Saturday, April 23, 2011


“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

That little cliché got worked into a Gospel song many years ago (admittedly a bit corny by today’s standards!) performed by friends of mine, for which I, in my teens, provided the keyboard accompaniment. The thing about clichés and other proverbial sayings is that we’ll never stamp them out because in their own way they capture the paradoxes we know to be real, including the compulsive yearning and dreaming that is as much part of what it means to be human as the sense of hopelessness we sometimes endure.

Well, we need to remind ourselves that it IS always darkest before the dawn!

One of the most graphic images of this in the Gospels is when Jesus, the night before he died, spoke of the devastation his disciples were about to experience - of course, nothing like the suffering and pain of the cross, but nonetheless real to them. He said,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:20-21)

A woman’s extraordinary - and split second - transition from the anguish of labour to the joy of birth, is a great wonder. The Lord said that the pain to be suffered by the disciples would just as swiftly give way to joy, “and no one will take your joy from you.”

The last twelve months have been rough for many people who regularly read this blog ... floods, cyclones, bushfires, economic hardships, earthquakes and difficult insurance companies. (I must say, in the case of Queenslanders ... you’re a special people with a great capacity for resilience that I came to know for myself when I moved to Brisbane in 1995, and I salute you. That resilience and your courage has been on show to the whole world in recent times.)

But just as painful – and in some respects more so - has been the great and ongoing struggle for Anglican catholics to discern the Lord’s will in terms of “staying” or “going.” In England I know personally many priests and laypeople just barely hanging on who are in spiritual and emotional turmoil while they await the appointment of a new Bishop of Fulham and PEVs. (In Australia it’s a hundred times worse, because such episcopal ministry continues to be refused as a matter of principle.)

Also difficult to manage is the animosity that has developed between old friends. We need to remember, whatever decisions we feel in conscience we must make, that the Tiber is not a very wide river!

Maybe this year during Holy Week – and perhaps for a long time beforehand - we have entered into the sorrow of those disciples in a special way. To be honest, I know that is true for me. If it’s your experience, too, and even if outwardly things don’t seem to get much better for a while, you could do worse than pray through the following little bits that I have decided to share with you. They certainly encourage me.

Jesus is Lord; he is gloriously and triumphantly risen from the dead (though his body still bears the wounds he suffered). He shares his victory with us here and now as we journey through this life. His love is real, and his light scatters the darkness and gloom. We hang on, we press on, knowing that we are already "risen with Christ" and "sit with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6)." In fact, one interpretation of the Sursum Corda in the Mass is that when the priest sings "Lift up your hearts" and we reply "We lift them up to the Lord", what we are really saying is - in defiance of all that would drag us into the depths - "by the power of the Holy Spirit we hold our hearts up, we keep holding them up in the heavenly places, the real epi-centre of our worship where the victory of Jesus is already manifest."

It's all a matter of perspective.

Let's pray for a renewal of our perspective as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.

With the assurance of my love and prayers, I say to everyone, especially family, friends and colleagues: “Happy Easter.”

"With you, Lord, I will flee,
that I may gain in you Life in every place.
The prison with you is no prison,
for in you man goes up into Heaven:
the grave with you is no grave,
for you are the Resurrection."

- St. Ephraim the Syrian
(The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: 2nd Series Vol. XIII; p. 236)

Easter says to us: have faith! Faith does not mean that we first try to see things in a coherent and intelligible shape and then conclude that God is true. Faith is more like when the women came to the tomb while it was still very dark, and they wondered who could move away the stone as it was very heavy: and look - the stone is gone!

When things are very dark, when human possibilities are exhausted, when we are at the end of our tether, God acts. Easter defines for all time the character of Christian faith: human weakness; divine power; I can't. God can; I am weak, God is strong; I am a sinner, God forgives. Does this sound fanciful?

lt was such a faith that enabled the aposties to carry the gospel into a hostile world. It was such a faith that sustained Christian men and women again and again throughout the centuries. lt is like a coin that is always on one side - frailty, penitence, death, and on the other side - power, forgiveness and life. Let the words of St John sound in our hearts today: 'This is the victory that overcomes the world - our faith' (1 John 5:4-5).

- Michael Ramsey
(Canterbury Pilgrim p 161)

The Eucharist sets you on the way of Christ.
It takes you into his redeeming death
and gives you a share
in the most radical deliverance possible.
And already the light of the resurrection,
the new creation,
is streaming through it from beyond.
Whenever you sit at table with the risen Lord,
it is the first day of the week,
very early in the morning.

