Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Love>fear...some thoughts from Shane Hipps on fear and Love

I am enjoying reading through Shane Hipps book 'Selling Water By The River' (2012, Jericho Books) . It was recommended to me Ray Coster the PCANZ moderator. It is a book which wrestles with how organised religion can get in the way of us actually finding the source of life giving water that Jesus Christ is. AS You will have guessed from the title the metaphor he uses is that we can be guilty of trying to sell bottled water next on the banks of that never ending stream of Christ's love and presence. While I don't agree with all his critique of church I read with the posture of openness that maybe I need to open my ears and eyes a bit more to what the book has to say to me...

the chapter I read today was on fear and love and I appreciated Hipps reflections. which make sense of Jesus summing up the laws of the Old testament with the great commandment 'to love the Lord your God with all You heart and all your mind and all your strength"... and "love your neighbour as yourself."

"In the Old Testament passages, you'll notice an important progression in the way fear operates. They say "fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." fear seems to serve as a catalyst or starting point. Wisdom may begin with fear, but it odes not end there.
 
The first stage of faith development often begins with fear, but it heads somewhere else-towards love.
...
as we mature, we learn that fear moves from being something that protects us to something that imprisons us
(Hipps uses the illustration of a toddler being afraid of a stove because hey might get burned becoming an adult who while being conscious of the warmth of the hot plate finds pleasure fulfilment and sustenance in learning to use the stove.)
"It moves from something that helps to something that hurts.
fear plays an important role in our development , but it also may choke our growth if we get stuck there.
...
this process of becoming opened by love can be unnerving, and it is not for the faint heart... Love opens us more and more to a freedom that moves us beyond self-justification, self protection, and self preservation. Anytime boundaries are dropped or even changed, it can feel threatening, but it is essential if we are to grow."
 
I have to admit I'm not a great lover of Jazz music but Hipps uses it to illustrate the point he is making. That a Jazz musician spends years learning the rules of music, to that eventually he finds the freedom to improvise and play with great abandonment and freedom, knowing the rules and the rhythms and patterns. This only happens however after years of practise and study.
 
 
"this is what happens i the life of faith as well. Initially, fear may motivate us to follow rules for fear of God. But in the end we must release our fears and be moved by Love."
 
When Hipps uses a capital L for love he is expressing the reality of the fact that " God's very character is love as john says "God is Love." 
 
 
"if we are to access the Living water Jesus promised, ultimately Love must become the only thing that govern behaviour, not fear.... love does not do away with boundaries; instead , it makes use of them in ways that serve the purpose of Love."
 
Hipps goes on to explore what Love does in our lives and the way it brings change and often calls us to step out of our own self protection... He points to Jesus as the ultimate love unfettered by fear.
 
"Look what happened when Jesus followed the call of Love, Love demanded that he break the rigid rules of religion and he suffered for it. he ended up on a cross. And yet even there his heart was fearless, offering mercy to the very people who were killing him. Jesus shed his fear in the garden, a and then he was governed by Love alone. Such love has no knowledge of fear.
 
"In these moments of dramatic calling in life, it may seem like this love is destroying us. However that is only an illusion. We experience it in this way because we have become so used to the bars of the prison that once kept us safe. But when we live according to love we quickly learn that it is  the prison that is being destroyed, not us. In reality we are being liberated by love."
 
This Love is a powerful force even more powerful than we often imagine it."
 
"Love and fear cannot occupy the same space." Hipps says after taking of the relationship between light and darkness and the passage in 1 John 4:18 which says "there is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out all fear." he continues
 
"Moreover love and fear are not equal and opposing forces. Fear is always at the mercy of Love. One way of seeing it is that fear is actually the absence of love, not the opposite. the lesson here is an important one. Love has no opposite. no force in the universe rivals it.
 
With such power, we might be wise to understand that ridding ourselves of fear is as simple as letting love in. Just as darkness automatically vanishes in the presence of Light, so too fear disappears in the radiance of Love.
 
our life of faith may begin with fear, we may learn from it initially. But vibrant, growing faith will be marked by an ever expanding love, and the corresponding dissolution of fear."

 
 
I always remember the way the Rev Bill temple greeted people in a service of worship... "beloved" and have treasured that wonderful title.  I also have fervent friends who say what we need is more fear of the Lord, and I've always wondered what that meant and had an uneasiness about it... my reply might now simply be "for the Love of God... no." 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Surprised by an Open Heaven: Healing and wholeness from the one who has authority to forgive sin (Mark 2:1-12)


Lucy from peanuts is right "life is full of surprises" and there are some people who like surprises and those that don’t … right… and I have found that it’s usually quite evenly split. some people love spontaneity and others  would rather be in control and organised... Or at least in the know.

For me and probably for a lot of you it actually depends on the context. Presents and party’s yes surprise is alright…right…I like it when my wife surprises me by turning up and taking me to lunch.  If it’s my birthday and you want to surprise me with a party though, It’s probably a bit better to let me know ahead of time. I’ll still act surprised.

I
f it’s in the middle of a meeting or as I’m organising something then no!  Surprises are not welcome. I like the idea of a no surprises agenda.  And particularly when I’m preaching… like the time I was speaking at an Easter camp and we had an outdoor worship time on the banks of the Taeiri river and a car pulls up behind me on the river bank three guys get out and proceed to strip off and go skinny dipping.  They were surprised as they noticed after a few turns on the rope swing across the river from us that they were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses… about ninety very attentive teenages, they quickly headed back to there car and their clothes and headed away. Surprises in the middle of Jesus speaking like we are looking at in Mark 2 didn’t seem to fase him unlike they do me.

