Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Into The Wilderness : Lent 2015 : Part 4

The wilderness is a place of prayer.

By the time Jesus heads into the wilderness, a thousand years, give or take, after David, the wild places have been plundered for their timber. No-one would appreciate this more than a carpenter, a labourer in the construction industry, the work of whose hands in a very literal sense extends civilisation at the cost of the wilderness. Again, civilisation – external and internal – is not bad per se, but has a cost – and must have its limits.

[As an aside, I have a couple of hunches about prayer: that many people feel inadequate at prayer, believing that they are better-able to serve in some other more practical way; and that often, people come to prayer later in life, as their capacity to serve in other ways diminishes. As I say, these are hunches. They are based on anecdotal evidence, untested observation. But if they were in any way close to the mark, this might suggest a correlation between prayer and the wilderness.]

At first glance, the wilderness is a lifeless place. Look again, more closely, and you discover that it is full of plants and animals that have adapted in order to make this place their home. From a scientific viewpoint, this can be described as evolution (and from a theological perspective, evolution describes how life has responded to God’s invitation to be fruitful and fill the earth, every habitat). From a theological viewpoint, the same adaptation can be described as every living thing looking to God, and receiving all its needs from God’s hand. In short, the desert lizard, the ibex, the jackal, at prayer.

It is into the wilderness that the Holy Spirit leads – or even drives, with urgency – Jesus, that he might pray with the wild animals. That he might learn from them, at home in their dependence on God.

How, then, do the wild things pray?

As the family of all the living;

the wilderness displaying God’s glory;

life willing to flourish in a fragile ecosystem, to be fruitful and fill the earth;

with an awareness of their physical needs;

aware, also, that to eat in order to live has inevitable cost, but taking only what is needed, the food chain being part of the delicate balance of interdependence;

in a shrinking ecological footprint where resources are reduced and life squeezed by the actions of others.

That is, the wild things pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

What does it look like to pray from within our wild places? Really, to deny our self-sufficiency and to repent of – to turn away from, to head in a different direction – competing with one another in order to satisfy our desires.

But how might we pray in the wilderness, where we are confronted with our inability to do anything, including prayer? Wilderness prayer is simply being before God, perhaps even wordless like the wild animals; finding ourselves in a place where God searches us out and finds us in his love for all that he has made.

In the wilderness, Jesus wrestles with the temptation to provide his own daily bread; to claim the pinnacle of human achievement, in cultural grandeur and societal power; and to embrace an all-encompassing civilisation that imposes itself on the wilderness, crushing all non-conformity. The wilderness stands as a testimony against such glittering folly. Far from judgement passed on a failed or failing life, our wild within is a precious gift. Perhaps it is only from that wilderness that we can resist what would ensnare us. Perhaps that is why the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Perhaps that is why we follow.

Today parts of what remain of the Judean wilderness are protected as National Parks. Might we learn also to protect and value our internal wilderness?

Monday, March 02, 2015

Into The Wilderness : Lent 2015 : Part 3

The wilderness is a place of refuge.

A thousand years after Abraham passes through the Judean wilderness, his descendants have claimed the land as their own. They have spent half of the intervening millennium beyond its boundaries, while the earlier settlers continued to tame it, and, not long before their return, another people had invaded from the sea and settled the coastal plain. Then the return, invasion and conquest of cities, assimilation and struggle with other tribes, the emergence of nationhood, power struggles to decide who will rule. Bronze Age settlements have given way to Iron Age federations. These are turbulent times.

Though the farmable land has been opened up, the wilderness is still wild. The account of one hard-fought battle records that more men were killed by the forest than fell to the sword.

And it is in the wilderness that we find David, having fled the madness of King Saul. David, finding refuge in a cave system large enough to shelter several hundred men.

It is in the wilderness that, some generations later, we find Elijah, having fled the wrath of Jezebel.

The wilderness is the place of the outcast, the outlaw, the person who is being crushed by the way in which their society is ordered; who needs to run somewhere where they will not be followed, or, even if followed, will not be found.

David exchanges the royal court for the wilderness in order to live, to secure an ongoing existence. Not escapism, but survival. Elijah pushes into the wilderness in order to die, having had enough. Both men are followed, and found, by God – and by those sent to them by God. In a cave very near to the lowest place of earth – physically and metaphorically, external and internal geography coinciding – David discovers that God is his rock. From the mouth of a cave in the wilderness, Elijah, having been sustained and strengthened, encounters the whisper of God in the sheer silence that follows wind, earthquake, and fire.

The wilderness is a place of refuge. There are times when we need to get away, out into the countryside, encountering God in creation, away from the treadmill and the rat race. And there are times when we need to shut the door on the world and head deep into the wilderness within, the untamed and untameable self. Times when we head into the wilderness in order to protect ourselves; and, perhaps, times when we head into the wilderness where that deepest part of us that desires to live – where God’s words releasing life into the world still reside - wrestles with the weight that presses in on us to die.

