Autumn: A Time to See More Clearly

“There is something incredibly nostalgic and significant about the annual cascade of autumn leaves.”
– Joe L. Wheeler –

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I was on retreat at the beautiful and cold Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, this past week. It is autumn in our ‘down under’ part of the world. Each season speaks to us, holding its own treasures and reflections – but I love Autumn the most. I can almost feel the Autumn Equinox arrive each year. There is a shift in the atmosphere as summer gives her last hurrah and is ushered off the stage. Dressed in Jacob’s coat of many colours, Autumn takes centre stage, bringing with her breathless beauty a sense of melancholy and the paradox of life and death.

Autumn is a most inviting, contemplative companion. Unlike any other season, it calls us to nature and to listen to her wisdom. Over the years, I have found that I am drawn to thoroughly clean my house in Spring, but my soul cleaning happens in Autumn. Personally, many things have fallen away for me over the last several years. It has been a time of surrender. As the Autumn leaves have fallen, my perspective has changed. It is amazing how we can begin to really see in times of letting go.

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I would like to encourage all my readers to take time out for some ‘soul cleaning’, regardless of whether you are in Autumn or Spring (hello, to my friends in the Northern Hemisphere). There are many great writers, poets and artists who we can choose as ‘alongsiders’ as we sort through the cupboards of our lives.

Here is a piece from Joyce Rupp’s and Macrina Wiederkehr’s “The Circle of Life“. May it bring you joy, hope and wisdom.

“In this lovely season when the dance of surrender is obvious,
We find large spaces left where something beautiful once lived.
As one by one the leaves let go,
A precious emptiness appears in the trees.
The naked beauty of the branches can be seen,
The bird’s abandoned nests become visible.
These new spaces of emptiness reveal mountain ridges.
At night if you stand beneath a tree and gaze upward,
Stars now peer through the branches.

This is an important Autumn lesson – when certain things fall away,
Here are other things that can be seen more clearly.

This same truth is celebrated in our personal lives.
When we are able to let go of a relationship that is not healthy,
The heart is given more room to grow.
We are able to receive new people into our lives whose gifts we never noticed.

Perhaps it is not a person we have lost but our dreams of good health that would last forever.
Our health fails, our dream dies.

Another significant area of surrender comes with possessions.
Our possessions can become like little gods that eventually get in our way.

There are those who struggle to discover the blessing and wisdom of ageing process.
The surrender of youth can be the most difficult of all.

Autumn invites us to let go, to yield … yes, to die.

We are encouraged to let things move in our lives.
Let them flow on into some new life form just as the earth is modelling these changes to us.”

“He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn,
about the wild lands, and the strange visions and mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien –

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Questions in the Desert – Part Three

Faith is a dynamic and ever-changing process, not some fixed body of truth that exists outside our world and our understanding. God’s truth may be fixed and unchanging, but our comprehension of that truth will always be partial and flawed at best. – Bishop Gene Robinson –

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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is the third and final instalment of Questions in the Desert, a continuation of Part One and Part Two …

3. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Was it mere coincidence that the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah 53?

Isaiah is a book written by a Jewish prophet and part of the Tanakh, the Jewish Scriptures. This, in and of itself, is mildly fascinating, in that the Eunuch continued to search the Scriptures, looking for meaning, despite having been rejected at the Temple.

There is something more interesting, however. The passage he is reflecting on is the last of the four “Songs of the Suffering Servant” and it tells the story of a “Man of Sorrows”. People throughout the history of the church have understood this passage as prophesying the coming of Jesus: the One who was to be the “Suffering Servant”.

Importantly, this passage, immediately before the part read by the Eunuch, describes this coming Servant – who we now understand as Jesus – as physically marred and then rejected by the Jewish people.

Much like the Eunuch.

So as the Eunuch speaks to Philip, you can imagine the urgency in his voice: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” … Who is this man who, like me, is physically marred and rejected? Is it the writer? Is it someone else? Is this about me?

Here the yearning heart of an outcast is being reflected in the prophet Isaiah – who shows him that the Saviour of the world, was an outcast like him. Rejected by his own people, rejected by the fine religious institution of his day, he too was wounded and mutilated.

I wonder what Philip said to him. Maybe it was something like this: “What you are reading is about a man named Jesus, who, like you, pursued God. In his pursuit, he, too, went to the Temple, and he, too, was rejected. But this was no ordinary man. This was God made flesh. This God of the universe knows your story, the story of being outcast, of being refused from the place of worship, and God came into the world to show that the God of the universe is not defeated by rejection, even rejection unto death.”

