Thursday, June 14, 2018

Enemies


Holy Communion: 1 Kings 18:41-46 and Matthew 5:20-26

The back story to our Old Testament reading is this. The king, Ahab, had made a marriage alliance with his neighbour to the north. His wife, Jezebel, had brought with her the worship of her gods, Baal and his consort Asherah – who controlled the rain, and the fertility of the land – along with a systematic marginalisation of Israelite worship. A hostile takeover bid. Ahab leads a realignment from trust in the god who had rescued a people from slavery and established a society based on freedom from fear, to deference to gods who wished to enslave them once again.

In a direct show-down, Elijah, a prophet of the Israelites’ god Yahweh, declares that there will be no rain on the land except by his word. Elijah goes into hiding for three years of drought. During this time, Jezebel schemes that the companies of the prophets of Yahweh – the forerunners of monastic communal life – be rounded-up and killed.

After three years, Elijah presents himself to Ahab, and proposes a contest, between himself and the prophets of Baal and of Asherah, to decide once-and-for-all where the loyalty of the people should lie. It is a resounding victory for Elijah, who then personally carries out what was always going to be the outcome, the execution of the defeated side in the battle. Then, the land released, Elijah calls up rain.

This is unambiguously the realm of enemies, and of warfare between opposing rulers. We might substitute gods for nation states, or diametrically-opposed political philosophies.

Against this backdrop, it is remarkable that Elijah instructs Ahab to eat and drink, and then to hurry home. In other words, his concern is that his enemy should celebrate the breaking of the drought that was – at least in the worldview of the story – both caused and prolonged by Ahab’s policy. His enemy should not miss out on the celebration. And at an even more fundamental level, Elijah – for three years on the run – demonstrates concern that his enemy should reach shelter.

That is a mind-blowing way to treat an enemy.

It is a way that – with absolutely no guarantee – might just turn an enemy into a friend.

It is a way of righteousness – of seeking to live in right relationship – that exceeds tradition and inherited wisdom; and triumphs over self-interest – and, ultimately, over self-destruction. The righteousness of freedom, found in the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Compass


Morning Prayer: Judges 5:1-31 and Luke 13:22-35

After the victory recorded in Judges 4, the song of celebration. This is a political telling, that sets what has taken place in a very particular context. Though all the tribes of Israel benefit from Barak’s victory, only some of the tribes came out to fight alongside him. Others are left – or, ought to be – with great searchings of heart. This is a song of judgement on Israel, as much as a song of triumph. A warning to those who put attending to their own concerns ahead of helping their neighbours, who are also their sisters and brothers.

And having honoured Deborah as the mother of Israel, and Jael as most blessed of women, the song turns to the mother of Sisera, who intuitively knows that something has gone wrong but who – encouraged by her ‘wisest’ ladies-in-waiting – desperately holds on to the false hope of business-as-usual, the powerful exploiting others; powerful women condoning the exploitation of other women by powerful men.

The song concludes with the hope of a lasting freedom, a return of light after the darkness of night.

In the Gospel reading we see a summary of Jesus’ activity of going through the towns and villages. Like the judges of old, he is calling people to his side, in the Lord’s cause. And as the judges found, there were many who wanted the benefits of deliverance without its cost, who turn up for the party after the dust has settled. Others make a cautious, half-hearted response; but these, too, are left with a great heart-searching to be done.

Jesus is the latest in a line of those sent to gather the people together, only to find them resistant. Yet he holds on to a vision that people will gather from east and west, from north and south – whether they are the ones you would expect or not. A people defined not by tribal self-interest, but by a bigger story. One that scorns death; that does not fear laying down a life it cannot keep in exchange for life that cannot be lost. On those who sit in darkness, in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, a great light has dawned...

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Glory


Morning Prayer: Judges 4:1-23 and Luke 13:10-21

Judges 4 is one of my favourite chapters in the Bible.

Deborah sits under her palm tree in her glory, which is to be the one to whom all Israel comes to judge their disputes.

Jael stands at the entrance of her tent in her glory, which is to be the one through whom the Israelites are saved from their oppressor Sisera.

And in the Gospel reading, the woman in the synagogue is unable to stand, bent over by accusation, by voices subtle and not-so subtle that keep putting her in her place. Except, of course, that this is not her place, was never meant to be. Jesus cuts through the crap, and restores to her her own glory –

and follows it up with an explosive parable in which he describes God as a woman.

