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.


Saturday, April 28, 2018

Prayer and tea parties


Today has been a full and rich day, and I need to get some reflections down ‘on paper’ before it is quite done. I spent most of the day with 4/5 of my family and some 120+ others at the Diocesan Prayer Conference 2018 (PC18), hosted by St George’s Gateshead; followed by afternoon tea with 5/5 of my family and some 50 others at Sunderland Minster, in (a deferred) celebration of St George’s Day.

A mix of sung worship, plenary sessions, seminar streams, downtime over food and coffee, and even a little prayer, the Prayer Conference provided plenty of food for thought on developing our practices of personal and corporate prayer. It wasn’t about providing ‘how to’ answers as much as opening-up the gift of time; and in that spirit I found myself contemplating a curiosity of the prayer life of the Minster community. The Minster is open throughout the day, every day. Every day, throughout the day, people who are not members of our regular congregation, many of whom are not regular members of any congregation, come into the building to pray. They sit awhile. They light a candle as a physical act to remember someone before God. They leave a prayer request pinned to the prayer board.

Members of our congregation rarely pin a prayer request on the board. They are almost entirely left by visitors, asking us to pray with them. And the requests reveal the burdens on their hearts they are hoping someone will come alongside and help to carry. Patterns emerge. The requests are to do with seeking God’s protection (as in the Aaronic blessing, the Lord bless you and keep you…), for family members, for the people of Syria, for refugees, for the dead (Christians from an evangelical background find praying for the dead a strange impulse; but we need to be attentive to the cry of people’s hearts). And the requests are to do with fear of the loss of identity: family members who have lost their job, or who are struggling with mental health issues, or are estranged from their family; and, again, the dead, in fear that if they are not held by God, if they are forgotten, then—at that point, not at their death—they will cease to exist. These are prayers for ‘the lost’—not in the fundamentalist sense of those heading towards an eternity in hell, but in the sense of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son: those who need to find themselves, found by God.

To put it bluntly, though I suspect that members of our congregation pray, I see more evidence that those who are not part of our congregation—the Minster community at its farthest fringes—pray than I do of our ‘core’ praying. And I found myself wondering how we might build connection, in both directions, between that fringe and core?

From St George’s, we came back to the Minster, and to a wonderful afternoon tea. This is a primarily social event, primarily aimed at older people—though, as is important for older people, it was not only for older people, but a gathering of young and old, with, on this occasion, the older generation being centre-stage. It was a wonderful event, wonderfully hosted by a fabulous team. They laid on bunting and pretty table-cloths, cut sandwiches and dainty cakes, an endless supply of refreshed teapots and cafetieres, and a quiz. Those who were there stretched far beyond members of our congregation.

This is not about trying to keep living in the past, but it is about visiting the past. Talking to one older man, he told me about wanting to revisit a sea loch where convoys had gathered during the war, but that when he did so, he didn’t recognise it. He’d put it down to seeing the loch from the shore, and not, as back in the day, the shore from a ship in the loch. It wasn’t what he was expecting, but neither was it a disappointment. The image felt relevant.

Afternoon tea at the Minster is a very practical response to the fear of the loss of identity, especially for those who find themselves multiply-bereaved of those with whom they share common memory (both personal history and social history, such as film and music and world events), and unable to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of technological change. In this act of hospitality, we discover ourselves loved by God, children at the table in our Father’s house. Here, we experience ourselves as found, not lost—and find ourselves again, having perhaps lost sight of ourselves in the winter of the world, or the autumn of our lives.

Our vision as Durham Diocese is a call to ‘blessing our communities in Jesus’ name, for the transformation of us all’. It felt to me that the two events I attended today went hand in hand in this. Thank you to everyone who made both possible.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

To bless and to curse


There are many stories in the Bible that make for very uncomfortable reading. Nevertheless, they are recorded, and are there for our instruction—of the nature of gods and mortals, and the relationships between them. Exodus 32 (Morning Prayer, today) is one such passage.

The god Yahweh has rescued the descendants of Jacob (aka Israel) from slavery in Egypt. But they have quickly abandoned Yahweh, who decides to bring disaster upon them and start again, in hope of a people who will be faithful. Moses speaks up, arguing that to do so would bring Yahweh’s reputation into disrepute, and appealing to his promises to their ancestors—and Yahweh listens, and changes his mind.

