Tuesday, June 28, 2016

In the dark

God does God’s best work in the dark.

In darkness, God called out light.

But darkness, not light, is the birthplace of all creation. The story continues, “And it was evening, and it was morning; the first/second/third/etc. day.” In other words, the six ‘days’ of creative activity are, in fact, nights, ushered in by evening as the light fades and drawn to a close by morning as the light returns.

It is in that same darkness that God draws out femaleness and maleness from within humanness.

It is in the dark that God enters into a covenant with Abra(ha)m, having led him out to count the stars (long before light pollution), if that were possible, for so many would Abram’s descendants be.

Elsewhere, it is in the dark – physical and metaphorical and psychological – that God reveals to Job the extent to which the ongoing activity of creation still depends on the darkness within and from which it first responded to God.

It is in the dark that God reveals to Abraham’s run-away grandson Jacob the very gate between earth and heaven, busy with angels passing in both directions; and in the dark that God wrestles with Jacob all night, when he returned again to face his brother, his fears, his self.

It is in the dark that God speaks to Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph, in dreams beneath a starry sky, and the interpretation of dreams in a prison-house.

It is in the dark that God comes to lead his captive people out of slavery in Egypt; in the dark that they cross over the Sea of Reeds; in thick darkness on Mount Sinai that God meets with Moses and gives the Law, the shape of loving God and loving your neighbour in the same way as yourself.

It is in the dark that God teaches David to sing, Solomon to love, Elijah to hear the awesome sound of silence, Jonah to hope, Jeremiah to lament, Ezekiel and Daniel to foresee, Nehemiah to see.

It is in the dark that Jesus is born; and in darkness that shepherds and magi are led to worship him.

It is in the dark that Jesus goes to meet alone with his Father God.

It is in the dark that Jesus faces arrest and trial, strengthened by whatever it is that God is doing regardless of what people are doing in the darkness; and it is in darkness so thick that Jesus feels forsaken that God receives his spirit as he breathes his last.

It is in the dark that Jesus is brought back from death, in resurrection life.

In the dark, we learn to walk by faith and not by sight.

If you find yourself in the dark right now, take heart. You are in good company.


Friday, June 24, 2016

A tale of two goats

Leviticus 16 tells the tale of two goats, who play a crucial role in a ritual of national healing and reconciliation.

The two goats are, together, taken for a sin offering. ‘Sin’ refers to all that divides us from one another; a ‘sin offering’ refers to a symbolic act of reconciliation.

The first goat is slaughtered, and its blood sprinkled in the tent that symbolised God living with his people. The reason you slaughter a goat is to extend hospitality, to serve up a meal for someone who has come to you, someone who by definition is ‘other’ in relation to you. This act is not done to appease God, but to honour God. It is done as a reminder of God’s mercy in choosing to remain with this people, even though they are totally undeserving, even though their habitual actions would give reasonable grounds to leave.

The second goat gets to live. This is the goat known as the scapegoat. The priest is instructed to lay both hands on the head of the goat and to confess over it the sins of the people, all of the ways in which they have offended against one another. Then the goat is led out into the wilderness and set free.

This is the exact opposite to how scapegoat is used today. Today we look for a ‘scapegoat,’ for someone other than ourselves, who is in no way to blame for our woes, and blame them. But that is not what a scapegoat is. The goat was not blamed for the sins of the people. The scapegoat was a symbolic mechanism by which the people owned their own sin, their own falling-short in their dealings with one another, and then let it go. Letting it go is not saying that it does not matter (if it did not matter, there would be no need for this ritual), but symbolically freeing one another from the relational debts we have incurred.

This morning I wake up in a nation that is bitterly divided. We desperately need the goat of hospitality extended to those who live in the same community but are distinctly ‘other’ to us, allowing hospitality to cross the divide. And we desperately need a scapegoat: a public acknowledgement of the ways in which we have hurt one another; and a public commitment to forgive those who have sinned against us, even as we ask them to forgive us for the ways we have sinned against them.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Wax


There is wax spilt on the floor of the chapel. I will need to get down on my knees and scrape it up. Or leave it for someone else to get down on their knees and deal with. I can only speculate over who spilt it, but I can do so one way, or another. Perhaps they were oblivious, careless in their action. It is of no matter to them that someone else will have to come along behind them and deal with the mess. Or were they aware, but in a hurry - unable to wait until the wax hardened and could be dealt with? Or were acutely embarrassed but, to their perceived shame, did not know where to lay hands on the necessary tools to do the needful task? I can allow myself to be irritated by this unknown person; or I can hold them before God today, as my brother or my sister, one as oblivious, as careless, as hurried, as spoilt by shame at their own lack as I am in turns?

