Saturday, June 1, 2013

Doing the right thing...

One and a half weeks ago I think we were all shocked to hear about a man in London who was rammed by a car before being hacked to death by two men who were angry about the activity of British troops in Afghanistan. I was shocked at the brutality of the action and the lack of remorse demonstrated by the men. I was shocked at the twisted version of Islamic teaching that was used to justify the atrocity. And I was shocked that while the murderers boasted about their action a crowd of people gathered to watch, film and take photographs. Why did people take photographs of this tragedy, and post them on their Facebook pages to prove that they were watching? I don’t think I’m looking for a testosterone charged Bruce Willis character to come rolling out from behind a car and take the bad guys down. And I don’t think I’m hoping for an extraordinary martial artist who could have disarmed and disabled both of these men. But I guess I do hope for people to do more than pull out their i-phone to take a photo! As it turned out there were three people who demonstrated extraordinary courage and they were not SAS operatives. Amanda (44) stopped her car and sat beside the murdered man to pray with him, while her daughter Gemini (20) talked with one of the killers. Not far away, Ingrid (48), got off a bus and engaged the other killer in conversation to distract him from perpetrating further violence on the many people who stood near-by. These three women have been dubbed by the media ‘the angels of Woolwich’, and have been rightly praised for their courage. May we also have courage in our living… to love justice, practice kindness and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). A prayer for the week: Loving God, we ask you to help us do what is right, even when that means standing out from the crowd. When there is unkindness, we ask you to help us be kind; when there is injustice we ask you to help us speak truth and work for change; and when there is the need for love give us the courage to reach out our hand and recognise you with us in the midst of that relationship. We pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen. Notices: Reconciliation Service: Tonight our Parish looks forward to welcoming friends from different churches and different communities in an ecumenical Reconciliation Service. The service begins at 7pm and it would be wonderful to have as many people as possible from our church community present to pray for reconciliation between the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples of Australia. We will give thanks for the fruit of the journey so far, and recommit our lives to the journey yet to be travelled.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Confirmation Affirmation

This weekend eight people will be Confirmed by Bishop Godfrey at a service on Sunday evening starting at 7pm. On Friday, January 7th 2011, a further six people will be Confirmed. In preparing for Confirmation each candidate has had to reflect on who, or what, they think God is; Appreciate that the wisdom writing of our faith was first written in Hebrew and Greek before being translated into English; explore what is known about Jesus and think about what they believe; think about what is meant by the term 'Holy Spirit'; reflect on what prayer is, read the prayers of others, and write their own prayer; and discuss the promises that are made in Confirmation.

There will be no exam - although each candidate is writing a letter to the Bishop to explain why they want to be Confirmed! One person said that they wanted to be Confirmed so that she could think of herself as a full member of the Anglican Church. Another said that it was difficult to put into words but seemed the right thing to do at this stage of life and faith journey.

For those of us who have been Baptised and Confirmed for a long time there is the opportunity to reflect upon and possibly renew our vows: I turn to Christ; I repent of my sins; I reject selfish living and all that is false and unjust; I renounce evil.

With a few more weeks I would have encouraged the Confirmation Candidates to read the main Creeds of faith written by others and then encouraged them to write their own. But saying 'I believe' is only part of the story? The step after this would surely be to work with the Candidates to write some personal Covenants. Maybe some post-Confirmation study is in order?

Here is a confirmation affirmation we are using as a focus this week:

The Cross – we shall take it!
The Bread – we shall break it!
The Pain – we shall bear it!
The Joy – we shall share it!
The Love – we shall give it!
The Light – we shall show it!
The Darkness – we shall defeat it!
The Gospel – we shall live it!
The Kingdom – we shall build it!


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some thoughts about prayer

In some ways when we think about and engage in prayer we gather the threads of what we’ve spoken about over previous weeks. For in the wisdom writing of our faith we read about God as a loving creator, divinely present in the Palestinian man Jesus, and yet we believe that God’s Spirit is somehow present in the midst of all creation… and particularly in the midst of each human life. In prayer we engage with that Spirit of God… in words and thoughts; in music and dance; in movement and stillness; in breathing and silence.

What is prayer?
I think prayer can be helpfully thought of as humanity seeking communion with God. Quite often people think of prayer as communication with God and as in human communication this finds expression in both talking (words), and listening (silence). Usually we are better at talking than listening, and if our talking is a long list of things that we want for ourselves we may sometimes come close to thinking of God as a giant Santa in the sky… ‘Please help me… get well again! …win the Lotto! …finish my assignment! …get this job! etc’.

