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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wild Winter Worship

(first published in Reality in the 1990's. As I re-read this I noticed with a cringe how I had used masculine pronouns for God. I wouldn't do that now. It sounds odd, strange and definitely not accurate.  It just shows how our - or at least my - understanding of God develops over time. Which is a good thing! Mind you, I don't think even in the 1990's I thought of God as male. It just seemed so natural to write that way and obviously not important enough then to find a different way. I've edited this version to lessen the cringe factor. However, it is hard to write or speak abut God without using gendered pronouns so one or two have remained - but I hope in a way that is a bit more even handed! )

On my way home from work one winter afternoon I suddenly felt the urge to drive out of the city to a wild ocean beach. It seemed a rather odd thing to do. There was a strong, cold wind and only an hour before darkness - not the best  beach walking conditions! But I followed the  inner nudge and drove on.

As I drove I reflected on how powerfully I feel connected to God when I am close to creation. "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge." Psalm 19:1-2. Of course my spirit and God's Spirit  have a chance to meet when I am close to the work of her hands.

"When and where do you find you can best communicate with God?" I ask people in lectures or workshops on prayer. The answers always include "Out in creation". "So how often do you seek God in the sanctuary of his world?" Surprised looks, mumbled answers: "I haven't got time." "Shouldn't prayer be more serious?" "I feel guilty doing something I enjoy so much and calling it prayer!"

What limits we put on the ways our creative God plans to meet us. How much God longs to tell, or shout, or thunder God's character, power and glory through what he has made:
"Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendour. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the glory of God thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters...The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare; and in his temple all say,'Glory!' " Psalm 29:2-3;7-9

Yet, in the face of all this we so often sit inside with wrinkled brow and closed eyes and say: "It is so hard to be in touch with God."  Does God laugh or groan? "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made." Romans 1:19-20

"Well Lord, " I thought as I pulled up at the beach, "it's a grey, freezing day and most people would think I'm crazy coming out here. But you and I are here together  so what do you have to show me?"

Down on the beach I discovered that a winter gale on a west coast beach is like a snowstorm. Great balls of foam race across the sand icing mounds of seaweed and piling up against the steps for all the world like a snowdrift. Bigger foam piles shiver in the freezing wind and then break up and skim like ice skaters across the steely gray sand.

I am like a child in my delight as I watch and kick and run to catch a foam ball. The skaters are far too fast for me. They whisk around my feet playfully caressing my shoes with a touch so light it cannot be felt. I laugh at myself as I grab and miss. I can almost hear the ocean laughing with me. There is a tangible connection of energy, delight and joy between the elements and me. I feel it blowing into me and around me as I stand facing the wind and exulting in the roar of the ocean. In this present moment there is nothing between me and the power of the creator pounding in the ocean, dancing in the skating foamballs and surging in the wind that nearly blows me off my feet.

A primitive joy that has nothing to do with the circumstances of my life rises from my belly and and surges like the surf through all the crevices of my being demanding expression in a shout of delight.

Bundled in parka, woolly hat, scarf and gloves, I am dressed for worship. Standing alone laughing into the wind I join all creation in praise. Marvelling that the cliff top plants are not blown out by the roots is sermon enough: how deep are my roots? What storms must they withstand?

The Spirit led me out to the wilds of Muriwai beach today I am sure. It wasn't a "sensible" thing to do on such a day but the urge was insistent. Continue to be insistent in me Creative God. Break me out of my sensible, anxious, boring boundaries and fill me again and again with the wind and dancing foam of your Spirit.
(Photos taken by Janet Currie at Piha - close enough to what Muriwai was like!)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

God and the Evolutionary Impulse

Language is a funny thing! The same truth can be expressed in various ways and each way will communicate well to some people and be rejected or ignored by others. I am delighted and motivated by the 21st century ways in which age old truths about God are being expressed and explored by thousands of people who would not pay any attention to classical theological language.

