Ritual @ Open Table

Friday 21 February 2020 | Open Table
RITUAL

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Needled by Michael Leunig’s cartoon “So You Believe in This?” and imaginatively entering the multilayered drama of Exodus 12:1-13:16 (the Passover; echoed in Luke 22:7-20 with Jesus’ Last Supper), we launch Open Table 2020 with a night sharing stories on the theme of RITUAL.

In a culture fixated with the here and now of this immanent frame, any kind of ‘ceremony’ seems suspect and superstitious–empty and easy to knock down. And yet, these richly symbolic and habitual practices tie us into a greater story and a deeper identity–a kind of tactile memory hook re-narrating who we are and what we’re called to do. SO, what rituals are most meaningful to you? What’s involved, how does it work, and to what hope does it point? And how might we discern between living sacrament and stale liturgy? 

This exploration leads well into our first Open Book series, dialoguing with Eastern Orthodox scholar-priest Alexander Schmemann, considering his sacramental theology in the classic, For the Life of the World

Join us, 7:00pm for a 7:30pm start, at Nik and Dave Benson’s place, 152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs, with bring-your-own pot-luck mains to share (dessert provided), and beautiful conversation in community to follow this graced meal. All are welcome (invite away!), whatever your identity, practice, creed and belief, or lack thereof. Any questions before the night? Call/txt Dave on 0491138487.

Art/Poem     | Michael Leunig, “So You Believe in This?

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Text & Reflection   |  Exodus 12:1-13:16 (Passover Ritual) esp. 12:21-27, and 13:9-10, 16, as a precursor to Luke 22:7-20 (echoed in the Last Supper/Messianic Passover, itself foreshadowing the greater deliverance through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross):

Moses said, When you enter the land the Lord has promised to give you, you will continue to observe this ritual. Then your children will ask, ‘What does this ceremony mean?’ And you will reply, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. And though he struck the Egyptians, he spared our families.’ … This annual festival will be a visible sign to you, like a mark branded on your hand or your forehead. Let it remind you always to recite this teaching of the Lord: ‘With a strong hand, the Lord rescued you from Egypt.’ So observe the decree of this festival at the appointed time each year.(Ex 12:21-27, 13:9-10, 16)

Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread arrived, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed. … Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you. (Luke 22:7-20)

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Further thoughts to prime your narrative pump …

Recently we attended some friends’ citizenship ceremony, as they were naturalised as Aussies. I must confess, I was caught out by how similar this service was to an evangelical ‘come to Jesus’ rally.

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We stood for the entering of the flags; we sang our national anthem full of antiquated words like ‘girt’; a sermon was delivered by a (Government) Minister decked out in robes, honoring Australian heroes like the ANZACs, and retelling stories of what it means to be called to this promised land; a creed was recited and the penitent stood to acknowledge their serious commitment. “Remember, when you stand and say the pledge, this is the moment when you become a citizen.” For the denoument, the converts walk across the stage to receive their certificate–all set to rapturous applause as these foreigners became part of our extended family–even as this official document was merely the outward sign of an invisible grace that transformation had truly taken place. Afterward we ate a sacred meal of lamingtons and vegemite-smeared bread rolls while sipping lemon tea, all heading back to our homes reminded of our shared identity that binds disparate individuals in a modern democracy.

This elaborate event functioned as a sacrament of sorts. When looking for a picture to accompany the preceding prose, I came across a book by scholar Bridget Byrne (2014), the title of which captured it perfectly: Making Citizens: Public Rituals and Personal Journeys to Citizenship (from the Palgrave “Politics of Identity and Citizenship” Series). So, what am I to make of such a ‘religious’ event in this 21st century ‘secular’ western society? Haven’t we moved past all this clap-trap?

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There is something in the post-Christendom mind–even present in pastors and theological educators like me–that is prone to scoff at such symbolic action. It can seem so contrived, artificial, put-on, even pathetic. “So, you believe in this?” Can’t we just talk about these ordinances rather than going through the motions; why not simply agree that it’s merely a mental game, and move on?

Worse, to the uninitiated, it seems like a gateway to dangerous jingoism, religious fanaticism, and perhaps even distorted occultic fascination among the growing ranks of the ‘spiritual but not religious’. I’m reminded that some of my Protestant forebears had the same attitude shortly after the Reformation to their Catholic brethren, for whom the Communion ritual remains so dear as the place the veil is removed and heaven comes to earth, as captured in this seven minute film.

BLESSED CHEESEMAKERSsospecialJuxtaposed with this reverence above, picture the Monty Python Life of Brian scene, when the intelligentsia mishear our Lord’s sermon on the mount to promise that “Blessed are the cheesemakers”–they guffaw, “what’s so special about the cheesemakers?”

Well, overhearing the Eucharist in Latin, “hoc est corpus“–“this is the body of Christ”–and observing that with the ringing of a common bell the bread apparently transubstantiated into the sacred body of Christ, the Protestant intelligentsia (foreshadowing postmodern deconstructionists) guffawed,

Hocus pocus! What’s so special about the bread and winemakers?”

ritual-circle-ceremony-womens-sacredWe wonder out loud, how is this different to a magic trick, a meaningless ritual best left in the dark ages? Pagan cultus and religious superstition apparently collide, both readily dismissed as pure ignorance in an enlightened era.

062413 01And yet, sometimes growing up as individuals and as a culture means entering, in philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s beautiful phrase, a “second naïveté” where these rituals take on fresh meaning, even in an age allergic to religion and far from amused by metaphysics. It’s no virtue, intellectual or ethical, to be so literally minded that we conflate the symbol and its referent, thereby dismissing both as an illusion. Like the Roman general, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, conquering Jerusalem and entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple, to declare it “empty“, perhaps we are all too quick to mock a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human, thus avoiding the divine who takes on flesh to accommodate his presence to our senses, in place of a crass and localised idol.

