Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Midweek Musing: treasure the moments of mystery

This past Sunday, I was back presiding at gathered worship with my friends at Augustine United Church, Edinburgh. What a joy. I haven't been saying yes to many 'gigs' this year, as I concentrate on the thesis, but with the Lenten liturgy from Fiona, and the words I've already crafted for Pray the Story, the energy for preparation was well within manageable limits – and donning the alb and leading a community in worship is that delightful complex of energy-giving, and exhausting (in a good way).

The reflection was shaped by the prayer-poem for the week, posted the previous Sunday on Pray the Story. That will be our midweek musing. Fiona has included a time for meditation: I spoke the prayer-poem for the epistle portion, which I wrote last year: Gift of Faith. And in our communion liturgy, we spoke the words of the Jesus Prayer (or Lord's Prayer) that I had crafted, also last year.

The Gospel story for the day was Jesus' encounter with a woman by a well in Samaria. We reflected on that story thus:




beside Jacob’s well 
John 4:5–42
By the well of Jacob,
Jesus met a woman;
by the well of Jacob,
on foreign, enemy land.

By the well of Jacob,
Jesus asked the woman:
from the well of Jacob
to draw him, please, a drink.

By the well of Jacob
the woman asked him, Why,
by the well of Jacob
he came, he stopped, he spoke?

By the well of Jacob
Jesus told her of water
that neither the well of Jacob,
nor any other well could supply.

By the well of Jacob,
her thirst fast awakened
by the well of Jesus,
holy mystery of life.

To the well of Jacob
she summoned her neighbours – friends;
where, at the well of Jacob,
once she had been alone.

By the well of Jacob,
Jesus’ friends now returned;
by the well of Jacob, you’re
doing what? They were bemused.

By the well of Jacob,
they offered him food to eat;
at the well of Life I eat,
by living the Way of Love.

By the well of Jacob,
Jesus met a woman;
by the well of Jacob,
on foreign, enemy land.


Show us how to live is the theme for your season of Lent here at Augustine United
Show us how to live, the request we make of God, Creator of that life, Wisdom guide and Spirit friend.
Show us how to live.

In this story of Jesus’ encounter of a woman beside a well in the heat of the day – or of a woman’s encounter with Jesus in the heat of the day – we have some responses to that request.

Life is crossing borders and boundaries into ‘foreign’ territory and assuming a posture of humility – may I have a drink? Where might you do that this week?

Life is responding to the stranger – perhaps in her question we can see a wariness on the part of the woman, life is not about exposing ourselves to undo risk of harm. So responding to the stranger, with a cautious welcome perhaps. Who are the strangers we will meet this week?

Life is watered by a Source not earthly but permeating all that lives; Life is tapping into that well, that depth, that Source, and quenching our thirst with relief unknown from any other water. What are our daily practices for drawing on that well, that Source? What does our daily trek to the well look like? Lent is a fabulous season to review our spiritual disciplines, perhaps try something new for a season to give it a go, renewing our commitment to the regular trip to the well, the Source, of the Living Water that quenches our thirst.

Life is in the stories: stories of ancestors that tell us where we came from; stories of our encounters and discoveries that enrich our present living with new vigour and meaning; stories of the Sacred to give us hope for the future. What stories will we listen for this week? To whom might we tell our story in a gift of mutual vulnerability? How will we enter the story of the Sacred each day?

Life is full of mystery, so much beyond the reach of our understanding, so much to reach for, strive for, look towards. When you encounter the mystery this week, will you stumble, will you stop, will you stand in awe and wonder and be grateful?

Life – so says this story of mystery and Living water, of strangers and crossing borders – is about taking each moment and paying attention. It’s about being present with those you meet in the moment. It’s about attending to the Sacred Presence in each moment. It’s about listening with open hearts, sharing with generous hearts, pausing with grateful hearts.

Life is made up of moments: take them, treasure them, and see what life will grow from them.


By the well of Jacob,
Jesus met a woman;
by the well of Jacob,
on foreign, enemy land.

By the well of Jacob,
Jesus asked the woman:
from the well of Jacob
to draw him, please, a drink.

By the well of Jacob
the woman asked him, Why,
by the well of Jacob
he came, he stopped, he spoke?

By the well of Jacob
Jesus told her of water
that neither the well of Jacob,
nor any other well could supply.

By the well of Jacob,
her thirst fast awakened
by the well of Jesus,
holy mystery of life.

To the well of Jacob
she summoned her neighbours – friends;
where, at the well of Jacob,
once she had been alone.

By the well of Jacob,
Jesus’ friends now returned;
by the well of Jacob, you’re
doing what? They were bemused.

