Seeing through the gloom
As I seek to discern my calling in a possible change of employment...
and reflecting further upon this week's lectionary readings...
Our world is falling apart. As Christians this ought not surprise us. We are a tradition which understands that the world is far from perfect, and which hopes for God's completion of all things. Depending on our "theological dialect," this may be an apocalyptic vision of destruction and the re-establishment of a new earth, or it may be a vision of slow completion where the desires of God are brought to fulfilment, even with us as co-creators. But however we see this hope being worked out, we are clear the current world in which we live is not the final reality. It is not "Kingdom of God."
Any age lives with its own fears about the future. We live with the reality of nuclear weaponry which could wipe us out in a few hours, and know we have come perilously close to such a war. We have read Rachel Carson— we know it is unsafe to drink from the rivers— and we live post-thalidomide. Our brave new world is full of poisons. I grew up reading Paul Ehrlich and The Limits to Growth. The general truth of his thesis is now uncontested except by those in denial. Earth groans under the weight of us. People openly wonder if our species will survive.
Why then, am I so grief filled at the state of the world and our current politics in Australia?
As one of my congregation said, "It's all very well to know what's going on, but you still have to live through it." And whether or not we had a false confidence in Australia, it is undeniable that we are in regression, and losing our civility. We hoped for better than what we had been, and we saw signs that we were.
In 1967 we actually recognised aboriginal people as citizens of their own country! We began— naively and shallowly, but we began— to make reparation, funding aboriginal communities, turning away from paternalistic and racist assimilation policies. We recognised ownership of the land; land rights became a common place, if not common enough.
We began to address the patriarchal roots of our society. We are even discussing the rights for marriage for LBGT people— I began university as Adelaide examined its conscience after the drowning of a gay university lecturer in circumstances which appear to have involved police. The year after I began university, tuition fees were removed. A generation of kids with limited opportunities were given wide new horizons. We took our sovereignty in our own hands and walked out of Vietnam. We had accepted and housed floods of refugees from World War II, and now thousands more from Vietnam, growing beyond the White Australia Policy.
None of it was perfect. But there were decades of hope. We have all benefited. In the current debate over housing affordability a colleague writes,
When I approached a bank for a housing loan at 23 the manager told me I couldn't possibly afford it. When I told him what my income was he turned green, grunted and told me that regardless, they only gave loans to men.
Today the bank would be excoriated for such a response.
And it is all going backwards. We are removing funding from Aboriginal communities, shutting them down. University education is no longer free; the government has sought to remove restraints on the setting of fees. We use refugees as political pawns, making them scapegoats to salve our fears about our future. The Prime Minister does not deny that his government paid money to the same evil people smugglers against whom his government has railed to take refugees back to Indonesia. We have followed the Americans into more of their stupid wars which they always lose, but not before causing the death of multitudes. Our sovereignty is being eroded and passed into the hands of multinational corporations. The government actively undermines the rule of law and common decency, and constantly attacks and defames the Human Rights Commissioner.
If we do not grieve over this, what does it say about us? Are we naïve? Are we in denial? Have we joined the dark side of privilege and Empire?
Put not your hope in Princes. (Psalm 146)
So, in this falling-apart world, what role do we have? I am thinking of Christians generally, but especially of clergy.
We live the faith. Compassion, gentleness, good works, forgiveness, acceptance of all people. In other words we seek, in our little communities— and some of them will be very small— to be local outbreaks of the Kingdom of God. This is our small, yet deeply subversive, rejection of Empire. It is being a different kind of person, and a different kind of community; community which is not over against; community which does not define itself by its enemies; community created by forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, instead of scapegoating and expulsion. Such community will be hated. Its very existence is a judgement upon Empire and its supporters.
Such community will be exhausting. It is costly. I suspect "compassion fatigue" is often exhaustion and despair at the sheer depth, need, and misery which the world presents to us. In a less obvious way than the soldier subject to constant uncertainty, death, and terror— but in a no less real way— we can be traumatised by the brutality of the reality we decide to confront when we choose to be compassionate. Compassion says "I will listen to you. I will feel your pain, as well as my own." We open ourselves to the pain of the world, and to the assaults of injustice.
Selfishness— non-compassion— either denies or avoids the brutality of the world. It flees it, and in our case in Australia, we do this by insulating ourselves with nice houses, safe suburbs, and more wine. As reality presses in, with the rich demanding even more and refusing to pay their fair share of tax to maintain our community, the poor and the outsiders are typecast as enemies, and we are invited to join in their demonisation so that we may feel safe.