Philip helped the Eunuch understand that the Scripture he was reading demonstrated how God was already at work in his life. Like a “Join the Dots” game, Philip simply brought God, who had always been with the Eunuch, just like God is with each and every person, to the forefront of the Eunuch’s conscious recognition.

Many of us remember that moment in life when we “awaken”,  our “dots are joined”, and we realise that God has always been at work in us. We have simply been unaware!

4. “Here is water. Why can’t I be baptised?”

I wish we were privy to the whole conversation between Philip and the Eunuch. Suffice to say, that the conversation and interchange of questions and answers brought them both to an “aha!” moment. That moment when the lights went on.

Imagine this moment for the Eunuch, a man who has only known rejection. He wore a stigma and knew ridicule from every social sphere: in his culture, in the religion he was trying to pursue, in his role, in his political positioning – everything about him reminded him every day that he did not belong.

And then Philip shares the Gospel. The Gospel that declared him as accepted, loved and included. This man would have no comprehension of what that would be like: to be equal amongst people of faith. This was not the rhetoric of some narcissistic platform personality begging for money, or an angry street “preacher” with a megaphone. This was what the Gospel should always be – wonderful and exceedingly exhilarating Good News. No wonder he saw a puddle in the desert and said, “Water! Why can’t I be baptised?”

And then there’s Philip! Perhaps at some point, he took a big gulp, laid aside his exclusive religious ideals and took a leap of faith! Faith that the Gospel is greater than his paradigms, ignorance and cultural stigmas. We forget that for Philip this is a whole new journey that has taken him totally out of his comfort zone. He realises as he goes to the water with the Eunuch that this will not be a popular move amongst his Jewish friends, and even amongst the Messianic Jews who are still getting their head around the fact that God is bigger than the boundaries of their religion.

The Samaritans were a huge step for Philip. This will take him to a place of no return – he either believes the Gospel is as glorious and scandalous as he has preached, or he returns to the confines of a law-based tradition and acceptance.

And again Philip astounds us with his courage – he takes the step and goes to the place of no return. He baptises the Eunuch. In Philip, God has found a faithful messenger.

And here end the questions in the desert – and for once in the Bible, it has a similar end to fairy tales.

When they came up out of the water, Philip disappears, and that was the last the Eunuch saw of him. But he didn’t mind. He had what he’d come for and went on down the road as “happy as he could be” (Message Bible).

I love that – as happy as he could be. A man who never really understood love was now amongst the beloved. A man who had only known exclusion was now included. A man forever on the outer was now in the inner circle. He was equal, he was accepted – no matter what his future held, he was in Christ, and for him, that was all that mattered.

I wonder how people leave our conversations? Do we leave others as “happy as they could be”?  When we walk away are they a little closer to recognising God at work in their lives? A God who loves them immeasurably.

“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” – Brennan Manning –

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Questions in the Desert – Part Two

“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” 
– Jean Vanier-
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Dear reader, please be aware that this blog post is a continuation from Part One.

… The story of Philip and the Eunuch encourages us to pay attention to God’s Spirit in our lives. It also serves as an important reminder that every human being is loved by God and made in God’s image.

Philip demonstrates great courage as he begins to run next to a presumably heavily armed chariot (remember, the Eunuch was a treasurer) to listen to his questions and engage in his life’s story.

Question 1 (Philip): “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Philip, who has now become an ‘alongsider’ to the Eunuch, is listening to him read from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Prophetic narrative is a most difficult genre for even a seasoned scholar. The Eunuch is reading aloud, a normal practice for people of antiquity. Philip shows concern that perhaps the eunuch does not fully comprehend exactly what Isaiah is saying. He is right.

Question 2 (Eunuch): “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?”

The Eunuch invites Philip to sit with him in his chariot. He invites him to be a spiritual mentor. Like the Eunuch, our faith, cannot be completely understood unless we live it out within community.

It is interesting to take a moment at this point and consider a couple of things:

One, that the whole encounter in the desert was not ‘orchestrated’ or ‘planned’ by human effort. It was one of those Divine providential moments of life.

Two, Philip responded to the moment with courage and humility. Unlike so much of what we see outworking itself in the rhetoric of modern day Christianity, yelling at people from the many social media platforms with a politicised, arrogant, Messiah-complex tone, Philip comes alongside with love and attentiveness.