2011 French Open - Day NinePerhaps we can get at the human aspect of ritual through the great Rafael Nadal, consummate tennis great and man of many habits. To be sure, his rearranging of water bottles, stepping across the line leading with his right foot, and repetitive pick of his pants before serving another ace, looks very quirky to the uninitiated. And yet, our performance as human beings is premised on stringing together numerous routines and habits–collectively comprising rituals–hard-wired through our bodies into neural pathways that gear us up for whatever comes next.

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This is how we learn, how we grow, and how the human animal fairly short on instincts is able to accommodate so many foreign environments and thrive. It’s a fine line between superstition and sport-stars having a rich pattern that ties them into a stronger psychological game, reminding them of where they’ve come from, who they presently are, and where they’re going. Again, this is a fundamentally human activity, not a peculiar predilection of ‘religious’ people. (Though, Paul Tillich would argue that to be human is to be religious, in the sense of religare–bound together like ligaments by our ultimate concerns and liturgies to keep what matters most at the centre.)

Initiation rituals among Ndaka people, near Epulu, Ituri Forest, Congo (Democratic Republic),Anthropologists assure us that every culture across time draws on ritual: “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” Whether it’s for birth or death, coming-of-age or getting hitched, work or worship, we draw on rich symbolism and repetitive actions to form new habits that enshrine a particular identity and trace the contours of the cosmos.

Jamie Smith captures this well in his “cultural liturgies” trilogy, which we explored in one of our first Open Book series:

Human persons are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of “intending” the world is love or desire. This love or desire—which is unconscious or noncognitive—is always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented—and act accordingly—is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely linked to our bodily senses. [Desiring the Kingdom, pp62-63. Or for the hoi poloi readable version, see You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit]

6b6157025ba7dccc38ed0fe693ef9b0dTrue, this is pivotal for religious people gathered together as the church. We are called to be a foretaste of when God sets the world right; we are a sacrament for the life of the world, extended through our practice of multi-sensory rituals such as communion and baptism, embedded in the ongoing story of redemption tracing back to Passover and walking through the Jordan into the promised land. Our past identity and future vision of hope directs our rehearsing—for truth, justice, beauty, and healing—in the present. Ceremony is central to it all, orbiting around God-become-man in the Christ, and climaxing with the bloody cross.

PR_Use the power of ritual_peace vigilBut, there is a growing recognition among the non-religious–both spiritual and secular alike–that our ephemeral age has not ceased to be human, needing richer liturgies to remind us of who we are, and empower our actions in the search for justice. “Beautiful Trouble“, for instance, is a disparate band of activists seeking a more just world. There’s hardly a Christian among them, but they advocate for leveraging “the power of ritual” to add meaning to their protests–symbolic action capturing what it’s all about.

78f767a51883820554b095abf7ec2c48Bringing these meandering thoughts to a close, “practices are not passe.” We should be cautious before rubbishing ritual. Even as we are right to deconstruct empty man-made customs where any repetitive action is believed to automatically achieve some transcendent result, we are wrong to seek a purely intellectual way in the world, where words alone (sola verbum) empty life of symbol and sacrament. There is a deeper magic in the ways of God, where re-membering the mystery of Christ’s blood shed may be the only balm for a hopeless generation bent on cutting words of shame into their skin. Not merely a memory trick, God is pleased through our everyday motions and the material stuff of bread and wine to redeem and form those who humbly trust this intervention. As we grow up to better grapple with the shape of the universe, let us not be offended that the Creator was pleased to make humanity from the humus of the earth, and draw us into the divine life through such fragile rituals that speak poetically of greater things, embodying the good and directing our gaze upward to the source of grace.

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For the Life of the World @ Open Book

TheophanyIn our first cycle for 2020For the Life of the World“–we discover the difference it makes to realise God’s presence pulsating through all things.  (Share page: https://padlet.com/david_benson/OpenBook.)

This four-part series is centred on Alexander Schmemann‘s classic work of Eastern Orthodox theology, For the Life of the World ([FLW] 1973 or 2018 version). Following on from our exploration of ritual at Open Table (Feb 21, 2020), we dive into this beautiful vision of how to worship in a secularised age shorn of transcendent meaning.

The church does not exist for itself, isolated from the world. Rather, it is a sacrament … a visible sign of an invisible grace … blessed by God as a foretaste of his universal and loving reign, existing “for the life of the world”. (While separate from this study, the DVD series of the same name, aka “Letters to the Exiles“, was heavily influenced by Schmemann’s theology, and is well worth a watch.)

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Such a vision calls for a practice of gratitude–seeing all things as charged with the glory of God–as bearers of his presence and portals to experiencing heaven-on-earth.

While this isn’t a familiar perspective to many Protestants (like me) who prefer a giant ontological gap between the Creator and the Created, this book beckons us to see afresh that in the divine “we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And this, truly, is a gift.

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So, join us at Jo Hargreaves’ house, 1 Harvey Close, Brookfield, 6:45pm for a 7:00pm start, as we fuse liturgy that satisfies all five senses, rich book discussion, and transformative practices to live what you read.

(Shut out with Corona? Join us virtually direct zoom link here (or via https://zoom.us/join with Meeting ID 333262992 and Password = openbook.)

This series is animated by this question:

How do we live everyday immersed in God’s presence, the church being a gift given for the life of the world?

