About Robert Whalley

Most of my ministry was in tertiary chaplaincy in the San Francisco Bay Area and Melbourne Australia. In my early sixties I was ordained in the Anglican Diocese of Wangaratta and served as Bishop’s Chaplain and Education Officer until retirement. I also taught in secondary and tertiary institutions, including the University of San Francisco, RMIT University, and the Theological School at Trinity College, University of Melbourne, specialising in Christian ethics and spirituality as well as the life and writings of Thomas Merton.

A recycled reflection for Holy Week 2021

On June 16, 2016 Fifty people were killed in a gay bar in Orlando this weekend and fifty more wounded by a self-identified Muslim terrorist and then the Texas lieutenant governor went on TV and quoted Paul about reaping what you sow. The blood of one hundred people spilled on the floors of the bar, the parking lot, the rest rooms, and now on the papers, social media, my iPad, all over the world. How many people are now related by blood to one hundred people in Orlando? 

We got to bed that night after midnight (a very rare occurrence) following  a rather splendid dinner party of gay men complete with carefully curated decor, great food, deep conversation and much laughter. Nobody entered the room with a semi-automatic weapon and a hand gun, but they could have. Certainly there were people nearby who would take their scriptural beliefs and their fight for truth that seriously; who would take life and make death to honour their holy love. I may be half a world away from Florida and in a country where appropriate guns prohibitions were made law twenty years ago after one man with a semi automatic weapon mowed down men, women and children at a national monument; but even in Australia there are people who would honour their God of vengeance by spilling the blood of their neighbours.

Suddenly you felt that your life was not an isolated thing, but existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, ‘We don’t need each other.  Elizabeth Goudge – Pilgrim’s Inn

Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.  William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94

Who is not my neighbour and where is not God? I’ve wondered about that one since before seminary some thirty-five years ago, and since then I’ve known and loved many gay men and lesbians, talked to a few drag queens and met some Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists in my peripatetic career as an occasionally closeted gay man in ecumenical campus ministry in San Francisco, Berkeley and Melbourne and finally as a priest and educator in Bush Australia. You could say it’s been a broad spectrum ministry. I’ve sat with men and women as they dealt with the serious business of being alive, of saying yes to what they believed life called out for them to be: people who sometimes saw a vocation to be an artist in the midst of a family who knew they were born to be a nurse or lawyer, who saw new possibilities for redemption and relationship far from the family fold. I walked with people who faced the fact they loved people of the same gender in a way that other people only saw as sinful, and I’ve had other people sit with me and tell me with no hesitation why some love was hateful and how they came to see clearly what God wants and who God sees as right or wrong or worthy of larger life. 

In my best moments I see only that God wants love, is love, that love (in the threefold Christian formula) makes, meets and mends the universe in every instant of time with a relentlessly renewing compassion. But I here confess there are many moments when I cannot tell my friend, neighbour or the stranger that I believe this to be true because I honestly don’t love them that much. I can preach it in the pulpit and point to it and move through it in the actions of the Eucharist, I can keep trying daily to share it in the actions of my life. But I must admit that I am afraid of those who are armed with the bullets or the books that say I don’t deserve to live, and I cannot love them. 

“I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; 

 I, the Lord, do all these things.”       Isaiah 45:7

“honour corruption villainy holinessriding

in fragrance of sunlight (side by side

all in a singing wonder of blossoming yes

riding) to him who died that death should be dead.”    e e cummings

In the spring of 1981 I took an evening class on prayer and meditation at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Early in the semester we tried a two part meditation: first thinking loving thoughts and feel positive emotions towards people who were important in our lives, then after a single bell rang, quickly switching to let the opposite, negative emotion flow: articulating heartfelt anger after love, curses following blessings. I was amazed how easy the energy flowed from one extreme to the other and wondered what we were learning.

I believe that the purpose of the exercise was to show how close these two passions are to each other; that perhaps both of these warmings of the heart need to be carefully attended for the simple fact that love and hate live so close together, and we must keep careful distinctions so that (perhaps) we might finally weave them together into a place where healing can happen.

I try to be a reasonably compassionate man but I could conceivably kill the man or woman who wish to see me dead because of their faithful love; therefore my love, like theirs, is not far from hate. If that is the case then we all might better agree to let love go, keep civil, respectable middle-level boundaries, agree to disagree, leaving it at that, forgetting  the dogma, doctrine and doggerel of the God-stuff. Unless what that God-space means, where it points, is a place where hate and love can meet in some new way, where festering lilies might somehow come forth with new and fragrant blooms: but could the world be this large?

I was surprised to learn, a few years ago, that some people are genetically wired to dislike coriander. I love it, add it to many dishes, cheerfully make it part of my day. It was a bit of a relief to understand others do not, on a cellular level, have this affectionate choice, even though it makes no sense to my senses, and seems to make their lives a lesser paradise of the delights I live with. I think it is the same with sex; there is a spectrum of flavours and favours that each of us find on our bandwidth which call us to taste and see in ways that make other people turn aside and wonder why we would not want to eat exactly what they swallow with gusto. 

But it’s not really that important: I am not prepared to kill for coriander and would not force my neighbour to celebrate cilantro anymore than I would compel them to join me in my allergy to milk. And in the end most of us, perhaps a surprising majority, would be more than surprised if any hopeful vision of a larger reality was more concerned with  plumbing over compassion. I may be wrong, and I’ll cheerfully admit that this too may be the way I’m wired; but I think we’re all a bit better than this.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me.”   The Gospel of Matthew 25: 36-37

Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha and one of his closest disciples, said to the teacher one day’ “Oh Buddha, sometimes it seems to me that half of the spiritual life is loving kindness and friendship for others.” The Buddha replied with a smile, “Ananda, you are wrong. Loving-kindness and friendship are all of the spiritual life.    Paraphrase from the Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)

Jack Kornfield, the modern Buddhist writer, says in the end there are just two kinds of people: those who aren’t afraid to kill and those who aren’t afraid to die. Most of us would avoid that sort of black and white thinking, but I fear it still may be clashingly close to the picture we see of Good Friday in Jerusalem when Jesus is murdered by the mob as well the scenes last Saturday night at Pulse in Orlando, Florida.

Gunman often went to gay nightclub

At least four patrons have said they saw the gunman Omar Mateen drinking at the Pulse bar several times before the shooting. Ty Smith said he saw Mateen inside at least a dozen times… “Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent”

In his book called “The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger,” Sebastian Moore writes that when we see Jesus, this man of love and light, we see all our shadows and shortcuts, and our reaction to that light can be to push into the dark, pin the other down to death, because we would rather kill than see where we are already dying in our sad and violent separations.

But in the same light of love we can find that we are killing the best picture of what we look like, an icon of the life we are born to live. And that can be where love meets hate, where death meets life; where coming forth from any deadly closet can mean giving ourselves over to a future we cannot conceive. 

So perhaps tomb turns to womb when we let what we know die so that somehow the knowledge of a larger love may live, and that is where something like resurrection might happen. That’s what I saw in the conversation of artists born of lawyers, peopled compelled to take leave of the parental path, called by love to come out of their closets. That’s what I learned in the best of my life in the church and a few gay bars and saunas and the ministry of many friends and not a few strangers in my own life, to let God teach me to love in a new way. 