Praying, ‘Thank You!’ - I think it is quite easy to pray ‘help me’ when things seem to be going wrong, but it is harder to pray ‘thank you’ when things are going well. Yet learning to pray ‘thank you’ is a very important focus for it can develop within us a sense of gratitude and wonder and this can diminish an over emphasis on our own ‘needs’… making it more likely that we recognise the needs of others. We can say ‘thank you’ …for our lives, for each breath and heartbeat, for people to share love with, for health, for places to call home, for money in the bank, for meaningful work, for a beautiful song, for rain… what are ten things that you could say ‘thank you’ for at this time? I think praying ‘thank you’ can also develop into words of praise to God which say ‘I love you’ and ‘You are awesome!’

Praying, ‘Sorry’ - In the midst of human living we inevitably fall short of our ideals sometimes: we hurt people in the things we say and do, and sometimes in the things we don’t say or do. It is no accident then that our church services usually have a time to say ‘sorry’ in the words of a confession …and then have an assurance of God’s forgiveness in the words of an absolution. Just ask any couple and you’ll find that learning to say ‘sorry’ is really important in human relationships, and we can take that insight into our relationship with God. If we’re honest we could probably recognise when we’ve broken one or several of the Old Testament Ten Commandments, or the New Testament mandate to love God, love neighbour, and love ourselves. When have you forgiven someone, or been forgiven, and what difference did that make? In many PNG languages there is no word for sorry because the belief is that you cannot just SAY ‘sorry’… in those cultures you have to DO ‘sorry’ for it to have meaning. There is much helpful for us to think about in the way our culture uses the word ‘sorry’ rather than encouraging it in action.

Praying for, ‘Blessing’ – over the years I have found it helpful to simply pray for God’s blessing on the lives of people and on situations of brokenness. We can pray for blessing (wholeness) in the life of someone who is well, someone who is sick, communities like Woorabinda, and people in need that we hear about on the news… like the peoples of South and North Korea at this time of possible war. Try praying ‘blessing’ for one week on the lives of people you know, and on some situations of brokenness in our world that particularly move you.

Praying for, ‘personal need’ – of course we can ask God for help in the things that are going on in our own lives – but if we start with thanks then this area of prayer will become shorter and more focused!

Inevitably we are probably most comfortable with words and less comfortable with silence and yet silence is a really important part of prayer. If we want to receive guidance or gain insight then quiet time in which we can be open and reflect on things is important. Good posture and deep slow breathing are helpful ways to start for as we breathe deeply and slowly our heart rate slows down, and our minds have the opportunity to slow down… and there is simply space in which to be.

Contemplative prayer involves a lot of that quiet space and has sometimes been likened to ‘tuning in to the frequency of God’… and by another writer, ‘breathing in time with the universe!’

Patterns of Prayer
On Sunday night we took time to look up each of these pieces of writing in the Bible because they each have some good insights into prayer:

1Kings 19:8-13 – The prophet Elijah was running away from Ahab and Jezebel and was led by the Spirit of God to a cave on a high mountain. There was an earthquake, wind and fire but Elijah did not hear God in any of this but instead heard God giving him guidance in the silence that came after.

Matthew 4:1-21 – After being baptized Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and is led into the wilderness for a time of temptation and reflection. After this time out Jesus begins his ministry.

Luke 6:12; Luke 9:28-29; Mark 14:32-36 – Jesus prays before choosing his disciples, in the midst of ministry he is praying with friends and they see him in a new light; in the hours before he is put on trial and crucified Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemene

Matthew 6:7-15 – the very well known Lord’s Prayer. We asked ourselves on Sunday night: what do we mean when we pray, ‘Your Kingdom come…?’

Over two thousand years there have been many prayers written and some of these can help shape our own spirituality and give us words to offer God when we find ourselves unable to offer our own. One prayer I have found particularly helpful is known as the ‘Prayer of St Francis’ and I encourage you to say this prayerfully at least once each day this week.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love with all my soul.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

The homework this week is simply for each person preparing for Confirmation to write a prayer using their own words. Each prayer will be read by the writer as part of the closing prayer session next Sunday night. God’s blessing on your week – wherever this finds you!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Spirit of God

In the wisdom writing of our faith there seems to be a progression of understanding about, and experience of, God’s Spirit. In one of the creation stories found in Genesis the Jewish writers suggest that in the beginning, before anything else was created, the ‘ruach’ of God moved over the waters. This Hebrew word ‘ruach’ is sometimes translated into English as a ‘wind from God’, and sometimes the ‘Spirit of God’. I think both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ of God are helpful terms to have in our mind as we look at God’s Spirit expressed in Old and New Testament writing.

