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February 19, 2007

The Art of Distraction

Magicians employ the art of distraction to turn the eyes of their audience away from the "real event" so that the end result appears 'like magic'. The technique is effective, so much so that we miss what really happens. Psychologists have conducted tests which demonstrate this power of distraction, whereby the audience misses a man in a bear suit walking across the middle of the picture because they are 'distracted' counting balls.
It is amazing how often this distraction occurs when we read the text of scripture, brought home powerfully last night as we reflected on the beatitude: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied". The distraction in the beatitude is the word "righteousness", one which doesn't get good press these days. Particularly when it is combined with the word 'satisfied', and its implied partner 'self'. We typically begun by analysing the word righteousness, and what it means. Last night we turned it around, focussing on the last word "satisfied".
What is it that offers us satisfaction today? The Rolling Stones seems to have made a modern anthem of its tune "(Can't Get No) Satisfaction". In spite of the burgeoning consumer culture, whereby we earn 5 times what our parents did, live in larger houses with smaller families, and have much more in our possession and at our disposal, we aren't exhibiting the same level of satisfaction that the advertisers suggest these products will bring. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite... The incidence of mental illness has increased ten-fold, the top ten diseases affecting young men in Australia are either psychological disorders or substance-abuse, nearly one in four Americans is taking mood-altering drugs, and anxiety and depression is regarded as an epidemic. In the midst of prosperity, we have “spent ourselves sick”, according to Clive Hamilton in his book Affluenza. Satisfaction clearly does not come from the sources our consumer culture suggests.
When we accept that the present focus for satisfaction falls short, we are forced back the first part of the Beatitude: where do we find satisfaction? In a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not by being (self-)righteous, but through a desire for righteousness. Here we are faced again with the example of Jesus, who pushes us away from traditional understandings of righteousness (all the way through the Sermon on the Mount, and throughout the Gospels) into a new place: where we follow his example: service, love, giving... In other words the focus of satisfaction is found not in trying to obtain it for ourselves, but to work for others.
I would suggest that the many things our consumer culture suggests we go out and obtain for ourselves are really by-products. We do not gain love by forcing or demanding it from others, we receive it by giving. We find happiness not by looking for what makes us happy, but by working for the happiness of others. We do not find hope alone or selfishly, but by living hope for others. These things are by-products.
In the same way, satisfaction is a by-product of hungering and thirsting for righteousness... by choosing an alternate pathway to the consumerist culture. In some senses it is a bit like turning the canoe around in a fast-flowing stream and seeking to row back to the source... we will find ourselves making little headway initially, and tiring easily. But hungering and thirsting to go another way is the first step. Simply going with the flow keeps us on the same course. The destination may be elusive, but if we are facing the right way, we are closer to reaching it than otherwise.
Satisfaction - itself an elusive term - becomes the window to understanding this Beatitude. By realising that the present system doesn't offer it, we are forced to look into alternatives, which is perhaps Jesus' point. The Sermon on the Mount goes a long way towards redefining righteousness away from the unsatisfying models we are all familiar with. It certainly isn't made easy, but it offers a pathway of hope, and life.

Posted by gary at 03:15 PM | Comments (0)

February 09, 2007

Be Like Jesus

John Smulo has created an interesting perspective on what it means to be like Jesus.

1. Get baptized by the craziest guy in town.
2. Say and do things that are guaranteed to make religious people want to kill you. Repeat again, and again, and again, and again, and again - don't stop unless forced.
3. Do amazing things for people and ask them to not tell anyone.
4. Hang out with the most despised, marginalized, looked down upon, and shunned people you can find.
5. When possible, forgive and restore people, even if they betrayed you.
6. Live in a way that provokes gossip.
7. Win the most grace competition.
8. Keep the party going.
9. Serve people (note: nose plugs may be required).
10. If you're sad cry.
11. Empower people to do the extraordinary.
12. Act like a rock star in a hotel temple.
13. Radically simplify theology.
14. Break human-made religious laws. Repeat consistently.
15. Prioritize the most important over the important.
16. Let women with "questionable" backgrounds pay your bills.