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Over 4 Thursday sessions (March 5 – April 16) virtually as we dialogue with Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World [FLW] and each other, discovering a sacramental spirituality, where our worship inspires the world.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pick up your paperback or kindle version of FLW here (2018 edition), with a temporary PDF here (1973 edition).

We have a soft-start from 6:45pm—feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. At 7:10pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.

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For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: what wisdom does this offer for worship in and for a secular age?

4) Applications: how might this help us be the church as a gift for the life of the world?

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OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Schmemann’s 

For the Life of the World (FLW) | Join us virtually direct zoom link here (or via https://zoom.us/join with Meeting ID 333262992 and Password = openbook) + Share page: https://padlet.com/david_benson/OpenBook

March 5 | FLW I, pp. 7-22, 117-134 (Preface, Ch. 1, Appendix 1): The Life of the World + Worship in a Secular Age

March 19 | FLW IIpp. 23-66 (Ch. 2-3)The Eucharist + The Time of Mission

April 2 | FLW III, pp. 67-94 (Ch. 4-5): Of Water and the Spirit + The Mystery of Love

April 16 | FLW IV, pp. 95-116, 135-151 (Ch. 6-7, Appendix 2): Trampling Down Death by Death + And Ye Are Witnesses of These Things + Sacrament and Symbol.

FindingNaasicaaHope to see you there!

PS – While still t.b.c., the following series will explore how to share the good news of God’s reign (i.e., evangelism/witness) with a post-Christian generation prone to deconstruct religious jargon, the transcendent, and empty optimism. Check out Charles Ringma’s book, Finding Naasicaa: Letters of Hope in an Age of Anxiety (2006) from Amazon or Regent College’s bookstore. This will likely be a four gathering study on Thursday nights: April 30 (possibly with pot-luck dinner for first discussion), May 14, 28, June 11, Location t.b.d.

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“Deep Church” at Open Book

In our third cycle for 2018 (starting Thursday 30th August), we dive deep into the identity and flow of the church by asking

How can we both listen to the wisdom of ages past and be open to the ongoing creative work of God today?

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While studying at Regent College in 2006, in super-natural British Columbia, Maxine Hancock offered a vivid image in her lecture on “Following the Lord Jesus Christ in a Pluralistic Culture.” Picture a wild mountain river. A group of intrepid explorers are kayaking downstream, in search of ever greater vistas. If you are wise, where do you typically position yourself? Well, by and large, you should stick to the middle.

To the inexperienced, the river’s middle sounds boring. Surely there are more interesting things to see close to the banks? Isn’t the centre reserved for staid and afraid fundamentalists who resist the passionate swirl? Actually, it’s quite the opposite. The further you drift from the centre, the shallower the water, the more turbulent the current–the greater chance you’ll founder on underlying rocks or get caught unawares in eddies sending you back from whence you came. In the greatest rivers, however, the best flow is most always in the centre. It’s deep, fresh, rich, and has its own drive carrying you from the source to its telos in the wide ocean.heber-river-split-shot_Eiko Jones

The point? In the turbulent post-Christendom and pluralistic West, it’s tempting for Christians to seek novel solutions on the sides, splashing in the shallows. And yet, for the historically aware and well formed, you soon realise that many of our celebrated emerging church movements have simply settled for a simplistic vision and practice of the church, at best playing in the muddy banks of faith replicating the kind of consumerism and addiction to novel experiences that sank many an independent ecclesial vessel. The real action, though, is in the centre. Emerging from its divine wellspring, its source being Spirit baptism at Pentecost, the church is a mighty river propelling the adventurous toward divine union in the New Creation, when God is all in all and his glory covers the earth like the seas (1 Corinthians 15:28; Habakkuk 2:14).

apostles creed myersWe rediscover the centre in our common creeds (cf. Ben Myers’ excellent exploration, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism), our shared stories, and our richest practices that have flowed across time, place, and tradition. This renews the church in its identity and mission. In the words of Australian historian Stuart Piggin, at its best this was the well spring of evangelicalism, a powerful synergy of “Spirit, Word and World” immersing us in the life of Christ. How tragic, then, that modern evangelicalism is often experienced as an unthinking conservatism, politically driven fundamentalism, or a superficial set of techniques and formulas channelling the Spirit to serve my personal health, wealth and prosperity.

With prophets of old, I believe God is confronting the church today:

You have abandoned me—
    the fountain of living water.
And you have dug for yourselves cracked cisterns
    that can hold no water at all!
(Jeremiah 2:13, NLT)

In short: leave the shallows, and locate your community in the deep, rediscovering the life-giving flow of church through the ages.

book coverWhat better conversation partner, then, than the DEEP CHURCH group? Remembering Our Future: Explorations in Deep Church (ed. Andrew Walker and Luke Bretherton, Wipf & Stock, 2007) has its origin in an ecumenical seminar, each chapter representing a call back to the historic centre of our faith which may paradoxically propel us forward in rocky and turbulent times. Each author invites us to ride the fast-flowing current that is Christian orthodoxy. “Mere Christianity“–far from fundamentalism, childish belief, or simplistic replication of shallow expressions of church, as C. Lewis challenges here, justifying his call to alternate the reading of popular contemporary books fixated on the controversies of the moment, with old books which are tried, true, and tested–is where the greatest adventure is found.

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Emerging from diverse charismatic traditions–Catholic, Anglican, and Evangelical–“the Deep Church conversation is helping [us] to re-imagine the Church of Christ and its task as we re-engage with the life of the public square in post secular Europe” (xiii). This is helpful, for sociologically, our culture in Australia and attitude to religion shares more in common with Europe/UK than we do with the American context, despite our penchant to copy trends from this foreign continent.