For reasons I don’t fully understand some people awaken to new and larger life, to come to share that unfinished journey together, while others die in their killing hate. Maybe that’s one of the places Jesus hangs ‘round nowadays, maybe that’s the spark that can come when hate meets love on the worst weekend ever. But how we live that out, move on from the truncated celebration, the fallen love, the spilled blood in the parking lot and on the screens of our iPads, in the heart of who we are, in the light of such hate, is an entirely different question. 

Even though at this time I can hardly find room for any possible answer, what I can do is to stay with it, continue my incomplete prayers (not fully knowing where they might lead) for this world where hate pierces and love embraces the lives of 101 people in Orlando while all of us who loved them hang together and wonder what we can do now.

Preparing for Holy Week –

An Evensong Sermon, 26 March 2011

When the Dean asked me to give a homily tonight and to relate the readings to our installation of the labyrinth, I must admit I did wonder… and when I read the Gospel for tonight, I really decided it was a questionable enterprise. So let’s start with three questions for approaching Jerusalem…

Where do you come from? Where do you stand right now? Where are you going from here?

We’ve had some pointed questions today, in the Gospel this morning with Jesus and the woman at the well, and they continue here in this evenings lesson with the accusations that are gathered around the high priests house. Three questions or accusations to Jesus: variations on the same question and not unrelated to our first series of questions.

1 – Did you say, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days. 2 – Is what they are saying true? 3 (And under oath) Are you the chosen one of God?

Jesus’s response is both mysterious and profound.

“You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven”

And outside of the high priests house, in the courtyard, three questions or accusations to Peter — or variations on one question with three similar answers.

Q You were with the Galilean.  A I don’t know what you’re talking about. Q You were with the Nazarene. A I don’t know the man, Q You are one of them A I swear I never knew the man

But back to our questions: Where do you come from? Where do you stand right now? Where are you going from here?

If you haven’t walked a labyrinth you won’t know, but there are times when you’re on the way, the path of it, and you look around, and you are a little lost, and you’re not sure where you are, relative to where you started or where you want to go. And the person who was in front of you for such a long while, now seems to be far away, and you fear that you’ve crossed some line and are on the way out when you were supposed to be on the way in, but maybe that’s for the best because you’re frustrated and – “For God’s sake, it’s from France or California and let’s just go get dinner or something!”

But the genius of the labyrinth is that it meets you where you are, and if you continue on your way you will find yourself where you should be. You might get surprised, or frustrated, or even agitated on the way, It may take more or less time than you expected, but you’ll make it home at the last. That sometimes is not easy to take.

Almost twenty years ago I lost a job that seemed to me a very important one. It was hard to take and I started working with a priest/spiritual director/therapist. I was fighting against a growing depression and one day he looked at me and said, “I know this is not easy for you, but you are exactly where you should be.”

I could have hit him, but he was right. I was in a place where I needed to answer some questions about meaning and motives and ministry, and it would take some serious and painful introspection.

Two one liners fit here, First, shortly before his death. Dag Hammarskjöld wrote this in his spiritual journal, posthumously published as “Markings;” “The road chose you and you must be thankful.” Next, from a bumper sticker some years ago: “If you are not worried, perhaps you do not fully understand the situation.”

Jesus is asked where he comes from, what he stands for, and what the end of all this will be. And he must know what is coming if…, if what started in love, a ministry of love, of presence, of mercy will last, will continue. That there might be pain, then it might hurt, then it will could take him to hell and back and beyond any human understanding of what life and death and love and connection, to God and to one another, could mean. But he’s not going to leave the way, he’s staying on that mysterious labyrinth, he’s following the path. And that is as it should be.

Peter looks, on the other hand, like he’s losing the thread, He denies who he’s with, how he’s connected, and what he loves. Peter curses the greatest blessing he will ever know. And he runs away from it all, for a little while anyway.

Where do you come from? Where do you stand right now? Where are you going from here, and where will you end up?

When you’re on the labyrinth there are times when you lose the idea of yourself as being on somebody else’s journey, when you feel utterly alone, and you just have to go ahead, step by step, now by now. Even if you fear you’ve lost your way, even if you aren’t even sure you want to continue, and you are no longer the person you were when you started, you just keep on the way.

Jesus stays true to the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” to the end and beyond, Peter stalls, cuts and runs, returns later and gets back on the path to the end. And in the end he goes where he’s supposed to go, and he meets Jesus again and again and again on the way.

But not right now. Can you see them so far apart, so that it is hard to think that Peter, even Peter, is where he is supposed to be: so far from Jesus, so far from where he started, so far from home. But he gets there at the last; and maybe be he needs to take all the time it takes. Maybe he was exactly where he was supposed to be in order to learn what he needed to know. Perhaps what looked like a detour was the crucial step on his final pilgrimage home.

An American baseball player, Satchel Page, once said, “wherever you go, there you are!” and this evening, if you find yourself wondering where you come from, where you find firm ground right now, and where you’ll going from here; then you are in the right place. Hold fast to the path, the way, the long route home, and if you lose the way every once in awhile,it is all right. Know this: you are forgiven, maybe even blessed, if you keep trying, come back, one more time again to walk the long way home with the God who comes to be known as the way and the truth and the life.  Amen.

An Epiphany at a Public Pool

I swim, I dive, I rise!

Let’s start out with a travelling drone video covering half the world and three quarters of a century in a few seconds followed by a few snapshots from a gathering of somewhat senior citizens in a public swimming pool in Wangaratta, NE Victoria, Australia this last Monday morning. I am the primary focal point at the start, but it gets better.

Here’s the summary flyover: I spent my first half century plus in the Sacramento Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area then fell in love with a man from Australia and moved to Melbourne twenty years ago. Seven years ago, at the age of 67, I was ready to retire from certainly less than illustrious but often enjoyable work as a chaplain and teacher and finally a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia.

There have been some real joys in retirement accompanied by osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, COPD, Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer and general ageing, to say nothing of bushfires, floods and plague. And then a few days ago I lost my wedding ring in the swimming pool.

For on 10 September 2019, celebrating twenty years together, my partner John (also a priest) and I exchanged rings and vows in a civil marriage ceremony in Melbourne. This was to be followed that weekend by an official diocesan approved service of liturgical blessing near Wangaratta, but the Primate requested we wait over a year while the Appellate Court of the national Church judged whether this was a heretical doctrine or an honest practice. So that Saturday we cobbled together a regular service of Morning Prayer the following weekend with a series of prayers written for victims of sexual abuse we found on the national Church website:

We have evaded responsibility
And failed to confront evil;
We have denied dignity to ourselves and to each other,
and fallen into despair.
We turn to you, O God:
We renounce evil; We claim your love;
We choose to be made whole.

At that time, I here confess, there was a subtext of “Thank God we’re not like those Pharisees (in Sydney)” but looking back I see we were not that different. For the sake of our ministries we followed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, keeping separate bedrooms, using the term “my friend”, playing the political game while denying a substantial picture to others who found love with a member of their own gender. But it got worse. For looking back I realise that in keeping quiet about the love we shared I had avoided acknowledging one of the most important revelations of creative, redeeming, sustaining love in my life. And that was simply bad theology.

And the prayers continued …

For wisdom in working for a future of justice and integrity…,
For honesty and accountability in all our relationships…,
For grace to change and be changed as you forgive us,
Lord, hear our prayer.

After The Lord’s Prayer the people gathered around to lay hands on us and there was a silence that was richer than I had ever known. Family friends and strangers, nearby neighbours and those who come from a long way away, and I would swear the living and the dead, all brought us home and held us fast and let us know that we were touched and held and known by the Grace of Love.