Some interesting additions in his comments also.

Posted by gary at 04:37 PM | Comments (0)

April 17, 2006

The Missing Resurrection records...

It has long given me pause for thought that the earliest Gospel offers no proof of the resurrection, offering only a promise. The earliest manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8, which says (of the women who had come to the tomb and heard the angel’s message) “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What prompts the gospel writer to leave the story there, and not detail resurrection accounts as the other writers do?

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is depicted as continually resisting the desires of others to place him into their mould. Whether it be in the names they use of him, or the priorities they wish to ascribe to him, Jesus makes his own way through, resisting the temptation to let others control his destiny. We find this same trait through the other gospels – the disciples try to talk him out of going to Jerusalem; he slips through the crowds who want to seize him for their purpose; he challenges others’ understanding of the Messiah’s task. In the Easter narrative, we find Pilate pushing Jesus to answer the claims made against him. Pilate’s discomfort with the silence is evident.

And so when it comes to the resurrection, Jesus once again slips through the disciples’ grasp, a young man asking them to take a journey to Galilee to discover the resurrected Jesus. Mark reports their fear, and notes their silence.

The church, and we as members of it, have long been faced with the temptation of keeping Jesus under our control. How often do we make our plans and simply ask Jesus to bless them? How often are our prayers an expression of our desires which we want God to make reality? It is an alluring temptation to use Jesus as an overlay for our own desires. Yet, for Mark, even the resurrected Jesus is beyond our grasp, though not out of our experience.

In reality, the journey of following Jesus does not end at the resurrection. It begins with a fresh perspective. When we proclaim a gospel that ends with “all you have to do is pray this prayer and be saved,” we truncate the gospel call to follow the resurrected Jesus into the community, where we are called to meet and serve him. We are to be constantly vigilant for the resurrected Jesus at work and in need of ministry in our community - a ministry which is based in the resurrection, which affirms that the worst that can be thrown at us cannot destroy us, just as the array of powers against Jesus could not end His ministry.

The resurrection begins a new journey for us, one which allows us to enter the world with hope and courage, to believe that – even in the midst of hostility capable of murder – God’s purposes in and through us cannot be stymied. Our challenge is to ensure that we are working in God’s purposes.

Christ is Risen Indeed!

Posted by gary at 12:52 PM | Comments (0)

March 05, 2006

Lent and Jeremiah

Working through the prophet Jeremiah in my own devotions has led me to an interesting Lenten reflection... Imagine the headlines "God is going to destroy the church"... what sort of furore would it create?

Yet this is akin to the message that Jeremiah brought to Israel: God is going to destroy you and remove you from the promised land, all at the hand of a godless nation. Seems bizarre. Do you think the Israelites would be predisposed to such a message? Of course not. The promised land was an integral part of their story. It was the place given as God's promise to their ancestor Abraham. It was the place to which the people were brought after being freed from slavery. It was the place where the temple was standing - a reminder of God's ongoing presence. It was the site of David's palace, with its reminders of great victories given by God. For Jeremiah to call Israel to leave it behind was tantamount to treason and heresy. This was the source of life. Yet Jeremiah tells the people that life will only be found in exile. Death will come to all who stay.

This required some new thinking. To leave behind that which came as the fruit of God's promise... why? Because the new could come only when the old was gone. The best could come only when the good had been removed. In spite of the Jewish hope for a messianic return to Jerusalem, they must leave if they ever wish to see it. To fight to stay would be to choose death.

Now how does this link in with Lent? Lent is the time when we are invited to examine our lives afresh. Instinctively our minds are turned to the sins which still beset us, and unhealthy attitudes. But what if the way forward was to let go of something God had blessed us with in the past? What if the way forward required us to let go of something good, something which was a real blessing?

