Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Out of Eden - part 2 - Accessing the tree of life

This is the next instalment of my theological ramblings about genesis, which I invite you to read or ignore!

Even now, some of the Old Testament stories remain ingrained in our collective consciousness, and biblical literary references abound. Such would have been much more the case for Jesus’ audience and, perhaps even more critically, for the target audiences of the gospel writers. References to defining moments, events and stories from the Old Testament are numerous in the New Testament and perhaps references to gardens are always meant to recall that first biblical garden, Eden.

My theological wanderings have taken me out of the Garden of Eden and into some other biblical gardens, reflecting on possible parallels between these and the Garden of Eden. Around the time of Jesus passion and resurrection, gardens are the setting for key moments: the garden of Gethsemane, scene of the betrayal and arrest; and the garden where the tomb is located and the first resurrection scenes are enacted.

One of the (many) bible verses I have sometimes struggled with is the one in which, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples “if you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). In the midst of a Gospel which, to my mind, preaches a consistently non-violent message this verse has always struck me as something of an anomaly. Furthermore, what is the significance of Jesus responding “that is enough” when the disciples present two swords, and why, having expressly asked them to acquire swords does Jesus, at the moment of his arrest, tell the disciples to put down the very weapons he himself instructed them to carry?

Reflecting on these verses in the light of the Genesis story has helped me to come up with a possible explanation about what is going on in this story ... but you might have to bear with me while I try to put my current thoughts into some sort of fairly coherent form.

When the Garden of Eden is created and humanity is placed within it, the tree at the very centre of the garden is the Tree of Life. Access to the tree of life is not limited but Adam and Eve do not choose to eat of its fruit. Later, as Adam and Eve are sent out of the garden, “he posted the great winged creatures and the fiery, flashing sword to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24) At their departure from the garden, swords bar the way to fullness of life; perhaps because in adulthood we find it hard to accept the fullness of life, the world of freedom and possibility, that as children we take for granted. Perhaps the swords are our own limitations, fears, distractions and preoccupations that bar our way to living life in all its fullness, that prevent us from living eternal life as an everyday reality.

In the garden of Gethsemane, we are back inside the garden, and once again, there are swords. Just as God instructed the tree of life to be guarded by swords, it is Jesus, God, who instructs the disciples to bring swords with them to the garden. Perhaps the events in the Gethsemane Garden are a re-enactment and reversal of the tree of life narrative we see when Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden.

If the disciples have brought swords with them to the Garden of Gethsemane it is, undoubtedly, with the intention of protecting Jesus, of guarding the way to him, which in the parallel with the Genesis story puts Jesus in the place of the tree of life. At least for me, there is no great leap of imagination to locate the Jesus who has “come that you may have life in all its fullness” (john 10:10) and has also identified himself as “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:5) in the place of the Tree of Life.

The disciples have to bring swords, not because Jesus is going to condone any act of violence, but because this is the moment when the swords guarding the Tree of Life are going to be put down, and the way to fullness of life is reopened. Perhaps this is also what the slightly strange verse in Mark’s gospel “A young man followed with nothing on but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the cloth and ran away naked” (Mark 14: 51-52): could this be the guard from the tree of life running away and leaving the route open? Jesus’ instruction to “put down your swords” which appears in all four gospels, is not just a reaffirmation of his non-violent credentials, but is also a renewal of the unlimited access to the Tree of Life, offering the gift of life in all its fullness.

And who were the first to gain access to the tree of life? The reactions to this reopening of the way to fullness of life appear to be two-fold.

Judas, with his kiss of death, and the soldiers who dragged Jesus away respond with violence and hatred. Just as in the Genesis story the tree of life was accessible to Adam and Eve, symbolic of the whole of humanity, Jesus reaffirms that life in all its fullness, access to the tree of life is open to all, even those who will choose to abuse its vulnerability. But many are they who offered a world of possibility will act in aggressive confrontation rather than reach out and eat a fruit which they feel unworthy to taste.

Meanwhile, the others present, the disciples, all run away in fear: afraid of the violence of the soldiers, or filled with fear at the potential and possibility of this unlimited access to fullness of life? In putting down the swords which guard the way, Jesus reaffirms that life in all its fullness is within our reach. But many are they who dare not risk the small sacrifices required even when they have glimpsed the rewards.

And what about us? Do we run away in fear when we glimpse what life in all its fullness might be like? Do we criticize, ridicule and condemn those who have fullness of life because our fears and anger won’t allow us to eat of its fruit? Or do we reach out, tentatively, and taste the fruit that will allow us to live free, fulfilled and happy?