Parkinson’s is helped by exercise. It is useful for counteracting the disease’s manifestations of fatigue, ennui and combatting something like existential and finally physical atrophy. So Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings John and I drive to the Wangaratta Sports and Aquatic Centre (formerly the YMCA) for water aerobics. A lot of us are over sixty, mostly women and a half dozen men, we’re friendly, tending to smile, occasionally singing, with spontaneous humour verging towards the vulgar at just the right moment. It can be a real joy.

This morning before the group started a woman in the pool and I were discussing Australian birds: the distinct surprise of kookaburras, the arrogance of cockies, the always surprisingly beautiful song trills and that lingering curiosity of magpies who often look like they’re expecting a handout. She mentioned giving bits of bacon to the chickens at one of the local Catholic schools and I mentioned the warm welcome I received from a local monsignor when I went to celebrate an Anglican Eucharist at the local Catholic Aged Care facility. She liked listening to podcasts of a younger priest of our diocese and I said I had known him for awhile, had mixed feelings about his theology, and knew that his sermons were very helpful for some people. Then the music came up and we began water aerobics.

I remember the younger priest had spoken with some passion at that last diocesan gathering I attended following retirement, saying that, “the Gospel was hard… required sacrifice”. For me that seemed like a young man’s creed, one I had followed some years before a surprising combustion of sustained failure and unexpected faith convinced me that if God is Love then we can do what we can and lean on the assumption that love will do the rest.

For I don’t believe as much as I used to: dedicated proponents of Scripture, reason and tradition all left tyre marks on my soul, various strident truth tellers have made me want to lie down in safety. While the Church may be a wonderful institution the larger question (paraphrasing the movie version of Auntie Mame) is “who wants to be in an institution?” But certain things abide: The Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, especially in Luke, the two greatest commandments, maybe even a bit of Paul at his best. I’ll still dance to those tunes, they get me moving, wake my heart, make me want to live deeper in love one more time, keep me showing up to celebrations like these water aerobics and other gifts that show up in surprising instances.

It happened three quarters through our forty-five minute routine with background music by Queen. Moving my right hand, arm, leg and foot backward while keeping everything on my left side pushing to the front I felt my wedding ring move off my left hand fourth finger and begin to fall to the bottom of the pool. I turned to my partner and said, “I lost my ring!” He was wearing contact lenses so couldn’t dive and he tried to feel for it beneath his feet. I climbed out of the water, went to my backpack beside the pool, found my old swim goggles and, as I put them on to jump back into the pool, they broke apart. I jumped back into the water, “Are you all right?” asked one woman. I said I had just lost my wedding ring and went under the water again.

This was not easy. COPD and Parkinson’s means fatigue comes fast, especially when accompanied by stress, and I couldn’t stay underwater long. I came up for air, tried another time, found nothing, went for air. My partner said he felt the ring by his foot, another woman reached out to me from the edge of the pool with her own goggles, I put them on, took a another breath, went to the floor of the pool and, with my right hand on John’s ankle, located the ring with my left hand and clenched it in my fist, released John’s ankle and used my own right hand to replace my wedding band on the appropriate finger and then returned to the surface with my hands raised in victory!

By this time you know I am not a chapter and verse kind of guy, but thirty-one years ago I did a special study on the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel where a woman loses a coin, searches for it diligently and when she finds it, invites the neighbours in for a great celebration. It’s a pretty lovely story of basic good news.

In 2019 when ABCTV’s 7:30 program asked the Archbishop of Sydney about the Diocese of Wangaratta approving an order of service blessing those already married in a civil celebration he said, “We do not bless sin”. Funnily enough when Jesus was asked about using coins with Caesar’s face on them he said, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s” but he seem to love having dinner with the lost, rejoicing in people turning to living whole lives, not throwing the first stone but joining in with the woman finding the lost coin in celebrating and rejoicing, blessing faith, hope and love in all the fine frailty of being human together.

So on this Monday morning I emerged from the chlorinated depths surrounded by concerned faces, women and men who resembled (can I write this?) angels treading water, messengers of concern and care, visibly glad I had retrieved the circle of gold that got lost. “You found it?” said one woman near me. “I did. We worked hard for that ring!” She smiled and said, “I know”.

And I rejoice that love is always looking for what is lost and is continually rejoicing that (finally) all that was lost will be found, whether it is a coin or a ring or the Archbishop of Sydney or the young priest (even you my brother!) and everybody in this Monday morning aerobics class at the Wangaratta Sports and Aquatic Centre and everyplace else.

Right now I am very glad to be alive.

Recycling a sermon I preached almost thirty years ago –

Between Two Mountains and Beginning Lent, 1992, All Saints’. San Francisco

One of the things I do for sustenance and substance is to live and work as a resident minister at the University of San Francisco. This means I have an apartment on the sixth floor of an undergraduate dormitory to do what one brochure calls a “ministry of presence.” I meet, enjoy, work with, serve, students in my place or their room or the hallway or the dining room or the laundry room, at the library or the gym or at an evening weekday mass or in the elevator. It is pretty informal, unstructured. But sometimes there are things like field trips and yesterday we had two: in the morning we went out to Lincoln Park for a guided tour the refurbished Palace of the Legion of honor and last night we saw Anna DeVere Smith in a performance of “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992″ in between I napped. It was a pretty full day. And then it hit me late last night that the events of the day, the things we’ve heard and seen, were like the geography of the lessons for today.

It is not difficult to see the two mountains in the Old Testament and the Gospel as paintings, though actually I can never read anything about Moses on Mount Sinai without seeing a movie spectacular. Mention the 10 Commandments and I see great clouds, thunder and lightning, big music, Charlton Heston and Vista-Vision! It is important to note the Sinai is a part of the background for the mount of the Transfiguration and the gospel lesson. The gospel seen as a kind of icon. It looks backward to Sinai as it looks forward to the resurrection. The mount of the Transfiguration’s: Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Now I see this without cinematic affects, but more with the pure clarity of a mountain on a spring morning. No music, but very fresh air; a clear, deep, eloquent silence. The scene is a timeless moment, same time as and history as God sees it, a rich resolved tapestry where love prevails. A deep and profound silence. I think of the opening lines of “Sunday in the Park with George.” “Order, design, composition, tension, balance, light, harmony.” 

It is natural to take a deep breath and say, “Yes, this is as it should be.” And it is tough not to feel a little grandiose in this scene. Yesterday coming back from the Legion, although balance and harmony, all those beautiful paintings, great carving, the Rodin sculptures. the curves of the building itself all affected me. Riding home on the 38 bus I saw people’s paintings, was more was aware of more of the life and harmony of who we are, I felt like I was looking at the world as an artist does. It felt like a kind of grace by association. I started to redesign Geary Street.

And that’s why I can relate to go to proactive Saint Peter who speaks up, as ever, in the Gospel. Always saying the wrong thing, good old Peter, the original extrovert. Earlier in Matthew he had gotten into a disagreement with Jesus about the forthcoming death in Jerusalem. Peter, “this must never happen!” Later he will tell Jesus, “I will never desert or deny you!” Here it is, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish I will make three dwellings.” Grace by declaration is such an Anglican thing too. Let’s arrange the truth, set it to music put the flowers over there, and now we bow. Good St. Peter, his problem is that he is always ready to break in and talk too much, to wrap it up too nice and too soon, for there is always more.