In a world where women are so often kept in their place, the glory of Lappidoth is to release his wife into the fullness of her glory and not seek to contain, constrain or control, but be content to stand in her shadow. The glory of Barak is not in defeating Sisera, but in walking in Deborah’s shadow, her as his helper just as God is Israels helper. The glory of Heber is not in an alliance with King Jabin, but, like Lappidoth, in his wife being queen of her own realm. And the glory of Jesus is in restoring a woman constrained for eighteen years.

Here’s to the women. And to the men who know them as sister.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Highlands


Mountain hare,
deer, golden
eagles – a nesting pair,
right on the road side.

Tiny flowers,
scattered jewel-like in the grass,
wink yellow, mauve,
and violet eyes.

Gorse, in bloom;
fern, scrub heather;
a slow worm
writhes across our path.

The sea, electric blue
and eau de nil,
turned mercury
by late-afternoon.

And all day long
the skylarks rise up,
up, high above the meadow,
and sing their song.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The flowing river of history


Morning Prayer: Joshua 4

As the Israelites cross over the river Jordan, Joshua gives instruction that one representative from each of the twelve tribes take up a large stone from the river bed and carry them into the first place the people will set their camp in the land, as a perpetual memory to what the Lord their God has done for them.

But Joshua himself takes up twelve stones and sets them up in the middle of the river itself. Why?

Joshua is of the half-tribe of Ephraim, Ephraim being the younger of Joseph’s two sons. In Genesis 48, Joseph presents his sons before his own father, Jacob known-as Israel, for his blessing. The blessing Israel proclaims relates to the boys’ as perpetual memory of his own name, his history and that of his ancestors. Israel also declares that the younger son, Ephraim, will be greater than his brother, Manasseh.

In short, Joshua understands his own heritage as being to secure the remembrance of the descendants of Israel. While they are all to have a vested-interest in the remembrance of what God has done, Joshua’s role is to remember who it is that God has acted for.

And while the people are instructed to set up the stones of testimony where they can be seen, where their children can walk up to them and around them, laying their hands on them and asking, ‘What do these mean?’ Joshua sets his memorial up where it will be covered by the waters.

These are the people God found overwhelmed by water—in a world where the waters represent chaos, and the land represents stability and a future, a purpose, tied to tending the earth from which we came and to which we return.

These are not a people who are anything in their own might, but a people rescued, again and again.

Yes, the people were to remember God. But in order to do so, they would need help not to forget themselves.

How easily we forget ourselves. And so perhaps, in the footsteps of Joshua, the role of the public leader is not to do the work of telling God’s story to the people for them, but to do the work of reminding them—and God—who they are.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Driven out


Morning Prayer: Joshua 3

The unfolding account of the partial conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites is troubling. We are rightly wary of people who believe that God is on their side, validating their victories. It has been said that history is written by the victors—but that is not the case in scripture. History is written as a process by which to make sense, of victory and of defeat.

As the people prepare to enter the land, from which God promises to drive out from before them seven other tribes, we are told that the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. It is an important detail, and not simply to emphasize a river-crossing miracle. What is implied is that it returns to within its banks in due course.

Before his death, Moses had spoken to the people about faithfulness and infidelity, and corresponding blessings and curses. Blessings are the release of life in its fullness. Curses constrain life for a season, to restrict the multiplication of evil. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks of the people being driven out by God among many nations. If they return to the Lord their God, he would restore their fortunes and gather them again from all the peoples among whom he would scatter them.

This is the backdrop to understanding God’s action in determining to drive out seven tribes before the Israelites, for God’s concern for humanity is not restricted to one people. The tribes that had settled in Canaan would be driven out, as the Israelites themselves would experience. They would be pushed out beyond their banks, as a response to infidelity. But not a permanent condition. This is not sanctioned ethnic cleansing, despite the lives that would be taken at Joshua’s command, but God at work in and through history. Just as the Jordan would return to its banks, so driven-out people might return, if they call on the Lord of all the earth.

Sacred texts exist to help us make sense of defeat as well as victory. Neither condition is total, or for ever. There is hope to be keep alive in defeat and moderation to be kept in mind in victory.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Rahab


Morning Prayer:

Joshua chapter 2 introduces Rahab, a woman named by her parents after a powerful chaos demon. She is a prostitute, and this is certainly a manifestation of chaos, at the very least in the subversion of male power. But this very subversion makes it also a manifestation of welcome to the stranger. To those whose very presence, even as unconfirmed rumour, makes the king fearful—but not Rahab.

