Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter brief

Easter sermon by Kim Fabricius

Text: Mark 16:7 (The Message): “Now – on your way ...”

Well – what are you waiting for?

Saturday, 19 April 2014

A Good Friday faith

Good Friday sermon by Kim Fabricius

The crucified Christ puts a question to his church – and the question is this: Is it possible to have a disinterested faith, a faith without strings, a faith held not because it’s to your advantage, because you get something out of it, or because it’s deeply satisfying – indeed, it may be to your disadvantage, a burden, even an affliction – but you hold it because it holds you, grips you, the hand of God around your throat. Can we have such a faith?

Never has the question been more urgent than it is today, when the appeal of the evangelism that is making all the running is precisely that faith is a good personal investment. From the vulgar health-and-wealth gospel in the States to the slick Harrod’s gospel of the Alpha Course, from the personal growth gospel of the late M. Scott Peck to the gospel of self-knowledge of Myers Briggs, from the signs-and-wonders gospel of God TV (“Bam!”) to the gospel of churches with the Colgate Smile and the smell of Ivory Soap, where no one has cancer or depression, a mess of a marriage or a kid on crack – openly or subtly the appeal is that here is an offer too good to refuse, here is a faith that pays, if not in pounds and pence, then in happiness, wholeness, enlightenment, experience, consolation, or whatever it is you happen to be searching for. It’s a commodity gospel for a consumerist culture.

Meanwhile a grim grin spreads across the faces of the masters of suspicion, those sophisticated atheists who charge Christians with sloppy and indulgent thinking, with creating a god in their own image, a fantasy deity who meets my needs and fulfils my wishes. Not the New Atheists, of course – they’re the fleas on the lions of the classical atheists like Hume, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. And don’t they have a point, indeed a prophetic point?

What kind of faith, then, am I commending? An old story the rabbis tell should do the trick. The story of a Jew who escapes the Spanish Inquisition and makes his way, with his wife and child, in a small boat across a stormy sea to a rocky island. A bolt of lightning flashes and kills his wife. A whirlwind strikes and hurls his child into the sea. Naked, terrified, wretched, lashed by the tempest, the Jew makes his way onto a barren island. And then, raising his hands, he speaks to God.

“God of Israel, … I have fled to this place so that I may serve You in peace, to follow Your commandments and glorify Your name. You, however, are doing everything to make me cease believing in You. But if You think that You will succeed with these trials in deflecting me from the true path, then I cry to You, my God and the God of my parents, that none of it will help You. You may insult me, You may chastise me, You may take from me the dearest and the best that I have in the world, You may torture me to death – and I will always believe in You, I will love You always and forever – even despite You.”

That, I would suggest, is a Good Friday faith. A God-for-nothing faith in a good-for-nothing God. A God who does not promise me success or reward, a faith that does not underwrite my own religious agenda. In the crucified Jesus we see, as Rowan Williams puts it, that “God becomes recognised as God only at the place of extremity, where no answers seem to be given and God cannot be seen as the God we expect or understand.” In the crucified Jesus we see that faith is a balm only as it is a wound, a blessing only as it is a curse – we learn the lesson of Job, the lesson of Jeremiah, the lesson of the Psalms of lament, the lesson of Israel, the Suffering Servant. Such that all authentic evangelism should include an honest dose of dis-evangelism, and carry a health warning with its welcome.

Yet how is the cross conventionally understood? As a place of heroics, where Jesus goes to the gibbet like Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine. Or as a tragic if necessary but temporary intrusion on the way to the happy ending of Easter, as if it were a gym: “no pain, no gain”. Or as a “power encounter” in which God overcomes evil by superior force, now an energy source into which Christians can tap. Or as an episode in which Christ is humiliated, but don’t worry, he’ll be back – and this time it’s personal. And then there are the various models of the atonement which demonstrate, in neat and tidy categories, why the cross was necessary, QED, the worst exhibiting what James Alison calls “an Aztec imagination”, and even the best what he terms “physics envy”, what with their compulsive need for theory. “Oh, so that’s it, now I get it, now I understand.” The thing is, if you do, you don’t.

I have my own theory as to why these conventional readings of the cross are so widespread, apart, that is, from our endemic vanity and our capitalist cultural captivity: it’s because post WWII Christianity has never come to terms with the Shoah, the Holocaust, that most God-forsaken of historical moments. Which would explain why it is no coincidence that the most penetrating and profound theologies of the cross – though they themselves would, quite rightly, dispute, even resent my tribute – they are the Survivors, and the relatives of Survivors. Indeed my source for that rabbinic tale comes from the most extraordinary, incandescent disruption of a text I’ve read since Elie Wiesel’s Night, 23 pages of spiritual semtex entitled Yosl Rakover Talks to God, set in the Warsaw Ghetto as the Nazi tanks close in for the final kill. One of the last remaining resistance fighters cries out to God just as did the forsaken boat-wrecked Jew in the story: “None of this will avail You! … I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You… ‘Sh’ma Yisroel! Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’” Yosl’s last words. And, of course, the last words of another, more famous Jew, in the face of his own dereliction and death…

So let the Good Friday lesson for us Gentiles, grafted by grace into the vine of Israel, be this: to see the light we must see it at night, experience the darkness of God that covers the land as Christ cries out in the agony of torture and abandonment. We must let go – we must be stripped – of all the personal securities, the traditional pieties, the cherished practices, all the usual landmarks by which we find our way around the religious landscape. We must be dispossessed. We must wait. We must yearn. We must hope. We must trust – trust (inverting Bonhoeffer) that the God who forsakes us is the God who is with us. Here is a faith with nothing in it for me – but Him. Him. Only Him. Truly Him. Always Him.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

An unwelcome kindness

Maundy Thursday sermon by Kim Fabricius

John 13:8: Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.”