Old Testament
In Genesis the ruach of God is powerful and creative, giving order to chaos and breathing life into an imagined first man and woman(Genesis 1:2 / 2:7). In the Old Testament the Spirit of God seemed to be given to certain individuals to enable them to do great and strange things. It enabled David to triumph against Goliath, and the Philistine army (1Samuel 17:40-51), but also led him to dance almost naked through the streets of Jerusalem (2Samuel 6:14-16). God’s Spirit gave enormous strength to Samson who in one day is said to have killed 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey! (Judges 15:14-17).

God’s Spirit enabled Moses to challenge Pharoah and lead the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt to a promised land (Exodus). Many of the prophets of the Old Testament were repeatedly called by God’s Spirit to challenge the injustice and unfaithfulness of Jewish Kings and the Jewish community: Nathan challenged David (2Samuel 12:1-13); Elijah challenged Ahab (1Kings 18:20-46); Jonah challenged the people of Ninevah (Jonah 3:1-10); Micah suggested to his community that the most important thing that God wanted was not animal sacrifice… but a way of life (Micah 6:8). There are more fantastic prophets to read about in the Old Testament and these include Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos and Hosea…

New Testament
The earliest documents written in the New Testament are the letters of Paul ‘though sometimes it is easy to forget this because the Gospels are at the front of the NT and are usually given greater emphasis in worship. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we read about the Holy Spirit giving different gifts to different people (1Corinthians), and that the most important gift is love (1Corinthians 13). Then in the letter to the Galatians it is suggested that though different people have different gifts all people are to grow in the nine fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generousity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-23).

When Peter visited non-Jewish people in Joppa the Holy Spirit came upon those who believed in Jesus before they were baptized with water (Acts 10:44-48), and when Paul visited believers in Corinth they received the Holy Spirit after they had been baptized with water (Acts 19:1-7).

In many ways John the Baptist stands in the Old Testament tradition of being anointed by God’s Spirit to challenge the people of his time to repent from sinful living and start living in a way that honoured God (Mark 1:4-8). Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah when he stated, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ (Luke 418-19). Now that is a powerful mandate!

But in the Gospels Jesus also promised to send the Holy Spirit on ALL believers not just the chosen few (John 14:25-27) and this is a really significant shift in experience. The experience of the Holy Spirit coming as wind and fire on the day of Pentecost was not just for Peter and John… it was for all of those gathered in the house (Acts 2:4).

Over the last two thousand years of church history there have been times when church authorities have forgotten that the Holy Spirit is for all people who believe in Jesus… but happily the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the breath of God, however we want to name it… simply is.

There is another aspect to Spirit that is important to name and that is mystery. As human beings we use words to name our world and communicate with one another. Inevitably we also use words to name our experiences of God and communicate with God but there is so much we do not understand and cannot express adequately. For example I could go with a group of friends and listen to a beautiful piece of music played by an orchestra and afterwards find that each of us experienced the performance differently. I’d suggest that God’s Spirit is like the most beautiful piece of music we can hear…

In humanity’s experience of God’s Spirit many people have used words to express thoughts and feelings while others find words inadequate and prefer silence. In silence and stillness there can be an astonishing sense of the presence of God (1Kings 19:11-13), and that awareness can be extended into everyday living. Paul expressed this well to the Greeks when he said, ‘In Christ I live and move and have my being’ (Acts 17:28).

In our church community we have a number of people who have been gifted by God as artists. Two years ago I asked one of them to work on a large mural panel titled ‘Spirit’. To help prepare for this work we asked each congregation to write down words and symbols that they associated with Holy Spirit and people responded with the following rich collection of words:

“Love, energy, power, joy, patience, peace, breath, goodness, self-control, humility, wholeness, flame, guide, reconciliation, gifts, prayer, hope, mystery, life.”

