Provide me with questions not answers: St George’s Church, Paddington, NSW, 14 July 2013

Dear God
Complicate my world
Make my thoughts subtle
Give me nuanced perspectives
Disturb my settled ways.

Deprive me of easy solutions
Demolish my glib explanations
Disrupt my black-and-white vision
Keep me from being right

Starve me of ready-made beliefs
Upset my certainties
Hide from me the truth
Increase my doubt

Banish me from the tribe
Force me to fend for myself
Send me on perilous journeys
Put obstacles in my way
provide me with questions not answers
puzzle me with paradox
remain hidden from me
leave me wondering
John Pfitzner, Friendly Street New Poets 17, Wakefield Press: Adelaide, 2012, p.16.

Today I commence a short series of studies on the Epistle to the Colossians.  I want to take a journey with you into a spirituality that can stand back from rules for living and treasure the moment.  Much of every day at home and at work is bound by timetables and other people’s expectations.  But take a moment for self-awareness; hold your sense of being in the present, not locked into some past anxiety; allow the rhythm of your breath to focus you.  Simply recall what each of us does when other people and things around seem to control us.  We pause and take stock of ourselves and for that moment ‘let the heart speak’.

The Epistle to the Colossians is a good place to begin this reflection; it is filled with important directions for living, patterns for prayer and an exalted awareness of Jesus in whom we may see the fullness of God.  I wish here to affirm all of this – but, at the same time, ask you to stand back for a moment and allow these words to ‘complicate’ the ‘black and white’ Bible interpretations we have inherited.  I want to offer you ‘nuanced perspectives’ on what it means when call yourself Christian in our world where ‘ready-made beliefs’ provide too many ‘answers’ and too few ‘questions’.

Colossian chapter 1 sets out as fundamental:

  • that you be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives
  • that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please God in every way
  • that you bear fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God
  • that you may be strengthened with all power according to his glorious might
  • that you may have great endurance and patience
  • that you may give joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified youto share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light
  • that you might know that God rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves
  • that through him you might experience redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

A secondary story runs counter to this.  The commentators describe it as ‘the Colossian heresy’: as we read more of the text over the next weeks we will sense the cut and thrust of claim and counter-claim.  But today, all I suggest you do is to hold the faith assertions but listen for the nuances.  Put as a series of dot points they sound like obligations but reconsider them as a discussion that might take place this morning.  Here we could ask what our Christian profession might mean as an election looms with party leaders’ ‘black and white’ assertions about refugees, boat people, relations with Indonesia and China, climate change and indigenous rights.  Surely all these ‘ready-made beliefs’ provide too many ‘answers’ and too few ‘questions’.

This morning the great claims from Colossians chapter 1 might be the substance of our prayer for each other but what would they mean in our wider, contemporary Australian multicultural society?   Don’t we live with a tension between our past ‘certainties’ and an exploration of fresh ideas that our changed world demands?  How do today’s demands shape our spirituality?  As we turn back the clock to the text the same question was being asked there.

If my assumption is correct that Paul is not the author, then the Epistle may date from as late as the early 80s. In other words, the Epistle is about a struggle between parties holding radically different views on spirituality – in a sense tradition confronting New Age ideas.  Both sides claim our attention.  We know that, as soon as we slip into religious slogans and ‘black and white’ assertions, we have isolated ourselves.  From long experience, most of us know that there is no serious alternative than to listen carefully to the other’s opinions, to take a moment of self-awareness, to hold our sense of being in the present, to allow the rhythm of our breath to focus us.  We are not locked into some past belief.

Right now indigenous people are renewing their claims to be acknowledged in the Australian Constitution.  If we listen sensitively, they offer an alternate spirituality.  Right now in Australian society Buddhism is the fastest growing religion.  Right now in Australia there are increasing followers of Islam.  We speak our Christian certainties in world where New Age ideas control popular thinking – don’t you ever check what the stars promise?

As we read further in Colossians, the alternatives sound crude and the Christian argument strained.  But the history of the times coloured this debate differently to the way we need to manage it.  It was about an essential response to God, the heart-beat of creation, and to a reconciliation with our fellow humans.  When you pause to think about it, this has a continued urgency for our own generation.  Whether the issue confronting us is genocide in the Balkans, social strife in Syria and Egypt, or savagery on our streets, we are driven to ask about the meaning of our shared humanity.  And if we are to avoid the snare of ready-made answers to life’s crises, then we all have to learn the art of nuanced response.

Let me offer some instances of places we meet this issue in less dramatic circumstances.  Consider the impact of Buddhism on Australian society. If, for example, you pick up leading-edge management magazines for almost any issue over the past 15 years you will see that Buddhist philosophy underlies much of the commercial leadership conversation.  Every time I check Linked-In, I note the impact of studies by Daniel Goleman on the ethics of leadership. This is outspokenly based on Buddhist teaching about ‘the nature of mind, the limits of human potential for growth, the possibilities for mental health, the means for psychological change and transformation’.

