Looking back to the hills from the Morgan Burra Road

One Man's Web

Passover is celebration of what has happened: an ancient life-giving and nation-defining moment of salvation. The Passover was also, and is now, hope for the future. It is re-enactment and remembering in the hope of better life, despite the cruelty of Empire. Just so, Easter is a celebration of what has happened: a celebration of an ancient, life-giving event, which defines a people of God, and saves them. And Easter is hope for the future. It is re-enactment, and remembering of our hope for a better humanity despite the cruelty and failures of Empire, and despite our own many personal failures. So as we enter Jerusalem this week, for what do we hope, and how do we act as life parades before us?

On the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem just prior to Passover. He does not walk in, as a Passover pilgrim would, and should. He rides in as a king. But not as the king of an Empire, on a warhorse; he rides humble on a donkey. The crowds know and do not know, see and do not see, what this means. In Jericho the crowd rebukes the blind men sitting by the Way (kathēmenoi para tēn hodon[i]) – two men they imagine cannot possibly see anything– when those men call him "Son of David." But the crowd shouts "Hosanna to the Son of David," on the way into Jerusalem. The crowds are not only fickle (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, Davies p341) but unseeing, and uncomprehending.

The irony in Matthew's telling of the story is savage. Davies says

in the Talmud, 'outside the wall of Bethphage' means 'outside Jerusalem',
[Bethphage] was therefore ritually part of the Holy City. (p343)

So at the place where the Messiah will stand to rescue Jerusalem— Matthew says Bethphage is "at the Mount of Olives," the place where

when the lord will become King over all the Earth... his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives— (Zechariah 14:9, 4)

at that place and time, Matthew already tells us the city is a house of unripe figs. (The meaning of Beth-phage). And then, in the city, Jesus finds the 'fig tree' of Israel and its temple lacks any fruit at all. (Matt 21:12-14, 19) ... Read on >>>>

Reflections from a pastor who is himself afraid.

"Why on earth have we panicked over toilet paper?" we wonder. To be sure, shortages of rice and flour and oil have followed, but why did it all begin with toilet paper? In his book UncleanMeditations on  Purity, Hospitality,  and Mortality, (Available on Kindle)  Richard Beck explores the role of disgust, cleanliness, and purity in our being human. Impulses of disgust, cleanliness, and purity, are a response to the fear of death.

Purity and cleanliness establish boundaries around us. We still sometimes say that "cleanliness is next to godliness," which gives it all away. Early purity laws were not about hygiene and microbiological cleanliness as we understand it today. They were about being right with God, which had a lot in common with being right with the tribe. In fact, in order to be right with the god, you had to be right with the tribe. So following purity rituals, the rituals of washing and cleanliness and boundaries, had the deep psychological role not only of keeping nasty stuff out of our mouths, or keeping us out of danger in other ways, but also of marking us as belonging. And when you belong, then you are far less at risk of being the one chosen as the scapegoat, and ending up being killed, or driven out, and dying.

In this sense, cleanliness which is again very suddenly and seriously about the keeping of rules, is about being right with 'God,'  where 'God' is the ruling behaviours of our culture here and now. And whether we see this 'God' through a religious lens or not; that is, whether or not we think God actually exists beyond ruling behaviours, doing the right thing by that which is 'God' to us, promises us a life lived long in the land. That, of course, is the language and promise of Deuteronomy. Toilet paper betrays the obvious thing about us in the days of Covid-19: we are afraid. Death is at the door. So our deep instinct— we who are, after all, not very far from our primitive ancestors— our deep instinct is to be 'clean'; hence, toilet paper, which promises us in some dimly seen but deeply felt sense to wipe away our fear.

Death is always at the door, but we mostly manage to ignore it, and pretend it won't come today or anytime soon. In Covid-19, death has suddenly broken through our defences; death could come next week. Indeed, it is uncomfortably likely that it will have a shot at us. John 11 can be read as a text about how to live in the face of death.... Read on >>>>


I was there.

I'm fresh back from 800kms pedalled over three days, with two of those headed into 30 to 40 kmh  winds. The apocalyptic image of an old abandoned church keeps floating into my vision, and I hear echoes of gospel lyrics. I thought that this morning I would read John 9, and then get some more sleep.  But I realise I was there, and now I'm wide awake, and shaking.

