The Lost Sheep/Coin
A transcendental crossing
The parable of the Lost Sheep, and the parable of the Lost Coin. At their most straightforward, they are both parables around the theme of being lost, lost individual, lost souls, and who are they lost from? God. And so God goes out of his way to find the lost individuals, and when he does, he rejoices; as the reading concludes ‘there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ That is the commonly given interpretation, that is the Sunday School version of the two parables if you like, but as is the case with most simple things, if we take the time to look closer, we tend to uncover hidden depths, hidden mysteries. So, let us begin by exploring the context.
We’re told Jesus is gathered with tax collectors and sinners, tax collectors being a group so sinful that they warrant special mention, and then ‘sinners’ being a catch-all term for all the other offenders present. The reason tax collectors (and this would be a reference to ‘Jewish tax collectors’) were seen as so deplorable, was that they were in service to the occupying force, the Roman Empire, and as such were regarded as being traitors against the Jewish people. Tax collectors’ livelihoods was literally dependent upon the oppression being wrought against fellow Jews…
Philosophy of the Bouquet
I had shut my eyes and walked backwards only a little way, trying as hard as I could to pay no heed to the loud noises about me. Someone tried to have me sign a petition, to save some Amazonian moth, but I managed to get past them. Then I stumbled through a door, and I heard a girl’s voice, and she sounded terribly bored; she tried to sell me on a cup of coffee. It was pricey, but didn’t I know that the coffee bean farmers in Ethiopia were poorly paid? I told her that I didn’t drink coffee, but she didn’t seem to care, it wasn’t about the coffee really, it wasn’t even about the farmer. It was about the brand, and what the brand said about me. But I managed to get away. I had backed up even further, and that sound, that constant noise, finally began to abate. It was still then, for a moment, as I went eyes-shut backwards along my way, before finally, in a singular backward stride, my right foot landed with a splash in some water.
I opened my eyes. It was a shallow river, gently flowing, with a forest on the other side. I could have easily waded across, but I noticed an old bridge just a little way along from where I was, so I made my way to it. The old bridge was made of granite stones; it must have been there for thousands of years, so perfectly was it integrated into the landscape about it…
Britannia, Marianne, & Columbia
Here is a bouquet of flowers, made beautiful in its diversity, and in its variety of colours. But also made beautiful in the fast-paced decisions we made as we entered the Meeting House this morning. As we approached the vase, we perhaps unconsciously made some snap decisions about how we would thread our flower into this bouquet; there were choices surrounding the flower we would contribute, where we would position it within the bouquet, and even how we would orientate it in relation to the other flowers already present. Whenever we arrange a bouquet, we’re making a similar set of decisions, and they’re not necessarily calculated decisions (they’re probably not), they’re decisions based on our intuition, and based on our sense of what we feel looks right. An interesting phenomenon for us to consider. We look at a bouquet in progress, and we discern what we need to do to it, the foliage we need to add, the gaps we need to fill, the clusters of sameness here or there that we need to distribute more evenly, the balance we’re trying to achieve, a balance which counter-intuitively arises out of chaos, out of the odd numbers of flowers. We arrange the bouquet much like how we arrange baubles on a Christmas tree. Slowly we add layers to the bouquet, and slowly it takes on a unique character, which nonetheless conforms to an indwelling sense of beauty…
Barfield and the landscape of Imagination
In Christian liturgy there is an often-used salutation, ‘The Lord be with you’, and the congregation responds, ‘And also with you.’ Of course, English Christian liturgy is by and large derived from the Catholic Latin liturgy. The salutation in Latin is ‘pax vobis’, meaning ‘peace to you’. The greeting is often called, simply, ‘The Pax’. The word ‘Pax’, recurs in the Latin interpretation of the Gospels, which became the standard version, and Latin the standard language of the Church during the fourth century. ‘Pax’, however, is not simply a word which invokes the concept of peace, it goes deeper than that. Pax was a Roman goddess, the Roman goddess of Peace. And so ‘Pax’ is a word which invokes the personification of peace and all that entails: in peacetime there is social harmony, there’s prosperity (because trade can be conducted freely), and ‘Pax’ is also closely associated with the feminine or maternal spirit, for in peacetime things can be nurtured into life - new life can come forth - and as such ‘Pax’ is also closely associated with the season of Spring.