Here's an example:  I am currently participating in an on-line course led by Craig Hamilton (of Integral Enlightenment). More than 2000 of us across the globe are joining together to explore Awakening to an Evolutionary Approach to Life. This week we are diving deeply into what it means to be living from a true alignment with the indwelling spirit of God. Only that isn't the language used! Although Craig often uses the word God he also acknowledges that for many people that word carries unhelpful connotations. Instead the Divine Creator in whom we live and move and have our being, is described as the Evolutionary Impulse that continues to bring forth life and passionately desires that love, creativity and justice be incarnated in each human being.  What might it mean to wake up each morning and say: "How does the Divine Evolutionary Impulse want to be expressed through me, today?" As we were reminded, "If not through you, then who?"

Of course a one paragraph summary doesn't do justice to the extent of the nine week programme.  I am challenged and motivated by the depth and breadth of this course. New language clears away the familiarity that can so easily become inertia and wakes us up to the potential - and responsibility - to have an essential part to play in "bringing heaven to earth".  Naturally it is not just the language that makes the difference. It is also the commitment to act on what is revealed.

What interests me is that what is being explored here is exactly what Teresa of Avila was saying in the 16th century:
"Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world." 

And Jesus himself said: "I tell you for certain that if you have faith in me, you will do the same things I am doing." (John 14:12 CEV) Jesus clearly incarnated the Evolutionary Impulse (the energy and passion of God). If it is to be incarnated today it will be through you and me - along with the thousands of others around the world who are being motivated by 21st century language when  traditional religious terminology no longer has meaning. I believe God's passion for love and justice to be incarnated in our world will be communicated to all who are open to listen and act both "inside and outside the fences".
Lord Holy Spirit,
You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,
Inside and outside the fences,
You blow where you wish to blow.
(from Song to the Holy Spirit by JK Baxter) 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Down to Earth Spirituality

(First published in Reality)

I had a humbling sort of day yesterday. Some of my weaknesses and limitations were pointed out to me gently but accurately by someone I respect. There was no judgement attached. In fact the attitude was one of compassionate acceptance of me just as I am.

I went home and spent an hour or two vigorously pulling out weeds in my overgrown garden while I tried to process the encounter. As I made enough headway with the weeds to see the brown earth beneath I remembered that the word 'humble' is related to the word 'humus' or earth. Yes, humility has something to do with being brought down to earth about myself, I thought. No pretensions, no illusions, just the stripped bare reality of who I am.

Having someone else recogise the down to earth reality about me without judging it made me aware of how easily I judge myself. The particular issues in question were perhaps akin to Paul's thorn in the flesh; not so much things that can be changed, but realities to be accepted, for now at any rate. But was I willing to accept? Not easily! Perhaps humility is not only about seeing ourselves as God sees us, but also about accepting ourselves as God accepts us.

Paul encourages us to have a "sane estimate" of ourselves (Romans 12:3). The context warns against thinking of ourselves too highly. Pride is a tricky thing though. Failing to accept one's limitations is just as much pride as being puffed up about one's assumed strengths. In fact, when you look very closely, these two attitudes are identical twins!

The way we live out our spirituality and our service to others has to grow out of the down to earth reality of who, and how, we are. Sometimes this reality requires disciplined effort to make necessary changes. Sometimes it requires a compassionate self acceptance of limitations.

Come to think of it, Jesus has already modelled the connection between humility and "coming down to earth"!  For him too it involved accepting limitations. 
"...though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." (Phil 2:6-8).

Jesus had a sane estimate of himself. He knew who he was and he exercised his God given ministry fully. He also knew his limits. When he was tired he rested.[i] When he needed solitude he went off by himself.[ii] When he was fearful and lonely he asked for the support of friends.[iii] When there were more demands made on him than he could meet, he left some of them unmet.[iv]

Above all, the humility of Jesus is demonstrated in his lack of defensiveness in the face of misunderstanding and injustice. When falsely accused he made no defense.[v] When mocked and ridiculed as "king of the Jews", he made no attempt to prove that he really was.[vi] When taunted that if he was the saviour he ought to be able to come down from the cross, he offered no explanation.[vii] Stripped, at this point, of even his previously obvious strengths, Jesus allows the bare earth of his life to be seen without defense.

