In a letter to Robert Hooke in 1675, Isaac Newton wrote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.
The phrase is understood to mean that if Newton had been able to discover more about the universe than others, then it was because he was working in the light of discoveries made by fellow scientists, either in his own time or earlier.
I stand on the shoulders of John Shelby Spong and he stood on the shoulders of John A T Robinson, an English New Testament scholar, author and the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, his friend and mentor. Robinson stood on the shoulders of Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and situational ethicist Joseph Fletcher, when he published a highly controversial book in 1963, Honest to God.
Last week in my musings about conspiracy theorists I relied on my pastoral training to encourage you “to respect their human dignity and listen to them. Ask questions about their fears. Remain connected to them. Love them.” What the hell was I thinking? This is a case of do as I say, not as I do. Those who spread conspiracy theories that endanger people, enrage me.
Ever since the pandemic began the tin hat brigade has been out in force, spreading misinformation and, worse, disinformation. The former is “false information that people didn’t create with the intention to hurt others,” and the latter is “false information created with the intention of harming a person, group, or organisation, or even a country.” They have always been around, but this time, thanks to social media, conspiracy theories have never been more deadly. I have seen videos of people in ICU dying of Covid still claiming it is a government hoax and that Bill Gates has put microchips in the vaccine to control us. It beggars belief. Up to now I’ve just dismissed them without a second thought, lumping them in with the few who believe in the Flat Earth Society and those who believe the moon landing was a hoax spoon fed to the “sheeple”. But now their nonsense is threatening extinction. With the world increasingly on fire or underwater, their denouncing of climate change as not real and their undermining public health efforts to eliminate a deadly virus are a real threat. They have forced me to take them seriously and consider why people come up with conspiracy theories in the first place and why others are taken in by them even when it isn’t in their best interest.
Our reading this morning is what has occupied my musings this week, I’m grateful to my former colleague Glynn Cardy’s Facebook post pointing me in the direction of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s blog on circuit breakers. I suppose it resonated because of a conversation I had with someone feeling confounded about how to respond to someone who wanted to relitigate an altercation that was years ago. This is the kind of imposition that can blow a fuse when we can barely handle all that is happening now. So, this is another message from your Minister for Spiritual Health on how to use a lockdown to your spiritual advantage. Just because we are adhering to the lockdown rules for the common good, it does not mean we have to lock down our growth and transformation.
As we once again find the virus an unwelcomed guest in our midst, I pondered what to share with you today. The Ministry of Health is doing a great job, considering the enormity of the task, trying to keep us physically healthy. Our Prime Minister is doing her job of keeping us mentally sound with her calm assurance, clear messaging and kind manner. But I can’t find a ministry for assisting us with our spiritual wellbeing. I guess that’s my job. It is a daunting one, but I take comfort in my opening words, by Elizabeth Mount. If I can remind you of your internal spiritual strength that will help you endure, that would be Dayenu. It will be enough for today.
You may remember the movie The Perfect Storm that came out in the year 2000. It was about a real storm in 1991. A variety of factors came together to create a hurricane that was never named. In the northern hemisphere hurricanes form in the tropics and move north. This hurricane started as a nor’easter that became a hurricane that formed off the Atlantic coast of Canada and New England and then moved south causing considerable damage.
The term “perfect storm” was coined by journalist Sebastian Junger after a conversation with Boston meteorologist Robert Case in which Case described the convergence of weather conditions as being “perfect” for the formation of such a storm. It has entered our lexicon to describe an especially bad situation caused by a combination of unfavourable circumstances. It certainly applies to our new reality.
What would reality be like without fantasy? Would you want to live there? Can you really imagine a place not inhabited by Gandalf and Frodo, Harry and Albus, Sparrowhawk and Vetch; Lucy and Aslan? Thanks to fantasy literature, we can live in an extensive travel bubble. We are exempt from quarantine when we visit Alice in Wonderland, Peter in Neverland, Ged in Earthsea, Harry, Ron and Hermione at Hogwarts, Max where the wild things are, and the Hobbits in the Shire, especially since Hobbiton is only 168 kilometres from Auckland.
I’m always surprised by where my musings begin and where they take me. This week they began with gymnast Simone Biles’ withdrawal from team and individual Olympic events to protect her physical and mental health. While many have applauded her decision despite global expectations she would win gold in all of them, many others have criticised and condemned her for lacking courage and the appropriate Olympic spirit. What codswallop! I can barely imagine the kind of pressure she was under to hide her mental distress and continue competing through the physical pain. I’m in awe of this young woman’s courage to publicly acknowledge her struggle and refuse to comply. She could’ve withdrawn saying she was not 100% physically able to compete, but she went on to acknowledge that more importantly she was struggling mentally. I can imagine the world’s high expectations could weigh you down when you are supposed to be flying through the air.
Religion is often singled out for the evil it is responsible for in the world, from the Crusades to 9/11. Jonathan Mason has used his opportunity from winning the Service Auction item to select the following sermon topic: Considering religions’ responsibility for wars and intolerance, explain the positive elements of world religion and spirituality. He and I have a friendly repartee about a variety of subjects so I’m not sure if he is trying to hoist me on my own petard or he sincerely wants to know, so he is asking someone who is on a first name basis with the devil we know as religion, after my 40-plus years in the business.
I unashamedly stole the title for my musings from a sermon by Unitarian Universalist Joshua Pawelek. I liked how he played with a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans (6:23): “for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.”
I agree with Pawelek’s implication that Paul is inviting us to trust Jesus if we want to live. Paul understands sin to be disconnection from God. Disconnected we die. Trusting Jesus connects us to our creator giving us not just life but eternal life. This one verse is the doctrinal core of Christianity. It all boils down to whom do you trust? Unitarians have a different view but I will get to that later. Stay tuned.