Thursday, February 07, 2019

Horeb and Zion


I have taken three services of Holy Communion today, sitting with these two texts at each of them:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them…Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Hebrews 12:18-19, 21-24

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Mark 6:7-13

There is a long thread running through the Old Testament: the story of the God who descended from the heavens to Mount Horeb in the Sinai peninsula to rescue a people from slavery in Egypt; who then journeyed with them through the wilderness for a generation and after that as they established themselves as a nation in a land of their own; before ascending on Mount Zion, a hill in Jerusalem where David made a resting place for the tabernacle—symbol of God’s presence—and his son Solomon built the temple.

The writers of the New Testament saw this thread as prefiguring Jesus, who descended from heaven in the incarnation, camped out with us (in the words of the Prologue to John’s Gospel) for a generation, and ascended to the Father. Writing to Christian converts living among the Jewish diaspora, the writer to ‘the Hebrews’ reminds them where they are in this story. They are not at Mount Horeb, but at Mount Zion. They did not encounter Jesus while he walked about among us, but after his ascension. And that is where we are, too.

We have, at it were, entered the story at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus says, ‘All authority on earth and in heaven has been given to me: go, therefore, and disciple nations…’

How do we do that? In the same way as Jesus’ first disciples. He sent them to enter into a village; to live with a family for a season, inviting them into life in its fullness; and then to move on, to repeat the descend-dwell-ascend pattern again and again.

The third of the services I took today was for the Mother’s Union. Across much of the world, the Mothers’ Union is a force to be reckoned with for good, equipping women to go into communities and live alongside families helping them to build patterns of living that promote stability in contexts of poverty, gender-based violence, living with HIV or mental illness; caring for prisoners and befriending the elderly. In this way, communities are caught-up in the ascension, in the life-giving rule of Christ over the nations.

Just before I took the first of the three services, I heard the news that Michael Green had died yesterday. Michael was an Anglican vicar and theological educator, a passionate evangelist who specialised in university missions, the author of over fifty books. He was also my godfather. As a dear friend of my parents, he came into my life before I was born, has encouraged me on my faith journey, and has now gone ahead to be with the ascended Lord Jesus face-to-face. But he was no stranger to that pattern: coming in to peoples’ lives and introducing them to Jesus for the first time in student missions; or investing in generations of women and men in training for ministry, in their time at theological college. Rest in peace, uncle Michael, and rise in glory.

We have come to Mount Zion. We enter, stay, and we leave, called onward, ever onward. This is our story. May we live it, to the full.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Being human

In January, I read both Beartown and its sequel Us Against You. I’d not found Fredrik Backman before—I’m indebted to my friend Sean Gladding for the recommendation—but he is an astonishing writer. More than just well-written novels, Backman really gets under the skin of the human condition. The relevant theological term would be that we are all sinners, in need of grace. Whether intentionally or by miraculous accident, Backman story-tells the heights and depths of this mystery.

Sinner is not a moral designation. A sinner can be righteous, self-righteous, or unrighteous: they can live a morally upstanding life; be wilfully blind to their own faults; or embrace an identity as an outsider to morality. But all are sinners: we all hide from others—to protect ourselves, or to protect them—all put apart, all draw up battle lines. Good people do bad things from good motivations, or simply surrendering to badness. Bad people do good things, sometimes from bad motivations and sometimes simply surrendering to goodness. We hold back when we ought to speak out, and speak out when we would have been wise to exercise restraint. In time, as Backman describes so well, we discover that we are all alike. The realisation comes to us as violent grace, a jolt to restart the heart, a fresh beginning. But how quickly we forget.

We can’t help but polarise. And this is where liturgy comes to the rescue. Liturgy, sacred words spoken habitually over and over a lifetime, form us in a particular way. They do not do unto us, but demand hard work of us—liturgy is literally the work of the people—in submitting ourselves to the grace we so desperately need but so fiercely fight against.

When we gather together to share Holy Communion, we begin with the Prayer of Preparation:
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is not a private prayer. We pray side by side with others, who each have their own God-given desires, just as we do. And we are forced to recognise, to acknowledge, that they, too, desire certain things, many of which are the very things we desire: to be known, to be loved, to be valued, to be safe from fear, to be of significance. Other people, no less than ourselves. There is no ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’ only we. Moreover, we are confronted with the truth that our desires, the ones we keep secret from so many people that they become secret to us, and the ones we wear on our sleeve, can get bent out of shape, become poisoned and poisonous—and need regular cleansing. This is as true for us as for the people standing to our right and our left. Desire is both common to humanity, and good. But—and this is also common to humanity—it needs tending to—and this not left to our own estimation, by turns too harsh and too indulgent, and so often simply tired to the bones.

Having so prepared ourselves, we move into Prayers of Penitence, saying:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us, forgive us all that is past and grant that we may serve you in newness of life to the glory of your name. Amen.
or,
Most merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God. Amen.

