Pursued by goodness (thoughts on Psalm 23 for Good Shepherd Sunday)

23 04 2018

We read/sang Psalm 23 this morning and I want to turn now to look at the Psalm
to see what it might help us understand about the Good Shepherd.
It is probably the most well-known Psalm,
used at funerals and weddings alike,
and many of us have a favourite version of it.

I want to particularly talk about the last half of the Psalm this morning,
and particularly the last verse.
 
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

Presence and protection.

Though the staff might have been used to pull a sheep out of trouble or danger,
the rod wasn’t for rebuking wayward sheep,
but for fighting off anything that came to threaten the sheep.

You are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

Presence and protection.
No need to be afraid.

And then that beautiful image:
surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

 (Joel LeMon helps us understand this verse better).

“The word “follow” here (radaph) is better translated “pursue,” a surprising verb given that it is usually the enemies that are pursing the psalmist with an intent to overtake and destroy. Furthermore, in this same verse, the word “surely” (’aq) is better translated “only.” Thus it’s not the enemies in hot pursuit. Instead, “only goodness and mercy will be chasing me down.”

Not only do we have the presence and protection of the shepherd
we are being pursued by goodness and mercy.

I have been thinking this week
about why goodness and mercy need to pursue us.
Is it that we move so fast,
talk so fast,
assume the worst so fast,
hurt others that quickly,
that mercy has to hurtle down the road,
chasing us down,
calling out to us
what we have left behind in our haste to move on?

Do we dodge God’s goodness,
thinking we are not good enough,
not deserving?
Or maybe it is that God’s goodness
will change us when we are caught by it,
will teach us to live our lives
by laying them down for others
following the pattern of our Shepherd.

Whatever it is,
I am so grateful
that we are being pursued.

Pursued by goodness and mercy,
doggedly pursued
but even moreso graciously pursued.
 
Goodness and mercy all my days
shall surely follow me.

Amen.
Thanks be to God.

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Rightly ordered relationships.

2 05 2016

Version 2

“I’ve been thinking it would be better to be dead than to be gay”

 I was the Ecumenical Chaplain at the University of Waikato from 2005 – 2010, and in one semester, about three semesters in, five students came to see me, each sharing with me words very similar to these: “It would be better to be dead than to be gay”.

 I would never agree that it is better to be dead than to be gay. But as it stands, if you are dead and gay you could come to church and have a Christian funeral, celebrating God’s love for you and your hope in the resurrection. If you are alive and gay, however, living and loving, the Anglican Church in this country cannot yet find a way to declare God’s blessing on your relationship.

 The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia is talking about human sexuality again. More specifically the conversation is about a report commissioned by General Synod, the body responsible for decision making at the highest level of this church – they are meeting at the end of this week. The report explores how it is possible to live with a diversity of views about same sex relationships in our church, and more specifically how we could live with the possibility of some Bishops and priests in some places believing it is right to bless same sex relationships and so wanting a liturgy in which that could happen, and some Bishops and priests not believing that.

 The question of same sex marriage is off the table. Though it has been legal in New Zealand for same sex couples to get married since 2013, and for eight years before that to enter into a civil union, General Synod in 2014 affirmed a ‘traditional’ understanding of marriage as being between one man and one woman. My belief is in “all the sacraments for all the baptised” (or all the sacramental actions for all the baptised), but this is not a possibility being considered.

 This is about couples who have a civil marriage being able to come to church for a blessing of their relationship, and for that relationship to then be considered ‘rightly ordered’ in all the places in the church’s life where that category matters.

 I am hopeful that the report will be received, the legislation passed and in the drawn out process of the church, hope very much for the changes to take effect in 2018.

 Some people do not believe that is a good, faithful, or biblical thing to have happen. Freedom to refuse these rites, either as a Diocese or as an individual priest or bishop, is provided for in the proposed ‘way forward’.

There are concerns about the impact it will have on evangelism, and on Christians, in more conservative parts of the world. Of course I wish for safety for my Christian brothers and sisters, but I also wish for safety for my gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters: safety, and a warm welcome in communities of worship.

 And I am concerned about the impact on our ability to share the good news of God’s grace here and now in the culture we live in. In a national poll prior to the legislation being passed, 76% of under-35s in New Zealand were supportive of marriage equality. The church continues to have these conversations, conversations that are often characterised by debates about who is being most faithful (of the people in the room) and little grace seems to be offered to the actual humans we are having conversations about. I think those conversations place further barriers to all kinds of people perceiving God’s radical, life-changing love and hospitality as it was made known to us in Jesus.