By day, the wilderness can be breathtakingly beautiful; wandering through it, an invigorating experience, certain trails and landmarks becoming familiar friends. By night, or caught in a forest fire, it can be a disorienting and dangerous place to be: what monsters lurk just beyond our vision? Will I flee the sword, only to hang caught from a tree? Likewise, our experience of the internal wilderness will vary, from restorative visit to ordeal. Then again, the Psalms remind us that cities – our engaging with civil society – can be places of bewildering treachery and painful struggle.

The wilderness itself becomes less threatening when we appreciate it as part of God’s creation: as a home and provision for the wild animals, including that within us that needs to break free. And when we recognise that God, the most fierce and free being of all, is more at home in the wilderness than he is in a temple.

As a boy, David encountered lions and bears; learnt how to scare them off – and, if necessary, kill them – with a sling. Of the wild and dangerous places between the open spaces, he sang of a Shepherd who carried two sticks: one held along the flank of a sheep to steer it back onto the path; the other, a cudgel with which to drive back predators. Have we become too domesticated to walk through the wilderness with confidence?

If we deny the wilderness within us, we are also more likely to avoid the wilderness in other people, the wild and lonely places they disappear into from time to time. We stand at the edge, praying that they might return to civilisation. Perhaps we would do better attentively waiting on God, should he send us into their wilderness after them, with a message, or aid. I am not suggesting that we take the role of unqualified psychiatrists, psychologists, or psychotherapists – that would be dangerous folly; and there are times when we need such professionals – but rather that faithful friendship involves such a willingness. That through us, not only is the wilderness blessed, but it becomes even more fully a place of blessing.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Into The Wilderness : Lent 2015 : Part 2

The wilderness is a place of open-handed vulnerability.

Today, the Judean wilderness is semi-desert. But this is misleading, as four-thousand years of climate changes, deforestation, and, more recently, vastly more intensive water use separate us from Abraham. When he entered the land, the wilderness was, well, wilderness. Much of the land was forested. Bronze Age people had cleared a wide strip along the flat top of the spine of the Judean hills, creating a line of settlements defended by mud walls, along a trade route. Successive generations built literally on top of the previous generation, so that proto-towns rose from the ground. To the west, they had started to deforest the slopes that roll gently to the sea, developing arable farming alongside livestock. To the east, the land falls away into the rift valley – also farmable – dropping away with too much topography in too little space for farming. And so this remained wilderness: untamed.

Abraham enters the land God has told him that he will be a stranger and a guest in, but which his descendants will inherit, from the north. As he moves southward, he does so keeping to the east of the settlements. Abraham is making it very clear that he is not a threat, that he has no intention of competing with the inhabitants of the hill country. He comes in peace, looking to befriend; not in hostility. He retains a nomadic life: his flocks graze back (at least the edge of) the forest, and then he moves them on, to graze another sector and allow new growth in their wake; in this way, nomadic farming manages wilderness, as opposed to destroying it. In contrast, his nephew Lot chooses to live among a people who won’t share or welcome, and who use violence to keep what they have to themselves.

Since Abraham, we have continued to build layer upon layer of urban civilisation, our tell settlements transformed into cathedrals and tower blocks, our cities of ever-increasing complexity. And, to meet the needs of these cities, we have extended the deforestation of the wilderness – even if we know that National Parks, and even neighbourhood parks, are good for us. But this external progression is mirrored by an internal one: an ever-increasing organisational complexity, and the erosion of the untamed spaces within us.

The wilderness touches settled community, even if it lies on the more ‘marginal’ side of that life. Here is to be found solitude, the place of being alone at the edge of society. Solitude contrasts with isolation, that sense of being alone even in the midst of society; and while isolation is bad for our psychological wellbeing, some degree of solitude is in fact necessary, even essential to psychological wellbeing.

There are the ordered, domesticated, architectural internal places. And these are good: I am not advocating a return to the Bronze Age! But they come with the pressure to compete for, and then defend, resources and territory recognised as our own. And then there are the wild internal places: and finding ourselves of vulnerable psychological wellbeing may be an invitation into these places. Places that, it turns out, are not marginal for life, but life-renewing.

Strictly speaking, solitude is not so much about being alone as about being with ourselves, getting lost in our internal wilderness, that place within us that remains wild and untameable because we are created in the likeness of a wild and untameable Creator God (even if God willingly takes on certain restrictions to his freedom in order to come near to us). I am untameable, at least in part; and in this sense must stop trying to control myself, which is to do violence against myself (while recognising that if God willingly takes on certain constraints for the sake of relationship, so must I).

In the internal wilderness, we might discover that God’s grace is sufficient; and that this enables us to be generous, not only with what we have but in our attitude towards others, not needing to compete; trusting that God will work the fulfilment of his promises, of his call. Here we might discover how to live secure lives without defensive walls; that a fragile security, which invites friendship, might be more secure than a robust one, which invites combat.

