Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Taking Up the Cross Mark 8:31
You could easily go nuts
just trying to keep up with Jesus as pictured in Mark’s Gospel: one minute he’s
getting baptised, then he’s in the desert, then he’s preaching, then he’s
collecting his mates together, then … you get the picture.
This Sunday’s Gospel is a
case in point. In the space of a couple of sentences, Peter makes his Grand
Speech (‘You are the Messiah’) and, before you can say ‘cheesemakers’, Jesus is
in Pete’s ear about his own impending and terrifying future.
I think if Mark were my
boss, I’d be looking for someone less hyperactive to work for. My Beloved would
concur. I’m built more for comfort than for speed.
Is it any wonder that
Pete is confused? A moment before, Peter was sure of what he knew. A moment
before, Peter got it right. Now, he’s being compared to Satan. Now he’s
confused. Is it any wonder?
It is never a small thing
for anyone, let alone Peter, to acknowledge Jesus as the Anointed One but the
sweetness of that moment quickly passed as the gathering storm clouds of Jesus’
passion begin to loom large. Any thought of an easy ride to the end is
summarily dismissed as the words suffer, rejected, killed begin to toll
their price.
We still find it
extraordinarily difficult to believe that the Jesus of Easter Day is the same
bloke who experienced Good Friday. There’s something innate in us that resists
the idea that the cross is actually the defining sign of what it means to be a
We prefer to inflate our
own possibilities for goodness rather than to confront sin. Evil gets explained
away as a temporary madness or a glitch in the system and all one needs to do
is to readjust the fine tuning in our lives.
After all, the
Departments of Communities, Human Services and Health (or other) will make our
communities nice places to live. Well, maybe not Health.
William Willimon, who has
given me inspiration for the topic this week, reckons that we are more content
to be decent rather than courageous or obedient. He says: “Don’t worry about
what is good; it’s enough simply to do what works.” Almost always, expediency
If you’re anything like
me, the denying-ourselves, picking-up-the-cross and following-Jesus thing
brings many loud protests. This isn’t a path any sane person wants to walk;
this isn’t a burden anyone willingly wants to carry. Despite what you might see
when you look, my shoulders are just too weak to carry such a load.
I would much rather the
confrontation with evil to be less harsh than Mark tells it. I would prefer my
timidity and my good nature than the stiff rebuke Peter received. Being rebuked
is something I try to avoid but, hey, aren’t we trying to stop good people
getting hurt here, for goodness’ sake?
Immediately, I recalled
an incident that happened when I was a Hospital Chaplain.
“Is there something you
can do?” she asked, looking at the enormous red birthmark on her new baby’s
back and forehead.
“Apart from what you see
and the possibility that it’s invaded other organs,” said the doctor “your baby
is strong. In time, the marks may disappear, we don’t know. My advice is that
we take him off the respirator and see what happens.”
“That’s not an option,
doctor.” The teary-eyed father was animated.
“Well, think about it, at
least. You’re only young and you’ve got time on your side. Is it going to be
fair to you? Is it right to have to deal with what might be a lot of pain for
your family? None of knows what’s ahead.”
“Look,” said dad through
his red eyes, “We’re Christians and, for us, if it’s going to mean suffering
for us, that’s the way it’s going to be. Jesus did it first.”
A few weeks later, dad
and mum left the hospital carrying an overnight bag and a small bundle wrapped
in swaddling clothes to ward off the rain. There were tears in our eyes as we
walked them to their car, carrying what seemed to us to be an impossibly heavy
A resolution to soften my
words so that things will be better for people in the future began to form in
my head. I have since discarded it.
For dad and mum, however,
the burden wasn’t heavy at all. It was as if they were looking forward to the
privilege. It was almost as if they were being carried to a higher place, a
place to which I would never go, to a way of life I barely understood.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Reflections from The
Hill – Going up, coming down (Mark 9.2-9)

Okay, so you know as well as I do how confusing Transfiguration
Sunday is. Growing up in the dim past, Transfiguration was on August 6th,
now it’s the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. What’s the go?

