Wednesday, December 04, 2013

in the guise of a small child: an Advent spirituality

I’ve been offered a new way of engaging Christ – one that seems strangely relevant in this Advent Season. In the 12th century, an English mystic, Christina of Markyate, wrote of her experience of the divine:

an unheard-of-grace. For in the guise of a small child [Jesus] came to the arms of his sorely tried spouse and remained with her a whole day, not only being felt but also seen.

The experience can be found in The Life of Christina of Markyate (Oxford World’s Classics). It is fascinating, for God in Christ is encountered not as a baby (at Christmas), nor as an adult (in the gospels), but as a small child.

The experience was a turning point for Christina. There is more evidence of compassion, more active care for friends, more concern for the church, more peace in prayer. There is a new joy evident, a greater depth of celebration of Christmas. (According to Grace Jantzen, “The womb and the tomb,” in Wounds that Heal – Theology, Imagination and Health, edited by Jonathan Baxter, SPCK, 2007, 176)

It opened up some new imaginative space in prayer for me. What might I experience if Christ came to me, today, as a small child. What “Christology” might I encounter? I identified four things – simplicity, mindfulness, play, surrender. I realise that these are a form of reader response – that I am most likely bringing my (idealised) experiences of small children – to the encounter. But it offered a new sense for me of engaging with God. It made fresh sense of the Incarnation, that God as fully human can relate to all of life. It made me realise again the gift that is all-age, inter-generational worship, that I can encounter God in the actions, questions and questions of a child.

I also reflected on what might be the opposites of simplicity, mindfulness, play, surrender. I identified complexity, history, rationalism, suspicion. I was reminded of the sour and corrosive power of these behaviours – often the domain of adults, and perhaps adults who are academics. These became for me moments of confession, as I reflected on my last 24 hours, the email I send and receive, the conversations I have.

“In the guise of a small child”, is proving a generative Advent spirituality.

Posted by steve at 08:18 AM

Thursday, December 20, 2012

the nativity as a theology for the differently abled: film review of Intouchables

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for December.

The Intouchables – A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“That’s what I want. No pity” Philippe from his wheel chair

It is Christmas. In the next weeks many of us will find ourselves contemplating an image of the Nativity, the crib surrounded by adoring angels, bewildered shepherds and a prayerful Mary.

(from Metropolitan Museum , usage based on their fair use policy and from

The Adoration of the Christ Child by Jan Joest (1515) is one such depiction. While not sited on contemporary Christmas cards, it has caught the eye of scientists, who have identified one angel and one shepherd as displaying the typical features of Down syndrome.

It raises an important theological question. When the Word became flesh, one with all humanity, how might this be good news for the differently abled? What does disability mean to a Christian understanding of being human?

French movie “The Intouchables,” written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, provides a delightfully comic, yet theologically thoughtful response.

Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a tetraplegic, sentenced to life in a wheel chair as a result of a hang glider accident. Needing care, he hires Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese migrant, from a long list of applicants. They share little in common, separated by age, ethnicity, upbringing and social context.

Yet together this unlikely pairing help each become more fully human. Their journey is a delight. Those around me in the packed cinema found a shared laughter, an enjoyment with, never at, the differently abled.

The film was voted the cultural event of 2011 in France, enjoying number one at the box office for ten consecutive weeks, becoming the highest-grossing movie in a language other than English. It is easy to see why. The dialogue is deft. The acting is superb.

Some critics suggest easy stereotypes in the contrast between rich white man and poor black man. Yet “The Intouchables” uncovers the brokenness in both their worlds. For one, the relational sterility of wealth, for the other, the drug addicted violence of high-rise migrant housing.

Both Philippe and Driss must eventually find healing for disabilities not just physical, but relational.

Suggesting easy stereotypes also overlooks reality. “The Intouchables” is based on truth, the relationship of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Algerian Abdel Sellou, spread over ten years. Their story is told in A Second Wind and they remain friends. Together their relationship offers a depth of insight into the task of being human.

“Pity is the last thing you need. Pity is hopeless. Pity is what someone gives you because he is afraid to take care of you. I didn’t need that. But compassion I don’t need also. It comes from Latin and means ‘suffering with’. I don’t want you to be suffering with me. I need consolation, which in Latin means keeping me as a whole person, respecting me as I am.” (Philippe in Daily Telegraph, 5/9/2012)

Christians can get good at pity. At Christmas we can face many calls for compassion. Might it be that Christ, surrounded by disabled angels and shepherds, calls us to neither pity nor compassion? Rather he invites consolation, the God who in Christ so loved the intouchables, all “the least of these.”