Humility, humiliation, humus: the bare earth and earthiness of who we are, revealed. Living out that reality means using God given gifts as a stewardship and without fanfare. It means accepting limitations without shame, self-blame or excuses. It may mean standing silent in the face of misunderstanding, trusting God to do any vindicating that he deems necessary.

The final word from God about this kind of down to earth, humble spirituality as modelled by Jesus is that:
"God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father." (Phil 2:9-11).
And as Peter points out in his first letter (5:6), exactly the same principles apply to us:  "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time."

So I'm learning to look with gentle anticipation at the bare earth of my external and my internal garden and wonder what now has freedom and space to grow.

[i] John 4:6; Mrk 4:38
[ii] Mark 1:35; Matthew 14:22-23
[iii] Matthew 26:36-38
[iv] Mark 1:36-38; 45.
[v] Matthew 27:14
[vi] Matthew 27:27-31
[vii] Matthew 27:39-40

Monday, July 11, 2011

Wells or Fences? A Paradigm for Spiritual Growth

This article was first presented as a talk to a Tertiary Students' Christian Fellowship (TSCF) gathering in 1993 and was then transcribed and published in Reality in 1994. I have been amazed at how many reprints and copies of it have been requested over the seventeen years since then. (I have often said if I had received $1 for every copy I'd be rich by now!) Clearly the "Wells instead of Fences" paradigm continues to have meaning.  Reading this again in 2011 two things strike me: The fact that it was originally a talk comes through and makes me itch to edit and "tidy it up" a bit but I will resist! Secondly I'm intrigued that my "wells not fences" image of 1993 is an early form of what has become my "concentric circles" journey of faith since then.These days I might not use such overtly 'evangelical' language but the basic premise is the same: I'm passionate about sharing the deep source of Life that includes and transcends all boundaries.


A visitor to an Australian outback cattle station was intrigued by the seemingly endless miles of farming country with no sign of any fences. He asked a local rancher how he kept track of his cattle. The rancher replied, "Oh that's no problem. Out here we dig wells instead of building fences."... Out here we dig wells instead of building fences... The implication I hope, is obvious. There is no need to fence cattle in when they are highly motivated to stay within range of their source of life.

Let's consider a paradigm for spiritual growth which is based on digging deeper wells rather than on building higher fences. To do this we need first to take a little excursus into mathematics! I promise it will be brief!

The word "set" in mathematical terms refers to a group of objects which belong together because they have some defined similarity which marks them out. For example a set of all odd numbers would include 1,3,5 and 157 but not 2,4 or 100.

Sets can be defined in various ways. For example: in a roomful of people the set of males is a clearly recognisable set which could be further divided into subsets of single males and married males. Or we could define a set in terms of age: the set of those under thirty-five. Or in terms of knowledge: the set made up of all those who know what the prophet Ezekiel was instructed to do with the hair he shaved from his head and beard! (Ezek 5) Or behaviour: the set of those who have not exceeded the speed limit today!

It is possible that someone reading this might be included in all those sets. On the other hand any speedy female over thirty-five who doesn't know Ezekiel intimately will be excluded from them all!

Obviously the way we define sets determines who or what is included and excluded. Only one further piece of theory is needed. Most sets are bounded sets. In other words the focus is on the boundary: at 50kph you are within the set of law abiding drivers, at 51kph you are not. If you turn 35 tomorrow you are within the set of under thirty-fives. If your 35th birthday is today, you are not.

However, there is another kind of set where the focus is not on a boundary but on relationship to a central goal. For example the set of those who are losing weight. There is no boundary defined by a specific number of kilos but the central goal is weight loss.  All those moving in that direction are included in the set. Another example: the set of all those whose central relationships are growing stronger in intimacy and communication. Again the crucial feature of the set is not a boundary but the direction of movement towards (in this case)  a relational goal. This kind of set is called a centred set.

So we have bounded sets and centred sets. Or if you prefer stories to mathematics, we have fences or wells.

