Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Fool Jesus

Sunday’s Lectionary reading was the story, from John 4, of Jesus and the woman at the well.  As such, I have come across the story, in different guises, along various virtual paths I have wandered over the past twenty-four hours – a story, and its retellings, that always trouble me.

A little knowledge, it is said, is a dangerous thing to possess.  We know that this woman has had five husbands, and that the man she was living with was not her husband.  And – reading through the lens of Hollywood infidelity and serial monogamy – we typically, almost automatically, cast her as an immoral woman, an adulteress divorcee, a femme fatal ... and judge, or perhaps admire, her.

But this is not Hollywood.  This is a small community, where everyone knows everyone else’s business (though not because they have read about it in the glossy magazines) and such accusations could destroy your reputation.  If this woman was sexually immoral, men might well pay her for sex (if they thought they could get away with it) but why would anyone marry her, unless they had to?

In fact, we know of a situation which would require men to marry her.  According to the ancient laws on which this society was built, if a man died childless, his brother was required to marry his widow, with the first-born son being counted as the deceased’s; with all subsequent brothers being so bound until the obligation is fulfilled.  While this sounds appalling to our twenty-first-century western sensibilities, it guaranteed provision for the widow (in a time when widows were particularly vulnerable) and (in an agrarian society bound to the land) kept the land from passing out of the family.

This custom was familiar enough that Jesus is specifically questioned about it by a group of Sadducees (Luke 20:27-40), wanting to know which one of many brothers will be counted as the rightful husband in the resurrection (though Sadducees did not believe in resurrection – their concern was not pastoral, but rather to trap Jesus in speaking against the Law).

So when we meet the woman at the well, we must do so with an open mind.  We must at least entertain the possibility that this woman is doubly ‘cursed’ – every man she has married has died (the latest attempting to cheat death on a technicality), and she is childless.  We must entertain the possibility that the women of the town avoid her not because they see her as a threat to their own marriages, but because – through no action on her part – her presence makes them feel guilty about having husbands and children ... or that this woman’s increasingly bitter jealousy has made it hard for even the most sympathetic to keep reaching out to her.  And if this woman is serially-widowed and barren, she is surely – in the minds of her neighbours, and very probably in her own mind too – rejected by God.

At the well, she meets a fool – a man who doesn’t understand, or doesn’t play by, the rules.  A Jew, engaging a Samaritan in conversation; more than that, seeking their help; more than that, asking to drink from the same vessel ... a Jewish man, speaking to a woman he was not related to, without chaperone.  Moreover, this man clearly doesn’t realise what he is saying or who he is speaking to: what could possibly be more inappropriate than pressing riddles about life on the kiss-of-death woman?

(And they are riddles: Jesus is not speaking plainly here.  Again, we like to fool ourselves that he is, and that this woman either misses the point or is a sassy raconteur – is either foolish or not to be taken for a fool; is not as wise as us, or not as modest.)

Clearly a fool ... but then he says something that turns everything on its head.  He knows exactly who he is talking to.  He knows, because God has revealed it to him.  And if, knowing whom he is speaking to, he is speaking to her at all – yet alone about life – then surely God has not rejected her after all...?

The thing is, I don’t know this woman’s story.  But God does.  I don’t know what Jesus said to the villagers, which caused them to conclude he was, indeed, the saviour of the world.  But if his initial encounter at the well is any clue, it was perhaps not his rational wisdom but his passionate foolishness ... his disregard for the rules that locate us higher than some and lower than others.

That is the insight of the fool in every time and place (consider the court jester, the village idiot).  Wisdom is not having the answers, or winning the argument (the sprung trap which lies in wait for apologetics).  It turns out that the fool is the wisest of all, for he or she sees the world – and all who live in it – from the perspective of heaven.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What God Provides Always Runs Out

What God provides always runs out.

It is meant to.

If it did not, there would be no place for faith.  If it did not, we would not know God as our Provider.  Moreover, if it did not – if nothing was consumed, if nothing died and, having died, was transformed into something else – the universe would be a very different place: one which lacked the conditions necessary for life.

The twenty-third Psalm tells of God’s provision, using sheep as an illustration: the shepherd provides for the sheep not through grass that never runs out, but by leading the sheep from winter pastures to summer pastures and back again, from where the grass has been consumed to a place where it has grown back.

