Writing

  • The Sum of All Five Senses: A Meditation for Monday of Holy Week

    The Sum of All Five Senses: A Meditation for Monday of Holy Week

    Try experiencing this Holy Week with all five of your senses...

    See it.

    • the palm branches waving
    • the moneychangers wheeling and dealing
    • the upper room,
    • the mockery of a trial
    • the stations of the cross and Calvary itself

    Smell it.

    • the burning flesh of the sacrifices offered in the Temple
    • the animals being traded in the forecourt
    • the spiced breath of the traders
    • the body odour of the travellers
    • the scent of Gethsemane
    • the air as the sky darkens around three crosses on a hillside

    Touch it.

    • being jostled in a crowd
    • counting silver coins to pay a traitor
    • carrying a wooden gibbet on a weary shoulder

    Hear it.

    • the adulation of Palm Sunday
    • the traders bartering for the best deal
    • the crashing of tables and of money spilling down the steps
    • the hostile cries of Crucify Him

    Taste it.

    • lamb and bitter herbs for a Passover
    • bread and wine for a memorial
    • vinegar offered to a dying man

    It is the sum of all five senses which confirms in our sixth sense that we are loved by God made known in Christ.


    ©The Very Rev Dr John Chalmers is a former Principal Clerk and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

    Image Jamethelin Reskp on Unsplash.com

    This meditation was also published in the April 2018 edition of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland. 

     

  • Joseph

    The Rev. Joy MacCormick 21 December 2017

    Joseph

    She came as if reluctantly
    a question burning in her eyes,
    and told a tale - such a tale
    as both filled and pierced my heart.

    Could I believe her?
    Could I believe
    that of all women she was chosen
    to bear the Lord’s Messiah?
    Dare I trust her protestation
    that no man had fathered
    the child she carries?

    Darkness, disillusionment, despair,
    vision of our future crumbled into dust!
    I needed time to think, to pray,
    to let the numbness pass;
    process the implications.

    She said she understood;
    would wait for my response –
    however long it took,
    whatever it might be.

    And then that dream!
    So vivid, urgent, powerful,
    there was no room for doubt.
    Like her I heard the voice of God.
    Like her I knew the awesome truth
    that both of us were chosen.

    … Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream … 
    (Matthew 1:19-20 ff)

    How have you recognised God’s guidance in times of turmoil and distress? Do you believe God speaks today through dreams? Why or why not?

    What if Joseph had ignored his dream?

    (c) Joy MacCormick

    Image Dreamcatcher, www.images.unsplash.com

  • Quantum Theology

    The Rev. Joy MacCormick 18 October 2017

    Quantum Theology

    I am no physicist!
    The more I try to understand
    the more confused, bewildered, I become.
    Yet what mind can scarce begin to comprehend
    is recognised as truth
    some part of me has always known.

    Once, science sprouted from theology;
    now physics seeks to dialogue with faith –
    reveals the power of consciousness, of prayer,
    to be the same creative energy
    that drives the cosmos.
    Humans call it “holy”.

    For is not “God” a naming
    of that unbounded power –
    transcendent source of everything that is;
    binding together and sustaining,
    through its energy,
    every subatomic particle?

    How easy to forget
    that words are not, themselves, reality;
    are merely symbols representing thought,
    enabling sharing, and promoting exploration.
    “God” or “Alaha”* “Energy” or “Matrix”
    All point to Unity – for those with eyes to see.

    * “In Aramaic, the name Alaha refers to the Divine.  It means
    variously: Sacred Unity, Oneness, the All, the Ultimate
    Power/Potential, the One with no opposite” (Neil Douglas-Klotz, “The Hidden Gospel”)

    “What is truth?” asked Pilate of Jesus.   (John 18:38)

    It is difficult, and often frightening, to let go of what has been received as truth.  Living at a time when accepted scientific truth is being overturned by the discoveries of quantum physicists means facing the need to do just this - to be open to the possibility that the laws of physics as we have known them are no longer binding; that everything in the world, and indeed the cosmos, is connected to everything else; that there may be many more than four dimensions and even parallel realities; that humans have the power, through conscious awareness, to create all the changes they choose; that this is accomplished through feelings and beliefs rather than thoughts and words.   (Jesus declared “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”  Mark 11:24)

    New understandings of how the cosmos operates mean new understandings about God.  It has been said that institutions are guardians of received truth and resistant to new understandings.  (Galileo was persecuted by the Inquisition for declaring that the earth was not the centre of the universe but moved round the sun, and not until 1991 did the Church acknowledge that he was correct!)  To what extent is resistance still a feature of the Church?

    You will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32) promised the one who also said “See, I am making all things new.”  (Rev. 21:5)  In Romans 12:2 we read “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds . . . .”

     

    How resistant am I to new understandings – 
                                               particularly those relating to God?
    FROM  what might I need to be made free?
    FOR  what might I need to be made free?
    Do I want/am I willing to be made free?
    Ask God to help you discern the answers to the above questions.

    © Joy MacCormick
    Image Creative Commons                                                          

                                                                             

  • Cain and Abel - Through Another Lens

    Cain and Abel - Through Another Lens

     

    Recent rereading of Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade (Harper San Francisco 1987) on the origin and development of early European human culture and society, sparked again memories of my discomfort with the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:2-16) - less for the issue of fratricide than for the image of God as apparently capricious and unfair, rejecting the offering of grain in favour of blood sacrifice. In this book I found another way of understanding what might be at the core of this tale.

    In her book Riane comments that in virtually every present-day culture there exists a myth of a golden age in which everyone and everything flourished, art and culture were highly developed and people lived in peace before being destroyed by some cataclysmic disaster. She suggests that this might actually be folk memory of Palaeolithic and Neolithic societies “where the first great breakthroughs in material and social technology were made” and a common feature was the worship of the Goddess - provider of life and all that sustained it.

    Archaeological evidence from many sites suggests that in these early societies social organisation was basically co-operative rather than hierarchical, the fruits of the earth were seen as belonging to all members of the group and there were no ranked distinctions of class or sex. Everybody contributed to the welfare of the group and to the worship of the Goddess in increasingly elaborate rituals including offerings of grain and fruit. Societies were based on equality and partnership.

    A golden age indeed in spite of inevitable tensions and hardships!

    By about 5000 BCE there is evidence of natural catastrophes and ‘a long line of invasions from the Asiatic and European north by nomadic peoples. Ruled by powerful priests and warriors, they brought with them their male gods of war and mountains.’ (p44) This caused large scale disruption and dislocation as strength and hierarchy replaced partnership and equality. Sweeping away the worship of the Goddess with its grain and fruit offerings, they imposed worship of their warrior God to whom only blood sacrifice was acceptable. Among other nomadic invaders were the Hebrews who invaded Canaan and also brought with them a fierce and angry god of war and mountains (Yahweh) and imposed their ways on the peoples of the lands they conquered.

    I now wonder whether the biblical account of Cain and Abel might also be folk memory of a time when the old ways were wiped out by invaders, bringing in and imposing their own culture and religion; when those who clung to the old values and old ways were driven out to become ‘wanderers on the earth’.

    What do you think?

    © Joy MacCormick
    Image Cain and Abel, stained glass window, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

  • The Knee Replacement (Improv. on Phillipians 2)

     

    It’s been a long time
    since this knee could bend
    at the name of Jesus, or anything else –

    the challenge to clamber
    over rocks on a hillside
    hiking with teenagers
    in spite of their playlists and texts,

    the sharp cry of a small child
    skinned up from a fall
    or wanting to show me an ant,

    the longing to gather
    a handful of sand at the beach
    and let it run through my fingers
    remembering someone
    whose life slides like grains
    into the sweet saltiness of the ocean.

    (those may actually be the name of Jesus
    just in some other Pentecost.)

    And I am anticipating
    a certain emptying
    to let go my signature impairment --

    emptying anaesthesia, for one –
    a fold in reality,
    protecting me from what
    I can never grasp,

    and being humbled to
    catheters, johnnies, and opioids
    in spite of not liking the idea
    of any one of them,
    being obedient to physical therapy,
    not to speak of the
    continuous motion machine
    which is not …
    No! absolutely not a cross.

    So what kind of mind
    is Paul suggesting
    that I am supposed to have?

    Perhaps a light one
    that slips into anthroplasty
    on my way to confessing
    the truest Name of all –

    and bends for a hill walk,
    a child’s call of fear and joy,
    and handfuls of love
    for people I know or will never meet,

    also many other unexpected
    holy kneelings.

    ©Maren Tirabassi
     

     

  • To be, or not to be...

    The sun is setting on Assynt, in the North West corner of Scotland. Orange light warms a cold April. The mountains, Suilven and Ben More are iced with peaks of snow. Feathered friends make a snuggery, while a glistening otter gallops up the slipway with a wriggling trout in its mouth, its rainbow fate sealed. The white-tailed eagle has hovered over the loch for a day, searching for a salmon that escaped from the farm. Just when she smelt freedom, this god of the air snatched her away. So many worlds spin in pain.

    At Cape Wrath, angry in the quietest weather, the Ministry of Defence carry out military exercises and propagate the news that they are also preserving the wildlife, flora and fauna of this special place. Meanwhile submarines creep into sea lochs doing what they do. Is there any place on earth not compromised by humanity?

    I walk beside the stone remains of townships long since abandoned, kinship fragmented because of greed. Roofless churches in these parts tell the story of an ecclesiology and its earnest guardians who preached a misplaced morality and threatened doctrinal punishment and excommunication. The clergy banished the original spiritual beliefs of the people and yet somehow, the early Celtic Christian movement which managed to weave holy place names and traditions into the fabric of indigenous belief, survived. Over the centuries, many have heard an ancient song and harmony.

    ‘April is the cruellest month’, writes the poet, T. S. Eliot. Especially so, as we hallow the memory of  New Zealanders and Australians killed in war. Such remembering is gathered to our hearts, not to glory the indescribable carnage of war nor gloss over the brutalising and crushing of the human spirit. We do not gather the dead and dying, the grief and sadness, the memories, stories, tragedies, the comradeship in life and death, to dis-member them. Rather we re-member them. This is restorative, moving us, not only to give thanks for the gifts of life and freedom which we take for granted, but to bring to birth, in our own hearts and lives, a harvest of goodness, justice and peace.  

    Every Sunday morning before going to Church, I listen to Sunday Worship on the radio while eating a breakfast of poached eggs on toast. Today the service was broadcast from Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where William Shakespeare was born and lived and the church in which he was buried.

    He died 400 years ago on the 23rd April 1616 and throughout the world, words, music, art and place honour the legacy of probably one of the greatest writers that ever was. William had a lot to say about war: its  legal, ethical and religious justifications, the ties between church and state in promoting and waging war, the costs to humanity, and the political strategies used to downplay internal problems and unite a nation around a leader whose legitimacy is in question…’ to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels’[i]

    He also knew the devastation of grief. His only son, Hanmet died at the age of 11. We know little about his faith yet he writes in The Winter’s Tale, ‘then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory’. He also knows the inner voice of doubt, ‘Ay, but to die, and to go we know not where’.[ii] Resurrection, the deepest hope for our common humanity, was often in his mind. Lives could also be changed because of love, loyalty and miracles. [iii]

    I made a visit with my late father to Stratford-upon-Avon in my salad days.[iv]  Days when I thought that the ancient houses were higgledy-piggledy and the very fat swans on the river were hungry.  I fed them and they obligingly ate what they were given. Dad took me to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and we drank hot chocolate with lots of cream on top. 

    I cherish a tiny leather book of quotations from Shakespeare’s plays which he gifted to me on that day. I did not understand the words then. Now I realise that the Bard’s words are embedded in our language…   

    The course of true love never did run smooth[v]; For goodness sake[vi]; Neither here nor there[vii]; Eaten out of house and home[viii]; A wild goose chase[ix]; Too much of a good thing[x]; The world’s mine oyster[xi]; Not slept one wink[xii]; Send him packing[xiii]; Own flesh and blood[xiv] ...and so many more.

    On this Sunday evening, snow is lightly falling as I look out of the window of the Clergy House. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his partner roost on our roof after spending the day making a home for their young. They are our guests every year and we welcome their wisdom:

    Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them, and help them to see it in themselves. That way you’ll see the way to fly and that’s what I mean by love.[xv]

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    April 2016

    [i] Henry IV
    [ii] Measure for Measure
    [iii] Sunday Worship BBC Radio 4, Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
    [iv] Anthony and Cleopatra
    [v] A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    [vi] Henry VIII
    [vii] Othello
    [viii] Henry IV
    [ix] Romeo and Juliet
    [x] As You Like It
    [xi] The Merry Wives of Windsor
    [xii] Cymbeline
    [xiii] Henry IV
    [xiv] Hamlet
    [xv] Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach

     

  • Living the Sustainable Life!