Series editor, Andrew Walker, launches our journey with these words:

Many are exasperated with what they perceive as the fad-driven, one-dimensional spirituality of modern evangelicalism and desire to reconnect with, and be deeply rooted in, the common historical Christian tradition as well as their evangelical heritage–welcome to what C.S. Lewis called ‘Deep Church’.

Deep Church is far more than an ecumenical dream of coming together across the barriers of ignorance and prejudice: it is predicated upon the central tenets of the gospel held in common by those who have the temerity to be “Mere Christians”. This commonality in the light of post-Enlightenment modernism is greater and more fundamental than the divisions and schisms of church history. … Deep Church, as its name implies, is spiritual reality down in the depths–the foundations and deep structures of the Faith–which feed, sustain, and equip us to be disciples of Christ.

deep church jim belcherWhatever your church background and denomination, interacting with this book should enrich all streams of our shared Christian life, for we are truly better together. We must remember our past to wisely face our future.

[Other books in close competition to serve much the same purpose included Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, Robert Webber, Ancient Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, and Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional.]

Across five sessions, we will raft-up with some great thinkers–theologians, pastors, and practitioners–renewing the church with a fresh hermeneutic that makes meaning and forms a confluence at the juncture of the tributaries of Scripture and tradition. Again, our driving question is this: “How can we both listen to the wisdom of the ages past and be open to the ongoing creative work of God today?”

Details below, and all welcome, whatever your faith commitment, tradition, or none.

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Over 5 Thursday sessions (August 30 – October 25) at Nik & Dave’s house (152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs; directions here) we will dialogue with the Deep Church Group and each other, returning to the well spring of our faith which propels our community forward in God’s mission.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pick up your paperback version of Remembering Our Future: Explorations in Deep Church (RF) here.

{Want to join us virtually? We’re experimenting with Zoom so you can listen in, and share your thoughts, live streaming the experience. Download the pdf of the powerpoint slides (e.g. on schedule, click link RF1) to play on your computer, and then see what’s happening through a basic web-cam capture of the group. We’ll have a shared microphone so the sound won’t be great, but you should be able to hear what we’re each saying, add your own voice when you ‘unmute’ your microphone, and participate in the practices as best as we can short of teleporting materials to your living room! …
https://zoom.us/j/165382785 meeting ID 165-382-785 … Log in around 7:00pm on the fortnightly Thursday to test your sound, then start the conversation with us around 7:20-9:10pm. New to Zoom? 50 second meeting joining video  here, and more detailed directions, especially for problem shooting, here.}

We have a soft-start from 6:30pm—feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. (Park up top, on the left-hand side of our circular driveway.) At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.

For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

IVPPraxis-mobile1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: if this is true, then what does it mean for how we bring Christian tradition into dialogue with our contemporary context and church practice?

4) Applications: what does it look like for us to live out of this vision, “remembering our future” as deep church, journeying where the current is strongest?

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OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Deep Church’s Remembering Our Future (RF)
(Click session # hyperlink for liturgy/ppnt slides, and page numbers for the next reading. Virtual/Zoom participation via https://zoom.us/j/165382785.)

August 30 | RF 1pp. xi-xx, 1-58: Front Matter (Preface, Foreword, Introduction: “Why Deep Church?”) + Ch. 1 “Recovering Deep Church: Theological and Spiritual Renewal” by Andrew Walker (1-29) + Ch. 2 “Beyond the Emerging Church” by Luke Bretherton (30-58). PRACTICES: Church Calendar & ADVENT (with Lectio Divina) pdf.

September 13 | RF 2pp. 59-107: Ch. 3 “Deep Church as Paradosis: On relating Scripture and Tradition” by Andrew Walker (59-80) + Ch. 4 “Reading Scripture in Congregations: Towards an Ordinary Hermeneutic” by Andrew Rogers (81-107). PRACTICES: CHRISTMAS & EASTER (with Lectio Divina) pdf.

September 27 | RF 3pp. 108-149: Ch. 5 ” Deep Calls to Deep: Reading Scripture in a Multi-Faith Society” by Ben Quash (108-130) + Ch. 6 “Holding Together: Catholic Evangelical Worship in the Spirit” by Christopher Cocksworth (131-149). PRACTICES: LENT (with Lectio Divina) pdf.

October 11 | RF 4pp. 150-206: Ch. 7 “God’s Transforming Presence: Spirit Empowered Worship and its Mediation” by Ian Stackhouse (150-169) + Ch. 8 “Baptism and Catechesis as Spiritual Formation” by Alan Kreider (170-206). PRACTICES: PENTECOST (with Lectio Divina) pdf.

October 25 | RF 5pp. 207-252: Ch. 9 “Education, Discipleship and Community Formation” by Mark Wakelin (207-226) + Ch. 10 “Mundane Holiness: The Theology and Spirituality of Everyday Life” by Luke Bretherton (227-252). PRACTICES: ORDINARY TIME (with Lectio Divina) pdf.

Restart Open Book on Thursday 22nd November and December 6, with a short series on “The Power of Poetry”, with various options of stirring voice and bringing your own favourite poem. If you’re wanting to join us virtually, then use the same link from the “Deep Church” series: https://zoom.us/j/165382785.

Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems

Thursday 22nd November (slides)  this time held at Andrew & Liz Nichols’ house (155 Burbong St. Chapel Hill; call Liz on 0415624982 if lost!) and facilitated by Noel Payne. Bring your own powerful poem, and pre-read to bounce off one of these three:

  • A short poem A278 from Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems [(c) 2016 by New Directions];
  • LOOK back on time with kindly eyes,
    He doubtless did his best;
    How softly sinks his trembling sun
    In human nature’s west!
  • Or a medium length poem (1 page) by Sufi Poet, Hafiz: “Several Times in the Last Week” [From I Heard God Laughing: Renderings of Hafized. Daniel Ladinsky, (c) 1999];
  • Or, a long poem (19 pages) excerpting T. S. Eliot’s 1934 pageant/play “The Rock” (Choruses I-X).

Thursday 6th December … this time held at Noel & Deb Mostert’s (66 Fiona St., Bellbird Park [Ipswich], call Noel Payne on 0412156772 if lost!), and facilitated by Jo Hargreaves. No pre-reading, but on the night I’ll distribute print-outs of this classic, with background character notes:

  • Dorothy Sayers’ 1941-1943 Christmas play “The Man Born to Be King” (Play 1 “Kings of Judaea” pp 35-52 … we’ll read this out loud together on the night).

Looking forward to exploring the impact your favourite poems ) have had on you. (And if you want to grow in this space, join the Brisbane based “Deeper Rhythms” facebook group here.)

Hope to see you there!

 

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Open Book on COLOSSIANS REMIXED

20110531111214_00013Over the last three books, we’ve explored the importance of our bodies and imagination in forming kingdom habits (Desiring the Kingdom), ways of integrating our faith and everyday work (Kingdom Calling), and the importance of community in growing up in Christ and reaching out in mission (Community & Growth). Each fortnightly gathering we’ve shared in the combination of rich liturgy (Taize songs, Northumbrian prayers, creative Bible reading), open discussion, reflection on art, and the designing of rich practices and habits to reinforce our identity and calling in Christ. In our second cycle for 2016 (starting Thursday 28th July), and as we descend into the long winter of our Australian political discontent, we ask some tough questions of how our Christian faith should rightly relate to worldly regimes:

How should we live our Kingdom story as ‘true’
in an age of conflicting Empires?

20110531111214_00023Ever since Constantine’s ‘vision’ of the Chi-Rho–‘conquer by this sign‘–on the eve of his victorious battle at Milvian Bridge, 312 AD, Christians have understandably confused the cross of their crucified Saviour with the Labrum of the ascendant Emperor. It’s far too easy in our politically charged contemporary existence to hitch powerful agendas to the way of Jesus … a way that challenged exclusive mono-cultural identities, and worship of money and violence. We need to tease apart the competing stories and imaginaries of Kingdom and Empire.

This challenge is not, however, new. The Apostle Paul dealt with it head on as he wrote to the mixed community in Colossae, a Roman outpost. He offered wisdom to re-narrate their identity and action as an alternative community under the humble reign of the slain lamb. In turn, this posed a challenge to the superficial ‘peace’ offered by power brokers (Pax Romana).

Yay for Paul.

Still, what might this look like today, in the post-Christendom western context?

Colossians Remixed CoverEnter Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat with their provocative commentary, Colossians Remixed. They fuse indepth theological and cultural analysis, creative dialogue, and bold Targums that interpret Colossians and translate this ancient text into our contemporary political and economic context.

Over 8 sessions we will dialogue with these authors, learning to pray for the Empire, and live faithfully and subversively as an alternative kingdom culture in the midst of competing stories and conflicting powers.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pdf links to carry you through until you get your own copy of the book.

We have a soft-start from 6:30pm–feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.

For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: if this is true, what does it mean for being the church today?

4) Applications: what does it look like for you to live out of this vision as part of the community of God?

OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM:

July 28 | Colossians Remixed [CR] #1: Placing Ourselves: Globalisation & Postmodernity … pre-read CR 7-37 (Preface + Ch 1) + Col 1:1-2

Aug 11 | CR #2: Placing Colossae: In the Shadow of Empire … pre-read CR 38-76 (Ch 2-4) + Col 1:1-14

Aug 25 | CR #3: Subversive Poetry & Contested Imaginaries  … pre-read CR 79-114 (Ch 5-6) + Col  1:15-2:23

Open Table dinner on Friday September 2 … Theme of HOPE

Sep 8 | CR #4: Truth, Lies & Improvisation … pre-read CR 115-144 (Ch 7-8) + Col  2:1-3:4

Sep 22 | CR #5: An Ethic of Secession … pre-read CR 147-168 (Ch 9) + Col 3:1-17

Oct 6 | CR #6: An Ethic of Community … pre-read CR 169-200 (Ch 10) + Col  3:1-4:1

Oct 20 | CR #7: An Ethic of Liberation … pre-read CR 201-219 (Ch 11) + Col 3:18-4:9

Open Table dinner on Friday October 28 … Theme t.b.a.

Nov 3 | CR #8: A Suffering Ethic … pre-read CR 220-233 (Ch 12) + Col 4:7-18 … series integration as we look toward Advent

Feb 2017 | Restart semester 1 with a new book and theme … t.b.a.

Hope to see you there!

Maiorina-Vetranio-siscia_RIC_281

Open Book on Endō’s SILENCE

3b68cd92e1547d20e2cb8a84580d9daeOver the last four books, we’ve explored the importance of our bodies and imagination in forming kingdom habits (Desiring the Kingdom), ways of integrating our faith and everyday work (Kingdom Calling), the importance of community in growing up in Christ and reaching out in mission (Community & Growth), and how we should live our kingdom story as ‘true’ in an age of conflicting empires (Colossians Remixed). Each fortnightly gathering we’ve shared in the combination of rich liturgy (Taize songs, Northumbrian prayers, creative Bible reading), open discussion, reflection on art, and the designing of rich practices and habits to reinforce our identity and calling in Christ.