One thing I am constantly surprised with is the grace and the goodness of God. I shouldn’t be but I am. Maybe its testimony to the passage in lamentations that says ‘the steadfast love of the Lord never ends, and his mercy endures forever, it is new every morning.” The amazing love and grace that God shows in my own life and in the life of others and even…surprise, surprise…as I prayer and minister to and with them takes me by surprise all the time.  I am like the people in our bible reading tonight amazed, which is a synonym for surprised, at what the Lord does.

It’s probably no surprise that at a prayer and healing meeting we would choose as our reading a miracle story from the gospel. You’ve probably read it yourself many times and heard people speak on it many times, as I have. But as I read and reflected and prayed over this week, I was surprised by it… the thing that surprised me was that it is full of surprises. From the moment you hear the determined footsteps on the roof right through to the joyous footsteps of the paralysed man Jesus heals, it’s a journey full of surprises. Surprises that we might miss because we’ve become familiar with it, but I was also surprised by how it spoke to some of the questions I was wrestling with, even about having such things as prayer and healing services… and I was surprised at how it speaks to people who need to meet with Jesus. It does not say that we should be surprised by a hole in the roof, but we can be surprised amazed at an open heaven, at Jesus meeting us as we come to him and bringing healing and wholeness: help, health and salvation.

Jesus had come back to town; his home Mark tells us and the word had got out and people had flocked to hear him speak. So much so that the place was packed, standing room only. Don’t tell OSH because we are over the fire and safety limits. Then there is a surprise… Jesus is interrupted, people would have been surprised by the sound of feet on the flat roof above, they would have looked up as sawdust and debris starts to fall on them from above and a hole appears in the thatched roof. Then a man on a mat is lowered down right to the feet of Jesus.

What Jesus says surprises everyone, “Son, your sins are forgiven” They are not the simple words of healing that you might expect, Jesus does just not meet the man’s perceived need.

 We don’t know about this man’s life or who was or what he had done, but Jesus offers him something at a deeper level than physical healing. Perhaps Jesus looked right to the root of the problem that the man was crippled by guilt and weighed down by his sin. The man here may have lived with that all his life and Jesus is saying this to the man so he will be able to hear God’s healing word. At another level like with many of the healings Jesus does it’s about wholeness and Jesus is removing that stigma that associated physical infirmary with sin from the man so he can be welcomed back into full fellowship with the community.

At another level Jesus is looking even deeper into the root of the problem; that we are all broken by sin and in need of forgiveness.  We were created to have a loving relationship with God, and sin broke that, the healing that Jesus offers this man starts with healing that brokenness that is in all of us. It points us to the work of the cross and the resurrection, that Jesus would give his life so that we may be forgiven and restored to that life giving relationship with God.  Sickness and illness are connected to sin, in as much as they are a consequence of a fallen humanity, a marred creation; in fact one of the things that shows how evil and destructive sin is is that these things strike people who do not deserve it. Much of the Old Testament scriptures wrestle with the issue of why do good people suffer. Jesus offers first of all that most wondrous of healings salvation, reconciliation with God and with one another. “your sins are forgiven.”

There is another surprise now in the narrative, so much so that some scholars have suggested that Mark has combined two episodes in Jesus life into one. Because the focus moves from the man and Jesus to what is happening in the minds of the religious leaders who we are surprised to learn are there in the house.  We are told in their minds they are surprised and not in a good way by what Jesus has said. They know their scriptures they understand about God and in their understanding what Jesus is saying is blaspheme… Only God can forgive sin.”

WE shouldn’t be surprised about this turn of events, because in the gospels what people call miracles are in actual fact called signs and wonders. They are recorded for us because of what they tell us about Jesus. Yes they always affirm the compassion and the love and power of God, but here Mark makes sure we understand what this healing says about Jesus. He records Jesus words, “is it easier to say your sins are forgiven, or get up and walk, but to show that the son of man, a messianic title from the book of Daniel and Ezekiel, that Jesus uses of himself, has authority to forgive sins on earth,’ and here he turns to the man, “get up take up your mat and go home.”  The healing shows us the proof and the authority of Jesus words. Marks Gospel starts with a affirmation and witness to Jesus as the unique messiah, the anointed one of God and then throughout the rest of the book we are invited to see what that means. It’s kind of like a mystery thriller, or a film noir we’ve been let into the solution at the start and as we read through the narrative we are invited to see it more clearly.

The passage tells us that Jesus the son of man, has authority to forgive sin on earth, Jesus does not contradict the religious leaders, but rather by his actions he point to his identity. In the book of Hebrews the author argues that Jesus is a better priest than in the Jewish religious understanding and here we see Jesus acting in that role. Offering forgiveness of sin, and just as Hebrews goes on to say he is a better priest because he gives himself as a sacrifice for sin, the work of the cross is echoed here. But we are also invited to look at the very identity of the one speaking, here is the very word of God made flesh, as John will start his gospel by telling us.

The healing acts as a sign post to the person and the work of Jesus as God’s messiah, as God with us.

We are told that the man instantly feels his legs strengthened and does what Jesus had told him to do he gets up rolls his mat up and walks. And the narrative finished with surprise, the people are amazed by the fact the man is healed and they give glory and praise to God.