    The Rev. Iain Gow 25 February 2016

    Living the Sustainable Life!

    There remains then a Sabbath rest... let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no-one will fall.  (Hebrews 4:9)

    France and New Zealand have two things in common. When I lived in Paris, a long time ago, suddenly in August everything became very quiet as many left Paris for the holidays. Here in New Zealand the same thing happens, but in January; everyone leaves for their batches (holiday home).

    For those of us who live in the Southern hemisphere, it is a reminder that as we re-engage with work again, to see our engagement with the new work year as a marathon, rather than a sprint. What do I mean by that….

    I was once a surfer, not a very good one I hasten to add, but I had been told it had a certain allure with the young ladies, and at 14, becoming more alluring to them was very important, especially if you were a scrawny shy looking fellow who needed all the help that was on hand possible!

    Anyway surfers understood intrinsically something I now call ‘the wave theory of time management’. We didn’t call it that back then, as there were not many models or theories of management around, but it should be called that today, and I suggest it to every organisation’s personnel department! So what is it all about?

    In South Africa, waves came in around sets of six waves. There was then a lull, and then on came the next six waves or so. In those first six waves, you grafted hard; it was intense and full on. But then came the lull and you chilled; looked at the beauty of creation all around you; you caught your breath, chatted to your friends, and let your inner voice catch up with you. Then on came the next set and it was back to grafting hard.

    What I have called the ‘Wave Theory of Management’ actually was once called the Sabbath principle. God in the first page of the Bible, theoretically knew all about this principle, for having worked really hard for six days at making Creation, then chilled on the seventh. Ever since then, observance of the Sabbath was an important principle; that is until the last fifty years when our more hectic modern life-styles have made it redundant.

    Now I am not a believer that the Sabbath principle means it has to be Sunday, but I do believe it is an important principle to leading a sustainable life. Alongside many work-psychologists today, I suggest that we are subtly becoming less human, that our work productivity is less, and our ability to read complex situations when they arise impaired, all because we don’t make the Sabbath principle part of our life. I know this for myself when I burned out for six months around 13 years ago from working too many long hours.

    The Bible is not against hard work. In fact it understands how work offers self-esteem and well-being; but Christian spirituality equally encourages a sustainable led life, time for hard work, time for play, time for our spirit to be nurtured. If your life is cluttered with too much on, then you may get on by for a while, but in the end you will become less human, for yourself and for those you love.

    Finally, here is another final reason to make sure the Sabbath principle is in your life. You may get by running fast for some period of time. But every so often, as though out of the blue, came a monster wave when we were surfing. We called it the ‘backie’ and it didn’t fit into any rhythm or pattern. If you hadn’t taken the time to take those moments of rest between sets, then you would never have the energy to get to the monster wave before it overpowered you as you desperately tried to swim through it. Likewise, in our life, the ‘backie’ can suddenly happen with the sudden illness of a family member,

    Now that most of us are back from our holidays here in the Southern Hemisphere, be aware that the whole year stretches ahead of you. Discover a right cadence for yourself now before the monster waves of 2016 come towards you. Incorporate the Sabbath principle into your life, in whatever way that might mean for you.

    I end with a quote from an old saint who once said, “if you cannot make solitude your friend, then you will never hear the wisdom of God for yourself or others...the voice of God that encourages and guides you, the inner voice that nurtures your soul.”

    ©Iain Gow

    Image Surfers at Big Bay, New Zealand, Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

     

  • From Glastonbury to Iona

    From Glastonbury to Iona

    Holidays often begin in weariness. Everyday mundanities soon give way to tantalising glimpses of a different life.     

    The ferry left a misty Oban and arrived at the jetty on Iona where the weather turned bright. Wild and remote, the villagers of this tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean know how to walk against the unbridled wind. Yet in what has been a curious summer of weather, the sun shone for longer than a day and my skin glowed. Freckles became uncountable.

    I discovered coves and caves for the very first time, dreamt of ancient legends that spoke of truth and possibility, walked across fertile flowered machair and awoke at dawn to the rasping sound of grey and chestnut plumaged corncrakes, secretive visitors from Africa. They opened my eyes to the illusory rising of two suns.

    The Bay at the Back of the Ocean, the Hill of the Angels, the Gully of Pat’s Cow, the Port of the Marten-Cat Cliff, the White Strand of the Monks and tide-dancing for tiny polished beads of serpentine at Columba’s Bay, beckoned. Ragged robin, St. John’s Wort, bog myrtle and orchids grew in a landscape of translucence and light.

    I stayed at a small island hotel. The bread-maker rose early in the morning to prepare her gift and the smell of earth’s fragrance wafted through the house. Fresh organic bread, rich and moist, full of seeds and nuts, carrying the gentle life and death secrets of grain.

    The Abbey remains the summer-hour destination for coach weary day-trippers and those escaping the noise and grime of city streets and isolated urban spaces. They come to a remote place and feel at home. At sundown, the island gives itself back to resident dwellers while kittiwakes and sea eagles, like sentinels, soar around this thin place.  

    When St. Columba made his bittersweet landing on Iona’s shore, the story goes that he chose it because he would not be able to see his beloved Ireland. Drawn to a world beyond his knowing, Columba’s home-sickness must have been like the ache of an uprooted plant with only courage and faith to hold it up. He became grounded in new soil.          

    And so on to the opalescent mist of Glastonbury, popularly known for its music festival of Vee Dub tents, welly boots, boho, wild flowers in the hair, mainlining acts and mud.

    This is Camelot, the Isle of Avalon, a place of disappeared kingdoms, myth, intentional well-being, religious and New Age pilgrimage. Sitting amongst the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, in the drizzle of a mild September day with the ‘once and future’ King Arthur and his wife, Guinevere, reputedly lying buried nearby and with centuries of fireside storytelling warming my imagination, I felt as though I was searching for the rainbow’s end.

    Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea, the great-uncle of Jesus, who placed his nephew’s body in the tomb after the Crucifixion, later made his way to Glastonbury with eleven companions, bringing with him the Holy Grail, the cup used at the Last Supper.  

    Glastonbury was once an island. It can be seen from a great distance because of the Tor, a hill of some 500 feet, crowned by the 14th century Chapel of St. Michael. Joseph is said to have buried the chalice near the Tor and to have founded the first Christian church in Europe at this Place of Dreams. Resting on Wearyall Hill, he stuck his staff into the ground where it miraculously took root. The Glastonbury Thorn blooms each Christmas.

    Great saints over the centuries, Dunstan, Columba, David, Bridget, Patrick and others have journeyed to this sacred and mysterious place as have so many of us ordinary mortals before and since, because not only did Joseph of Arimathea walk there but also Jesus himself.     

    The mystic, artist and writer, William Blake toyed with that possibility when he penned in his poem, Milton, some verses which became known as the hymn Jerusalem,

    And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon England's mountains green?
    And was the holy Lamb of God
    On England's pleasant pastures seen?

    What happened in this place of unravelled threads?

    Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull wrote, ‘not being known doesn’t stop the truth from being true.’ A rainbow coloured the Avalon sky in the late afternoon. I knew that I might never find its beginning or its end. It matters not.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith

    Image The Tor, Glastonbury, Hilary Oxford Smith

  • Northern Lights in April

    Northern Lights in April

    Travelling is in the DNA of most New Zealanders. Over a million of them live overseas and thousands holiday around the world each year. Families love nothing better than packing up the tent, caravan or camper van and hitting the road to enjoy some R and R. If you’ve got an iconic V Dub, all the better.

    Clive and I are currently working in Scotland and have been missing the camping adventures that we enjoyed in New Zealand. A wee camper van has now been added to our life and after Easter, we set off on a tiki tour…

    By the lakeside at Windermere on an April evening, the water mirrors the still sky. Trees are not yet in leaf. Buds await with quivering intensity. A few boats are about. The day has been one of hot sun and a cold wind. Late snow fell on Helvellyn in the early hours. The daffodils, so redolent of this rugged and wild landscape, are in their dying days.

    Nesting for endless hours in the reedy bank is a cob Mute swan. His mate has been swanning around all day looking for food. Non-native Canada geese honk here and there. Conservationists say that they are compromising the habitat and need to be ‘managed’. Waterskiers on the lake fall into the same category.

    William Wordsworth wandered here, lonely as a cloud o’er vales and hills. Daffodils inspired him to write some words which have earned themselves a place in popular poetic consciousness. He wrote better poetry though. Mystical, spiritual poetry, most of it, glimpsing divine unity in all living things.

    When the rain teemed down and made the black slate houses blacker, the far distant mountains sang ‘the still sad music of humanity’ he wrote. When he felt the loss of that visionary light, his ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, revealed that the memory of it never left him.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a friend of his wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the village of Grasmere, a place described by Wordsworth as ‘the fairest place on earth’. Like so many of his contemporaries, Coleridge was addicted to opium, commonly prescribed then for everything from a cough to vague aches and pains. He scribbled Kubla Khan after dreaming of the stately pleasure-domes of a Chinese emperor.

    Another Lake poet, Thomas De Quincey wrote an autobiographical account of his addiction, Confessions of an English Opium Eater which became an overnight success. The opium dreams did not last for these poets of the Romantic School though. Such imaginings may have presented them with unique material for their poetry but it gradually took away from them the will and the power to make use of it.

    There are two villages called Near and Far Sawrey.  Between the far and the near, is Hill Top, a 17th century farmhouse that brought the kind of childlike imagining I had put away. Beatrix Potter, the writer and illustrator bought the property with the profits from selling her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, written first as a picture and story letter to cheer up a five year old boy who was ill.

    Most writers have to learn to deal with rejection at some time or another and she was no exception. After several snubs from publishers, she finally landed a publishing deal for the story of this rebellious rabbit.

    Potter’s own remarkable tale was that of a young woman who finally freed herself from demanding and possessive parents and achieved independence and fulfilment by her own efforts. The farm became her sanctuary, a place where she could draw, paint and write about lovable and villainous anthropomorphic animals and the triumph of good. Her stories are not only for little children.

    And then on to rural South West Scotland and the ordination of a good friend. Farms and houses are  scattered far and wide in his new parish and I was reminded of the 18th century diaries of Norfolk clergyman, James Woodforde who led an uneventful and unambitious life except that for 45 years, he kept a diary chronicling the minutiae of life in the parish. His was an endearing pastoral ministry by all accounts, that went hand in hand with a liking for roast beef dinners washed down with copious amounts of claret and port and always shared with friends. His legacy is a jewel of a diary that illuminates the darkest of times.   

    Wordsworth worshipped at St. Oswald’s Anglican Church in Grasmere. He found it a comfortless place apparently. I can see him sitting on a hard bench, his feet on the earth floor which would have been covered with rushes, with the only heat coming from a tiny grate in the vestry, burning wood and charcoal. In his later years he warmed to the church when he wrote Ecclesiastical Sketches, a history and defence of the Anglican Church. He had grown to like its moderation and tolerance which he regarded as its strength, tempered through centuries of conflict and trial.

    In the churchyard at St. Oswald’s, lie his remains and those of his wife Mary, sister Dorothy and his children, Dora, Thomas and Catharine. The poet Harley Coleridge, son of Samuel Taylor is also a neighbour. Alfred Lord Tennyson said that ‘next to Westminster Abbey, this to me is the most sacred spot in England.’ He may well be right.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    April 2015 

    Image Northern Lights at Bow Fiddle Rock, Portknockie, Scotland. Alexander Dutoy

  • Northern Lights in June

    Northern Lights in June

    A New Zealander arrived on our doorstep last week, cold and alone. The early British summer had finally got to him. The Manse, which is the Scots name for a clergy house, was marginally warmer than the temperature outside.  

    When we lived in New Zealand, my memories of childhood summers in Britain were building sandcastles on the beach, eating ice-cream with sprinkles, skipping through fields of daisies, being an imaginary fish in the sea. Now I remember what I had chosen to forget. That it all happened in the cool wind and rain with glimpses of sunshine.

    Our Kiwi friend, who is discovering his family history, was en route to the Orkney Islands, that archipelago, far north. Weather forecast grim. The Orcadian Sabbath is a day of rest, he said. Nothing to do except go to church. Which he did, at St. Magnus Cathedral. Afterwards he read The Observer newspaper, from cover to cover in the relative warmth of a B and B in Kirkwall.