The panel was on display inside the church when it was completed but is now mounted on a wall in the church breezeway. The background is red and this is the Church’s traditional colour for the flames of Pentecost. The traditional Spirit image on the panel, flying amidst all the words, is a dove, and the contemporary image is of four electrons orbiting a nucleus within an atom. At the time one study group had done some work based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal. This insight from sub-atomic physics suggests that electrons do not orbit around a nucleus in the way that planets orbit the sun but are rather everywhere and nowhere at the same time! There is mystery here that informs and inspires… and puzzles… and just is.

In conclusion I want to affirm that I believe God’s Spirit creates and gives energy for life. That God’s Spirit is for all people and in all people. That all people are gifted differently and most are called to share those gifts in community / relationship with others. That in God’s Spirit there is mystery, energy, hope, and a call to relationship.

Looking back at your life have there been particular times when you have had a sense of the presence of God? When and where have they been?

In what ways do you think that God has gifted you? What do you love doing? What do other people say that you’re good at?

The nine fruit of the spirit described in the letter to the Galatians are really to do with character: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generousity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22-23). What particular fruit would you like God’s Spirit to develop in you at this time of your life?

I look forward to hearing from you either by email: or blog:

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven;
May your sacred name echo through the universe,
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world,
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings,
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us,
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Jesus of Nazareth..? Jesus the Christ..?

Jesus is probably the central figure of Christian belief. We believe that two thousand years ago a man called Jesus, who had an extraordinary relationship with God, challenged the religion of his time and culture to broaden their understanding of God’s love. He was killed… but many individuals and communities since that time have had a deep sense of his presence and spirit. So the Jesus we are thinking about this week is considered by many to be not only a historical figure of the past, but a spiritual reality who transcends time.

There are many books that have been written about Jesus and each offer different perspectives and emphasis. In the notes last week we recognised that even the four Gospels reflect a developing sense of wonder among early Christian communities about who this man was and what he did.

Unpacking ‘the story’ of Jesus according to St Luke
The ‘homework’ last week was to read the Gospel of Luke so the group that met last Sunday evening worked together and outlined on a whiteboard the story of Jesus’ life according to Luke. We started with the extraordinary story of John the Baptist’s mum getting pregnant with an angel telling Zechariah that his barren wife would become pregnant with a son who would be called John. Then we continued the much more extraordinary story of Jesus’ Mum getting pregnant with the archangel Gabriel visiting Mary to say that God would make her pregnant with a son and he was to be called Jesus… and he would be a king. Amazingly… Mary accepted!

Mary and Joseph left Nazareth and went to Bethlehem and it was here that Jesus was born in a place where animals were kept. A great crowd of angels went to tell some shepherds what had happened and the shepherds went to visit. Like all good Jewish boys Jesus was then circumcised and named. Then in the temple the baby Jesus was acknowledged as someone special by a wise man called Simeon and a wise woman called Anna.

Twelve years went by and Joseph and Mary took the boy Jesus from Nazareth to the Temple in Jerusalem where he again made a big impression. A further eighteen years went by before Jesus decided to get baptized by John the Baptist. At the baptism Jesus was described as hearing a voice from heaven saying ‘You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.’ Jesus then went to the wilderness for a time of reflection and temptation before starting an extraordinary three years of teaching, and healing. He called some disciples and taught them, healed many people who were sick, and reassured people who had been rejected by the Jewish religion that God loved them as well!

After three years of ministry Jesus had quite a following and many of people believed that he was the Messiah – a leader who would make Israel great again, that Jewish prophets had promised for centuries. According to each of the Gospel writers the crowds in Jerusalem went wild when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey which was the same kind of animal that Israel’s greatest king, David, had ridden whenever he returned to Jerusalem in peace. As the crowds went wild there was possibly an expectation that Jesus would go to Pontius Pilate the Roman administrator and tell him to pack his bags?

However, Jesus didn’t go and see Pilate he went, like all good Jewish men going to Jerusalem to celebrate a religious festival, to the Temple. At the Temple he became so angry at the lack of reverence for God he drove out the business people and the animals being sold for at massively inflated prices. To justify his action he shouted to the authorities that the Temple was supposed to be a place of prayer… but they had turned it into a market place. It would seem that this action was a turning point in his relationship with the Jewish religious authorities who subsequently arranged for him to be killed.