“Kindness,” wrote the French mathematician and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal, “Kindness is welcome only to the extent that it seems it can be paid back.” If you want a one-sentence explanation of why our first reaction to the Good News of Jesus Christ is one of recoil and refusal, this is it. The Gospel is unwelcome because it is a kindness that can never be paid back. And we don’t like that. We are embarrassed by an absolutely free gift, we only feel comfortable if what we receive is something we think we are owed, or something we think we can in some way return. This was the case in an honour and shame culture like first century Israel, and it is the case in a culture like ours too, where social bonds are regulated by contracts, and personal relationships by mutual consent, a transactional culture that privileges our autonomy and protects us from dependency. In such cultures, Peter’s protest against the kindness of Jesus, a kindness that can never be paid back, a radical kindness that demands nothing – at least nothing that we can calculate – I’ll come back to that – Peter’s protest becomes entirely understandable: “You shall never wash my feet.”

Of course Peter thinks that his demurral is an act of courtesy and respect, done out of deference; but at bottom it is his vanity and pride that are speaking. Peter does not want to be beholden to Jesus, to be in debt to him, to be utterly dependent on him. We are often told that such self-reliance is a virtue, but it is certainly not a Christian virtue. Because a Christian is one who accepts that he is always beholden to Jesus, always in debt to Jesus, always utterly dependent on the Lord. William Temple wrote: “Every disciple and every company of disciples begin by wanting to give service. But every disciple and every company of disciples need to learn that their first duty is to let Christ serve them. Our first thought must never be, ‘What can I do for God?’ The answer to that is, ‘Nothing.’ The first thought must always be, ‘What would God do for me?’”

But, yes, we resist: it’s a thought that is not part of our native human grammar. There is a good illustration of this resistance – and one that resonates with Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet – in an old Peanuts cartoon (and remember its author Schulz was a Methodist lay preacher who knew his Bible). The dog, the beagle Snoopy, comes up to Lucy and gives her a great sloppy “lick of love” on the ear. “Get away from me with your ol’ wet tongue!” Lucy cries in disgust. So Snoopy turns to Lucy’s brother Linus, the kid who’s always got the security blanket. “Hey!” he also cries, “Cut it out! Do you have to be licking people all the time?! If you’re not licking somebody’s hands you’re licking somebody’s feet! Stupid dog!” So Snoopy turns away, forlorn, musing (in the cartoon bubble above his head): “They all resent me because I’m so devoted!”

Just so Peter actually resents Jesus washing his feet – because Jesus is so devoted, selflessly, self-sacrificially devoted. Jesus strips himself and lays aside his garments to wash his friends’ feet, like a slave, even as he will be stripped of his garments and lay down his life for his friends, on a cross, again like a slave. For John, for sure, the foot-washing by Jesus prefigures the crucifixion of Jesus. And, true to form, Peter protests in just the same way at the foot-washing here in the upper room as he did at Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion at Caesarea Philippi: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” he said then (Matthew 16:22); “Lord, you shall never wash my feet!” he says now. The appearance is humility, the reality is the desire to be in control and secure the social – and political – order of things.

Remember the film Gandhi? There is a scene in it where Gandhi meets with his fellow workers for Indian independence. They meet to talk tactics, but Gandhi, who is both a political and a spiritual leader, goes deeper than tactics, goes to the heart of the matter. He speaks to them of what he calls the “secret of service”, the “religion of service”. And he doesn’t just speak, he acts. Like Jesus when he washes the feet of his friends, Gandhi acts out a parable of service – by stopping a domestic who is serving the tea and taking his tray from him. Gandhi insists on serving his friends himself. And, of course, this takes his colleagues aback – they are horrified at this reversal of roles, at their leader acting the servant – just as Peter was with Messiah Jesus acting the slave. Because it is a humble and humbling thing to do, and – further – because it is done as an example to follow: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). They too should act the humble servant, theirs too should be a leadership of service, to the point of … – But that’s just it – there is no knowing where it may lead, this foot-washing and tea-serving, this self-offering, this servanthood, this radical being there for others. Yes, nothing is being demanded of me that I can calculate – but that is precisely what is so staggering, so frightening, so life-threatening, because what is being demanded of me is – me!

Of course human nature rebels and resists – of course – because it means the ultimate overthrow of all human notions of authority and the dangerous backlash such subversion inevitably entails. Matthew 20:25-28 is the perfect commentary – the perfect sermon, if you like – on John 13: “You know that, among the Gentiles, the powerful lord it over them, and the big shots throw their weight around. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Well, our Lord couldn’t have spelled it our any better, though tomorrow he is going to pour it out even more – his life, I mean – totally, in fact – in the ultimate act of self-giving, self-offering, body and soul, where it all ends, where it all ended, really ended. So I’ll shut up. But there is one more thing Jesus will to do tonight, to see his friends through the weekend: as well as clean us, with his body and blood he will feed us.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

How I got here and why: a brief family tree

Recently I've had to update a couple of author bios. I'm always depressed by the dullness and predictability of these little autobiographical paragraphs: "Dr so-and-so is an outstanding individual. He has earned degrees. He has authored books. His achievements are the envy of the world." Wouldn't it be more informative and more entertaining if we got to read a bit of family tree? Here's mine. 