    The Cathedral, one of the finest medieval churches in Europe, is known as ‘The Light of the North’, founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald in honour of his uncle, Magnus. Thereby hangs a saga of political intrigue and dirty deeds. Since those early days, the Roman Catholic, Norwegian, Scottish Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches have all claimed the building as their own. Yet the Cathedral has never been the property of any of them. It belongs to the people, assigned to them by King James III of Scotland in a charter of 1486.

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there have been baptisms, confirmations, a wedding and funerals. We yearn for markers in the transitions of life. This is where the Church comes into her own, offering an embodied love through the rites of passage that give meaning to the passage of time and experience.

    Another kind of embodied love is happening at the Findhorn Community which beckoned me earlier this week when the sun came out. In the swinging ‘60’s, Eileen and Peter Caddy and Dorothy Maclean found themselves without work.

    With their children, they lived in a caravan on a wild and windswept shore. Feeding six people on unemployment benefit was almost impossible so they began to grow, from poor soil, amazing flowers, herbs, fruit and huge vegetables. Word spread, botanists and horticultural experts visited and the garden at Findhorn became famous.

    The longing of these three friends was to 'bring heaven to earth'. Others joined them in that hope and now the Community commits itself to a sustainable, holistic way of life and a spacious spirituality. I whiled away some time in one of its smaller gardens. Bees were about, water tumbled over rounded stones, carrots and capsicums grew in the midst of late bluebells and old roses, lemon balm, sage and lavender. A lady wearing a floppy straw hat sat in a shady corner, back straight, eyes closed, calming her mind.

    Two small and beautiful books of poems and prayers arrived in the post a few days ago. Written by  friends in New Zealand, Where Gulls Hold Sway and Be Still were companions on that afternoon of perfect light. The touch of new paper, the smell of ink and glue, the physical turning of the page with thumb and finger, the reading of words that read me…what is this heaven?

    Later this month, at Stonehenge, a mysterious formation of stones in perfect alignment with the solar events of the Summer and Winter Solstices, there will be many peoples, who will gather in a spirit of togetherness, to celebrate the Light on the longest day of the year. 

    In the Southern Hemisphere, on the same date, the Winter Solstice will gift quietude, firelight, restfulness, while seeds germinate in the cold earth. Our ancient ancestors knew the sacredness of such times.

    Memory recalls a visit with Clive, to a recumbent stone circle in Scotland with the almost unpronounceable name of Easter Aquhorthies. It happened many moons ago, in the early hours of a Summer Solstice morning when we were first in love. We cooked eggs on a makeshift stove for breakfast and then watched the pink porphyry, red jasper and grey granite stones, placed there over 4,000 years ago, change colour in the enchanted light. It seemed as if the whole world was open before us.

    The earth spins around, time passes in minutes and millennia. We come, we leave, we meet again. One story.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    Image Caithness Croft, Deborah Phillips

  • Spero: I Hope

    Spero: I Hope

    “It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land…for the sun stopped shining.”

    The heavy cries of the swooping seagulls fell silent and a chill crept into the air as the Moon came between us and the Sun. The deep shadow, which formed first in the North Atlantic, swept up into the Arctic and at the North Pole became no more. As the recent solar eclipse reached totality and the irridescent crown of the corona surrounded the sun, words from Pádraig Ó Tuama’s poem, In-between the sun and moon came to mind:

    “In-between the sun and moon,
    I sit and watch

    and make some room
    for letting light and twilight mingle,
    shaping hope…”[1]

    I first came across this Irish Bard when a writing scholar at Vaughan Park said to me, ‘oh, you must discover him’. So I did. Actively involved with the Ikon collective in Belfast, The Corrymeela Community and the Irish Peace Centres, Ó Tuama gives an earthly and transcendent voice to life, troubles and hope.

    The lamps are going out over Syria, reports Gerald Butt, the Middle East correspondent of the Church Times. According to satellite imagery at night, the destruction of 83% of lights in the country has plunged most of this fertile crescent into darkness.

    After four years, the war rages on and highly publicised extreme violence by cross-border terrorist groups and the myriad violations of international law and human rights committed on all sides has spread to other countries and engendered fear and atrocity across swathes of the world. Fighting men and praying men lie side by side…their harmony together is found in rounds of fire and occupation.  For most of us, what is happening is a scenario too stark, too horrible, too brutal to fully contemplate over breakfast or at any other time.  

    There are those in the three Abrahamic faiths who preach from lofty heights where the air is cold, that what is happening in Syria is linked to Biblical and Islamic prophecy about the End Times. As they turn a well-thumbed page of The Revelation of St. John the Divine, they confidently propagate their thirst and hunger for Doomsday while ten million innocents have fled their homes, are without shelter, war-ravaged, hungry and thirsty. Many people are not even able to bury their dead.

    To mark the fourth year anniversary of the war on 15th March, #With Syria, a campaigning coalition of more than 130 humanitarian and human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children launched a video, ‘Afraid of the dark[2], calling on world governments to do more to end the suffering of the people.

    Thanks be to the people who refuse to let hope die and live Christ’s gift of peace.

    “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”

    The bones of a Plantagenet king, on the throne some 500 years ago, were unearthed by chance and, watched by thousands, were re-buried within the small and beautiful Leicester Cathedral a few days ago.  Richard III died in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485 and his body was buried by Franciscan monks in a simple grave. Leicester City Council unknowingly covered his burial place with tarmac and made it into a car park. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, acknowledged that Richard was not a man of peace. “The time into which he was born, and the role into which he was born, did not permit that. But now we pray for his eternal peace.” History is sometimes seen through a glass darkly. “What is truth?” asked Pilate. “

    There are fragments of who and what we are in all the characters and events of Passiontide and Resurrection:

    “ The soon –to-be Easter light…
    highlighted the night between
    our fallings and our flyings
    on this Friday of our good sorrows,
    or bad sorrows

    our mad, and sad,
    and
    glad that there are gladder days beyond these days sorrow.

    We toast the night, o felix culpa,
    and hide the light of lights

    for a while”[3].

    In Scotland, where I am currently living and working, the dying days of winter are giving way to Spring. The heavy rains have almost gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the blackbird sings. Autumn in Aotearoa heralds a different season of colour, of ripening and fruitfulness, where new thresholds and possibilities beckon and emerge.

    Wherever we live in the world, can we trust the Easter promise of these openings and unfurl ourselves into the grace of new beginnings?

    Jasmine is the symbolic flower of Damascus. In April each year, there used to be a Jasmine festival held there. It still blooms amidst the rubble and fragrances the air.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    31 March 2015

    Image: www.yesicannes.com

     

     

       

     

     

     

    [1] Ó Tuama, Pádraig, readings from the book of exile, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2012, p. 12

    [3] Ibid., Good Friday, p. 16

  • Northern Lights in May

    Northern Lights in May

    A golden and warm sun rose early on the first day of summer, May Day. The distant hum of a lawnmower reminds me of how much the lawn is part of this country's identity. Think cricket and the sound of leather and cork on willow, cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey, afternoon strolls around the park, strawberries and cream. Antidotes to unpredictable weather.

    It is blowing a howling, living gale outside. Our two puppy dogs think that wolves are about. Ferries have given up sailing to the islands, trucks are travelling by the low road and white horses ride the waves. Rudyard Kipling evoked the destructive possibilities of the sea in his poem, White Horses. Migrants from Africa, escaping to Europe and fleeing from fear, poverty, dispossession, know about white horses only too well. And still they ride the waves every day…some never reach the shore.

    ‘Be tough on immigration’ say those who believe that a mixture of boat tow-backs and harsh detention centres on remote islands is the solution to stop people smugglers and prevent deaths at sea. The delusional seduction of ivory towers.

    In 1915, Kipling’s son, John, serving with the Irish Guards, went missing in action at the Battle of Loos. Kipling later served on the Imperial War Graves Commission and chose some words from Ecclesiasticus, which have been inscribed on many war memorials since: 'Their Name Liveth For Evermore'.

    The names of those who died because of the badly planned, ill-conceived and disastrous Gallipoli campaign were remembered here on April 25th as they were in the Southern Hemisphere and elsewhere. After nine months of bloody slaughter, Winston Churchill, the ambitious First Lord of the Admiralty resigned. He lived to fight another day of course, spurred on by keeping a whisky going throughout the day.

    The 70th anniversary of VE Day was commemorated last week. A fleeting, heady celebration back then, masking the loss and regret, the dispossession and homelessness, the anger and frustration. Churchill and his Conservative Party were heavily defeated in the 1945 General Election. There is a time for everything and everyone.  

    Another Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, apparently read all 845 of Kipling’s poems on a short summer holiday in 1976. It must have been raining. The new Members of Parliament, recently elected in the General Election in the UK haven’t had time to read poetry. The posturing and bargaining has started, superseding news from the far South of John Key’s ongoing Ponytail-gate saga.

    Prince Harry though has been basking in the limelight of an Aotearoan sun. With Uncle away, the new Royal baby brightened the nation’s mood here. Charlotte Elizabeth Diana weighed in at 8lbs 3oz. Her mother, Catherine emerged from hospital, a few hours after giving birth, looking beautifully blessed. Her father too. They are sheltering trees where their little daughter’s fledgling heart can rest.    

    On this Ascension Sunday, I have been asked to christen a baby girl called Emily who was born on the Feast of Stephen. She came into the world, like a Christmas rose, petals unfolding, gentle and fragrant. Her parents’ love and kindness has come into blossom.  

    If her destiny is sheltered, I pray that the grace of this privilege may reach and bless other children who will be born and raised in torn and forlorn places.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    May 2015

    Image: Findochty, Sally Gunn  

  • Ground for Justice

    Ground for Justice

    New Zealand has a history of criminal trials and subsequent resolutions exposing miscarriages of justice. Re-trials, many years after an offence, are becoming almost common place. This may be seen as justice eventually being worked out or, alternatively, a failure of the country’s legal system.  Justice may be an elusive ideal.

    Crime reporting fills a considerable amount of media content informing an ongoing public discourse. Within such discussion, balanced information and debate is not always as apparent as the immediate calls for public safety and firm punishment. More nuanced debates about causes, appropriate punishment and long term remedies for individuals and communities are often at risk of being seen as failure to confront society’s need for calm and good order.

    News media readily reports dissatisfaction with sentences imposed by law courts and demands for change through parliamentary legislation. While not unreasonable in itself, the intimate, sometimes dramatized, context of such demands can cloud rather than enlighten the pursuit of justice.  Haste to apportion blame and inflict punishment, for example, can endanger the application of law being balanced by established fact and careful reason.

    In this country citizens have a right to expect reasonable redress for crime through humane and reasonable punishment. However, what results from punishment being served? Is society better off in the public knowledge that punishment has been served? Is a punished person necessarily a better person? History shows the relationship of crime and punishment has a troubled record.

    There is any amount of literature inspired by this record. Similarly, a number of academic disciplines are concerned with causes, motivations and consequences of criminal behaviour. Theology, too, has a stake.

    Theologians seek to understand the human condition in terms of ultimate meaning. The saying attributed to Irenaeus, a second century bishop of Lyons, captures it thus: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

    Whatever perspective a criminal enquiry may take, victim and perpetrator will always share the fact of being human. Being human entails living in relationship with others. It is the combining of an almost infinite variety of relationships that provide the animation and substance of society. Everyone is linked to everyone else.

    Punishment alone will never secure justice. The human condition is always giving rise to need for reconciliation of difference: Between criminals and victims and between enemies. That need may enlighten a profound ideal drawing from the meaning of being human, leading beyond punishment toward justice.

    Yet, the impetus for reconciliation draws on the even deeper human capacity for compassion. That is willingness to suffer with another, to recognise and act in creative solidarity, for the sake of the interconnectedness of all life.  

    Compassion for others and all living things bears unerring potential to reveal prospects for reconciliation. The life experience of one person is integral to the life experience of all people.

    While punishment may be an initial step toward achieving justice, if applied alone it leaves the presence and pain of both punished and victim unreconciled. It remains as an open wound in the community. Justice remains unfulfilled.

    Theology, the understanding of the ultimate value of life, emphasises the possibility of compassion animating reconciliation between victim, perpetrator and community. Even where such a possibility may be submerged by reason and emotion demanding punishment, a continuing compassionate response serves to limit the injustice of any individual becoming irredeemably estranged from community, objectified and dehumanised by punishment alone.