Jesus is described washing the feet of his disciples and reinterpreting the traditional bread and wine symbols used in the Jewish Passover. From that time on bread and wine shared at a special meal have helped Christians remember Jesus. Jesus was then betrayed by Judas, arrested, condemned to death, crucified and buried in a tomb. Three days later Jesus appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem, and on the road to Emmaus, before ascending to heaven.

Looking at some parables
One of the ways that Jesus taught was using stories that had special meaning. These stories are called parables and they are particularly effective teaching tools because stories are easier to remember than statements. Luke’s Gospel has some important parables and last Sunday evening we looked at two of them. In the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) there is the powerful affirmation that according to Jesus no matter what you’ve done, and no matter where you go, God never stops loving you. This would have been challenging and even offensive to the Jewish belief of that time which taught that God’s approval was conditional on keeping the rules of the Jewish religion. Then in the parable known as The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) Jesus suggests that anyone who has need can be considered your neighbour – particularly if you have the capacity to respond to that need.

Looking at some encounters with Jesus
Jesus was clearly someone who walked the talk, or practiced what he preached! He did not say love those people who are on the edge of society… and then ignore them in day to day living. Time and again we read in the Gospel of Luke of Jesus meeting people who the Jewish religious authorities had written off and these included tax collectors and lepers.

• It is important to remember that Jesus lived in a land occupied by the Roman army. Tax collectors were local people appointed by the Roman to collect money from their own people but tax collectors were not regulated so could set their own levy on top of the tax… which they kept. Consequently they were regarded as collaborators and excluded from Jewish community activities. So when Jesus invited himself for dinner at the house of a tax collector called Zachaeus not surprisingly people complained (Luke 19:2-10). Yet for Zachaeus this willingness to share time together was clearly life giving. Zachaeus promised to repay what he’d stolen and give half of his possessions to the poor.

• Lepers were excluded from community life and were forced to live outside the walls of towns and villages in caves and shelters. This was largely because Jewish people thought that the leprosy was God’s judgement on those people for something that they’d done. Remember there was no understanding of bacteria and virus’ in that time. Jesus met with lepers, talked with lepers, and brought about healing for lepers (Luke 17:12-19) which was a radically inclusive thing.

Looking at some teaching
By the time of Jesus the Jewish religion had unpacked the ten commandments into 613 rules/laws. When Jesus was challenged to name which of these was the most important he suggested that we are to love God with all that we are and love our neighbours as ourself (Luke 10:25-38; Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40). Because there are many people in our time who don’t like or love themselves I think it’s possible to summarise by thinking we are to love God, love our neighbour, and love ourselves.

Some of the names of Jesus
Jesus is called many names and each name has a different implication: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘Son of God’, ‘Jesus the Christ’… ‘Christ’. Which of these names resonate with you?

As well as the names we have seven clear metaphors in John’s Gospel which are described as the ‘I am’ sayings: I am the bread of life (John 6:35); I am the light of the world (John 8:12); I am the gate (John 10:9); I am the good shepherd (John 10:11); I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25); I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6); I am the true vine (John 15:1). At different times of our life one metaphor may make more sense to us then the others. I particularly like the metaphor of ‘light’ because when it light I can find my way around. Which metaphor connects with you at this time?

Some visual Images of Jesus
Last Sunday evening we looked at some different t pictures of Jesus and these included a blond haired, blue eyed Jesus wearing a crown and the robes of a Bishop, a laughing Palestinian man, and a South American sculpture of a man screaming in agony on a cross. We passed around a European carving of Jesus on a cross, and a Papua New Guinean carving of Jesus on a cross. In Christian art around the world Jesus has been pictured as an African, a European, a Chinese, an Indian, an Indonesian… and in some ways it can be helpful to think of this Christ figure as an ‘everyman’… providing we do not forget that the original Jesus was most likely a Jewish man who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, and lived in an occupied Roman territory known as Palestine.

How would you describe Jesus?
At the end of last week’s session I asked people to describe what Jesus meant to them in one or two words. The responses included: friend, healer, teacher, forgiver, kind, accepting, guide, redeemer, hope giver, source of energy. What word or words would you use to describe Jesus?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Wisdom writing..? Word of God..?

The Confirmation group that met last Sunday evening looked at the wisdom writing of the Jewish faith known as ‘The Torah’ and affirmed that it was originally written in Hebrew. We looked at the Hebrew alphabet and recognised that it is a very different language to English! We agreed that the five books of ‘The Torah’ (The teaching) form the first five books of the Christian Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Biblical scholars believe that these five books were written between 950 and 450 BCE.