There was once a pretty young Serbian girl who, at the age of fifteen, fell mysteriously pregnant. The unlucky girl was my great-great-grandmother, a household domestic whose swelling womb earned her a swift dismissal from her employer. Later she married a kind-hearted Serb whose gentle soul, she soon discovered, could be stimulated into violent cruelty simply by the application of six small cups of liquor. When the illegitimate daughter grew up, she fell in love with a Serbian baker who swore eternal devotion to her and then began, with a methodical passion, to gamble their lives away to ruin. He was a doting and devoted husband when his purse was empty, and an infamous villain when it was full. Eventually his wife threw him out, though never soon enough. 

Their child, my grandmother, fled Yugoslavia during the Second World War, back in the day when the Bolshevik Army was raping and pillaging its merry way across Eastern Europe. My grandmother ended up in the bombed city of Munich where she met another Serb, very handsome, who was doing menial labour in an insane asylum under the supervision of German doctors. My penniless refugee grandfather's face was covered in boils the day he proposed to my grandmother, and I suppose she never knew if he was crying from joy or from the searing pain. The day they were married, the bride's mother wept because it had long been her firm and tested conviction that no worse fate can befall a woman than to marry a Serbian man. 

My grandfather improved his German and studied medicine in Munich while my grandmother, who had a knack for languages, worked as an interpreter at the refugee employment office, translating for those hordes of broken-hearted Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Czechs, Russians, and Ukrainians. One day my grandparents left Germany and took a train to Naples, where they got passage on a ship bound for Australia. The ship was nearly lost on bad seas on the Indian Ocean. The engines died and for a full night and day the seasick boat-people were tossed by storms. But the engines were repaired and they somehow found their way to Sydney, my home, where they gradually acquired some English as well as four Australian babies, known to all the neighbours as little wogs. 

When their second daughter had left home and renounced her parents' migrant aspirations, she walked one day into a Townsville pub where she saw a man, my father. His calmly stubborn independence was the product of a childhood in a neat women's house surrounded by the attentions of three sisters, a mother, two cats, and a wooden female clown that dangled menacingly from a hook in the hall. Since the day of my father's birth, his mother had conspired to make him grow up to be a doctor, and all those years he waited patiently for the chance to disappoint her. So it was that the day before his final high school exam he left school, bought a pack of cigarettes and a motorcycle, and blazed off into the sunset, leaving his disbelieving mother smiling thinly in the empty house, a house that would years later, long after her death, at last bring forth the man-child (my cousin) who would become the doctor of her dreams. But nothing on earth could have persuaded my father to be that doctor. The day my mother met him in the Townsville pub, he was wearing a suit and he looked so miserable that my mother asked him if he had been to a funeral. "No," he said drily. "A wedding." And when he said that she loved him and gave him three sons – one, two, three – my brothers and me. 

One of my brothers retraced his grandfather's steps and dreams from Australia back to medical school in Germany. My other brother studied audiology; his work is about helping people to hear, while mine is about helping them to listen. When I was eight years old I met a girl whom I liked so well that I decided to marry her. She lived in the big brick house next door so I had ample opportunity to study her in her native habitat. When she married me she demanded six babies; I gave her three and then told her, "Woman, enough!"

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Church attendance manual (1): arriving late

Upon arriving late for church, it is important to follow the appropriate Liturgical Rules for latecomers. These rules vary from church to church. There is no single "Christian rule" for late arrivals. In fact, the lack of uniformity on this matter has been a major obstacle to ecumenical relationships. To follow the Pentecostal Rule upon arrival at a Catholic mass, or the Anglican Rule upon arrival at a Presbyterian service, would generally be considered a serious liturgical indiscretion.

In 1948 the World Council of Churches proposed to establish a Commission on Late Arrivals. However, plans were abandoned when it became apparent that the representative churches were unable to agree on a definition of the word "late". A prominent Greek Orthodox delegate argued that "lateness" designates arrival more than twenty minutes after the specified starting time; while several Presbyterian theologians insisted that "lateness" technically refers to any arrival less than three minutes prior to starting time. These thorny and intractable questions of definition perhaps belong more to the philosophy of time than to liturgical studies, and as a result I make no attempt to resolve them here. The following ecumenical manual has been prepared simply as a general guide to the differing Liturgical Rules for late arrivals in various church traditions. It is hoped that this manual will lay the foundation for further study in this field, and that it will prove useful as a practical aid for those emergencies of punctuality that can strike even the most conscientious of churchgoers.

Roman Catholic
What to do: Make your way to a seat promptly but discreetly. Before joining in the liturgy you must do a quick spiritual catch-up. This involves several seconds of kneeling. Anywhere between five and eight seconds is acceptable (less than five seconds would be disrespectful; more than eight would be a mark of pride or fanaticism). Under no circumstances may you join in the liturgy until this catch-up has been performed.
What to think: "Honestly though, it really doesn't matter if I'm late as long as the priest is on time."

What to do: Same as the above, except that the spiritual catch-up is performed in an attitude of mild-mannered English contrition. You are not only catching up, but are also expressing regret for having behaved in a discreditable way.
What to think: "I am ashamed for being late, but not as ashamed as I look."

What to do: If you enter while someone is saying a prayer, you should stand just inside the doorway like a soldier at attention. You may not relax this posture until the prayer is ended, at which time you should march briskly all the way to the front row and sit down, head held high. You are not Catholic; you have nothing to be ashamed of.
What to think: "Even lateness can be a virtue when it is done decently and in order."

