Thursday, October 22, 2015

In Need Of Sustenance

The Gospel reading for Holy Communion yesterday was Luke 12:39-48, a strange parable in which Jesus responds (as so often) to a question with a question:

Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time?

The context is one of Jesus preparing his disciples for his approaching trial and execution – which some would claim demonstrated that he was rejected by God – and thus the implied answer to his rhetorical question is that he is speaking of himself. Jesus identifies himself as God’s dependent servant, given charge of God’s resources in order that he give his fellow dependent servants their allowance of food at the proper time.

In other words, Jesus is stating that he is the one who feeds the household of God, giving to each member the very sustenance we need – of body, mind, spirit – at each and every moment. Through the promise of his word, through his broken body and blood poured out, through his active presence in our midst. For though the context of provision is both communal and ordered, the manager who is prudent as well as faithful will always pay special attention to those of the community in particular need, and adjust provision accordingly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Work Of The People

If England, and the English, exist, they do so very much secondary to local identity. This is something I have noticed as we have moved from Sheffield to Liverpool to Sunderland – all northern cities, but with very different cultures.

Theories of evolution have demonstrated that creatures adapt, over time, according to their environment. That we are shaped by place. This is as true of human beings as it is of any other species: the adam is not only the generic earthling, capable of roaming across the face of the earth, but is brought forth from a particular soil.

My vocation finds expression within the Church of England. Within our tradition, we have a shared liturgy, a national liturgy or form that corporate worship takes. But that liturgy – which, though led (often by me) is the work of the people – must take on a localised expression.

Today I received the gift of spending an-hour-and-a-half with Steve Taylor, a friend from New Zealand, whose incisive listening helped me to dig a little deeper into my still-new, still unfamiliar, context.

The natives of Sunderland have adapted to three key forms of employment. None of the three still exist, but environments can change far quicker than the creatures living within them can adapt. These three are coal mining, ship building, and brewing. How might each of these shape the liturgy?

The first is coal mining, the pits of the Durham coalfields. I place this first, because it forms the wider context. Generations of men worked below ground, and this has shaped them and their descendants. The pits are closed, but the people have deep, deep seams that are not visible at surface-level, and are potentially no longer accessible even to themselves.

The liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the Prayer of Preparation, Confession and Absolution, and the (in our context, sung) Gloria. Might we experience the Prayer of Preparation as a descending into the deep of our interior life; Confession and Absolution as the hard work of cutting away at the coal face and extracting something useful, formed under pressure; and the Gloria, with its vertical axis joining the heaven (sky) above and the earth below, as rising to the surface again, alive, blinking at the brightness, gulping in the air?

Might the activity of taking part in the liturgy keep the seam open? Might it give words to a people who are not talkative – who can value poetry, but wouldn’t consider themselves to be poets? The pits themselves were closed because they were no longer considered to be economically viable. Might the church be guilty of devaluing the local community in the same manner if we were to abandon this liturgical form as no longer relevant, or even close churches on economic grounds?

The second context is ship building. This is what gives Sunderland its distinct identity. The locals know themselves as Mackems, from the local dialect ‘mak’ for make, those who make (ships) and in contrast to Tackems, those from elsewhere for whom the ships were made and who took possession of them. Sunderland folk are makers (today, they make cars instead of ships). But the mackem/tackem distinction goes deeper than a pride in making: it is a rare Mackem who sees it as their place to jump on one of those ships and discover new horizons. This is a more settled and less transient city than any I have known, with tightly-knit communities.

Ship building is a noisy business. Communication is by necessity minimally verbal, dependent more or routine actions and familiar gestures. This, too, ought to inform a localised articulation of the liturgy. The heart of the Eucharist is the Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer of thanksgiving. While this prayer is led, in word and in actions, by the priest, everyone prays this prayer together. This includes familiar patterns, of standing and sitting or kneeling, of signing oneself with the cross, of moving forward to receive and stepping back again; and might even include lifting hands in prayer (which is not magical, and need not be restricted to the priest alone – one of the highlights of presiding is when an engaged young child imitates you).