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal, Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

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Posted by steve at 08:37 AM

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

the advent of fresh expressions – the wilderness (part 2)

This Advent, O Lord, soften the hearts of parents toward the next generation
Part 1- the advent of fresh expressions – the bare barrenness of tradition

The Gospel of Luke begins with barrenness and soon shifts to wilderness. John the Baptist, camel haired and with locust wings in mouth, will emerge from the desert. The theme will continue with Jesus, who in preparation for ministry, will walk into the wilderness. In doing so, there are echoes with Israel, who found God in the desert, who were birthed as a community, their identity and practices shaped by wilderness. It will resonate with the words of the prophet Isaiah, who dreamed of rough places smooth.

So what is the place of wilderness in advent? What resources will sustain the encountering of God in the rough and tough? What does desert do to the demands for vitality and the dreams for health and growth?

Desert God
This Advent
May we be find fresh treasure in wilderness
Shade in the deep valley
Clarity from the rocky outcrop

Posted by steve at 08:00 AM

Monday, December 03, 2012

the advent of fresh expressions – the bare barrenness of tradition (part 1)

The Gospel of Luke begins with barrenness. An older couple. Faithful yet childless. It is like so much of the Church in the West today, older, faithful. Yet so often barren, with no living memory of church birth, no experience of participating in the life flow that is new communities.

The result is a wondering about one’s future, a quiet misgiving about the family line, the next generation of young people.

It is in this barrenness we glimpse the Spirit’s work. A promise of a fresh expression.

Luke 1:15-17 “He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children.”

Interesting that last phrase. The hearts of parents need softening. So often this is the way with fresh expressions. Parents simply don’t understand. Congregations need convincing. Of course the present will shape our future. Church is reduced to historic ways, discipleship to a rigid patterning.

Hearts being softened, of course, is essential to the advent of this fresh expression. In the following verses, the child is born. Elizabeth wants to name him John. But tradition speaks. Luke 1:61-62 “But,” they said, “no one in your family is named that.”

With this fresh expressions, times they are a changing.

This Advent, O Lord, soften the hearts of parents toward the next generation

Posted by steve at 08:08 AM

Saturday, December 01, 2012

the potential and place of corporate discernment

Something anew was born yesterday. The timing seemed almost inspired, given this is Advent.

At Uniting College, one of the mechanisms by which candidates participate in their growth as ministry people is Formation Panels.

A person applies for selection as a Minister of the Word or Deacon. If accepted, they are placed in a formation panel. A Formation Panel consists of 3-5 experienced ministry practioners and an Academic Adviser from College. They meet three times a year. This group listen to a new candidate. Together they design a process that mixes formal study, formation and ministry skills and length of process. A candidate and the panel journey together, usually for six years, through the more intense training phase (2) and for the first (phase 3) three years in ministry. Listening, sifting, naming, checking.

Yesterday, was Formation Panel day and all over College among the 40 plus people in phase 2 and 3, all sorts of conversations were happening. Direction for next year was being clarified. Progress in the deep work that is individual growth was being monitored and discerned. Frank conversations about suitability for ministry were being had. Wisdom about how a new minister in placement might handle a difficult situation were being gleaned.

And in one life, a change of direction was being born. Something a candidate had written in preparation, was being linked with some knowledge of their life skills. A question was asked.

And a light bulb went off. The person visibly lifted. A whole new door in ministry was becoming clear.

And so the panel went back to work. A new course plan will need designing – a different mix of formal study, formation and ministry skills. Because of corporate discernment. The willingness to listen long enough and hard enough, to wait (this Advent), for the work of Spirit anew.

Posted by steve at 09:10 AM

Monday, May 07, 2012

faith of girls: more than a guy thing part 3

What do Lo-ruhamah in Hosea 1, Namaan’s wife’s slave girl in 2 Kings 5, the slave girl in Philippi in Acts 16, Jarius daughter in the Gospels, have in common?

First, they are pre-pubescent girls. Second, they are agents of new theology. God is made more real, more understandable, more present, through these girls. This is so consistent with Jesus, who takes children in his arms and reminds us that keys to God’s Kingdom are found in them.