 I don’t often talk publicly about my beliefs about this – in part because working ecumenically has meant having to facilitate collaborative relationships across enormous diversity. But that is also a luxury that 20 years of heterosexual marriage provides me – a marriage that is deemed by the church to be ‘rightly ordered’ because of biological sex and the privilege of Christian marriage. It seems to me that in all relationships it is the faithfulness, mutuality, joy, grit, generativity, grace, forgiveness and love of the relationship that really makes it ‘rightly ordered’. I hope that the church’s conversation this week will be another step to recognising those qualities in all marriages, and declaring God’s delight in and blessing on those marriages.  





For All the Saints

2 11 2013

We’re in a remembering season in the church.  Yesterday was All Saints Day, and today All Souls, when we remember those who have gone before us, that we belong to a community that is larger than just those who are now living.  Tomorrow at church we will have an opportunity to say the names of those that we love and see no longer – to remember and give thanks for them.

Sometimes this remembering is confined to those who have died in the past year.  In our congregation we invite people to remember anyone who they wish to hold close at this time. This year I’m particularly thinking of some of the women in my life who helped me grow into faith.

Mrs Brown, as I respectfully called her, was my next door neighbour.  When I turned five she asked my mother if she could take me to Sunday School.  This seemed very exciting to me, it involved dressing in my “good clothes” and going off to a place with red carpet and beautiful stained glass.  I got to hold a hymnal of my own, and then go over to the church hall for Sunday School classes.  While at first I’m pretty sure it was the aesthetically appealing environment that drew me in, it was the beginning of a faith that has shaped my life.  Thank you Mrs Brown (Gladys).  Your hospitality and care set the course of my life in ways you couldn’t have imagined.

Mrs Flyger.  Ev, as I came to call her, was someone else that Mrs Brown drove to church.  She had a dog called Minka, loved to knit and crochet, and lived just around the corner from our house.  Once I was old enough I would go to visit on a Saturday afternoon.  Ev taught me to cook, to craft, and she had absolute faith in my ability to do anything I set my mind to.  Staying overnight at her house was always a treat – there was always pudding and late-night television and all the love and care a surrogate grandmother could offer.  Ev gave me the celtic cross she had worn on her wedding day for my 21st birthday.  I wear it still for special occasions and when I’m doing things that I’m not sure I’m really capable of!  Thank you Ev.  Your love sustained me through adolescent angst, my cooking and crafting is the better for having known you and I have no idea what you’d make of my living in China but it sure would be fun to tell you the stories!

Grandmother.  She was Andrew’s grandmother actually, but invited me after we were married to no longer call her Mrs Caswell but to refer to her as grandmother too.  It wasn’t ever shortened – that wasn’t the kind of woman she was.  If you gave her a gift she really liked, it was pronounced “most acceptable”.  She didn’t really support the ordination of women, but, ever-gracious, she was at my ordination both as a deacon and a priest.  She apologised in advance that she wouldn’t be able to receive Communion from me but at my ordination it would be alright to bring her Communion in her seat as the Bishop would have consecrated it and that was therefore acceptable.  The following day I presided at Communion for the first time, and to my surprise, she came to the altar rail and received bread into her hands.  It wasn’t proper to challenge the Bishop’s authority – he had ordained me so I was a priest!  I keep a little wooden carved St Francis by my desk that had belonged to her.  It reminds me to be gracious.  It reminds me that it is possible to think about things in a different way, to come to a different conclusion.  Thank you Grandmother.  You were a faithful example of a woman who loved God and served others.  Your strength and determination shone.

May they rest in peace and rise in glory

and may God give us the grace to follow the saints in faith and hope and love…





June 4th

4 06 2013

Today is June 4th, 24 years on from the June 4th that made today’s date a “thing”.

That’s mostly how it’s referred to here – not as Tiananmen Square, but as June 4th.

It often seems strange to me that I live in China.  On June 4th it seems especially strange.

It is easy to insulate yourself in the bubble of your everyday life.  I am busy.  My neighbours are friendly.  People are kind.  They try to understand my poorly constructed and pronounced Chinese.  The parks are beautiful.  I’ve got a soft spot for dragons.  It is easy to cycle here.  Chinese food is delicious (well some of it, and I’m mostly able to choose what I eat).  In many ways China is an easy place to live, full of opportunity, and even on the days that the internet restrictions drive me nuts or the air pollution chokes me, I feel the privilege of living here.