So finally God interrupts him, “this is my son, the beloved, listen to him. And when the disciples heard this they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” For it is terrifying to listen to the word of God, enfleshed in the world, “Listen to him.”

And listen to him in Golgotha, the last mountain. When we’re heading for in 40+ days and nights. The terrible fact of the cross, the deepest obscenity, noontime of the hottest, foulest, longest day of the world. Listen to him, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Terrifying not just because his death but ours as well. The death of hope, of change, the death of the best picture of what we look like and why and how we love. How can we respond?

As T.S. Eliot writes in The Love song of J Alfred Prufrock:

“And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin

When I’m pinned and wriggling on the wall

Then how should I begin

to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume?”

How can we presume to respond to the cross? 

Last night I almost walked out on Anna Deveare Smith. I told myself it was because I needed to get home and finish the sermon for this morning, but it was really because of her show: a one-woman performance re-creating the cacophony of the LA riots. All the different voices of anger and sadness, innovation and denial, justice, compassion and hope. All the different people separated by colour and  class, geography, prejudice, and pain, crying out for reconciliation. The same cry really: “My  God, why have you forsaken me?”

And after coming home in the front seat of a cab – because I really didn’t want to ride the 38 Geary after seeing that play – I wondered, how can we dare to begin to respond to the reality of the cross,? Not only then but now? Is there a way to live with it that does not lead to deep despair? For justice focusing too much on the beauty of the transfigured life can lead to a rarefied view of the world; fixating too firmly on the other direction is just another way to fall out of balance. How can we balance between the two, how can we fully respond?

We live in the city of hills and valleys, and I think we are called, for the most part, to stick to the valleys. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig writes that Zen is for valleys and I think the same is true for us. Summits give it the big view, bright moments out of time, to remember and learn from and reflect on. But we can’t and shouldn’t spend much time there in the business of living. Urban Holmes writes somewhere that Christian conversion is “a marinade rather than a glaze. We are transformed by being soaked in the gospel.” And this plain process takes time.

The season of Lent is that time. Time to make adjustments, to take a deep breath and listen, with a naked intent; for self-examination, repentance, fasting, prayer, self-denial, reading and meditation. Time to mindfully and prayerfully get on the journey. Not always on the mountain, down in the various valleys where we live and breathe in all that. Market, Mission, Montgomery, Castro, Masonic, Ashbury, Haight, and even Waller: all the common roads that run between sides of history; between the riots and the Rodin’s. So we come here, to almost the beginning of the season of Lent to get underway. We come to a table between two crosses, between the suffering Son of Man and the reigning Son of God, to take food for the journey into the depths of our daily life, which is finally, by the grace of God in the journey of Jesus, the way home.

Amen

Recycling a sermon from a few years ago, Advent 4

Let’s start by setting a scene where one character meets another, meets a stranger who seems to have some deep authority and an important message. They meet in a large room and, as the curtains are drawn and the lights come up, this messenger pours forth a whole new understanding of what the world is and how we are to live in it. The messenger gives his good news: 

“It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale!  

“It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality— one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you to preach this evangel, Mr. Beale”.

And Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in the 1976 Oscar winning film, “Network”, can only look and say, “I have seen God”, and Arthur Jenson, the television network chairman played by Ned Beatty, smiles and says, “You just may be right, Mr. Beale.”  

But he just may be wrong too. For that may be one, very powerful way of envisioning the world, of making sense of what to do and how to be, what matters and what lasts: but there are other ways as well, and that’s why we’re here, to enlarge our hearts and minds, and to deepen our understanding of other, even truer, ways to be in the world; maybe just as one old prayer puts it , to “keep our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, lest we grow hard”


So, here’s a second – and again somewhat edited – scene with a few similarities to the first where a young girl is met by a messenger who says this:

“You have found favor with God and you will bear a son who will be the child of the Most High, who will reign… forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’… Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”

So my question is this: how do you see this, make sense of it, how do you connect this announcement of Good News with your own life?

I like movies a lot, and I think one of the best films on the life of Jesus is a low budget 1960s movie called “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”, directed by an Italian named Paolo Passolini and made on the island of Sicily. The way he films this scene is especially wonderful. Mary is a beautiful young girl, and when she sees the angel, a gorgeous creature, her eyes light up in amazement, love, rapture.

You can see absolute joy in her eyes to receive this message, to let it come into her life. And then we follow her through the film as she follows Jesus. We see her when they nail her son to the cross and take his body to the tomb, we see her two days later when she goes with the other women to anoint his body and finds instead an angel at the door to the tomb announcing that he now lives; and it is the same angel! You can see that old joy in her eyes, it is an old face now, wrinkled by the years, but the same eyes, and the joy when she sees the same angel. 

So what angels do we see? What messengers do we make room for in our sometimes so crowded lives? Most of us don’t live in the movies or in scripture for that matter, though we may find them important for our envisioning: so we don’t often get androgynous Italian youths telling us that we are blessed, will bear fruit for the healing of nations.
Nor do we hear, as Mary will hear from Simeon, that a sword will pierce our heart as well. But we do get a lot of messages about who we are and what matters, what we can take for granted and what we can give to one another, we hear these messages on the television and the movies and the radio as well. And sometimes they are very loud. They color our understanding of who we are and what we’re about. And they make it difficult, sometimes, to listen carefully when some surprisingly good news comes to us, as it did to Mary, and is almost too good for us to believe. But it is important be awake to come to take the chance.

For I believe that in the very centre of reality, in the deep heart of holiness, there is only one angel, only one message. It may come at different times, with a different emphasis, be heard in a different voice, using different words. But it is the same, and it is this: that God has come to dwell in the midst of humanity. As the angel’s message to Mary announces God’s intention to meet with her in unspeakable intimacy, to conceive a place where God’s love might dwell in the very centre of humanity; so God’s message comes, in all times and in all places, to tell us the same truth: that God is desirous of living with us. 

God has come to build a home in our hearts, to make our human being a sacred place where steadfast holy friendship may be found, announced, created, made flesh, to make a meeting place where our – and every – life may be redeemed from unmeaning and insignificance. 

For we, like Mary, are called to be a place, to live a life, which consents and opens to God breathing deep into all our individual being, our limits and loves, our history and hope, our talents and tragedies. For Mary it was to take a unique part in the birth of God with us, in giving human life to the one we call Lord and God, this Jesus whose birth we celebrate in this coming season of Christmas. That is one unique task, but it is a model for our call as well. For the messenger asks us, like her, to be willing participants, birth-givers in our own way and with our own God-given disabilities and abilities, taking our part in co-creating an unspeakably intimate and unbelievably great conspiracy of Holy love. 

That is the heart of the message announced by the angel to Mary, and to us today as well. God is coming near, is here, here in the middle of your life. God is willing to meet you, is with you, from before your birth to after your death, and in all the intervals from here to there. God wants to keep company with all of us, all of the time. This is the greatest truth, the Good News that comes with Jesus and which, perhaps, has been forever, but angels, I think, always begin their message with the word “Now!” 

Unfortunately we usually don’t. We say, “Someday”, or “I remember” or “What if” or “If only”. We so often hide from the promise and presence of God’s word meeting human flesh in glory. We hide in the shade of the tamer paler stories and slogans that are announced on every other street corner and on every channel: so many other announcements, messengers of wisdom, calling for allegiance and conformity: “Experts agree.” “You get what you pay for.” “Early to bed early to rise.” “Better not to try than to fail.” “Only take sensible risks.” “Play the percentages.” “The world is a business.” “Don’t get hurt again.”