Teaching on prayer, Jesus tells his disciples to ask their heavenly Father to provide them with their daily bread – not because God’s provision is rationed to the minimum requirement; rather, because provision does not take place in a theoretical vacuum, but in a tangible world of ever-changing circumstances ... a world in which our structures for provision (structures which God certainly uses, but is not dependent on) are swept away by floods or cut-off by personal or national debt.

I regularly hear Christians say that they need to know where the provision is going to come from – and all the more so at times of real economic hardship, where existing means of provision are running out.  But one of the consequences of provision running out is that we do not always know where provision will come from.  What we need to know is not where the provision will come from, but who the provision will come from.  Provision is ... provisional; but the Provider is consistently faithful.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tracks : Creative Worship

Lenten act of creative worship, based on Jesus being in the wilderness with the wild animals:

Take two sheets of paper.  On one, draw around your left foot; on the other, draw around your right foot.  Carefully, tear to and around the footprints.  You will now have four ‘feet’ – two ‘positive’ images and two ‘negative’ images.

Place your footprints on the ground.  The ‘positive’ might represent where you are right now; the space ahead, where you are heading to, known or unknown.  It may represent a recognition that you stand, barefoot, on holy ground.  The ‘negative’ might represent where you have come from, and might be a prompt for repentance and/or for thanksgiving.  It may represent another, invisible – a guardian angel, or Jesus – who walks with you.

Take the time to reflect on the footprints, to consider what you might want to say to God, to ask God what he might want to say to you.  You might want to move the footprints you have placed.

Do this with a group of people.  Give opportunity for people to share the things they have brought to God, or received from God, in these moments.  Consider making a track of footprints, to represent the pilgrim journey we are on together.  This might be in a straight line, say towards the altar table in a church building, or towards a cross.  Or you might invite people to place their footprints in front of the last, but taking the line in whatever direction they feel appropriate.

Consider doing this in a variety of spaces, including public spaces, spaces not commonly thought of as sacred.

Consider offering a range of colours of paper, and what picking one colour rather than another might express: I choose blue, because at the moment, I walk with tears in my eyes...I choose yellow, because I walk with joy...I choose red, in respect of those who have lost their lives in earthquake or flood...I choose green, because...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I’m struck by the Gospel detail that Jesus was with the wild animals in the wilderness.

I’ve walked in the Judean wilderness.  As in any wilderness – desert, tundra, urban jungle – to the untrained eye the wilderness is empty of life.  Or at least, if we do catch glimpse of a lizard on a rock, a hawk in the sky, we assume that life is haphazard.  The trained eye knows otherwise.

The trained eye knows that the wilderness is full of life, and knows how to track: how to identify the presence and the activity of particular animals by their prints, by the evidence of their nesting, their feeding.

We, too, leave tracks.  And, for the most part, we don’t notice our own tracks – unless we are deliberately trying to cover them.

We leave digital information tracks: can be followed from ATM withdrawal here to shop till there.

We leave carbon footprints.

We leave emotional tracks: a trail through other people’s lives, encouraging here, discouraging there.

Even if we believe that our passing through leaves no track behind, we are mistaken.  Our being here affects others, perhaps causes them to change the path of their own tracks, in order to walk alongside us, or to follow us, or to avoid us.

Take time to be aware of your tracks.

They are temporary: the wind blows over them, and they are no more.  Life goes on – your life goes on, crossing the same ground, made clean, or crossing into new places.

Where do you need to ask the wind of the Spirit to blow, erasing tracks you have left behind?  Where do you need to follow the dove of the Spirit, to be led to food or water or shelter?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lent In Community

We tend to see Lent as an individual discipline.  After all, it echoes Jesus’ going off into the wilderness alone, walking away from community in order to return into community with fresh vision, doesn’t it?  Well, yes...and no.  Jesus’ wilderness experience was not a solitary one, though it may well have included times of solitude.

