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A Lenten Reflection
Raumati, 10 am, 25.2.2018
Readings: Genesis 7:1-5; [9:18-28]; Mark 1:1-13
Lent – a religious season of preparation, self-examination, and facing hard questions.
I intend so to do. But, I will begin with a light-hearted question:
Do you ever watch the Father Brown Mysteries?
Kindly priest and amateur sleuth, Fr Brown solves many mysteries that occur within his picturesque village parish. In an episode I watched recently he was about to conduct a funeral. As the casket was carried into the church a knocking came from inside the casket. The ensuing alarm brought the funeral to an urgent halt. While some mourners were proclaiming a miracle Father Brown replied, “While I can’t completely rule out a supernatural resurrection I would be more inclined to go for a rational explanation first.”
The script-writers certainly expected the viewers to side with Fr Brown. Had we been given a supernatural explanation I would have felt cheated, wouldn’t you?
But I don’t deny that humans can relate to mystical experiences. Late December last year a story broke on National News about a controversial walking track up Te Mata Peak in the Craggy Range Winery. NZ is becoming increasingly covered by spectacular walking tracks so what was the problem with this one?
Local Hawke’s Bay Maori maintained Te Mata was their ancestor and this intrusive track had defaced the face of their ancestor. (Incidentally, ‘Mata’ means ‘face’ in Te Reo.)
In the face of vehement outrage the Winery who had installed the track as an added attraction for their business agreed to remove it, despite a petition of 4,000 names gathered in 2 days, from people who wanted the track retained.
If you had been asked to sign the petition, would you?
If you had signed, would that action reflect or compromise your Christian beliefs?
The angst of local Maori could have been dismissed as superstition but despite the loss of an attraction that would add to their income, Craggy Range Winery opted to apologise for not consulting the iwi and to remove the track - an action that would involve significant expense.
Why? The landowners decided it was important to honour Maori belief and they did not want to offend the iwi who had blessed their original business. Maori responded with joy saying, ‘the mana had been restored.’
If only present day secular NZ took Christianity so seriously - we may wish!
As scorn is increasingly poured on Christian beliefs and rituals, Maori legends and rituals are increasingly being given more respect in NZ culture. Why is this?
Despite our best efforts to show Christianity as good in the grand scheme of life, part of the blame must lie with us. A large chunk of our population, including many of our own children who were raised in our faith do not see Christianity as relevant to their lives. And it’s not. Today’s younger people lead very busy lives juggling study and finances or jobs and family They want leisure time and are not willing to sacrifice precious time on what they can’t see as important. Young parents recognise family time as valuable but have forgotten that church values families. It is good to remind them that church is one of the few places in our society that welcomes all ages and offers a caring network.
A hook parents of Millennials hang their logic on is, ‘Christians believe a lot of outmoded stuff.’ Most Christians want to dispute this but convincing others is something else. I don’t think it matters much what anyone believes, as long as it is helpful to them in living well.
But if you want to pursue a meaningful discussion it is reasonable to consider that Christians are liable to fall into the trap of taking ourselves and our stories too seriously. In other words, we tend to hold inflexible views. Listening carefully and being open to modifying opinions is all important to the modern mindset.
Homo-sapiens is a ritual making creature. Because humans have speech humans rely on storytelling to survive, to inform, to entertain, and to record.
All cultures have, and create, stories and gods. All cultures create rituals that aid emotional response. Religious rituals particularly serve to enhance respect. This should be a good thing, but to interpret ritual and symbolism as fact, is folly.
Religious beliefs are best viewed as a mix of story and poetry that help ground us in the reality of being human while recognising the divine.
One of the errors modern Christians have made is putting emphasis on explaining holy stories in a factual way rather than emphasising the spiritual significance of the story.
Consider this: both Maori and Pakeha give geographical features names that relate to shapes and people. All over the world hills, rocks or islands are called, the 12 apostles, the seven sisters, the 3 maidens, the chief’s head, the king’s seat etc. As Kiwis we are happy to accept the North Island as Te Ika-a-Maui (the Fish of Maui) and the South Island as Te Waka-a-Maui (the Canoe of Maui). Some Maori may believe that Maui was an actual physical ancestor, others may not, but all of us want respect for the earth whether we name her Papatakunuku, Mother Nature, Gaia, or God’s Creation.
Questions worth considering this Lent are:
Do our holy stories have to be factual events to have relevance?
Have we become too invested in wanting to believe our holy stories are better than other peoples’ holy stories?
The Liturgical Year
The Lectionary and Liturgical Year follow a pattern. The Great Festivals of the Christian Year being Christmas, Easter and Pentecost with each relating to its special season of Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Pentecost, followed by Ordinary Time. Lesser rituals include: Harvest Festival, Mother’s Day (now ‘Home and Family Sunday’), plus local festivals such as Saints Days, Spring Flower Sunday, Animal Blessings etc.
All rituals that acknowledge seasons in a spiritual way give shape and meaning to worship.
Lectionary readings also follow a prescribed pattern. Although our lectionary follows a 3 year cycle with a particular Gospel given prominence, regardless of it being year A, B, or C, after Epiphany comes the Baptism of Jesus (linked to an OT ‘water story’ usually Noah’s Ark), followed by the Temptations, the Call of the Disciples, and then the Ministry of Jesus.