And the Angel comes to us and says, “Now” in every moment and waits for our response in every instant. It is a response that requires amazing audacity and an even greater humility: and it is asked of each of us right now as it was asked of Mary so many years ago. Listen, Meister Eckhart said this in a sermon some 700 years ago.

“It is more worthy of God that He be born spiritually of every pure and virgin soul, than that He be born of Mary. Hereby we should understand that humanity is, so to speak, the Son of God born from all eternity. [For] When we humble ourself, God cannot restrain His mercy; He must come down and pour His grace into the humble, and He gives Himself most of all, and all at once, to the least of all. It is essential to God to give, for His essence is His goodness and His goodness is His love… God brings forth His Son in thee.”

And the voice of the angel is heard, and the word of the angel is now. And the gift of the angel, which we see in the promise of Mary, and know most fully in the life of Jesus her son, is that we, each and everyone of us, are blessed by God and welcomed into the joyous company those who offer life and live in Christ.

May it be to each of us according to this word.

Amen

Apocalypse and Advent

What was most important to you 24 hours ago, or two months ago, will be or next Wednesday at 2:00pm or ten years from now? What or who will you love, hate, fear? What will hold your interest or bore you, what will change in the world around you or in the intimate connections that are crucial to you right now? And where is there an insight or vision that will speak to this swiftly passing world? 

The liturgical readings for Advent bring these concerns and questions into focus with a form of biblical writing called Apocalyptic Literature; visionary, poetic, image-laden language, prophecy, poetry and predictions that comes when the people go through tough times. When the temple is destroyed, when kidnappings occur, when terror reigns and the future seems so different from the past that it is almost beyond belief, when hope gets thin and you need a vision that makes room for beginning again. These Advent lessons bring visions of enforced endings and perhaps tentative beginnings. 

 In the middle of the 1980s several television shows in the US focussed on the probable effects of a nuclear holocaust. I remember their visions of the light and the wind and the fire that would follow the dropping of the big bombs. And even if some of us were to survive that end-time, it would be to reap a miserable harvest in a silent world, because bees would not be there to pollinate the flowers and birds and animals would have been  blinded by that false light. So the spring following the holocaust would have fewer colors and little song after that infernal gray blossom fell from the sky. 

I was taking classes in Berkeley, where there’s a great bell-tower in the centre of the campus, and whenever I would hear the bells striking the hour I’d try to stop what I was doing and look at the possibility that it all might end right then. Looking around while the bells were ringing, and people, animals, insects, trees and plants were moving together in the cool air and the soft light and think to myself: “It could all be over, finished, end now.” And I’d try to breath into, live and pray through, love that moment. And when the bells stopped ringing and the sounds of everyday came back I’d look around thinking; “There is a chance, we are not dead yet — And  perhaps somehow we are newborn, like children full of new possibilities, full of graceful innocence and promise, full of beginning.”

For to look for, to live out the possibilities and the message of love, forgiveness and renewal, the way of beginning rightly in the face of all the endings, is to assent and assist in the birth of God’s grace, God’s very face in our daily and real world. It is to allow mystery and forgiveness and renewal of God’s purpose, life and love, to begin once again. And it is to begin right where you are. No matter where you were yesterday, two years ago, wherever you may be three years from now, on the anniversary of your birthday or on the day you die. You are still right in the middle of your life. As the American baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “Wherever you go, there you are!” And that’s the only place where we can learn to love, to let our love grow and ripen, and make our life and ministry matter. 

I’ll admit it isn’t easy to live in a world lit up by death and birth. Most days we make our way between history and hope cobbling together an identity from need and custom, meeting the marketplace and minimizing the pain; and though there can be a fleeting feeling that we’ve missed the sign for some important turn, we generally go our own way.

But an apocalypse or an Advent, the time and place where beginning and ending flash into consciousness, can be both a kind of wakeup call, a lens enabling us to see both farther into what might be and closer into what is. It clears our sight for a moment to reveal the present time as a world bigger then we know, more full of intent and information than we’ve supposed, more intimate than we could have hoped for.

So “Wherever you go, there you are!”. It is one hope: of a world woven together by love: where we come to reach for Christ, and let Christ reach out to meet the world in our ministry. To get a grip on Christ so that we may learn to hand him to the world and hand the world back to him. As members of that body, proceeding into the world God loves, day after day, year after year, time after time, in our work, in our play, in our fear. In being present as we can with faithful hearts to family, friends and strangers; in tasks, hobbies, jobs and joys, in the times of frustrations and puzzlement and promise, in agreements that must be honored, in situations that must be met. All these are places where we act out, serve out, flesh out, and live out the reconciling life of Jesus – in serving love of every kind – in the ministry of acceptance, love, and forgiveness in the middle of our lives.

And this is our hope. That in all beginnings, middles and endings, the love of God in Christ recalls and remembers our lives so that our daily liturgies are transformed into that one great Eucharistic celebration. That we shall come to move like Christ in all these places with the grace of the God who comes to meet us this Advent. Right here and right now, in the sight of the end-times, we find our end, our goal. In sight of the last things, we have faith that this insight, this action, this liturgy, will last. 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon: Wangaratta Jazz Festival Jass Mass, Feast of All Saints’, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Maybe everyone here this morning has been asked this question: So how do you like Jazz?

The question was asked of me by the son of some friends of my parents in 1961, when I was just 15 years old, living near Fairfield, California, an hour northeast of San Francisco and not far from the Santa Rosa you’d see in George Lucas’s  “American Graffiti”

And did I like jazz?

Well, I knew my mother liked Ella Fitzgerald, Helen Forrest, Turk Murphy, Paul Whiteman: I knew my Dad liked Benny Goodman, the Dorsey’s, Red Nichols, George Shearing and Lionel Hampton,

But did I like jazz? I liked Spike Jones and his City Slickers and still do, liked Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Bobby Darin, Movie musicals, and sometimes Vince Guaraldi: Hell, as a tall scared teenager, I pretty much liked anything that liked me back. I liked the Kingston Trio! And I didn’t know if I liked jazz.

But this California kid who was a year older and therefore knew more about everything in the world put an LP on the turntable and handed over the red and black cover to a record called Round Midnight by Miles Davis and we listened to the cover track, and I liked it a lot and it touches me still 50 years later.

Listening to the soft sexy sullen sound of Davis’ trumpet, muted yet moving you on, weaving with an elegant, economic sound; recasting Monk’s original melody, by minimally curving the sound in a way that remembers the music that isn’t played, teasing out the intentions, the intervals, the pauses, pointing to the silence,

Then Coltrane comes in with his saxophone and warms it up, ebullient, effervescent, bubbling up with real enthusiasm, and pointing, in all his breathing joy, to what truly holds it together, those connecting links we can’t quite hear. And in the end the wit of Miles Davis and the warmth of John Coltrane dance around all the notes of the song and leave you with something that feels like loss and gain and joy and jazz and love. And I liked it a lot!

For maybe that’s one of the first moments, the places where I became a little bit of a theologian, a bit of a believer and a priest and a fan of jazz all at the same time; because I heard something of the joy in the middle and the silence under it all, of what hangs it together, holds it tight enough that you can play loose with it: the foundational sound, the salutary note, that song and that silence that has to do with wholeness, with holiness  with each of us and all of us, and not only here and now, but  always.