However, when Moses returns to the people and sees them for himself, he changes his mind, and reverts to Yahweh’s first intention. Moses calls to himself those who consider themselves on the Lord’s side; the sons of Levi respond; and at Moses’ instruction, appealing to the authority of Yahweh, they go through the camp putting their brothers, friends, and neighbours to the sword—3,000 people. In this way, Moses declares, they have set themselves apart for the service of the Lord.

Sit with that awhile.

This is a deeply disturbing episode. It is an episode in the history of the people of Israel; and—key to understanding—an episode in the history of the tribe of Levi within the people of Israel.

At the very end of his life, Jacob had called his sons to him and spoken over them his last words (Genesis 49). Last words have lasting impact. These are his reflections on the character of his sons—on how that has shaped their lives to date and is likely to continue to do so. They are words of blessings and curses: blessing being releasing some aspect of life into fruitfulness, and cursing being to contain or set limits on that which is no life-giving. Such words relate not only to the individual son, but to the ‘family likeness’ of their descendants. They imply family strengths—that will overcome disaster—and flaws—that need to be overcome.

Over time, our habitual actions shape not only our character, but the shared culture of our families, our extended families, our community. To extend blessings and curses is to recognise the truth of this; yet to refuse to accept it as determinism; but, rather, to embrace disciplines to build up virtues and to see even our vices redeemed.

Of Levi, Jacob declares that he is a man of violence, that his use of the sword goes beyond proportionate defence, that he does not control his anger or his sadistic cruelty. Levi is not one to take council from, nor ought one take any part in his actions. Jacob curses—restrains—Levi’s anger, because it is fierce, and his wrath, because it is cruel. They go far beyond the appropriate, proportionate response of a settled determination to resist injustice. Jacob ‘divides’ Levi from his brothers, and ‘scatters’ him among his brothers—actions that make fullest sense applied to Levi as a tribe, not an individual. They are both separate from and dispersed throughout the descendants of Jacob, to contain their violence and, perhaps, to enable their anger to be appropriately harnessed.

Moses and Aaron, by whom Yahweh delivered the people from Egypt, are of the tribe of Levi—as was their sister, Miriam, who, with Moses, has a streak that delights in destruction (Exodus 15). (Moses himself was divided from the people, nonetheless took a man’s life, and so was scattered to the wilderness.)

And here in Exodus 32 when Moses calls people to his side, it is the sons of Levi (Moses’ own people) who respond. They are called out from the people as a whole—still divided from them, but no longer scattered from one another—and then go through the people—scattering—in fierce anger and cruel wrath.

In contrast, Yahweh’s anger and wrath might be seen to be considered, re-considered, deferred, and justified rather than indiscriminate. Anger and wrath (punishment, direct or indirect) are not in-and-of-themselves negative attributes.

That said, Yahweh is as committed to the flawed tribe of Levi as to the other (flawed, in their own ways) tribes. Even when such commitment is necessarily complex. And while the weight of that realisation lies heavy on our hearts, beyond the weight there is a greater weight lifted. For who among mortals is without flawed character?

May we be given the grace to know our familial character strengths and flaws. And may we, too, receive the blessing and the curse we need.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Still Life


I’ve just finished Still Life, the first of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. It is beautifully crafted, and life-affirming. All the clues to the identity of the killer are there—no rabbits are pulled out of a hat at the end—yet so well-written you may well not arrive there ahead of time.

However, the identity of the murderer is perhaps the least interesting part of the story. Far better, this is a story about us: about how we are all flawed judges of character; how we all have blind-spots when it comes to ourselves, and others; how we are all unreliable witnesses. These are truths worth knowing. Indeed, it is perhaps impossible to be truly life-affirming until we discover them.

Recognising that he is not exempt from this, Gamache employs, and offers, four simple sentences to navigate such terrain:

“I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know.”
“I need help.”
“I was wrong.”

In this way, there is hope and not despair.

Penny is an insightful writer. I’m looking forward to reading more. Thank you to Sean Gladding for the introduction.