs, leader. Everything white.

prepared by Ian Robinson

Leader: “Christ is Risen”

Response: “He is Risen indeed”

READING 1. IT IS SUNRISE Mark 16.1-8

Leader: These women came to the first Easter Sunday morning filled with disappointment in their lives. All they have left to work for is to carry out a decent burial.

On this Easter morning, are you pre-occupied with disappointment? Is this the best you can do with your life – to keep a decent, respectable life? You could do worse, but the promise of Easter is that you can actually have God’s purpose working in your life.

You can be holy. The Risen Christ has a new beginning for you. It’s no wonder the women’s first thought was how scary it could be.

READING 2. THE TOMB IS EMPTY Luke 24.1-12

Leader: At this stage of events, they are only afraid. They are afraid of two things.

One is that their enemies have stopped at nothing to suppress Jesus’ movement. They are afraid they will be the next to be arrested, flogged and crucified. At least two of them leave town immediately. Jesus had to catch up with them in a town called Emmaus.

Maybe they are also afraid that Jesus might actually have risen from the dead, as they heard the angels say. It is such a shining hope, so much would then be different, and that alone would be very scary. No wonder the Risen Jesus kept greeting them with: ‘peace be with you’.

Remember the goodness of God. Remember the kindness of Jesus. He has never brought harm to anyone who placed their trust in him. Peace be with you.

READING 3. JESUS APPEARS Luke 24.36-44

Leader: There he is in the flesh. It changes everything. There are huge possibilities that open up now. Walking with Jesus in freedom from sin. A new life, a new vision. Forgiveness and love both given and received. Finding self in serving others. Making peace with justice. Integrity and generosity that counts for all eternity. Personal communion with a living God. What richness he has lavished on us in Jesus Christ!

SERMON

To be honest, Easter is not all about huge possibilities that open up. There are also some possibilities that it closes down.

If you like to be the victim, the tragic, the hero, the bitter fighter, then with the resurrection of Jesus your whole life is shattered. With Jesus leading us beyond death, we need no longer get so bitter about death and suffering.

Again, if you like to accumulate experiences, accumulate money and securities, live on overdrive, fly off on sex or drugs, then the new life of Jesus has shown up your emptiness. With an eternity to live, we need no longer rush to fit in every good thing we can get.

Again, if your focus is ‘me’, what about me, what’s in it for me, what I want, where I’m going, do it my way, the empty tomb shows how fearful we really are to be embraced by life. We are no longer our own – we have been bought with a price and held beyond death! To live the new life we have to stop reinforcing the defences of the present one.

Yes, there is some bad news for some. But I find that it’s good news, the happiest news of all time. I know I haven’t got it all sorted, but as I walk the road with Jesus, the light from the empty tomb is just simply fantastic, worth living for, and worth dying for.

Amen

Prayer 1

Because you have saved us so openly and so strongly,

We are confident to bring to you

all our disappointments.

We bring to you our narrow thinking.

May your Kingdom-purposes be seen in us.

Because you have loved us so completely,

We can bring to you our fears and pain.

We bring our doubt- that you might give us less than the best.

We welcome the New Life

That you have pioneered for us.

Because you have conquered death,

We can put aside the fear of suffering,

and the bitter sting of death.

Gently, please, take apart our inner defences, and set us free.

Open up new spaces inside our hearts,

Space for being loved, being safe,

being clean, being true, and

spaces for integrity, generosity, kindness, and peace.

READING 4. JESUS SAYS ‘HANG ON A SEC’ Luke 24.45-53

Leader: The power to live the New Life does not come just by wanting it, choosing it, training it, being born with it, or seeing it in someone else. The power comes through the Holy Spirit, whom we must welcome into our life.

BENEDICTION

Because you walk with us, Jesus,

and show us freedom from failure,

We can give and receive

both forgiveness and love.

We can find ourselves in serving others.

We can make peace with justice.