Let the wax be my teacher. May it bring me to my knees before my God, there to look into the eyes of another. And may even our shortfallings leave a trace of our devotion, of the light we choose rather than cursing the darkness.

Blessed be you, o wax, for you have pointed me to Christ who reigns in heaven. And blessed be you, o Christ, for you have melted my heart.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Leave

Take the full amount of paid annual leave you are entitled to. The full amount. It is there in recognition that while work matters, the worker matters too. It is there in recognition that while work matters, other things matter too. If you think that the effort you need to put in at work before you go and after you come back means that taking holiday is not worth it, revise your view of work. If you feel that your going on holiday inconveniences your colleagues - and that their going on holiday inconveniences you - revise your view of what it means to be colleagues. Take your leave. Go away, or stay at home. Do that thing you always meant to do, but never had the time. Give yourself to your community. Do nothing at all. Push through the dis-ease of not contributing to the economy at this precise moment in time, in order to participate in life.


Honour

Try to honour everyone. Regardless of what they have done with their life. Regardless of whether you like or dislike them, agree or profoundly disagree with them. Look them in the eye, see another human being, another you. Recognise their inherent dignity, even if they don’t. Treat them as you would want them to treat you, regardless of how they actually treat others.

Respect, on the other hand, is something that must be earned. Never respect someone because of their position, or what they have done; but for how they inhabit their position, and the way in which they have done what they have done. Never respect anyone who demands that you show them respect; and never demand of anyone that they show you respect, either. But live in a way that you yourself would respect others for.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Quiet Day : part 3

‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day: Session Three

The ‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day at Sunderland Minster took the form of three sessions. Each began with listening to a reflection on a passage from the Bible. This was followed in the first and third session with space to respond individually: in reading the passage and the reflection, praying, journaling, drawing; or looking at the sculpture from different angles, or through coloured lenses, or binoculars. In the second session we took the different approach of group discussion.

The sessions build one on another; depend on simplicity and space; and come with the health warning that they might bring to the surface any manner of things between you and God, including deep things. So the space is to be held as holy ground, and with the possibility to discuss anything with me – as the facilitator – in confidence. As several people expressed an interest but could not attend, now that it has taken place I am posting the reflections, with a link to the Scripture stories they relate to.


Reflection on Isaiah 6

The God who reveals himself at the foot of the mountain. The same God, who conceals himself on the mountain. And now, at last, the Seraphs.

By this time, God has descended the mountain that lies beyond the wilderness, journeyed with his people on their long wanderings in that in-between place, and eventually ascended another mountain – Mount Zion, the ridge above Jerusalem. Here, God allowed Solomon to build him a temple, an anchor-point between earth and heaven. And here, Isaiah finds himself with his feet on earth but his eyes opened to the heavenly realm.

The scale is so vast that the hem of God’s robe fills the earthly temple. All else is beyond sight, beyond imagination. Six-winged Seraphs stand in attendance before him, calling out to one another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The whole earth. Egypt. The wilderness. The Promised Land. The far-off places of future exile.

And Isaiah is undone. He is lost. Before this global glory, he cannot position himself anywhere. He is lost; and so are his people. God’s people.

It is one of the seraphs who approaches him first, just as it was an angel who initially caught Moses’ eye. An intermediary between God and humans. And just as the bush beyond the wilderness blazed with fire without being burned, so the utterly lost Isaiah is touched with fire and not defaced, not erased. Instead, he too is set-apart for a holy purpose.

And like Moses, after the angel, then and only then the voice of God. But this time, God does not address Isaiah directly; instead, Isaiah overhears a conversation God is having with his heavenly council. ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ Isaiah says ‘Here am I’ – ‘Here am I; send me!’

Here I am, present before you, God, if somewhat unconvinced. Here am I, available to you, quite convinced if lacking understanding of what will be involved.

Here I am. Here am I. The movement from walking by sight to walking by faith. From revelation into mystery.

God instructs Isaiah what he is to say: declaring, ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Indeed, Isaiah is to facilitate the people’s persistent lack of understanding by means of eyes and ears and minds.

Which begins with Isaiah himself, who cannot comprehend and asks, ‘How long, O Lord?’ How long? Until nothing that stands remains standing.

What is this strange word? Perhaps it is this: not that God does not want to heal his people, but that the way of understanding is not the way by which he has chosen for us to arrive there.

