all desires known
If I were choosing the books which have most shaped and inspired my life, then very high on that list would be Janet Morley’s All Desires Known. Originally published in England in 1988 by the Movement for the Ordination of Women, and Women in Theology, it remains not only as an evocative expression of the Christian feminism which shaped so much of my early adult and ministerial life, which I also shared in with my wife Penny, and which, in many ways (together with other aspects of faith, and football) saved my life. Like Janet Morley’s earlier book Celebrating Women, co-edited with Hannah Ward, it also represents a landmark in the development of new life-giving language and imagery for God. For All Desires Known is a book of prayers for public and private worship, and it was formed out of the experience of an intentional community, the St Hilda Community, which specifically sought ‘to receive the broader vision of our Christian heritage and women’s spiritual offerings in language which excludes no person and no image of God’: a ‘non-sexist’ community, giving ‘full space and authority to women, without apology, secrecy, or shame.’ It is good to recall this today, in the wake of International Women’s Day this week, and as we hear the subversive, and in some ways shocking, Gospel story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. For exploring life-giving language and imagery for God and prayer remains an invitation to us all. Like the woman at the well, we too seek living water, and the source which can quench our thirst: our profound, existential desire for life in all its fullness.
Today’s Gospel story is one which resonates powerfully with me. For I had lower back problems for many years, and I still vividly remember my back going into total spasm as I once tried to change trains at Strathfield station. I was bent double and simply could not move, despite the help of others. It was a key moment in which I began to realise that my life, and especially my relationship to my body, had to change. I had to start listening to my body, in which so many emotions, not least denied gender and sexual emotions, were trapped. Not simply physically, but in other ways, I had to learn to bend and unbend, more fully to know and flow into my life and spirit. Now, of course, not all our ailments and physical challenges have obvious spiritual connections. However many, in my experience, do, and this is certainly part of what the Gospel writer is trying to say to us in our story today. For whilst we may speculate on the likely form of physical arthritis with which the woman may have been afflicted, Luke is calling us to recognise our spiritual arthritis and its potential for transformation in God. At this time, in the life of this community, and the wider Church and world, it is perhaps well worth reflecting upon. Indeed, as we continue to ponder our own mission calling together, it is good to ask what bending and unbending might represent for us, not least in our prayer and worship life. For whilst it might be tempting to consider today’s Gospel story in relation to many whose physical bodies and lives need unbending, I believe that the great mystic Evelyn Underhill had it right when she said:
We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do… forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by, and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be.
Prayer and worship, she, and I, would propose, are about helping us with that fundamental verb: bending and unbending our lives and bodies, our whole selves, be-ing, in relationship to the Spirit of all…
In recent years some of my Aboriginal friends have said to me that they do not really believe in the Australian concept of Reconciliation and some of the activities, like Reconciliation Action Plans, which have accompanied it. Meanwhile some Church leaders have said to me that they do not see much point in engaging actively in ecumenical endeavours. So why, we might ask, are we marking the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this morning? Actually I did wonder about changing the title on the front of our liturgy sheet today to ‘Prayer for Just Relationships and Communion in Christian Diversity’. That, for me, would be at least part acknowledgment of the difficulties of the words Reconciliation and Christian Unity and the need for re-imagining as well as building on the good work of the past. However I have left Reconciliation and Christian Unity in the title for the present, so we honour where we have traveled. Nonetheless, as we hear our two readings this morning (from Revelation chapter 22 and John chapter 17), we do well to reflect more deeply on the words and constructions we may use in order that we share in more fruitful pathways for our work together with others. For that purpose I also offer you the cartoon meme entitled the #4thBox, as an encouragement to deeper prayer, more imaginative reflection and more creative action…
On this day we gather to remember the suffering of Christ, and those who. like Christ, have suffered: often needlessly, seemingly pointlessly. We will reflect upon seven circles of suffering: in our own person, in our family, in our close relationships, in our wider community, in our nation, in our world and in our earth. We light the Christ candle and seven candles
to bring to mind those seven areas where pain is often experienced. As we reflect more deeply on each one its candle will be extinguished but the Christ candle will continue.