Within the pantheon of Roman gods, there is an interrelationship between the gods, an interrelationship which invokes an unconscious association between one personified concept and another, much like archetypes have an association. One God (or goddess in this case) associated with Pax, is Concordia…
So, there I am drinking a pint of beer. My life of ministry did not begin within Unitarianism, but in the Church of England. I did a curacy in the diocese of Portsmouth, which is essentially (if you don’t know) the probationary period you need to undertake before you can become a fully-fledged priest within your own parish. And the curacy part was quite enough for me to realise that the Church of England was not for me, for many reasons, but it essentially came down to my inability to be authentically me in that context, unable to roam freely across the landscape of my own curiosity. And my ability to do that, to freely explore ideas, to think about them, to talk about them, as I’m doing now, is at the heart of my vocation. It's why I get up in the morning.
So, I’m drinking my beer in a pub in Oxford. The pub’s name is ‘The Eagle and Child.’ I lived in Oxford for a year before I took up my post in Ipswich. The reason I was in Oxford is it just so happens that as I was trying to get out of Anglicanism, my wife Cat was herself trying to get in, and it just so happened that around the same time that I resigned from the Anglican Church, my wife was accepted to train for ministry in Oxford to become a priest herself. So, I had the very odd and strange experience of resigning from the Church of England, and immediately going to live in a college where they’re training priests for the Church of England…
The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily
We have before us a series of images, a series of pictures. It is almost like we are awakening some ancient memories. We have, from last week, ascension – we have the image of Jesus leaving his disciples, being taken up, and vanishing into the clouds. Now, we have the image of Pentecost, that of a rushing wind coming from heaven, and filling the house where the disciples were sitting. We have tongues of fire appearing among them, resting upon each of them. And following that, coming from them, we have every known language being spoken, and the perplexed people looking on. If we think of all this as a series of images, as opposed to a series of concepts, it can be easier to hear what they’re trying to communicate to us. A picture carries, after all, a higher bandwidth of information. We can imagine ourselves within a picture; we can’t imagine ourselves within a concept.
A concept has the added problem that it can shut us down. We listen and listen, until we’ve understood the concept, and once we’ve understood, we need not listen or ruminate any further. But a picture within our imagination works, on the contrary, in a living way. It cannot be exhausted, it speaks to each of us afresh. It goes beyond mind and reason, and speaks to us as spirit, or as the word appears in Greek, as pneuma. Pneuma, which is translated as spirit, wind, or breath.
This morning I’m returning to the world of esoteric culture, the theosophical society, the world of Madame Blavatsky, the world in which people explore the knowledge of the hidden. And in particular I wanted to think about one important person from that world - the turn of the century Austrian, Rudolf Steiner. His name in this country is most closely associated with education. You may have heard of Steiner Schools, which use the experimental education curriculum designed by Rudolf Steiner. Each day is punctuated with exercise, movement, and dance; it’s an education system which is supposed to be more holistic, spiritual, and focused on creating harmony within society.
Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861, and he was something of a polymath. He traversed a broad landscape of ideas; he was a philosopher, studying, in particular, German idealism, he was a contributor to a literary journal, and he was a Goethe scholar. Goethe, who we know as the author of Faust, was a very influential German thinker. He’s essentially the Shakespeare, or the Dante, of Germany. Goethe was the archetypal German scholar, and many Germanic scholars have latched on to Goethe and drawn a great deal of inspiration from him, including Hegel, Jung, Freud, and Nietzsche, to name a few…
Philip and the Eunuch
The enigmatic nature of the lyrics makes ‘American Pie’ a song practically begging to be analysed. I will certainly not be the first to do so; since it was first released in 1971, it has enticed many to consider its words, even though Don McLean himself has always been reticent to give us all the definitive meaning. We’re left needing to piece together the parts for ourselves. I can picture myself, quite vividly, sitting in the back of our Cherokee, looking out into the dry Texas landscape, as the music played. A long time ago, in a world so alien to my life as is now, it could almost be unreal. This simple scene epitomises my childhood nostalgia, the world I long to return to, although what that is specifically, what I long for, defies words and logic. There’s nothing specific, just a sense of things as were, a nostalgic sense. And the soundtrack of my nostalgic sense is American Pie.