I want to finish tonight by drawing some surprising connection from this passage for us tonight.

The first thing is that while this has been promoted as a prayer and healing service that first and foremost it is a gospel service. In everything we do we want to point people to Jesus. We hope as we worship as we hear the word of God read and preached as we pray that just like with the man on the mat we may find ourselves at the feet of Jesus to hear his words of forgiveness wholeness help strength encouragement and healing we need to hear. That even through life’s tears and storm we might encounter Jesus.

Secondly,  I was surprised by where I found myself standing as I read this passage because as a preacher and as part of the prayer ministry team, I discovered a metaphor for what we do that warmed my heart… That of friend, It seems that we left those guys up on the roof as we looked at this passage but they are the ones who allowed the person in need to come to Jesus.  They exercised their faith to help him. And later when we invite people to come for prayer we are doing it not as some sort of super spiritual guru who’ve got all the answers or anything special, rather as a friend who can simply bring you to Jesus. Very often we think of people like evangelists or preachers and teachers healers as something special unobtainable but can I say we are all called to be friends, all able to be friends and befriend.

Thirdly, I was surprised at the barriers that needed to be overcome to bring healing and wholeness in this narrative. It would be great if at church each week people had to get their early to get in, right. And we had to push out the windows and door so people could hear Jesus speaking in our midst. But I was surprised that the people around Jesus became a barrier for healing and wholeness. They stood in the way. I shouldn’t have been surprised really because we often let that happen to us. We’ve been talking about inviting people to come forward for prayer in our team meetings and acknowledge that accepting that invitation is a hard thing to do. It actually involves being willing to say well actually I have a need, or I want to know more of Jesus in my life. That crowd pressure can hold us back.

Lastly, I hope we are not surprised by where this narrative places Jesus.  I don’t know about you but I can often think of Jesus as way off there, distant and beyond,  in eternity and locked up in heaven somehow. That God is a distant disinterested deity. That not even a impromptu skylight is going to do much to connect us. We long for an open heaven. But the surprise in this passage is where Jesus can be found. Did you hear it, Jesus came home and was in the midst of the people.   We have an open heaven, because  in Jesus God came down, and dwelt amongst us, by his Spirit Jesus dwells in the midst of his people through Christ God dwells in the midst of us. 

And in the midst of us Jesus offers us forgiveness and reconciliation with God and each other, Jesus offers us forgiveness of sin, freedom and liberty, God is able to meet us in our point of need and speak words of wholeness and healing. Directly to us or just maybe we too will need a friend, the person next to you and the team is here to befriend.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

At The Cross Road: But Who Do You Say That I Am? (Luke 9:18-27)


One of the things we did at Student Soul was work our way through the gospel of Luke. We started a lot of explorations with different pictures of Jesus, Different ways that Jesus is portrayed by Christians and non-Christians in popular culture: In film, on the net, and art. Here are a few…

We saw ‘Buddy Christ’ a statue from the film ‘Dogma’ part of an attempt, so the film tells us, of the Catholic Church in America to change people’s perceptions of who they were.  The statue was an attempt  to rebrand Jesus as a softer, kinder more accessible character. To do away with the cross and have a bloodless saviour who was more into giving you a boost. It’s a parody of Jesus as friend. Now I happen to love the metaphor of Jesus as friend, but ‘Dogma picks up that it can be a plastic presentation of who Jesus is with no real substance.

Another was this picture of the business Jesus: Jesus the executive, Jesus totally identifying with the western world.  Maybe it is an attempt to acknowledge Jesus’ presence in our twenty first century reality. But I fear it is simply an understanding of Jesus perpetrated and portrayed in church messages about 5 steps to finding the good life, and the Jesus way to business success.  One Cartoon I saw as I searched google had a man in a suite asking Jesus “how is your Business going?” and it spoke to me that often people simply see religion in our world as big business.

Yet another is the revolutionary Jesus, it’s based on the famous 1960’s Che Guevara poster. It is an attempt to counter the business Jesus.  It epitomizes Jesus as counter cultural as the champion of change, freedom and the fight against oppression.  It was very apt when we read Luke’s gospel because Luke does grown his theology in some very challenging application socially and financially.

And I could on… maybe these would be some of the answers we would give today to Jesus question and who do people say that I am? That we had at the beginning of our bible reading today. Because these are some of the answers that are out there, unlike the answers that the disciples gave they are not formed by an imagination steeped in the scripture of the Old Testament. An Answer in the words of NT Wright that went for models of prophets both old and new, from Elijah to John the Baptist.”

We are working our way through the E100 essential Jesus Bible Reading Challenge. We’ve been working our way through those same Old Testament scriptures that shaped the imagination of both the crowds round Jesus and his own disciples. Today we are at a cross road in that journey, A cross road in two ways we have finished the Old testament section and are starting to look at significant passages in the New Testament of and about Jesus. Secondly we are finishing off following the E100 essential reading challenge in our Sunday services.  So when I chose the passage to preach on for today, and if I was writing a film review I’d say spoiler alert here, I went to the last reading in the e100 series; The reading that finishes up, where we started, with that most important of questions ‘But who do you say that I am?”

