Start Close

The freshness of a new year brings with it the temptation to make everything else new, too. The world seems full of hope and promise again, even just for a few days or weeks.

We seek the new, shiny, somewhat unattainable goals.
We all know the cliches, we’ve all succeeded and failed on various levels.

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As I have deconstructed my faith over the last few years, I’ve tried on many labels: Progressive, Liberal, New Charismatic, Universalist, Contemplative, Agnostic Theist… Trying on these identities was a necessary part of my faith evolution. If I could just find the right group to identify with, I would have a clear point in the distance to head toward. I was forgetting about the terrain close in, the path right in front of me. There was still land to be traversed.

I came to realise that none of these labels defined who I was… they didn’t, and couldn’t encompass me, exactly. None of them fit just right.

Frustrated, and feeling spiritually homeless, I gave up trying to define my ever-shifting faith. I abandoned that point on the horizon and shifted my gaze inward. It was in that moment I realised I didn’t have to define anything – I felt anchored to something greater, deep within, and that was enough.

No outer costume was going to affect or change the internal workings of my Spirit. Just like we can begin in the blank slate of the New Year and say we are now Vegetarian, or that we are giving up smoking or drinking or social media…

Unless we take a step inside and follow through with the outer identity we are putting on, nothing happens.

But I want to suggest that those changes are more effective when they come from a True, Inner Place, the place where God sits, woven into us at the very core.

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Often the thing we know we should do or feel is the right way forward is the painful step, the one we gloss over in hopes of bypassing the hard work. It’s the long process; it’s the many small decisions rather than one big one.

Woman walking barefoot on rocks

That is how I feel it is with faith – we experience many tiny conversions. We take a step, and we find God there on the path with us. We start, and God whispers I’ve been waiting for this!

The labels don’t matter any more. Some days I’m still Pentecostal, other days I am seated comfortably with the Universalists. I don’t need a checklist of what makes ‘a Good Christian’; I am free to follow the path at my feet, and listen to that Deep, Quiet Voice residing within.

My encouragement for you is to trust the voice of God within, start there, start close. If labels and external identities are causing you grief or anxiety, let them go.

This poem by David Whyte titled Start Close In captures this sentiment for me. Here are the first two stanzas, you can read the rest here.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.

/

What is that first step for you?
What is close in, nearest to the truest you?
How can you take that step today?

Bree, breemorel.com

‘Start Close In’ excerpted from River Flow: New & Selected Poems, Many Rivers Press © David Whyte

Attention

Through which of these photographs might God have something to say to you?

Spend a few minutes contemplating one or more of them.

Ask God: what are you drawing my attention to in this picture? What are you drawing my attention to in my life?

You are most welcome to leave a comment in response.

All photographs are produced thanks to a Creative Commons license through Pixabay.com. The alt tags of each picture contain a description if you are unable to see the photographs themselves.

Small, slender mushrooms growing out of greenery.

Three children playing in a stream, throwing water at each other, joyously.

A grey door set in a wall that is entirely covered with tightly packed books, from floor to ceiling.

Farm of colourful flowers, all in stripes of different varieties. Hokkaido Japan.A man in a little booth surrounded by flying pigeons.

A rocky outcrop at sunset or sunrise, with the sea and boats in the distance.

Thalia Kehoe Rowden, Sacraparental.com

You blow where you wish to blow

James K Baxter was a long-haired Catholic prophet and poet with an extraordinarily interesting life.

Here is his Song to the Holy Spirit, with some questions and pondering-starters below.

Song to the Holy Spirit
James K Baxter

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,
Inside and outside the fences,
You blow where you wish to blow.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the sun who shines on the little plant,
You warm him gently, you give him life,
You raise him up to become a tree with many leaves.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are as the mother eagle with her young,
Holding them in peace under your feathers.
On the highest mountain you have built your nest,
Above the valley, above the storms of the world,
Where no hunter ever comes.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the bright cloud in whom we hide,
In whom we know already that the battle has been won.
You bring us to our Brother Jesus
To rest our heads upon his shoulder.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
You are the kind fire who does not cease to burn,
Consuming us with flames of love and peace,
Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.

Lord, Holy Spirit,
In the love of friends you are building a new house,
Heaven is with us when you are with us.
You are singing your song in the hearts of the poor.
Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to the Father.

So tell me (or yourself, or God):

  • What are your fences?
  • Which stanza resonates most with you?
  • In the last line, there are prayers for four things. Which one might you most need from God today?

Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

Here, too, is a snippet of his poetry that sits in the water in Wellington harbour:

Photograph by William Stadtwald Demchick, reproduced under a Creative Commons license, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thalia Kehoe Rowden, Sacraparental.com

Oh, for women!