We then looked at the wisdom writing of the Christian faith and affirmed that the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. We looked at the Greek alphabet and recognised that it is also a very different language to English. When we compared the amount of written material between the Old and New Testaments it was clear that about two thirds of the Christian Bible is made up of the Old Testament (Hebrew writing).

Last week we had affirmed that Jews and Christians look to an ancient common ancestor called Abraham through his wife Sarah, and their son Jacob. We also affirmed that Muslims looked to Abraham as their ancestor through his wife’s servant Hagar, and their son Esau. The wisdom writing of the Muslim faith is called ‘The Koran’ and was written by the Prophet Mohammed in Arabic. We looked at the Arabic alphabet and affirmed that it is also a very different language to English!

The purpose of looking at the different languages was to remind us that the wisdom writings of our faith, and the other monotheistic faiths, was written by people who lived in cultures very different to our own. In order to read them in our language a scholar must translate them into English and to make things, clear put their own understanding of things in the translation.

Bearing this all too human translation process in mind, is it right to call the writing of the Bible ‘The Word of God’ or should it be thought of as a ‘Library of Wisdom’ that has many different styles of writing gathered together?

Personally, I think the term ‘Word of God’ is unhelpful because it infers that people for about one thousand years ran around with an ancient form of dictaphone recording things as they were said! The term ‘Word of God’ also infers that since the words come from an Almighty God it would be inappropriate to question them… or question the religious institutions that use them. I would probably take one step further and suggest that to call this collection of writing ‘The Word of God’ unhelpfully borders on idolatry. What do you think?

I think the term ‘Library of Wisdom’ is more helpful because it gives permission to bring critical thinking to the interpretation of the writing within it. There is no doubt in my mind that God can challenge, guide, inspire, and ‘speak’ to us through this writing… but I do not think the collection has a single message for all of humanity… from a divine author in the sky.

When thinking about a particular piece of Biblical writing it is helpful to think about the context in which it was written? Who wrote it? And who was it written for? What was going on in that part of the world at the time? And who were the major players in that culture? Was that piece of writing intended to be a literal account of things, or is there a metaphor expressed to explain a situation… or offer hope?

Last Sunday evening we affirmed that there were different styles of writing (genres) in both the Old and New Testament and identified the following:

In the Old Testament there are:

1. Foundational Myths & Legends - stories about the origins of the world, the first generations of humans, or the early years of a nation, intended to provide a foundational world-view upon which people base their communal and individual lives (Genesis, parts of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
2. Legal Codes - collections of laws and instructions by which the people are to live (Leviticus, parts of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
3. Genealogies - lists of inter-relationships between peoples, either of successive generations or of different nations (parts of Genesis, much of Numbers)
4. History - semi-historical narrative accounts of select events in a nation's life, focusing especially upon political and military exploits of its leaders, since usually written under royal sponsorship (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, etc.)
5. Prophetic Books - collections of the oracles or words of God spoken to the people through human intermediaries (prophets) and the symbolic actions they perform at God's direction for the people's benefit (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah etc.)
6. Psalms/Odes/Songs - poetic lyrics of songs/hymns intended for communal worship and/or individual prayer (Psalms)
7. Prayers/Laments - words addressed by people to God, esp. reflecting situations of crisis or lament (Lamentations)
8. Proverbs - generalized sayings and aphorisms containing advice on how to live well: "do good and avoid evil" (Proverbs)
9. Wisdom Literature - various types of inspirational stories that encourage people to live wisely (Job, Wisdom, etc.)
10. Apocalypses - symbolic narratives that suggests how God will resolve issues of brokenness and injustice through future interventions (Daniel)

and in the New Testament there are:
1. Gospels - proclamations of the "good news" about Jesus intended to establish and/or strengthen people's faith in him; quasi-biographical, semi-historical portraits of the life, teachings, and actions of Jesus (Mark, Matt, Luke, John)
2. Acts - a partial narrative account about the beginnings and the growth of early Christianity; not a complete history of the early Church, since it focuses only on the actions of a few missionary leaders (Acts)
3. Letters - real letters addressing practical and theological issues relevant to particular communities (especially Paul's)
4. Apocalypse - a symbolic narrative that suggests how God will resolve the issues of brokenness and injustice at the end of time (Revelation)