It’s also appropriate that we look at this passage at this crossroad because it is itself a pivot point in the gospel narrative. In all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke it is the first time that someone has publically voiced in Jesus ministry that he is indeed the messiah, the anointed one, who all of Israel was looking for as we have seen in our exploration of the Old testament. Up until know while peter and the others had followed Jesus they are perplexed about him, now they dear to voice what they believe. But it’s also a pivot point in the gospel story because it is the start of the cross road, Jesus road to the cross. Jesus follows Peter’s confession by starting to talk about the fact that he must suffer and die. It’s also the pivot point for the disciples, in Matthews Gospel Jesus says  on this rock, that is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. But it’s also the pivot point because in all three gospels Jesus says that any who would follow him must also walk the cross road.. deny themselves, pick up their cross daily and follow him.

 
“But who do you say that I am?” is a question for all of us this morning. Jesus had called the disciples and they had been with him for a period of time. They had heard him speak; he had explained and conversed about his parables with them. They had viewed his character his compassion and seen the things that he had done. They had been called and commissioned. Where ever you are today in your journey with Jesus it is the question. In fact I would go so far as to say that it is the quest we are on… to know more fully as time goes on who Jesus is and what it means to call him Christ, God’s anointed one and Lord.  It’s a developmental thing… Philip Yancy in his book the Jesus I never knew talks of having meet three different Jesus in his life. A Sunday school Jesus, captured in that wonderful poster of Jesus surrounded by the different children of the world, a Jesus that fitted his teen and college understanding, an activist Jesus and as he was concerned as a journalist with what was going on in the world with a global Jesus, standing over the world with arms outstretched. And still as he grew he desired to know more and more of Jesus… the Jesus I never knew. To answer that question ‘who do you say I am? At every new life and maturity stage.

 
It is a quest that draws us into God, note that Jesus asks this question in the context of his disciples being with him in prayer and in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus affirms that Peter’s confession is only possible because of the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Brain McLaren in his book ‘Generous Orthodoxy’ talks of meeting seven different Jesus’ and it’s not a contest between writers by the way. AS he has meet with and sat alongside, prayed and studied scripture with and lived and served with Christians from different  traditions, from incense wielding chanting eastern orthodox to chandelier swinging tongues chattering Pentecostals,  he has seen how they emphasise a different aspect of Jesus and it has enriched and deepened his own understanding, his own knowing of Jesus. “who do you say I am’ is the journey we are on its the pivot that draws us to our knees and to each other to hear from God.

It is not a destination… Peter makes the confession and right away Jesus tells him to be quite, because there are different understanding of what Messiah means. The prevailing view was that it meant victory and a new sovereign rule for Israel. Jesus who fully understood the Old Testament says that the Son of Man, another title from the book of Daniel and Ezekiel, must suffer and die before being vindicated. That to be God’s anointed was to walk the cross road. Was to be serve rather than to be served, was to lay down his life for his flock, not to dine off their backs: That liberty and freedom and forgiveness and wholeness for us came through walking the cross road.

To answer the question But who do you say I am? by confessing ‘Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one of God’ is also for us a call to walk the cross road. Jesus puts it in three imperatives: To deny ourselves, to pick our cross daily and follow him.

Maybe we’ve domesticated Jesus imperatives somewhat; We don’t see people carrying their cross round today. A traitor or revolutionary in the empire or a criminal would be condemned to death on a cross, and it was common in Jesus day to see these condemned criminals carrying the cross member of their own cross, through town to the place of execution. Maybe we capture some of that in the American penal system, where prison Guards would call out ‘dead man walking’ to clear the way as a prisoner on death row was being taken to their execution. To deny one’s self and to carry the cross is to put Jesus and his person and mission first, to have done with this world and to live in the kingdom of God.

Jesus illustrates that in with two metaphors, which pick up central themes in western and eastern culture because Jesus invitation is for all … A financial one of profit and lose… what good does it do to gain the whole world but to lose our souls, our lives all that we are. The other of honour and shame… if we are ashamed of Jesus now when he does come in his kingdom he will be ashamed of us, but if we honour him now he will honour us.

It was over shadowed a bit this week by happenings in the Ukraine and Gaza, but another possible genoside illustrates the reality of identifying Jesus calls us to walk the cross road. Behind me in red  is a symbol… It is the Arabic letter “N”… “N” for Nazarene… The ISIS fundamentalists have taken the city of Musal in Iraq which houses one of the oldest Christian communities in existence.  The ISIS soldiers have gone round and painted this symbol on all the houses of the those who profess to be Christian in that city. They have bee identified and have been given the choice to flee and leave behind everything they own which according to the ISIS understanding of Islamic law is forfeit, convert to Islam, or they will be killed. The writing in black in Arabic, is cause for hope as it is written by brave muslim neighbour’s and says “we are all Christians”, very much like the king of Denmark during Nazi occupation as a Christian saying we are all sons of Abraham and calling on all his people to ware a star of David.  We need to make sure that this does not slip out of the world’s eyes or their will be a blood bath. 

Maybe even then we cannot identify with what it means to suffer and walk the cross road like that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote ‘the cost of discipleship’ on the sermon on the mount, and was lauded for it all over the world, he only found the fullness of what it meant and the joy of Christ’s presence on the cross  road when he was a condemned prisoner in a Nazi jail. We wrestle with making decisions each day, maybe with those insidious ‘first world problems” about what it means to confess that Jesus is Christ, to walk in the path of one who came to serve and not to be served, there are many pivot points we daily face and we are challenged to live out our confession on the cross road. Joel green says “the emphasis on perseverance in one’s discipleship points to the ongoing character of the journey, one that begins with momentous decisions but is not content only with good beginnings.”