So when T.S. Eliot writes: “you are the music while the music lasts,” I think he’s on to something.

Because putting voice and instrument to music and melody is what we’re about, because the way we sing our song is our basic task, liturgy, vocation; It’s both where and why we meet the world, and how our ministry works it out.. Because what I got that afternoon with Davis and Coltrane, with Monk in the background, was an entrance into a deep sharing, discovery, discernment, delight in all the great and lively sounds of life: and I remember it still and it still leads me on to practice, to stretch out, to play with more expectation, more risk, more joy, more life!

For you are the music while the music lasts.

Because everybody makes ministry and music, as they make love and life. As they make sense and sound, sharing their take on the business of being alive: all the tones and turns and tunes, times and places, all the criticism, caring and crying and crowding, prayer and power and praise that happen in all the living and dying moments that come along and are over too soon.

For you are the music while the music lasts.

So we listen and replay and sing out! From nursery rhymes to funeral dirges, from bar room ballads to football club songs: From Hollywood to Tamworth, from Stephen Sondheim to Slim Dusty, from cacophonies to carols, as the world goes wrong and ‘round, as facts and finances and friends rise and fail, even as life runs short in the in the face of death, we still sing.

For God makes this gift of music and we take up our vision and voice and instrument, rhythm and rhyme and melody and make sound and song and  joyful noises in the world, because it keeps us breathing deep and together and sounding good and because nobody shuts their mouth when they’re making love!

Because you are the music while the music lasts.

That’s what this building, this tradition, this place we’re in today, really stands for: a two thousand year old melody played out in stone and brick, stained glass and wood and tapestry and flesh and blood and word and voice: a sustained tune on what the world might mean and how we can sing along, play along, improvise in our own way to all those old songs that tell us where we come from and where we’re going and why all the traveling.

This Cathedral is named for the Holy Trinity, which points to this trio of trusting in the happening and heart and hope of God, meaning love; that God, meaning love, makes, meets and mends the universe in every moment of time and every place and space; that God, meaning love, is the beginning, end and centre of our shared reality, that God, meaning love, is the light and the life and the lead that we follow when it comes time to take our turn and breathe our breath and sing our song.

For you are the music while the music lasts.

And that just might be what Jesus is about, right there in the middle; someone who teaches and walks and lives and breathes and dies and breaks through all false notes and all wrong rhythms with the promise that love wins in the end, will outlive the deadening demands and expectations of any little world that deifies money or violence or lust or power over one another. Jesus takes another route through that world and says a self-giving, neighbor-loving life, connecting with the whole of life in love is the right way home, back where we started from, and he lives out what he says in every way

You’ve heard the Beatitudes this morning and they’re pretty words, but Jesus walks that talk; his life sings that song: poor, meek and mourning; hungry, thirsty, merciful, a peacemaker who is persecuted, reviled, left out, pinned down to die on that inevitable intersection between what we say we want and how we are prepared to live and give in a world double-crossed with shadows and shortcuts.

And He dies on a cross in Jerusalem and Rome, London, and Wall Street, Melbourne and Merimbula. And in the end it doesn’t matter if he’s Jew or Greek, Male, Female, young old, straight, gay, winner, loser or also ran. He is the forgotten and remembered face of the love and the beloved and the lover, the meter and the music and meaning of it all.

And if we listen to his dying life meeting our living death we can still hear the song that says love lives and is reaching out and singing out and making out new ways to make it true and new and through together in every moment, and we’re here to learn to take up that song with whatever talents we carry with our voices and our vision and our hands and our hearts; and with whatever gifts we live out and give away on purpose and in love.

For you are the music while the music lasts.

In a little while we’ll break bread and share wine, his body and blood, his life and death and life, his magnificent defeat and victorious uprising as we take on the possibility of living that out ourselves, as our daily tune, in our living ministry, how we stand up and sing out and let that love live in our lives. That’s why we’re here in this soft spring morning:. To listen to the music, to sing the songs, to take on death and life and love and to let that melody and meaning and music be heard and handled, make sense and song in our own voices, our own way, our own world, even and especially now, in all the days of our lives from here on.

For you are the music while the music lasts.

Amen.

Remembering why I loved Tertiary Chaplaincy

For most of the 1990s I found a niche as a layman serving as a 

Resident Minister in a student dormitory and (rather surprising) as an occasional teacher and adjunct faculty member in the College of Professional Studies at the Jesuit led University of San Francisco, as well as the Episcopal Chaplain at San Francisco State University.  I also taught creative writing for several summer sessions at Sacred Heart/Cathedral Preparatory School and facilitated a monthly group spiritual direction gatherings for the Episcopal School for Deacons; which offered a Bachelors of Divinity degree in a part-time format for non-transitional deacons. I quickly fell in love with the work of tertiary chaplaincy (which has been described as both as the creative edge and the lunatic fringe of ministry) and discovered I liked teaching too. During those years I dated a bit, explored the rich and complex communities of queer and creative people in the centre of San Francisco, kept busy enough, happy enough, connected enough, moderately fruitful but primarily single.

At the beginning of every academic year I would meet with the new and returning students in the dormitory and give a little speech something like this: 

“You need to know I have no power in this place,” I would say, “I don’t  hand out a syllabus or course description, I don’t write evaluations or recommendations, and I don’t end up our time together by giving you a grade — although I’m available as a resource when you need to want to talk out some new ideas for a project or a paper, If asked nicely I can do proofreading or papers and, if you like, give feedback too. 

I’m a seminary trained Anglican who’s learned a lot from the Jesuits and I’m a Christian minister who gets strength and joy from that community — I guess my primary aim is not to convert anyone to anything except an increased joy in everyday living. If you’re interested I love talking faith, theology and religion, but I also love discussing politics, movies, literature, life in general. My main focus with you is to be  a dependable resource, on living and learning in community, keeping both sane and social, and enjoying some of the great places to eat, watch and walk in San Francisco. I’ll offer some walking tours of the City later this semester. But my main aim here is to be for you as a safe place in a dangerous journey,”

There would be a silence after that, and some of the students would look away and never speak again. Others would go on to say hello, be polite, and maybe let a relationship grow over time.  But a few, some, of those present would start to explore with me the places where an open-ended open-hearted conversation held in confidence and great respect might lead.

So I had students coming to talk to me about sex before marriage, about cheating on final exams, about the deaths of grandmothers at odd times. I had students coming to me to talk about why they were studying to be accountants or lawyers when they wanted to play music or serve coffee for a few years following graduation. I had students coming to me because they were so happy they had to tell someone, or they were so scared and lonely and they didn’t want to be alone with that. And I tried to honour everybody because it all mattered.

So I offered a few walking toursof San Francisco, and weekly noontime meditation group for students at SFSU and regular morning meditations meeting in my dormitory rooms at USF where we would finish by sharing fresh fruit and warm bagels.  I took some chances when I started a program at 10pm on Wednesday nights after the library closed called “God Meets Monty Python.” Snacks were served and we’d watch an episode of the television show and I’d follow that with a “sermon”  based on the theological values shown by the show. During seminary I had occasionally tried a theological-comedy routine and here was a  chance to live it out! Occasionally it felt like I was going down in flames, but I usually rose again which was part of the fun and led to more freedom, deeper conversations, better relationships with students and staff. 