My reading in gender and faith development continues. I didn’t expect this when I began my sabbatical. But I’ve learnt there are times to chase the unexpected, to follow the rabbit holes of research. My intuition says there is something important about the emerging church and gender, so I am reading.

In response to my posts last week on faith development and gender (here and here), Andy Goodliff commented, suggesting The Faith of Girls by Anne Phillips.

It is superb.

Phillips notes how gender blind is the church, and that most theologies of childhood have been written by men. She interviews 17 young girls, seeking to understand their faith development. “In asking the girls the question: ‘Who is God for you?’ I was not asking them to engage in abstract theory or systematic theology, but to narrate or to reflect on how and where in their own experience they had encountered God.” (105)

Anne argues for a “wombing” theology as an approach to faith development. It protects and so the need for a “home space.” It enables play, in which the one being birthed is free, away from adult control, to work at their identity. It connects. Regarding church, “membership of a cohort was not enough for the girls to feel a sense of belonging. Intergenerational sharing was named as a significant feature in their attachment to the environment … Girls [interviewed] regularly spoke of the impact on their faith of older people … Most participation was initiated by adults.” (160)

The Faith of Girls is practical theology at it’s best. It shows how by starting with human experience, in this case the faith development of young girls, we find fresh insights, new imaginations emerging from the Christian tradition and the Biblical text. (To the above list of Biblical characters offered by Phillips, I’d also add Mary. Plus the unnamed children of those effected by Jesus healing ministry, for example, if the leper in Mark 1 had a daughter, or the Syro-Phronecian woman had a daughter.)

Phillips is a Baptist minister, and Co-Principal of Northern Baptist College and the book emerges from her PHD research. The Faith of Girls is currently only available in hardback, which makes it pricey. But still worth it. There is a sermon series on young girls as Biblical characters, there is rich material to discuss with those in your church responsible for faith development, there are insights for fathers and mothers, grandparents, other family into how they raise children.

Posted by steve at 11:34 AM

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Jesus deck lectionary: spirituality of “wise men” as theology of family

I am using the Jesus Deck as my current lectionary. Every day I deal myself a card. Before Easter, it was Mark, as I ran through the drama that is Holy week. After Easter, Christians celebrate resurrection. A season of surprise. So the whole deck gets shuffled and dealt randomly. After Pentecost, I will use colour. I will keep dealing cards until I find some green. Growth. The colour attributed to the Spirit in Rublevs Icon. That will become my lectionary.

Today the Jesus deck dealt me Matthew 2. The text on the top reads “We have seen his star.” The text running along the bottom reads “Astrologers.” It’s a reference to the magi of Matthew 2:1-12.

It is interesting to engage this story outside Christmas. Although of course, given travel time, the story would have started months before.

Perhaps on a day in April.

A day like today.

Looking at this Jesus deck card, I am struck by how God uses hobbies – took the everyday passions of these “magi” and crafted through that a way to seek and search. So often spirituality is removed from the ordinary, and yet here is God inviting our hobbies and vocations, our passions and interests into a pursuit of divine. (Hence my Dictionary of Everyday Spirituality series).

Thinking of ordinary, I began to wonder if these magi had families. If so, what the star would have meant for their spiritual search.

You see, family is the perennial problem faced by all travellers. To take the kids and grandparents. Or to leave them behind.

The horns of a dilemna. To go alone. Or to drag in the innocent with you on an unknown search?

Either way, stay or come, relationships are being torn, domestic life reshaped. It’s a tough gig, seeing a star.

Which took me back to the Biblical text surrounding this particular Jesus deck card. Families in pain surround the magi narrative.

Jesus being wrapt in swaddling cloth and rocked to Egypt. That’s migration – forced to find shelter in a new language; look for work as your potential workmates comment on your accent; missing home; family not seeing the first Jesus smile, the first Jesus step. It’s a tough gig, carrying a star.

And let’s not talk about the screams that rent Israel. The nightmares of mothers screaming for their babies, dead at Herod’s knife. Families in pain surrounds this Jesus.

So what happens when we engage the story of the magi outside Christmas. We are invited to seek a star, to find God amid our ordinary. But as we peer at the spiritual search we ponder. Is it one of glamourous adventure? Or deep pain? Or both?

Time for a hug of those I love.

Posted by steve at 03:16 PM

Friday, December 23, 2011

being consumed (at Christmas)

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire is a great little book. At only 100 pages, there is both a depth of theological reflection, yet an incredibly practical edge. It is an attempt to “sketch out a view of everyday economic life with the use of Christian resources.” (viii)

“The Eucharist tells another story about hunger and consumption.” (94).