What to do: It is easy to make yourself inconspicuous as long as you arrive during those parts of the service (i.e., nearly all of it) in which everyone is milling about. Kiss the icon as quick as you can and try to blend in. Maintain a deadpan expression so as not to attract attention. If for any reason you have to enter while everybody is standing still and paying attention – during the Gospel reading, for example – it is probably better to stay outside and smoke another cigarette while you wait for the milling-about to resume.
What to think: "I wonder if Michael and Eleni will be coming for lunch today. I forgot to check if we have enough wine. I ought to stop by for a few bottles on the way home. Four bottles, just to be safe."

What to do: Stroll in, look around amicably, give somebody a high-five, greet a few people and exchange remarks about sports while you are looking around for a seat. Sit down, put your feet up, and check your phone for messages before joining in the next song.
What to think: "I wonder if anyone will notice if I stick my gum under this chair."

African American church 
What to do: Park your car. Sit there for a few moments contemplating the looks you will receive when you come in late. Think about what you've done. What would your mother say if she could see you now? Then start the engine and drive straight home again.
What to think: "I will probably go to hell for this."

Messy Church
What to do: If the other kids have taken all the crayons, reach across and grab the ones you want. You can also push one of the smaller kids out of his chair if you want to sit there. But don't try pushing Jack's little brother or he might start trying to bite you again.
What to think: "If that girl doesn't give me the blue crayon, I'm going to kick her in the shins. My picture of Jesus is going to be the best."

What to do: The important thing is to demonstrate your spiritual vitality as you make your way to your seat. Sing with boisterous abandon as you walk, give your arms a little wave, shoot a few joy-of-the-Lord smiles at other worshippers as you pass them in the aisle. Upon taking your seat, it is also permissible to speak loudly in tongues for a few seconds, or to call out hallelujah, as a way of formally announcing your arrival.
What to think: "I'm only late because I was doing something even more spiritual before I got here."

What to do: Whatever you feel like. There is no difference between this church service and any other gathering of like-minded individuals. 
What to think: "I think that woman is looking askance at me. Is it because I'm arriving forty minutes late? Some of these people still haven't freed themselves from their old institutional hangups. I'm sick of being treated like this. I really need to find a more inclusive community."

Fresh expressions
What to do: Come on in, pour yourself a coffee, give someone a hug, find an armchair, make yourself comfortable, update your Facebook status on your phone. Then greet everyone and begin to lead the service.
What to think: "I am late in order to challenge stereotypes and to get people out of their comfort zones."

Friday, 4 April 2014

Do-wah-diddy doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Preaching is throwing people off a cliff; pastoral care is catching them before they hit the ground, or, if you miss, patching them up and making them stronger.

Sir: In terms of “life satisfaction” – inane term number one – you report that the “perfect job” – inane term number two – is being a member of the “clergy”, with “chief executive” coming second. Inanity notwithstanding, how interesting: in the contemporary outcomes-driven managerial church, being a minister is becoming indistinguishable from being a CEO, which – trust me – for a lot of us is anything but satisfying; rather it is cause for hilarity, despair, or probably both.
     —Letter of mine published in the UK newspaper the i, 25 March

As Creation Ministries International advises its pastors, “Preach with the Bible in one hand and The Daily Nonsense in the other.”

Man, I love evolution: it’s bio-jazz. JC knows what I’m saying. So does Jesus Christ.

On a proposed book entitled Signs of Intelligence in American Bible-Believing Christianity: the upside is that the book would shrink to a blog-post; the downside is that it could take years to find the evidence.

So evangelical pastors are addressing the issue of whether their members may smoke pot. Given that evangelical Christians have the highest obesity rate of any community in America, the answer is: “Only if they first lock the refrigerator, empty the cookie tins, and hide the Doritos.” On the other hand, for worship song composers and bands, the herb should be compulsory.

Proponents of biblical inerruncy have failed to consider one insurmountable problem: typos. No one writes an autograph without typos. Even divine inspiration cannot prevent typos. God himself commits typos. Adam, for instance.

The people who wanted to ban Life of Brian would fill the cinemas for Life of O’Brien.

Still on 1984, in HBO’s Questioning Darwin, Pastor Peter LaRuffa declares, “If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said the 2 + 2 = 5, … I would accept it as true.” O’Brien redivivus. Or perhaps Winston Smith seeing the light.

What do you call it when a UK or US minister preaches a sermon on the persecution of Christians in their respective countries, and then presides at the Lord’s Table? Whining and Dining.

In February I left a comment on a post at Peter Enns’ blog of cheerful and hopeful endeavour. In response, on thread, I received 5 marriage proposals. That I am already married, my wife assures me, is not a problem (everybody has a price). That Kim is a 65-year-old male, however, might be.

You got to hand it to Atheist Church planters: they grasp that there can be no spirituality without public corporate worship. Sure, the object of their worship is the subject of their worship (the central liturgical act ought to be the taking of selfies, concluding with the collective cry “Ame_!”). But then that’s just another idea they’ve spoiled from the Christians – the narcissism of so much of our own contemporary worship.

If the practice of solitude is a condition of freedom, then the practice of social media – “O brave new world!” – (cf. Neil Postman) we are amusing ourselves to bondage.

Samuel Beckett didn’t trust language, bending words and buckling sentences in his attempt to say the unsayable – and inevitably, self-confessedly missaying it. Beckett was a negative theologian of sorts. Except that he was very, very funny.