Paul Hiebert, a missiologist from Trinity Evangelical School of Divinity suggests that it makes a great deal of difference to our perspective on evangelism and mission whether we think of Christianity as a bounded set or a centred set. If we take a bounded set view, who qualifies? Where precisely is the boundary? Who is "in" and who is "out"? How much must a person know of doctrine and Scripture before we can call that person a Christian? What differences of lifestyle need to be apparent as proof of change? At what point has 'conversion' taken place?

These are tough questions.

Hiebert suggests that it is much more realistic and helpful to think of Christianity as a centred set. A set defined by movement towards the centre, the person Jesus Christ. Now conversion is the point at which a person turns towards the centre and begins the journey. That new fragile follower of Jesus (about whom he or she may know very little) is as much part of the set as the missionary who told him the gospel story. The fact that the missionary has a degree in theology is irrelevant to defining the set. The fact that they are both moving towards the central goal is what matters.

Well we'll leave the implications for cross cultural mission for the moment and turn our attention to the implications for ourselves. If we view Christianity as a bounded set we will pay a lot of attention to the boundaries. We will have clearly defined parameters as to what constitutes a Christian, usually linked to certain doctrinal statements, our understanding of those beliefs and commitment to them. We will have our ways of determining who is "in" and who is "out".

Another feature of bounded sets is that they are static. Once within the set no further attention to definition or development is needed. To take a non-spiritual example let's say the set of Granny Smith apples. A Granny Smith apple is a Granny Smith apple whether it is ripe or unripe, rotten or shrivelled up. Those factors may be very significant to the consumer of the apple but they have no bearing on its designation as a member of the set. I leave you to draw your own parallels!

But what if we view Christianity as a centred set?

Centred sets, you remember, are created by defining a centre and the relationship of things/people to that centre. All those attracted to the centre and moving towards it are members of the set. All those moving away from the centre are not members of the set. Distance from the centre is not as important as direction of movement. One can be close to the centre but moving away from it; another may be less close but moving toward it.

Although boundaries are not the primary focus there is a clear distinction between those moving in and those moving out. The primary characteristic of centred sets is that they are dynamic sets. In other words there is always attention to direction of movement. It is "movement towards" that defines the members of the set.

What I am suggesting is that it is both more Biblical and more risky to entertain a centred set approach to Christian faith. Centred set Christianity is defined by active, dynamic relationship to Jesus Christ.

There is no place in centred set Christianity for us to shelter behind the fence of theological orthodoxy, denominational superiority, or verbal assent to gospel values which bears no resemblance to life style.

One of the apostle Paul's most striking victories for the early Church was his insistence that the "fence" of Jewish orthodoxy, in particular, circumcision, should not be a barrier to entry to the Christian community. Paul insisted that faith in Christ alone was the criterion.

And consider Jesus himself and his scorching condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. While affirming that what they taught was orthodox, he says, "Do not follow them for they do not do what they teach". "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them."
Or Jesus in the sermon on the mount, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven."
Or Jesus in his discourse to the Jews in John ch 5,"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify of me. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life."

Jesus clearly does not undervalue doctrine or the study of scripture or verbal commitment. But what he does do is indicate that they cannot be used as "fences" to define disciples. Disciples of Jesus are identified by a dynamic lifestyle which is moving towards Christlikeness.

The emphasis throughout the gospels is never primarily on what theological understanding people had but on whether they were willing to follow Jesus. So who is the true disciple - the well churched graduate who can defend Christianity against all opponents in a theological argument, or the hesitant, barely literate young woman who comes to the drop in centre but never to a church service? From the perspective of bounded set thinking the answer is obvious. The graduate is clearly "in". The young woman "out". But from the perspective of centred set thinking we cannot answer the question without more information.

We need to know about the personal relationship of each to Jesus. If the young woman is, however stumblingly, moving towards discovering what relationship with Jesus can mean for her while the churchman is quietly ignoring all aspects of personal commitment and prayer, and moving towards increasing self sufficiency, materialism and disregard for others, what then?