Finally the thing that gives us hope is that we follow the one who has Gone before, that there is joy and hope and life itself because of what Jesus the anointed one has done, that we are forgiven and made whole we are loved and cared for and consoled and provided for because we follow one who has gone down the cross road before us. the cross road is the road that leads to life… It starts at the crossroad, the pivot point of our answer to Jesus question “But who do you say that I am?”
 
Here is a change to respond to this message and make this your song and prayer... be thou my vision. 

 

 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

An Iconic Way to Pray for the City... Imagine that!


Recently I discovered this amazing photography of Auckland city by a group called lensaloft. They are interactive 360 images of Auckland city from a helicopter hovering above the city centre.

They capture something of the grandeur and beauty of the city of Auckland. The dark greens of the land and in the wonderful light of dusk the glimmering silver blue of the harbours and Hauraki gulf. Layered on top of that the more vibrant lights of the city we have built, the motor way surging with colours orange and red, like the veins and arteries  that pump life from the heart of he city into the vast expanse of its suburban sprawl.

I found myself reflecting on these images, as a spiritual disciple. This is the city I work in, this is the city that I and my brothers and sisters in Christ are called to love and seek the peace of and to speak good news into and serve. This may seem a bit of a grandiose thought for a minister of a struggling Presbyterian church nestled somewhere near the geological heart of Auckland (Mt Wellington) which in the picture of things, or in these pictures of the thing almost feels peripheral. But it is a great help in praying for the vast mission field of this global city.

As I reflect one of the things that comes to mind is that it would be easy to simply look at the place from the rarefied air way above its commercial heart. But one of the things about an image, like a metaphor is that equally important to what you see is what you don't see. AS I reflect and pray I am aware of things I am not seeing. Maybe it would be easy to get caught up with the lights and not see the darkness. The individuals blur in motion like the individual cars on the motorway. Some of the needier areas of the city here disappear and are lost in the darkness and beyond the scope of the lens.

One of the ways this kind of image is called is "A God's eye view" and that has some theological challenges. From this height it seems easy to be detached and often we envisage a God way up there, distant disinterested disassociated maybe even distracted, but that is not the case, we must view God through the lens of Christ, through his feet  on dusty country roads and crowded city streets.  In John's gospel Jesus is more often at the central city of Jerusalem than any of the other gospels sometimes in the centre where all the action is going on but also as in the case of the miracle narrative in John 5:1-9 with the sick and desperate at the pool by the sheep gate. God actual sees and knows and is in the picture rather than distant and far off.

This image also challenges my imagination...My Presbyterian imagination, chiselled as if in stone from a homeland and time I've never known struggles to  envisage a church with a vision for a city. The more rural Christendom model seems to hold us captive... but it is good to be reminded that the church was born and originally spread in the cityscape of the first century. I was reminded of that recently when in our multi cultural city  when I met a women from Thessaloniki Greece's second largest city.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Good News Garden: Isaiah 61's promise of Good News fufilled in Jesus (Isaiah 61, Luke 4:14-21)


Central to the passage we are looking at today is a metaphor, a mind picture…The metaphor of a healthy tree. I wonder what picture comes to mind for you when you heard that metaphor. Is there a specific tree or trees that come to mind?  Perhaps a childhood memory… my wife Kris thought of the plumb tree in her back yard, where she would sit to read a book, the branch where she sat worn smooth from hours of use… or somewhere special in your life, in the past or now.

For me when I think of Oaks, the tree mentioned in Isaiah 61 two pictures come to mind…So real  the sound of the wind rustling leaves plays through my head like a soundtrack. I envisage the oak trees at the Hunua Falls Camp: The one behind the cook house and the ones along the bank of the Hunua River. I even see Ralph Blair holding on to one of the trunks for support as he laughs so hard, at people falling into the water off some dastardly contraption he had made for group building games.

The other is the oak that provides the backdrop to McLaurin chapel’s reading room. In spring and summer it too fills the chapel with the sound of wind rustling through leaves, so much so that the ever present sound of central city traffic can be banished for a brief moment. It filters dappled light into the building. As autumn comes you have to be careful walking up the hill to the back of the chapel because you can easy roll your ankle on all the acorns it drops. It reminds me of beauty for ashes, as its branches criss-cross over each other in the middle, at some stage it was damaged and broken but it has been lovingly cared for and now is a wonderfully beautiful and healthy tree, that misshapenness accentuates its uniqueness.

The passage we had read out to us today in Isaiah 61 is a prophecy which has as a central metaphor trees…Oak trees that because they are healthy and strong produce good seeds that cause seedlings to grow up round them. They are the hope filled starting point of the recreation of a garden, of a reforestation of the nations. The trees that are mentioned are planted by the LORD and called into being by the ministry of one filled by the Spirit of the Sovereign LORD and anointed by God, a figure whose ministry Jesus says he fulfils: Jesus who pictures his life and death as a single seed falling to the ground and dying to produce new life.

We are working our way through the E100 essential Jesus Bible reading Challenge, and at the end of this week we’ll be a quarter of the way through. In fact by the end of this week we will have finished the Old Testament section.  My hope is that as we are doing this that it isn’t simply an exercise of leafing through a book, but that as we open ourselves up to the scripture narrative that there is that rustling of leaves sound as the spirit wind blows a fresh through us.