- Rule for a New Brother
(Dutch Blessed Sacrament Fathers)

This holy and blessed day is the first of the week,
the king and master of all days,
the feast of feasts and the season of seasons.
On this day we bless Christ forever and ever.
O faithful, come,
celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus the Christ.
This is the day the Lord has made.
Let us rejoice and be glad.

Now that we have seen the resurrection of the Christ,
Let us adore the all-holy Lord Jesus,
the only sinless One.
We bow in worship before your cross, O Christ.
We praise and glorify your resurrection
for you are our God and we have no other.
We magnify your name.
All your faithful come.
Let us adore the holy resurrection of the Christ.
Behold, through your cross joy has come to the world!
Let us always bless the Lord.
Let us sing his resurrection.
By enduring for us the pain of the cross,
He has crushed death by his death.

- Orthodox Liturgy

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Atheists and Morality

But beware! Brown has a very high level of impatience with unthinking fundamentalists of every kind. In fact, that's what makes him fair. The "new atheists' come in for as much ridicule - sometimes amiable, sometimes trenchant - as anyone else.

What follows is A RECENT ESSAY lifted straight from his blog, in which he discusses a presentation given by Sam Harris, "the loudest of the New Atheists". Well worth reading. (So are some of the comments on the blog itself.)

To open with a nerd joke: religion is like Unix in that those who do not understand it are compelled to reinvent it, badly. Watching Sam Harris at a packed Kensington Town Hall last night, it was obvious that he fits squarely into the American tradition of religious leaders who preach liberation from religion into something they call science. He is Mary Baker Eddy for the 21st century.

He was jet-lagged, which may account for some of the incoherence of his position, but he's a very practised performer, and has presumably given this speech hundreds of times before.

What he wants to do is to establish that moral facts exist, and that the division between fact and value is not absolute. This is hardly earth-shaking and certainly not original. Nobody was arguing against it, either on the podium or on the floor: when a show of hands was taken at the beginning of the evening, perhaps a dozen out of at least 1,000 hands went up. The difficulty, of course, comes in establishing what moral facts actually are. This Harris assumes is something to be solved by utilitarian calculation. Understandably he skips over any effort to explain or justify this assumption by argument. Instead he uses a myth.

Consider, he says, "the worst possible misery for everyone". This is a factual state which surely involves a moral obligation to diminish it. So everything which moves away from that, in the long term, is objectively good. And everything which tends to move the world closer to that state is objectively bad.

The obvious retort to this is that our judgements about the way things are tending must involve an element of faith which is something that in other contexts Harris has hoped to escape. But there is a deeper and perhaps less obvious snag.

The argument relies on the assumption that "The worst possible misery for everyone" is an account of the facts: that it is possible to say truly that any state of the universe either is or isn't the worst possible misery for everyone. And that is of course impossible. We could not remotely judge whether something was the worst possible state, any more than we can decide by reason whether everything is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. In neither case do we have the materials to make a judgement. We don't have an alternative universe to compare with. And of course to say that the world could be better in the future tells us nothing whatsoever about whether an alternate universe might exist that is better right now.

But even supposing we could identify the state of the greatest possible misery, and we can't, it wouldn't help us to make moral judgements at all. This is because the greatest possible misery is also the greatest possible pain, and the urge to escape pain is entirely pre-moral. It is found in creatures that have no social life and thus no possibility of morality. A world of maximal pain is also a world without utilitarians.

So this is a world view built on a myth in the rather narrow sense. We are invited to deduce moral and factual consequences from a state of the world which may never have existed. Christians, as Giles Fraser pointed out, have had a lot of experience at handling this kind of argument; atheists have rather less, and tend to deal with it by treating their own myths as literal truth.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Dealings of God

Heartbreaking discouragement comes to everyone who has ever tried to achieve anything. Coping with it is difficult, and understanding what God is really trying to say to us through our circumstances is often more so. The heroes of the Bible faced discouragement; the greatest Christian leaders faced it. Jesus himself faced it. There are times when it is God's will for us to be "in the valley", for it is there as much as on the mountaintops that we grow in the Lord. So, as we begin Passiontide, I share with you a couple of quotes that mean a lot to me:

1. From THE CHRISTIAN PRIEST TODAY (1972), by Archbishop Michael Ramsey:

Christ draws us to watch with him, and to watch will mean to bear and to grieve. As the cloud of God's presence in the tabernacle in the Old Testament was pierced from within by a burning light, so the sorrow of Jesus is the place of reconciling love pouring itself into the world, and his joy there is radiant. "Ask and you shall receive so that your joy may be full" (John 16:24): for "your joy no one can take from you" (John 16:22). "As sorrowful yet always rejoicing" (1 Corinthians 6:10): it is to this that you are committing yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ, saying:

Lord, take my heart and break it: break it not in the way I would like, but in the way you know to be best; and because it is you who break it, I will not be afraid, for in your hands all is safe, and I am safe.