In our first cycle for 2017 (starting Thursday 2nd February), and making a long awaited switch from argumentative essays to a sweeping narrative, we turn to explore the struggle for faith in a world marked by suffering and God’s silence:

How can we imitate Christ as witnesses
in a culture rejecting Christianity?

silence-high-quality-book-cover

Order the Picador 2016 edition online here.

Our conversation partner is Shūsaku Endō (1923-1996), arguably the greatest Japanese novelist of his time, and author of one of the twentieth Century’s most renowned books, Silence. The impact of this book reverberates into the present, challenging, inspiring, infuriating and humbling countless modern writers (see here for nearly 50 such reflections).

fumie2Endō, a Japanese Catholic, was no stranger to occupying the place of the Other: too foreign, too Oriental, to be understood by the West, and too Christian, too iconoclastic–not to mention insufficiently Buddhist–to be accepted at home. His work of historical fiction is set in 1635 as Portuguese missionaries seek to proselytise the Japanese during a time of extreme persecution. Following rumours of their leader (Ferreira) abandoning his faith, two younger Jesuits (Fr. Rodrigues and his companion Fr. Francisco Garrpe) head to Japan to uncover the truth and shore up the struggling converts. How will this collision between cultures resolve, as each grapples with the other? Will Rodrigues and Garrpe, too, betray their Lord, trampling his crudely formed icon (fumie) underfoot and committing the sin of apostasy?

For Dave’s thoughts on why Silence is so timely to read in Open Book 2017, read on.
For the key details and dates, skipping the essay, scroll down below the second +++!

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This book is timely for two reasons.

japanese-martyrs2First, our times increasingly resemble the novel’s setting, thus posing questions that we must answer in our own missional context. This is not to play the victim and suggest that Aussie Christians experience persecution akin to Japanese Christians during the Edo Period (1603-1868). This was a time when Japan turned inward to forge a unified national identity set over and against the colonising other, especially its religious symbols which challenged ultimate allegiance to the Land of the Rising Sun. To be sure, most Aussie Christians barely feel a twinge of persecution, largely disconnected from the pain in the global body of Christ as it faces widespread “Christianophobia“.

Nonetheless, this anti-Christian sentiment has settled into the western church’s heartland. Our once familiar home is turning “hostile“, with anti-Christian bias increasingly prevalent. Many followers of Jesus are lost for how to respond to their faith coming under attack. The “Christian Century” of peacefully coexisting with and playing chaplain to the elites, appealing to the cultured despisers, is long gone. Instead, leading thinkers call the church to “prepare” for persecution–to follow Jesus outside the gates of institutional power, and to embrace the ignominy of being the misunderstood Other who yet speaks truth to power and leads with sacrificial love (Heb 13:12-16). Facing political protectionism and resurgent nationalism (think Brexit, Trump, One Nation) and a supposedly unified “secular” identity that marginalises faith as the populace “loses [its] religion” (even amidst unprecedented plurality), the “disappearing church” of contemporary Australia must change goals, “from cultural relevance to gospel resilience”.

Nothing in this would surprise Endō or other such wise students of mission’s history. Fr. Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary extraordinaire, ushered in what looked like an Oriental Christian Century, with his inquisitive welcome by Japan’s elites in 1549. And yet, within fifty years, under feudal warlord and Shogun strong man Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Christianity–with its foreign religious icons carried on “black ships” of commerce, backed by military force–was anathema, understood as a threat to fledgling national identity. Missionaries now risked ridicule, even torture and martyrdom, and indigenous believers retreated as “hidden Christians”. Should they just give up on Japan? Does the gospel simply not grow in this soil? And yet, the incarnation and way of Jesus models that God can take on flesh in every time and place, embracing its particularities–contextualisation without compromise (Mt 28:18-20). “If Christianity cannot be true in every culture, then it cannot be true at all.” How Portuguese and Japanese believers responded was a test of Christianity’s integrity as a whole.

silence-endoWe must, however, count the cost. Incarnation always leads to the cross.

As Alissa Wilkinson writes in her powerful review of Silence, “For Endō, there are no easy routes to salvation; a person’s body—its ethnicity, its weaknesses, its susceptibility to pain and desire—is as much his link to the life and sufferings of Christ as a person’s soul.”

This is the paradox of faith: to save your life, you must first lose it (Mt 16:25). How, then, can fallen Christians imitate the incarnation, and witness to a culture rejecting Christianity? Can we do so without suffering? Will our efforts end better than Peter, or Judas?  And how will we be sustained for this impossible mission when the God who sends us apparently stands by, watching in silence?

Endō will not allow us to see this as a “culture war”, a battle between them and us. Surely, there is much that the story’s antagonists and inquisitors, especially former Christians like Kichijirō and Inoue, rightly reject in Christianity as a religion and colonial power–as Japanese Pastor Marre Ishii explores in his review of Silence? It is difficult to distinguish to what degree they would have us wrongly trample underfoot Christ himself as rebels idolatrously set against the Lord of All (Ps 2; Mt 5:10-12; Lk 10:16; Jn 15:18-25), and rightly destroy our crude images of Christ reified in broken institutional religion that is prone to hypocrisy, “cross[ing] land and sea to make one convert, and then turn[ing] that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are” (Mt 23:13-15). Like Jesus himself, Endō is calling the church to “cleanse the temple” (Mt 21:12-17) by evicting what truly is not of God. Only in humility can we witness to a post-Christian culture.

silence-978144729985101Recapping this first point, then, our times increasingly resemble the novel’s setting. Christianity, once popular and even powerful, is on the outer, and a nation “come of age” is prone–with some good reason–to marginalise and even persecute the Church as a threat to the common (read “secular”) good. As missiologist Lesslie Newbigin argues powerfully (see Truth to TellFoolishness to the Greeks, and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society), however, most Christians have not yet recognised that we are the other, the foreigner, in our own home. We, the increasingly “hidden Christians”, are missionaries to a post-Christendom culture. And, as such, the novel Silence is a poignant conversation partner, raising questions of witness, power and colonialism, suffering and doubt, persecution and apostasy. Given that Christ’s Pieces is called to explore what it means to faithfully follow Christ at this cultural cross-road, this book is ripe for our reading together.