Rahab has made a home for herself, and her family, on the outer side of the city wall, within the wall itself. Her place is on the edge, the liminal space where her presence is both accommodated and beyond the pale. Is she seeking the stability that chaos desperately longs for? And does her presence there, in the very defence the community has built against the outside world, undermine it; a flaw, like a crimson thread, in the brickwork?

Ultimately, it is not the wall that saves her, for—not for the first time, but this time literally—her world will come tumbling down around her (Joshua 6). No, she will be saved by Yahweh, who overthrows Rahab as in ancient myth; who calms the writhing sea, triumphing over the raging of his rebellious children by welcoming them home, to an enduring place of belonging, within a Rock that cannot be shaken.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Going in and out


At Morning Prayer this morning, I read these words, attributed to God:

“I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever.” (1 Samuel 2:35).

They resonated with words read yesterday, from Acts. In Acts 1:1, Luke refers to “all that Jesus did and taught...” But Peter refers to “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us...” (Acts 1:21).

Peter sees Jesus as the faithful priest (conflated with the anointed one), for whom God will build a sure house, or lasting family of priests—the Church.

I am struck by the description of priesthood as to go in and out—and by how that rhythm is revealed in the ministry of Jesus. It is a pattern of withdrawing into solitude, and communion; and of being moved by compassion to serve those in need.

As I was leaving the chapel after Morning Prayer, a young man approached me. He had come into the open building and had been sitting in the pews, part hidden behind a pillar. He asked if I had a moment, and I sat with him. That moment stretched to an hour, of listening to his story of complex layered pastoral crisis, of falling through all the cracks. I do not know whether he was telling the truth or lying, but I do know this: if true, it is a tragedy; and if lies, then the truth being concealed is even more tragic.

I offered him the help that I could offer, through the contacts I have; but it was not the help he was looking for, and so he walked away. This does not necessarily mean that he was lying. As he went, he was angry that I had wasted his time listening for an hour if I was not going to help. This—and his failure to recognise that he might have been the one wasting my time, if he did not want the help I could offer—does not necessarily mean that he was lying either. When your life falls apart, emotion can run high and reason become muddled. But he had come in and gone out in distress, albeit that his distress had been briefly calmed. And his going left me feeling sick in the stomach, for some hours, during which time I had to make a funeral visit.

I cannot help everyone that I go in and out among; only be open to the possibility.

I cannot protect myself with indifference.

Today, all I could do is listen; all I can do is pray, for E and D, for a very broken and hurting world, for mercy.

As I go in and out.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Raising the bar

After the Ascension Day service, Jo and I went for a drink. At the bar, the barman and barmaid asked whether I was a Father or a Priest. I said I was an Anglican priest, but that they could call me Andrew.

A little later, I went back to the bar for another round. The barman told me that the barmaid wanted me to pray for her university exam results, but was too shy to ask, and would I be willing? I said that I would be happy to pray for her; and we got into a conversation, where she asked that I pray not only for her but her whole cohort. I told her I would pray, took the drinks back to Jo, and reported the conversation.

Jo asked me whether I had prayed with her there and then? She didn't want people out-sourcing prayer to professionals. I hadn’t; but Jo was right. My role is to teach people to pray, to help people pray, (yes, to pray for them, but) not to remove it from them. So I did some introvert processing, and went back to the bar...

I asked her what she wanted to do with her degree, and she told me her ambition to be a wedding planner, and how she loved organising weddings and christenings for her friends. We talked about her passions and dreams, and how God loves a party, and then I said I was going to pray for her, there and then.

She asked if she had to join in? I said she didn’t have to, but she was welcome to. I said we didn’t need to close our eyes and bow our heads, or anything weird like that; and she seemed a little disappointed, so I said she could if she wanted. I started to pray, and another barmaid who was clearing tables came up and noisily deposited several glasses on the bar, and the barmaid I was praying with told her colleague that “we are just praying,” in a do-you-mind and don’t-interrupt kind of a way.

After I prayed a blessing on her, she was so appreciative; and expressed her thanks once more when we left a little later—as did the barman.

Here’s the thing. We think that people are uncomfortable with the idea of prayer, with praying. But that just isn’t true.