We are challenged by the gospel to put down the swords we hold in clenched fists which are barring the way for both ourselves and others. We are challenged to approach the tree of life and eat freely of its fruit. 

So how do we ensure we are eating of its fruit, how do we taste and see that it is good, how do we eat our fill and live life to the full? And how do we ensure we are offering its fruits to others? How do we encourage and invite those who gaze from a fearful distance or those who turn their heads in shame or anger to approach? 

More questions than answers, but I am sure it is a path we should all be treading together.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Circles of the Spirit

Happy Pentecost!

Pentecost is a celebration of many things, but for me, I think it is mainly a celebration of universality; it is about the possibility for all to experience the touch of a loving God: a God who reaches out to those on the edge, who unlocks doors of fear and hesitation, who breaks down walls of hatred and division, who overturns the tables of our preconceptions, who challenges power and authority used to oppress, who stands against exclusivity to preach an inclusive message of love.

The giving of the Spirit, the dwelling of God in human hearts, calls all of us to live out that same universality of reaching out a touch of love to those on the margins. Pentecost is a time to remind ourselves that our call is not to build walls that exclude, but to draw circles which include: and if there are people who seem a long way away from our experience, our world view, our comfort zone, then the call is not to hide in the upper room, but to make our circles wider.

Circles of the Spirit

Yet indestructible
Painted with the tender brush strokes
Of love

Reaching out
Drawing close
Dwelling within
Of community not conformity

Drawing in
To circles
Of flickering light

And the spirit dances
Within our doubt

All are welcome
To step inside
To warm frozen toes
By a fire of love

A fire lit
From thorns that pierce
And the crumpled, tattered papers
Of the trials of life

But for those who don’t
Or can’t or won’t

Stretch out your hand
And draw
A larger circle
With broader brush strokes
Drawing in
Even him.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sun, sea and sand

A 4.30am start last Monday morning did feel a little on the early side, but it did mean that even though it was a three hour bus journey to Tabuelan we had arrived at our destination, set up camp, had breakfast and were in the sea shortly after 9 in the morning.

Tabuelan, on the opposite side of Cebu island gets barely a mention in our guide book, but with white sand, palm trees and perfect blue sea, it proved to be an idyllic location for the leadership camp we attended with twenty of the TVED students earlier this week.

This was a residential for which I would not have wanted to complete the risk assessment, but such things are less of a consideration here. After all, it is all very well to be concerned with health and safety, but how are you going to have fresh coconut juice to drink if the students don’t climb up high into the palm trees to throw down the coconuts; and I’m all for food hygiene standards, but barbecued pork cooked on an open fire on the beach behind sand barricades built against the rising tide does taste very good!

Each morning we were up at five thirty (apparently turning the sound system on at that time is not considered anti-social behaviour) and in the water for a swim before breakfast to make the most of the relative cool of the early morning. In fact, in between the activities, which mostly involved the students crawling around blindfolded in the sand, much of the three days was spent in the water: and I spent much of it thinking how privileged I am to be here.

It was a fabulous three days, but we did also return with a renewed appreciation for a bed and the air con!

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Telling their stories

As part of the English programme, we asked all the junior students to write their own autobiography. It was a project which seemed to really capture their imagination and I was impressed (and I acknowledge mildly surprised) by the enthusiasm with which they set to work. With planning ahead a distinctly lacking skill here, I set the four week deadline with a degree of trepidation, expecting to spend the week after the deadline reminding them to get started; but no, the only ones not handed in on deadline day were those which the students had submitted early. I had offered that if they handed in a draft ahead of time, I would correct and help improve it, and many took me up on the offer (which rather added to my workload, but aside from that minor irritation I was very impressed!) The final copies, for the most part showed a huge amount of effort had gone in to both the writing and the presentation of their books, and I am delighted that they now all have a beautiful keepsake of their life so far.

Reading them I was touched by the openness and honesty with which they wrote. I had suggested that to make their autobiographies interesting, they should include thoughts, feelings and reflections: and they did. In most cases, what they wrote was an honest and frank account of their ups and downs, theirs successes and failures, their pleasure and pain, their loves and fears, their joys and their sorrows ... and they were happy to share all of that with me.

Much of what they wrote spoke clearly of the universality of the experience of childhood and adolescence: lessons they loved and hated, games, parties and excursions, the shifting parameters of relationships with parents, the importance of friendships and the highs and lows of dating featured prominently among their stories. Parts of what they wrote could have been written by any teenager in the world.

