Monthly Archives: August 2013

On the way to something new

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Genesis 1 is an incredibly beautiful story of origins open to readings at many levels. What I offer here is a ‘spiritual reading’, one which sees in these verses a metaphor for the emergence of something new in our lives. This Scripture anchors me and gives me courage in those periods of change when I struggle to trust God with the process, when I am ‘on the way to something unknown, something new’ and I have to ‘accept the anxiety of feeling myself in suspense and incomplete’.  As those quotes from Teilhard de Chardin suggest, this reflection arises out of reading Genesis 1 in light of his thought, and particularly his exhortation to trust in the slow work of God  This was originally penned as a meditative reflection for a community process of listening to the Spirit, but it could equally be used for individual reflection.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1)

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18)

Do we have an inkling of the new thing that God is doing? Sometimes it is easier to see an ending than to perceive a beginning, but every ending is also a beginning of something new. Which ‘world’ is ending? Where are we straining to glimpse the new beginning?

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the Deep and the Spirit of God was brooding over the waters (Gen 1:2)

God is present in the deep darkness that swaddles the waters enveloping the New, womblike. God is present in the formlessness that looks like chaos, about to speak something new into being.

And God said, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3)

The moment(s) of insight. The ‘aha!’ We awaken, become aware. Light dawns for us.

And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day. (Gen 1:5)

The work of God in our lives begins in the darkness, the unconscious. We do not create it ourselves. We awaken to it in the morning, and then participate.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water” (Gen 1:6)

The New that God is bringing about needs space to happen. What might those spaces be? Internal silences? Times and spaces to listen together? Pausing in our activities? An illness?

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” (Gen 1:9)

The time comes when the watery confusion is contained so that we can see our ‘place to stand’. The New that is emerging becomes visible to us.

And it was so …. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1 passim)

This is God’s work. We can trust God with the process.

And God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it …” (Gen 1:11)

Now that the New which God brings into being has taken shape, we begin to experience it as life-giving, generative, full of vitality.

And there was evening and there was morning …. (Gen 1 passim)

Now that we have found our footing, and newness of life, we may be tempted to want to ‘run with it’. But we’ve still only glimpsed a part of what God is doing. Life and newness still begins in the darkness, and we awaken to it.

And God said, “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the sky, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.” (Gen 1:14)

The insights that have been gained from the consciousness emerging for this new life become more regularised. Our calendar and daily schedules, the rituals and activities that embody the insights and make them part of our everyday life, now take shape.

And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.” (Gen 1:20)

The birds – often symbols of our connection with God, of spirituality and transcendence – inhabit the spaces in which the New was first enabled to take shape. The unconscious (the sea) still nourishes us too, with its ‘creatures’ – dream images and intuitions which keep us in balance.

God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number …” (Gen 1:22)

God blesses with abundance and fruitfulness. Life begets life.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds” (Gen 1:24)

The New generates more newness. It is bursting with  life and vitality and great variety.

And God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, according to our likeness.” (Gen 1:26)

Life in the Newness which God brings about is humanizing life – life which leads us to be more fully human, to more perfectly reflect God’s image, to move closer to the Omega point where God is all in all. It creates the context for the full flourishing of our humanity.

And God saw all that God had made, and it was very good. (Gen 1:31)

Praise God for what God is doing, even though we may still have no idea what the glorious New will ultimately be. Trust God with the process.

And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it (Gen 2:3)

All of this creative process serves the same purpose – every ‘new thing’ that God does is to draw God’s creation into deeper communion with God.

 

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Imagining a Renewed Church in Ireland

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When I pray for the renewal of the Irish Church, I keep returning to one theme: imagination. The institution is in crisis, but I sense that it is more than a crisis of credibility in the wake of horrendous scandals and a crisis of relevance in an increasingly secular society; it is also a crisis of imagination. The Church is like a dazed animal caught in the headlights of the 21st Century. She cannot retreat into an (often idealised) past but neither does she know how to move forward. And she will not know until she remembers who she is, and whose she is. She must reconnect with her story.

The abuses, the prestige and power games, the passivity of so many of its committed members all point to a catastrophic failure of imagination. Instead of being an alternative community which embodies the vision of Jesus, the Church takes her agenda and modus operandi from the world. Even the present tendency to see herself as the victim of the media or of a hostile secular agenda looks to me like the flip side of the same coin. It is still operating from the same vision of power (or lack of it). Do we even have any idea of what a community of Christ-followers could look like?