The use of the tree metaphor which seems to book end Isaiah reminds me of growing up in Titirangi. Way before my time the hills used to be covered by forests of mighty kauri trees. As a child I often went to a friend’s house to play. He lived on the slopes of Mt Atkinson and in the bush down the back of his section was a huge log of a kauri tree that we used to climb up and run along. It was massive and it seemed sad that there were no trees like this standing. Years later I got a holiday job doing some gardening for people who lived across the road from that house. Down their back boundary was a whole gully full of adolescent Kauri trees. It seems there as a fire there at the beginning of the twentieth century and the ultra-hard Kauri seeds germinated in the burned soil. There is hope that again the hills will be crowned by these majestic trees.

The first forty chapters of the book is a book of judgment, and deals with Judah and Jerusalem going into exile because they had continually and repeatedly refuse to live in a way that reflects their covenant relationship with God. Isaiah’s opening oracle finishes with the metaphor of an Oak tree, in Isaiah 1:30-31 the prophet says Judah is like an oak tree whose leaves had started to fade, that was in a garden without water. It is an unhealthy tree, in not paying attention to their relationship with God they had cut themselves off from the very thing that gave them life and vitality and while throughout the first part of Isaiah there is mention of God tending his garden there comes a time when the old tree needs to be taken out and burned to make way for something new and healthy. What does Kauri die back say about the health of the environment?  And you know that tree removal can be  a painful process.

In chapter 40 the tenure of the book changes so much so scholars wonder if this isn’t a different Isaiah writing, it becomes a book of comfort for the exiles a promise that God will restore and rebuild, bring back and renew. It’s a book that picks up the tree image and says that again God will plant his people like oaks that they will be a reason for praise and righteousness to rise up like seedlings from the nations.

But the new tree is not planted so much through spade work but voice work, it is proclaimed into life. The first three verses of Isaiah 61 are spoken in the first person. It is the voice of the person who is called to do the work of restoration. It’s a voice that seems out of place with the preceding chapter, some have thought that it is the prophet themselves speaking of their call to
ministry, but that does not totally fit the setting. In the second half of Isaiah there is a person who is referred to as the servant of the LORD, we know them from the servant songs like the suffering servant song in Isaiah 53, that we use of Jesus most Good Fridays. The servant of the LORD is the one who brings about the restoration of God’s people, and that fits what the voice is saying here. The speaker talks of God’ Spirit and anointing being on them to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom and release to the captives,  to comfort those who mourn, to give beauty for ashes and bring praise in the replace of despair. Their ministry is to bring about wholeness and newness for God’s people.

Wholeness and newness both on a personal level and also on a societal level. The year of the lord’s favour invokes the year of jubilee spoken of in Leviticus 25 and Ezekiel 46, a time when all debt will be forgiven and wealth redistributed so that there will be no needy in Israel. It is a picture of God restoring the righteous and just society that Israel was supposed to produce in response to God calling them to be his people. Such a different way of living that the nations would come and see that God is good and so worship him and be transformed as well. Those wondrous oaks that were so healthy they would spread seed and new trees into the nations. A new creation of God’s garden.

In verses 7-8 of Isaiah 61 we have God speaking, and proclaiming that this ministry and restoration and new life are a result of God’s character that God indeed indorses the speaker, that God will restore and release and comfort and bring back and make new because God loves justice and hates injustice. We often think of a just God in terms of punishment, but here it is about renewing and restoring, having to remove the diseased trees to make room for a healthy tree. While this passage can be seen to be fulfilled partially in the return of the people of Israel from exile, the scope of the hope of a new tree a new community that displays the righteousness of God seems to look for a future fulfilment.

In the narrative of Luke’s gospel right after Jesus baptism, where John the Baptist had seen the Spirit of God descend on Jesus and had heard him called “my beloved son” an affirmation of his being anointed as  heir, Luke tells us Jesus was invited to read the scripture at his home town synagogue, and he gets up and reads from the scroll of Isaiah. The very passage we had read to us today, and after Jesus had read the first three verses he sits down and says “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your sight.”

Jesus uses this passage at the beginning of his ministry almost like a mission statement, he claims to be the anointed one which is what messiah means, filled by the spirit of God to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.  Jesus mission is to bring about that renew, that wholeness that Isaiah had talked about. To set free those who are held captive, not in this case by the Babylonians, but like the original tree in Isaiah by their brokenness and sin. To plant a new tree that would show the righteousness of God, that would see a new creation rise up in the nations.  

The passage in Isaiah finds in fulfilment in Jesus. In Jesus there is good news to the poor, both as in Matthews Sermon on the Mount, good news to the poor of spirit that theirs is the kingdom of God, and in Luke’s sermon on the plain that the poor are blessed theirs is the kingdom of God. It’s interesting that this Good News message has been spiritualised to mean Good News to the poor and marginalised that they can receive salvation and new life in Jesus. But in the Isaiah passage it also points to the fact that they should receive justice that it is a redistribution of wealth as well. The summary of the early church as a community filled by God’s spirit in Acts 2 emphasises that as it says they willingly shared what they had, they held all things in common, being prepared to sell possessions so it was said that none of them were in need. The wholeness and restoration Jesus brings is not just at a personal level but a societal one as well, we are called to live in the Kingdom of God, to show to the nations the righteousness of God.

What for us today from this passage.