Compassion, which is our word for those old words mercy and love, calls us to reject that. It calls us to go the other way, as does the Christ. Christ and compassion call us day after day to deny the constant seductions— and sometimes threats— of Empire, and to accept reality, not flee it. Christ and his compassion call us to ignore the siren calls which promise us a false safety.
To resist this seduction is itself exhausting. To discern a path through the reality of it is more so. To merely announce that everything is wrong is not enough. Yes, we need prophets of who are brave to point out the obvious and keep calling us back to it. But we all already know everything is wrong. That is why the scapegoating strategies of the government and the shock jocks work. We already know the world is "going to hell." We are deeply scared— terrified, I think.
It's why the USA engages in absurd obscenities like open carry laws which actually make their situation even more dangerous. They are terrified. They know in their hearts the truth that people like Chris Hedges tell about the instability of our society: that we are ripe for revolution, and that it's only a matter of time and peculiar chance before it happens— God alone knows what and how terrible it will be. As we Australians watch in fascinated horror, we should remember how closely we follow them.
What we need far more than prophets of our danger, are seers of hope. People who make visible to us a way to live in the existential terror of life. We need seers who are not quick fix merchants selling one more product which is really more of the same. We need seers who have integrity instead of some reactionary, revisionist obscenity like the various religious fundamentalisms on offer. We need seers who are brave enough to be falsely called fundamentalists and fools, yet brave to be true enough seers to attract the ire of the powers of Empire because they will see and announce that the Empire wears no clothes, and that Empire is offering us a salvation which is a tissue of imagination and not a clothing at all.
To stand in this place is in itself dangerous. But one does not merely choose to stand here. A seer can only see, and can only offer a hope which has integrity, if they have entered into a reality which is hope filled. A true see-er has to have seen. She or he has to enter the other reality and live there.
Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 12. He speaks of an ineffable experience, one forbidden to be repeated, and then the experience of being given a thorn in the side to keep him from being too elated. I think he speaks of insight into the realities of spirit— what we now often call the unconscious— and the pain and cost of it. And then, in each letter, evidences his down to earth compassion as he deals with the questions and realities of everyday life in the community.
His third heaven experience is a reality which is foreign territory for we westerners brainwashed into seeing the world only at a visible, material level. But it is the greater reality where a new heaven and new earth will be worked out.
It is a reality that can be dangerous. You can go mad. One way of looking at religion is that it provides us a safe way of interacting with those things of spirit, or the unconscious, which are greater than us, and not always well disposed toward us. The sterility of many modern churches may indicate that we have made ourselves too safe. We have avoided much reality by changing belief in Christ from a trust in our safety as we journey the world, to a belief in Christ which is more largely the acceptance of doctrines. Could it be that when St Patrick writes,
This day God gives me
strength of high heaven…
God’s shield is ’round me,
God’s host defends me,
saving from ill.
Angels of heaven,
drive from me always
all that would harm me,
stand by me still. (James Quinn)
he is not naively singing off his superstitious fear, but witnessing to a spiritual reality which we have ignored, and denied so long we are now blind to it, walling ourselves off with our affluence and new science? A reality which is now breaking back in upon us as our civilisation begins to collapse and the Empire fails.
We are speaking of a reality which is greater than us; "one does not simply walk into Mordor." We do not choose how we will relate to God, or choose what God will ask of us. We are able only to be open to the Divine, open to spirit, open to what may rise up from the depths of us and our praying and dreaming, and then placing it at the feet of the Christ in trust that he will guide us. To think we are setting off on an easy journey would truly be to imagine we could walk into Mordor.
If called and chosen we not only live the Christ life of compassion. We discern. We seek a vision. We seek to trace the growth of the seed in the soil, the secretly growing kingdom which we can never fully understand. And we bring that vision back to the congregation, to the gathering of God's people. We hold the vision. We bring people back to it. We re-mind them. We discern when we are drifting away from Christ's compassion and into the ways of Empire. We are seers and critics. We are guardians of the faith.
We are also to be companions. We must be able to walk some of the way. I cannot do your journey for you. Living means to leave mother and father behind and become our own person. But I need to have journeyed enough not to be afraid of your pain. I need to have journeyed enough to be able to encourage you, to be able at least provide you with a mud map of life's vagaries, to at least be able to have some wisdom about living.