Image result for silence movieMercifully shorter than my first rationale, a second reason this book is timely to discuss is that the much anticipated movie rendering of Silence by Martin Scorsese has come! Thirty years in gestation since first reading, this master director describes its production as his own “pilgrimage”. It’s set to be released in Brisbane on February 16, 2017. God willing, we’ll watch it together on Thursday March 2. Obviously watching the movie, mid cycle in Open Book, comes with a complete “spoiler alert”! That said, his adaptation is receiving critical acclaim by the religious and secular alike, and will stimulate great discussion as these tortured characters lift off the page, at once enfleshing and challenging the images in our mind’s eye.

With this movie release (synopsis here; trailer here) has come great interest and a flurry of responses. There have been occasional detractors, such as Roy Peachey from First Things. He questioned both Scorsese and Endō’s telling as rationalising an escape from the suffering of the cross in the name of contextualisation and protection of fellow believers. Most reviewers, however, have praised their constraint, avoiding preaching and instead raising pivotal issues for our at once secular and religious age. As Stephanie Zacharek from Time commented, this story “maps the space between faith and doubt …. Silence makes no clear value judgment between belief and doubt. It’s a movie in the shape of a question mark, which may be the truest sign of the cross.” Personally, this story of cross-shaped witness in a post-Christian context reminded me of Brendan Gleeson’s 2014 characterisation of Irish Priest, Fr. James, in the similarly celebrated and poignant movie, Calvary (Trailer here).

If you’re wanting to delve deeper, these are the best reviews of Silence I’ve read:

  • Alissa Wilkinson on Vox: “Silence is beautiful, unsettling, and one of the finest religious movies ever made. Martin Scorsese’s film keenly understands Shūsaku Endō’s novel and challenges believer and nonbeliever alike.”
  • Simon Smart (from Australia’s Centre for Public Christianity [CPX], on ABC: “How the pain of Scorsese’s Silence mirrors the ‘hard and bitter agony’ of Christmas.”
  • Brett McCracken on Christianity Today: “Scorsese’s Silence asks what it really costs to follow Jesus.”

The particular version of the novel we’ll use is the 2016 edition by Picador (available on Amazon.com here), translated by William Johnston, with a foreword by movie director Martin Scorsese. Their discussion guide is most helpful, posing piercing literary and theological questions with which we will grapple. The companion reflections from nearly 50 authors, responding to Silence, are likewise profound.

We will also draw from a companion book that closely follows Endō’s novel, written by the wonderful Japanese artist and theologian, Makoto Fujimura, with a foreword by Philip Yancey, entitled Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering. Fujimura’s companion website has interviews, art-work, and his own discussion guide. For Yancey’s chapter on Shūsaku Endō (“A Place for Traitors,” in his Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007], 261-279), see here. Yancey shares how Endō’s attention to the suffering image of Christ–“the Jesus of reversal” (268)–restored Yancey’s faith, after rejecting the unreality of Christian triumphalism from his fundamentalist youth.

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Over 9 fortnightly Thursday sessions (Feb 2 – May 25) we will dialogue with Endō and each other, learning how to realistically imitate Christ’s incarnation as his witnesses, in our post-Christendom (post-Christian?) Australian culture.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pdf links to carry you through until you get your own copy of the book (purchase asap on Amazon.com or via Picador).

We have a soft-start from 6:30pm–feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.

For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: if this is true, what does it mean for being the church today?

4) Applications: what does it look like for you to live out of this vision as part of the community of God?

OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Shūsaku Endō’s SILENCE (S)

Feb 2 | Silence Part 1, pp. vii-10 (27pp): Scorsese’s Foreword (vii-ix), Translator’s Preface (xi-xxiv), Endō’s Prologue (1-10)

[Yancey’s chapter on Shūsaku Endō, “A Place for Traitors,” pp261-279 in his Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007), is also great introduction.]

Feb 16 | S Part 2, pp. 11-47 (37pp): Ch 1 (11-21), Ch 2 (22-29), & Ch 3 (30-47)

*Wednesday* Mar 1 | Silence Movie

Open Table dinner on Friday March 10 … Theme of LOVE

Mar 16 | S Part 3, pp. 48-83 (36pp): Ch 4 (48-83)

Mar 30 | S Part 4, pp. 84-107 (24pp): Ch 5 (84-107) [cancelled due to Debbie’s Cyclone 😦 ]

Apr 13 | S Part 5, pp. 108-128 (21pp): Ch 6 (108-128) + revisit pp. 84-107 (Ch 5)

Apr 27 | S Part 6, pp. 129-164 (36pp): Ch 7 (129-164)

May 11 | S Part 7, pp. 165-189 (25pp): Ch 8 (165-183), & Ch 9 (184-189)

May 25 | S Part 8, pp. 190-212 (23pp): Dinner celebration/remembering of all practices (ppnt/pdf recap) and consolidation of our response to the central question of the series: “How can we imitate Christ as witnesses in a culture rejecting Christianity?” (Ch 10 (190-204), & Appendix (205-212). We’ll provide soup & bread (7pm sharp); bring dessert if able.