First is the offer of newness and wholeness in Christ, there is Good News, there is comfort, there is restoration in Christ, there is new life, there is sight and hope. Some have thought that Jesus applying this passage only referred to his ministry of teaching and proclamation of the Kingdom of God. But in the midst of this oracle of God re-establishing a good news garden there is another tree. The one who proclaimed liberty and good news lived that out and made it possible for us to know this by dying on a tree, on the cross, in that we can have that wholeness and renewal. Today do you need to hear that and see the seed of that new life be planted in your lives. Where does God need to bring that new life, good news restoration comfort and liberty? 

Secondly, when we think of the good news as a means of bringing new life we hold in our minds the image of a seedling or a fresh sprout growing up out of the soil from the seed that has fallen to the ground and died. But the passage Jesus quoted finishes with the image of trees planted by the LORD. Not just fresh shoots but big mature strong and stable trees. The tree for the desert people was a symbol of life a symbol of a stable and steady water source, as in Psalm 1.The image behind me is of a st Jude pine, which starts it new growth with a cross just before Easter.. The Good News Jesus brings, the wholeness he speaks into our lives is not a one off rejuvenation but that process of growing to maturity. It is the life long process of growing following Jesus of trusting God through times of pruning and seasons of growth and fruit and also of barrenness and seeming no life. I wonder if today what ways is the wind of the spirit blowing through your leaves and calling you to continue and grow on that journey.

Thirdly, the tree in Isaiah 61 was to be a source of reflecting the righteousness of God: To show the splendour and justice of God.  Trees in the ancient near east were places of shade from the harsh life sapping sun, We use them as shelter belts from the buffeting storms. I wonder today where are you being invited to display the good new you’ve received… where are called to provide shelter, to be part of God planting new seeds?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Parables as a learning experience a quote from Leonard Sweets book 'Giving Blood'

I'm trying to be disciplined and reading a chapter of a couple of good solid books each morning. One which caught my eye was Leonard Sweet's new book on preaching called 'Giving Blood: A Fresh paradigm on Preaching'.  People who know me will tell you I am addicted to Leonard Sweet and as I look at my book shelf (and now Kindle for PC) I see a whole shelf (almost dedicated to his books). In my defence being a diabetic Leonard Sweet is about the only kind of Sweet I'm allowed to consume great amounts of. I appreciate his writing style and ability to communicate in ways that leave me pondering in new ways, appreciative of language, metaphor and examples drawn for a vast array of disciplines so a book by Sweet on preaching was a no-brainer. A problem when you've got a one click to buy buttons on your amazon account.

Sweet proposes the need for preachers to use Narraphors... a blend of narrative and metaphor to connect with people in the digital TGIF universe... that the interactive, internet universe of Twitter, Google, Instagram and Facebook not the party culture of Thank God It's Friday. Sweet maintains that our teaching/preaching needs to be EPIC (Encountering God, Participatory, Image soaked and Connected) and looks at Jesus parables as the prime example of such a communication style...

"To Get it the listener had to be active and willing participant in the story and in relationship with Jesus, to enter into the story and apply it personally, but also to enter into a relationship as a disciple with the Master.

In Jesus storytelling meaning is layered and "lessons" are conveyed in a kind of code. Deciphering these images and lessons takes time and commitment, and engagement with the Storyteller to delve into his deepest meanings. Some images are easier to decipher than others. They are not meant to thwart or throw off those who invest in their meaning. Rather they are designed to reveal the secrets of God and reward those who hunger for the truth enough to seek relationship with Christ. Jesus was not interested in going deeper with those who just "came for the food." With those who sought to follow him in discipleship, he spent time discussing and engaging with them in the deeper meanings of the stories (the metaphorical and spiritual meanings of the parables). No Matter what image, metaphor, or story Jesus used, the result was a lifting of the listener from the surface of the literal and a plunging of them into a surprise encounter with deep meaning and divine revelation. AS The parable was revealed, the listener-participant's heart was also revealed."

I can see that reading this book is going to be both helpful and challenging. Perhaps the response that came to mind is a quote from the other book I am reading at the moment 'selling water by the river ' by Shane Hipps... "you can choose safety or growth. Growth is rarely safe." Watch this space and we will see the impact this book has on me and my communication... Might benefit from an English grammar book more that this I hear some of you say!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) : A Review and Reflection

I had some time on Friday afternoon so I took myself to the movies. I really enjoyed the 'rise of the planet of the Apes movie so was looking forward to seeing this next instalment... The first movie in this remake series hadn't been that good but with the input of Weta Workshop and the development of live action animation the film production values had increased and despite the fact that the story telling has improved as well.

Before I get to the film let me make a couple of comments about the cinematic experience. I am amazed at how the price of going ton the movies has escalated over the past few years. I had my own 3 D glasses and it still cost $21 to go to the movies. My kids didn't want to come along this time, but the movie theatres need to realise they are pricing themselves out of the regular family entertainment market for large portions of society. While they push reward schemes for regular movie goers, they do not help themselves in the fight against other mediums for watching films and movies. HD TV, and increased low cost Internet access are changing the way people legally and yes illegally access movies and theatres need to realise that they can't simply make their advantage, actually going to the movies, a luxury item.

And before I get to the movie, I must comment on the fact that I sat in the cinema and watched twenty minutes of adverts before the film actually started. If I had been disorganised and running late or been stuck in a long queue as the movie theatre kept costs down by cutting staff numbers I would have been pleased, but despite the fact that some of them were trailers for up coming attractions that again the theatres were trying to ring every ounce of revenue they could from advertising and again impacting on the cinematic moment in a detrimental way. If I wanted to wade through twenty minutes of ads I'd wait and watch the movie on free to air.