We can know, more deep than breathing,

this personal connection with the living God.

Oh, the riches of the love

which you have lavished on us in Jesus Christ!

So, shock us into life!

Nurture us into love!

And impel us with your grace

To share again and again, in myriad ways,

That vast good news: Christ is Risen!

He is risen indeed!

Hallelujah! Amen.

NAMELESS GREEKS and A NEW COVENANT

By Ian Robinson

Readings:

Jer 31.31-34

Heb 5.5-10

Jn 12.20-33

Who were these nameless Greeks who made Jesus swoon so? They were visitors in Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover, milling and shoving in the crowds, whistling at the stories of capital city politics, doing what they’re told by all the police – the build up of excitement is palpable, but they come around the corner and go first to Philip and ask to see Jesus.

For Jesus, it is as though the clock started to strike twelve. The booming voice from the sky confirms it. “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”(v 23).

What Jesus sees happening had been coming for a long time. This moment has always been in God’s plan.

Since the void was shattered by the explosive migth of God’s “let their be light”, 13.7 billion years of creation has been heading towards this moment. Since humans emerged and decided immediately to take all God’s gifts and rebel thanklessly against God’s promises and hide from God’s presence, 100 thousand migrations had seen the plan progressing.

Since an old Aramaean opened his mind to hear God afresh and heard a promise that through him ‘all the nations of the earth would be blessed’, two thousand years of promise had been building in the minds of men and women.

Since Moses ducked the lightning on Mt Sinai and heard the words and since he wept with God for the people’s fickle fast stupid callous brazen rebelliousness, the word of the Old Covenant has been repeated and translated.

The prophet Jeremiah was caught in the act of upsetting all the religious people who thought they had God sown up in their church. But God lamented their attitude with an unfathomable personal pain: ‘I was your husband’, God said – you were my bride and and you betrayed me!…..I was your husband! – (Chapt 31.31-34)

Jesus sees the promise, 700 years out of Jeremiah, emerging from around a corner. God will give a new covenant not like the old – because our hearts are so hard. No longer trapped in our ethnic box or our religious box – a covenant for all the world to know and a covenant of full and free forgiveness. Its about what’s in our hearts not what’s in our heads. It’s about where we’re going, not how good we are.

People can believe in God so clearly and ever so cleverly but not ever tasted God within. People can cling to church, or cling to their rejection of church, when Jeremiah says that that is exactly what they should be letting go of.

With the one mind you have to think with, with the one frail beating heart you have to live by, with the only pair of hands you have to hold on to what really matters – hang on to the new covenant, and not the old ways.

Jesus sees that the fierce grief-struck the jilted God, the cheated husband of the Bride, is now about to become a happy man again. Jesus is just SO happy to see these Greeks. It’s not because he likes souvlaki, or balalaika, or good old Greek smart-thinking. He had no relatives in Athens or Melbourne. …

Jesus can hear the New Covenant stepping closer. It’s here now for we Christians, but at the time it was just coming in. The New Covenant within the heart – is what makes us love God, listen to God, obey and serve, seek and find.

The Spirit is ours who makes us to taste and see, argue and cherish, repent and be cleansed.

Healing is ours for bitter memories, torn souls, jumpy egos, veils of shame, and even sometimes for sick bodies.

Salvation is ours that softens our hearts, opens our minds, swells our hearts in worship, stills our fear in trouble, draws us up to face the moments of accountability.

Jesus can see it. At that moment Jesus says what he sees: “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up, + will draw all people = to myself.” ( v 31-32) And these Greeks are the first instalment of this worldwide explosion of love.

It’s happening. So now the other part – the ‘lifted up’ part – must happen to.

“ Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

He is talking about himself. He is talking about you… and me.

He knows he will be strung up to face all the evil the world has to offer – its contrived sincerity, its crushing political machinery, its brutal torture and naked mockery, abandoned by friends with a ministry that will seem still-born. On that cross he will go down every dark passage of our minds, every horror of our history, and will take on all the personal stupidity we have to offer, and embrace them, into his heart, and…. love us.

