Thursday, November 29, 2012

Advent Past, Present, Future

Each year since 2006, I have posted a daily Advent Calendar on my blog:

in 2006, a treasury of poems, images, thoughts for the day;

in 2007, mostly a series of my poems;

in 2008, exploring the theme of waiting, visually inspired by a three week study trip to Israel, including the disputed/occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank;

in 2009, meditations on the theme of repentance;

in 2010, creative but practical ways we might go about Making Room to welcome Jesus in our homes – if you are a ‘concrete’ ideas person, rather than an ‘abstract’ ideas person, I recommend that particular series;

in 2011, a series of more philosophical reflections on hope and longing and waiting.

Each year has been quite different in style and feel, but always including some of my photos. You can revisit any, now archived by year, via the navigation column to the right.

This year, my starting point will be Luke 2:19, ‘But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’

Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas Day: because Christmas Day is a fixed date, and so the day of the week it falls on moves each year, Advent is not a fixed length but can begin anywhere between 27 November (as it did last year) and 3 December. This year, Advent begins on 2 December.

It is a season of expectation and preparation, looking back to Jesus’ coming-into the world and looking forward to his return.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sneak Preview

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:19

Relevance : Resonance

I want to consider the difference between relevance and resonance.

I want to suggest that relevance is contextual. It is determined by a complex interaction of relationships and experience and need. Take ‘kairos : kisses’ for example. The number of people who visit my blog is tiny – on average, around 100 every day. But even this tiny number is diverse in age, gender, family circumstances, cultural background, current cultural context, religious belief, political persuasion, passions, interests, life experience, relationship to me...Each one finds different posts on my blog more, or less, relevant. Or more, or less, relevant in different situations (as in, “that is an interesting observation, but it isn’t relevant to the matter at hand”).

Relevance is important. But it is not the be-all-and-end-all. If it were, we could only engage with people who were very like us. The further we push relevance, the more fragmented we become, the more separated from one another.

I want to suggest that resonance is catholic, by which I mean pertains to all and is of interest to all. An ancient bard employed the sight and sound of the waterfall near the source of the Jordan river to express resonance: “deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls” (Psalm 42*). Here are the fundamental longings of every member of humanity – to be known, to be loved – longings that are an integral part of our created nature, because we bear the imprint of One who longs to be in relationship with us, and who calls out to us.

Anyone who has stood before a waterfall will know that there is a deep sound that one feels more than hears, under the noise: resonance is deeper than relevance, and sometimes we resonate in time – deep calling to deep – only when we have listened past the relevant.

As an example of relevance and resonance, consider the ongoing debate within the Church of England regarding how we will go about having women bishops as well as men bishops.

There is a matter of relevance, but what? For some, the Church is irrelevant anyway, and this only goes to confirm that opinion. For others, it demonstrates a wider move from relevance (still, in certain areas) towards irrelevance. For some members of the Church, the desire to see women bishops is an example of ditching truth in order to be perceived as relevant. For others, it is irrelevant, because they are so used to men bishops that they see no need for change even if they aren’t opposed to it. It is less relevant in the sleepy retirement resort I currently live in than in our cities. For many Christians in other traditions, women bishops are irrelevant because they see men bishops as irrelevant.

Then there is the matter of resonance. Many of those Christians in other traditions who see women bishops as irrelevant because they see men bishops as irrelevant nonetheless understand that there is a deeper issue of resonance with the foundational stories of Genesis 1 (male and female together created bearing God’s likeness and, with no hierarchy between them, to represent God’s rule in the world) and Genesis 2 (male and female are one; the woman is a ‘corresponding warrior’ to the man, to fight side-by-side against the incursion of chaos) and Genesis 3 (the rule of the husband over the wife, and the male over the female, is a consequence of humanity choosing not to trust that God has their best interests; it is not a God-decreed curse, but rather a tragic consequence God both places limits upon – death - and states his intention to overturn – as fulfilled in the person of Jesus, and demonstrated in the large number of women leaders of the churches recorded in the New Testament). It is not a matter of relevance, but of resonance.

Likewise, I would suggest, it is resonance with this equality that causes people – even if they can’t articulate that resonance in theological language – to see the Church as irrelevant in this matter, calling people to live in a story we ourselves fail to enter...while their longing remains unfulfilled.