But June 4th.  It reminds me that I encounter only a very small slither of life in China. And that as a condition of being here, I agreed to refrain from criticising the Government (it is part of the ethical conduct clause, though the Congregation prefaced that clause with “while it may be neither inappropriate nor unethical, you must nevertheless refrain from…).   I don’t always know what I should say or do instead.

June 4th happened. Today we are remembering.  And praying for that day when justice and mercy kiss and suffering and death are no more and the lion lays down with the lamb.





Rape prevention

11 03 2013

Telling a woman to carry a concealed weapon is not rape prevention.

If you know me in person, you will know that I fulfil many of the stereotypes of a tree-hugging, feminist, vegetarian, pacifist Christian.  I do like legumes.  I don’t like guns.  But this is not primarily about my unease about weapons.  This is about a culture which accepts rape as inevitable and offers advice to women about what they drink and how they socialise and how they should defend themselves as some kind of a solution to the problem of sexual violence.

Sexual violence, assault and rape are never caused by the victim.  The responsibility for these crimes lies with their perpetrators.

Zerlina Maxwell, a rape survivor and social commentator, made an appearance on a current affairs show in the United States last week.  She said that she did not want to be told that she should have prevented her rape by carrying a gun.  In the follow-up to that she has been on the receiving end of racial epithets, threats of rape and violence.  It seems to epitomise rape culture: a culture which blames victims, objectifies and sexualises women, and trivialises rape.  You can read more about the aftermath here and about what Zerlina Maxwell said and believes here (trigger warning: both links contain descriptions of violent threats and reference the experience of being raped).

Rape is an act of violence.  The victim is not responsible.  If your sexual partner does not or can not consent, you are committing a crime.





Home leave

21 02 2013

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On Christmas Day Andrew and I left Beijing for home leave. We flew to Hong Kong, and on to Auckland.

On Chinese New Year’s Eve I flew home to Beijing.

New Zealand is home in the sense that it is where I speak the language and know how to do most day-to-day things. Loving friends let us make our home with them when we are in town. Family members open their homes to us. We are loaned vehicles to drive, bikes to ride. We are loaned a New Zealand life.

Beijing is home in the sense that it is where our day-to-day life is. There are many day-to-day things we still don’t really know how to do. We cobble together our rudimentary Mandarin and lean into the goodwill of those we interact with (and the goodwill of those we phone for on-the-spot telephone translation). Beijing is where I have more than one pair of shoes and more than three t-shirts.

Where is home? And is that even a question that makes sense? I wouldn’t want to give up having home leave.  I wouldn’t want to call this apartment anything less than home.

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Home

23 08 2012

Each week at the Congregation of the Good Shepherd one of the pastors writes a reflection and sends it to the congregation.  This week I wrote about home (and having written it in a mighty hurry, this is a slightly edited version!).  

When I left New Zealand someone very dear to me gave me an envelope full of blessings.  One of the things in the envelope was a purple star ornament.  She told me that you can always navigate your way home by the stars.

I didn’t hang up that pretty purple star in the first two years I lived in Beijing.  Last week, however, I pinned it to the corkboard above my desk. I have been thinking about home.

In the first two years in China, I went home three times.  Once, unexpectedly, for four months.  Home was New Zealand and more specifically the place where my friends made a room ready to receive me, where I had a spare coat in the cupboard and a spare pair of shoes.

When sickness stranded me in New Zealand (that unexpected four month stay), I began to long for home.  Home where all my coats and shoes were in the cupboard.  Home where a faith community considered me a member (and a pastor!).  Home where my daily life and work was.  Beijing.

It’s tricky, this idea of home.  It’s shaped by personal geographies of memory and emotion as well as by terrain and culture.

The Christian tradition contains plenty to complicate easy ideas of home.  It busts open the things we attach ourselves to, the identities we divide ourselves off by.  There is restlessness and homelessness and being built into a home for God.  We are pilgrims, travellers, citizens with the saints, dearly loved children…

The summer is a time of enormous transition in the congregation.  Some of you are new to Beijing and beginning to make a home here.  May you find enough to give you a sense of home here: enough steadiness, enough touchstones, enough flexibility and creativity to improvise, enough friendships.

Some of you have recently left Beijing and are making new homes in new places.  May you know peace in your transition.

Some of you are suspended in the land of betwixt and between.  You are here, but already knowing where you are going next; you are beginning to imagine this new life and prepare for it.  Some of you are there: but not yet the there that will be your next home.

And some of us are here, and here is the place that feels most like home, for now at least.

Wherever we are, and wherever home is, may you feel at home with yourself!  And may you remember that God is always welcoming us home: home to forgiveness, home to mercy, home to a place where we are completely known and extravagantly loved.