American Pie itself is, of course, a song about nostalgia, which in harmony together - my memories and this song - deepens that sentimental quality and transports me back, in a synchronistic fashion (or in Walt Whitman’s miraculous everyday fashion, or in a Proustian, the infused moment of meaning, fashion), into a world I can now only glimpse but fleetingly. The lyrics themselves begin with looking back, back into the world of a little boy, remembering how, ‘That music used to make [him] smile.’
The Isle of the Dead
This morning I’m going to be getting into the weeds of Acts - the passage we heard, the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. As we read the Bible, we encounter a wall of text, a text which can at times be pretty daunting and inaccessible. The Bible often assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of its readers. The New Testament assumes we’re familiar with the stories in the Hebrew Bible, St Paul’s letters assume we are broadly familiar with Jesus, his ministry, and the salient points of Christianity, and the whole biblical text, being written two thousand odd years ago, assumes we’re familiar with the cultural and social norms of first-century Palestine. There’s also the text itself. Although the Bible, with its multiple translations, has brought forth some of the most beautiful poetry and prose ever committed to paper or parchment, it is not all worthy of such acclamation. It is in parts, clunky, and in parts, dull, and that’s before you’ve even begun to consider some of the claims contained within its pages - those claims which are simply wrong or contradictory.
But the nice thing about the passage we read, in which Philip overhears the Eunuch reading from Isaiah (one of the books in the Hebrew Bible), is that the inexplicable nature of the Bible is acknowledged…
A Green Apple
Last week I was in Florence, Italy, and on Friday, just as the weather began to turn, and the Tuscan sun turned to dark cloud, I visited a place I’d only read about. On the north side of the city, in the middle of a ring of traffic, there is an ‘isle of the dead’, a hill that rises out of the busy landscape, a richly green terrain furnished with marble memorials. As one passes through the gatehouse and across that threshold, you enter a curiously solitary place. On account, perhaps, of the elevation, or the canopy of trees, or some inexplicable veil that one passes through, the noise of urban life fades into the background, the present becomes all the more perceptible, and you discern yourself to now be in a thin place out of time. A forgotten place. For unlike Florence’s many tourism hot spots, in which you queue for hours to see Michelangelo’s David, or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, here, there is not a single other soul.
This place has a few different names. It's sometimes referred to as the ‘The English Cemetery’, and sometimes as ‘The Protestant Cemetery’. Both names are a bit misleading, as this oval graveyard does not contain exclusively either, but it is, nonetheless, predominantly protestants from the anglosphere…
Reinterpreting the Resurrection Mythos
To quote Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish philosopher and mystic, “We can see from this (from Nature), as though in a mirror, how perfection stems from variety in heaven as well, since things that happen in the natural world offer us a reflection of things in the spiritual world.” When we look upon variety in Nature, that variety corresponds to a spiritual reality. I find myself standing in a wheat field; before me the crop stretches out across the undulating topography. As I walk the path, my eyes catch upon the uniform lines, the crops, perfectly ordered. After a short time, I reach the edge of a wood, and stepping across the threshold, moving from the field to the wood, my spirit is lifted, for I have gone from the singular to the varied. From the land ordered by man, to the land ordered by God.
Here, where the variety is at its greatest, there is a more perfect whole. To engage with it, to be caught up with it, to commune with this sacred symbiotic, is to have one’s spirit revivified. Swedenborg’s insights concerning spirituality and the natural order, have had a profound effect upon the landscape of ideas. This notion that we can view the natural world as a sacred experience, a place to encounter the divine, has influenced many…
Neville Goddard and your Imagination
He is risen! He is risen indeed, hallelujah! There can be no doubt that without resurrection, without that event at the heart of Christianity, there could be no Easter, there could be no Christianity, there could be no dissenters who come along down the line, and thus, there could be no Ipswich Unitarians. The temptation is, within liberal church contexts such as ours, to avoid the crux of the matter on Easter morning. No doubt in many churches today, there are liberal religious ministers taking special pains to avoid St Paul’s stark words, as he states them plainly in 1 Corinthians (15:11-15): “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ.”