In a critical moment with the disciples, Jesus had to challenge them in the same vein. When Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from this whole die-and-be-raised-again thing, Jesus rebukes him in the strongest way, then goes on to say that only those who lose their lives for the kingdom will gain life, and those who try to save their lives will lose it. In other words, to try and hold on to past blessings may actually destroy us.

Consider Jesus' own end. He was stripped of everything: his clothes, his friends... his last act was to hand responsibility for his mother over to one of the disciples. He lost everything at that point. And yet much more was gained. It was not a path Jesus readily welcomed (remember Gethsemane?) yet he followed it knowing that it was God's call.

Herein lies a major Lenten challenge: to be prepared to set aside not only the bad, but the good, in the hope of realising the path to something even better.

What might that be for each of us?

Posted by gary at 08:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 10, 2006

The Prayer of Jabez

This small prayer has been the subject of a best-seller book. The author of the book decided to put the earnings to use in combatting the AIDS problem -among other challenges - in Swaziland, but things didn't turn out the way he would have liked. David Batstone reflects on the consequences for the theology which underpins the book:

The Prayer of Jabez Falls Short In Africa
Bruce Wilkinson, author of the best-selling book The Prayer of Jabez, made a big splash nearly four years ago when he announced his ambitious plan to help children suffering from AIDS in Africa.

Not everything for Wilkinson has gone according to plan, unfortunately. A page one feature in the Dec. 19 The Wall Street Journal captures the sad tale in a nutshell: "In 2002 Bruce Wilkinson, a Georgia preacher whose self-help prayer book had made him a rich man, heard God's call, moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. In October [2005], Wilkinson resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, Bible college, industrial park and Disneyesque tourist destination in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland. What happened in between is a story of grand hopes and inexperience, divine inspiration and human foibles. ¿[H]is departure left critics convinced he was just another in a long parade of outsiders who have come to Africa making big promises and quit the continent when local people didn't bend to their will."

It is not my aim to gloat at Wilkinson's failure. To the contrary, I mourn what this means for the millions of African children in crisis who apparently will not benefit from his efforts. I also want to honor Wilkinson's desire to help the least fortunate. It would have been easy for him to take the wealth he gained from his book sales and live a life of personal comfort.

This chain of events, however, should not pass without a moment of theological reflection.

The "blessed life" that Wilkinson has helped to promote carries with it a number of assumptions about where God is present in the world, and how God acts in response to the prayers of the faithful.

The Prayer of Jabez is based on a passage out of the book of Chronicles, in which a devoted man named Jabez asks God for a favor: "Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!" The fact that God honors Jabez' prayer and blesses him with great riches indicates to Wilkinson a God-principle. If we in pure heart ask God for a blessing - and do so using the very words that Jabez prayed - then God will bring wondrous gifts into our life. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Wilkinson interprets the wild commercial success of his books (roughly 20 million copies sold combined) as yet another proof of the miraculous power of the Jabez prayer. In other words, it worked for Jabez, it worked for Wilkinson, and now it should work for you. With the fiasco in Africa now behind him - and the full Journal report makes clear that fiasco is the appropriate term - I wonder if Wilkinson has reconsidered his theology.

Maybe because I spent so many years in poor regions of the globe I could never accept the prayer-in-blessing-out approach to faithful living. Straight to the point, I have known too many devoted Christians for whom life did not bring them material blessing. Their children still died of infectious diseases that plagued their village. They could not avoid the violence that dictators and ideologues so often use to cow the powerless. Their territory did not expand because their only path for survival was a daily labor with their hands. Yet they did not lose faith, or cease praying for God's blessing.

As I ponder on their lives, I find a more fitting theology for God's presence and action in the world to be laid out in the book of Hebrews. There we are encouraged to have "faith in things not yet seen," and are offered models of individuals who tried to lead devoted lives that honor God. We read that some of them did receive great material blessings, while others ended up in the dens of lions or stoned due to their principled living. We learn, in other words, that God does hear their prayers and loves them profoundly, but it does not always bring them material riches or expanded territory.