*In physics, resonance describes the state of a system in which an abnormally large vibration is produced in response to an external stimulus, occurring when the frequency of the stimulus is the same, or nearly the same, as the natural vibration frequency of the system.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Us And Them

Three more short observations on the General Synod debacle:

On the relationship between Church and State

Some people are arguing that the State has no jurisdiction over the Church, which is answerable to God. This is nonsense. It is nonsense because both Church and State are answerable to God. It is nonsense because our Scriptures tell us that those who exercise stately power are appointed by God, and that we are to submit to their God-given authority to discipline us when we are at fault – and this was written in the context of the Roman Empire – resisting only where they usurp that authority and claim for themselves what rightfully belongs to God. This would include demanding that we worship the head of state as saviour. It would not include complying with equality law. As the position of the Church of England has since the 1970s been that there are no doctrinal grounds to discriminate against women in regards to position within the Church – in this we were way ahead of State law - and we have simply failed to find a way to implement our own belief (for reasons that are honourable but perhaps misguided), there is no way in which we can plead special privilege on the grounds of religion.

On how we relate to one another

Following the vote, I wrote this:

“The issue is not whether women can be bishops [this has already been decided, in 2006]. Anyone who wants to be a bishop ought not to be one, and the ministry of anyone called upon to be one is greatly constrained. The issue is whether we assume the worst, or assume the best, of those with whom we disagree. And on this issue all of us – those who urged a Yes vote and those who urged a No vote - have a long way yet to go...”

This is perhaps the most sobering aspect of all. Lord, have mercy.

On institutions

This present moment has been, and will for some time continue to be, a rough patch for two flawed but beautiful British institutions, the BBC and the Church of England. Both are in need of continual renewal. Institutions are not bad per se, but containers of the good gifts God entrusts to us as those made to reflect his glory. Though institutions do not last forever, without them God’s blessings cannot be stewarded for others. When we see them shaking, we are seeing them undergoing discipline. And discipline is never pleasant at the time, but leads to more-godly character. As lack of godly character is the primary reason why institutions abuse their position in society, that God should be shaking them would indicate to me that he has not given up on either the BBC or the Church of England yet...

Christ The King

Christ The King :: Daniel 7:9, 10, 13, 14 :: John 18:33-37

This Sunday (25th November) I want us to take some time to think about imagination, and the role imagination plays in God’s world and in God’s love for the world.

Imagine that it is the 1960s and that you – as old as you are today – had lived all your life in the Deep South. It might very well be impossible for you to imagine a society where there was no racial segregation, and certainly to imagine a society where there was no racial segregation as being a good thing. Martin Luther King had a dream: and that dream, that had taken hold of his imagination, took hold of other people’s imagination and became their dream.

Walter Brueggemann wrote “The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing…Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep conjuring and proposing alternative futures.”

Next Sunday (2nd December) marks the start of the liturgical new year. The rhythm of changing seasons is the means by which our shared lives experience colour and texture. A world without logic and reason would be frightening; but a world with only logic and reason would be terribly small and monochrome. As our imagination is shaped by God’s Story, our actions come to reflect and participate in that Story, and take a stand against the other devouring stories – such as capitalism, or individualism, or positivism – that clamour for our imagination:

It starts with Advent, a season of preparing our lives for Jesus’ return. That is to say, in Jesus, God has begun something that will also be completed in Jesus, and until then we are to live as if what has been begun has already been brought to completion. If then there will be harmony and not discord, we are to live as those brought into harmony. And every year we return to Advent, in order to have that future orientation recalibrated in us.

Advent is followed by Christmas, twelve days of celebration as we remember Jesus’ coming into our world as one of us, light shining in the darkness.

Christmas is followed by Epiphany, where we are reminded that there are signs of Jesus’ coming into the world, signs to be observed and interpreted and acted upon; a season where we can practice that seeking in our own context.

Epiphany is followed by Lent, where we go with Jesus into the wilderness, into the solitary place where God is to be met, where character is tried and tested, where the call of God on our lives is affirmed.

Lent is followed by Passiontide, where we approach, again, the moment in history where humanity passes judgement on God and – as those who exist only because God, out of love not necessity, caused us to exist – in so doing ironically pass judgement on ourselves.

Passiontide is followed by Easter, forty days of trying to imagine the unimaginable, that God has overturned our judgement on ourselves, our self-destruction; has revealed the cross to be a tree of life and throne of grace.

Easter is followed by Pentecost, where we are reminded that we are made alive by the breath of God; led, sustained, comforted, empowered, instructed by the Spirit of God breathed-into the Body of Christ.

Pentecost is followed by Trinity, a long season of knowing God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – in the ordinariness of our daily lives: in the joys and sorrows, the victories and the defeats.