Clarence Darrow said that “The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents, the second half by our children.” Not quite. The math is wrong: it’s the first third and the second third. And Darrow forgot grandchildren: they enter the final third of our timeline, and they are the blessing of blessings.

FLASH! After pressure from evangelicals, World Vision has decided not only to reverse their decision on employing gay and lesbian people, it has also decided on a brand makeover: World Vision is now “Tunnel Vision”. And that light at the end of the tunnel – it’s the oncoming stopping train of providence, picking up everyone (even the righteous) – “Don’t need no ticket / You just thank the Lord.”

Ah, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – that light set on a Mohl(er)hill.

The Lancet has produced a list of tech ailments, which include Screen Apnoea, iPosture – and Scrotal Hyperthermia. Apparently using a laptop – er, on the lap – can lead to a decreased sperm count due to overheating. It is expected that the CDF will soon announce a ban on the portatile as an artificial method of contraception. Vatican sources suggest that male Catholics will have switch to iPads or risk excommunication.

Pick the odd one out: “misbegotten male”, “subhuman property”, “intrinsically disordered”, “white straight guy”.

On the Paltrow/Martin split: “Conscious uncoupling” (Katherine Woodward Thomas) – so as to “discard blame, release belief structures and find wholeness in separation.” What a load of … – no, check that: in keeping with the spirit of euphemism and pretentiousness, what a Brobdingnagian consignment of equine fecal matter. Still, the phrase itself is not inappropriate insofar as it denotes the outcome of the inauspicious inauguration of many a marriage, viz. “unconscious coupling”.

There are two major legal grounds for divorce in the UK: adultery and “unreasonable behaviour”. Interestingly, these are the same theological grounds on which evangelicals and liberals “divorce” each other – accusations of syncretism on the one hand and irrationality on the other.

Simone Weil famously wrote of an atheism which is a purifying of the notion of God. Hume (analytically), Marx (sociologically), and Nietzsche (axiologically, aesthetically – ballsy, relentless, terrifying) are three heavyweights of this purgative atheism: they identify fault-lines in our thinking and idols in our imagination. Then (in the UK) there are the likes of Dawkins, Grayling, and Hitchens, philosophically incompetent, historically ignorant, morally facile, and insufferably smug. Theirs is an atheism by and for Yahoos, at once crude and elitist – call it a putrefying of the notion of God.

Noah? Ah, no. I’d rather stare at my tax return than watch any biblical “blockbuster”. The reactions, however, are always a hoot. The mouthy outrage of a number of American Christians, as if (biblical illiteracy notwithstanding) they held canon copyright, suggests that God had them in mind when he dictated Genesis 6a – and me in mind (after I’d read about them) when he dictated Genesis 9:21. Mind, fundy filmic fury serves a useful critical sifting: the movie may have merit. Conversely, evangelical accolades are the cinematic kitsch of death.

On March 22nd, the third day of spring, the better angels of US globalisation hovered over the SCG, singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and cheering the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks at Opening (G’)Day in Oz. For a few hours the Peaceable Kingdom had come to Australia, the land of Sand and (the) Ashes. That American football is now annually waged at Wembley suggests what the Lord thinks of England.

Yes, sports fans, baseball at the SCG. What next – cricket at Yankee Stadium? No longer could New York be called the “city that never sleeps”. And thus would come to pass the apocalyptic prophecy of Matthew 24:15.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Faith in the dark: Lenten meditations on the creed

I believe
Not I know. Not I think. Not I feel. Not I understand. But I believe. When I am in darkness, when I do not know the way, when every step is uncertain, I walk. I live not by what I know or feel but by a trust that proves itself only after each new step is safely taken.

In God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth

Not in magic or manipulation. Not in divine powers that I can wield for my own purposes. Not in heavenly voodoo. But in God, source of a light that is still hidden to me, source of a life towards which I grope with death hard at my heels, source of a joy that lies in waiting somewhere beneath or beyond or within this darkness.

And in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord
Not in an idea. Not in a philosophy. Not in a system of knowledge. Not in a doctrine (not even a true doctrine). But in one terrific Someone. In a person who inhabits not the world of books and ideas but the world of raw body and raw fact. Whom human eyes have seen and human hands have handled. Whose human face is living icon of a Life whose face is hidden and whose mind is oceans deep.

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary
Who did not come wielding power. Who did not come to dominate or control. Who did not come in service to any agenda. But who was conceived. A human foetus in a human womb. Whose hands and feet and thumping heart took shape slowly in the watery dark, tiny fingers moving in the abyss. And was born. And came shrieking into the world of flesh, the naked crying joy of all the earth.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate
Who was not exactly the picture of health and wholeness, serenity and good luck. Who was not an example to be followed by all who seek a better life. But who suffered. Whose body was circumcised the eighth day, who saw the bloodied knife and screamed out across the centuries to his great father Abraham (who had seen this day, and was glad). Who grew up in the howling darkness, his spirit a naked unprotected flame.

Was crucified, died, and was buried
Who did not flee the darkness. Who sought no protection, no place of refuge. Who was led defenceless to a naked death. Who was hurt. Whose body became a horror to himself. Whose last hour was a deepening descent into the dark, followed by a deeper darkness that brought no relief.