In similar vein Australia’s 40,000-and-more year indigenous culture has also much to offer about these same issues. The roots of language are different, but the intention is similar.  Djon Mundine a leader in the Yirrkala community in the Northern Territory leads us on a powerful inner journey:

Ancient time is the present and the future … At the end of the day all the written explanations and footnotes and translations will have to fall away and you will be left to simply see the paintings and try to feel them … The artists trace a serene current through the raging waters of controversy.

So soon as you sense this, you find yourself a universe away from the pictures we carry in our mind of western superiority and a degraded indigenous culture.  If opportunity comes your way sit a while in the Yirrkala Art Centre and let your spirit be overwhelmed by the ‘church panels’ that illustrate Yolngu art as a spiritual-political statement of land ownership.

These are alternate spiritualities.  They are about psychological change.  We do not relate to them in an either-or fashion but engage them as part of our diverse culture.  They help us nuance the slogans and absolutes about land and living all to often offered us.

The new atheists are a case in point. They challenge our classical view of God. While I am irritated by much of what they write I know that as a man living after the European Holocaust and the genocides of every day, there are parts of the Bible I can no longer read with ease.  I understand why an ancient Jew might have sung in his hymn ‘blessed shall he be that takes your children and dashes them against a stone’ but I cannot now utter these words with any integrity.  When you read Colossians can you so easily dismiss ‘the things that are on the earth’ (3:2) and ‘the spirit of the universe’ (2:20)?  If you and I are to rediscover a love that embraces difference then it will only be as we expand our imagination and with this the language of faith.

A Christianity shackled to tradition and its past risks losing its essential message of liberation.  The faith we have inherited cannot be confined in slogans however powerful they may have been for the conversion of some of us. The letter to the Colossians encourages us to look at life cosmically, to live beyond the slogans, to sense the earth beneath our feet and explore partnership across the barriers of difference.  But in doing that, be aware of the tension underlying the letter.  Christianity is more than its slogans: it is the careful interaction with the multicultural word of which it is a part.

The last twenty years spent experiencing this have changed me forever.  For six of those years, I was part of a management team poised to explore the way in which a Christian faith-based charity might embrace the values and beliefs of its vast multicultural workforce. I was to be personally involved in contacting indigenous people, often in remote communities, to draw inspiration from them and to share their expectations with the senior management team and the Board.  You will imagine what a stimulating experience this was.

In the course of these visits I spent time in Wadeye, a town better known for its violence than for any spiritual integrity. I talked with the elders, I saw the desperation, but completely failed to sense anything of the spiritual urgency that underlay the town. It was only subsequently, reading Tony Swain‘s anthropological study of the people of Wadeye that I discovered their prayer and hymn resource and their reflections on the nature of God. My mind was so filled with white western preoccupations about social structure and religion that I failed to notice the unique explorations into both these areas by indigenous people.

As we read Colossians each subsequent Sunday, hold its history and tradition as precious.  At its heart it is asking the eternal question, what does my humanity mean?  Savour its promises about wisdom and understanding as a gift of the Holy Spirit and its urgency to bear fruit in every good work that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please God in every way.  Then take a moment of self-awareness; hold your sense of being in the present, not locked into some past anxiety; allow the rhythm of your breath to focus you.

However much we value what the past has given us we must be attentive to the life creating values and beliefs emerging around us. As I reread this first half chapter of Colossians, set as today’s text, I want to affirm everything that has drawn each of us to the Christian faith. Its long history is written into our sinews and reaffirmed every time we recycle the liturgy. This will continue to be our contribution to the broad Christian dialogue. But it can never again be an imposition on other people. If faith is to be genuine we have to look beyond our boundaries and with humility discover that truth is larger than our apprehension of it.  Maybe then the words with which I began this address will gain new pertinence:

Dear God
Complicate my world
Make my thoughts subtle
Give me nuanced perspectives
Disturb my settled ways …
Banish me from the tribe
Force me to fend for myself
Send me on perilous journeys
Put obstacles in my way
Provide me with questions not answers.

A Meditation Homily based on the Epistle reading for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Colossians chapter 1 verses 1-14.  

Bill Lawton

14 July 2013



About billlawton

Life has offered an exciting blend of academic research, face-to-face teaching and simply ‘being’ with people. Since teen years this has gathered under a sense of vocation to priesthood. But surprisingly priesthood has steadily reshaped beyond traditional definitions to embrace the heart of what it means for me to be a man. I am about the celebration of life, the mediation of forgiveness and the search for authenticity. I seek a unity with all people and all things in unbroken continuity. 'Night is drawing nigh – Each day the first day: each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty – for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity' (Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, “1957”).
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