AND there is more. He knows that he will spring to new life and set us free to follow him on our path. So, my question to us all is, how are you following today?

It’s a question about where you are going rather than how you are feeling. Some of us are at a point of decision in our personal life or in our faith and church life – What do I/we have to die to at the moment? What good things can not be taken in to the future?

Be sure of this: When a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it bears much fruit.

If that question is too hard, you need to hear this one. Have you actually got the message on why the Greeks came from so far away to see Jesus? Have you seen what they saw?

It wasn’t for his good looks or to buy his books. Hebrews 5.5-10 describes Jesus in a very Jewish way. (read) It is just one of many and various descriptions of Jesus, perhaps “celebrations” of Jesus in Hebrews. What picture of Jesus does it paint?

Firstly, Jesus is no accident of history, no Jewish phenomenon, he was not self-appointed. Jesus is God-ordained and God-begotten. The “Melchizidek” idea is to say Jesus surpasses the Jewish history, and surpasses both fate and chance, because the original M. served the most high god in Abraham’s time. That’s more than a thousand years before “Jewish” hit the press, or the Da Vinci Code or Bp Jack Spong or Phillip Adams. Jesus is ordained of God for any in the whole world who seeks the most high God. Forever and for all.

That’s why the Greeks know they can come. That’s why Phillip and Andrew are only too pleased to befriend them in evangelism. Is that what our neighbours know? Is that what pleases you?

But again, the knew THAT they could come, but WHY did they come to see Jesus? The signs (miracles) point to him but that’s all they do. People seemed to open to Jesus but also close to him, on the basis of the signs.

What attracted them, motivated them, changed them?

The picture in Hebrews 5 tells us that Jesus knew how to serve God while here on earth – v 7-8. You serve God on earth don’t you, that is if you’re not dead yet – so you do this don’t you?

By what actions did Jesus serve God, according to Hebrews?

He offered up prayers. He offered up earnest prayer. Do you do that? He knew how to pray for the lost with loud cries and tears. Have you learned to do that? He agonized about his decisions and keeping in the centre of God’s will. Did you know that sweet agony was normal for us all? He went beyond thinking about what God CAN do and knew what God WILL do here and now.

And not just actions but attitudes –

He faced everything he was about to suffer and lose and risk and throw away so that the glory of God could be seen in his small simple solitary son of man life. Is that how you leave church on Sunday? He sought “reverent submission” to God, that blessed soft strong responsiveness of one human heart to the heart of God, even though he was the royal son. Are you “reverent” – is that how you listen to others and read the Bible? He learned obedience, that self-control that marches to the beat of God’s drum despite all the others around us who are calling the tune? What particular obedience have you been learning lately?

All this showed in Jesus’ life.

  • His prayer was heard.(v7). That’s where the faith miracles came from.
  • He came into his purpose (v 9a). That’s where those words resonated from.
  • He became a source – not just the receiver – of blessing. (v9b). That’s where the love flowed from. That’s what I really want in my life.

And Scripture tells us that because of that kind of “reverence”, not the churchy kind, because of that kind of “prayer”, not the wordy fleeting kind, “eternal salvation” it says has spilled everywhere, like gold from a sunset.

This man of tender healing hands and fierce loving heart is someone you could travel a long way for. This salvation, if you only saw it, is something you could gladly sell all your gold for if only to be part of spreading around eternal salvation like gold from a sunset.

This morning, do you see Jesus? Do you see the looming promise that Jesus saw, stepping explosively into your life? Is that what you want? Can you make it your heart’s desire? Pray with me.

God of the Covenant,

You came for ever and for all, the source of eternal salvation for all who come and se and learn to obey.

You have not left us to wonder

and wander around the endless streets of the worlds religions.