20200317worldsend2John has a few inaccuracies of course. Details can develop in the telling. It was no anonymous man who had been blind from birth, it was a woman, a friend of mine, who realised her blindness, and started asking questions at church... Read on >>>

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I am sick. The mysterious blend of body, and something else that makes us... us, has refused to work. The body is fine, but relating to other people, especially people who need things from me, is difficult.

If I sit down with a sheet of paper, I can draw circles— six of them— to describe some contributing factors to this illness. Circles one and two have some obvious similarities, although the events they describe are widely separated in time. The third circle bears no relation to either of them, but has a lot in common with the issue I've labelled circle six. And circles six and two do have some connections.

There are moments when these connections feel very speculative; I wonder if I imagine them. Yet, as I said to my doctor, all my pastoral experience suggests I'd be a fool to ignore them; somehow, they are working together to 'gum up the works' that is me. She signed me off for more sick leave without hesitation; she knows a couple of these same circles...

Experience suggests that if I insist on drawing hard and firm lines of the "a = b + c" variety between the circles on my page, which represent the  oddly connected events in my life, I will not get well. Healing comes from swimming among the not-quite-definable connections and images, and letting mind and brain and spirit do what they do, which is march in their own dimension, at their own pace, in ways we can only glimpse.

We do this all the time; it is how we function to be us. It's just that being sick makes it much more visible. This normally invisible process is how we live and grow and become more fully human— or not...

Which brings us to the Gospel of John. John uses a surface narrative of the Jesus tradition— in this case, the story of meeting a woman at a well— and crafts it to invite us, even to provoke us, to enter into deep water which will drag us under, drown us, remake us, and, finally begin to slake our thirst for life. If we will only enter in. If we will only drink... He draws circles and invites us to swim between, and be found... Read on >>>>

I have a friend who lives with a chronic health issue. They traverse a litany of medical incidents which range from small, irritating interruptions, through to life threatening emergencies which sneak up without warning. I fear that one day I shall find they have run out of luck, perhaps having dismissed one more ache or pain, not having realised it was a warning of something worse. I'm twenty years older. If you require a 65 year old to ride a thousand kilometres over the weekend, I'm interested. I'll even volunteer for another trip the next weekend.

Despite all their physical ailments, my friend hurtles through life: full of energy, creative, charismatic, seemingly inexhaustible; they are an extrovert's extrovert. Me? At some point I do not choose, and can rarely predict, the brain says, "No. Stopping now." And it does. For weeks. And longer. I can't read my bank statement— well, I can, but I can't make sense of it to know if I need to pay money. Urgent tasks, even a simple phone call, are suddenly insurmountable. Life closes in on me; I sit or I ride. People, and the demands of people, are too much. This introvert's introvert becomes even more withdrawn. Words disappear, energy fades, sleep stops— despite the exhaustion.

Another friend grew up in the most appalling circumstances. Once, when we were talking, they mentioned something a parent had done to them, quite casually, in the way we might remember something we saw riding home yesterday evening, and mention it at tea. I had to stand up and walk around for a couple of minutes; nothing surprises me anymore, but sometimes I am shocked. That friend lives with the consequences of a lifetime of abuse. I've never understood how they can still be alive; we both nod to the saying, "as much good luck as good management." And yet they have an energy and zest for life which I envy. Another friend lived almost two decades in a refugee camp. I've sat with them and felt as if I were within an Orthodox icon, sitting next to the Madonna herself. From where does such peace come?

Grace means that God cares for the four of us, and everyone else besides. Everyone who has ever lived. We say God is omnipotent, it's one of the key doctrines. It doesn't mean that God intrudes into our biological reality and arranges things for our convenience. (As Ogion said to Ged, magic always has a side effect somewhere else.) Omnipotence means Grace— that great love of God revealed in the Son— will not be denied. The four of us, with all our peculiarities, and all other people, will be brought to fullness of being. No one will be excluded. No one will escape. God will out-wait all of us.

And so we endure our weaknesses. We revel in that which brings us joy. We love. We wait. And life continues.

Andrew Prior (2020)

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This vision on the mountain is similar to the vision of Jesus' baptism, where "suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove...  and a voice from heaven [saying], ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’" (Matthew 3:13-17) It's unclear if anyone but Jesus saw all this at his baptism.  But now, the baptismal vision, and more, is specifically given to Peter, James, and John, three people whose number constitutes adequate and trustworthy witness under law.