Two of the three Gospel accounts reveal that the satan – the accuser – did not turn up after the forty days, but was a companion-of-sorts throughout that time.  And so were an unspecified number of angels – a term which applies to messengers from God, and is ambivalent enough to include humans, supernatural beings, and supernatural beings who have taken on human form.  Not to mention the wild animals – curious companions, approaching and withdrawing, intrigued and fearful – and a dove – incarnation of the Holy Spirit, descended from heaven at Jesus’ baptism and remaining with him, leading him into the wilderness.  Moreover, Jesus was not in the wilderness for the entirety of his fast: in the company of the accuser, he made a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, slipping unnoticed – not for the only time – through the crowds.

So the template for Lent is one in which community, in its various forms, is engaged.

In the wilderness there is room for another, who does not worship God...for another, who interprets Scripture in a different way...for another, who questions our sense of identity...for another, who seeks to exercise power over us...for another, who comes to minister to our needs, to attend to our wellbeing, to support us in our weakness...for another, who comes close and draws back, comes close and draws back again...for another, who is constant, leading us on, deeper into our Father’s love for us...for another, who doesn’t even notice that we are there as we pass by...

In the wilderness there is room to discover what we believe...about who God is and who we are, about what God is like and how we are to respond...to see ourselves within Covenant relationship...to relocate ourselves within the Kingdom of heaven...to be open to the Other and to the other...

How much room do you experience in Lent?

And who are you sharing that space with?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Growing Beyond, Growing Into

Jesus’ baptism marks a significant life-change, a water-shed.  Jesus had been adopted by his father, Joseph, the carpenter – literally, the builder.  He would have been apprenticed as a carpenter-builder under Joseph’s oversight; and as an adult, at the time of his baptism, was most likely working as a carpenter-builder based in Capernaum.  At his baptism, Jesus walks away from this life and takes up the life of an itinerant teacher and miracle-worker.

On the surface, at least, this is massive discontinuity.  And yet there is also continuity.  For on the night of his arrest, the night before his political execution, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to his Father’s house, in order to prepare additional rooms for his disciples.  His Father, who publically adopted him at his baptism [1], is the ‘archtekton,’ the architect, the one who holds the plans for the building; and Jesus is the ‘tekton,’ the carpenter-builder, who makes those plans solid.  As he was then, so he is now: at work, building homes – a home for us.

Life is full of change, and change always involves leaving behind the life we have known in order to step-into the life we are growing into.  Sometimes – news of earthquake and tsunami – we are confronted with the reality of this, with the futility of denial.

I look at my children, aged nine and eight and four, and I recognise that I was once nine and eight and four, and that who I was then no longer exists – except, perhaps, within the love of God, who is not bound by time.  From who I was to who I am – and who I will be – there is both significant discontinuity and significant continuity.  But we move on, through stages and seasons of life.

That is natural, but it is also profoundly counter-cultural for us in the UK today.  We have pushed back taking up the responsibilities of adulthood further and further.  We have extended academic education, have postponed employment, have created economic circumstances whereby it is seen as an economic necessity to live with our parents into our mid-to-late thirties, not out of a cultural sense of extended family responsibility but of abdicating responsibility (many such parents neither receiving nor wanting to receive financial contribution).  At the other end of life, we use medical science to push back death, to prevent ourselves from having to face up to dying.

At the same time that as adults we are desperately trying to cling on to our childhood, we increasingly force children to dress and behave older than their years, in particular sexualising girls at a younger and younger age (and demonising adults that are then emotionally confused by what we, as a society, have done).

We have all-but-forgotten that each stage of life has good things to it; things to be celebrated; things to be let-go of and left behind in order to move on in a healthy journey through life.  The Toy Story trilogy is a poignant exploration of that very sense of loss and gain, of celebrating the past and then letting go of it.

At his baptism, Jesus leaves behind a season of life and begins another.  And, I am convinced, that the courage required in order to do so came from hearing his Father’s voice declaring “You are my Son, whom I love: with you I am well pleased.”

As we move from season of life to season of life, we too find that courage is required, and that it comes from hearing our Father speak his love and affirmation over us.

[1] I do not mean that Jesus is divine only by adoption: he is the second person of the Trinity from the beginning; but this is the point, in the unfolding ways human language attempts to explore and express the Trinity, at which the Word which had become flesh becomes Son, as foretold before his birth, and the first person of the Trinity becomes his Father.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Imposition Of Ashes

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Today is marked, in many Christian traditions, by a service of holy communion, including an extended time of confession and repentance, and the opportunity to receive the ‘imposition of ashes’ – the mark of the cross, in ash (sometimes made by burning the previous years’ Palm Sunday palm crosses), on the forehead.