Lord, take my heart and give it your joy: not in the ways I like, but in the ways you know are best, that your joy may be fulfilled in me.

2. "A Prayer for the Valley" from PURITAN PRAYER (1975) ed Arthur Bennett:

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths
but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin
I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime
stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells
the brighter thy stars shine;
let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty,
thy glory in my valley.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


What about our Jewish friends? There are evangelicals (not all, but some of the more extreme dispensationalists), liberal Christians, and even Catholics, who seem to believe that the way to salvation for Jewish people is – according to God’s plan – different to that which has been given for the rest of us. This has always troubled me. So, because today is Mothering Sunday, I reproduce here some relevant thoughts form the indefatigable Fr John Hunwicke. You can go to his blog HERE.

So people are busy fishing out rose vestments for 'Mothering Sunday'; although I'm unclear why next Lord's Day is so observed by those who do not follow either the Tridentine Rite or the Prayer Book. The theme of the old Roman Mass is (Galatians 4) of our Mother the heavenly Jerusalem; but in the modern rite, the Roman Pontiff is not instructed to have a statio at the basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem (the church which the Empress Helena, my Colcestrian concivis, devised to be 'Jerusalem in Rome' and to which she imported cartloads of soil from Jerusalem together with significant relics of the Crucifixion). Sadly, moreover, choirs are rarely required to sing all those lovely Siony texts which embellish the old propers. Common Worship, of course slavishly follows the modern Roman Rite in abandoning the theme of the Heavenly Jerusalem, our Mother; the City whose politeuma we enjoy. [Does the Byzantine Rite visit this theme in the course of its annual lectionary?]

Of course, those old propers and S Paul's teaching in Galatians 4 raise in an acute form the very problem involved in the Good Friday prayers for the Jews. Has God's Covenant with the Jews been superseded? Do they need to take Christ on board to be saved, or are they, alone of all races and peoples, allowed a Christless way to salvation? It seems to me clear that S Paul teaches throughout Romans that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile either in the problem - sin - or in the solution - faith in Christ. The 'Jews-are-allowed-to-remain-Christless' line rests upon an interpretation of Romans 11 which doesn't hold water; I recall that the founder of the late twentieth century New Line on S Paul, Ed Sanders, concluded that, qua exegete of Paul, he had to to argue that in Paul's view Jews as well as Gentiles needed Christ (although qua liberal he did not think that Paul's view was now plausible).

So: 'cast out the bondwoman and her son'; Jews both need and are entitled to Christ. The Old Covenant was the type, the shadow, of the reality which is Christ. Not, of couse, that it would be particularly seemly somehow to to seem to single out Jews for mission in a Western society which largely consists of lapsed Christians: it would seem as if we were saying 'We've made a hash of hanging onto our own people so now we're going to try to get our hands on yours'. But the principle needs maintaining; all have sinned and all need Christ.

I have sometimes wondered if the Holy Father had in his mind, when revising the EF Good Friday Prayer for the Jews, that his own ordaining bishop, Cardinal von Faulhaber, was a member of the group Amici Israel, which proposed revision in the 1920s. (I seem to recall that the iffy figure of Merry del Val may have been among those who scuppered the proposal.) But I am not convinced that, in its essence, the original Good Friday Bidding (Let us pray for the unbelieving Jews) was anti-semitic - on the contrary. There have always been Christian Jews and they are as fully privileged as any other Christians ... if not more so. In the Good Friday prayer we were not disdainfully and in a racist way praying against the Jews as a race but for those members of that race who do not believe. The reason why we prayed for them specifically (and not, e.g., for the Fijians by name) was simply their special place in God's dealings with Man and the steady New Testament witness, echoed in Pope Benedict's revised prayer, that the Eschaton will mean the combined redemption of Jew as well as Gentile. There is also, as S Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 10, a sharp reminder for all of us in the fact that the great majority of Jewry, for whom first the Euangelium was intended, failed to hear God's call.