Though sometimes it seems the easiest way,

it leaves hearts cold.

Nor have you placed us inside the package of church.

We welcome Your New Covenant to reach below the skin,

below the traditions and structures,

below the thoughts that control and limit.

We welcome Your Spirit to reach into our very heart,

to heal and save, and to take our whole lives over,

to sell us up and move us on with joy.

We love you, Jesus.

We are here with you, Jesus.

We are on the road with you,

come what may,

learning your prayer and obedience,

learning your reverent submission,

living in your grace.

Amen.

Makes You Wonder Resources

How Jesus Failed

by Ian Robinson

Many people, some of us, even some so-called theologians , suspect that Jesus was a failure. They say, his capture and cruel death was a failure that the early followers tried to turn into something good, hence the name Good Friday. But they could not be more upside down in their thinking. In today’s Good Friday service, we will do something a bit different. We are going to listen to some of the mocking voices at Jesus. Hear what they said against Him. Two things come of this – 1. in their words maybe we will hear ourselves. 2. But there is another flow of thought in the opposite direction. In Jesus’ apparent failure, God was achieving something – something as strong as our salvation.

Mk 15.1-5 – Ian R

POLITICAL FAILURE

‘Are you the King of the Jews?’, asked Pontius Pilate. Did he really want to know, or was he hurling out one of those sick jokes that come up among soldiers? He could not see a man with an army. The joke shows Jesus holding on to no privilege or rank. His followers, all disappeared by now, are all ordinary folks and broken people. Is he going to rule the world with that lot? Pilate thinks a king would gather to himself unanswerable power, but Jesus does not really give him much of an answer. Political failure? Today, the lasting truth is that Pilate is gone and the Risen Jesus rules a billion souls. We broken souls have been the bearers of the news of real glory.

Refrain Response: He seems to be a failure,

yet somehow he knew

The truth about us.

Mk 15.12-15 – Ian R

A MARKETTING FAILURE

“Crucify Him!” they shouted, all the louder. They knew what they were asking, bloody death by excruciating torture. Not a great audience response for Jesus. He has been voted off. But it was due to a kind of envy, the story says. Envy is the currency of all marketing. I sometimes think:Can the advertisers make us want what we do not need? We start to think habitually about everything and everybody: What can we get out of this? We have ulterior motives for everyone. That’s this kind of Envy. We humans want so much, we have so much, we crave for more and we hunger for things and experiences, prestige and securities – all unattainable in the work of one lifetime, unless someone else pays for us. So, in the corridors of power, we make systems and rules that make us into the winning side, we take most of the big fish and the resources. Our rules simultaneously make millions poor, that is, bring children to an early death. In a nutshell, this envy is the cause of all the sufferings. In the name of justice, someone will have to pay. To stop it all, Jesus will pay for our sins today.

Refrain Response: He seems to be a failure,

yet somehow he knew

The truth about us.

Mk 15.29-32 – Ian R

A RELIGIOUS FAILURE

‘He said he would rebuild the temple in three days, ‘. They scoffed at him, ‘Ay, that’s a good one. You said you saved others, now Save yourself!’ So the mockery went as people passed the crosses along the road nearby. These people who take such supreme pride in this magnificent temple of King Herod, built under cruel taxation, were the collaborators in the spoiling of the people. Like the prophets Isaiah and Micah before him, Jesus’ faith is not about magnificent ritual. In history, we have built such regal blasphemies in God’s name. Somehow though, the accusers had heard his promises – to surpass it all. In three days Jesus did raise up a different way of life. So, for our sake, upon this Friday, upon this cross, he will not save himself. For he has pledged himself to save us. It is not the nails that hold him to the cross, it is love.

Refrain Response: He seems to be a failure,

yet somehow he knew

The truth about us.

Let us consider in silence that your name and my name was before him on this very day.