Jesus focus in the Gospels:
Inevitably it is in the Gospels of the New Testament that we find stories that describe the life of Jesus. Last Sunday we took some time to read aloud the first chapter of each Gospel to see how the story of where Jesus came from seemed to grow as time went by. Mark’s Gospel was apparently written about forty years after Jesus lived on earth. This Gospel begins with Jesus as an adult man being baptized by John the Baptist. In Mark’s account of this Baptism the heavens open and a voice is heard from heaven saying, ‘This is my son, my chosen one!’ In Mark’s Gospel – and in the letters of Paul written before it – there is no Mary, or Joseph, or stable, or shepherds, or anels, or Magi. The relationship between God and Jesus is, according to Mark’s Gospel, affirmed in his baptism.

It is in Matthew’s Gospel, written about fifty years after Jesus lived on earth, that we meet for the first time Mary, Joseph and the Magi. Then in Luke’s Gospel, written about five years after Matthew, that we read about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary in person, visiting Joseph in a dream, the birth in a stable, angels singing to shepherds, and shepherds coming to worship. By combining the different stories of Matthew and Luke we see the composite whole that script Nativity plays and Christmas cards.

Yet by the time we get to John’s Gospel those Christmas elements have all gone. In John’s Gospel, written at least sixty years after the life of Jesus, there are no angels or shepherds, or Mary. In John’s Gospel it is affirmed that Jesus was so awesome – so related to God – that he was present with God right at the beginning of the world, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1).

For the communities that followed the teaching of Jesus after he died there was clearly a growing sense that he was not just human… he was divine.

We will focus particularly on Jesus who became the Christ in next week’s session. To prepare for that session please read through the Gospel of Luke by next Sunday. If you do not have a Bible – please buy or borrow one – or look at Luke’s Gospel on-line.

I look forward to hearing from you either by email: or blog:

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven;
May your sacred name echo through the universe,
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world,
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings,
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us,
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Who, or what... is God?

As we begin our preparation for Confirmation it seems appropriate to ask the question, ‘Who, or what… is God?’ Initial responses to that question from the group that met last Sunday night included, ‘parent figure… creator… guide/conscience… spiritual force… energy… love.’ I wonder which of these resonate with you, and what additional responses you’d like to include?

Ever since our species developed language and consciousness there appears to have been some sense of an energy which cannot be seen with the naked eye – but can be felt. Animism is probably the earliest form of religion and in this people believe that there is energy everywhere but it is particularly strong in some places – in the forest, in the bush… under a particular tree… in a particular cave etc. The energy seemed to have different characteristics so people thought that instead of a single form of energy there were different kinds – in the same way that there are different kinds of people. To name that understanding I think we’d have to move from the term ‘spiritual energy’ to the term ‘spirits’.

If you have a world view in which there are ‘spirits’ that have a powerful influence on the physical world then you’d be inclined to keep them happy, and on special occasions even ask them to do things on your behalf. If the ‘spirit’ seems to be particularly powerful then they could be thought of as a ‘god’ in a world that seems to have many spirits/gods. To keep the gods happy people thought you had to live in particular ways, give the gods food, or sacrifice an animal to the god, or in some religions even sacrifice people. By doing such things it was hoped that the relevant god would make the sun come back after winter; make the rain come back after drought; make domestic animals would bear young; make an army successful in battle; make a food garden grow plenty of food; help a woman become pregnant with a son… etc.

Polytheism is simply a way of saying ‘many gods’ and we find polytheism alive and well today in the world’s third largest religion known as Hinduism. We find other expressions of polytheism reflected in the names of ancient Egyptian Gods, and in Greek, Roman and Norse mythology.

Somewhere between 4000 and 3000 years a family somewhere in the Middle East came to the conclusion that there was only one God (monotheism) and they were called by that God to be that God’s chosen people. The family was led by a man called Abraham who felt led by God to leave his land and go to a new place. In addition Abraham believed that God promised that in time his descendents would become a great nation. We call the religion that thinks of itself as God’s chosen people – Judaism. Those who follow Judaism are called Jews and these days there are at least sixty different kinds of Judaism! Nevertheless Judaism was the first of the world’s monotheistic religions.