He descended into hell

He did not go gentle into that good night. He did not rest in peace. He did not partake of any pie in the sky. But descended. Since the world's great darkness was not dark enough for him, down he went into the world of shadow. Down he went to where the human spirit is a horror to itself. Down he went to the place where death wraps its roots around the hidden heart of things. Down he went, the silenced Word, the dead and buried Life, the world's true Light shrouded in darkness. Down he went, a dead one seeking out the horrors of the dead. Down he went until he found them. Adam. Eve. And took their hands.

The third day he rose again from the dead
His life and death were not an inspiring illustration. He was not a symbol of a higher truth (that spring follows winter, that every cloud has a silver lining, that things will generally work out in the end if only you believe in yourself). Was not resuscitated. Was not hallucinated back to life by his grief-stricken companions. Deep in the world of flesh, the tectonic plates were shifting and Big Things happened. He had clutched death by the roots and dragged it up. When the grieving woman saw him at the tomb, she thought he was a gardener. She thought he had been weeding. So well she knew him.

He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father
He does not belong to the past, was not the founder of a religion, was not a great leader who needs to be memorialised. But he is present tense. He has leapt like lightning in reverse, straight up, higher than he had fallen. The gates have burst open and all the chains of those who died have turned to ash. The world of darkness has became a world of light. He has emptied hell of all its emptiness. And is the fullness that fills heaven. In heaven and earth and under the earth his name is revered. At his ascent, the morning stars sing together and all the sons of God shout for joy.

And he will come again to judge the living and the dead
He will not come in wrath and retaliation. Will not come to crush the living or the dead. He will not come as the sinister twin brother of the teacher from Galilee. The same one who was crucified will come again. He comes to speak the word of truth to every human heart. He comes to burn all falsehood into ash. He comes to weed out the works of death from history and every human life. He comes dividing being from non-being, light from shadow, life from death. His judgment is purgation and the world's salvation.

I believe in the Holy Spirit

Not in the progress of the human spirit. Not in élan vital. Not in the Force. But in one who broods over every abyss, gathers whatever has been scattered, unfolds her wings and rests healingly upon the damaged world of flesh. Whose comfort in my life's abyss comes from beyond myself, from another abyss, older and deeper, the place where all the springs start and where the world is always young.

The holy catholic church

Not a religion, a collective principle, a theory of social organisation. Not character-forming practices. Not an alternative to the nation state (not an alternative to anything). But an assembly whose boundaries are as wide as the human race. Which is holy not because of the achievements of any of its members but because of the one who raises it into being out of nothing and who descends upon it in tongues of fire, translating human voices into tongues of angels and earthly gifts into heavenly mysteries.

The communion of saints
Not sympathy for the dead. Not a cult of memory. Not the bitter-sweet nostalgia for what is gone. But one human community, the dead among the living and the living with the dead, the ancestor and the little child, light-dwellers and worshippers of light, all assembled to partake of holy mysteries, unbound in their communion by anything that binds.

The forgiveness of sins
Not therapy, self-help, or positive thinking. Not the ability to make this vale of tears a little more bearable. But a forgiveness that reaches to the roots of my being, since that is where the problem lies. There will come a day when I will hear an absolution so final and so comprehensive that there is nothing left to do except to hear its verdict and be glad. On that day I will learn to love as I am loved. On that day even the great mistakes that have ruled my life will seem more precious to me than any perfection. On that day I will recognise my enemy as my brother. And those who have wronged me most I will love the most.

The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting

Not in the immortality of the soul. Not in an other-worldly heaven. Not in some insufferable quality of spiritual repose. But in bodily life. The body: site of so much joy, humiliation, weakness, passion, and pain. The body: meeting-place of love and hate, hope and despair. The body: so much like an animal, so much like a god. The body: the place where death meets me and reminds me of its dominion and my servitude. The body: the place where death and all its darkness have been confronted, absorbed, and overcome.

Not hopefully. Not perhaps or if all goes well. But Amen! Amen into the darkness! In fear and doubt I dare to take another step. Not because I understand, not because I am sure, not because faith makes it any easier. But because within the darkness I have heard deep call lovingly to deep, and my heart cries out in answer to the mystery of faith: Amen!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Favourite novels of 50 contemporary theologians

by Kim Fabricius

James Alison: Rivals
Rob Bell: In the First Circle
Wendell Berry: The Good Earth
Nadia Bolz-Weber: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Greg Boyd: God Knows
Douglas Campbell: Deliverance
George Carey: Persecution
William Cavanaugh: Eat, Pray, Love
Shane Claiborne: Revolutionary Road
James Cone: The White Tiger
Charles Coulson: Escape from Alcatraz
William Lane Craig: Persuasion
Kevin DeYoung: No Country for Old Men
Mark Driscoll: Little Women
Peter Enns: East of Eden
Rachel Held Evans: The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
Austin Fischer: We Need to Talk about Kevin
Billy Graham: The Godfather
Wayne Grudem: Excellent Women
Gustavo Gutierrez: Praxis
John Hagee: Catching Fire
Ken Ham: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
David Bentley Hart: The Line of Beauty
Stanley Hauerwas: A Farewell to Arms
Carter Heyward: Women in Love
George Hunsinger: Alias Grace
Bill Hybels: The Big Chapel
Werner Jeanrond: The History of Love
Robert Jenson: The Long Song
Hans Küng: Pope Joan
Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins: A Confederacy of Dunces
Andrew Linzey: Animal Farm
Diarmaid MacCulloch: The History Man
Alasdair MacIntyre: Waiting for the Barbarians
John Milbank: Talk Talk
Al Mohler: The Poisonwood Bible
Jürgen Moltmann: Great Expectations
Ben Myers: The Wizard of Oz
Alexei Osipov: From Russia, with Love
Joel Osteen: Money
J. I. Packer: The Big Sleep
Ian Paisley: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Eugene Peterson: American Pastoral
John Piper: The Power and the Glory
Peter Rollins: The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub
John Spong: Vernon God Little
Thomas Talbott: Enduring Love
Iain and Alan Torrance: Fathers and Sons
Delores Williams: Black Beauty
Rowan Williams: The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Thursday, 20 March 2014