Wilkinson's doctrine in fact implies that social structures are immaterial. An individual reciting the right prayer can transcend an AIDS epidemic in his or her village or escape being bought and sold into slavery (like 27 million people on this planet yet today). Perhaps now that Wilkinson has immersed himself in Africa, he better understands that the curse of poverty is not a spiritual punishment, or an indication of a lack of faith. To bring blessings to the orphans and widows of Africa, a dramatic shift in values - political, economic, and personal - will be required. And that challenge cannot be owned by Africans alone; it falls squarely on the shoulders of us in rich nations, who enjoy such great material "blessings."

Just like the next Bible reader, I could pick out individual passages that seem to suggest that God will give us whatever we desire as long as we ask for it with a pure heart. "You can even move this mountain" with such a prayer, as Jesus teaches his disciples in the gospels. I do not summarily discount these passages, nor do I assume that we should never pray for rain in a time of drought.

But the weight of the biblical message balances heavily toward a prayer life that yields courage, love, and compassion to do the will of God. The expectation of material gain and miraculous blessings may even distract us on that pilgrimage. The passage in Hebrews calls us, based on past heroes of the faith, "to run the race in front of us," confident that devoting our lives to God's work is all the reward we will ever need.

original source

Posted by gary at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)

January 31, 2006


It is worth noting that Mark's gospel represents Jesus' first public ministry in the temple, with opposition coming from the religious people. At the other end of the gospel we find opposition coming from within the twelve - Judas. In the middle, immediately following the first proclamation of faith, we find Peter being told by Jesus to "get behind me, Satan". What are we to make of this?

The focus of preaching and proclamation in the church is invariably on the evils of the world, and rarely on the evils within. This is an age-old phenomenon, one which blinds us to many realities. In the Hebrew Bible it was a continuing problem for Israel, believing that their status as God's people and the evils of the surrounding peoples exempted them from such close self-examination.

When we read the gospels, we tend to read ourselves into the best roles. We see ourselves as the friends of Jesus, as those who understand his kingdom and his message. Such an approach continues to blind us to the realities that we are too often much more like the religious people in the text, opposing the work of God.

A counter to this tendency is often found in the many voices of faith... the different views which are often found within the faith community. But too often we either dismiss such voices as 'whingers' or ignore them for being way out. The strength of christian community comes from an ability to question each other, and particularly prevailing orthodoxy. It is a vital aspect of unity which needs to be nurtured and fostered.

And who provides that voice when we are the church dispersed? When we find ourselves in our workplaces and social settings, when we are often the only christian present? It strikes me that we need a level of christian community in which such questions and critique of our daily lives can take place.

But that's a more difficult question.

Posted by gary at 09:29 PM | Comments (6)

January 05, 2006

A Deck of Cards

You might have seen the story which explains the symbolism of that ubiquitous carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas"... Here is an interesting take on giving symbolism to a deck of cards. Given that it is attributed to a soldier, it becomes an interesting catechetical tool in time of war, when cards were a simple distraction easily kept for times when the activity of war was low...

Deck of Cards

This is a story about a soldier in the North Africa Campaign in World War II. After heavy fighting the men returned to camp. The next day being Sunday, the Chaplain had set up church service. The men were asked to take out their Bibles or prayer book. The Chaplain noticed one soldier looking at a deck of cards. After the service he was taken by the Chaplain to see the Major. The Chaplain explained to the Major of what he had seen.

The Major told the young soldier how he would have to be punished if he could not explain himself. The young soldier told the Major that during the battle he had neither a Bible or prayer book so he would use his deck of cards and explained...