I think there must be many women with their backs turned on God. Women that believe that the bible teaches that women are inferior: second rate citizens at best. I used to believe something similar myself. But then, in those days, I didn’t understand much at all about Christianity. The name itself is mired in negative connotations so thick it is a wonder (or, perhaps, a miracle?) that any of us manage to scrub away at it enough to see the truth beneath. But, once you see it? Well, it truly is like seeing clearly for the first time. “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 2 Cornithians 3:16


I am so grateful to the two women who impacted my life so profoundly with their faith-filled words back in 2014. The words that stirred my heart and opened my eyes. Their words, much like the women themselves, were bold and unrelenting, but also driven by compassion. Imagine if these two women, these two children of God, had felt they must hold their tongues; that they should leave this business to the men? Where would I (and others they have led to the Lord) be now? I don’t like to think.
Oh, for women everywhere to know they are so very loved. To know that someone knows all their triumphs, their defeats and their misdemeanours…and loves them regardless. To realise that this same person knows all the injustices they have faced, approved of none of them, and will be there as a source of courage, peace and joy in any future hardships if they only ask.

 

Jenni Craggs

Change

At the beginning of a new year people often think about change.

For some, they focus on what they want to change in their life – their health, their job, their financial situation, their relationships. For others, it’s a chance to reflect on what has changed over the past year, how they have progressed in life or how things are different than they used to be.

I have changed so much over the past few years since I became a mother. My faith and beliefs have changed from conservative to liberal, from fundamental to progressive. What I believe to be true is no longer certain, what I think is important is now much more simple.

George Bernard Shaw said:

“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”


I think we need to always be open to changing our minds. I spent the first three decades of my life attending churches that had very black and white views on certain issues. The Bible was seen as inerrant and it was supposedly clear cut what God thought about things.

Having a child made me start to question what I had been taught. How would I react if my child was gay? What if they rejected Christianity? What if they converted to another religion when they got older?

Growing up in the Christian church, you are taught to “Love one another”, but so often that love is really just tolerance. There is such an us and them culture, where the focus is on changing others. This has never sat right with my heart and now I have changed my mind on many things.

In striving to follow Jesus we need to truly show acceptance of others, without expecting them to change. Your neighbour who is a Muslim, your relative who is LGBT+, your friend who just had an abortion, your co worker who is an outspoken Atheist – they are loved by God just as they are.

Don’t try to change others in an attempt to “win souls”, instead let God change your heart to one that really loves unconditionally.

~ Emily Newman

Blood Kin (Part 2)

[See Part 1 here.]

Christ entered the world marked by a woman’s blood (as depicted in this amazing portrait by artist Sara Star).  What a thing to try and wrap my head around, especially as a woman who has also bled and birthed.

Blood, and in particular women’s blood (menstrual or otherwise), can mean many things cross-culturally (Meyer 2001). Sometimes it is viewed as profane/polluting. Other times it is seen as sacred. Many times both, at once… either way, it holds huge symbolic power. What does it mean, then, that Mary’s blood ran through Jesus’ veins?

The sharing of blood (and other fluids) are used both literally and metaphorically to convey intimacy or relatedness. Hence in most cultures, blood factors into understandings of kinship in a fairly big way.

Today many English-speakers still use the saying ‘Blood is thicker than water’. Our families may be messy, dispersed, dysfunctional, but there remains a ring of truth in that. So to think of our God as literally related to us by blood is more than amazing…

It takes a lot of what we talk about in the Church beyond the level of metaphor; to be part of God’s family, to claim something ‘by his blood’. It tells us that he wanted our bond with him to be more than conceptual, seasonal, affectual. He was/is more than committed.

Orthodox depiction of the ritual sacrament of blood (communion/eucharist) that represents Christ’s suffering and death… but also his life and power. 

While anthropologists are conditioned with a horror of claiming anything as ‘universal’, I have to admit that blood symbolism seems pretty close to it. It has a raw physical basis which packages up so many ideas in one.

To say there is a lot of blood symbolism in Christianity would also be a giant understatement (and a far too big topic for this post). What that says to me is that God chose one of the most universal, intimate, relatable (and costly) symbols with which to seal his promise, and to mark our bond.

Mary’s blood, shed in childbirth, marked God’s arrival ‘in the flesh’, to the lineage of Adam. Christ’s blood, shed in death, marked the final overcoming of the barriers between us and eternity with our beloved.

With this in mind, the Christian understanding of blood becomes one of binding strength – representing family in its perfect form. Blood here, as in childbirth, is life-giving, is love itself, is transformative, is regenerative and saving… is thicker than water and stronger than death.

Thank you God for grounding these mysteries in the reality of our own biology; may we gain insight into what it means to claim kinship with the Most High.

