Grief work: for when the Spirit is black – by Steve Taylor

adult art conceptual dark

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago I posted a condolence card to a friend. Looming was the one-year anniversary of the death of her mother. A year on – after the funeral, after the mourners and well-wishers have left and the condolence meals in the freezer are eaten – one-year anniversaries can be a void and a card seemed a practical way to express care and concern.

The condolence card I chose to send depicted an image from The Saint John’s Bible. This Bible is a remarkable achievement – the first handwritten Bible since the invention of the printing press around 1450. St John’s Abbey and University, in Minnesota, commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson, to handwrite using turkey, goose and swan quill, natural handmade inks and hand-ground pigments on calfskin vellum. The result is monumental, standing two feet tall and three feet wide when opened, with over 1,100 pages and 160 illuminations. While the complete Bible sits at the University, reproductions of various illuminations are available, including as gift cards.

This particular card offered a full-page artistic illumination of the story of Genesis 1. It’s not easy finding words for someone in grief… so I paused, avoiding the void, only to be struck as I pondered the illumination. My eyes began with the dominant colours: blues and greens depicting the colours of earth, sea, sky being made. Next the gold leaf illumination referencing the stars, moon and daylight pouring forth speech: showing the ordering of time. Finally, hovering over the unfolding of creation was a bird, depicting the Spirit, etched in black.

Colours matter and the Spirit is usually portrayed as white. Most of the baptism art that references Jesus being baptised has the Spirit descending like a bird etched in white. Doves are white. Missiologist Kirsteen Kim notes that in Christianity the “dove is very white”. Colours matter and Kim observes that this white dove sometimes “looks like the fat turkey of consumerism or the eagle of empire”. (Kim, The Holy Spirit in the World, 2007, 180) She is uneasy with the Spirit depicted as white. Instead she suggests that because colours matter, the Spirit should be rainbow coloured – “a multi-coloured fire-bird” – that radiates the colours of creation in all its brilliance and varied hues (180).

Artists choose colours with great care. The St John’s Bible involved constant dialogue between Donald Gordon and the Biblical scholars. This included a weekly gathering of scholars and theologians to develop the theological content behind the illuminations. Most are priests in the order of Saint Benedictine, who live by a simple rule: “listen … with the ear of your heart”. This is an approach to Scriptures that has guided Benedictine communities in shared spiritual practice for over 1500 years.

“Listen with the ear of your heart” guided Donald Gordon as he began to depict the Bible’s opening story… in which the Spirit is black.

Opening the condolence card, I slowly found words. Listening with the ear of my heart, I began to connect the Spirit in black with the dark tunnel of grief: in the beginning… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1.2 NRSV).

Wherever there is unformed chaos, there is the Spirit.

Wherever there is a void, there is the Spirit, swooping to offer divine strength.

Wherever there is creation not yet flourishing, there is the Spirit, soaring in the offer of divine hope.

This is how the Spirit is portrayed in Romans. The Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, present in the void (Romans 8.11). The Spirit intercedes, groaning with the whole of creation in the pain of labour (Romans 8:22). The Spirit shares in solidarity, longing to soar not with those who soar strong, but with those who are weak (Romans 8.26).

The card was posted and a few days later, the friend messaged, thanking me for the words. And noting the date: March 15, 2019.

A day that will be forever etched in the New Zealand soul as one of our nation’s darkest days. A day of wrenching void for the families of those who lost their loved ones’ in the mosque shootings in Christchurch. A day of unformed chaos for the first responders. A day in which we saw a glimpse of how far New Zealand is from the flourishing of all creation imagined in Genesis 1 and Romans 8.

In Presbyterian history, the Spirit has been a source of controversy. For some, the
Spirit is the forgotten person of the Trinity. For others, the Spirit is for personal sanctification or the agent of charismatic giftedness. In each case, theological attention is focused on the individual and the Christian, on the life of faith inside the Christian story.

But as Genesis 1 and Romans 8 remind us, the Spirit is in the world. She soars in unformed places of chaos and the void of death. Maybe in the months following the tragedy in Christchurch, we as a Church will need to listen (afresh) with the ear of our heart, to our wider world in which the Spirit, depicted in black, hovers in grief.

Where was God on March 15, 2019? In the presence of the Spirit, hovering over the chaos, groaning with all those in pain, empowering all those who work for justice.

The wounds of Christchurch will be the grief work of our nation for years to come, as we contemplate the painful void that is racism, xenophobia and fear of difference. Thankfully we are not alone, for the Spirit is black.