Silence with instrumental music

Mk 15.33-37

AN INTIMACY FAILURE –

The last cry uttered against God this day, comes from Jesus himself. ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me. Or in his Galilean accent, words burned unforgettably in their brains, Eloi eloi lama sabachthnai’. They never heardJesus say anything remotely like that before, for he simply loved his Heavenly Dad, called him ‘abba’. But has Jesus’ intimacy with the Father failed at last? The most precious intimacy in the entire universe, is it as shredded as it sounds? Sin and darkness have taken their toll on his heart, bitterness has crowded around his exhausted mind. All our alienation from God, all our stubborn pride, all the hubris that nails terror into human souls is numbing Jesus’ spirit to death. And yet, and yet, he speaks to his father. He is not silent in his darkness. Even the bitterness he shares with Abba. This Love can carry even this pain, All the pain we get, all the pain we give. The people standing near him dont get it, they think its about Elijah or deliverance or something. Their lives roll on, ying and yang, day in day out. But the unthinkable good news from this failure at the cross is: God listens to laments, and Love wins. When our hearts are breaking, that’s how the light gets in. So, desire this Love above all else.

Refrain Response: He seems to be a failure,

yet somehow he knew

The truth about us.

Friends, we are drawing this time together to a close. Turn your mobiles to 3pm and set the alarm for the hour Jesus died. This afternoon you can recall this service and stop a moment.

We have seen in the words of torture, mockery and apparent failure the uniqueness of Jesus’ light, his love, his power, his payment for all human horrors and hubris. Now, what does it mean, the Book of Romans says, there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. You and I are freed of wrath, of darkness, of selfishness, of sin, both its power and its penalty. Jesus’ victory is confirmed when we gather here on joyous Easter morning. Let us not be spectators, mouthers of words, who repeat the cruel and casual apathy of the first Good Friday. Let us make an offering of ourselves to God.

A BIT OF A STRETCH

GOOD FRIDAY 2010

by Ian Robinson

"One for all and once for all" that’s Good Friday’s theme. It’s a bit of a stretch to grasp this.

St Paul tried: "that God was pleased to reconcile himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" Colossians 1.20.

To reach out and cover the distance, to make the gap close up, God stretched all the limits. On this day, as John Witvliet wrote recently, the one called ‘Living Water’ says ‘I thirst’, the one called ‘the resurrection and the life’ actually dies, the one called ‘great high priest’ becomes himself the sacrifice, the ‘King of Kings’ is killed like a common traitor. All this is so that he ransoms us, pays our debt, conquers all the evil we will ever have to face, opens the way to the loving Father, creates a well of healing, becomes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and we? We get the gift, the good stuff, the offer that should have you smiling like a lotto winner. And that would be a stretch.

But it is not lack of understanding that finds us struggling with it. IT is where we stand. I understand that rthere are many things that may be holding us a distance.

We might stand with those whole religious views are black and white, right and wrong, boxed up and unable or unwilling to see who they have before them. In Jesus we see a man of Spirit, in touch with God intimately, the living Word, the mystery revealed. So don’t stand there.

We might stand among those who pride themselves on being ‘realistic’, or real-politick, as the media has it. It’s a semi smart way of avoiding the value of true human being. It’s a semi cynical way to stay away from this love. In Jesus you are being loved more humanly, more divinely, more powerfully, more respectfully, more brilliantly than one mind can fully comprehend.

We might also feel plain unworthy of such a lavish love. I know it is hard t take in, but you’ve hit the jackpot. Your sins and shame are no barrier. It has all been really redeemed. The slate is really clean. This much (arms wide open on the cross) does Jesus love you, long for you and call for you.

We may not want to trust God. The world is cruel, brutish, unpredictable – how do we know that the creator is not also cruel? In Jesus we see, that’s why. The Father’s love had come to guide us back into the fullness of life and love that we were made for. You can trust God in this hurting world.

There it is. It is a stretch, I acknowledge. But that is a cross that I will gladly bear all my days