We use different Eucharistic Prayers – and different settings for the sung parts of the Sunday morning Choral Eucharist – in different Seasons. If we get the balance wrong, this can be deeply disturbing. If we get the balance right, might it open up new horizons to a settled people?

The third context is brewing, and in particular the Vaux brewery which stood a stone’s throw from the Minster and is now a derelict site awaiting development. Vaux was a major employer, of women as well as men, and in a wide variety of roles. Its core business, however, was the transformation of water, grain and hops into beer. And this transformation has a very direct parallel to the Eucharist, where grain and fruit are brought forward in the form of bread and wine, and are transformed into something new.

As we gather around the altar, a number of women and men – including teenage girls and boys – work together in a variety of roles in order to give something to the wider group. Some bring forward the raw ingredients; others have quite technical roles, that carry on traditions down generations (I find it particularly moving when a sub-deacon or acolyte pours water on my hands, as Jesus poured water on Peter’s feet); others help with the distribution; and all benefit from what we have done, together, under the grace of God as we encounter Jesus in the ordinary and every-day and yet, at the same time, very particular to our context.

The liturgy, then, is not something imposed from elsewhere, but something given local expression, a Mackem accent (not from my mouth, you understand – I am not a native) through the work of these people, shaped by this place. Because God has only ever met anyone where they are, who they are. And yet, that is always and everywhere part of a bigger story.

This has far less to do with relevance than it has to do with resonance. The pits, the yards, and the brewery are gone. No-one (well, very few people) is thinking, I’d come to church if it were a Choral Eucharist. But the words, spoken and sung, tap into something that is there to be mined, riveted, or fermented.

How does local context shape liturgy for you?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Only One Thing

[Reflections on the Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today.]

Mark 10:17ff.

On one occasion, a desperate man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Eternal life refers to the quality of experiencing all the fullness and goodness of life, life already given but not necessarily experienced.

To inherit expresses the difference between a child (heir), who only partially benefits, and an adult, who has been given greater responsibility and freedom.

The question, essentially, is this: how can I enter-into a fuller experience of the life I already have?

It transpires that wealth and power have not proved to fulfil that longing – hence his despair.

Jesus replied, “You lack only one thing: [Let go of being in control of your life, and] follow me.”

The man was shocked and went away grieving, because he could not bring himself to receive the only answer “Follow me”...

Sunday, September 06, 2015

We Are All Economic Migrants : Part 2

In my previous post, I suggested that, theologically speaking, to be human is to be an economic migrant.

This is, of course, a vulnerable existence. And so human beings have always connected together in covenants. Just as our being economic migrants is rooted in God, so covenants are also rooted in God and in the relationship between God and humanity, Creator and created.

Covenants are based on the understanding that every person has a sphere of influence over which they are the autonomous (not absolute) ruler. Even a new-born baby, entirely dependent on its mother, exercises such power through crying. Even a dead boy on a beach has a sphere of influence – one extended exponentially through the spheres of influence of others, through the medium of social media.

Covenants are a way of extending our personal sphere of influence, not by conquering the sphere of influence of another, but by pooling our spheres with their combined resources.

This approach is rooted in God, the Ruler of the Universe, who, having established that human beings should rule the spheres of themselves and (collectively) of the earth, seeks covenant relationships in order to unite our spheres.

Covenants are built on our shared experience of being economic migrants. That is to say, I will share my resources with you, should you need them, because someone shared their resources with my ancestors when they were migrants and/or with me and/or I might need someone to share their resources with me and/or at some future point my descendants will need someone to share their resources with them.

This, too, is an experience God enters into, in Jesus – who first (in his incarnation) migrates from a fulfilled land in order to extend fruitfulness; and subsequently (as the child of a political refugee living beyond the borders of her own country, in Egypt) migrates in order to experience fruitfulness.

Covenants have, largely, been subsumed under less personal and more pragmatic alliances. But where these fail, covenants become visible again.