By the well of Jacob,
they offered him food to eat;
at the well of Life I eat,
by living the Way of Love.

By the well of Jacob,
Jesus met a woman;
by the well of Jacob,
on foreign, enemy land.

Amen

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Embraced: my PhD at Biblical Studies Seminar

This reflection on my recent experience of presenting my PhD work at the New College School of Divinity Biblical Studies Seminar first appeared in my monthly newsletter. Read more behind the scenes stories from the PhD experience, and from the further adventures of storytelling and poetry for free! Sign up over there on the right. 

'Your translation of aspazomai was excellent.' So said Prof Tim Lim, and the expressions on the faces of friends and my supervisor indicated the value of that affirmation from a well respected scholar. It's one of the pieces of work I've done in the performance interpretation of Romans with which I, too, am most pleased.



The word appears many times in Rom 16, and is translated in the NRSV as 'greet', but as I embodied and performed the letter, 'greet' in current English usage felt inadequate for expressing the meaning I and my audiences found in these imperatives to reach out towards members perhaps less readily welcomed in the churches in Rome. Returning to the Greek, I found that the range of meaning for translation into English included 'embrace'. The responses to the repeated imperative to 'embrace' have been profound over the past year of performances. I am really pleased with this concrete example of the outcome of an embodied performance interpretation of a biblical composition.

Prof Lim's comment came after I had presented at our Biblical Studies Seminar at New College, an opportunity offered to final year PhD students. I had been rehearsing and writing and rehearsing the presentation since Christmas. I had talked the script over with my supervisor. I had run through the presentation, handout and slides and all, with several colleagues the day before. I was ready. With the content of the slides printed and cut into small paper 'cards', with some further notes where necessary, I spoke material I knew well, in content and form. After I had set the scene of Biblical Performance Criticism for an audience not familiar with the field, and then introduced my particular project and method of embodied performance interpretation, I asked the audience if they would like to see it in practice. Enthusiastic nods of 'yes, please'!

I stepped out from behind the table - from which I had removed the wooden script holder, rather placing my notes on the table as I finished with them, beside water bottle and note book - and performed Romans 16. Applause after the performance. Stepping back behind the table - this movement distinguished the performance from the presentation, which I had talked over with colleagues the day before as a helpful visual marker for the audience - I talked through critical reflections on interpretive decisions, including the translation change from 'greet' to 'embrace'.

Comments from the audience indicated a high level of engagement, a positive reception of the ideas and the project, even if there was not necessarily agreement about the suitability of this approach for scholarship as much as for the practical arena of preaching and worship leading.

I've received further comments since then, from people who were there and people who weren't, but who heard from others a positive and enthusiastic report. I achieved my goal: I communicated effectively, introduced my field and my project, and modelled good practice for presenting in a scholarly environment (something we see rarely, with most presenters reading from the page to the point of disconnection from their audience, and speaking words crafted not for the ears of their listeners, but for the eyes of readers).

Since the seminar, I have finished a first draft of Chapter Two and begun work on Chapter Three, the momentum continuing to build with each passing goal ticked off.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

of peace and joy and the oneness of us all

I was reading 1 Corinthians for a tutorial I was preparing to teach and unexpectedly found myself reflecting on a deepening of understanding of myself and my solitude. I haven't written about it for a while. I haven't really thought about it too much, either, recently. And that is what I noticed: I have at last settled into 'solitary' as my way of being.



Paul spends a bit of time in this letter to the church in Corinth on sexual immorality. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 are mostly given over to the topic. Remembering that Paul wrote specific letters to specific communities with their particular challenges, questions, and concerns is helpful to counter any inclination to take his words as a rulebook for living for all people in all times and all places.

For a start, we can find several indications that the concerns over sexual practices are bound up in broader concerns for living authentically according to the gospel of Christ: 'do not eat with one who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber'. Then there's the whole section on lawsuits between believers: you've been renewed by baptism into Jesus and the Spirit, so turn from wrongdoing and fraud, no longer deceive one another. 'To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.'

These chapters, this discourse, is not all about sex. Except that he does spend a lot of time talking about sex, and marriage, and whether or not to get married. Paul says that it is well to remain unmarried (as Paul does). But if you can't keep your passion and sexual desire under control, so that it threatens to manifest in unhealthy behaviour that disrespects another and yourself, or that it distracts you from your due attention to God, then marry. Get a partner with whom you can exercise the beast from time to time, and keep it from taking over.

There are some lovely encouragements of a mutuality not encouraged in the broader Roman society in these passages: for it is not only the wife who is tending to her husband's needs, but the husband caring for his wife as well. Unheard of in a heavily patriarchal society in which really only the elite free man was understood to be fully human – everyone else was successive steps removed from that fulness of humanity and dignity.