In Scripture it is the task of the prophet to call God’s people back to their identity. So much more than simply a foreteller or a social activist, the gift of the prophet is to be able to see deeply into the contemporary situation and to interpret it in the light of God’s ongoing story. The prophet has stood in God’s presence and has some inkling of how and where God is at work in the world. And it is the task of the rest of God’s people to be listening carefully for God’s voice so that when the prophet speaks we recognise and respond to the truth. And once we have heard we must act courageously to change our thinking and our way of being in the world, to live out of the reality which the prophet makes clear to us.

The trouble is that the prophets are often not the ones we expect. The religious and political leaders and many of the people in Jesus’ day did not expect God to come to them in the person of a carpenter from Galilee. But those who recognised God speaking through this young man had their imaginations fired by the awesome new possibilities of what God was doing through him and through the community of his followers.

A renewed Church is one into which the Spirit of God has breathed fresh life. A holy discontent with the way things are is often a good starting point. That is why prophets often make us uncomfortable; they make us face and feel things we’d rather ignore. But crisis can become a catalyst for new growth if we allow the prophetic message to penetrate our numbness. Jesus often said: ”Those who have ears, let them hear!”

When we live in denial of how far short we fall or acquiesce unthinkingly to a vision which contradicts the vision of Jesus, we are like people without ears. We don’t even realise that we are ignoring the word of God. When crisis and discontent have shaken us out of our complacency we rediscover our ears. May God send prophets to Ireland! I’m sure that God already has. But do we recognise them or know how to listen?

I don’t expect perfection of the Church. I am however stubbornly convinced that the power of the Gospel is genuinely transformative. Where the Spirit of God is at work, there is life, energy, compassion and growth. There is joy and purpose even in the midst of hardship. A faith that gives us moral guidelines and hope for the future beyond the grave is good, but it is not enough. If we invoke Christ’s name but reflect the antithesis of what Jesus stood for, something is seriously wrong. That is why a renewal of the imagination is so vital. It is not about wishful thinking, or about constructing our own idealised picture which we then try to bring to actualisation. It is about discovering what God is doing now, and working alongside God. When we catch a glimpse of the possibilities we can be energised by hope.

Our Christian imagination can be nurtured through reconnecting with our founding story – the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We may be tempted to truncate that story and make it simply a matter of obtaining grace without connecting with the challenging life and radical vision of Jesus. If we feel too comfortable with Jesus, chances are we have domesticated his message and lost sight of its subversive character.

Renewal, ultimately, is the work of God. But do we know how to recognise where God is at work so that we can join in? There are many practical changes that the Church needs to make on her path to renewal. Many things can be done to restore her vitality. But before we can ask ”how do we get there?” we need to know where we’re going. Change for the sake of change without a vision of where we are headed may perk us up temporarily but it is not ultimately life-giving. That is why we need our imagination to be inspired by the prophetic vision.

(This was originally published in the Irish Catholic on 21 October 2010)

Why I am still a Christian

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I’m not sure how I would describe myself other than as an ecumenical Christian in the sense that I have consciously responded to the grace of God in Christ and I recognise as my sisters and brothers in faith all those who are Christian, regardless of the particular Christian tradition which claims their loyalty. My mother is Baptist, my father Presbyterian, I was raised in the Evangelical tradition, the students I taught prior to coming to Ireland were predominantly Pentecostal and Charismatic, and I now lecture theology at a Catholic college and attend a Church of Ireland church. I suppose you could call me ‘protestant’ if you’re looking for a label. I do find something in every tradition to protest against but more to embrace, welcome, and learn from, so I’ll only accept the label if you don’t take it too seriously. I love working in a college with a Catholic ethos, alongside Catholic theologians. Whatever my ambivalence about identifying my particular denominational allegiance(s), I am clearly and unequivocally Christian.

When I was little, faith in God and loving Jesus were a natural part of life. In my family home, the Christian faith was very genuinely modelled for me. I cannot overstate the importance of my parents’ faith for my own faith journey; my earliest and formative experience of Christianity was overwhelmingly positive. My parents are not perfect, but they are authentic, and their commitment to Jesus Christ is lived out with compassion and conviction. As a child I could easily believe that God loved and accepted me because I experienced that unconditional welcome from my parents. When I encounter hypocrisy and lifeless formalism, in myself as much as in others, I do not write off Christianity because I know that there are richer possibilities for living as a Christian.