Our purpose is not to theorise about imaginary "others". The question we need to consider  is this: If Christian disciples were no longer defined in terms of fences, but only according to their movement towards Christ the centre, where does that leave you and me? Let me suggest five implications for our own Christian Discipleship.
1. Radical Commitment: We need to take a new look at what Jesus' life was really like. It was radical, it was non-conformist, it involved lack of security in physical terms, it was characterised by opposition from the religious establishment and frequent misunderstanding and hardship; it was marked by an absolute priority given to time to be alone listening to God, and by self giving love that cut across all social and cultural boundaries. Jesus was as much at home with Gentiles and outcasts as with those of his own race and social standing, his friendship was available to those whom others would shun and avoid. ... We could go on and on, but this is Jesus the centre of the Christian faith and if movement towards likeness to him is the goal we need to be clear about what that commitment really means.

2. Challenging Responsibility:  At first living with wells rather than fences feels very risky. Apparently when ranchers introduce cattle which have been used to fenced paddocks into an outback situation the cattle tend to huddle nervously around the well or water source, fearing to move very far. Fences provide a feeling of security but they also allow a certain degree of complacency. To rely no longer on boundaries which keep me in and others out leaves me exposed and responsible. Now I cannot doze peacefully in the shelter of the fence. I must stay alert and active in my connection to the source of life which alone is my security. And that source of life and security is in Christ and a living relationship with him, not in a theoretical fence which absolves me from action.

3. Freedom from Defensiveness: Paradoxically, however, the nearer you are to the centre the more freedom there is to explore widely. After a while the cattle on the ranch realise both their security and their freedom and no longer need to huddle. A deep relationship with Jesus develops in his disciples a confidence which transcends fearful huddling. It enables us to reach out in ever widening circles of experience and relationship without defensiveness - just as Jesus did. His confidence in who he was in relation to God enabled Jesus to cross boundaries of every kind as I have already mentioned. Christians who have that kind of freedom from defensiveness and fear seem to attract others to the well also! This kind of freedom is quite different from license or from a grey wishy-washyness. Remember the determining factor is likeness to Jesus and no one could call him wishy washy!

Another aspect of this freedom is that there is always room for growth. Bounded set thinking can stunt growth. What often happen at transition points such as adolescence, young adulthood or mid life, or at some life crisis, is that the previous theological boundary is no longer adequate. But because the focus is on the boundary the person faced with this uncomfortable fact feels as though the only choice is to "step outside" the boundary. I think many people leave our churches for this reason and are often labelled as having "lost their faith" when in fact what may be happening is very faith-full. The freedom of centred set thinking allows each of us to expand and explore as each new life experience challenges us. The only criterion is ongoing relationship to Jesus.

4. Dynamic Growth: Spiritual growth, from a centred set perspective, is not optional. We all know that in this life we will never come to the end of the process of being conformed to the likeness of Christ. But in bounded set thinking it is quite possible to stop moving in that direction at all, without any great sense of concern. Whereas in centred set thinking it is that very movement from "one degree of glory to another" that marks us out as those whose life comes from "the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Cor 3:18).

In Philippians 4:10-15 Paul gives his own view of spiritual growth:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you."

Movement, development, dynamic growth are at the heart of every stage of a centred set approach to Christian life.

5. Evangelism by Attraction: Evangelism in centred set thinking is motivated by personal, life changing experience of Jesus and focusses on pointing others in the direction of the source of life. It "works" by attraction to the centre. Our lives serve as witnesses to the extent that they contagiously attract others to what has so captivated us.  Sadly, some forms of bounded set evangelism pay more attention to the numbers of people who can be corralled within a particular doctrinal, or even denominational, fence and do little to attract folk to the Jesus of the gospels. A very good Biblical example of centred set evangelism is, interestingly, the woman at the well! Her own encounter with Jesus so transformed her that she was freed from defensiveness and fear in such a remarkable way that even those who had previously shunned her were attracted to the source of life she had found.
Are our lives dynamically connected to their source in Jesus and freely and fearlessly crossing boundaries to attract others to the same well? Or have we lasped into complacent sheltering inside a respectable theological fence which hides our own lack of movement and serves mainly to keep others out?