Families offering rooms in their homes for refugees might not be a fully thought-through response – though it is unlikely to be an offer made lightly. Further reflection reveals it to be something deeper than a desire that something, anything, should be done. Are we witnessing the return of the covenant? In this moment, it is too early to say: a covenant is not only a decision made, but a decision lived-out. But, in this moment, it is at least possible.

We Are All Economic Migrants : Part 1

Theologically speaking, to be human is to be an economic migrant.

In Genesis – origins, from which the human story unfolds - chapter one, we are told that God creates human beings and commissions them to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.

To be fruitful and multiply: to reproduce; but also to fulfil the commission, and find fulfilment in the ongoing process of fulfilling the commission; and also for that commission to be replicated faithfully, passed on to every human being.

To fill the earth and subdue it: to spread; but also to move from place to place, in able to train the fruitfulness of the earth to a sustainable harvest – of food, of beauty, of fulfilled purpose – in which all creation is provided for.

This is fundamental to the human condition. And so, whenever human beings are not able to be fruitful in a given context (and taking into account hard work, necessary in every context) they migrate in search of a place in the world where they can be fruitful.

This is borne out throughout history, whether people moving on their own (highly unusual in the big picture) or as a family within relative stability among the wider population; or villages or communities, such as the Scottish highlanders who were evicted from their homes by English landlords and emigrated to North America; or entire people groups, such as the Celts, who migrated from modern-day Turkey to modern-day Switzerland and then again to modern-day Scotland and Ireland.

Nomadic peoples migrate along familiar (though not set-in-stone) orbits, in harmony with the rhythms of the earth’s fruitfulness, and in disregard of political lines on the map. Borders are almost always arbitrary and opportunistic – and even where they are not these things, they are always provisional – and the blood shed over them surely demonstrates that they are both un-defendable and indefensible.

Any attempt to hold back the ebb and flow, the emigration and immigration, of humans beings is as futile as attempting to control the relentless waves of the sea – being, as it is, an attempt to oppose our fundamental nature.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Children On A Beach

My social media is awash with a tidal flowing in and ebbing away of responses to images of children on a beach: in…and out…and in…and out…

There are the political responses, pointing others to how they can petition the Government to take in Syrian refugees, or lobby against the arms trade that has resulted in those children being on those beaches.

And those are right and necessary responses.

There are the practical responses, pointing others to how they can contribute to the welfare of those who have made it to Calais.

And those, too, are right and necessary responses.

But I also see, washed up alongside these, the admission – the confession, the cry - ‘I don’t know what to do with my emotional response to these images.

And that matters. We matter. Not because we are executing a manoeuvre that makes this all about us, that buries the physical victims in plain sight; but because if our hearts are to remain soft towards our neighbour we must recognise that we have been affected, and we must handle ourselves with care in order to care about others.

So I want to offer another response, pointing others to the role of the arts in helping us to articulate and engage with our own emotional response.

This is why the church, while being political (not party-political, but political nonetheless; we are, after all, a kingdom, trans-ethnic people of a trans-geographic territory with a Rule of Law fulfilled by loving God, and our neighbour as ourselves) and practical, must also be patron of the arts, partner in the arts, and participative producer of the arts.

Some, deeply committed to the church, would argue that the church ought not to be patron of anything; would argue that such a stance betrays a hangover of Christendom, a love of worldly power. I disagree. No one else is championing the arts, and they are essential to our wellbeing, helping us to imagine the world in a different way, seeing beauty even in brokenness.

This month and next, Sunderland Minster is hosting an exhibition or exposition of artists for peace – an exposition that has grown, from when it was first conceived, in response to so many conflict zones, so many dispossessed children, to become an international event both in the sense of attracting contributions from around the world and in the multiplication of venues. The exposition, under the banner All We Are Saying presents the responses of artists – in painting, photography, sculpture, mixed-media, spoken word, music – to events that move us, emotionally, but demand an engagement with how we have been moved.