I was talking to someone today, and they were saying that they don’t really go in for symbolic rituals.  So I asked them about how they marked birthdays in their family: with a cake, with candles, to be blown out by the person whose birthday it is.  Often in our culture, this symbolic birthday ritual includes the making of a wish, which is supposed to be fulfilled if the candles are blown out in one breath; and is accompanied by the singing of Happy Birthday to You.  Why?  No-one really remembers: there is no inherent reason, but somehow we are marking and honouring someone in our midst.

In fact, we engage in symbolic rituals all the time.  When I was a teenager, every disco – regardless of what songs were in the charts, or who the dj was – ended with Dexy’s Midnight Runners ‘Come on, Eileen!’  When that song came on, everyone knew it was the last song of the evening.  And everyone ran on to the dance floor.  And everyone joined in, in the same way: getting into an inward-looking circle, arms around each other’s shoulders, dancing a can-can which eventually disintegrated into a pogo as the music went from slow to faster and faster tempo.  Symbolic ritual, marking the end of what had taken place, facilitating our dispersal.

There are probably millions of people in the UK who never place a bet on any other sporting event who, every year, take part in an office sweepstake on the Grand National.  There are millions more who go out on stag- and hen-dos before their or a friend’s wedding: events which have a very clear unwritten list of requirements and code-of-conduct.  At weddings themselves, we give and receive rings; and afterwards have speeches, with their own rules.  Every morning, we start our day with our favourite cup of tea, in our favourite tea cup.  When asked how things are progressing, we respond good so far, “touch wood” – reaching for a table or chair or, in the absence of anything wooden, our own head.  Since Diana’s death, a roadside death is now marked by flowers at the spot.  From the collective act to the individual act, from marking life’s milestones to negotiating the every-day, we engage in symbolic rituals all the time: often without thinking about it.

So the symbolic ritual of receiving the imposition of ashes on our forehead is not so very strange.

This particular symbolic ritual reminds us of our own mortality, of our human frailty, and of our need for God, met in the fully-human fully-divine person of Jesus Christ.

Lenten Thoughts

This year, Ash Wednesday is 9 March, and Easter Day is 24 April.

God does not want to stretch us so that we can grow.  You don’t get an oak tree by stretching out an acorn.  You don’t get a butterfly by pulling at both ends of a caterpillar.  God wants us to die to who we are, in order to be transformed into something that has not yet been...

May this season be to me a clearing, hidden, deep in the woods; of rich soil, open to rain and sunlight; in which I can fall.  May it be to me a cocoon, camouflaged from the predator, suspended in space and time; a safe cradle of transformation.  May this season open its arms to receive my dying, and then open its arms again to release my living.

I will be spending Lent in the wilderness that lies outside the global village of Facebook.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Learning 2.0 Pray

Would you help me collate a resource of simple prayers?

I am reflecting on prayer.  Prayer is foundational for accessing relationship with our Father, and the things of the kingdom.  When Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, the pattern he gives them reveals that our Father wants to enter into dialogue with us about his character, his kingdom, his provision, his forgiveness, his guidance, and his deliverance.

My observation – which I want to test and weigh – is that these six areas of dialogue lend themselves to six times of stillness through the course of the day, somewhat akin to the monastic hours:

The Father’s character: before sunrise; before the start of the day [1]

The Father’s kingdom: at sunrise; the start of the day

The Father’s provision: at noon; at the heart of the day

The Father’s forgiveness: at the end of the working day / the evening meal [2]

The Father’s guidance: at dusk; going into the dark

The Father’s deliverance: at night; in darkness

What I would like to collate is at least one simple prayer for each of the six times/themes.  The kind of prayer I am hoping to find is very simple, a well-worn pebble I can tumble in my mind which might wear other thoughts smooth; tested by time, rather than spontaneous.  As examples:

“Father, Father, holy Father; Father, Father, righteous Father” (a very simple prayer based on the six times Jesus addresses his Father in the high priestly prayer of John 17 – on character)

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (a prayer turned over, meditated upon, by Russian Orthodox priests as they walked from place to place – on forgiveness)

[1] When this is will vary throughout the course of the year, at this latitude; but I often awake around 5am, which may be a sign of age...