And here we might begin to discover what it looks like to ‘have dominion over’ the external and internal world, exercising God’s will. For God operates through blessing, not imposing; and when we stretch out an open hand in blessing, we reflect God’s rule. Abraham blessed the wilderness, by managing it through his herds rather than sacrificing it for his herds. We bless the wilderness by choosing to see it not as curse, but gift: embracing vulnerability in ourselves, respecting it in others.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Into The Wilderness : Lent 2015 : Part 1

Between my first and second years at theological college, I had the opportunity to go on a study trip to the Holy Land.

The wilderness is a significant physical and psychological reality in the biblical tradition. It is both an external and an internal geography; a place in which you can be lost, and found, and a metaphor for life. At first glance, the wilderness is barren, lifeless. A closer look, a longer more patient look, reveals that it is a place of life, home to plants and animals – and, indeed, human beings – alike.

I am writing this in the Season of Lent, a season of invitation to withdraw from certain aspects of everyday life in order to rediscover the God who gives us life in the first place. I am also writing from a place of vulnerable psychological wellbeing. This is not my permanent nor even primary address, but it is a place I am familiar with. Indeed, it is a place I believe so many of us are familiar with that I could not be fully human without such familiarity. We have a tendency to consider the experience of vulnerable psychological wellbeing in negative terms: as a problem to be fixed – or, better still, pro-actively avoided – or a reason to judge others or indeed ourselves harshly; as failing at life, rather than part of life. We are all vulnerable persons at certain times in our lives. But what if vulnerable psychological wellbeing might be understood as experience of the wilderness? And what if being in the wilderness was a risky, demanding, but potentially positive thing?

I want to go on a journey into the wilderness, taking that closer look. In particular, I want to suggest that:

the wilderness is a place of open-handed vulnerability;

the wilderness is a place of refuge; and that

the wilderness is a place of prayer.

Welcoming The Stranger

At Sunderland Minster, we host a cycle of art exhibitions throughout the year. The latest was installed last Wednesday. ‘Nomads’ is a set of ten very large (5’x3’) oil portraits of homeless men. They are painted predominantly in monochrome, blacks and greys: such people fade into the background. In each painting, a few elements are depicted in colour, a choice that emphasises rather than distracts from the monochrome nature of the work. In each portrait, the eyes are in vivid colour, catching and holding our gaze, demanding that we do what on the street we work hard not to do: to look this person in the eye, to recognise ourselves in them, to see them as a human being.

The artist, Simon A. Yorke, is a devout Buddhist. You might not know that from his painting, but you will certainly discover this from listening to him speak about attitudes towards homeless people and the motivation for his art. In listening to him speak, I find significant common ground, expressed in different language, and significant disagreement.

The paintings went in on Ash Wednesday, a day when we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. All of us: those we consider dirt beneath our feet, those we consider trample others under their feet, those who walk lightly but nonetheless leave an imprint. A day when we are confronted with our common fragility; and invited to turn away from all that separates us from God and neighbour; and to follow Jesus in whom Christians believe that those made of dust are, and will be, remade.

At our Ash Wednesday Sung Eucharist with the imposition of ashes, Simon received the sign of the cross on his forehead in ash, but did not take Communion. Sharing the bread and wine of communion is a deeply political act by which we place ourselves under the lordship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God – in continuity with the God who delivered his people from slavery to the divine-human Pharaoh within the Egyptian empire; and in defiance of the claims of the Roman Empire to bring peace through the divine-human emperor, and any claims of political salvation made in our own day – and as such identify ourselves as Christian. But you don’t have to be a Christian to recognise your embodied-ness, your shared frail humanity; to determine to turn away from that which comes between us; and to seek to follow after Jesus as one who lived such a life, even if one cannot accept Christianity. As such, I have no problem with a Buddhist, or adherent to any faith or none, journeying with us into our Christian tradition of Lent.

But this engages with a wider issue than the important issue of homelessness. It touches the very heart of our attitude towards one another.

We want to open our building to the contribution of people of other faiths, because we believe that they have a contribution to make to the shaping of a good society. Indeed, that we can only have a healthy society if we allow room for the contribution of others – those we disagree with as well as those who share our views. And we believe that we can benefit from the insights of others: for me, as a Christian, if I cannot see Jesus in the face of Simon’s paintings, and indeed in Simon’s face, I will not find Jesus in the bread and the wine.

This does not mean that we hold all views as being of equal merit, but that we are confident enough to speak well of, be challenged by, and appropriately partner with others.

We live in a society with a strong and insidious rhetoric of polarisation. If we believe that in and through Christ, God is reconciling all, we must live counter-culturally in this regard.

I know that last week in Sunderland Minster the Holy Spirit brought about a work of conversion – of change of perspective, of movement closer to Jesus; conversion being the work of the Holy Spirit, and not the Church – in at least one Buddhist (possibly more than one), several Christians, some agnostics and even atheists. I expect the Holy Spirit to do more of the same for the duration of the ‘Nomads’ exhibition, and beyond.