Interestingly the next monotheistic religion to emerge came from Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew who lived in a land we think of now as Israel. This land had been invaded by the Roman army and was administered by them as part of the Roman Empire. So the story of Abraham is important not only to Jews but also to the religion that formed around the life and teaching Jesus. We call this religion Christianity and there are again at least sixty different kinds of church within Christianity

About five hundred years later the prophet Mohammed also named Abraham as his ancestor but developed a new monotheistic religion we call Islam. People who follow Islam are called Muslims and there are again at least sixty different kinds of Islam in our world.

For the people who wrote the wisdom writing of the Jewish faith (known as the Torah), the Christian faith (known as the Bible), and the Muslim faith (known as the Koran), there was a similar three tiered understanding of the universe. In this the earth was flat; just the other side of the clouds was a place of glory and light where God and heavenly beings lived; and underneath the earth was a dark, hot, place of suffering called hell. We might smile at this understanding but when you see a shaft of sunlight coming through dark clouds it does look like there might be something wonderful going on up there. So for the ancient mind, uninformed by sending people to walk on the moon, or satellites to photograph other parts of our solar system, it is understandable that they understood the world in this way.

Indeed this three-tiered way of understanding the world has influenced humanity’s thinking about God for a long time. In the West this has found great expression in paintings by the famous Italian artist Michelangelo who lived between 1475 and 1564. Last Sunday we looked at his enormous wall painting titled ‘The Last Judgement’ which is found on the wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. In this painting a muscular Jesus is depicted judging humanity at the end of time. Those who made the grade are being welcomed up into heaven, and those who failed to make the grade are being dragged down to be tortured by demons.

For all kinds of reasons I think we have a very different world view today in the 21st Century and I think this impacts on the way we imagine and name our experience of God.

I want to highlight a few people of the many people who have helped to shift this three-tiered world view:

A Catholic priest from Poland called Nicolaus COPERNICUS (1473 -1543) worked out through his study of mathematics and astronomy that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around! That may not sound surprising but the Christian church had taught for over one thousand years that the earth was at the centre of God’s creation. Copernicus’ ideas were not welcomed by church leaders who tended to kill people that disagreed with them!

The English physicist, mathematician and theologian, Isaac Newton (1643 -1727), suggested that there were quantifiable rules that governed why things happened. Among many other things he identified and proposed three laws of motion. This shift in thinking was significant and can be understood thus: the apple did not fall on my head because I had done something to upset God, rather the apple fell on my head because gravity pulled it down to the ground after the stem broke. At the time of Jesus people thought you got sick because you’d done something wrong and upset God, whereas these days we recognise the impact that bacteria, virus’ and cancer have in making people sick.

The English biologist Charles Darwin (1809 -1882) put forward the theory that living things changed over time in order to successfully compete with other species and survive. Again the shift in thinking was very significant – instead of human beings being made in a few minutes from a piece of clay, we instead accept that we have spent millions of years changing over time in order for our species to emerge with its unique gift of consciousness.

We live in a world informed by scientific theories and research. We live in a time when there is unprecedented access to information through the internet. We take astonishing technology for granted… and think that through our medical knowledge and hospital systems we will have long lives.

In the midst of all this is there space for God?

Is God one who inspires, comforts, challenges and enables? Or is God rather an artificial construct that people fall back on like a safety blanket when things go wrong?

Who, or what is God for you? I asked the Sunday group to each draw a picture which showed God and them. Was God near or far away? Did God have a human shape – or something less clear? For each person the response was different – for one person God was far away and in the past, whereas for another God was inside their heart. For another person God was like a protective barrier, while for another God was like a fog surrounding everything. For one person God was far away and all creation was inside God, while for another all creation was in God… but God was bigger than that. One of the themes that emerged towards the end of the session was the suggestion that the purpose of God was to know fullness of life.

Unresolved questions include:
• If God is love then why is there so much suffering in the world?
• If life is God’s gift to us… what do we do with it?

If you have not drawn a picture please take five minutes to draw on an A4 piece of paper how you and God look together on the same page!

For those preparing on-line please take some time to reflect upon the highlighted questions in the text and respond to at least one of them. You could respond to the group using the blog, or you could email me directly for a private ‘conversation’ on

We finished our session by praying together an Alternative Lord’s Prayer that was published in the Anglican Prayer Book of New Zealand in 1989. I would like each of person in the group to try and pray this prayer aloud each day this week, and hope it is a blessing.

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven;
May your scared name echo through the universe,
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world,
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings,
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope
and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us,
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever.