Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Of break-ins and break-throughs


We had a wonderful time at New Wine United (2018, Week 2) last week. These summer gatherings are a happy place for me, somewhere where many of my worlds (places we have lived and friendships we have made over the past quarter of a century) collide in creative ways. We loved listening to dear friends share what they had learned from God. We loved singing songs of worship written in our own days, in the context of our own lives. We got home on Sunday night, and I went in to work on Monday morning expecting to catch up with news, to work through emails and laundry…but instead we had to deal with the aftermath of a break-in to the Minster in the early hours of that morning: two broken windows; two shattered doors; a ladder, giving access to the bells, ripped from the ringing-chamber wall; desk-drawers and filing-cabinets forced open, and paperwork strewn all over the floor. A lot of damage, a huge amount of mess – shards of glass everywhere – and nothing taken: the intruder, arrested on site by the police, was almost certainly only after money, and found none.

Welcome home!

It is one thing to meet with God with thousands of other people who have come away on pilgrimage together for that very purpose, and another to meet with God in the come-down.

That is where moving mountains comes in. Jesus spoke about it, and we sing about it, but my sense is that we often think of the mountains as the obstacles we face and seek the faith to overcome. That’s a powerful image, but it is one that comes from The Lord of the Rings, not the Bible. Jesus makes a wholly other point.

In the Bible, mountains are most often places where God is encountered – and more than that, of encountering the God who rescues his people from slavery. (Sometimes smaller mountains represent surrounding nations over which God reigns from Mount Zion, raising his own people above them – which is an extension of the same imagery.) Moses receives his call to set his people free at a mountain, and later God descends on the mountain to call the people into covenant relationship with the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Elijah meets God on the (same) mountain, dejected and resigned and about to be re-commissioned into God’s plans to deliver his people from evil. Peter, James and John are caught up in a profound religious experience on the mountaintop, a vision of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, receiving instruction for his own mission to bring freedom to captives.

In Matthew 17, Jesus descends from the mount of the Transfiguration – this profound encounter where the voice of God speaks directly to his disciples – and is met by a desperate father whose son is afflicted by a demon. Jesus delivers the child of that oppression, and when asked about this by his disciples responds that dogged, mustard-seed faith can tell a mountain to move from here to there, and it will. In other words, the kind of faith that has an impact on the world appropriates the experience of encountering God – as liberator – and brings that with us into the place where that experience is currently absent but required.

In Luke 17, Jesus says something similar but dissimilar, about faith uprooting a tree and planting it in the sea. In the Bible, the sea often symbolises chaos that opposes God – with God regularly defeating the sea by parting it or walking on it – or (related) barriers that would prevent God’s people from entering into the fullness of freedom. The context in Luke 17 is forgiveness, with the sea representing the chaos that division results in, and a tree being the focal-point for both repentance (seeking forgiveness and reconciliation) and forgiveness (extended, in order that reconciliation might be experienced). The cross, in the Gospels, and the tree of life in the Revelation of John, would be such trees.

In Mark 11, Jesus brings together the mountain and the sea, telling his disciples that faith can move this mountain (the this is important) into the sea. The context is that Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the final time: within a week, he will be crucified. Staying with friends in Bethany, on the Mount of Olives across the valley from Jerusalem, he looks across at the temple mount, synonymous with God’s presence, and speaks of the need to move this mountain into the sea. The conversation is prompted by Jesus cursing a fig tree – a symbol of God’s people – for not bearing fruit when he came to it. The wider context is full of warnings that if the people do not receive him, it will be too late: the temple will be destroyed. The people as a nation do not repent, and in AD70 the Roman army would destroy the temple, as Jesus had foreseen. The point Jesus makes about throwing the mountain into the sea is that there is no advantage in having a place of encountering God if you cannot bring that to bear in the face of chaos – creating firm ground on which to stand. Indeed, if we do not do this, we will ultimately lose the experience of encounter we had previously known.

What, then, has this to do with break-ins and break-throughs?

We need the mountain-top experiences, but we need to keep proclaiming the God who sets us free in the dark valleys.

Faith does not guarantee problem-free lives, but the promise of a covenant-partner who stands with us in the challenges we face, bringing to bear the resources at his disposal.

If we do not exercise this faith, circumstances will sweep it away from us.

My immediate response to the break-in was not to bless the intruder. My immediate response was not charitable. The temptation was to give free rein to anger, to vengeance, to discouragement – and so to find myself taken captive by these intruders.

To be honest, yesterday, in the moment, I could not throw the mountain of my week at New Wine United into the sea of shattered glass and splintered wood and scattered paper. But today I could. Today, I could ask God to show mercy on the intruder – and on me. Today, I could call out to God to come and set me free, that I might bring the goodness of the kingdom of heaven to bear in the mess.

That is what it looks like to move mountains, to throw them into the sea. Even to hope for repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Lament


July has been a very full month, and my writing has been focused elsewhere. From 2-12 July, I took part in a clergy consultation at St George’s House, within Windsor Castle. Our theme was God: Some Conversations, considering how we speak about God in the context of various challenges and potential opportunities facing us nationally and globally, including the state of the Church, the future of healthcare and the NHS, the arts, Brexit, democracy in a ‘post-truth’ Information Age, organised criminal gangs, and environmental issues.

As part of my contribution to the consultation, I presented a paper on lament. If you are interested, you can link to it here.

As it turned out, lament was a theme we returned to over again in the course of our deliberations, noting that it was missing from our public discourse. We also observed that evil often counterfeits good, and that, in the absence of a robust practice of lament, the tabloid press holds out a counterfeit version: endless daily tales of woe, framed by outrage and identifying scapegoats to blame. In contrast, genuine lament acknowledges our pain – and inability, at times, to rescue ourselves – and recognises the pain of others, showing empathy; leads to an appropriate accepting of our own responsibility, and repentance; and always, even in the most apparently hopeless of situations, holds fast to hope.

I came to Windsor with a hunch that lament would be one necessary and helpful way to frame God-conversations and came away with that sense very much affirmed. Come the autumn, I will want to explore this further.

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.