  • Susan Wardell (Dunedin)

Blood Kin (Part 1)

For the past week of my life, every other task and aspiration has been suspended for the sole purpose of spending time with relatives. Anyone who knows my workaholic tendencies will recognise this in itself as a powerful testimony to the power of blood.

Indeed despite the flurry of trite facebook shares declaring friends as ‘the family we chose’, it’s hard to deny (especially at this time of year) that there remains some particularly intense expectations and obligations among those who are kin.

When ‘normal’ life resumes in a week, I will go back to work as a Social Anthropologist; a discipline that has traditionally been more than a little bit obsessed with charting kinship patterns.

Ok, so most of us don’t actually spend our time drawing diagrams like this. However working out who is related to whom, and how, does remain an important and intriguing part of understanding any people group.

It’s not just us; the Bible is also fairly obsessed with kinship. There are literally pages of ‘begets.’ The whole structure of the Old Testament, in fact, follows one particular lineage, through all it’s twists and turns. It is Jesus’ lineage (though of course, reading chronologically, you have to make it through the ‘begets’ to find that out!).

So, here’s the thing.

We are related to God (sovereign, creator of the universe, author of love: that one)…. by blood. ‘Family’ isn’t just a nice metaphor that God chose to explain the warm fuzzies he feels towards us. He made it real, in the birth of Jesus.

We refer to this as the ‘incarnation’. Incarnation means ‘taking on flesh’. But whose flesh? The muscle and sinew encircling him, the amniotic fluids suspending him, the milk nourishing him, were Mary’s. Mary, the human woman, whose body was deemed worthy enough, strong enough, for this miracle of bringing God into the physical world.

How often does the church separate the sphere of the domestic, practical, corporeal, from the realm of the spiritual? Yet here, a most mind-bendingly holy occurrence happens through the act of childbearing.

Contemplating this for me has been a much-needed reminder that many things (like bodies, relationships, kids) that seem like distractions from God’s big, super-spiritual plans, are in fact right at the centre of them. God has been intimately involved in these all along, pulling together the threads of our family tree from the very beginning, and tracing the line through some awesomely badass women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Mary).

God writes history in flesh and blood. In our flesh and blood, even.

This Christmas I was inspired and challenged by a quote, from a 13th century German mystic, that was featured on this blog;

“We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born.”

– Meister Eckart

God made himself our kin in an amazingly literal way, through a woman’s flesh and blood… and he continues to find women worthy and strong carriers of The Word today.

….  to be continued…

  • Susan Wardell (Dunedin)

New Year

I don’t need to check out the magazine rack at my local bookshop to know that this month will have a myriad of magazines proclaiming articles about “New Year, New You”  or “How to Make and Keep Your New Years Resolutions”.  Even the more cerebral magazines will have a slightly deeper discussion about the worth or type of resolutions best set written by their psychologist and how it’s a good time to start a new habit or eliminate an old one accompanied by strategic advertising for quit smoking, weight loss and gym memberships.

Even thinking about these things can make me feel a bit uneasy.  What if I don’t even want to do this?  What if I do set some resolutions and fail miserably?

I don’t think this is the way of peace on our lives. 

However there is something about the New Year that does lend itself to increased introspection and personal reflection.  I find myself drawn to my writings and journals, to the scraps of paper and random thoughts that I scrawled down, even to my FB posts or emails to friends.  In a time of renewal, some time of reflection is sometimes necessary, so we can see where we have come and then offer up what we have to God, who will set forth the path we are to follow.

We are emerging from Advent and Christmas, where our church New Year began over a month ago.  We have waited in anticipation, focusing on the truth of Peace, Joy, Hope and Love of the Christ Child and revisiting the stories of Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Shepherds, Star Gazers and Angels.  We have looked upon the infant Jesus, knowing that he shares our humanity with us.  We have celebrated in the birth of a Saviour surrounded by miracles and ordinary people.  A new Way, set apart from what has gone before.

In that time, for me, I found an invitation from God.  A God who was waiting for me to stop.  A God who encourages me to just “be”.    Being is incredibly hard.  Just ‘being’ is equated with doing nothing in a world that often only values ‘productivity’.  Being in ourselves, accepting ourselves for who we are and what we look like is almost unheard of yet is it what God is wanting us to be because God meets us where we are.

It is this grace, the receiving of love from God for just being us, which frees us from the worldly pressure of being something or someone else.  It removes the pressure to push, strive, struggle and set more and more goals.  By just being with God, by increasing our intimacy with God, we will find a way to be who we are meant to be in a way that is less pressure and less stress.  A much lighter yoke to carry than the one we might be struggling with.

May 2017 be the year that we let go of the pressures of this world and open our hearts and minds to God’s grace and love.

Angela Blundell