The argument is that the Eucharist provides an alternative imagination to globalisation. It’s not just theory, because the assertion that the “church is called to be a different kind of economic space and to foster such spaces in the world” (ix) is followed by some really concrete practices

  • turn our homes into sites of creative production, not just consumption (such a practical alternative perhaps to Christmas)
  • donate time to those in need
  • deposit in community development banks
  • buy locally
  • Christian business practices and
  • Fair Trade

I reckon it’s a sort of Catholic equivalent of Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling in the sense that both seem to provide an integrative center for mission. So in Being Consumed, that integrative centre is the eucharist, while in Culture Making it is the invitation to play in culture that allows a mission, whether it is a minister leading a change, a teenager engaging in social justice, a retired person crafting for charity or a Council worker enacting legislation for the sake of a cleaner city.

(For some of my commentary on this a great little video, see here).

Both seem to provide ways beyond the church-centric imagination that plagues so much of contemporary mission (including fresh expressions) thinking. What is more appealing about Being Consumed, in contrast to Culture Making, is that the eucharist is more more communal, much more social, than the tendency to individualism in culture makers.

Further links:
Consumerism at Christmas (part one)
Consumerism at Christmas (another here).

Posted by steve at 01:36 PM

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Advent acts of healing and redemption

The Lake (Ellesmere) on which my most re-creative space is found, was a few years ago, declared pretty well dead, a victim of chemical pollution and lack of care.

After much negotiation, the local Maori tribe has been given a greater opportunity to care for the Lake. This morning, with the air dead calm, I walked out where the River (Selwyn) meets the Lake. What was a paddock is now planted in native bush. An attractive set of wooden steps welcomes. A number of new trails toward the lake are being developed. It might be a coincidence, but the bird life seems more abundant. Black swans patrolled the river and a range of shags and seagulls fought for fish.

It struck me as being a wonderful metaphor for the work of God in the world. I have been absent, in another country. And yet creation care continues, land is being offered some space to healing and the birds rejoice. In a few days we will celebrate the birth of the One who made healing and redemption, of human and creation, a possibility in which all are invited to participate.

Romans 8:21, 23 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God …Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Posted by steve at 03:14 PM

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

what would I use an iPAD for?

I’ve been given a monetary gift. It’s a thankyou in response to working quite intensely over a recent weekend, a period that left me quite drained.

So it would be nice to use this gift to intentionally re-source and re-plenish myself, to be able to point to something and say ‘this is a blessing back, for being a blessing out.’

Books, music and art are (definite) possibilities. Another suggestion is that I buy an iPAD. I already have a kindle (which I use for reading and love the new reading horizons) and a laptop (for work) and I’m not not convinced about more technological acquisition.

So, fellow readers what really – usefully, resourcefully – would I use an iPAD for? How would it help re-source and re-plenish me, in ways that a kindle or laptop couldn’t?

Posted by steve at 08:06 AM

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

What to Remember When Waking: a poetic opening into Incarnation

I’ve been sitting for the last two months with a poem by David Whyte (What to remember when waking). My supervisor gave it to me, first in response to some prayers I was writing: short tweets type prayers as I sought to turn into prayer my first waking moments. Like these:

Gentle patter of falling rain is a healing, relational gesture. God help me treasure your active participation in the world today.

Mist, a mystery, gently striding the hills, a humble quest suggested. God, courage please, for every question in that quest today.

Sparrows you flit, in effortless flight, through God’s wide world. Today, God may I share in playful participative play.

My supervisor connected my prayers with the first line of the first verse:

In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake

As I say with it, it began to provide a way to pray as I considered the Principal role, especially the last verse:

What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?

Then, as we have moved into December, into Advent, as I’ve been pondering the Christmas message, the 3rd verse has become significant.

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

It suggests a way of understanding Incarnation, God-in-flesh. God choosing to become visible in Christ, Christ carrying a gift of love to others, a gift not from this world, but from the Eternal, a gift defined not by these world’s values, but from the life and love of God.

It’s amazing how a poem can live on, find increasing depth, resonate with different parts of my life. Anyhow, for those interested here’s the poem, offered in the sense it might be useful to others in this Advent season.