What sort of transformation must have occurred in Philip’s life! From a young age he would have been raised as an observant Jew and people like the Eunuch were outside his paradigm. They were the outcasts. This encounter was not just a ‘conversion experience’ for the Eunuch, but for Philip as well. Conversion is not something that happens just once in our lives!

And so Philip begins to explain the Scripture from which the Eunuch is reading:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” Isaiah 53

I doubt very much that his reading of Isaiah 53 was mere ‘coincidence’ …

Part Three and the final questions will all be in the next blog post.

“The gospel is not just the illustration (even the best illustration) of an idea. It is the story of actions by which the human situation is irreversibly changed.” Lesslie Newbigin,The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
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Questions in the Desert – Part One

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Nature’s seasons are a constant reminder that nothing we do or experience in life is permanent. I was part of a mega-church community in Melbourne, Australia, for over thirty years. I never thought that season would come to an end. But it did.

One of the last sermons I gave at this church was on Philip’s encounter with a eunuch in a dusty Palestinian desert, as narrated in Acts 8. Hindsight is a most wonderful thing – looking back now I see the significance of that message in my own life. It is helping me as I learn to dream again, as I reflect on the religion of Christianity and what it has become in modern times, and specifically on the possibilities of a movement that focuses on the love and words of Christ.

Below are some of the notes from this sermon – I will post them over a couple of blogposts so as not to overwhelm the reader 🙂

… The book of Acts, in the New Testament of the Bible, contains vital information linking the life of Jesus and the various epistles (or letters) written after his death. Taking centre stage in this book are two men: Peter and Paul. If it wasn’t for Acts we would know very little about them, especially Paul and his motivation that took him to distant lands. Without Acts we would also not know about Philip, a Eunuch, and questions in the desert …

In Acts 8, we find a disciple of Christ called Philip. The suggested author of Acts, Luke, has taken time to develop Philip’s persona: he was someone who had spread the Gospel in Samaria, and was working throughout the territory of Judea and up the coast to Caesarea. Philip is portrayed as prophetic: he proclaims the Gospel with signs and wonders, he speaks with angels, he is whisked up by the Spirit, and he runs alongside the chariots of mighty men. Luke is painting the prophetic missional character of Philip as a forerunner of the prophetic mission and mandate of the Gospel.

Philip encounters a man from the ‘ends of the earth’. This eunuch is from Ethiopia, which is known in the Bible as the land of Cush. It does not correspond to modern Ethiopia but rather the Nubian kingdom whose capital was Meroe, south of Egypt, which is part of modern-day Sudan.

The eunuch was a wealthy man –  he had a carriage, he could read, he had a driver, and he was in charge of the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (a dynasty, not a personal name). He represented people that to the Jewish Christians were at the ‘ends of the earth’. He also represents a people group who have been ostracized and kept away from Yahweh because of his very identity as a eunuch – a mutilated one.

In antiquity, eunuchs belonged to the most abhorred and ridiculed group of men, often being slaves who had been castrated to inflict punishment or enact servitude. If they did rise to a position of prominence they could not escape the stigma of their sexless condition. Eunuchs did at times rise above their social status and find employment at the imperial court, but they would always be victims of negative stereotyping and ridicule during the Persian period. They were always on the outside – Exclusion was a part of life for them.

Absence of sexual organs meant that eunuchs were stigmatized due to their inability to reproduce and represent that culture’s idea of the traditional family. Their ‘otherness’ was amplified not only by their sexual difference and childless state, but also their exclusion from worshipping in the temple with the rest of God’s family. In Deuteronomy 23:1, it says that “no one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”  This man carried the stigma of imperfection and immorality.

This eunuch, although he would be excluded from the religious festival in Jerusalem, went to worship anyway. And now God came looking for him, the outcast, the stigmatized – and in a marvelous scandalous way he becomes wholly accepted.

“This eunuch, symbolizing the community of ostracised sexual minorities, is among the first of the outcasts from ancient Israel to be welcomed into Jesus’ discipleship of equals.”
–  Jerome Neyrey, paper on the social world of Luke-Acts.

This is indeed a strange and scandalous story. I don’t think those early Jerusalem Christians ever imagined this is what the ‘Gospel to the ends of the earth’ message looked like. Perhaps, like us today, they had a much neater, less risqué, ideal of what it would mean for the good news of an incarnate Christ to travel outside their boundaries and tightly held dogma.

So when we talk about the ‘Gospel’, does it ever occur to us that this God of messy humanity will deliberately mess with our heads and take us as far out of our comfort zone as our obedience allows?

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… Part Two and the first question in next blog …

 

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