Trinity is followed by All Saints, where we are reminded that we are part of a work of God that transcends and yet is imminent within every tribe and tongue and age on earth and in heaven, these two realms which are being brought together in Jesus who is not Lord-of-Heaven and Lord-of-Earth but Lord-of-Heaven-and-Earth.

And All Saints, and indeed the entire church year, culminates with the Feast of Christ the King, where we are invited to participate in the trial of Jesus. Is this man deserving of death, or king? And depending on our judgement, we are then invited to join in Advent – in living in the light of his return – or washing our hands of the matter.

Daniel has a vision. In it he sees the heavenly courtroom, the trial of the son of man. God, the Ancient of Days, takes his place on a throne of judgement. But there are other thrones: God chooses to act in community, to involve others. The case for the prosecution is made, by the representatives of the kingdoms of the world. The son of man is a representative figure – in the way dreams have of not being logical and literal, but symbolic – who stands for God’s people. And, having listened to the proceedings, God passes the verdict of those sat on the thrones: reign with me.

John also presents us with a symbolic trial. It would appear to be the trial of Jesus before Pilate; but really it is the trial of Jesus before God and before the listener (remember those other thrones?). It would appear that the accusation is brought by the representatives of God’s people; but really they speak as representatives of the kingdoms of the world. The son of man is Jesus; but Jesus as true representative of God’s people; really, Jesus and his servants, those he now calls his friends. And God passes the verdict of those sat on the thrones: be glorified (that is, lifted up on the cross).

Of all the feast days of the Church, the Feast of Christ the King is the most recent. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in the context of Mussolini’s messianic claims to power, to help Christians live out their allegiance to our heavenly King. On the surface, it might look as if Mussolini was passing judgement on Jesus and on his servants before God and the whole world, but the reality behind events was that the co-defendants were also sat on the panel of judges. Of course, logic and reason can’t handle being co-defendant and judge at one and the same time; but here we are in the territory of truth that surpasses logic; that even surpasses our imagination, and so stretches our imagination.

You see, it is a feast that helps us, not an argument. It is an apologetic of finest bread and wine, not of fine words.

We live in a society that rejects the claim that Christ is King, a society where there are many representative voices throwing accusation after accusation at Jesus and his people. And this vision of a courtroom is rich: at one and the same time we are invited to stand with Jesus in the face of his accusers; we are challenged to speak before the world as a witness for the defence; we find ourselves wondering whether we are called to be a defence lawyer, and whether we are competent (we aren’t competent, and no defence lawyer is required, as Jesus was almost silent in his trials); our conscience is interrogated as to whether we are, in fact, a witness for the prosecution; and we are encouraged by the revelation that we are also seated with the Ancient of Days and the Lamb (who, with the son of man, are themselves conflated in the Revelations shown to John).

“The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing…Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep conjuring and proposing alternative futures.”

Please don’t be afraid of the imagination, or belittle it; don’t be deceived into believing that logic and reason are more effective, give us some short-cut in following Jesus or in helping others to follow him too. Don’t worry about Having the Right Answers, or being able to explain the church to the world. But do step into the Story, into the seasons by which we tell and retell the Story. And do invite others to walk on the way and to sit at the table with us as we watch and listen and imagine and dream into being.

This week the proposed measure for moving forward with enabling women to become bishops was lost by the narrowest of margins at General synod. This is bad news, for all of us.

It is bad news for those of us who believe that, taken in context, those verses that in English translations appear to place certain limits on the roles of women not only do no such thing but cannot possibly do so (the context of the Big Picture of Scripture; the context of the wider line of thought in which they are set; the missiological context into which they are spoken; the linguistic context of what words can and could and don’t mean), and who long to see women released into the same freedom as men.

It is bad news for those of us who believe that in the Scriptural trajectory of moving from captivity to freedom, this is the prophetic moment. That the trajectory must accommodate certain captivity in order to progress (the writings of the New Testament accommodate slavery, not because captivity is better than freedom, but because the thought of dismantled slavery within the Roman Empire is akin to chaos, and in the end true freedom never flourishes in chaos; and so slavery is accommodated – though not without significant modification in the light of the bigger trajectory) but that if we fail to set people free at the prophetic moment (that is, the point where it calls for change, but imaginable change: the Wilberforce moment, the MLK moment) we resist God’s call and move from accommodating captivity to advancing it.

It is bad news for the very many women among Church of England clergy who feel that judgement has been passed on them as less than – less than men, and less than many women who have been airbrushed out of church history.