    Such an ideal for reconciliation, arising from compassion for life itself, is an essential responsibility in securing ground for justice. Being a body defined by theological understanding, the Christian Church has a role to act justly in both public and Church life. It has this role for the sake of enhancing the human condition by building compassionate, reconciled, just communities.

    ©John Fairbrother 2015

  • Wonder

    The Rev. John Fairbrother 26 January 2015

    Wonder

    Contemplative experience is profoundly personal. The practice is about entering an inner vulnerability that may, mysteriously, reveal a sense of transcendent wholeness.

    It is a becoming, moving into quiet through the immediacy of reflection, beyond meditation, toward a peace freed from pre-occupations of pragmatic understanding. Free from the mind’s distractions that all too easily dominate daily living, the outcome will likely be nothing less than sheer wonder: A sense of becoming wholly present within a Holy Presence.

    Wonder evokes emotion. It liberates imagination, inspires and animates the human condition. For all that it might be shared, wonder is profoundly personal. While for example, one might contemplate the cosmos as dark, cold and impossibly vast, another might contemplate it as being divine revelation of eternal dimension and beauty beyond human comprehension. Wonder sustains the tap root of both religious experience and scientific endeavour.

    Recent years have seen re-invigorated debate about the relationship and popular contradictions between religion and science. Science demands reviewed empirical evidence to support any proposition. Religion elevates belief systems into faith for living, drawing meaning from, revelation, the human condition, symbol and myth.

    Tragically, a divide between the two remains and is too simply promoted. Science is led by a deep-seated wonder creating intuitive knowing, in turn becoming distilled into method and result. Religion, too, is led by deep-seated wonder creating intuitive knowing distilled through faith-based experience into worship, compassion, ethics and service.

    The two are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the differing perspectives may be seen as a bifurcation along the route from wonder to action.

    Albert Einstein contemplated prospective vastness beyond his knowledge and wondered at the cosmos. After his example, contemporary new atheists refer to wonder of a religious type, although dismissive of the supernatural, termed Einsteinian. 

    The Christian Bible has numerous stories that have their origin in wonder. For example: Moses being drawn to his encounter with Yahweh at the burning bush; Elijah, hiding, sheltering in his cave and there coming to wonder at the silence that befell him; the shepherds being woken from their slumber, immediately filled with fear, then in wonder visiting the Christ child; disciples Peter, John and James at the transfiguration of Jesus.

    Wonder holds humans in thrall. A great risk of this era is to ignore any opportunity to do so or, perhaps, worse, allow the ordering of our lives to become so distracted as to exclude the experience. To do as much creates a barren inner personal landscape, rendering any sense of transcendence to a mere passing experience. Such is the origin of hubris.

    Concern for a life-giving spirituality has cause to emphasise the need and blessing of wonder. It simply reveals the beauty of life. To wonder is to stand with all people in recognition and solidarity that life is an unasked for gift: one that may be passed to others and always returned to the earth that nurtures it.

    Would politicians and the like, only pause for long enough before meetings to contemplate the meaning and beauty of solitary planet earth as seen from space? Such a simple act would promote the wonder of our fragile existence. That in turn might lead decision-makers to more deeply respect all life as privileged. Imagine an international polity grounded in wonder, committed to undying priority for life-giving relationships among all people, with the earth and all that is in it.

    Revealing, teaching, even promoting the practice of Christian contemplation is a way in which wonder may be brought to the centre stage of human consciousness. With the potential to wonder being common to all people, it is an essential for us all to encourage and foster.

    Whether one may hold a Faith, be Christian, agnostic, atheist or whatever, wonder unites and engenders creativity in us all. It is worth contemplation.

    ©John Fairbrother

    An edited form of this essay was published December 2014 at http://www.sdiworld.org/blog/contemplating-wonder

    Image  Earth from the Space Shuttle Discovery 1988, courtesy of NASA

  • The 13.30 from Inverness

    The 13.30 from Inverness

    There is something blissfully solitary about train journeys unless you feel minded to share stories with the traveller seated opposite who is, like you, bored with paperback melodramas, texting the world and fleeting fields.

    I am not of that mind on the 13.30 from Inverness. The late afternoon landscape invites imaginings of toiling harvest workers gathering golden bales of hay, of ancient Celts standing in a stone circle as they watch the moon skim low over the hills like a great god visiting the earth, of King William the Lion’s army defending his Red Castle from Viking invaders. Brief encounters.

    And then to Dundee, once described as the city of jam, jute and journalism and where the RRS Discovery, the Antarctic exploration vessel of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton was constructed in 1901. This magnificent ship is now anchored in a custom-made dock at Discovery Point on the Firth of Tay. She and her crew spent two years locked in sea ice in McMurdo Sound. Scott and Shackleton relocated the Southern Magnetic Pole and returned with the news that Antarctica was a continent.

    Travelling by any method has its austere moments. It was the Italian poet, Cesar Pavese who mused, ‘…travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of the familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.’

    Luke was Paul’s travelling companion. Faith and patience must have been two of the many virtues this benign doctor and writer of stories was blessed with. Paul could be complex, volatile and difficult. On his mission he was tough and courageous and faced many challenges. Luke faced them too. As the old missionary neared the end of his life, with all his fellow travellers having deserted him or gone elsewhere, he poignantly wrote to Timothy, ‘only Luke is with me’.  

    Another teller of tales, Robert Louis Stevenson believed that ‘we are all travellers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend’. He finally ended his sunset days with Fanny, his wife and soul mate, on the South Sea island of Samoa enjoying wine which he said was like bottled poetry.  

    In the age of Ebola, there is a growing panic about leaving home shores for other shores. Even though medical staff and non-governmental humanitarian agencies have been working with the sick and the dying in West Africa for a long time, it has slowly dawned on the rest of the international community that this disease could be visited upon them. So now, politicians are on high alert, lining up to urge a greater response to this modern-day plague. The people are fearful and fear breeds fear.

    American Dr. Kent Brantly contracted the Ebola virus while working in Liberia and survived to tell the tale. He will be returning to work there. ‘The Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid’ he said, quoting words from St. Paul. After all that he faced, it is remarkable that Paul was still able to write probably the most memorable description of love that exists.  

    Globe-trotting is in the DNA of most New Zealanders. Emigration is the story of this land. People have travelled across many oceans to settle here and never leave, some leave and some return. It was emigrants from all over the world who helped to build the country’s railways through hostile and mountainous terrain, deep ravines, criss-crossed streambeds. What a titanic achievement.

    One of the most breathtakingly beautiful railway journeys in the world is the Coastal Pacific from Picton to Christchurch in the South Island. I think that the poet and railway romantic, John Betjeman would have loved it. He ‘…was not one who stood with duffel bag, Penguin biscuit and fish-paste sandwiches on murky days at the ends of platforms taking down the numbers of locomotives…’[i] Betjeman travelled by train for the journey, not to get somewhere. This leisurely meander through an enchanted land of long white clouds is probably just long enough to still the ticking of the clock and time-travel to an older world. Air, sleep, dreams, sea, sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.

    ©Hilary Oxford Smith

    October 2014

     

    [i] Jonathan Glancey, John Betjeman, On Trains (York: Methuen, 2006) p. vii

    Image: The Jacobite train wending its way to Mallaig on the West Highland Line www.scotlandrailways.com

     

     

  • Beyond the Gloom

    The Rev. John Fairbrother 19 September 2014

     

    The idea of the world being embroiled in war on a global scale is far from fanciful. The many conflicts convulsing regions and states may not be connected overtly, however, the disruption and distress they cause around the globe connects all people.

    War is no longer the controlled preserve of political elites and national military machines. The practice of war has gone local. While terror and fear have become commoditised, being distributed by local political/religious interests, such horrors, clearly, remain supported by international means to sustain prolonged conflict.

    The United Nations, NATO and most nation states appear constrained by the withered frame works of mid-twentieth century strategies and diplomacy. Meanwhile the violent politics of this century re-arrange national boundaries reducing long established political stratagems and military force to confusion, if not impotence.

    The 1950s-75 conflict in Vietnam heralded an era of localised conflict dislocating international relationships. The mighty USA went against a guerrilla army and lost. The military means of a foreign power could not win the hearts and minds of a people in their own land.

    Clearly little has been learned since. Lessons from attempting the same have and continue to be writ large. For example, in Afghanistan via the unsuccessful efforts of Russia and subsequent USA led ‘coalitions’ there and in Iraq to impose political will. Then there are the current disasters in many parts of the African continent.

    The record of post-colonial deconstruction across Asia, Africa and the Middle East has illustrated the ultimate futility of military might and associated political advantage being a conveyor of cultural values and technology. President G. W. Bush’s confidence in ‘shock and awe’ signed off any such notion. Perhaps, then, it is little wonder the political/military might of western powers and partners appear to be floundering for answers to current regional and local conflicts.

    Yet, all portents of gloom notwithstanding, the ways of modern democracy rumble on in parliaments, senates, media discourse, public debate and elections. Signs of peoples’ self- determination continue, even if, in many cases, with apparent qualified misgivings.

    Fiji has finally held an election. On the day of writing this the Scots were at the polls determining whether or not to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Aotearoa New Zealand is about to vote as done every three years. Elections, in such a troubled world, may be like pearls offering a glimmering reminder of the hope for people’s self-determination. They also may serve to remind those privileged to vote of the classical heritage from which such a hope comes.

    Tragically, perhaps, in a global environment where nation states are becoming servants rather than regulators of commercial interests, the attractions and commerce of war outweigh the virtues of political will exercised via contestable ideas, debate and negotiation.  After all, it costs time, effort and practical resources to ensure climates of understanding that provide political contexts of healthy sustenance, where respect for difference is the strength undergirding peace and wellbeing.

    War may have always been local. Terror may have always been close to the human condition. What sets this era apart is the reality of global communication and accessible means to aggressively spread political/religious influence. What was once confined now knows little geographical boundary.

    We in New Zealand may find a sense of security in our South Pacific location. However, physical distance is no longer any assurance of safety. Clearly all people are connected as no generation before. The contagion of fear, like disease, has acquired a reinvigorated potential to subvert and undermine peaceful co-existence on a global scale.

    How might countries such as little New Zealand apply technologies of global communication and the means of influence in order to promote local identity while building international relationships for the sake of peace and wellbeing?

    Ensuring the continuity of a society open to scrutiny, critical self-appraisal and equitable distribution of life-giving resources is a goal worth aspiring to in an international scene bedevilled by conflict and fear.

    ©John Fairbrother

     

                                                                                                                         

     

     

     

  • Sport

    Susan Smith 16 June 2014

    I have just read a headline in the New Zealand Herald (6 June 2014) in which All Black coach Steve Hansen describes Jerome Kaino as "a caged animal" who will be doing all that he can to prove that he is at home among the big beasts of the international game.

     
    The names given to men's rugby and league teams both fascinate and horrify me – Lions, Bulldogs, Sharks, Cheetahs, Tigers, Kangaroos. If these are not the names of predatory animals then they are names that conjure up violent images, either man or nature-generated, for example, Crusaders, Chiefs, Hurricanes and so on.
     
    I wonder if a harmless nomenclature like the "Blues" explains the relative lack of success enjoyed by Kirwan's men. I have been trying to think of a suitably violent animal to suggest to Sir John but all suitable names seem used up.
     
    The violence that the codes of both games tolerates both on and off the fields is frankly appalling. Spear tackling which I understand is illegal in rugby can lead to permanently disabling injuries. No one seemed too concerned apart from Brian O'Driscoll when All Black Tama Umanga spear-tackled the Irishman in 2005 thereby ensuring he could no longer play in the Lion's tour of the country that year. Umanga branded O'Driscoll as a "sook" in his biography and berated the media for criticising his violent action. The two men were reconciled some four years later.
     
    There has been more than one incident this year of spectator or player attacks on referees. A minority of rugby and league players seem to have few qualms about beating up their partners. And apparently the All Blacks have iconic value for all New Zealanders. The odd visit to Starship Children's Hospital in Auckland does not disguise the fact that players are committed to a violent game. "Physicality" is little more than a coded language that means commentators do not call things by their right name – deliberate violence. In some ways today's spectators have much in common with the spectators at the Coliseum who some two thousand years applauded savage attacks by men and animals on other women and men. I am all in favour of sport and just wish that more and more New Zealanders, particularly young New Zealanders played more sport and played less with Smart Phones and I pads.
     
    In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes: "Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified" (1 Cor 9:24-27).
     