In which an intruder is murdered, and everyone lives happily ever after

In our back yard there lives a pair of guinea pigs. They live in a wooden hutch, small but comfy, and we love them. The chestnut-coloured guinea pig is named Chestnut and the ginger-coloured guinea pig is named Ginger. A couple of weeks ago we noticed that the guinea pigs were eating quite a lot yet always still seemed to be hungry. Each night we topped up their food, yet in the morning there they were, peering hungrily out from behind the bars of the hutch. We did not understand why the guinea pigs were so hungry. Not until, late one night, we noticed the adorable little brown bush rat creeping in through the bars of the hutch. There he was, whiskers twitching in the moonlight, shamelessly standing right on top of the guinea pigs' food bowl and gobbling up their food without a care in the world. The guinea pigs seemed very understanding. They ambled about unobtrusively, polite spinsters that they are, while from time to time their visitor looked up from the bowl to smile courteously, as if to reassure his hosts that the meal was excellent, quite excellent, and that everything was perfectly in order.

Now your Australian bush rat is a fine little animal. He is not at all like his European cousin, the black rat, that intolerable propagator of iniquity whose nature is nothing but a laboratory of diseases drawn about by two sharp teeth and a stomach as insatiable as the grave. The bush rat is a good-natured fellow. His ears are the shape of buttercup petals, not at all like the satanically pointed auricles of the black rat. His tail is short and sweet as a lullaby, bearing no resemblance to the sinister tapered whip of the black rat. Our Australian rat has created no plagues, provoked no policies of national flooding. He has, as far as anybody knows, never devastated a civilisation. He does not invade houses. He is a rather shy, well-mannered little creature who would rather scavenge discreetly at a respectable distance from human habitations before retiring at dawn to the domestic comforts of his cosy burrow. The black rat is a problem for philosophers and experts in theodicy; he is the trump card of Manichaean heretics and all cosmic pessimists. But I bless the Australian bush rat. I have no hesitation in regarding him as one of God's creatures. If I would not, perhaps, offer him my seat on the bus, I would certainly tip my hat to him and wish him good-morning.

And yet, reader, the dear little critter is dead, for I have killed him. I would not want you to get the wrong idea: I am not habitually a murderer. Killing of any kind is prohibited in my household. I once issued my young son with a stern rebuke when he confessed that he had, with malice aforethought, deliberately taken the life of a single ant. I have on other occasions – disregarding all extenuating circumstances – prevented the children from killing each other. In order not to appear hypocritical, my wife and I have also made a conscious effort to refrain from killing one another. That's how strongly we feel about this matter.

So it was no small thing when I resolved that the bush rat had to die. I did not kill him until all other avenues had been exhausted. When we learned of his existence the children created a trap for him, and for three whole days we dreamed of capturing him and making him our pet. We would place him in a cage; we would feed him; we would take his photograph; we would give him a name. No longer would he need to steal from the helpless guinea pigs, for now he would have food and every other modern luxury, all to his heart's content.

But the trap was not as good as we thought. It consisted of a clothes basket, a food bowl, a stick, and a piece of string. It was not, apparently, constructed according to sound engineering principles. The smallest breeze could trigger it; a rat could stroll in and eat all the food without setting it off. Not only was the trap a failure, but it also led the rat to discover a secret that would, in the end, prove to be his undoing. We had placed the trap – don't ask me why – near the entrance to the laundry. That is how the rat learned that we have been stockpiling foods in the laundry. Huge bags of dog food, bird seed, fish food in plastic containers, sweet-smelling bags of hay, together with an entire plastic bin brim-full of the most succulent guinea pig food you have ever tasted. 

It was riches beyond compare. 

It was like discovering America. 

Poor little rat; how quickly power and riches can go to one's head.

Two nights later, our rat had chewed through the side of the plastic bin and was draining guinea pig food right from the source. The following night he chewed through the bird seed bag for an hors d'oeuvre. He cleansed his palate with a few liver-flavoured dog treats. He munched thoughtfully on his guinea pig food. Then finally he belched like a king, cleaned his whiskers, and staggered back home, where I imagine it must have taken quite some effort to squeeze his corpulent frame through the strangely shrunken doorway, before he curled up in the deepest corner of the burrow and sank into an even deeper sleep.

For ten minutes we stood in the laundry, my children and I, and contemplated the crime scene. Step by step we followed the trail of wanton culinary destruction. We inspected the torn bird seed bag and the nibbled liver-flavoured dog treats and the scattered guinea pig food. We took measurements. We examined evidence under UV lights. We made sketches in yellow notebooks. We interviewed witnesses. (The guinea pigs weren't saying a word. Typical.) We observed that the gap under the laundry door is unnaturally wide, easily wide enough for a small Australian bush rat. He had discovered the laundry and from now until the end of the world there would be no way to keep him out.
I kissed my children goodbye. I left the laundry and drove straight to the store and purchased a mousetrap. Three dollars seemed too small a price for such a lethal apparatus. I followed all the directions on the packet. I spread the trap with peanut butter. I placed it in a suitable location. I said a prayer for the death of the rat. "Thank you, O God, for this fine small creature that you have made. Thank you for his cunning ways and his indomitable spirit. Help me now, I pray, to kill him."