With other tutors, we debated the extent to which Paul affirms a loving relationship in which sex is a positive expression of that love, or is rather conceding the utility of sex for keeping a lid on the passionate desire that the Stoics and some medical writers also thought base and undesirable. Later romantic notions of marriage are read back onto Paul's words in support of heterosexual, as opposed to homosexual, sex as positive and God-given wonderful gift. (and don't get me started on the further extrapolations that treat the non-Pauline letters as rule books for marriages that subjugate women into subservience and disempowerment).


But what struck me, encountering this discourse this time around, was the reminder of the oneness between humans joined through sexual intercourse. Further, there is the overarching concern of Paul for the believer's oneness with God in Christ, and the attention he encouraged believers to give to God and living according to the way of Christ. I stopped, as the words held up a mirror to me, showing my deepening peace with and commitment to a solitary way of being. I almost shuddered at the thought of becoming one with another human: that's it. I don't want to become one with another person. That, I suppose, is part of the nature of those in religious orders, a lack of interest in becoming one with another human. I think if there was a religious order in my particular tradition, I would now be ready to join it.

Even though I know there are such others in the world also choosing the solitary way, I still feel quite alone in making that choice. No one else with whom I discussed this text last week expressed affirmation for the celibate life Paul advocates here. Most of our society still buys into the dominant narrative of human intimate partnership as the ultimate in human relationships, and the goal to which all humans do and must aspire. It took me well over the first decade of my adult life to recognise that narrative and its impact on me, and to realise that, after all, it's not the story I want or am designed to live.

I think I find a different kind of oneness with my fellow humans more generally: have you read or heard my mantra that we are only fully human together? I have talked before about the nature of my solitude as being a single person needing to be embedded in community. Perhaps my deepening peace in this current season is a reflection of a deepening sense of belonging to my communities here in Edinburgh. I formally became a member of Greyfriars in January. I have returned to the post-grad study rooms at New College, participating much more regularly in the every day life of that community, and the solidarity of working alongside colleagues. I am sought out for storytelling and presiding, for conversation and advice, for friendship. I feel like I belong here (even as the possibility of leaving looms with the PhD drawing to a close).

I finally see what someone I loved once saw in me: I am not the partnering kind.
I finally understand why I ran from a relationship I thought I wanted: I do not want to be a partner, but friend or sister I can do.
I finally want what I have had all along: solitude and community.

And I cannot find the words to describe the peace and the joy of that realisation.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Saying no to violence, and yes to human dignity

Ghandi observed (and I paraphrase): there is one word in the English language worth saying more often - 'no'. One Sunday morning recently, these words were offered in the context of a reflection on Jesus' teaching to 'turn the other cheek', and the notion of creative response to violence and persecution.



I was worshipping with my Edinburgh faith community, and our ecumenical partners, and the preacher was Rev Ali Newell, of the University Chaplaincy. Ali asked, does 'turn the other cheek' mean passive acceptance of violence? Is Jesus telling his followers to become door mats to those who would wield power over us? Or might he – here and in the breadth of his lived and spoken teaching – be saying something else?

Drawing on the insights of Walter Wink, Ali invited us to consider the turning of the other cheek as a demand on the part of the one being struck to be seen as a fellow human of the one who would strike the back of their hand across the right cheek of a subordinate. Turning your face presents the left cheek, which for a right hander cannot be struck with the back of the hand, but with the fist: and fists, we know from Jewish sources of the time, were used between equals. Present to one who would strike you the alternative cheek and demand the dignity of the human as equal in that common humanity.

This is profound; it is challenging; and it is, in Ali's words, creative.

It is most certainly not becoming someone's door mat.

And these words of Jesus were spoken to the subordinate masses, the ones who were used to being struck with the back hand of those with higher status.

As those words from Ghandi celebrate, so also Jesus says: say no. Do not accept the diminishing of your humanity.

And Ghandi went further. For there is another word in English we must also say: yes. Say yes to the dignity of all human beings. What would it be like, Ali asked, to say no to violence and persecution from the position of that fundamental yes to the dignity of each human being.

That is not a resistance of violence that becomes revenge. That is not a subverting of abuse of power that becomes an abuse of power itself.

This is strength. This is empowerment. This is claiming my dignity as an act which does not diminish the dignity of the other.



Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Hope, and faint, magic, light

A few weeks ago, my sister was visiting. She wanted to take the opportunity to try to see the Aurora Borealis – Northern Lights. So we went off on an adventure.











