Sun 03 Jun
The rain, then the Auckland wind, and then the mid-year plunge of the thermometer have, over the last month, arrived. The chill has descended and it’s time to go inside, to turn on the heaters, fill the hot water bottle, drink warming soup, and vegetate. It is a time to stop, to rest, to be intently inactive, and to allow the soul to gently recover. Six days shalt thou toil, and on the seventh thou shalt stop.
For busyness, demands, criticism, and responsibilities take their toll. Our goodwill, our joie d’vivre, our capacity to look calamity in the face with equanimity, will all diminish under the pressure of living unless we are replenished. Warmth, good food, and silence are part of the plenishing. So too is the company of those who have the gift of being present with us without seemingly requiring anything from us.
Bishop J.A.T. Robinson once talked about faith having a firm centre and open edges. We Presbyterians debate what constitutes the centre. Some want to put the Bible, sexuality, and marriage there. Maybe it comes with age, but I find that what I want to affirm in the centre is getting less and less. Yet the less and less I am affirming is becoming more and more important.
Simply god, small ‘g’, is in the centre. Not the full-blown Christian creedal and dogmatic package, but just one word, one descriptor: hospitality. In the best sense of the word hospitality summarizes the life of Jesus. It is generous, boundary-rattling, and transformative.
Hospitality is shelter from the storm. It is the place-setting for the unexpected visitor. It is the willingness to wait on friend and less-than-friend alike. It is the ego-strength that can tolerate difference and withstand the tribalism of clubs and communities. It is the surety of being that can embrace the world. It is a synonym for what many of us mean when we use the word ‘god’.
In my autumn-come-winter recess it is this god who invites me to toast my toes by the heater. This god embraces my humanity. This god is the hot broth of my soul’s home. It is a Sabbath god who makes no demands, who loves not because of anything we have done or will do, and who invites us to be content in our inactivity and rest.
There is another God though outside my dwelling. It likes the capital ‘G’ at the front of its name. This is a God called authority. It is a colder God with rules and regulations, rights and wrongs. Not everyone gets an invitation with this God, but at least you know where you are. This God is often personified as a king or judge, but almost never as a waiter or dishwasher. It is a God of certainty, power, and benevolence. Invariably it is male.
The authority God is often pictured as a triumvirate of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who together rule over the universe. This Trinity of communal subordination and internal self-congratulation was complete in its classical form by the 4th century, coinciding with the increasing imperial benefits the Church was receiving. The holy threesome allegedly ruled from the heavens and delegated much of their authority to the emperors of Mediterranean earth. The Emperor ruled, the Church legitimated and benefited from his rule, and the poor got more charity and less justice.
This authority God lives on, asserting its supposed right to determine who gets what and who doesn’t. It prides itself on pronouncements, creeds, and interpretations that every follower is meant to conform to. It is intolerant of plural understandings. Ultimately there is only one right faith, one right Church, and one right Lord. Join it, believe it, or be damned. God loves you if…
This God is not content with our Sabbath. This God demands that we get up, get busy. Salvation is all about believing and doing the right things. ‘Being at home in God’ is something the lucky get in heaven. For now you have to work. After six days of labour, the seventh is to do housework, or paperwork, or church work. Rest is for wimps.
In my rainy recess this authority God prowls around the exterior of my dwelling seeking to devour all who, like me, differ. But I am not trapped by it, nor afraid. My soul is free. For I have experienced the god called hospitality and I can’t deny it even if I wanted to.
It’s like thinking the whole world speaks English, then travelling abroad and discovering it isn’t so. It is impossible to go back to believing everyone speaks only English. Similarly it is impossible to go back to the uniformity and demands of the authority God.
The god called hospitality takes freedom seriously. A table of sumptuous food is laid out and everyone is invited to come. Those who can’t or refuse to come aren’t judged – they just miss out. Those who gather have differing views and robustly exchange them. Pantheons of gods dine with their adherents and their critics. Vegans are catered for.
Those who come to the table feel cared for by the company and food, and by the grace provided. God though is not the waiter, the chef, or the host. For god is not just another anthropomorphic deity thwarting other contenders for our allegiance. God is simply, cosmically, and prophetically the spirit of hospitality itself.
Unity is not the goal of this table gathering, though it can be a by-product. The goal is to offer sustenance, encouragement, laughter, broad vision, and hope to one another, and then go from the feasting to live it.
The authority God, though, has a problem with freedom. On the one hand it grants circumscribed permission. It is akin to saying to a group of children after building a playground and fencing it, “You can now play here”. On the other hand, it worries freedom can get out of control. Freedom is the sister of free will and a close cousin to sin. It is akin to the group of children refusing to play in the specially created playground and instead taking their games and laughter, and running wild. ‘Wild’ is another word alien to the authority God’s lexicon.
There are two words much beloved of the authority God: obedience and unity. Obedience means trusting in the ‘wisdom’ of your ecclesiastical elite, particularly as articulated in creeds and dogmas, and doing as you are told. Individual exploration is tolerated as long as it brings you back to that ‘wisdom’. Deviation from that ‘wisdom’ is sin.
Unity is conforming to what has been agreed by the ecclesiastical elite. It is about agreeing on what is central and abstaining from any contentious actions until there is agreement on centrality. The authority God whether in the homely dress of the caring father, the wig of the omnipotent judge, or the regal robes of the anxious minister, is ultimately concerned about control.
Though it is often hard to see clearly through dim glass the authority God is shrinking. The more it shouts, the more strident it becomes, the more I know it is frightened. Sole unitary authority as a doctrine in politics, academia, social theory, or the Church can only survive where there is ignorance of the wider world. Immigration, the internet, education, travel… all work against such uniform authority. The world of the authority God is doomed. It took a hit in Ireland last week!
The wind has stop blowing, and the rain has eased. As usual the prowling authority God outside my door has roared and then slunk off. It doesn’t like it when it doesn’t get attention.
I am obedient to my cup of soup, now my third. The holiness of the warm heater, our family’s gregarious feline who has joined me, and the musings of my mind, feed my soul. I am obedient too to my soul in seeking out life and hope where it can be found. It takes me places where the company is mixed and tainted. In those places that the soul seeks and pilgrims gather, whether on the steps of Parliament, in the grandeur of a holy temple, or in the kitchen of a welcoming home, unity can be found. It isn’t planned for. It just happens when that hearty trinitarian broth of compassion, justice, and freedom is stirred and then ladled out.
It is peaceful here by the heater. A sabbath peace has come home in me.