    Paul borrows language from the sporting world to remind us about what the imitation of Christ requires of us. Sportsmen and sports commentators in New Zealand turn to the animal world to define themselves. Practice, self-discipline and self -control are important for both the disciple and sportsman. In the case of the first, it is about becoming more Christ-like, in the case of the second it is about being more predatory, anxious to get out of the cage and wreak havoc among the big beasts. Is it time to rethink our use of language because as Marshall McLuhan told us some decades ago, the medium is the message?
     
    ©Susan Smith
    June 2014
     
     
     

     

  • To be silent is to be unfaithful

    To be silent is to be unfaithful

     

    'Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.' [ii] So wrote the Enlightenment philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau in his book of 1762, The Social Contract.
     
    All of us have been and the generations to come, will be born into an inheritance of one kind of another. Part of that inheritance is that we are heirs of a world scarred by the internationalising and industrialising of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past and that much historic prosperity has been built on this atrocity.
     
    Even if it is argued that we are not born free, are we not born for freedom and have to learn how to be free? Part of that process means facing up to the legacy we inherit without fear, excuse or falsity. It means thinking truthfully about where we have come from, how our cultures and habits were formed, how as people, communities and nations, we collectively got into situations that frustrated our best and good intentions.  
     
    For centuries, if not millennia, slavery was taken for granted by many Christian and non-Christian people. The corporate sin of the Church was also complicit in and profited financially from it. Yet it was also a mass movement of Christians and other faith campaigners, slaves and free women and men, who woke up the conscience of an entire civilisation and brought about the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade over 200 years ago.
     
    World leaders and the media are speaking and writing much about 276 schoolgirls kidnapped over a month ago by Islamist militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria. Boko Haram roughly translated means 'Western education is sin.'   Boko Haram's leader knows deep down that education has the potential to liberate the mind and heart and be an equalising force in society. For him and his followers, there can be none of that. He also announced in a video message last week that, 'there is a market for selling humans.' Fears are, that these young girls will be sold into domestic or sexual slavery. There is international outrage and a social media campaign, 'BringBackOurGirls', is gathering momentum.
     
    Deeply disturbing as this kidnapping is, the truth is that human trafficking - modern-day slavery: bonded labour, marriage/domestic/sexual slavery and slavery by debt or descent, still exists, yet it is not always worthy of the sustained, global attention we are currently witnessing.
     
    Advocacy groups such as Walk Free [iii] and The Global Slavery Index [iv] estimate that today, nearly 30 million children, women and men are sold as commodities, trafficked within their own countries and across international borders. Even though slavery is illegal in most countries of the world, it happens on every continent and especially in places where there are major hubs of demand.
     
    According to the United Nations [v] , it is women who are trafficked most. Many are kidnapped and sold into prostitution, sometimes by their own relatives. Criminal gangs bring them into countries illegally where they are made compliant by violence, intimidation, drugs and abused on an unthinkable magnitude. Children too are trafficked between countries, abused and exploited through bondage for labour, sex, warfare. Trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry.
     
    Men are also trafficked across the world, usually forced to work in unjust and inhumane conditions. The Global Slavery Index reports that in New Zealand hundreds of men have been and are working in slavery-like conditions on foreign fishing vessels chartered to New Zealand companies, threatened, abused and forced to work 30 hour shifts with meagre pay, without breaks and adequate food. The Second Reading of the Fisheries (For Charter Vessels and other matters) Amendment Bill was heard in the New Zealand Parliament on 15th April 2014 [vi] . It is intended that the passing of the Bill will enshrine in law by 2016, our country's moral and ethical obligations to the safety and employment of those working at sea. With yet more talking to be done, the Maritime Union of New Zealand is concerned that the proposed Bill, which has been discussed and debated for over a year now, may not become law before the national election in September 2014.  
     
    Human trafficking though is largely a hidden crime, with the faces and cries of those who are sold usually unseen and unheard. It flourishes in places where there is poverty, injustice, conflict, vulnerability, gender discrimination and exploitation by those who are more powerful. The degree of criminality involved means that one of the largest difficulties for public sector agencies is bringing traffickers to justice, as a prevention and deterrent. Even once rescued, individuals often want to avoid deportation, family shame, threats to themselves or their families, so they do not always feel able or free enough to tell their stories.
     
    Slavery is not too distant for it to matter to you and to me, yet we can feel powerless about what to do to bring about change. Social media, for all its problems and detractors, has given many people a voice. We are witnessing its power to mobilise a mass movement of protest against such atrocity. It is in the nature of fast-paced media and politics however, that if and when the girls in Nigeria are returned safely home and we hope that they soon will be, human trafficking and the enslavement of people will move down the list of newsworthy items. Social media posts will move on to another issue, another petition.
     
    Nevertheless, we can harness our own anger and sadness at what has happened and use that in a positive way that works towards eradicating poverty and the enslavement of human beings in the production of our food, clothes, the running of our homes, the care of our elderly and disabled and keeping our sex trade in business.
     
    We can be thankful that advocacy groups and other agencies continue to work hard to bring matters to the public eye and that some of our churches continue to find ways to work with such groups to keep the issue at the forefront of their social responsibility and pastoral care...by lobbying governments to sign up to globally binding agreements, monitoring the ways in which traffickers are pursued and prosecuted and victims are supported and regularly engaging with other faith groups and the media to raise awareness.
     
    On March 17th this year, the Global Freedom Network was launched to eradicate forced labour and sexual exploitation by 2020 after an historic agreement was signed at The Vatican. It was the outcome of a conference, which brought together Christian and Muslim people of faith and representatives of agencies working to end slavery. The signatories called for urgent action by all faith communities to 'set free the most oppressed of our brothers and sisters… Only by activating, all over the world, the ideals of faith and of shared human values can we marshal the spiritual power, the joint effort and the liberating vision to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from our world and for all time.' [vii]

    In her book, Enslaved: The New British Slavery [viii] , Rahila Gupta writes, 'human progress must be measured by the extent to which we have ended slavery. We should be fighting for a future when the world truly belongs to all of us'.
     
    To be silent is to be unfaithful.
     
    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    May 2014
    Image Nicola Green www.nicolagreen.com
     
    [i] I have borrowed this title from the title of a Church and Society Council Report to The General Assembly of The Church of Scotland, May 2007 www.churchofscotland.org.uk/speak-out/social-issues/human-trafficking
    [ii] Rousseau, Jean Jacques, The Social Contract, 1762, (Pacific Publishing Studio 2010) page 1
    [v] See www.unodc.org for more information
    [vi] See www.beehive.govt.nz, Second Reading, Fisheries (For Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Bill 2014, www.parliament.nz and www.slavefreeseas.org for more information
    [viii] Rahlia Gupta, Enslaved:The New British Slavery, (Granta 2008) page 302
     
     
     

     

  • On ANZAC Day

    On ANZAC Day

     

       
    In 1941, when Japan entered the Second World War, the Marlborough Sounds, which makes up a fifth of New Zealand's coastline, was considered to be vulnerable to possible invasion. In the tiny, scattered settlements along the coast, a Home Guard, made up of women and men protected the sea and land as best they could.
     
    After the war, the Home Guard Games were held each year in the Western Sounds, so that those who had served in home defence and their families could meet, free from the threat of war. Now known as the Te Towaka Sports Day, local people still gather to enjoy time together.
     
    On Easter Monday, we enjoyed one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring drives in the world to French Pass (Te Aumiti) in the Sounds. The road there, still largely unsealed and treacherous in places, was only completed in 1957. Between the headland of French Pass and D'Urville Island is a turbulent stretch of water. As the tide drops, a massive amount of water, banked up in Tasman Bay, gushes out to Cook Strait. When the tide rises, it rushes back in. With powerful currents, eddies and whirlpools, it is a passage feared and respected by mariners as well as being an area rich with the presence of dolphins, seals, orcas, seabirds and other marine life...a microcosm of the Creator's beauty and life.
     
    On the way to French Pass is the township of Havelock. When I was working as a journalist I came across a small boat moored in the harbour there, called Seagull. I subsequently wrote up her story for the newspaper. Now one hundred and nine years old, this trusty vessel went to Gallipoli on the hospital ship, SS Maheno. Anchored off the island of Lemnos, she operated as the ship's tender. With her brave and steadfast crew, she transported wounded and dying soldiers to the hospital ship. Her war service is recorded in the Royal New Zealand Naval museum. I have no doubt that the echoes of dismemberment, pain, suffering and deliverance still echo around her bulwarks. She has surely earned her quiet retirement.  
     
    ANZAC Day on both sides of the ditch, seems to generate, somewhat ironically, the expression of conflicting viewpoints and ideas about what the day is really about. Isn't it though, a day to tread lightly, to be compassionate and to remember, with sorrowful love and gratitude, the ones who went to war in the paradoxical cause of peace, those who have lived and still live with loss, separation and lasting injury of body, mind and spirit since and all the countless others who have been and will be, on this very day, the civilian and military casualties of war?
     
    This year is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. It was to be the war to end all wars. Yet in spite of the now widely acknowledged military blunders and the unimaginable loss of life, the history of the world tells us that there will always will be those, who with a deep paucity of spirit, want to dominate others and use whatever means at their disposal to fight for ultimate power and possession. Conversely, there have been and always will be the people who work tirelessly to resist such agendas, the ones who restore and reconcile and make peace.
     
    Amidst the discussions about the significance of ANZAC Day, which should be rightfully explored but not only in the few days in and around the 25th of April, the suffering and loss of so many can never be allowed to be buried in our memory or the national and world memory.
     
    It is decent and honourable to commit ourselves anew to creating a world in which all that is good and precious and shining will grow and flourish.   What is ultimately remembered on ANZAC Day or on any Remembrance Day come to think of it, is, I want to suggest, not actually patriotism, jingoism, the glorification of war, the expression of nationalistic fervour. That is, arguably, a kind of easy reductionism. What is deeply remembered in the individual and national consciousness is the indiscriminate slaughter of humanity, the quiet dignity of the human spirit, the gold that is buried in the ground, the longing for peace, the sanctity of life, the indestructible power of love.
     
    Some of my family and friends served in the civilian and armed forces at home and overseas in two world wars and in other conflicts since. I have come to know as the years have gone by, that in spite of their own misgivings and apprehensions about the architects of war and the reasons for and consequences of war, they and others have much to teach us about courage in the face of fear and death, humility and strength, vulnerability and loyalty, endurance and suffering, peace and love.
     
    As we continue to reflect upon issues of nationhood and identity which appear to be intertwined with the commemoration of ANZAC Day, we might also reflect upon how we can become peacemakers in our own circles of life, for peace begins with you and me. The Church also has to be willing to prayerfully and demonstrably grow into a visible unity and be a sign of hope to our often divided world. It is easy to preach and pray about peace. The tough call is to make peace and live in peace with one another every day. That is altogether a much greater challenge.
     
     
    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    25 April 2014
     
    Image
    Carillon, William Longstaff, National Collection of War Art, Archives New Zealand.
    During the course of the First World War, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force suffered 59,483 casualties of which 18,166 were fatal.  Will Longstaff honoured the New Zealand fallen by painting a scene depicting the spiritual images of soldiers gathering on the beaches of Belgium and listening to the carillon bells in their home country. The painting is permanently housed at Archives New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand.
     
     

     

  • Passion

     

    The spider webs glisten in the soft slanting light of a gilded Autumn in Aotearoa. The long white cloud has given way, for the moment, to golden luminosity. The intricate patterns and variations of the singing bellbird/korimako in the tree accompany my writing. In whatever way the song functions for this bird, unique to New Zealand, it is beautiful and compelling for me. I cannot imagine a world without birds. Such thoughts add poignancy to this season, soon to be farewelled.   Storm clouds gather.
     
    It was Captain Cook who, in 1770, named the northernmost point of New Zealand's South Island, Cape Farewell, because it was the last land he sighted after leaving these shores for Australia at the end of his first voyage. The longest natural sandbar in the world, called Farewell Spit, is near the Cape. Whale strandings are common there. No-one really knows why. Volunteers from the aptly named Project Jonah   know all about saying farewell.
     
    Jonah was regarded as a prophet in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Inspired by his strange story of rescue and deliverance, those who work for Project Jonah care deeply about the welfare of whales and other sea mammals, their suffering and their needs. 'We believe that both animals and people matter,' they say. 'Whilst the animals are central to what we do, it's people that make our work possible'.
     
    In the Northern Hemisphere, there is another Cape Farewell, which juts out into the northern Atlantic Ocean at the southernmost tip of Greenland. It is the windiest region on Earth. Early Icelandic sagas describe the wild capricious winds at Cape Farewell blowing early Viking explorers from Iceland and Greenland off course to reach landfall in Canada and North America.    
     