The works themselves are, in the first instance, the artists’ engagement process: one that involves time, and also draws on years of time. But in the sharing they become a gift to others, offered that they may help a wider body of people explore their own emotional responses. And they will include opportunities for visitors to respond physically, to add their own contribution to all we are saying (is give peace a chance).

It might not be possible for you to get to Sunderland, or any of the other hubs where ‘All We Are Saying’ events will be taking place. But you can look out for opportunities closer to home. You can also take part in ‘All We Are Saying’ through making an origami peace dove, or writing a postcard for peace, and sending them to Sunderland Minster – instructions, here.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Reading The Syrophoenician Woman Inside Out

In my previous post, I wrote about the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out, which gives a life of their own to the emotions of Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. I also suggested that reading Bible stories for the emotions we find there is a great way to engage with the story, especially when we read with children.

This week in the lectionary readings set for Morning Prayer, we came across the Syrophoenician woman. She turns up again in the Sunday lectionary at the start of September. And her story reads brilliantly, inside out.

It starts with Jesus, and the emotions in his head. Anger is angry at the way in which those who were in a position to help people live a life free from burdens God didn’t intend for them to carry were in fact adding to those burdens. Sadness is sad that even his closest friends don’t seem to get it. Fear wonders whether this whole sense of mission will end up badly. Disgust feels slimed, and looks to put some distance between them and the critics. Joy delights in the love of his Father in heaven, and wants to get away and spend time alone with God.

Jesus moves beyond the boundaries of his territory, in the hope that he can just get away for a while. But he cannot be hid. Someone sees him, and the word gets out.

There is a woman. She has a young daughter, who is troubled by an unclean spirit. Terrorised by a supernatural presence that would prey on a little girl. (If you don’t believe in demons, ask yourself why horror films are such an enduring genre.) This mother is full of emotional chatter. Sadness is sad for her daughter, whose plight no one can help. Anger is angry that this should be inflicted on an innocent child. Disgust does not fail to notice the way other people look at her child, and judge her. Fear imagines the worst for the future: where will this end? Joy hears the word on the street – Jesus has come to town. Maybe, just maybe…

The woman finds Jesus (who cannot be hid). She begs him to help. And he responds by saying that it wouldn’t be right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the pups at their feet.

At her console, the emotions look at one another. Anger explodes “Did he call us a dog? Did he actually say that out loud? Why…!” Disgust answers back “You Jews think we’re the dogs; but you ain’t so special yourselves.” Sadness sighs “Well, we tried. It was always a long shot. Let’s go. I’m feeling sad.” Fear adds “Let’s go quickly, before they all start laughing at us!” And Joy says “Did you not see the twinkle in his eye? He’s inviting us to play with him. Let’s play!”

Context: Jesus was last seen challenging the prejudices of his peers. Those prejudices included seeing themselves as God’s children, and Gentiles as dogs. So when in the next breath he comes out with a comment about throwing the children’s bread to the dogs, he is actually taking a piece of that bread and throwing it to the woman, to one of ‘the dogs’. His action undermines his words. Why? Because he is using humour as a tool to defeat prejudice. He is not making fun of a vulnerable woman, but rather of those who would judge her. It is a recognised strategy, then and now. And the woman understands. While all her emotions might lay claim to a response, not every response would be the right response. In this instance, Joy sees rightly – Joy that brought her to Jesus in the first place, Joy that sees and responds by joining in.

Elsewhere, we are told that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen (Hebrews 11:1) and that faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). This woman hears that Jesus is in town, and what she hears gives birth to faith. What she hears from his mouth grows that faith, the assurance of what she hoped for, deliverance for her daughter. She sees where this encounter is going, and she is not disappointed.

Without emotional intelligence we fail to see our neighbours as human, let alone have compassion on them – the acting for their benefit, motivated by love.

Without emotional intelligence we fail to see Jesus as fully human – that is, not ‘as flawed as anyone else’ but ‘displaying humanity as God intended humanity to be’ – and as the revelation of God’s loving presence in our midst.

Lord, have mercy.