‘The Cosmic Christ’ – Ecological Christianity by Bob Eyles

“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19 NRSV)

planting treeIt seems to me that we have come to a crisis in the life of the Church and of the world. For the Roman world, a similar crisis was met by the Christ event as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus released new energy and insights that sent an emerging Christianity around the planet. The parable of “the last judgement” in Matthew 25, for example, has inspired countless people with the realisation that the risen Christ can be seen in the faces of poor and disadvantaged people. Continue reading

Messiahs and Scapegoats: a reflection on discipleship and community – by Bruce Hamill

Those in leadership realise at some point – usually early on (especially if it’s informal leadership) – that the human desire for a messiah is profound and universal. We don’t like to admit this drive to find ourselves a Messiah. We have made an absolute value of our situation as individuals and treat it as a cosmic necessity. Not only do we think we are islands, but we believe we have a duty to preserve this insularity at the core of our being. Continue reading

A Church in and for the South Pacific – by Jordan Redding

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A piece of street art in Pape’ete, based on Paul Gaugain’s famous Woman and Fruit. Gaugain was a French artist famous for going to Tahiti and painting an idealised view of life there. This piece of art challenges the underlying worldview of Gaugain and the West more generally and asks questions of the future identity of South Pacific nations.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity, along with Rev Dr Tokerau Joseph to represent our Church at a Council for World Mission event in Pape’ete, Tahiti. The purpose of the gathering was to participate in a series of “street” bible studies that addressed mission, racism and colonisation in the South Pacific in relation to biblical texts.[1] We were very generously hosted by the Maohi Protestant Church, Etaretia Protetani Maohi (EPM). The studies explored a number of themes including the complicity of the London Missionary Society in the global slave trade; French nuclear testing in the South Pacific; and the reclamation of local indigenous identity and theologies.

Upon my return a friend jokingly remarked that I’m turning into a bit of an ecclesiastical junkie, meaning someone who takes advantage of available funding to go from ecumenical event to ecumenical event in order to see the world. He wasn’t serious, of course. And I’m increasingly aware of the carbon footprint associated with such trips. It raises the question though, why should the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand – our Church – continue to place emphasis on ecumenical relations and interdenominational mission? Can we justify the resource and environmental impact associated with these gatherings? And what do they really achieve anyway? Continue reading

The Zero Carbon Bill is open for consultation: why you should care… – Jordan Redding

Recently the Government opened a public consultation process on the upcoming Zero Carbon Bill. They are requesting online submissions from individuals and organisations as to how and in what timeframe Aotearoa transitions to a net zero economy.[1] Here’s why it’s worth taking the time to read the discussion document, and to consider making a submission as an individual, as a parish council, or to recommend it to your congregation. Continue reading

Matariki: a season of unity – Hone Te Rire

In late May or early June each year, the Pleiades – or Matariki as it is known by Maori – star cluster becomes visible in New Zealand. This signals the Maori New Year. In this article, the Rev Hone Te Rire shares the significance of Matariki.

Matariki_LRGBMatariki is the Maori name for the cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters in the Taurus constellation. Matariki is also associated with the winter solstice. Matariki translates to “Eyes of God” (mata – ariki) or ‘Little Eyes’ (mata – riki). This star cluster rises in the last days of May or early June. This heralds the Maori New Year.

Every year during the month of Matariki, whanau gather to commemorate loved ones passed, and to celebrate the birthdays of newer additions to the family. It is a time where whanau gathered together to celebrate unity, faith and hope through aroha. Celebratory feasts were held as whanau gathered around the table. Continue reading

“These Hipsters get it right” – Review of The Bible Project by Carolyn Kelly

bible project

The Bible Project is the brainchild of a couple of guys hailing from Portland, Oregon – Jon Collins and Tim Mackie. Collins has digital media and marketing flair (as well as a theology degree), and Mackie is a pastor and biblical scholar at Western seminary. This combination, of biblical scholarship and pastoral grounding in a contemporary form, gets a lot right. Continue reading

The edge: Awake, Listen! Follow! – Roxy Gahegan

Roxy is the chaplain at St. Cuthbert’s college in central Auckland.

There are three things that have struck me deeply over the last ten years with regards to the teachings of Jesus and the way that we as church organise ourselves and live our faith and life journeys.

First of all, before my ordination training, I took classes in Church history (I had managed to avoid this entirely while studying for my theology degree back in the 90’s), and in one of the books I read, the author observed that even within the first 350 years of the Christian faith – before Constantine can be blamed for institutionalising us and aligning us with power and status – even before that, those who were perceived as heretical – doctrinally questionable or incorrect – were treated violently. Continue reading

Uniquely Presbyterian – Bruce Hamill

Bruce Hamill has written a response to Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Rt Rev Richard Dawson’s comments in the Autumn edition of Spanz about what is distinct and unique about the Presbyterian tradition.

Richard’s musings in the most recent edition of Spanz (Editor’s note: read the article here – pg 3) helpfully focused a discussion that has been brewing for some time among Presbyterians in a period of declining interest in denominational difference. Continue reading