A good beginning is a good start, but it isn’t the whole journey. As a four-year-old, ‘Jesus loves me’ and ‘God who made the stars’ sat very comfortably alongside Santa and bedtime stories. As a forty-something-year-old academic, if my faith hadn’t grown along with me I’d be in trouble! That growth hasn’t always been easy. I have often found myself in a space where my understanding and lived experience of Christianity is glaringly, woefully inadequate.

The first few times were terrifying. Was I losing my faith? But then, usually gradually, I would discover a deeper, more mature expression of the faith which I could hold together more authentically with my developing personhood. Over the years, I have learned to trust the process. It works both ways: my faith also challenges my self-obsessed and life-denying attitudes and behaviour, nudging me toward maturity.

I am still a Christian because, in periods of crisis and challenge, I have found the necessary resources for conversion and growth within the Christian tradition. One example: I grew up a white English-speaker in Apartheid South Africa. Right to the end of secondary education I attended all-white state schools. I grew up knowing that racism was wrong and that all human beings were made in God’s image and were to be treated with respect. But I was also taught that religion and politics do not mix, and therefore, so long as I did not personally treat people of other racial identity in an un-Christlike manner, I had done my Christian duty. It was not my place as a Christian to challenge the status quo. The Group Areas Act and state control of the press made it surprisingly easy to live such a horrific contradiction. When I was shaken out of my naivety in my late teens and early twenties and had to come to terms with my inadvertent complicity in the oppression, there were powerful Christian voices such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu to point me to more authentic expressions of Christian involvement in society. I did not have to abandon my faith in order to embrace social justice, but I had to repent of the distortion of individualistic pietism.

At other times the challenges to my faith have come from studying science and philosophy, from disillusionment with Christian institutions, from dialogue with people who are very different from me, and from the ups and downs of living. Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint the reason why the words of theology and the rituals and disciplines I engage in start sounding and feeling meaningless and hollow. But I am learning that the disconnect is an invitation to explore more deeply the Christian tradition to discover new ways of being, saying and doing that can bring together the components of my life authentically, even if not always entirely coherently.

I am still a Christian because I do not try to do it by myself. I remain committed to corporate worship even though the institutional Church can drive me nuts. But I also need fellow Christians to share the journey with me in other ways. That companionship has taken different forms over the years – one-on-one mentoring, spiritual direction, a Bible study or spiritual formation group, or a good friend. Sometimes it is intentional, sometimes more informal. The constant factor is that there are times and spaces for reflecting upon and speaking about God and faith and lived experience. There is something powerful in the communal dynamic which I could never replicate as a solitary Christian.

I am still a Christian because in the Christian story I find a way to construct meaning in life which opens me up to Mystery and so makes life sacred and precious. It does not allow me to domesticate reality or to settle for a mediocre existence. The Christian tradition has the depth and breadth to contain my searching and the God whom I find in Jesus Christ has the power to transform me.

(This is a slightly adapted version of an article published in the Irish Catholic, 9 November 2009)

Trust in the Slow Work of God

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This ‘prayer’ by Teilhard de Chardin is perhaps the piece that has meant the most to me in my spiritual journey. I keep coming back to it.

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something

unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability –

and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you.

Your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on

as though you could be what time

(that is to say, grace and circumstances

acting on your own good will)

will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming in you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.”

~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955)

Magic, Denial or Play

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According to Jerome Berryman:

“When adults and children encounter the limits to life, there are three kinds of responses: magic, denial, and play. Magic is the attempt to control what is beyond our control and manipulate life’s limits by will and belief. .. Religion can easily be turned into magic.

“The second kind of response to the limits of human life is denial. We try to control our limits by reason, as if our minds were in complete control of life and death. We pile up layer upon layer of language to give an impression of control. .. Religion can become a defensive language game of unrelenting seriousness. …

“Become like a child, [Jesus] said, if you want to mature as an adult. To play the ultimate game, don’t rely on will, belief, denial, or reason alone. Play. Play in a Godly way. Play with the Creator. Enter the existential game with imagination, wonder, and laughter if you want to become new without end.”

from Jerome W. Berryman, Godly Play. An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education (Minneapolis: Augsburg 1991) pp. 16-17.