It is also bad news for those of us who, in conscience, cannot accept women bishops. After much reflection, prayer and study, the Church of England concluded in the 1970s that there were no doctrinal reasons why women could not be priests or bishops. In 2006, we decided that the time was right to include female priests among those priests who could be asked to serve as bishops. This will happen. But our failure to agree on provision for those who dissent – the rejection of the best provision we could come up with (and no provision or decision can ever be perfect) – simply means that it is far, far more likely that this will happen with no provision made at all.

But this is also bad news for all of us in relation to another issue, that of gay marriage. Until now, women bishops and gay marriage have been two separate things. That is, while they have belonged together for the most conservative and most progressive wings of the Church (and of society), at this time the overwhelming majority of church members are in favour of women bishops and the large majority of church members are not in favour of gay marriage. But now these two issues are locked together. They are locked together because as legislation is progressed into law, the Church will not be granted exemption (there are always exemptions to equality law – for example, a shelter for women who have experienced domestic violence can make a case for employing only female staff – but exemptions must be shown to be reasonable, and responsibly applied), and because the Church has lost the moral authority to speak into the public debate.

This is perhaps a silver lining for those of us who believe that it is (more than) time that we embraced gay marriage. But it is a thin silver lining. This is bad news for us, because we would want to see gay marriage shaped by a Christian rather than an atheist imagination, and by association we have lost much of the credibility to do so.

This is bad news for those of us who are open to gay marriage, but who hoped for more time to do the theological work necessary to be able to fully support gay marriage and to help our congregations and even the (far from unified) wider public reach that place (and who had hoped that resolving the issue of women bishops would free up the space for such work). It is bad news, because we will not have that time. But we will have to get on with it, and we will do so, knowing that if gay marriage is in line with God’s will, it will be one small step forward (and not heaven come on earth), and if it is not in line with God’s will, it will be one small step backward (and not hell opening up beneath our very feet).

And this is bad news for those of us who are categorically opposed to gay marriage. Indeed, it is a disaster. But it is a disaster brought about not by the lobbying of that wing of the Church that argues for gay marriage, but by the lobbying of that wing of the Church that opposes it. It is the perfect irony.

This week is not, as some have suggested, suicide for the Church. It is suicide for those within the Church who, a generation on, cannot accept the will and the (badly communicated) teaching of the Church in relation to women. They will leave, and they will have left in such a way that makes things harder for those who stay.

When the measure was lost on Tuesday, I wrote this:

Before today, I believed that the kingdom of heaven has come, has drawn very near, is delayed in its coming and it is not for us to know when it will arrive, is yet to come, and will one day come in fullness - and that in all this we are called to live within it, to repent and enter it, to be faithful, to help others imagine it, and to hope for what we do not see. Today, I believe that all of the above is still true. Nothing has changed (but neither has it stayed the same).

And that is the good news, the good news that transforms the bad news.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Cautionary Pig Tale

It has been a very painful week for those of us who are called to love and serve the Church of England. We risk the danger of adding very public recrimination to very public disagreement and very public disappointment. This evening at the vicarage we were looking at Matthew 7:1-6 with a few teenagers – we’re working through the Sermon on the Mount together – and while we didn’t speak of the events of this week, these verses felt very pertinent.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way that you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (vv1, 2)

Law is there to lead us to grace: to teach us that we cannot live rightly, in the fullness of freedom God intends for us, in our own strength. Even if the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak – a weakness calls out for compassion, not condemnation. Law is there to lead us to grace, but we cannot receive grace for ourselves while insisting that someone else be judged for failing to meet the requirement of the Law. To do so cuts us off from grace, by our own choice.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (vv3-5)

This image seems random and bizarre to us, because we are so unfamiliar with Torah (the first five, foundational, books of Scripture). But Jesus and his listeners memorised Torah from childhood. Here they would have recognised that Jesus was quoting from God’s warning to his people as they prepared to enter into the Land he was giving them.

“‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.’” (Numbers 33:55, 56)

Barbs in your eyes. And planks. Essentially, as I understand it, Jesus is saying, Don’t accuse someone of being led away from closeness with God by the company they keep, having failed to recognise the ways in which the company you keep has led you so far away from closeness with God. This is, after all, precisely what he accuses the Pharisees of doing, believing themselves to be in the right but blind to the distance between them and God. So, take an honest look at your particular tribe first; and then when you look at someone else, someone who belongs to another tribe among the people of God, you’ll be in a position to help them keep close to God – not judge them.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls before pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (v 6)

This verse is also bizarre – and these verses don’t really relate to one another – unless we understand that Jesus is again quoting Torah in order to make the same point for a third time (that is, to really make the point): don’t judge.