    Artist, David Buckland began The Cape Farewell project in 2001 as a cultural response to climate change.   Moving beyond purely scientific debate to creative insight and vision, the project brings together artists, scientists, communicators from around the world...'The Arctic is an extraordinary place to visit...to be inspired...which urges us to face up to what it is we stand to lose', he says.
     
    The Paschal Mystery will soon occupy the thoughts of the Church and its people. Joyous song will give way to a walk with Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, millions of pilgrims have walked in His footsteps, beginning in the Muslim Quarter of that Abrahamic city along a winding path to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter.
     
    We do not have to go to Jerusalem. People of faith, in the week we call Holy will, in their own places of devotion, accompany Jesus and meditate and pray about the events of His Passion and His dying on Good Friday.
     
    His disciples, family and friends faced the end of the incarnation, the end of Jesus' presence on earth. Yet His farewell words to them tell a different story - of love, comfort, change, hope. The poet-prophet from Nazareth encourages them, as he does us, to imagine the promise of the resurrection, of what is to come.
     
    Although our spiritual awareness may wax and wane, the love of the Divine gifts us all we need to fare well in the journey of life. It is a Love that inspires us to be appreciative and generate abundance, wholeness and the sustaining of life in all of creation.
     
    And the whales and the birds and the wind sing a holy song.
     
    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    April 2014
     
    Notes and References:
    Korimako is the Maaori name for the Bellbird
    Image: Passion,   www.lifedesignsbycathleen.com
     
     
     
     
     
          
     
     
     
       

     

  • Solomon's Eden

    Solomon's Eden

    Ever-growing concerns about the sexualisation of our young people are voiced in the home, the media, in public and policy reports as well as a plethora of popular books. Children, teenagers, adults are exposed on a daily basis, overtly and subliminally, to a diversity of sexual messages and behaviour on the internet, in printed media, film, television, in the lyrics and performance of popular music, in the fashion industry, in our exhibitionist celebrity culture.  

    Last week, new guidelines about the themes and tone of film and video came into force by the British Board of Film Classification. The findings of an extensive public consultation of over 10,000 people, including teenagers, underpinned the need for these guidelines. [i] A major concern expressed by respondents was the early sexualisation of young girls, the sexual and language content of music videos and the ease of accessibility by young people to online pornography. Risks to vulnerable adolescents of self-harm, drug misuse and premature access to sexual content in film were also considered to be a serious issue for a majority of respondents.  

    The world-wide web has brought about a radical change in the social and cultural environment for all of us and most especially for our children and young people. It can be, for them, a valuable learning, research, communication and fun tool to access and use through various technologies. Yet it is also the means by which they are vulnerable to the aggressive marketing of powerful companies who exploitatively promote and sell sex in different ways. Children and adolescents can fall prey to paedophiles and other criminals who use the internet to pursue their illegal and abusive behaviour.
     
    Research reveals that the average age of a child's first internet exposure to online adult pornography is 11 years old and that the largest consumers of it are 12-17 year old adolescents. Of that group, 27 per cent of boys are accessing it every week with five per cent viewing it every day. [ii] Sexualisation of young people is a complex topic because many of us perceive sexual connotations in different ways. Polarised opinions dominate the debate. There is, however, a broad consensus amongst practitioners, academics and others, that women are being portrayed more and more as embracing an ever ready sexual availability with sex separated from intimacy and love. Whereas research has indicated that young girls have the ability to criticise and deconstruct sexualised images, this also sits alongside very painful accounts of how bad such images can make them feel and the kinds of pressures they feel subject to. [iii]
     
    If young girls imitate examples of sexual expression from role models such as some minor celebrities, reality show contestants, young pop stars, porn stars and surgically enhanced women, most of whom are paid to increase sales and make money, depict instant pleasure, court controversy and shock, then the chances of girls finding true intimacy, connection, genuine love and passion could be diminished.
     
    Similarly, constructions of masculinity are often linked to sexual prowess and conquest. So-called 'Lads' Mags' boast covers with soft porn images of young women. The rough magic of being a bloke is promoted and free gifts of beer and condoms are offered to increase sales. Boys and young men are being sexualised in ways that could be regarded as neither healthy nor esteem building.
     
    Young people need to be encouraged and enabled to find a sense of personal integrity and a relationship with their bodies that is not based on sexualisation. Surely it is desirable for them to gain a knowledge of the wide range of other possibilities and potentials for living life to the full. Isn't this critical for their well-being and in their relationships with themselves and others? There is a deepening belief around that young people would benefit from becoming more media literate so that they are better equipped to critique sexualised and pornified popular culture. Such literacy would be linked to conversations about consent, coercion, violence and exploitation in sexual relationships. [iv]
     
    I have been reminded of a sermon I preached at St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, later published in Theology in Scotland. [v]   One of the lectionary readings for the day was from The Song of Songs. Revisiting the text over the last few days, I think there are resonances for us in these present times.  
    The only surviving example of ancient Hebrew love poetry, the Song of Songs is a tale of extraordinary eroticism, taking human sexuality seriously. Two young people express their love and desire for one another, unashamedly admiring each other's bodies and celebrating their love. It is the only book in the Bible whose principal speaker is an assertive, confident and happy woman in her own skin. She is strong, her partner is sensitive.
     
    Morals, marriage ethics, contractual obligations don't see the light of day. Neither is it an allegory even though there are those who interpret it as such. Over the centuries the Church taught that because of the Adam and Eve story, sex was sinful unless for procreation and women were the lure to that sin, their subjection, the consequence. [vi] The feminine voice was heard quietly, if at all. It is little wonder then that such sensual poetry was and still is, in some quarters, conveniently regarded in allegorical terms.
    The blush factor not spared, these young people capture the freshness of new, consensual love, enjoying a bond of mutual sharing and tenderness, expressing a sacred sexuality of joy, intimacy, reciprocal longing, mutual esteem and wholesomeness. Restraints and propriety are present and we are reminded that their sexual expression of love is neither trivial, cheap nor a commodity which can be bought and sold in the marketplace. Their loving grace and gracefulness, beauty and fragility refreshes our awareness.
     
    In all the diversity of our expressions of love and physical love, perhaps we need to be aware of what protects wholeness in our relationships. If this is forgotten all kinds of misuse and abuse can take place. Might we reflect that we may always be on holy ground and that this doesn't invite open license to do anything? Neither though, can such expression in the context of people's lives be confined within narrow prohibition.
     
    Rowan Williams, before he became Archbishop of Canterbury said in a speech about human sexuality,
    '…the moral question ought to be one of how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body's capacity to heal and to enlarge the life of other people…' [vii]  
     
    What God celebrates in all our expressions of love - physical, sexual, sensual, non-sexual is deep, selfless, uninhibited sharing – mind, body and spirit - in faithful, healthy and enduring relationships that reflect unconditional love and dependable fidelity.
    '…vital for human life…love alone can awaken what is divine within…a rhythm of grace and gracefulness…when love awakens in your life, it is like a rebirth, a new beginning.' [viii]
    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
    March 2014
       
     
    [i] See www.bbfc.co.uk for details of the new guidelines and the results of the research
    [ii] Sex Education Survey, YouGov (2008);   Livingstone, Beber et al (2005) Internet Literacy among children and young people, Go Online Project)
    [iii] Gill, Rosalind, Professor of Social and Culture Analysis, Kings College London, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Conference, Premature sexualisation: understanding the risks, 2011
    [iv] Coy, Maddy, Dr., Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University, NSPCC Conference 2011
    [v] Smith, Hilary, Revd. Dr., A Beautiful and Enriching Love, Theology in Scotland, 2008
    [vi] See Holloway, Richard, Godless Morality, (Canongate 1999) page 58
    [vii] Williams, Rowan, The Body's Grace, 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address to The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement 1989, pages 4,5
    [viii] O'Donohue, John, Anam Cara, Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, (Bantam 1999) page 26

     

  • Fearless Inclusivity

    The Rev. John Fairbrother 21 February 2014

    For four or five centuries the intellectual tide in support of the supernatural has been receding.   It is sadly surprising, then, to hear of Christians being reluctant to divulge a lack of belief in anything supernatural. Is it possible to be a follower of Jesus Christ without acknowledgement of a supernatural realm?

    An answer would depend on both Biblical interpretation and the intellectual relationships between systematic theology, philosophy and empirical knowledge gained via experience and research.   Knowledge is never static nor is biblical interpretation.

    The evolving nature of understanding has given rise to many versions of what it may mean to be a follower of Jesus. By virtue of their existence Church denominations give witness to this, as do categories ranging from so-called Bible based Christian to Christian Atheist.
     
    The test of faith becomes acute when one reaches a point of acceptance, or not, about the endless nature of unconditional intellectual enquiry. For many this has become a question of integrity. Why should some questions remain contained by a confession of faith?
     
    The point is not as simple as saying show me evidence and I will believe. Rather the point of faith co-existing with unconditional enquiry is to live with deepest respect for the human condition.
     
    In Christian terms, such respect holds incarnation as a continuing reality of being wholly present within this life and, subsequently, letting go of any fear of judgement beyond this life. Heaven becomes understood as a state of being and the Way of Jesus becomes the means of entering such a state.
     
    Christian spirituality and theology has long sought to align the religious poetic imagination with explicit intellectual expression. Explaining the imaginative and intuitive has found rich resource with supernatural imagery. Ironic in the use of anthropomorphic language, supernatural imagery has served to transcend present circumstances by being the means to hold an endless source of ideals, aspirations and hope. However, how well is such language continuing to convey significant meaning?  
     
    Can one hold a Christian Faith without a supernatural belief?   To say 'no' confronts a prominent dimension of Christian orthodoxy. To say 'yes' engages growing numbers asking unconditional questions about Biblical interpretation in the light of current scientific, historical and philosophical research.
     
    There is much writing and gathering about such thinking. A range of contemporary examples include, Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age, Lloyd Geering's writings of Christianity without God, Don Cupitt, The Jesus Seminar, Bishop John Spong are among them. [i]
     
    This can be an uncomfortable topic. However, it is one that has been in an evolving public debate for at least the last five centuries. Room abounds to engage such writers in open debate.
     
    Alternatively, one may ignore the discussion, seek to discredit or use the weight of authoritative office to quieten or even intimidate. Whatever any response may be this discussion is not going away. In the face of discovery in many fields of enquiry, increasing access to education and the advent of social media, the likelihood is it will become more pronounced.
     
    Recourse to the supernatural carries the answers to things that may or cannot be explained. For example: How did life begin? A straight forward answer has long been 'God made heaven and Earth'.
     
    Alternatively, the same answer may also be understood as one born of the poetic imagination, seeking to convey the miraculous gift of life. And it is from seeking to understand this gift that much of the unconditional enquiry now challenging the validity of belief in a supernatural realm arises.
     
    Poetry, music, for example, bring the imaginative mind and rational observer into a concerted expression that, at once, may be a transcendent presence and bearer of light to the practical depths of compassion, hope, love, fear and understanding.
     
    The intellectual craft of Biblical text is filled with expressions of the poetic mind. The same can be said of worship and liturgy. Is it possible to imagine the living of Christian Faith, where there is no exclusivity about supernaturalism but rather a fearless inclusivity of any who would seek Jesus' Way to life in all its fullness?
     
    [i] See for example:
    Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007
    Lloyd Geering, Christianity without God, Bridget Williams Books, 2003
     
    John Fairbrother
    19 February 2014
     

     

  • Spacious Spirituality

    The Rev. John Fairbrother 10 February 2014

    Spacious Spirituality

     

    You will not have to travel far to appreciate the multi-cultural character of Auckland and much else of New Zealand. The diversity of cultures is obvious at work places, parks, beaches, schools, streets, malls, markets, theatre, wherever people gather and pursue the demands of everyday.
     
    In the life of my generation contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand has relegated a white monocultural society to the historical record. While far from perfect in current form, there can be no return to an era when immigrants were tolerated and indigenous people were seen rather than heard.
     
    New Zealand is now recognised as part of the Asia region. A small, independently minded South Pacific country making its way in a competitive rapidly changing world. Globalisation and cultural diversity has become the modern reality.
     
    In any society, New Zealand being no exception, the need for cultures to understand one another and commit to sharing the benefits of living alongside one another has never been more pressing. Prejudice about differences of race, social status, religion or outright xenophobia will lead only to destruction of mutual wellbeing.
     
    The history of world religions provides many examples of such destruction and the record continues to grow. Tragically, conflicts categorised by religious difference remain flashpoints for violence in many parts of the world.
     