Week by week, we look at our lives, at ourselves and those we live alongside side, and take a stand against all that tears us apart, in which we are all complicit. We do so, knowing that we will never arrive at a point where the lessons are learnt, and we live in a utopia. No, we do so out of deep commitment to a particular place and real people, we can neither live with nor live without.

And then, week by week, we hear these words:
Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and keep you in life eternal, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
and we are washed clean, held close, somehow empowered to live another day.

In a polarised world, we need writers like Fredrik Backman—and not only for personal reading but for book group discussions. And we need liturgy. Both will help us live as characters in the story we find ourselves in.

Before it's too late


Men:
I know (because you’ve told me) that you don’t feel you can tell your male friends what you’re going through, because you can’t imagine they’d understand, because they’ve never experienced anything comparable;
but (trust me—because they also talk to me) if you did, you might just be surprised...

A day in the life


This morning I took a funeral. The Minster was packed. When 250 people departed, unbeknownst to me one man stayed on until after I had been to the cemetery to conduct the burial and returned to the Minster, because he is living with anxiety and had no-one to talk to.

I travelled to and from the cemetery with the hearse. On the way back, the driver asked, “Are you done for the day, then?” No, but it is hard to describe what my days look like—you’d need to tag along.

I changed out of my robes, and the man who had waited for my return approached me. I sat with him and listened for as long as was needed, and prayed with him.

I don’t have answers to the life-issues he is facing. There aren’t answers—at least, not satisfying ones. What I have are stories, a deep depository of stories of men and women who faced life in all its unanswerable questions—this is wisdom. The Bible, where I find not so much answers to my questions as an invitation deeper into the mystery of life. (Job’s friends offered him spurious answers; God did not. Jesus rarely gave a direct answer to a question, often answering a question with a question.)

But it is hard for someone to draw on the well of stories when they have been cut off from them for a lifetime. So, I tend to listen more than I tell stories. But sooner or later, it’s the stories we need, to immerse our own lives in.

Whereas I find that people are disappointed in the lack of answers—true in church, but also wherever else one might go looking—mystery will not let go. At its heart, that mystery is personal, relational, loving. It is far beyond our comprehension, yet calls us in. And so, I find people making their way to find an open church, a priest, even if they aren’t sure God is there or listening.

Here’s the killer. In a crowd of over 250 people, whose lives are interwoven, it is possible to feel utterly alone. And you wont be the only one.

We need to be reconnected, to God, to ourselves, to our neighbour. And, no, I’m not done for the day...


Friday, January 11, 2019

The labyrinth




There’s a bay just north of Seaburn where the land drops down an escarpment to a narrow field above a shallow beach. There in the field, overlooking the North Sea, someone has made a prayer labyrinth from found stones, has claimed this sparse strip as holy ground. The land of the venerable monk Bede, the first person to write a history of the English people.

Every ten paces along this coastline there’s a bench-seat facing out to sea, each one with a plaque screwed into the backrest, remembering a loved one who used to stand on this coastline and look out at the horizon. Some never crossed it, never left. Others went away, only to come back again.

This place belongs to Somewheres, to people who live somewhere, who are from this place—Sunderland—even after they are dead and gone. Or, rather, dead and not gone.

Me, I am an Anywhere, someone who can live anywhere. Like everyone else, I am a scoop of clay animated by the breath of God. But where God found that clay is anyone’s guess. My family are scattered to the four winds, my wife’s family also. We grew up 300 miles apart, and met in a third city entirely. We’ve all but lost track of how many times we’ve moved, still find an adrenalin to it. In the Bible, YHWH, the Creator God, is described as a wanderer. So is the satan, the accuser. And so am I.

An Anywhere can live anywhere, comes not from Somewhere but Nowhere. To the Anywhere, nowhere is Somewhere. We can live anywhere, but it is hard to do so Somewhere. Never mind the other Anywheres, the Italians and Indians and Chinese operating restaurants all along the promenade at Seaburn. You’re nobody in this town if you’re not from here. Invisible.

This is holy ground, but God, it is a sparse strip. One path there and back again, sometimes bringing you near the centre, only to turn you away.

We keep running, a 10K loop along the coastal path to the Souter lighthouse and back again. Past the endless benches facing out to sea.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Beartown




I’ve just finished reading Beartown by Fredrik Backman. It is a novel concerned with the Patriarchy, how it is bad for boys as well as for girls, and how women as well as men collude with it. But there is no clunky or sanctimonious Political Correctness here, just beautiful story-telling.

And, in almost every one of the fifty chapters, a sentence that arrested my heart—stopped time—before jolting my heart back to vigorous life. As unceremoniously as a defibrillator. The only adequate word to describe these sentences is grace. Grace, held out to a broken world.

Fredrik Backman has woven a brilliant story; and—unsung hero—Neil Smith’s translation from Swedish into English is stunning work.