What are we sceptics to do, we who cannot believe? Paul is so critical to Christianity, we should surely be taking his lead, and yet, do we not find ourselves to be his adversaries, the very people that Paul condemns?
Blavatsky, Emerson, and The Tree of Knowledge
I’m going to begin this Palm Sunday morning by telling you a story about a man. His name is Neville Goddard, he’s married, and he has a young daughter whose name is Vicky. So, it’s him, his wife and his daughter all living together in New York. The year is 1943, it’s the height of WWII, and he is 39 years old. From 1940 onwards is when the US Army began drafting men. At first, they were drafting about 1 in 9 men, and by 1943 this number rose to about 1 in 5, because numbers were depleting so quickly. And so in 1943 Neville Goddard is drafted. Of course, most American men, called upon to serve their country in the 1940s, driven by their sense of patriotism, accepted their call as a matter of duty. Neville Goddard was not so willing. He regarded himself at 39 to be too old for war, and he wasn’t that keen on war anyway, and on top of that he had his wife and his daughter to think about at home. But of course, he didn’t have a choice, so he was sent to Boot Camp in Louisiana. Frustrated by this as he was, after a short time he went to see his commanding officer, and he asked to be discharged. And as you might imagine, he was essentially laughed out of the room. He was told in no uncertain terms that he had a mandate and a duty to serve his country…
The Great Mother
This morning I am entering territory I have not traversed before. I’m thinking about the emergence of what we might term western esotericism, or western occultism, or modern spirituality. When we think about the emergence of an idea, or a set of ideas, it's worth thinking about how such ideas arose. An idea does not just appear – ex nihilo - out of nothing. The conditions, the architecture of ideas prevalent at a particular time, the softening of prior-held precepts, these are all essential prerequisites for an idea to arise. In general, I find academic genealogy a fascinating subject. Samuel Coleridge wrote ‘The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on.’ A variant of the well-known idiom, ‘We all stand on the shoulders of giants.’ We all benefit from the insights of bygone thinkers, and our progress, our discoveries, depend upon those who came before. Scholarship often consists of tracing back the intellectual lineage of particular ideas. And indeed, even thinkers who we might consider as remarkably original, like Newton, Freud, Darwin, or Marx, all have their intellectual forerunners who preempted their work and theories to some measure, and set the stage for their advent.
Journey Through Lent
Every year I reflect upon the significance of Mother’s Day, and every year it brings to mind for me the fact that for many, Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday, conjures up a lot of pain and hurt. For many of us, the day highlights not so much joy and thankfulness, but more the loss in our own lives, the loss of mothers, of wives, and of children, or brokenness in relationships, hurts surrounding thoughts of what could be, or what could have been. I think also, on top of that, Mother’s Day conjures up quite a narrow image of motherhood, which is not always helpful in this day and age. And so, this morning, I will be thinking less about motherhood in terms of the mother/child relationship per se, and more in archetypal terms - the collectively inherited unconscious idea of motherhood or mothering - and in this respect we can find expressions that far exceed the confines of the mother/child dynamic.
I’d only gotten this little way into writing this morning’s address, when I heard a bang down in the kitchen, and my cat Pod came barrelling up the stairs and into my office. I have two cats, Daisy and Pod, mother and son, and they don’t like each other at all…
This morning, as I have already begun doing, I am going to be reflecting on this season of Lent, and in part, this does lead on from some of my thoughts from last week on the ‘Binding of Isaac’. Last week we thought about the episode in Genesis in which Abraham takes his child Isaac, at God’s bidding, and leads him to a mountain to be sacrificed, and God, at the last moment, steps in and stops it from happening. We went through a few different ways we might parse out that troubling event, none of which, however, I think are ultimately adequate. I suppose the world does not always offer us adequate explanations, we’re sometimes left in the dark, in an uneasy space unable to reconcile things. We’re left with no other choice but to sit with and inhabit that uncomfortable space, or alternatively (as many people do) deny it, and pretend it’s not there. And I have a strong bias towards the former. Allowing ourselves to sit with the paradox, to live with our sense of unease, and not run away from it – that is to be more authentic to reality. And ultimately, I suppose, striving to be an awakened sort of person is about a greater awareness of reality, as it plays out in its kaleidoscopic fashion upon that multitude of planes. When our eyes are open, paradoxes become the norm, not the exception.