* "You see Sir, when I look at the Ace, it tells me that there is one God and no other.
* When I see the 2 , it reminds me there is two parts of the Bible, the Old and New Testaments.
* The 3 tells me of the Trinity, of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
* The 4 reminds me of the four Gospels, There was Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
* When I see the 5, it tells me of the five unwise virgins who were lost and five were saved.
* The 6 makes me mindful that God created the earth in just six days, and God said that it was good so He rested on the 7th day.
* As I look at the 8, God destroyed all life by water except eight people. There was Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives.
* When I see the 9, I think of the nine lepers that God healed. There were ten in all but only one stopped to Thank Him.
* The 10 tells me of the "Ten Commandments" carved in stone by the hand of God.
* The Jack makes me remember the prince of darkness. Like a roaring lion that devours those he can.
* When I look at the Queen, I see blessed Mary, Mother of Jesus.
* As I look at the last card I see the KING, this reminds me Jesus is the Lord of Lords and King of Kings!
* There are 365 spots on the cards, the number of days in a year.
* There are 52 cards to a deck, the number of weeks in a year.
* There are 12 picture cards, the number of months in a year.
* There are 4 suits, the number of seasons of the year.
* There are 13 cards to a suit, the total number of apostles (including Matthias)."
And so the young soldier then said to the Major, "You see Sir that my intentions were honorable. My deck of cards serves as my Bible, Prayer book and Almanac."
A deck of cards should most importantly remind us that we need Jesus 365 days, 52 weeks and 12 months a year and that we should PRAY "4" others.

Will you ever look at a deck of cards the same way?

Posted by gary at 11:45 AM | Comments (1)

October 19, 2005

Keeping it Succinct - The Bible in 378 words

The Guardian recently reproduced the text of a summarised bible, authorised by the Church of England, in which the text is reduced to fewer than 400 words. Crace has adopted and adapted the story format, using some interesting and quaint (from an Australian perspective) British expressions. Some of it sounds a little sarcastic/cynical along the way. It is interesting that he truncates the story with the ascension of Jesus.

The church has endeavoured to summarise the bible many times throughout history: witness the creeds and church doctrinal statements which litter its pages. Crace's use of the narrative form is to be commended.

In 378 words, what would you consider important/essential and what would you deem less relevant? When you've made up your mind, check out the text of Crace's bible in the extended entry.

Here is John Crace's Bible in 378 words:

God created heaven and earth in six days. He then made Adam, quickly followed by Eve when he saw that Adam was bored. Their descendants proved a real disappointment, so he flooded the world and started again.

But God continued to have a lot of problems. Abraham was OK, but Jacob cheated on his brother and Joseph was such a prima donna that his brothers sold him into slavery. Moses tried to lay down the law but it took an almighty strop for anyone to notice. Joshua killed a lot of people; so did Gideon; in fact most of the judges and kings were lying psychopaths. Understandably the Jewish people needed to relax, so they sang psalms to the tune of Kumbaya.

Back in the action and it was still looking grim. A few grumpy prophets apart, it was bloodletting on a grand scale all the way. Things improved when an angel got Mary pregnant in 1BC. Joseph was very understanding about this and nine months later Jesus was born. Various shepherds and wise men paid their respects before Jesus was whisked out of town to escape Herod. He spent the next 30 years chilling out before beginning his ministry when John the Baptist was arrested. Jesus tried to avoid publicity but it was hard to keep a low profile when he was pulling off stunts like raising the dead. So it wasn't long before he collected some disciples, and from these he chose his main crew, the apostles.

Much of Jesus' teaching was captured when he spoke about the meaning of humility during the Sermon on the Mount. Apart from forgiving sins, he also said that anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery. These views made him extremely unpopular, but calling himself the Messiah was the last straw. When he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he knew his days were numbered. On the Thursday night he was betrayed by Judas and taken before Pontius Pilate, who offered the Jews a chance to reprieve him. They refused and he was crucified and buried. He rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. Jesus reassured his followers he was for real and over the next 40 days he made a number of other appearances before going up to heaven.

Posted by gary at 08:20 PM | Comments (0)

March 08, 2005

Jesus Talks with a Gay Man

Interesting re-telling of the story of the woman at the well. Might be a confronting read for some...

Jesus talks with a Gay Man

Posted by gary at 09:35 AM | Comments (1)

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