But the mousetrap did not kill him. Two nights later he had still not eaten the peanut butter, the trap had not been triggered, and I had not woken up to find him lying in a pool of blood with a broken neck and a look of disappointment on his face. Poor rat. The mousetrap would have been so swift and painless. Even for a human being, a mousetrap would not be a bad way to go – especially if you got a taste of peanut butter just before the bitter end.

I drove back to the store. I spent five dollars on six smooth pellets of rat poison. Gingerly I unwrapped two of the deceitful little parcels and placed them in a tray. I sprinkled guinea pig food over the tray. I placed the tray near the door to the laundry. The children locked the dog inside for fear that he would eat the poison. They set up a station at one of the bedroom windows where they could maintain round-the-clock observation of the poison tray. (We have problems with another native marsupial pest, the bandicoot, who comes out at night and digs holes all over the lawn in search of insects; it would be humiliating, not to say immoral, if we poisoned the wrong pest by mistake.)

8.29 p.m. 

Out comes the bush rat, sauntering across the lawn. He can hop – did you know that? – like a tiny kangaroo. All that guinea pig food really puts the spring in one's step. Hop, hop, hop, over to the guinea pig hutch. He goes inside, orders a drink, chats at the bar for a while with Chestnut and Ginger. Then he's off again. Squeezes through the bars. Hop, hop, hop. Now he's outside the laundry. He's seen the food. His whiskers twitch suspiciously: you don't get to survive on the Australian continent for a million years without having razor-sharp instincts. But no. Poor little chap, his instincts have let him down. Like so many noble men before him, his greed has been his downfall. Quick as a flash he chews through the first poison pallet, then the second. Later, on his way home that night he bids farewell to the guinea pig sisters, who wave their silk handkerchiefs in the air as when a friend departs for a long and lonely voyage.

When I found him two days later dead on the lawn, he was curled up like a sleeping mouse. From the look on his face you would have thought he was dreaming.

I came inside and told the children that our bush rat was dead. My son wanted to know what I had done with the body. I explained that I had placed it in a plastic bag and tied the bag shut and dumped it in the rubbish bin. I saw the shocked disapproval on my son's face, and all at once I understood that there was no getting around it: we would have to give that rat a Christian burial. So now we have laid his bones to rest, and I have written him this eulogy too. No rat could ask for more.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Patristic peculiarities: John Chrysostom and the poison eucharist

This is the start of a new occasional series on some of the more peculiar arguments I've come across in early Christian literature. These are the quirky bits that somehow never made it into the textbooks. 

John Chrysostom, the great fourth-century preacher, described Christ's descent into hell as a kind of poison eucharist. When Christ died, his body descended into the ground. Death ingested his body like food. But this was no ordinary food. It was a fatal poison. It brought on violent stomach cramps, worse (Chrysostom assures us) than the agony of a woman in labour. Death could not digest Christ's body. Death writhed in pain, then vomited: "Like those who take food and vomit it up because they can't retain it, so death vomited. He received the body which he could not digest, and so he had to throw it up again" (all this is from homily 24 on 1 Cor).

But after developing this vomiting image in graphic detail, Chrysostom changes his mind. No, he observes, Christ didn't come back out of the mouth of death. He didn't come out the same way he went in. Death didn't merely vomit; it suffered a massive abdominal rupture. After death had ingested Christ's body – I warn you, this is pretty grisly – it suffered violent convulsions, and then its stomach burst open. Everything came out. Chrysostom is thinking here of the story in Bel and the Dragon, where Daniel killed the dragon by feeding it a concoction of pitch and fat and hair; upon eating this vicious recipe, the dragon's stomach burst open and it died. "For Christ didn't come forth again from the mouth of death, but issued forth from the belly of the dragon, bursting it and ripping it open from within."

Thus the body of Christ proves to be a fatal poison. It destroys death from within. When the stomach of death is violently emptied, it's not only Christ's body that is released. Everything else that death had ever ingested is released as well. The contents of death's stomach are completely emptied. Hell is left empty, and not a single one who died is left in the grave.

And Chrysostom's point? "This is the body that he has given to us to hold and to eat!" These grisly reflections come, after all, in a sermon on the eucharist. Chrysostom is reminding his congregation never to come carelessly or irreverently to the table. "Purify your soul, prepare your mind for the reception of these mysteries!" The same body that poisoned death and emptied the grave is now ingested by the believer. It is the same body, the same potent food. "So," Chrysostom cautions, "let us stir ourselves and be filled with horror." When you come to the table, don't forget what you're about to eat!

"Because of this body I am no longer earth and ashes, no longer a prisoner, but free…. This body, nailed and scourged, was more than death could stand against. The sun turned aside its beams when it saw this body sacrificed. The veil was rent for this body, and the rocks burst open and the whole earth was shaken. This is the very same body!" At the Lord's table we hold this body in our hands. We "kiss" it and "bite it with our teeth." (Chrysostom observes that lovers often nibble each other when they're passionately kissing: in the same way we lovingly nibble the consecrated bread.) Death ingested this body, not knowing that it was eating its own death. The same body is life to us when we eat it. By poisoning and slaying all death's power, this food has become "our hope, our salvation, our light, our life."

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