    This reality has increasing significance for the Christian Church internationally and within New Zealand. While it is often argued Christian values inform our law and culture, multi faith dialogue has long been promoted by many Christians.
     
    Over time many other religions have taken firm footing, bringing differing expressions of spirituality. Sadly this can threaten the confidence of some about the perceived place and/or status of the Christian Faith.
     
    Chaplaincies minister at the raw edge of this reality. School, military, police, hospital and other work place chaplaincies are all examples, ministering in places where people present a variety of faith expressions or none. Parish clergy, too, minister in communities with incredible diversity. Ministry is not as straight forward as it once may have been.
     
    The immediate response is the Church ministers to all. Thankfully this remains true. However, there is a point when differences between religions can become a barrier to sharing the experiences of spirituality.
     
    It is not unheard of for Chaplains and others to find themselves needing the generosity of a spacious spirituality which recognises the validity of another belief and faith system without needing to compromise their own. I recall a Biblical scholar describing a “proper confidence”, namely the capacity to defend one's faith with strength of gentle reverence.   I also recall a senior Anglican Priest once said to me, tell me a more convincing story and I will accept it.
     
    A spacious spirituality has room to accommodate dialogue and respect for differences of belief and faith.   Other religions notwithstanding, a simple test is to listen to the almost incredible differences of belief held across the spectrum of faith within the Christian Church.  
     
    The world is changing around the Church. The Anglican Church's tortuous response to sexuality issues is illustrative enough. Yet, after years of struggle, much of the Communion is beginning to express a spirituality once considered virtually an anathema a generation ago. Theology is clearly responding to societal change: it always has done.
     
    The challenge pressing the Church is how to live with other religions in ways that authentically share the human experience of spirituality.   Avoiding or attempting to control such challenge will serve to deepen conflict and hasten the unnecessary decline and marginalisation of the Church. This is a loss not merely for the Church. Rather it is a failure to address the diverse nature of human need with generosity of Spirit that defines the practice of Faith.  
     
    ©John Fairbrother
     
    Image by Colin Hopkirk
     
     
     
     
     
     

     

  • The wake-up call to beat them all

    The Rev. John Fairbrother 3 February 2014

    The wake-up call to beat them all

    A spacecraft millions of kilometres from earth, ten years after launch, being brought out of induced hibernation by mission control. The signals took something like forty five minutes to travel the distance one way. Right on cue, Rosetta came back to life to be readied for a remarkable first in exploration and discovery. The project is an amazing combination of imagination, science, navigation and risk management.

     
    The craft is designed to deliver a lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (C-G) and accompany the comet as it enters our inner solar system. While a successful mission will reveal much about the life of comets, it may reveal information about creation that pre-dates our solar system. Most intriguing of all, it may assist with questions about comets possibly first delivering the elements essential for life to evolve.
     
    Rosetta is named after the stone that, around 200 years ago, provided the key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics. The lander is named Philae after an island in the Nile, where an obelisk was found that helped the decoding of the Stone. Rosetta, the space vehicle, has the goal of reading the origins of the Earth and life itself. Philae will assist, standing on the comet drawing data, all the while speeding toward the sun.
     
    The realm of science fiction continues to make room for such audacious adventures. One might wonder at what is to come. Dreams aside, this joint venture of The European Space Agency and NASA will serve to enlarge our understanding of the earth and interstellar space.
     
    It all begs the question of what such exploration might reveal about the human condition. Will humanity derive direct benefit from this craft's extraordinary trip around the solar system?
     
    The benefits of potential discovery may astound us all. It may reveal information useful for tracking and averting asteroid threats. Alongside the sciences, prospects of pursuing mineral wealthwill have ongoing enticement. Gaining knowledge about traveling in deep space will inform future programs, not least the likelihood of going to Mars. Heck, we might hear we are not alone, then again…   However, what might this adventure tell us of ourselves?
     
    In 1990 Carl Sagan convinced the controllers of Voyager 1 to reverse the direction of its cameras, as it neared the limits of our planetary system, in order to view Earth in the context of space (http://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/earth/pale-blue-dot.html). The result is the famous blue dot. There among countless stars is a little blue point. It is the Earth, as it were floating, alone, relatively insignificant. It remains an image that is inspiring and for some frightening.
     
    Exploration of space presents humanity with the opportunity to take an objective view of Home. To appreciate the miraculous beauty each of us is privileged to enjoy for a time. With all the empirical knowledge that may come our way the opportunities also present reflective insights. For example: life is transitory and fragile; national borders are invention; humanity cannot do anything else but make a life here, therefore making effort to co-operate one with another is worthwhile; we all are part of a whole sustained by a very thin biosphere, surrounded by the infinite inhospitable vastness of space.
     
    Above all such appreciation, one might wonder at the fact of our being. For many this becomes the ground of religious faith. To see Earth as a miracle of life in a lonely part of the universe is to invite conjecture at our origin. Whether by chance or the gift of Divine providence, the wonder of it has potential to evoke a profound sense of thankfulness for life itself.
     
    Rosetta offers opportunities for us to re-read our own stories and appreciate afresh the fragile diversity of life that enriches us all. A spacecraft heard a wake-up call. One might pray we will hear the same.
     
    ©John Fairbrother
    23 January 2014
     
    Image: Rosetta calls Home: ESA
     
     
     
     
     

     

  • A Salty Reverie

    A Salty Reverie

     

    With elderly poise and grace, my four-legged friend slowly makes her way along the pathway to a favourite patch of grass. Minx and I have been together for fifteen years. So many adventures we have enjoyed. Days of climbing mountains, chasing rabbits and catching sticks now belong to her dreams.
     
    It is summertime as we sit at the water's edge. She loves the sights and sounds and smells of her world. Every now and then, we catch a glimpse of each other. Our time together so precious.
     
    It's a warm day. A day to do nothing except think or not think. Little boats with assorted generations of family on board, putt out of the harbour. Children in swimsuits play tag on the beach and tuck into fruit salad and jelly afterwards. Seagulls hover overhead, waiting for a piece of pineapple to come their way.  
     
    Dreams and memories add to this salty reverie. I'm five years old again, on the beach at Blackpool in Lancashire, with my younger brother, Mark. We are wearing our new inflatable swim rings. Mark's ring has a horse's head, mine is a swan. The Irish Sea is always cold. Small guardians of the future do not worry about such things. Mum and Dad gently pull us into less shallow water, not letting go until, screeching with fearful delight, we insist on freedom. Afterwards, we head to the ice-cream parlour for banana splits all round. To children belongs the Kingdom of God.
     
    All this reminiscing comes to an end when two men in gumboots, argue furiously on the quayside over their catch of fish and I hear the gunshots of a pig hunter in the valley. Contemplative spirituality has to engage with the world.
     
    With her twilight perception, Minx has gifted me the wisdom that times of stillness and refreshment are vital to wholeness. Intense movement, busyness, work, justification of self, through the doing of deeds are endemic these days, not least in the Church. Many clergy, from Archbishops down, earnestly go about the business of religion attending endless meetings, compulsory personal development courses, supervision sessions, yearly reviews and formulating still more desperate strategies for mission. Yet what significant time is given to the heart of vocation -   presence - sharing the sights and sounds and smells of other people's worlds and being refreshed in mind, body and spirit?
     
    The clergy of Jane Austen's time were not known to work onerously. As the daughter and sister of clergymen, Jane always included at least one vicar in her novels. Taking tea with parishioners was a most regular occurrence for them, as was reading in the study and if they were single, wooing a fair maiden. Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey was noticeably absent from his parish for much of the year, retreating to the town of Bath. His lack of commitment would surely be questioned these days, yet he saw the world quite poetically and spiritually, '… I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.' For all his flaws, Henry Tilney took time to see the subtlest of things.  
     
    Is it possible to find a still and quiet place in our hearts and lives?
     
    At the heart of Vaughan Park is the Ruatara Chapel. Three times a day, the community gathers there to mark the hours of the day, to pray for justice, peace and the integrity of creation and to value the ordinary as sacred. As most of us are rarely in a place where we stand and in the time that is now, this living of the canonical hours is a vital resource.
     
    The Book of Hours, popular in the medieval period, was originally written by monks who contemplated the nature of God in quietness, sometimes isolation. It contained prayers for specific hours of the day, days of the week, months and seasons, with illustrations to help the reader contemplate and meditate. It was read by all kinds of people from every strata of society, often carried in pocket or bag. The Liturgy of the Hours, The Daily Office, The Divine Services all originate from this early source of wisdom.
      
    Wisdom, I think, is a deeper way of knowing and living in rhythm with our souls, life and the Divine. It is about learning to balance the known with the unknown and linking the whole of life to a deeper Unity. Jesus withdrew to quiet places, in mind, body and spirit. He considered it wise.
     
    The Christian Church reminds us in early February of the story in St. Luke's gospel about the elderly priest and prophetess, Simeon and Anna. They waited many faithful years to bless the Christ Child and sensed the sacredness of the moment when he came before them. With the wisdom of age and the daily prayers of a lifetime, they saw God in Jesus and knew him to be the Light of the World.
     
    At Candlemas and at any other time, come to think of it, we light candles in response to Love, praying and believing that Light will shine where wars rage, hate burns, fresh water is but a dream, land is stolen and pillaged. We also pray that the Light will continue to shine in the lives of people who honour love, justice, truth, peace and hope. The Church, for all its flaws and in its goodness, still seeks the Light.
     
    Minx is resting at my feet as I write these words. Perhaps she is dreaming of a time when she swam in the river or when she licked away the tears from my face on the night Dad died. I gaze out at our garden. The boughs of the gnarled pear tree, planted some eighty years ago, are laden with fruit.
     
    ©Hilary Oxford Smith
           
    Image   Children sitting on wall at the seaside, by the artist, Marilyn Spence, www.marilynspence.co.uk
     
          
     

     

  • Beyond a Prophetic Science

    The Rev. John Fairbrother 31 January 2014

     

    Australia has simmered under a heat wave. California has felt the effects of drought and lack of the regular snow melt. Globally cities suffer dangerous air pollution and large cyclonic events continue to damage coasts and threaten the existence of island communities. Such events have become normal.
     
    The warming of the earth is a fact. Without doubt, we humans have used fossil fuels in a manner and at rates that chart a pathway to our own destruction. While political elites continue to conference, seeking ways to reduce carbon emissions, the politics of market advantage and compromise persistently frustrate effective accord for the good of all life.
     
    The 'developed economies' have derived enormous benefits from industrial, agrarian and scientific advance. 'Developing economies' are well set on similar paths to become competitive in global markets. Those who remain relatively 'undeveloped' are often fought over by nations aligned with either or both of the above for little more than the earth resources within their lands and seas.
     
    It is curious what constitutes an international crisis. In recent memory, the collapse of financial houses on Wall Street qualified, destroying the regime of Saddam Hussein likewise. In earlier times the great depression of 1929 and wars such as World Wars 1 & 2, Korea and Vietnam filled the bill. Self-destruction via human generated climate change does not seem to make the cut, yet.
     
    Perhaps the reasons are twofold. Firstly, the excessive gases and carbon being emitted are invisible to immediate perception. Secondly, politicians are restrained, if not motivated, by the demands of constituencies requiring ever increasing standards of living.
     
    Invisibility is a challenge. The study of climate change has been a prophetic science. It has served to indicate destructive changes that simply had not been apparent. Prophets of disaster are rarely welcome.
     
    Governing decision-makers face enormous complexity. This January the World Economic Forum met in Davos. The participants, comprising political and business leaders, academics and others have been addressing The Reshaping of the World: The Consequences for Society, Politics and Business. A primary concern of the Forum has been the troubling consequences of globalisation along with the urgent need to reduce growing inequality. (http://www.weforum.org/).
     
    Given the record to date, what change might those who suffer realistically expect? In the short to medium term very little. Living standards around the world continue to be measured by means of wealth accumulation and exchange and management of poverty.
     
    Low wages, competitive employment and education environments leave many distracted hoping and looking for relief from unrelenting daily struggle. Engaging in voluntary activity to alleviate climate change can seem remote, even if such a cause is life-saving.
     
    The politics of slowing climate change will need more than government only led initiatives. The concern will need to take root in the hearts and minds of the majority of people going about their daily rounds. Until there is sufficient demand at the level of local communities, governing politicians will continue policy compromises in response to the lobbies that maintain electoral resources.
                                                                                                                                 
    The struggle for reduction of greenhouse gases needs to move beyond scientists and organised protest. Necessary change will occur only when public opinion motivates politicians to respond with a sense of mandated purpose.  
     