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” How fascinating! – the writer’s conviction that the second coming is at hand does not result in a plea for evangelism, or even for love, but rather for gentleness. So, what is to be gentle? The dictionary suggests, kindly, amiable, tender; or with more of a class nuance ‘of good family’ ‘noble’ – from the Old French from which we derive genteel. It is also a verb – ‘to gentle’ means to make less severe or intense, or perhaps to soothe by stroking; to treat with kindness and not cruelty. Gentleness is listed as the eighth of the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5;22. As such it translates the Greek word prautes, which is sometimes rendered ‘meekness’, which has unfortunate connotations in modern English of servility. The Full Life Study Bible defines the word helpfully as ‘restraint coupled with strength and courage’...
our need for 'unusual kindness'
What spirit do we need to renew our lives, nation, and world at this time, and what might our prayers for Christian Unity have to share in this?
keep turning up
So, it’s straightforward is it? Ask, seek, knock – and you will get some kind of response – not necessarily the response you were hoping for; but at least a response. And if we ask for the gift of the spirit, Jesus is saying God will always give us that gift. It sounds like a transaction – right words in, right results out, a bit like a vending machine! Yet prayer, and Jesus’s teaching about prayer, is not as straightforward as it might appear, or perhaps as we might hope. On the one hand in this passage Jesus sounds very reassuring – God will treat us better than we treat our own children; we can be assured of God’s care for us and God’s responsiveness to our needs. Keep it simple – ask for what you want and you will receive it, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. But on the other hand, it really is not quite like that, is it? We all know of others if not ourselves, who have prayed for help, for healing, for relief from suffering in all kinds of terrible circumstances, and it seems as though their prayer has fallen on deaf ears. So, what then? – was their prayer not ‘good enough’; their faith not ‘strong enough’; their moral calibre not high enough? Surely this is not how it works? Yet I have known folk despair of God’s love for them and reject themselves as unworthy and unfit, simply because God has not appeared to answer their legitimate, heartfelt prayers. This is not the kind of God I want to know or associate with – and it is not good enough to say; ‘it’s all a mystery and one day we will understand!”...
Cascading love in Ephesians
I thought we would take a look at the epistle today and perhaps over the next few weeks continue to make our way through Ephesians. This passage is particularly beautiful and I think gives us an insight into the spirituality of the community following on from Paul and of their care for the churches that were being founded, in this case at Ephesus. As Elizabeth pointed out a couple of weeks ago, there are various stylistic and theological matters in Ephesians that cause scholars to doubt whether this is the work of Paul himself, but that really doesn’t matter. What this brings us is an insight into the understanding that the author had of God in Christ, at a still very early stage of the church’s development...
3 more 'p's for prayer
Two days ago, Bishop Jonathan broke open the beginning of this great teaching section of Luke’s gospel on prayer, by reminding us of the centrality of Jesus’s statement ‘only a few things are necessary’. Yesterday, Jo brought us a succinct summary of Luke’s raw rendering of the Lord’s Prayer under five headings all beginning with P, praise and proclamation, leading to providence, penitence and protection. To those five Ps today I want to add three more, Perseverance, Poverty and Purification. I hope these three will shed a little more light on the great P that unites them, Prayer...
One of the strangest requests I received when I was General Secretary of the NSW Ecumenical Council was from the NSW Greens. They were trying to remove the saying of the Lord's Prayer from the opening of NSW Parliament and wanted support on the grounds that the 'Protestant' form used, with the doxology at the end, was excluding of Catholics, as well as of other faith groups. I did not have to contact the then Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell, or Jewish, Muslim, or other leaders to know how ridiculous they would have found the argument. For what mattered to all of them was not so much the exact words as the setting of public life in the context of the sacred and transcendent. I was reminded of this at this time of year in more recent times in being involved in planning the annual civic Remembrance Service at St Luke's Toowoomba. Some of the older and more conservative figures would insist on the inclusion of what they called the 'traditional' English-speaking version of the Lord's Prayer whilst others would support the 'modern' form which has been used for many years in Australian churches. Do the words really matter however or is the real substance of the prayer the key?...
sermons and reflections from Penny Jones & Josephine Inkpin, a married Anglican clergy couple serving with the Uniting Church in Sydney