If your answer is a good one, perhaps we can apply the same
principle to Christmas and do away with “Christmas-in-July” parties, but I

Transfiguration is a word we hardly use. You’ll never hear it in
the staff tea-room, at the markets or down on the wharves, not the Townsville
ones, at any rate.

How do we deal with this change of date? If you’re like me, you’ll
work with it and make the Feast something worthy of its name, no matter when
it’s celebrated.

Here's a suggestion of how we might do that: regard, look at – and
pay attention to – the movement of the characters in the story. Jesus took his
disciples up the mountain and, after all the drama there, like the Grand
Old Duke of York, he led them down again.

Think of it: Jesus could have stayed there. Indeed, in a mighty
act of human fervour (I chose my words carefully) the disciples wanted to build
him a shrine so he could. Then they could return whenever they wanted to and be
attended by these three giants of faith, Moses, Elijah and Jesus.

It is such a religious thing to do, to go back to the place where
one’s faith first blossomed. It’s often an unspoken reason why people return to
get married in their school chapel, or their old parish church (or Cathedral),
even using their old vicar, if he’s still alive.

Perhaps Jesus should have stayed there – he certainly could have –
but he chose to come down. He came down into the everyday; he came down to the
world of misunderstandings; he came down to those squabbling, disbelieving
disciples; he came down to the dirt and pain that is our life.

Here is the heart of what we are on about as Christians: almost
everything you’ve heard and known about the faith is secondary to this: Jesus
came down. He left his rightful place with the Father and, out of love,
embraced, touched, us.
We make two fundamental errors as we grapple with Jesus coming down. The first,
as already noted, is to keep him up there by building a little booth so that we
can return any time we like.

The second is to fill our head with the belief that, somehow, we
can be like Jesus. Because it’s impossible to be perfect this side of the
grave, we feel that our worst parts are so bad that they actually keep us from
the goal and, by extension therefore, keep us further away from him. How
self-centred we so easily become.

Transfiguration isn't a story about us at all; Transfiguration is
a story about Jesus coming down all the way into our dirt, our brokenness, our
fear, our disappointment. The old Transfiguration hymn says it well:

'Tis good, Lord, to be here.
Yet we may not remain;
But since Thou bidst us leave the mount,
Come with us to the plain.

We don't have to hide the hard bits from the God we know in Jesus. The Big
Fella came to us in and through Jesus to be with us and to be for us through
thick and thin.

For no other reason was Jesus born, lived,
died and was raised again, except that we might know that God is unrelentingly
for us, which is all very nice but means absolute zip if it doesn’t work out in
my life.
How will I know that all this ‘trusting Jesus’ stuff is working?
When I can trust others – my work colleagues, my family members, my relations,
that’s how. That’s the litmus test, that’s where I see the spiritual being

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Touch (Mark 1.40 – 45)

My oldies taught me that if something was too good to be true, it probably was. I became a sceptic overnight.

Then I started doing Church things because the best-looking girls went to the youth group and pretty soon I was in really deep, like getting ordained. I became a believer.

Then someone told me to read Mark’s Gospel and my world changed again: everything was ‘immediate’ or ‘now’ or ‘straight away’. I became insatiable.

It all sounds so simple: a sick guy says “If you want to, you can heal me”. Jesus says “’Course I want to. Be healed” and the once-sick guy walks away healed. It sounds too good to be true.

I’ve tried saying “Be healed” a few times in the privacy of my own home, on colds and man-flu and stuff like that. Never with leprosy. That’s high-level stuff, like cancer, but it wouldn’t matter if I had because, in the back of my head, a little voice keeps saying “If it’s too good to be true …”

Then I got crook myself, really crook. If you’d seen me, I wouldn’t have looked any different on the outside but I knew … I knew … I just knew, deep down, that the cancer cells were rushing through my veins and they were eating me away, gnawing at my vitals.

When someone gets cancer, one of the first things that happen is that people don’t come near them. By staying away, they will limit the chance of them catching whatever their friend has. Of course, they know it’s nonsense to think like that but they do it anyway, just in case.

So, it was a lonely experience lying in that post-surgical hospital bed, being visited by scores of people to the point that the staff had to physically keep them away but it wasn’t the numbers that was the problem.