    Fortunately the internet enables information to confound borders and political control. Movements like 350.org (http://350.org/)and the commitment of Churches to ethical investment and divestment of fossil fuels are current examples of change taking root.
     
    The prospect of climate change being accepted as a genuine international crisis is a positive one. After all, it will require global co-operation across all levels of societies to achieve the required outcomes for reduction of greenhouse gases for the good of all life.
     
    ©John Fairbrother
     
     
     
     

     

  • Bedrock of a Democracy

    The Rev. John Fairbrother 21 January 2014

    Get ready for the triennial dose of popularist politicking, facile rhetoric and expedient policy pronouncements. General election year has come round again.

    Among all the posturing and spin, hopefully, genuine policy trends will become apparent. Trends that inform the public of the direction a party and its leader might take if power should be won. Major parties will seek to affirm their faithful constituents, win over the unsure and seek to dismiss or apprehend the policy of their opponents.

    New Zealand’s electoral system is a combative process, which rightly demands clarity and resilience. The positive sub text of any campaign, despite the debates and announcements, is the process itself will refine and temper political will and skill.

    Best intentions notwithstanding, an election inevitably will reveal a competitive mêlée of political statements, rebuttals and counter statements. The discerning citizen is required to listen carefully, observe, and recall the records of former governments and politicians to ensure the two votes of Mixed Member Proportional representation are applied as creatively as possible.

    MMP provided the means to break autocratic government by executive. Cabinet can no longer retreat from public scrutiny as it could prior to the electoral reform. Minor parties sitting at Parliament’s debating crossroad have acquired practical influence to moderate the effects of powerful political lobbies and related policy implementations.

    However, there is a challenge to the efficacy of the parliamentary system that is related to electoral reform but lies outside the parliament. Public participation in an election is the key to democratic function. If a majority of people do not turn out to vote how authentic is an election?  This presents the risk of minority government of a different form. A choice not to vote is significant.

    New Zealand society has troubling similarities with other western democracies. We, too, have growing extremes of poverty and wealth; a loosely termed middle class straining with the demands of work, living expenditure, market driven peer expectations, and the challenges of personal relationships intensified in increasingly mobile, connected, atomised social environments.

    Low voter turnout may be not so much an outcome of ignorance or apathy as much as resignation to the reality of every day being sufficient concern unto itself. Indifference and despair may breed frustration, even anger. It will unlikely provide a reasoned climate conducive to participatory politics.

    Governments have a direct responsibility to nurture the health of a democratic system. It is the system that provides our society’s sense of continuity from generation to generation. Politicians come and go. Their roles are of major significance and their policies may become so, however, their personal stakes are entirely transitory.

    All politicians have responsibility to promote the worth of democracy. In this regard the democratic system requires care, maintenance, creative criticism and change measured against the safe context it provides for all citizens.

    Local Authority elections have long been plagued by low voter turnout. The risk of this same trend being a significant factor for General Elections is a matter of grave concern. The need for a systematic civics course in the schools’ national curriculum has never been stronger. An informed, interested electorate will function well only if the system of education accepts responsibility to educate the young about the privilege and significance of voting.

    To participate in the electoral process is to contribute and to contribute is to share in the responsibilities and outcomes of government. Such participation is the bedrock of a democracy.

     

    John Fairbrother

    14 January 2014

     

  • The risky path of engendering conversations

    The Rev. John Fairbrother 14 January 2014

     

    Sunday morning is a day that retains vestiges of being a day set apart. A great day for attending systematic attractions geared to meet the voracious engine of retail need. Yet, do you sense a faintly different ambience to other days of the week?
     
    On Sunday mornings garden centres, malls, cafes and the like are busy. The phenomenon of shopping has become a fixed ritual in New Zealand society. For those who can afford the luxury, Sunday is a great family and friends' day with all this country offers with retail, alongside the traditional enjoyments of arts, sports and scenic locations.
     
    Each Sunday, a living relic of an era now passed continues to exhibit life signs. Around the country there are gatherings of Christians of all sorts of theological persuasion. Such gatherings continue to fall under the public classification of Church.
     
    Within current life-time church attendance was once among the main public activities of the day. That reality authenticated the day's name and style. Sunday was the recognised, established Christian Sabbath, the one day of rest available to the majority of the population in each week.   Clearly neither remains the case.
     
    Goodness knows churches have tried to hold their numbers. The Anglican Church, for example, declared the 1990's to be the decade of evangelism. If numbers were to be the measure, success was distinctly limited. The same Church retains a fivefold mission statement that, fortunately, manages to release an occasional glimmer of light.
     
    Many churches have applied all sorts of programmes to attract and disciple possible returning and new adherents. For example: there has been 40 Days of Purpose, Alpha, Messy Church, and Progressive Church, support for ongoing clergy development and systematic learning opportunities for laity. Meanwhile some have sought to quietly evolve the long familiar practice of customary Church. To date the overall decline is showing no sign of arrest. Sadly, perhaps, talk about the Church now living on 'the margin of society' seems to provide some sort of solace rather than effective animation.
     
    The difficulties have been exacerbated with the onslaught of the New Atheist movement. Despite defences offered by theologians and the like, the atheists' criticisms bring direct challenge to the meaning churches claim to hold and proclaim. This is not a new phenomenon. It has been growing since the enlightenment, gathered speed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and took flight with rapidly advancing science in the twentieth. Confrontation by the New Atheists is one founded on questions of contemporary evidence and meaning.
     
    Ironically the one Church that has landed itself in deeper strife than most and maintains conservative ground with a near breath taking defiance may be signalling a simple, direct hope for churches. Relic be damned! The election of Pope Francis has brought a fresh voice.
     
    The voice is remarkable not solely for profound theological discourse or defined judgements. Rather it is a voice appearing concerned for conversation among people, rather than categorisation of people. It is a voice that addresses Church as being a simple process concerned for focussed pastors and priests to step outside their establishments to reach needs in local communities. Francis seems concerned for the risky path of engendering conversations that build communities.
     
    Such thinking does not fit well into the applications of structured programmes. Nor does it provide static intellectual targets for empirically minded atheists. To employ a metaphor: it appears to be much more like gardening where one tills the soil, pulls a few weeds, nurtures new shoots with water and useful sustenance hoping enough is done for a reasonable crop. Gardening is a practical act of faith. It is a gift to the earth, to other people, to oneself.
     
    Incidentally gardening has long been a worthy, restful Sunday activity. It is one resonate with deep biblical imagery, similar to gathering with friends for food, conversation and re-creation where appearance matters little and presence means all.
     
    ©John Fairbrother
    January 2014
     

     

  • Memorials and Myths

    The Rev. John Fairbrother 17 December 2013

     

    Preparations for Christmas 2013 have been almost overcome by the events marking and surrounding the death of Nelson Mandela. Various international public media have inundated news cast and commentary with images, memories and discussion.

    Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter, prisoner, political inspiration and statesman has left the stage. The inevitable processes of reflection and analysis will now become enveloped in historical and creative narratives of his life. The making of the myths that will carry meaning to future generations has begun.

    For Aotearoa New Zealand 2014 will witness both a bicentenary and a centenary, memorials of events that are key to understanding what it means to be a Kiwi. The year will mark 200 years since the advent of institutional Church in these islands and the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1.

    Where the very recent death of Nelson Mandela will remain present in living memory for much of a generation, the arrival of the Rev Samuel Marsden in 1814 and the World War of 1914-18 are beyond recall. Memorials will be held to mark the significance of the time and meanings accumulated. Myths will be embellished.

    In this country many will revere Marsden for being the bearer of the Good News. His sermon delivered at Oihi beach has no record beyond the biblical theme he chose for that Christmas day: ‘Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy”. The arrival of institutional Church is a great occasion for contemporary Church to celebrate.

    Was the establishment of the Church his only reason for arrival? His relationship with the young chief Ruatara also appears well founded on the commerce of trade that would bring benefit to both parties. Marsden has grounded good cause for a sound religious memorial. His actions also left wide paths for myths to grow around his intentions, relationships and outcomes.

    In 1914 this country, then relatively very new with identities found more in provincial locations than any sense of nationhood, pledged itself to participate in a European war. New Zealand suffered proportionate losses greater than any other.

    The pain of families and localities must have been visceral, perhaps unimaginable to our present era. Yet out of such industrialised hell we learn a sense of nationhood emerged. The ritual memorials of the day, the memorials of stone and wood, remain to command our respect and challenge the value placed on such disastrous loss of youth. Heroes they may have been. Young men and women they most certainly were.  

    The myths that come from inherited memories are well worth holding with care. Care to serve the realities of lives deserving memorial and care to offer minds yet to come the scope to understand the complex depth of history’s tradition on which we stand.

    New Zealanders have memories of Nelson Mandela to share. The meaning of these memories will inform the worth of inevitable myths that will inform any future memorials of his life, struggle and inspiration. Such worth is likely best interpreted via the truths any of us seek to live by.

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • "If you have faith..."

    Susan Smith 26 November 2013

     

    Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Greece visiting the places where Paul had journeyed. And then on to Ireland where we stayed at Glendalough, the most important centre of early Irish monasticism. The hermit priest, St Kevin, was one of the key figures responsible for the extraordinary growth of Irish monasticism. Sadly the monastery was partially destroyed by English troops in the late 14th century. We also spent time in France, where our congregation had come to birth in 1861 in Lyon.  

     

    Upon my return to New Zealand I was struck by the number of people who asked me what was the most important moment for me. I could not answer as there were so many wonderful moments. Now I have two tentative responses.

     

    First, I was struck by the extraordinary faith that led people to build monastic cities in Celtic Ireland or great cathedrals and monasteries in France. Fortunately the weather in Ireland was mostly rain-free, so we had ample opportunity to wander around the ancient monastic city of Glendalough now in ruins, and to visit the three or four nearby churches also in ruins. I became very conscious of the faith and generosity that led people without the technology that we take for granted today to express in such a tangible way their belief and faith in God.

     

    Then on to Paris, where we visited Sacred Heart Basilica in Montmartre. Construction began in 1875 and was finished in 1914.  This cathedral, full of African, Asian American, Oceanic and European tourists, witnesses to the revival of Catholicism after the persecution of the revolutionary era, and the excesses of the Second Empire and Paris Commune. Immediately behind the basilica is the older St Peter of Montmartre built in the 9th century on the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Mars. When we visited it was remarkably free of tourists, and its Cistercian-like simplicity was in stark contrast to its grand neighbour. It was possible to feel an extraordinary sense of relationship with those who had gone before me.

     

    From Paris it was but a short train journey to Chartres to visit the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, now a UNESO world heritage site. The cathedral was completed in 1250, the fifth church to be built on that site. Four previous churches had been constructed there since the 4th century. Its artistic splendour means it is easy to see why it is a UNESCO heritage site. But that same artistic splendour spoke to me of the loving faith that that was present behind the wonderful stained glass windows, and the amazing statues and friezes that adorned both the exterior and interior walls.

     

    And then on to Lyon where we spent some time in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, completed in 1476, and again constructed on the site of a more ancient church where St Irenaeus had been one of the early bishops. Lyon is also where we find the Church of St Nizier, another extraordinary example of a Gothic cathedral, and constructed on the site of an ancient temple honouring the Roman god, Attis. More recently in the 19th century Suzanne Aubert was baptised in the church of St Nizier.

     

    Because Taizé is close to Lyon we went there for our Sunday liturgy. The monastery of Taizé was built in 1940, not far from the ruins of the famous monastery at Cluny. The summer season which sees enormous numbers of pilgrims at Taizé was over but still there was a large congregation for a prayerful and simple Eucharistic celebration.

     

    Second, the experience of being in these wonderful cathedrals and monasteries thronged with tourists and fellow Christians from all over the world allowed to appreciate more deeply what ‘the communion of saints’ means. Visiting these places reminded me that we are part of something much greater than our own particular parish. We are part of a tradition that stretches back through the centuries, that stretches outwards to all the world’s peoples, and touches us within as we stand in awe at the faith of previous generations.

     

    Postscript

    It never ceases to amaze me that the wonderful awe-inspiring cathedral at Chartres was constructed mostly between 1194 and 1250. Fifty four years!! It took about three years to sort out about one kilometre of State Highway 1 that runs through Warkworth, and this in the age of computers, trucks, bulldozers etc. It is amazing what faith can mean.

     

    Image: Entrance to St. Kevin's Monastic City, Glendalough, Ireland (Susan Smith)