God could have led the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land in two weeks, but chose to take them on a forty-year detour. To whom ought God give account for his reasons?

We have moved from revelation to mystery, and now to the two held in paradox: keep listening, keep looking, for revelation – but don’t mistake it for knowing God. Instead, let it draw you further into the mystery of Love that is God – especially when you are tempted to give in. For no-one was ever healed by what they knew about God, but rather by experiencing God, whose hem alone we might just get to see.


Quiet Day : part 2

‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day: Session Two

The ‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day at Sunderland Minster took the form of three sessions. Each began with listening to a reflection on a passage from the Bible. This was followed in the first and third session with space to respond individually: in reading the passage and the reflection, praying, journaling, drawing; or looking at the sculpture from different angles, or through coloured lenses, or binoculars. In the second session we took the different approach of group discussion.

The sessions build one on another; depend on simplicity and space; and come with the health warning that they might bring to the surface any manner of things between you and God, including deep things. So the space is to be held as holy ground, and with the possibility to discuss anything with me – as the facilitator – in confidence. As several people expressed an interest but could not attend, now that it has taken place I am posting the reflections, with a link to the Scripture stories they relate to.


Reflection on Exodus 19 & 20

The first time Moses meets God, it is in blazing light at the foot of the mountain. This time, it is on the mountain itself, in a dense cloud, the mountain wrapped in smoke; and in time, the encounter moves into thick darkness.

The movement is from seen to unseen.

The movement is not from mystery to greater revelation, but from revelation to greater mystery. This is as true for the New Testament, which moves from the Incarnation (seen) to the Ascension (unseen – blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe), as it is for the Old Testament. The purpose is not that we get to know God better, but that we open ourselves more fully to love, growing to trust the God we can only ever know a little, better.

God draws close. But there are limits to how close humans can get to God, and live.

God speaks, and gives words. Words that will be cut into stone, just as the sides of the mountain itself are carved in ridges and gullies, hiding places in which to shelter and outcrops from which to survey the people spread out below, at least when the cloud has lifted.

God cannot be known, only loved. Cannot be possessed, only entered-into. Stepping into the thick darkness, trusting that there will be solid ground beneath your feet. One cannot prove or measure God before putting one’s trust in him.

The words are given for us to enter-into, in trust. They do not, for example, list wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, nor offer any explanation as to why you shall not make wrongful use. Instead, they draw us further into mystery. What might happen, if we dare to remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy? What might happen, if we dare to not covet? The people respond to this degree of un-knowing with unholy fear: Moses exhorts them, ‘Do not be afraid.’

This is the way of living with God in our midst. Reverently. Aware of our God-honoured limitations, and of God’s steadfast love.

The words, the mountain, the darkness all point to something more. To the unutterable. Untouchable. To super-saturated light in which we are blind and yet aware that we are not left alone. For God has come down to us.

And we are called to come up the mountain.


Quiet Day : part 1

‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day: Session One

The ‘Yahweh & the Seraphim’ Quiet Day at Sunderland Minster took the form of three sessions. Each began with listening to a reflection on a passage from the Bible. This was followed in the first and third session with space to respond individually: in reading the passage and the reflection, praying, journaling, drawing; or looking at the sculpture from different angles, or through coloured lenses, or binoculars. In the second session we took the different approach of group discussion.

The sessions build one on another; depend on simplicity and space; and come with the health warning that they might bring to the surface any manner of things between you and God, including deep things. So the space is to be held as holy ground, and with the possibility to discuss anything with me – as the facilitator – in confidence. As several people expressed an interest but could not attend, now that it has taken place I am posting the reflections, with a link to the Scripture stories they relate to.


Reflection on Exodus 3

The last thing Moses wants is to be found. He is, after all, a fugitive on the run. He has made a new life for himself, in the wilderness. One wonders how much he has told the woman he has married about his former life; the extent to which he has disclosed, and held back; what territory lies between them even as they lie together in the dark?

He is a man who has accommodated himself within a life he could never have imagined in his younger days. Is it a disappointment? A relief? Some indescribable mixture of the two? His horizon has shifted, his world become very small, the sky above vast.

On this day, he has journeyed beyond the wilderness, has pushed beyond the back of beyond. What lies there? The unknown, the unimaginable. The mountain of God. That is what is left, when we have wandered beyond the far edge of the margins.

Out of the corner of his eye, a blazing bush. This in itself is not unknown to him. The wilderness can get very hot, hot enough for a bush to spontaneously combust, to blaze with light and burn itself out. But not this bush: it keeps on blazing. For this, Moses must turn aside. Indeed, he is compelled to do so.