But amidst the mundane stories of day-to-day teenage life, there were plenty of parts that were hard to read, because they also wrote with searing honesty of the struggles and challenges of living with poverty: of not seeing parents who were forced to work away, of dropping out of school when there was no money for the transport to get there, of experiencing the bottom dropping out of their world when a parent lost a job and there was no safety net to catch them, of watching their parents in tears because of financial problems, of feeling hungry and not being able to eat.

They may just be like any other teenagers, but some of them have experienced things no one of any age should ever have to, and I feel extremely privileged to have had such a personal insight into their lives. Thank you to all the juniors.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Reaping the rewards

With the last re-sits of the final exams last week bringing an end to the majority of our teaching, a major part of what we are doing here is now over, a fact of which we are very aware and so are the students. Although we still have six weeks left, it has been nice to feel appreciated, with lots of the students thanking us for teaching them and telling us they will miss us when we go back to our country.

With exams to invigilate and mark for almost 200 students, we had a very busy but on the whole quite positive few days at the end of April. The days of oral exams were particularly intense; a lesson in how much concentration is required to give 100% attention to each student, without thinking about the previous one or the next one or how many more there are to get through. Intense, but also intensely rewarding, especially with the senior students, who showed us that all the hard work had been worthwhile. One of our very first TVED experiences last October was observing the equivalent exam with the previous batch, and there is no doubt that our current students demonstrated more language but particularly more confidence in speaking English: our strongest students spoke fluently, but more rewarding was that even among the weakest students, nobody was tongue-tied and silent.

Once round one was completed, rounds two and three saw gradually dwindling numbers as many students passed and were signed off; but we were no less busy as we had intensive remedial classes with our struggling students (and our lazy ones) in the hope that most would make it through – and most did.

After a full timetable of “last chance” exams last Tuesday, Wednesday was D-Day for the remaining students, the day when we would sign their clearance forms, with good news or bad – and for most it was good news. After each round of exams we have been the bearers of some bad news, but lots of good news. Although it has been difficult to tell some students they haven’t passed, there have also been some real highlights in telling students they have passed: not so much the ones who we knew would pass all along, but those who have had to work very hard to make it through, and have received the well-earned rewards of their labour. The smiling faces with an occasional touch of disbelief, the handshakes, even a hug from one or two; the students who kept coming back to ask to see their score again, just to confirm it was still a pass a few hours later; the 100% pass rate in both subjects from WFT, our weakest class in each year group, through hard work and a lot of solidarity; those are the moments form last Wednesday I will remember and treasure. 

And those who are left, the last 18? Well with our naughtiest class dominating the fail lists, I think even the students, deep down, would admit that a lot of those who failed it may be because they haven’t worked quite as hard as they might have done! But we are not giving up yet and are still hard at it with special assignments (for which read intensive extra classes) and we’re hoping they will all be signed off, before we leave ...

Monday, 14 May 2012

Out of Eden - Part 1 - The Forbidden Fruit

This blog post is rather long, sorry about that, and theological, so anyone not interested in my theological ramblings is welcome to give this one a miss. If anyone does make it to the end - I'd welcome your comments!

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is perhaps one of the best known Old Testament tales but for all its familiarity I wonder how often we pause to think beyond its superficial meanings and dig a little deeper into the soil of this garden. Here I share some of my attempts to do so, although I am certain there are many more layers I have not yet overturned.

In the beginning there is a garden. It is, or at least appears to be, a perfect haven of peace and security. Adam and Eve, humanity, are given the run of the garden; forbidden only from eating the fruit from one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So if the garden represents the totality of creation, why this one forbidden fruit?

I imagine many explanations have been offered for the reason God forbade access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The biblical text itself offers two, one given by God (“you are doomed to die”) and a second by the snake (“your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods”). Just as I am sure many have done before me, I am going to hazard my own explanation for this prohibition.

The suggestion is that the trees in the garden have been planted by God: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the fruit of a tree planted and nurtured by God. Perhaps the reason God does not want humanity to eat fruit from this tree is because it is meaningless knowledge: however delicious and beautiful it may look, you cannot be fed and nourished by the fruit of the tree of someone else’s knowledge of good and evil. God forbids access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because he wants humanity to grow its own trees of the knowledge of good and evil. He does not want us to receive a set of truths, but to grow our own. The knowledge of good and evil, morality, is not an external set of rules, but something each of us must plant, grow and nurture for ourselves.

Maybe God, as parent, as teacher, knows that you cannot feed others from the fruit of your own tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Better, you must give them the tools and the seeds to grow their own tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And what are the tools we need to grow our trees of the knowledge of good and evil? Maybe there are indications in the genesis story that God also gives these tools to humanity.

Adam, humanity, is instructed to “cultivate and take care of” the garden. The Garden of Eden is not a readymade reality, but a place in which humanity is invited to be a co-creator. It is something which is incomplete and open to acts of creativity. Adam is also instructed to name the animals and “each one would bear the name the man gave it.” Names are significant. They are bearers of identity. This is not just about convenient scientific categorisation; the act of naming is a creative act. We are called to be creative.

Adam is given a companion because “it is not right that man should be alone”. From the beginning, the need for collective experience is recognised. Growing and creating are acts we do best with others. We are not meant to exist in isolation, nor will our trees grow best when they are grown out of selfishness or self-interest. We are called to be community.

With the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity is “free to eat of all the trees in the garden.” These may be apples and bananas, but if the two named trees are knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life, we might imagine that the other trees also have symbolic fruits: and humanity is invited, even encouraged to explore and discover for themselves. We are called to be free.

Perhaps the prohibition to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is in itself also one of the tools we need. When we have planted our tree of the knowledge of good and evil and tasted its fruit, our pride in our creation, along with a genuine desire to share something which, to us, is truly beautiful, tempts us to feed our own fruit to others. What God knew, and we too often forget, is that our fruit, acquired through our experience, if we present it as what the fruit of such a tree should be, beautiful though it is to us, risks limiting another’s potential to grow their own tree, of which the fruit may be very different. We are called to be unique.

Growing our own trees of the knowledge of good and evil will take time, the fruit needs to ripen and mature, and, the chances are, even as it does so, it will be blemished and imperfect, but in spite of the imperfections it will be our fruit. It will be the fruit that will nourish us and the fruit that will be beautiful.

These are lessons that any of us who are educators could probably learn from. They are lessons that we, as individuals on a life-long journey of learning, need to recall.

Did God then, as the snake suggests, lie to Adam when he told him that in eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he was “doomed to die”, or did he threaten a punishment which, in the event, he didn’t carry out, or is there another explanation for these words?

I believe in a God of Love, and love is not violent and does not threaten; plus I feel truth is probably inherent to the nature of God, so I felt the need to seek a different possible explanation, which is this: perhaps God was stating a reality. Although eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did not bring about Adam and Eve’s physical death, perhaps it prevented them from experiencing life in all its fullness.

In eating of someone else’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we admit our willingness to accept pre-determined realities and perhaps our willingness to accept someone else’s truths prevents us from discovering the world anew with eyes truly open, allowing us to explore and to create new realities, a newness inherent in having life in all its fullness.

In eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we are tempted by acquiring something without the effort of producing it, eating of the fruit without being part of the creative and potentially often arduous task of growing it, an active participation inherent in having life in all its fullness.

In eating of the readymade tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we seek to possess what we do not have, rather than to create using what we do have. We stop using the seeds and tools we were given to grow our own trees. We deny our unique individuality and freedom to be someone different, but at the same time individualistic self-fulfilment becomes more important than creative community. And perhaps that is why every time we eat of someone else’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil, something inside us dies and we fail to live life in all its fullness.

Perhaps we need to start planting.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Dreaming of distant shores

It is the end of the semester, the final exams are done and, with the junior students looking forward to their next semester, the seniors preparing for five months of on the job training, and a whole new batch of applicants being put through their paces with the three week orientation programme, it is a time of looking ahead.

For the students at TVED, the skills and qualifications they receive are a route out of poverty, and being able to earn a better living is undoubtedly a key motivation for all of them. Often their desire to earn more is not entirely self-centred: one recurring theme among the students here is their desire, by completing their studies, to assist or support their families.

For many, the idea of travelling abroad to work is an important part of this dream. For most, they don’t have a specific destination in mind: anywhere where their skills will earn them higher wages than they can hope for at home, and from where they can send money back to help their parents or younger siblings to have a better life. With thousands, maybe millions of Filipinos working abroad in every corner of the world (I know, the world is round so it doesn’t have corners, but you know what I mean) for some this may well become a reality.

While I in no way wish to criticize our students for their aspirations, nor cast judgement on their actions, there are two things which sadden me about this dream.

The first is that they feel this is the only option. The only way to leave poverty is to leave the Philippines. With stories of higher wages abroad and surrounded by the evidence (not least in the main fee-paying part of the school) of those who are reaping the financial rewards of working away it is easy to see why this is their dream. There is little debate about the truth of their belief that going abroad offers more opportunities for financial gain than staying here. But in a culture where family and connections are so important and the students talk about close relationships and their love of their families and communities, it seems sad that in order to help those very people they feel they have to go so far away from them. The evidence of the wealth generated by Filipinos working abroad is everywhere here, but there is also plenty of evidence of the damage to social fabric and family relationships. When the children from the main school are discussed, many of the discipline issues come down to students whose parents are abroad, sometimes for years at a time. Abroad, possibly, to give their children a better chance and better education: but is leaving them without parental care really giving them the best hope for the future? What a choice to have to make.

The second is that while the students talk about their desire to travel, the only motivation to do so they ever mention is the desire to earn a better living. I have heard no student speak of wanting to see different environments or experience a different culture, to see the sights or to meet different people. I have not heard them speak of lessons to be learned, nor (even less) of what they have to offer and give to other countries, other than their hours of labour. I feel hugely privileged to have travelled to many different places and met many different people, and I in no way want to suggest the TVED students I work with shouldn’t be able to do the same; nor am I suggesting that those who go abroad will not take part in important cultural exchanges, both giving and receiving, and making many new friends. But it is sad that this aspect of the benefit of travel isn’t even on their radar.

I sincerely hope that all the TVED students have the opportunity to live a better life as a result of their training and if for some that involves going abroad, I hope it is a fruitful and life-giving experience. But I mourn for a world where some can choose to travel to make new friends, and others feel forced to travel leaving friends and family behind; where for some, myself included, travel is an exciting opportunity to discover the world, while others live lives so damaged and limited by poverty they can see no other reason than financial gain.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Reflections on Catholicity

The Philippines (with the exception of a few Muslim areas in Mindanao) is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The Catholic Church which arrived with the Spanish colonisers may have made its first inroads into this country by force, but now Filipinos seem to be willing and enthusiastic followers of the Catholic faith. In a country where one church is so visibly dominant, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on what being Catholic really means.

Although our first association with the word catholic is often the Roman Catholic Church, in reality all the mainstream churches sign up to a creed which states belief in the catholic church: not as an institution but as a deeper reality of the nature of the church, the body of Christ. A church which is catholic, meaning universal, or even more accurately translated (so I am told) “pertaining to everything”. It is this idea of catholicity, universality, or “pertaining to everything” which I think merits further reflection.

Writing as I am half way round the world from my homeland, perhaps the most immediately visible significance of catholicity is that this is faith on a global scale. It is very easy to recognise, here in the Philippines, that the church here is the same church as the church in Europe, because it is, well, the same. But I am not sure this universal sameness is really what is meant by the catholicity of “pertaining to everything”. Perhaps the model of everyone doing the same everywhere comes from a fear that doing things differently creates tension and division, but inculturation is an essential part of the essence of the catholic church, not so as to separate the people of one place from a wider human family, but so that their faith can truly “pertain to everything”, something it strikes me is impossible for a church built on an imported model, which fails to pertain to the culture and reality of people in different situations.

Universality is about far more than just sense of place; it is also about an engagement within our own spheres, wherever in the world they may be. For a truly catholic faith that “pertains to everything” no issue, no question, no debate is “not a faith issue”. Our catholic, universal faith is called to engage with science, with politics, with economics, with social issues, with history and with the future. In order to “pertain to everything” the catholic church needs to be open and active and engaged, responding to different issues and to new realities. We should not be saying everything goes, but nor should we say that we the church already have the answers and know best. We need to be both speaker and listener, both teacher and learner, both expert and infant, both accuser and defender, both supporter and opposition: but never mere bystanders who look the other way.

So far, I have remained in the domain of thoughts and reason, but for me there is also a much more human face to this catholicity – it is a faith which pertains not just to everything, but equally, to everyone. By its very name and very nature the catholic church is called to inclusivity, is called to an openness to all: irrespective of their lifestyle, their culture, even their faith and belief, the definition of catholicity says everyone is in. For me this is the heart of the gospel message, and the heart of the meaning of “catholic”: Jesus, and in turn the church, turns to those on the outside, and draws an ever larger circle until everyone is on the inside. If the church defines itself by exclusivity, by who is in and who is on the outside, has it not lost the very essence of its own identity?

And finally what about on a personal level? What does it mean for me, as an individual to say whether or not my faith is “Catholic”? How should this universality, this “pertaining to everything” play out in my life? I guess it means having no closed doors and nothing that is out of reach. It means putting everything on the table and holding nothing back. It means not saying no, that part of me, that part of my life God can’t touch. It means not convincing ourselves that that part of me, that part of my life, to which I am so attached, God wouldn’t want to touch or change anyway. It means not predetermining what God wants to do with my life because it fits neatly with my own plans. It means praying, not to tell God what to do, but to listen to what he wants me to do.

Am I truly Catholic, well, if I am honest, probably not yet ... but I am working on it...