And I worked out with students, faculty and staff at the weight room and pool at The Koret Health and Recreation Center at USF and audited a class on World Religions with Jacob Needleman at SFSU. I hung around our coffee house there, and around the dorm, dining commons and library at USF. Later a student at one campus looked across the table at me and said, “I know what you do!” When I asked what he meant, he replied, “It’s creative loitering; you hang around and things happen.” I’ve never had such a compliment on my ministry; who could ask for anything more?

One morning I was in a coffee-house 

where a graduate student I just met told me he “didn’t believe all this religious stuff.” He went on to say he would never allow himself to enter a situation where he, (1) “didn’t know all the facts,” and (2) “didn’t have a sense of the eventual outcomes.” I waited for a second coffee while he explained to me that every religious dynamic he could see appeared stupid, senseless, and lacking in basic elements of self-care and self-respect. He concluded by saying that from where he was standing, organised religion appeared to be a deeply toxic activity.

I was impressed he was willing to share this with me and told him that. I also said I had likely seen, in my own relationships with a wide variety of religions, more incidents of deception, dysfunction, and just plain flagrant evil than he could ever imagine. But, I also said, in spite of all the history and hypocrisy I witnessed, sometimes at very close range, my primary experience over the years had been participating in a sequence of wide-ranging fertile relationships with people of genuine value, compassion and love. And that was what kept me in the neighbourhood.

Then I asked him how his own love life was going. He laughed and allowed that it could be better, and wondered why I put that particular question to him. I said that in my own experience, most fruitful relationships and many functional religious lives were less like mastering a law code and more like an ongoing relationship or marriage, a sort of dancing rhythm of give and take, a kind of intentionally unfinished meandering while keeping an respectful eye out for certain key landmarks that might be met on the way. 

For while relationships and religion, like discipleship and dances of any kind, sometimes involve following drawn out steps and prescribed directions in formal patterns, my own experience mores often led to memorable moments of moving off the map in an improvised manner. All this while moving with the oft-repeated rhythms  found in the recurring stuff of life: birth, death, beginnings, endings, getting dirty, washing up, getting lost and found again. And again and again and again. 

And my sense was that we can learn to lean into that possibility, discovering both a discipline and a flexible focus in following the chance that compassion is in the centre of everything. This can enhance a certain quality of clarity, balance and focus: a wide open gaze in facing both predicaments and promises, open to the best and worst, the gifts and graces of every given situation as it comes into view. 

A committed life of discipleship can lead to that kind of freedom. For if the reality of love is in the centre of the wide map of Christian writings and traditions (as so many spiritual traditions tell us), than that love can be found anywhere. It can be discerned in each event of our lives, in good times and bad, even in those dangerous opportunities that meet us unexpectedly. “But it not an easy way,” I told him. “Love can leave scars that can lead you on, and it can hurt, but I am still betting my life in that direction.” 

I am still surprised that faith can so often become most real in the context of an interruption, but it’s so often the case. I remember years before when I was getting ready to begin my Master’s degree and was notified I wouldn’t receive my bachelor’s degree that semester. I had failed to pass one class, and it hurt terribly. I went to see a professor I had been hoping to work with and told him about my failure. In our hour together he touched three topics that stayed with me a long time: the recommendation of a therapist who would change my life: the advice that sometimes you can just do the easiest thing and it’ll turn out all right, and, almost as an aside, a theological quote on the nature of the sacraments. He said, “We know the Bread on the altar is holy because all bread is holy, but we only know that all bread is holy because we know the bread on the altar is holy.” At the end of the meeting we prayed together and shook hands and I walked outside and  the world was changed.

We had been talking faith, religion, sacraments; Christ’s body and blood, baptism, blessings along with Unction, Marriage, Penance and Holy Orders. But as I walked away I knew this template was sparking up the middle of the daily drab and wondrous world, full of food and drink and water and oil and hands and heart, with all the aspects of tuning up and turning ‘round and life and death and much more than that. It felt good but was not easy: like somehow stretching out to grasp foreground and background, both here and there. It was an instant glimpse of all the eternal evanescent existence so easily overlooked and still full in your face in every direction and every moment and always beyond description and belief. And sometimes I still wake up and it’s like the world just got born again and it’s all good. 

For I was finding, over and over again, that true religion so often comes in the stories we share, the risks we learn to take to learn with one another, the times when we tell our incomplete tales and allow a new ending to begin. Then bread becomes body and wine turns to blood and the whole breathing world catches fire again. For me it comes when sharing the old stories and letting them become new worlds. That’s where the Bible makes sense for me, that’s where the dance so often happens. 

To go back to the earliest sources, 

it looks like Jesus’ most popular ways of connecting with people come in moments of healing, times spent sharing food as well as the intentional action of sharing stories. Most of his stories fit into the category of parables. Over the centuries the definition of parable has been degraded to the category of edifying stories that warm your heart and settle your certainties; but in the original context they pack more punch. Most of Jesus’s stories carry barbs to surprise, awaken, turn you around, leave you wide-eyed and open to see where you are (or are not) right now — and even who you might be from here on out. So they’re more like a riddle, a puzzle or even a koan; which my dictionary defines as, “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.”

The conversations with the guy in the coffee house, some of the pseudo-sermons following Monty Python, meetings with other students and staff after oranges and bagels, after a workout at the gym or when the library closed, were all helping me realise that most of the stories Jesus tells serve as templates for transformation.  Like seriously funny jokes designed to provoke an explosive laugh, these face to face encounters both renew and reweave the content and context of the present moment and the future promise.

One theologian, Bernard Lonergan, called humankind “the self-transcending animal”,  and I wonder if that self-transcending comes most clearly in these face-to-face encounters leading to renewal, recreation, repentance, even something like resurrection. One way to see the early written records is as primary evidence leading the conversation further to open our eyes to larger life.  Each moment in time containing an opportunity for Scripture, a Word of Love, to be re-birthed,  renewed and revised in the parables waiting in every unique possibility. any present moment.

Years have gone by and I still think of the guy at the coffee house, the students sharing bagels and oranges in the morning. Lots of laughter and some tears, sharing joy and tension too. Chaplaincy was offering me the privilege of living together in the face of love. Seminary had changed and opened my mind and heart and life in so many ways, help me finally grow up. The task of tertiary ministry and the work following was to take what I had learned  and share it in the vocabulary and syntax of daily life at a busy University. Those early years were opening me to fall in love with the work of theology in a different way.

Thinking back I remember a great conversation with a chaplaincy staff member who, while we were talking, took some yarn and, weaving it between her hands, suddenly opened a cats cradle. I had never seen that before; but in those years I realise I was learning to weave something similar, a new exercise in devotion and joy, somehow opening a connection between tensions and differing directions that stretched out to be a new and vital pattern of living reconciliation. 

Somewhere St. Augustine writes that,“God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” But he also prays, “Not as I think you are, but as you know yourself to be.” And the places amidst these two extremities is where the opening comes in the life of creative discipleship. Keeping the tension between the two sides, allowing room to be challenged and encouraged at the same time. Both relaxed and ready in that tentative and dynamic place, without making it too busy or too businesslike; an ongoing exercise that changes for us in the same way as it changes us. 

In Memory of the murders at The Pulse Bar…

Almost four years ago, on the evening of Thursday, June 16, 2016 fifty people were killed in a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, and fifty more wounded by a gun-wielding self-identified Muslim terrorist and then the Texas lieutenant governor went on TV and quoted Paul about reaping what you sow. The blood of one hundred people spilled on the floors of the bar, the parking lot, the rest rooms, and now on the papers, social media, my iPad, all over the world and I wondered how many more people were now related by blood to those one hundred people in Orlando?