Sunset over Thurso Bay



Others will have done it differently, but we packed up our work and boarded a train through the highlands. As we marvelled at the wilds of Scotland we wished our dad was with us, for how he loves this countryside. A second train further north for the real adventure – chasing the northern lights. Would the weather be kind? Would the geomagnetic magic arrive at the right time?

We walked by the beach and across the river. We found gifts for friends far away but always in our thoughts, memories packaged, tangible connections to another part of the world.

We ventured out into wind and dark, and bitter cold us South Aussies are unaccustomed to facing. Truly our faces felt pulled from freezers, and our fingers – we couldn't feel them at all (gloves notwithstanding).

Finally on our fourth and final night there it was, behind the clouds that refused to part, and later into the morning of our final day, a hint, a glimmer, Aurora Borealis – nothing like the touched up photos on calendars, not as bold as it's been for our host at the lodge (Pentland Lodge House – I highly recommend!). But a shimmer in the sky hinting purple and green. And we got some shots of sunsets and stars and seascapes while we waited.

When I think back on these days at the tip of this small island home away from Australia for three years, I'll think of the retreat from the real world it was, the time out of time with my sister. The beach and the wild gorgeous landscape and those elusive lights of the north a backdrop to a moment, a shared adventure taking a risk on nature and hoping together. Worth it ? You bet. Nothing at all to regret.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Midweek Musing: Guest post. But still on storytelling.

This week's musing comes to you from Phil Ruge-Jones, storyteller and keynote speaker for this year's Network of Biblical Storytellers' Festival Gathering. Enjoy.


Thoughts About Living the Story


Storytellers nurture hearts of compassion. The unhardened heart is a host with arms wide open, inviting in friends and foes. Within its chambers are many acquaintances of forgotten names, and adversaries as well. They may be forgotten by the mind but they are kept in the body. The sacred story often summons this multitude and invites them to dine with us. Sometimes we dine laughing with friends remembered again ... or weeping with them. Sometimes we hear the story and find ourselves sitting at a banquet table in the presence of our enemies. And sometimes we discover among those adversaries our own former selves, the people we were at our worst, what we'd rather forget. In all these invocations, we are welcomed to reencounter our past in the presence of the sacred, and in sacred words picked up again, to reencounter the fullness of ourselves, and to drink with the saints from a cup that runneth over.
Phil tells the Gospel of Mark:









Register for the Festival Gathering here.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Midweek Musing: What might the Bible become?

I've just come home from worship with the community at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. Richard Frazer led worship and preached, and I heard in his reflections on the Sacred Story resonances with my own ideas, ideas that weave through my thesis. Here are some rambling attempts to bottle the good stuff I heard (Sunday 22 January).



What is most interesting about the Bible is what it is yet to become. Richard cited these words of another, and my heart said, yes! That is how a storyteller approaches the Sacred Story – seeking to discover what it may become in her as she embodies it, amongst the community as she tells it aloud, and in the listeners as they take it to heart. What will the Story become?

Those in power are right to be afraid, for the Bible has potential to become liberation when its stories are enfleshed in those who receive it. In so many places in the world, Richard told us, the Bible came with Empire. But within it, the Bible held a story of liberation from Empire (or many stories of liberation from many different empires, actually), so that when those who the Empire would oppress and suppress listen to the Story of God, inhabit it, and embody it, the story becomes empowerment, becomes resistance, becomes liberation.

I am mindful of those in positions of power (most of which would be enacted more effectively when remembering they are positions of service, but I digress) today who wield the Bible like a weapon to oppress. Look out! That Book holds stories that will be your undoing. We will take the Sacred Story and we will give it flesh, and you will see empowered people, resisting people, liberated people. Yes. Be afraid.

For we must attend to discernment, intuition and integrity, in our embodying of the Bible, our seeking for what it will become in us and through us. It is not a story of oppression, of division, of persecution (though, yes, there are stories of the ancient nation of God's people who do overcome their neighbours). It does not become a weapon and maintain its integrity as the story of God. When you use it like that, you have turned it into something else, something that it actually is not.

The hallmarks of the Bible in its various becomings are signs of grace and love; are citizens of the realm of God; are joy, forgiveness, elegance.

Fear. Greed. Arrogance. Not signs of the the Bible. Not hallmarks of the Story of God.


The Bible is a lens through which we begin to make sense of our lives. When it remains as fleshless, artless word it will bring us down. The Bible must be enfleshed in our living if it is to live itself; enfleshed with the secret life of the Spirit moving through it and through us so that we are participants in the story, and God's story becomes part of ours.


This was the enfleshed word this morning in the community of faith at Greyfriars, as our minister mediated God's call: What might the Bible yet become in you, and in me?