[2] It seems to me that the end of the working day is an appropriate moment to stop to ask for, receive, and extend forgiveness: for the things in which we have fallen short; the things we have left undone that ought not to have been left undone; the ways in which we have been wounded by the action or inaction of others.  But I am also struck by the different attitude towards our need for forgiveness displayed by Jesus, and my Anglican tradition.  In Anglican prayer, confession and absolution is up front and central: as if we have no right to come to God in prayer, and this needs to be dealt with before we can.  As opposed to believing that it is our right to come - given us by the Father in adopting us as his children; given us by the Son in reconciling us to God through his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, ongoing intercession, and promise of his future return; given us by the Holy Spirit in raising us with Christ from spiritual death to spiritual life.  In the pattern of prayer Jesus gives us, forgiveness comes four-sixths of the way through.  I don’t see it as a list of diminishing importance; but forgiveness doesn’t seem to be the starting-point.  As Jesus put it elsewhere, in a culture where open sandals were worn, if you had a bath and then walked round to your friend’s house, you will need to have your feet washed, but you don’t need another bath.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

On Discipleship

In his life and letters, Paul defines discipleship as extending the invitation/challenge to “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”

That is, the direction of discipleship is

Christ < me < those I disciple


Christ > me > those I disciple

Discipleship is not asking, “What, in my experience, is relevant to your need?”  That approach is limiting in the extreme – in terms of our capacity to make disciples, and in terms of the value of our discipleship.

Discipleship is not therapy.  (I have nothing against therapy or therapists, but discipleship is something different.)

Discipleship is not concerned with helping you be a better version of you, but with helping you grow into the likeness of Christ.

Being discipled is not about you meeting my agenda, but rather about you giving me opportunity to submit my agenda – however well-intentioned it may be – to his.

Discipleship is the invitation/challenge to look away from yourself to me, and beyond me to Christ.

Or, being discipled is the invitation/challenge to look away from myself to another, and beyond them to Christ.

Only by accepting this do we begin to see the distance between our current selves and our true selves in Christ.  Only by accepting this do we begin to see the possibility of movement, of growth, of fleshed-out transformation.  Only by accepting this do we begin to see the journey we have already made, from provisional self to true self.

We are charged, by Jesus, to go and make disciples.  And this requires of us that we are able to say, “In [this area] I have grown in Christlikeness, as I have intentionally sought to imitate him.”  That is, only disciples can make disciples.

“In knowing that the Father loves me, I have grown in Christlikeness.”

“In trusting that my heavenly Father will provide for all my needs, I have grown in Christlikeness.”

“In hearing and responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I have grown in Christlikeness.”

“In...I have grown in Christlikeness.”

And this is profoundly counter-cultural for British Christians.  We have been conformed to the idea that to say that we have grown in Christlikeness in any given area of our lives is arrogant; that to suggest to someone else that they might imitate our life is presumptuous.  We need to be transformed, having our minds renewed, in order that we can describe ourselves with sober judgement as opposed to, yes, arrogance on the one hand or – and I’d suggest this is the bigger problem in our context, with ‘arrogance’ the excuse that justifies it - false modesty on the other.  False modesty that perpetuates confusion about what it means – and hides our unwillingness – to be discipled.

“I have grown in Christlikeness, in this area, to this extent, a work in progress, begun...”

The scope of discipleship is no less than to share everything that we experience in knowing that we are known by God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – with those who are drawn to our experience.  Whether it is directly relevant to them – in our limited perception, or theirs – or not (what have we to hold out, except what we have received?)...whether they continue to walk with us, or not...whether we reach the place where we have to say, “I’ve taught you everything I know; if you want to go further, you’ll have to learn from someone else” or not.

In what areas of your life can you see that you have grown in Christlikeness?

Who helped you see what Christlikeness looked like, in that area of life?

Who are you challenging to imitate you, as you imitate Christ?

Burning Books

More excellent reflections on the furore surrounding Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, by my friend Andrew Hamilton, here...

And by Maggi Dawn, here...