And, clearly, the vision is a rebuttal and rebuke, not to mention an enormous grace, to these disciples whom we  understand have been resisting the notion that the Messiah must suffer and die at the hands of his own people. (Matthew 16:21-23)

But why does Jesus say, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead?"

Politically, in Jesus' time, the son was the presence of the father.  If the son has visited, then so has the father; if the son speaks, he speaks the will of the father. Our little city spent weeks renewing the street gardens and the bitumen along which the grand-son of the Queen would process, even leaving re-laying the bitumen of the last kilometre or so until the day before he arrived, so that Wills and Kate would arrive on a brand-newly-tarred red carpet.  I rode past the town hall on the way to work shortly after 6am, that morning. People were already beginning to line the road for Wills and Kate's arrival at 11. In fact, I had to ride on the footpath, because no one was allowed on the new bitumen! Even in our allegedly secular culture, the Queen or King is second only to God, and if the son, or even the grandson, is coming, we line the road for a glimpse of transcendence... Read on >>>>

 Miracles are risky business. Not only are they a thing of interpretation— one person's miracle is another person's coincidence— but even Scripture is ambivalent about them. At Masseh, according to one tradition, (in both Deuteronomy 6 and 17) Israel has tested God.  But in another rendition, (Numbers 20) it is Moses who is the problem because— unlike the Deuteronomic stories— it is understood that he was the one not trusting in God's provision! 

What's a prophet meant to do? "Do not put the Lord your God to the test," is the central statement of the reading for Lent Week 1, yet Jesus will go on to perform many miracles. And the miraculous is often a touchstone for authenticity in the church. We long for the extraordinary and the spectacular as a proof of the reality of God's intrusion into our everyday lives, whether they be drudgery or trauma. In many places, those who do not witness to some in-breaking work of power are seen as lacking in faith and blessing.

The same Spirit which endorses Jesus, and blesses him, drives him out into the wilderness.... Read on >>>

Twenty years ago I'd see 3 or 4 runners doing circuits and intervals around one of the city's large parks as I walked home from work. They were the nerdy sort of runners who never consider "active wear." There used to be a daughter with them, an intense stick on legs, but already showing the physique of a distance runner. The men adored her, always including her in the bunch, even though she was barely twelve. For her part, she was determined not to need accommodating, and ran with an intensity and passion which, I suspect, meant her Dad had to pace her down.

I've seen her grow up. Those men were soon running with a young woman who was the runner of the bunch. Occasionally I see her flowing way out along the linear park on her own.

A little while back, I saw her holding a sharp pace with her dad, around the same park. He's too old to keep up with her now, and was pacing her on a bike, relaying stats, as they circled the park with the same old intensity. She runs with the loose grace of the cheetah you see in the slow motion video of documentaries except, somehow, this cheetah has learned to become an ultra-marathoner.

They reminded me of another twelve year old I slowly overhauled up a long slope "in the middle of nowhere" in regional Queensland. She was running with an easy grace I had never managed. I matched her pace for a few metres and told her how impressed I was by her style. "I loved running," I said, "but I could never run like you do."

She glanced at me with a small "Thanks," and turned back to the road. She had the same intense focus as the other girl, and even at twelve, sadly, the same practised reserve that has had to learn to armour itself against us men.

Another kilometre and a half up the hill I found a woman parked in the dusk by the roadside . I asked if she was Mum to the lass behind. "She makes Cathy Freeman look awkward!" I said. Mum laughed, shaking her head at the same time, knowing the grace of her runner, but mystified by the passion. "It's the last long run before the regionals next weekend."

Grace, says U2, makes beauty out of everything.  All of us have a place, a part of us, where we run with a grace and ease which swells the heart of the Cathy Freemans of our particular world. If we would give ourselves to the passion that tugs within us instead of running away from it; if we would focus on, even obsess upon, that gift, then perhaps our souls could run with an easy grace which would fill our hearts with joy and tears.  

Andrew Prior (2020)

Archived here

20200204-WalkerFlat2-sThe plan was for 600km ridden in six six hour hundreds, which is a pretty good touring speed for an old bloke. In the event, I rode 500km. 300km or so of headwinds, and cross winds from the front, made it a hard and cold trip— although I appreciated 95km of tail breeze along the Murray.... Read on >>>>

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