Open Table dinner on Friday June 9 … Theme of TRUTH (7 for 7:30pm start)

July 27 | Restart semester 2 with The Benedict Option on the question, “What practices preserve our witness [& identity] in a post-Christian context?”

Hope to see you there!fumie

Open Book 2016: Community & Growth

The old has gone, the new has come! Okay, Christ’s Pieces isn’t as exciting as the eschaton! Still, we hope that through this experimental Christian community at Open Book, faith is deepening and you are discovering a foretaste of the transformation God has in store for all of his creation.

2015 laid a great foundation with book studies of Desiring the Kingdom and Kingdom Calling. Together we’ve explored how to leverage our everyday habits to align with and experience the reign of God. We’ve also discovered how to reframe our daily grind as a God-given vocation through which we seek first the Kingdom.

Each fortnightly gathering we’ve shared in the combination of rich liturgy (Taize songs, Northumbrian prayers, creative Bible reading), open discussion, reflection on art, and the designing of rich practices and habits to reinforce our identity and calling in Christ. In our first cycle for 2016 (starting Thursday 4th February) we follow up with a natural and pressing question:

Beyond solo efforts, how do we grow together in Christlikeness and grow up in mission as the community of God?

Forming new life-rhythms and integrating our faith and work is not meant to be an individualistic pursuit. Jesus came to redeem and reconcile humanity as a family. He brings disparate members and even enemies together in one body. This is the “church”. 

And yet, today we are seeing vast numbers of Christians leaving institutional expressions of the faith, and setting out on their own spiritual voyage of discovery.

That’s why we’re taking a semester to sit at the feet of a sage. Jean Vanier , an internationally celebrated humanist, philosopher and theologian, formed the L’Arche community in 1964. It was a simple and yet revolutionary expression of Christ’s love, as people with and without an intellectual disability lived together in genuine, reciprocal relationship. (You can hear him share this vision here and here.)

Jean crystallised his thoughts in his book Community and Growth, expanded upon in the 1989 edition which is available on amazon.com here. Over 10 sessions we will dialogue with the work of this wise writer. We will re-imagine what it means to be the church–the community of God–in terms of unity, commitment, mission, growth, nourishment, authority, gifts, welcome (inclusion and hospitality), gatherings, rhythms, and celebration.

While few of us have a diagnosed intellectual impairment (I’m counting myself in on this, where PhD means ‘permanent head damage’!), we are each special in our own way. We each must learn to love and be loved precisely in our difference, weakness and even pain. In so doing, we may together grow and become more fully human, bearing God’s image collectively in our community.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pdf links to carry you through until you get your own copy of the book.

We have a soft-start from 6:30pm–feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.

For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: if this is true, what does it mean for being the church today?

4) Applications: what does it look like for you to live out of this vision as part of the community of God?

OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM:

February 4 | Community & Growth [CG] #1: Restart Open Book … Exploring the theme by sharing our stories of the good, bad and ugly of Christian community. We’ll bounce off the pre-reading from CG xiii-12 (Preface + Introduction)

February 18 | Community & Growth #2: UnityCG 13-60 (Ch 1)

March 3 | Community & Growth #3: Commitment and Mission … CG 61-83 (Ch 2) + 84-103 (Ch 3)

March 17 | Community & Growth #4: Growth … CG 104-164 (Ch 4)

March 31 | Easter celebration meal and open conversation … perhaps we could tie in with the Brisbane chapter of L’Arche here?

April 14 | Community & Growth #6: Nourishment … CG 165-204 (Ch 5)

April 28 | Community & Growth #7: Authority and Gifts … CG 205-239 (Ch 6) + 240-264 (Ch 7)

May 12 | Community & Growth #8: Welcome and Meetings … CG 265-283 (Ch 8) + 284-296 (Ch 9)

May 26 | Community & Growth #9: Rhythms and Celebration … CG 297-312 (Ch 10) + 313-328 (Ch 11)

June 9 | Community & Growth #10: Integration toward transformed lives … CG 329-331 (Conclusion)

July 28 | Restart semester 2 with a new book and theme … t.b.a.

Hope to see you there!

Let’s forget communion?

Thought you might find this blog post interesting. It’s by Caleb Trimble, called “Let’s Forget About Communion“.

As Caleb writes in his blog:

We don’t gather to make church cool.
We don’t gather to make the unchurched feel welcomed.
We don’t gather for an awesome worship experience.
We don’t gather for a sermon that makes us think.
We don’t gather to spend time with our friends.

We gather for communion. Because in communion, everything begins to make sense. In communion, friends and enemies come together. In communion, Christ’s Kingdom is experienced. In communion, the church finds its hope. In communion, Christ is present and exalted.

It is time to bring into focus this sacrament.

Open TableA great read, passed through to me by Noel Payne–thanks mate. Fits in really well as stimulus for our next Open Book discussion on Thursday June 18 at our place, called “Hospitality & Home-Bake”. Check out the Ana Maria Pineda 12 page chapter on Hospitality here. The big question: “What does hospitality look like in my life, and how can I extend God’s table grace to others?” This week will give a taste of “Open Table” which we hope to start later in the year.

So, bring some food to share, and a story to tell at the heart of your experience of giving and receiving hospitality. And let’s enjoy together God’s eucharist, courtesy of Christ.

Blessings, Nik and Dave