Posted by steve at 10:08 PM

Sunday, November 06, 2011

burning bush (Exodus 3 and 4), mission, call, creativity and Advent

I’ve been sitting for the last few months with the call of Moses in Exodus 3 and 4. A few months ago I heard it told well as a children’s story and really hit me. First, mission and the importance of beginning with our ears on. Second, call and what it means for me to respond to God’s call by simply giving my “staff” – my gifts, talents, experiences.

Over the weekend, as a way of trying to dwell further on the text, I googled burning bush icons. (I’m just about to finish an icon (another pioneer Jesus), so I’m beginning to feel my way toward my next icon project.) I could only find about four and one, was most intriguing. It is titled the Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush. (More here)

Mary is surrounded by the flames. She literally sits in the middle of the burning bush, while Jesus sits in the middle of Mary! I like how small Moses is, off and to the side, and the little angels up top, doing their spiritual play!

Textually, much of Jesus in the Gospels, especially in Matthew, is framed as the new Moses, leading a new Exodus. Thus visually, a burning bush icon that references Jesus is very Biblically astute.

What struck me was how visually it connects for me with that superb Advent icon, the Theotokos Orans icon.

Toward the end of last year, leading into Advent, I spent much time reflecting on the Orans icon and the implications for mission, church and pioneer leadership (here and here).

So there is something intuitive here for me, about the need to take of shoes for we stand on holy ground, about the mission of Moses as a forerunner of the mission of Jesus, about refinement, about possibilities.

Yes, I think I know what my next icon might be!

Posted by steve at 06:00 PM

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I am a pimple in the life of a century-old church

Over the weekend, the church, I used to pastor, Opawa Baptist, celebrated 100 years. It was a great thrill to be there and to hear the stories and look at the photos and to see the archival video footage. Which all served to reinforce how insignificant my 6 years of involvement was in the span of things.

I was merely a pimple in a church in which so many ministered and loved and prayed. Which feels good.

As part of the Sunday morning sermon I was invited (along with 3 other ministers in the life of church) to spend 5-8 minutes addressing the question – what was the Spirit up to? My period of ministry was from the beginning of 2004 to the start of 2010 and here’s what I said. (more…)

Posted by steve at 12:24 PM

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What does the Spirit smell like?

Yesterday in class we began by smelling the Bible. I realise this is not a standard approach to Christianity, the Bible or to tertiary study. So before we began, as a group we needed to take quite some time to make sure we were connecting with our noses.

So I began with a quick quiz. People were asked to rank favourite smells – sunday roast, coffee, bbq, gingerbread, popcorn, cut grass. The buzz of conversation confirmed that people were starting to think through their noses.

Second, we read an excerpt from Sense Making Faith, reminding us of how important smell is – our unique smell, smell in creation, the changing smells of life.

Third, we took some quiet time to reflect on the familiar scent of a person we love, followed by the smell of our church. How would we recognise people and place by smell alone?

Fourthly, we prayed

Lord God,
You walk in all our memories
You know where we have been
What we have said, known and felt
Come to us in the scent we remember
The time when we walked with you
And know that we walk with you still
Amen. Prayer from Sense Making Faith.

Fifthly, we considered not just good smells, but also bad spells. We asked ourselves where are the bad smells in our community? And we prayed, together again. We started and ended the prayer together, with space in the middle for us to name individually the smells we have been reflecting upon.

Lord God,
In the stink of rubbish tips where people make a living
In the stench of grave where people search for their dead
In the foul odour of disease where people are suffering
You are there. (space for individuals to name the smells). You are the fresh air.
Help us to make lives for the scavengers of rubbish
Help us to bring justice for the unknown dead
Help us to nurse and heal the diseased.
Help us to bring your fresh new life to the world. Amen (Prayer from Sense Making Faith).

We were now ready to smell the Bible. We were aware of the importance of smell and the fact that smell can work both positively and negatively. And so we smelt our Biblical text for the week (Luke 1:39-45). I read it slowly, pausing often.

And we were moved, by the fresh insights that emerged, by the growing awareness of the humanity of the text. And we were stumped by verse 41 “filled with the Holy Spirit.” What does the Spirit smell like? Are we “smelling” too much into the text? Or is that the Spirit does have an aroma, and we’ve simply never yet been aware of it, never paid attention?

A note: Much of this material comes from Sense Making Faith which is a wonderful resource. For more on how it can be used, not just in a class, but in church and in mission, go here.

Posted by steve at 04:06 PM