Interior Landscapes : Part 2

Recently we have been on two family evenings out: first to the theatre, to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; and, a week later, to the cinema to see Inside Out. Both are intense depictions of interior landscapes, taking the audience inside the heads of the protagonists. Both were excellent.

Inside Out is the latest offering from Disney Pixar. A girl called Riley grows up in Minnesota, and we witness her life through the interaction of five emotions that have come to life in her mind – Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. These emotions have their own personality, and their own particular role to play at the console that influences Riley’s actions. Joy is Riley’s dominant, or driving, emotion, keeping everything as happy as possible; Disgust ensures that Riley will not be poisoned, physically (broccoli, anyone?) or metaphorically; Fear helps to keep her out of danger; and Anger is concerned with fairness and injustice; but none of the emotions seem to understand Sadness’ purpose.

The emotions colour memories (joy, yellow; sadness, blue; disgust, green; fear, purple; anger, red) which are harvested and stored; including ‘core memories’ which have a special role in powering ‘Islands of Personality’ (over her childhood, Riley has built up five aspects of her personality: Family Island, Honesty Island, Hockey island, Friendship Island, and Goofball Island). At age eleven, all of Riley’s core memories are coloured by Joy.

When she is eleven, Riley’s life is turned up-side-down when her dad takes a new business opportunity in San Francisco and she must move with her parents to California.

This traumatic experience results in an unfolding series of disasters, as Riley’s inner world falls apart. Her core memories are disconnected and, without them, her personality falls apart, island (aspect) by island. Joy and Sadness are swept off in an epic quest to restore order – an imaginative re-setting of the Odyssey. The remaining emotions try their best to help Riley regain emotional balance but without the presence of Joy and Sadness, she finds herself increasingly cut-off from her childhood friends, new peers, and her parents.

On their adventures, Joy learns the purpose of Sadness – alerting others to Riley’s need for them to reach out to her, and help her. After many dangers have been overcome, the exiled pair return home to Headquarters, and new core memories are created, establishing and powering new Islands of Personality. Now, however, Riley’s core memories are coloured by blended emotions; and, far from contaminating them – as Joy had at first believed – this makes them more beautiful, and more resilient.

By the end of the film, as Riley reaches her twelfth birthday, the console has been upgraded to include many more, more nuanced, responses; and her Islands have been rebuilt, bigger and stronger, and with additional islands expressing newly-developing aspects of her personality as she stands on the edge of Puberty.

Inside Out is a wonderful film – as one would expect from the master story-tellers at Pixar. It is a great family film, one that gives us tools to understand our emotions, and gives insight in how to share life with emotional intelligence, at a level that children and parents alike can engage.

Inside Out affirms that our emotions are good. All of them. From a faith perspective, I agree: the range of emotions are part of how God has created us, and are to be affirmed as a good gift. All of them.

The Bible is full of expressions of joy, exhorting us to be deeply thankful; the insight that those who mourn (who experience sadness) will receive a particular blessing, of experiencing comfort, that is not available to others; and righteous anger that powers acts of compassion. But disgust is also there, connected to the ‘purity laws’ which, rightly understood, are signposts to a way of living free from the contamination of shame; and so is fear, causing us to respect the untameable freedom of God. (In fact, reading Bible stories paying attention to the emotions we find there is a great way to read them, especially with children.)

Famously, it is said that we are told “Do not be afraid!” 365 times in the Bible, once for every day of the year. This does not mean that fear is not a good and God-given emotion, but that when fear operates in excess, or dominating our thoughts, this does not serve us well. It should be obvious that fear is the most fearful of the emotions, the one needing the most encouragement to be brave, to have trust.

Which leads to another observation, that our emotions are limited – limited in their role, and limited in their insight. Riley’s emotions grow and mature with her – tentatively, falteringly – but have a particular purpose; and must come to understand their place within a bigger and incredibly complex interior world which also includes (among other things) imagination, rational thought, dreams, long-term memory and memory loss. The emotions must be schooled.