It is a natural progression. Whether we consider this spiritual journey as factual or not, is an individual choice that has little to do with our core Christian beliefs.
Consider Noah’s Ark, the Bible gives 5 chapters to Noah and his sons, yet we hear the same few verses over and over – verses that make a delightful children’s story but the Bible wasn’t written for children! The Bible is very adult and very messy. Today you sampled other pieces of the tale. Without such pieces the whole grand conservation concept would have been ruined by Noah’s first act on dry land – sacrificing one of every clean animal to the Lord. Humans have always made up stories to explain important concepts.
Consider the Temptations. Matthew and Luke presume Jesus could have been tempted through hunger to use magic, power, and showmanship. In a DVD on the life of Jesus (watched at house group) the Temptation of Christ was given a modern twist. A woman in a gown of flowing scarlet was manipulated by Satan (in a business suit) to tempt Jesus. Any story of worth will be retold, and movie directors always want to showcase their creative angle on an old story. Sex tops the bill in the modern world.
It took Matthew and Luke 11 to 13 verses to describe their thoughts on what temptation was for Jesus. But Mark, the first written of the Gospels, allocates only 2 verses, and all we need to know, Jesus was tempted. We all experience temptation but we don’t all experience the same temptations.
Whether you believe Maui fished up the North Island with his grandmother’s jawbone or Samson slew 1,000 men with the jawbone of an ass, has very little to do with how you behave as a person. Whether you believe Maui slowed down the sun to give humans enough hours daylight to tend their crops or that a Universal God created a sun to provide ideal light for human need, has little to do with how you behave towards your neighbours. But having respect for the sun and the earth as things of paramount importance shaped by a divine power, does affect how you behave towards our planet.
Faith is not about believing debatable facts. Faith is about living the best life you can.
Knowledge increases, every decade, every year, week and day. Known facts are replaced by further knowledge all the time and it can happen that in the rapid replacing of knowledge we lose sight of the original knowledge.
Christians, very early on, forgot that many of the Christian stories were not facts but stories told to explain and sustain spiritual belief.
In our times most of us are able to view Bible stories connected to the birth of Jesus as wonderful stories - stories that centre on a baby having the potential to change the world by appreciating the poor as well as the rich, women as well as men, and promoting peace, hope, joy and love to all - in other words ‘establish the Kingdom of Christ.’
But many find it difficult to view Bible stories concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus as dramatic stories that embody the cost of standing up against corruption, and regardless of what happens, knowing working for good is always right. To live in this way and pass on this understanding is surely triumphing over evil with resurrection.
Lenten pondering has led me to conclude that:
- Everyone decides what they believe in but some give more thought to it than others.
- All beliefs are shaped by one’s own culture and personal experiences;
- Beliefs should change as we mature;
- What anyone believes is nowhere near as important as what they do;
- When it comes to living well in this world, religion is optional but trust and respect are vital.
For myself, I trust in God and respect core values embedded in the Holy Bible, particularly those shown in the life and teaching of Jesus.
I believe: God is good; God cares; God loves; God comforts. I trust that God is with us in the mystery and power of the Holy Spirit; And that God wants and enables goodness to happen through us. Amen
Many people ask why do I believe in the love of God in a world in which God is so conspicuously silent?
There's no denying it's a huge problem for Christians - and also some other religions.
Sometimes it gets stated as the problem of evil, meaning how can an all-good God permit evil and suffering.
Or, more simply put as: why do bad things happen to good people?
A lot of words have been written about this. Usually the answers are a lot more complex than merely stating the problem.
And that leads me to think that the problem has been over-simplified.
It's desirable to simplify as much as possible, but to go beyond that limit is not wise.
Instead let's imagine there's a very high, narrow bridge with no railings.
The winds are so strong they can blow you over the edge even though you have to get to the other side.
The bridge is time, and in crossing it with our lives some may claim God is present and others complain God is absent. And some may argue that God doesn't exist. But life exists and we are moving over the bridge of time.
All the possibilities, scientific, philosophical, theological are mutually present, mutually available to everyone on the bridge.
Simone Weil in a remarkable sequence of insights, called Gravity and Grace, said, “We have not to choose between opinions. We have to welcome them all but arrange them vertically, placing them on suitable levels. Thus: chance, destiny, Providence.”
We are born to cross the bridge of time. Like Simone Weil, we can choose to live by Providence in crossing it. But whether or not we have the courage to live it to the full as she did in her extraordinary life and death protesting the tyranny of Nazism in occupied France remains an open question.
These questions also take us to the heart of the problem of chance, necessity, and free will.
Methodists from the time of John Wesley have wanted to explore what it means to be free to choose live by Providence. But in the contemporary world of strange attractors and quantum dynamics do the moral exemplars of Weil and Wesley still have relevance?
David Hill has a deep love of the Christchurch region. Since the disastrous earthquakes he has walked many of the trails, byways and rivers, all the time deepening his appreciation of the theology of the place he loves to call home.
You can find a full set of resources - meditations, reflections, and call to action - for Lent, Holy Week and Maundy Thursday Good Friday, and Easter to download from this link and also on my profile page, David Hill. Please send feedback for improvements and how you were able to use the resources.