I am no longer to be the youthful minister full of energy and optimism. I am to be an old man, scarred, wise, and yet hopeful because I have dared to go inwards and face the demons. Hopeful because I have stared at the horrors of life and the terrors of Empire and death, and survived with a vision of a different way of being.. And see-er because I am living the disreputable straggly life of a mustard-seed bush; daring to trust that my thinking and seeking and praying is actually worth something. Daring not to be constantly busy with committees and fundraising and cups of tea because they are not my calling. I do not discern Paul was a relaxed and urbane apostle who had conquered time management. He was harried and exhausted. But he was harried and exhausted by the right things.
It is critical in this vision for ministry that we learn again to read our scriptures. To read them not as rules or as history— they contain such— but to read them as spiritual and symbolic texts of the deeper realities of our existence. To trust that our fascination with them is not only because they tell the story of Jesus, but because they re-present to us the great symbols of our existence. And to hope and trust that because we too are human the scriptures are our story. They are not merely "out there" records of events, but a reflection of our be-ing. We should dare to think that perhaps the unreal events and experiences of scripture— "these things couldn't happen to me"— if read with different eyes, might indeed prove to be, or at least reflect, our experiences.
What I'm trying to get to here is that despite our unpreparedness for the spiritual journey, despite our unfamiliarity with the territory and despite our simple lack of vocabulary to talk about the inner life, we are much more attuned to the region than we might think… and better prepared than we might think if we have been following the way of Christ.
Actually living compassionately and opening ourselves to the cost of injustice is already to be practicing a different reality. It is to choose a future in a poorer suburb and a future as a pensioner. And long waiting lines in hospitals instead of quick entry to the private wards.
It opens me to the promptings of the Spirit because it removes from me some of the opportunities to be seduced by the materialist culture in which I live. I simply cannot afford salvation by consumption or, at least, my eyes are opened to it.
I find that the pain of this— it is a painful conversion— reduces me. It drains me. And when I seek relief I have only the wisdom of the faith. To be sure, I live in my own house, although I fear we will never pay it off. I am very well of in global terms, rich indeed. But there is no weekend shack and, for the most part, I can't afford motels.
Beyond this experience, the practice of compassion also grows compassion. I learn pity and sorrow when I open myself to the pain of others. This also opens my eyes to the injustice of our society. I mourn the wrong done to others, wrong in which I am often inextricably complicit. Life has a constant subtext of suffering which can no longer be avoided.
There is much in which to rejoice in life, but refusing to look away from what is wrong seems to have opened me to a reality which I thought was not for me. I find in once impenetrable passages— words I privately suspected were religious guff with only historical interest, a sudden truth. In our duck-rabbit world where once I strained to see the rabbit for the duck of rationalism, I now see both ways of viewing the world, and the rabbit is real, too. And often more so.
When Pauls says "we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (2 Cor 5:4) he is talking in the same territory of my deep desire for "a reality I could believe in, and a life which was worth having," a reality which would consume me. When he speaks of that "third heaven… paradise [with] things that are not permitted to be told,"(2 Cor 12:2-4) I remember visions of a blue life filled planet floating in the void and the certainty of the presence of God. I understand I am looking "not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen." (2 Cor 4:18) I "groan" (5:2) but am able to walk by faith. (2:7)
So I need to clean the toilets and sit with the poor. Compassion and service open us to the whole world. Without such service which costs I cannot know the truth I claim to see. Living the compassionate way of Christ at the heart of the "discerning of the spirits" which concerned 1 John 4. If my visioning of life cannot square with compassion for the least of us it is no true vision.
But my calling has a certain emphasis. I must not take refuge in busy goodness, or use it to justify myself. I must be still, testing the spirits, facing the fears of loss and failure, not flinching from the darkness I find even in myself. Only then can I remain open to a new vision of the faith.. There is a bearing of pain to be done, a straight looking at reality, and a discernment of blind alleys, temporary shelters and dangerous roads.
Someone must bear the grief of a dying world with clear enough eyes to call us away from idols and fear. Someone must have survived enough to model a way forward. And must think/pray/imagine and explore the new ways so they have seen something to tell and show.
Our calling is to do something like this article is doing: feeling ourselves to a new story of the world, a new hope for kingdom. Looking through the gloom— beyond it. Sketching out new mud maps for life. And then, if the worst happens, helping our little place of church be like the old monasteries, places where the tradition was kept alive and practiced. Small places of mustard seed, growing in secret, bearing harvest and providing shade. We will be halting, clumsy, and wordy; often wrong, full of doubt, lonely, pained…
We may not write. We may talk to ourselves on long bike rides, mull over things in the garden, muse on daily walks, stare at the ceiling in a study…
but if we do not do this in some measure, I fear we are denying our calling.
2 Corinthians 4:16- 5:17
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— 3if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— 7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!