Anyway after venting about all that now to the movie... Wow! what a great movie. Gripping and challenging, both hopeful even  in the face of post apocalyptic circumstances and at the same time stark and dark.

The movie starts off where "Rise of the Planet of the Apes finished' with the escape of the Apes from San Francisco over shadowed by the spread of the simian flu, which wipes out vast percentages of the worlds population. In the space of a few minutes told through a plague map which turns into a globe where the lights are going out and new casts fading to silence we see the spread of the disease and the demise of humanity.  We then meet the Ape population in Southern California which over that same time frame has grown numerically and in terms of social structure.

Without wanting to ad spoilers the two species now meet again. As people from the remaining colony in San Francisco head up into the hills to find power from a hydro electric dam. The needs of man and ape seem to clash as we find Apes now living off the resources in this area, it is their hunting grounds and home. The meeting does not go well, a nervous human fires his gun, and we meet once again Caesar, the leaders of the Apes, now a father, who shocks the humans by telling them to 'Go'.

The film develops from there with both sides offering aid and reconciliatory acts of kindness to each other, and expressing anger and mistrust as well. We are invited in the juxtaposition of the two peoples to see that both are very much alike despite their differences. Both are concerned about the survival of their species, both value family and friendships,  both have strong moral and ethical understandings that underpin who they are, both have wise and compassionate leaders, both also have influential members of their groupings who are broken and scared buy their pasts   and unable to forgive or be reconciled with the possibility of living alongside each other in peace.

Without giving the plot away the main characters of the story both Ape and human  are able to go beyond the conflict to genuinely care and be concerned and help each other but in the end the pull of the storyline and the already determined outcome of the film series, means that both sides are swept into conflict.

The movie is gripping as it draws you along on a story that oscillates between glimmers of hope and possibility and the darkness of hatred mistrust and despair. Amidst the crumbling infrastructure of the western world groups that have so much in common but at the same time are so different cannot seem to make living in peaceful co existence work. Their world views are so different, their is a history of mistrust and hatred and wrongdoing. I couldn't wonder if this wasn't so sort of premature epitaph for the western world multicultural experiment we are working through at the moment. A cautionary tale for humanity as we find ourselves wrestling with less and less resource and living now in a global village.

Anyway before I get to some of those kinds of reflections I want to make some brief mention of the artistry of this movie. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is again  a quantum step forward for the use of live capture animation. The artistry of that technique matures in this movie. It is prevalent and dominates screen time, without drawing attention to itself in a way that distracts from the story. Once again Andy Serkis shows his brilliance as an actor and his mastery of the live capture animation genre. He deserves an Oscar nomination for performance and if he does not win one he deserves a honorary Oscar or life time achievement one for his  pioneering of this new art form. I've seen him in so many movies and admired the role he has played and actually only really seen him in one movie. Toby Kebbell equally deserves a mention for his wonderful portrayal of the dark Koba. The actor not working behind the live action animation also do a great job. Keri Russell is able to portray both strength of conviction and also deep compassion. Jason Clarke acts as a great foil for Caesar in terms of leadership, showing compassion and openness as well as carrying in his appearance the stress and in the end brokenness of heart that goes with leadership, and Garry Oldman is a great foil for Koba.

The whole colouring, lighting and production value of the film works well and paints the darkness of the story which unfolds. The revisiting of Caesar's childhood home pick up both the  possibility of  hope and a different outcome but also the brokenness of the world that was, that just maybe such ideas of hope and co existence are a thing of the past that like this haven have crumbled.

When I look at this movie a couple of theological reflections come to mind. The first is that the movie is an awakening in both human and ape that creation is broken. Yes they are both capable of acts of kindness and compassion, love and care, both for those like themselves and the other. But as Caesar discovers there is not just bad humans and good apes but the possibility and reality of both good and evil in both. Caesar wrestles with those extremes in himself and within the genetically modified apes we see the impact of evil and hatred. Sadly in the end it seems that there is no way for the two species to coexist as equals.

The other is the really the idea of living with hope in a fixed and determined universe, or rather in a broken and determined universe. The filmic reality is caught really in that the end is known before the story is told, we are drawn into the storyline because we find ourselves asking the question how could this happen? and we are told how it did happen, despite the writers giving us glimpses of a possible alternative universe, we are set for humans at least on a grim path to decline and slavery. Apes and Humans are set for a climatic clash that will initiate the future and that future is about to dawn and be (if they stick to the same titles as the original movie series without the original story details) to a battle for the planet of the apes. The Christian faith calls us to live in the hope that a new world and a new creation will emerge or in actual fact has been inaugurated in the coming of Christ into the timeline of our world and its history. That a better age and the reign of peace and Justice is possible, and we are called even in the face of what seems a determined and often dark world to be people who live with the glimpse of hope of the possibility of a different world. Cesar does not have that hope he can only see the need for the survival of his people, in a separate path for development. We are called even in the face of darkness to trust in Christ and to work and look for a way forward, to be people of trust and compassion.

I don't believe in a fixed and determined universe, but I do believe in a determined God. In the end (not a spoiler) Caesar faces the future path he has chosen, his eyes steely set on that future, he walks forward into his people... My hope is in walking forward with eyes fixed on Christ... Who for the joy set before him endured the cross. Caesar welcomes the hands held out in servitude to him, I hope to hold my hand out in peace and friendship and openness.