"Out here", said the rancher, "we dig wells instead of building fences."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two poems

I quoted the following two poems at a refresher day for spiritual directors earlier in the year. The theme of my keynote talk was "Expanding Horizons of Spiritual Direction in the 21st Century". I love this part of  TS Eliot's poem because it matches my own experience of being called by Love to explore ever more widely and yet finding that all my explorations only add to my deeper understanding of what Jesus was really "on about"! And yes - it is a condition of "complete simplicity" which costs "not less than everything"!

With the drawing of this Love
and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

TS Eliot from Little Gidding

And then there's this marvellous poem from Margaret Wheatley that speaks so accurately of what commitment to growth and expansion really involves!

Raven teach me to ride the winds of change.
Perch where the wind comes at you full force.
Let it blow you apart till your feathers fly off and you look like hell.
Then abandon yourself. The wind is not your enemy.
Nothing in life is.
Go where the wind takes you – higher – lower- backwards.
The wind to carry you forward will find you
When you are ready.
When you can bear it.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Balloon Busting or Body Building?

(First published in Reality magazine) 

I recently read the story of a school party where one of the games involved tying a balloon round the ankle of each child. The object of the game was to stomp on other people's balloons without getting yours broken. The winner was the last person with an intact balloon. The first class of children entered into the game with vigour (although not without a few tears and bruised feet as well as feelings).

The next class to play was the special needs class for intellectually handicapped children. They had some difficulty understanding the instructions for the game. But eventually they got the idea that the balloons were to be popped. So they set about helping each other to achieve this end. Some children held their balloons steady so classmates could more easily stomp on them. Others popped their own balloons. When the final balloon exploded the whole class cheered with delight. They had done it!

These so-called intellectually handicapped children had instinctively made the game one of co-operation: a team effort where everyone contributed to the common goal and where all shared the corporate sense of achievement. Competitiveness was not part of their natural framework. Winning as an individual at the expense of everyone else didn't occur to them. Friends were there to help and be helped as necessary. This was a party after all, not a war!

I was moved and challenged by this story. Which group of children really were the "special needs" group?  And what were the adults modelling by suggesting such a game in the first place? Are competition and the win-lose mentality so ingrained in our social culture that we think it is fun to stomp on each other? Oh I know it was only balloons that were stomped on - or was it? What about the feet and the feelings as well?

Adults not only teach such games to children, we play them ourselves too. Much more subtly, of course. For example: the biting comment that crushes someone's reputation and keeps mine intact; the clever joke that casues laughter which deeply hurts the person or people laughed at; the caustic criticism which ensures that the weakness of someone else is in focus and not mine; the arrogant disregard for someone else's sensitivities to show how liberated I am... Adult versions of balloon stomping abound.

What if we took on board the game plan of the special needs class? Could we help each other to eliminate weaknessness, blind spots, vulnerabilities, pride and insecurity by seeing this as a team effort? Is it possible to conceive of a community in which I bring my "balloon" of ego to a friend and ask for help to deflate it? Can you imagine joining forces with others to counteract weaknesses and then cheering together at the outcome? What would happen if instead of criticising we wondered what the person in question might be feeling or needing? ... Maybe we'd find ourselves playing a whole new game.

We are so familiar with the theory of being "one body" that I sometimes wonder if we have settled into certain relatively comfortable applications of that analogy and completely ignored others. What sense does it make to compete with another member of the body? About as much sense as one of my legs trying to prove it can run faster than the other! What is actually achieved if I cut another person down in order to raise myself up? About the same as what is achieved if I use my right hand to inflict a deep knife wound on my left.

Instinctively those special needs children knew that their survival, and their enjoyment, lay in co-operation not in competition. I'm sure they were neither Biblical scholars nor theologians but perhaps they were living the truth of Ephesians 4:15-16 better than most of us:
"...we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love."