It turns out that this is no earthly flame, but an angel sitting in the branches, blazing like the sun. An angel, heralding, guarding, and standing in the presence of God. This, apparently, is what angels do. But it is God who calls out to Moses. And Moses responds, ‘Here I am.’ Here I am.

God tells Moses to come no closer. His journey, in this direction at least, has reached its end. He is to remove his sandals, the symbol of his wandering, and this is a holy moment in a holy place. Moses has come home, has returned to the fold, has been born anew.

And this causes Moses to hide his face, for he was afraid to look at God. God is unbearable.

In this place, beyond the wilderness, God confronts Moses with his deepest failure, the one that still defines him, against which Moses’ life appears Plan B, second best. It turns out that the place of failure – hearing the cry of the people on account of their taskmasters – is the very place where Moses and God stand on common ground. This is the first step in God’s plan of redemption, which will take Moses back, to face Pharaoh, in order for Moses to leave Egypt behind for good.

Is it possible that we might encounter God on the ground of our deepest failure?

Moses asks God to reveal his name. God responds, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ and my title is YHWH, from ‘to be’. I am what I am, and I will be what I will be.

Here I am. The mountain of God echoes back the words with which Moses first responded to God, ‘Here I am.’ Not because God is to be understood to be made in Moses’ image, but because Moses’ words reveal that he bears the imprint of God. And he discovers this standing in front of an angel who is worshipping God at the foot of a mountain on the far side of the wilderness.

And here we are, at the foot of a mountain that bears the inscription I AM YHWH, surrounded by flaming Seraphim.

How did we get here?

And now that you have turned aside to be here, for what purpose might God have called to you?


On prayer

Our whole life is a prayer. We do not need to attend to praying; we need to attend to awareness of the prayer we are already praying at any given moment. Do our thoughts or words or actions reveal a prayer of devotion, or anger, frustration, grief, joy, desperation, hope...? All these and more are necessary prayers, for prayer is the bearing – and laying bare – of our being before God. The Psalms are a master class in this. If you want to learn how to attend to what you are already praying at any given moment, read the Psalms, regularly.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Feet

In the Gospels, Jesus’ feet are anointed with perfume on two occasions: first by an un-named woman, in the home of a Pharisee, somewhere in Galilee (Luke 7); and later by Mary the sister of Lazarus, at Bethany in Judea, and most definitely not in the home of a Pharisee (John 12).

On both occasions, attitude towards money is at the centre of the conversation. Our attitude towards money, and therefore how we use it, is directly related to our attitude towards people - whether or not we can extend or receive forgiveness, and whether or not we can extend or receive love...

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

To an unknown god

Holy Communion today includes a reading from Acts 17:15, 17:22–18:1.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’

There are three altars* at Sunderland Minster: the Bede Chapel altar, the Chancel high altar, and the Nave altar; appropriate for small, medium-sized, and large gatherings respectively.

I would suggest that there are also several altars in our own heart, where we encounter and respond to God. Whereas the ancient Greeks attributed different spheres of life to the concerns of different gods, Christians worship one God; but we encounter this one God in as many different aspects of our lives. So we might speak in terms of the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Healer; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Provider; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Comforter; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as the creator of the world…as Lord over history…as Lord over our lives…This is not to suggest that God is compartmentalised, but rather to recognise that our understanding of God develops as what we worship as unknown is made known to us.

And this brings us to the place in our heart of an altar with the inscription “To an unknown god.” We might need to look carefully to find it, especially if we are confident that we know God better than others do. And yet we would do well to keep such an altar. To acknowledge that God is always more than our knowledge of God, and always will be. Even when we stand before God face-to-face, we will not be able to contain him. We know God, because God has revealed himself to us, and principally in the person of Jesus; but he invites us to step out into the unknown, to walk by faith not sight. To present our sacrifice at the altar to an unknown God, not so as not to offend through ignorance, but in order to participate in mystery.


*I know that some people take exception to the use of the term ‘altar,’ as it can suggest that Jesus’ death was somehow insufficient and needs replenishing. Indeed, refuting such a view (Articles of Religion XXXI), the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship only ever use the term ‘the Lord’s Table,’ or ‘table’ for short. Nonetheless, the order for Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer includes the prayer: ‘O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving…And here we offer and present unto thee, O lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee…And although we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service…’ Therefore, what is primarily the Lord’s table to which we, unworthy though we are, are invited, is simultaneously our altar where we offer our sacrifice, not to appease God’s wrath but in response to God’s love.