We had got to bed that night after midnight (a very rare occurrence) following a rather splendid dinner party of five gay men complete with carefully curated decor, great food, deep conversation and much laughter. Nobody entered the room with a semi-automatic weapon and a hand gun, but they could have. Certainly there were people nearby who would take their scriptural beliefs and their fight for truth that seriously; who would take life and make death to honour that understanding of holy love. I may be half a world away from Florida, now a citizen of a country where appropriate guns prohibitions were made law twenty years ago after one man with a semi automatic weapon mowed down men, women and children at a national monument; but even in Australia there are people who would honour their God of vengeance by spilling the blood of their neighbours.

Suddenly you felt that your life was not an isolated thing, but existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn’t anything anywhere to which you could say, ‘We don’t need each other. Elizabeth Goudge – Pilgrim’s Inn


Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94

Who is not my neighbour and where is not God? I’ve wondered about that one since before beginning seminary so many years ago, and since then I’ve known and loved many gay men and lesbians, talked to a few drag queens and met some Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists in my peripatetic career as an occasionally closeted gay man in ecumenical campus ministry in San Francisco, Berkeley and Melbourne and finally as a priest and educator in Bush Australia. You could say it’s been a broad spectrum ministry. I’ve sat with men and women as they dealt with the serious business of being alive, of saying yes to what they believed life called out for them to be: people who sometimes saw a vocation to be an artist in the midst of a family who knew they were born to be a doctor or lawyer, who saw new possibilities for redemption and relationship far from the family fold. I walked with people who faced the fact they loved people of the same gender in a way that other people only saw as sinful, and I’ve had other people sit with me and tell me with no hesitation why some love was hateful and how they came to see clearly what God wants and who God sees as right or wrong or worthy of larger life.


In my best moments I see only that God wants love, is love, that love (using a threefold Christian formula) makes, meets and mends the universe in every instant of time with a relentlessly renewing compassion. But I will here confess there are many moments when I cannot tell my friend, neighbour or the stranger I just met that I believe this to be true because I honestly don’t love them that much. I can preach it in the pulpit and point to it and move through it in the actions of the Eucharist, I can keep trying daily to share it in the actions of my life. But I must admit that I am afraid of those who are armed with the bullets or the books that say I don’t deserve to live, and in truth I cannot love them.


“I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I, the Lord, do all
these things.” Isaiah 45:7


“honour corruption villainy holinessriding in fragrance of sunlight (side by sideall in a singing wonder of blossoming yesriding) to him who died that death should be dead.”
e e cummings

One semester in seminary I had an evening class on prayer and meditation that offered a two part meditation: first thinking loving thoughts and feel positive emotions towards people who were important in our lives, then after a single bell rang, quickly switching to let the opposite negative emotion flow: articulating heartfelt anger after love, curses following blessings. I was amazed how easy the energy flowed from one extreme to the other and wondered what we were learning. perhaps that the purpose of the exercise was to show how close these two passions are to each other; that both of these warmings of the heart need to be carefully attended for the simple fact that love and hate live so close together, and we must keep careful distinctions so that (perhaps) we might finally weave them together into a place where healing can happen.


I try to be a reasonably compassionate man but I could conceivably kill the man or woman who wish to see me dead because of their faithful love; therefore my love, like theirs, is not far from hate. If that is the case then we all might better agree to let love go, keep merely civil, respectable middle-level boundaries, agree to disagree, leaving it at that, forgetting the dogma, doctrine and doggerel of the God-stuff. Unless what that God-space means, where it points, is a place where hate and love can meet in some new way, where festering lilies might somehow come forth with new and fragrant blooms. But could the world be this large?


To change the subject: I was surprised to learn, a few years ago, that some people are genetically wired to dislike coriander. I love it, add it to many dishes, cheerfully make it part of my day. It was a bit of a relief to understand others do not, on a cellular level, have this affectionate choice, even though it makes no sense to my senses, and seems to make their lives a lesser paradise of the delights I live with. I think it is the same with sex; there is a spectrum of flavours and favours that each of us find on our bandwidth which call us to taste and see in ways that make other people turn aside and wonder why we would not want to eat exactly what they swallow with gusto.


But it’s not really that important. I am not prepared to kill for coriander and would not force my neighbour to celebrate cilantro anymore than I would compel them to join me in my allergy to cows milk. And in the end most of us, perhaps a surprising majority, would be more than surprised if any hopeful vision of a larger reality was more concerned with plumbing over compassion. I may be wrong, and I’ll cheerfully admit that this too may be the way I’m wired; but I think we’re all a bit better than this.


For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me. The Gospel of Matthew 25: 36-37

Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha and one of his closest disciples, said to the teacher one day’ “Oh Buddha, sometimes it seems to me that half of the spiritual life is loving kindness and friendship for others.” The Buddha replied with a smile, “Ananda, you are wrong. Loving-kindness and friendship are all of the spiritual life. Paraphrase from the Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)


Jack Kornfield, the modern Buddhist writer, says in the end there are just two kinds of people: those who aren’t afraid to kill and those who aren’t afraid to die. Most of us would avoid that sort of black and white thinking, but I fear it still may be clashingly close to the picture we see of Good Friday in Jerusalem when Jesus is murdered by the mob as well the scenes that Thursday night at Pulse in Orlando, Florida.


“At least four patrons have said they saw the gunman Omar Mateen drinking at the Pulse bar several times before the shooting. Ty Smith said he saw Mateen inside at least a dozen times… ‘Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent’ http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/13/orlando-shooting-isil-wages-war-on-gays-in-the-west-after-omar-m/


In his book called “The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger,” the Benedictine priest Sebastian Moore writes that when we see Jesus, this man of love and light, we see all our shadows and shortcuts, and our reaction to that light can be to push into the dark, pin the other down to death, because we would rather kill than see where we are already dying in our sad and violent separations.


But in the same light of love we can find that we are killing the best picture of what we look like, an icon of the life we are born to live. And that can be where love meets hate, where death meets life; where coming forth from any deadly closet can mean giving ourselves over to a future we cannot conceive.


So perhaps tomb turns to womb when we let what we know die so that somehow the knowledge of a larger love may live, and that is where something like resurrection might happen. That’s what I saw in the conversation of artists born of lawyers, peopled compelled to take leave of the parental path, called by love to come out of their closets. That’s what I learned in the best of my life in the church and a few gay bars and saunas and the ministry of many friends and not a few strangers in my own life, to let God teach me to love in a new way. But it isnt always so.


For reasons I don’t fully understand some people awaken to new and larger life, to come to share that unfinished journey together, while others die in their killing hate. Maybe that’s one of the places Jesus hangs ‘round nowadays, maybe that’s the spark that can come when hate meets love on the worst weekend ever. But how we live that out, move on from the truncated celebration, the fallen love, the spilled blood in the parking lot and on the screens of our iPads, in the heart of who we are together, in the light of such hate, is an entirely different question.


Even though at this time I can hardly find room for any possible answer, what I can do is to stay with it, continue my incomplete prayers (not fully knowing where they might lead) for this world where hate pierces and love embraces the lives of 101 people in Orlando while all of us who loved them hang together and wonder what we can do now.