Apart from the tender kisses of My Beloved and the regulatory jabs and constant poking by the staff, no one actually touched me. Talk about being a leper.

That’s why I get excited when I read that Jesus touched this bloke. Touched him. It would have to be one of the most profound yet so simple events ever recorded in Scripture. It’s up there with the greatest of them: the Resurrection, the Transfiguration, I reckon.

“Jesus touched him” stands alongside that extraordinary comment in the first chapter of John’s Gospel: “… and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” What is that, if it is not at least this: “Jesus touched him”?

Put up the finest words in Scripture and none of them can compare to “Jesus touched him”. There’s something about the touch of one person on another, skin on skin, that transcends worlds and ushers us into another realm altogether.

In that hospital, one day, someone did touch me. He’d heard that I was there but he could only stop a short while. He touched me. I might well have been touched by God. Don’t ask me about anything else.

I must admit, though, Trevor’s simple action that day raises many more questions that it answers, like ‘Why doesn’t God change things so that suffering is ended, violence is halted, war is outlawed, and justice is made to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea?’ I can’t answer these things easily.

What I do know is that, “Jesus touched him” is the hand of God placed on a world that He’s not about to give up and happens to be among the greatest motivators for service we’ll ever find.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Action Man (Mark 1: 29-39)

Jokes about mothers-in-law abound, most of them crude, rude or just plain crass. In any case, none of them seem to be an encouragement to the holders of that weighty office, unlike this week’s Gospel.

It’s a bit more than just interesting that Jesus encountered Peter’s mother-in-law and healed her fever right after he’d cast out the demon from the man in the synagogue. Jesus’ ministry is a fair bit about doing stuff.

This first chapter of Mark jumps with action; it’s strung together with four uses of ‘immediately’, a ‘just then’, a ‘now’ and an ‘as soon as’, just to heighten the effect.

Baptisms, heavenly voices, a heavenly dove, the calling – and successful following – of disciples, an exorcism in the synagogue, plus a couple of healings, including the one we’re reading this Sunday, are all part of a very busy picture.

The Man at the centre is not just a wonder-worker but an action man and, as busy people the world over know full well, taking time out of the schedule to regroup is an important thing to do we are to maintain any semblance of health. It’s also the most difficult thing in the whole world to pull off.

It’s not surprising then to read about The Man getting away from it all by heading for the bush. He leaves Peter’s house long before dawn to find a place of solitude where He can be still and know … to be with God.

Given the busyness and knowing the sometimes overwhelming needs of people, The Man also realises the absolute necessity of getting away.

Would that you and I could learn that lesson. We can stuff our daily twenty-four hours so full of meeting everyone else’s needs that we lose connection with the One Who Made us and, worse, we can fool ourselves into believing that we are doing good. What wretches we are.

Being a whole person – giving time and resources generously to others and giving time and space generously to God – is a goal for each of us, a goal that’s within our reach. It’s possible.

In these few short verses we are given a real lesson in what living a balanced life looks like; it will inspire us and will give us a picture of what can happen in the silence.

It was while The Man was away from all those who tugged at his garments with their needs that He understood that His life’s work wasn’t just going to be among his kith and kin and that this knowledge might create a few issues for the rellies.

In the heightened response of the locals to what was going on, there is a clear call to go to other places; that The Man was being directed to take his caravan and move on to a wider, and potentially less-accepting, audience. It could have been one of those rock-and-hard-place decisions.

It wasn’t. Here Jesus discerns that His mission is not to be confined to one place but was to be based in the synagogues and among the people of Galilee. That’s a big call. It’s a good lesson in leadership, too.

As the ensuing chapters in Mark show, it’s important to stay with the mission; that’s commitment. It’s also important to not get distracted by worthy, but not mission-related, needs. The cost is that some will be disappointed and turn away but, then, it’s what happened to The Man, eh?

Is it possible to avoid the trap of getting off on stuff that isn’t core-business? Some might say ‘No’, that we do this all the time.

However, and for my money, we wouldn’t be here today if The Man had stayed home like a loyal local son and only healed the good people who needed him there. After all, isn’t going out what’s meant by being an action man?