Thankfully, our emotions can be trained – trained to help pull together rather than pull apart, and trained to engage with others constructively rather than destructively. The Odyssey is no accidental template here: there is wisdom that has stood the test of time in the progression from a robustly-affirming experience of life, through the loss of that life, and the testing of our soul, to the return that transcends life as it was (Riley’s core memories are restored, but now they are coloured by more than one emotion), a return that is both homecoming (Riley is reconciled with her mom and dad) and departure on a new adventure (embracing her new life in San Francisco, rather than returning to Minnesota). Inevitably, albeit counter-intuitively, the loss of all familiar landmarks is unavoidable in this process, must be navigated and not circumvented.

From time to time throughout the film, we see the emotions at the consoles of other characters – Riley’s mom and dad; and, throughout the closing credits, those of many other characters who have played smaller parts in the story. Two things are suggested: firstly, that for most of us there is one dominant or driving emotion, rather than a collegiate approach; and secondly, that most of us pay very little attention to our emotions at all, allowing them to operate us. There is clearly a degree of stereotyping here, for the sake of simplicity and for the sake of humour. Nonetheless, it begs the question, have we settled for a mere existence rather than the fullness of life we were created to know?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Cut In Pieces

I’m still working on a post about the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out, but in the meantime here’s one on the Gospel reading for today’s Eucharist, Matthew 24:42-51.

When I was a teenager in Glasgow, we used to watch Aussie soap Neighbours and dream of sunshine. (Truth be told, I still watch Neighbours.)

For two-and-a-half years from (our spring; their autumn) 1986 to (our autumn, their spring) 1988, Vivean Gray played the character Nell Mangel. Mrs Mangel was a particularly sour woman, whom you would not want as a neighbour. Gray became subject to constant abuse from members of the general public, and in particular young adults, who were unable to distinguish the actress from the character. Eventually she had enough, and left the show. She left acting, and left Australia, returning to her native England (as a young woman she had left England in order to pursue a career in acting in Australia). Now in her nineties, she lives an essentially reclusive life.

It is ironic that Mrs Mangel became an iconic favourite among long-term Neighbours fans. It is even more ironic that Vivean Gray received such abuse from young adults, given that she was apparently very popular with the younger members of the Neighbours cast, who found her encouraging and supportive of them as they set out in acting.

Jesus told a parable in which he concludes that those who live as if they are not accountable to God will find that ‘[God] will cut [them] in pieces and put [them] with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

The term hypocrites means actors – those who performed in the Greek theatre, who wore masks to play a persona that was not their true selves, and who acted-out exaggerated emotions they did not own.

In acting, it is essential that there is a differentiation between the actor and the part they are playing. An actor who can only play themselves is not a convincing actor. The sad case of Vivean Gray/Nell Mangel aside, most of us know that there is a difference – even where an actor gets type-cast.

But in life, if life is to be lived fully, it is essential that our heart (choices) and mind (thoughts and emotions) and strength (actions) and soul (our life) are unified.

Jesus implies that when we live as if we are not accountable to God, our parts are cut apart, are no longer of a piece. This is not the lashing-out of an ego that cannot bear our indifference towards it. In effect, God – whose intention for our lives is that we experience relationship and responsibility; that we operate from God-given authority and so handle power to empower others – gives us over to the consequence of our decision.

Rather than being ourselves – rather than owning and living-out our souls – we progressively become actors caught in a parody of life, with over-the-top responses lacking genuine connection to our true personality.

It should be noted that Jesus’ main point here is not one of destination and destruction, but rather of direction and dis/integration. The parable is told within the context of a wider discourse on the future of the people and in particular of the city of Jerusalem. His words contain a warning against a destination of destruction – a warning that is ultimately ignored, resulting in the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 – but they are spoken in the hope of repentance, of a change-of-direction response (in other words, direction and dis/integration are the primary point, destination and destruction the secondary point). That which is cut in pieces can be sewn together again.

Theatre – of which soap opera is a form – definitely has its place, and a worthwhile role to play in the rich tapestry of life. But we ought not to confuse characters with actors. Or our personhood with any other persona.