“‘...You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud...And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you. Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all the creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins or scales – whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water – you are to detest. And since you are to detest them, you must not eat their meat and you must detest their carcasses. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.’” (Leviticus 11:3-12)

Pearls before swine. Pigs are unclean. But so are pearls. Pearls come from oysters, and really God’s people shouldn’t even know about pearls because they shouldn’t even be touching an oyster to open it to discover them. And to buy pearls from the Gentiles is just a neat trick to get around the letter of the Law. Pearls – a symbol of status - are pronounced unclean in the very next breath as pigs. Pearls aren’t mentioned very much in the Bible, and when they are, it tends not to be positive. They are associated with Gentile Empires that oppress God’s people. Jesus does tell a parable about the kingdom of heaven as being like a merchant searching for fine pearls – which is not to say that pearls are good, but that the kingdom of heaven is scandalous, pursues scandalous ends – and this utterly scandalous nature is underlined at the very end of the Bible where the gates to the New Jerusalem are made of single pearls. But to return to Matthew 7:6, Jesus’ point seems to be, don’t misuse Scripture to your benefit (allowing you privilege that is not God’s best for his people) while putting others down (calling them unclean) – if you do, it may very well turn out badly for you.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


I think by now I really ought to be able to post some reflections on Skyfall, on the basis that if you have not yet seen it and wish to do so without spoilers, you don’t have to read any further.

The film opens with a chase scene that goes from on foot to car to motorbike to train. Against the backdrop of Istanbul, it is visually stunning and over-stimulating; but it does so much more than set the adrenalin going. It introduces three motifs that will recur throughout the film: desperate problem-solving, falling from height/into depth, and characters wrestling with the order to sacrifice a colleague for the greater good; the first a metaphor for identity crisis, the second a metaphor for death and resurrection, the third a narrative device that combines the other two.

This sequence is followed by the title song. Sung by Adele, it re-boots iconic Bond by combining the comfortingly familiar – evoking the great themes sung by Shirley Bassey – with the disconcertingly unfamiliar: this is M’s love song, expressing her complicated but completely non-sexual love for Bond.

Throughout the film, other iconic Bond elements are re-booted in similar fashion: a young, geek-chic Quartermaster (Q); a black Moneypenny who demonstrates herself to be an able field operative but chooses for herself to serve from a desk; a new M, with familiar hat-stand and leather-padded door (we move from distrusting his motives to trusting his intentions).

In one of the few truly hostile reviews, Giles Coren slams the film for its portrayal of women, and its implied portrayal of contemporary Britain. In his self-righteous journalist’s anger, he fails to recognise that M chooses to die (chooses not to withhold from herself the cost she has asked of others), and Moneypenny chooses a desk (feminism is growing up, becoming more diverse). But most of his anger is directed at Bond – a character who is supposed to represent all that is heroic about Britain – cynically having sex with a woman whom he knew had been trafficked into prostitution and then forced to be a gangsters trophy, simply because he was ‘bored,’ and then choosing not to intervene to save her when she is murdered by said gangster. It is true that both these scenes are disturbing: but for precisely that reason, I am glad that they are there. Bond, too, is getting a re-boot: he is depicted neither as hero (as Coren wrongly assumes and rightly rejects) nor villain (as Coren wrongly deems him to actually be) but as anti-hero. Here is a deeply damaged man, with his own psychological baggage; whose actions are deeply conflicted; who has a moral compass, but perhaps not my moral compass or Giles Coren’s moral compass; who is caught in an identity-crisis, but who, in a morally complex and often ambiguous world, holds on to the possibility of redemption and resurrection.

In this, Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond is both a very accurate reflection of British identity in 2012 and a very hopeful depiction. Some commentators have rightly seen in the film a crisis of confidence in Britain’s role in the world; but there is also the promise that there is still a role for us, one that is not what it was but is in continuity with who we are, a resurrected life, a re-booting that combines the familiar with the new. It is a fitting way to mark 50 years of Bond on the screen.

Skyfall is a visually beautiful film (the use of blue light and glass in the scene in a Shanghai skyscraper is cinematic painting at its best), and a great action movie, and I don’t think there is one bad performance among the cast. But it goes to work at a far deeper level than escapism or mindless entertainment. Skyfall poses challenging questions about our own brokenness – at both the personal level and as a society; about our role in the world – at both the personal level and as a society; about our need for one another and commitment to one another – and the risk inherent in that need and that commitment...I don’t come out of the cinema seduced into wanting to be James Bond (though I wouldn’t mind sharing his tailor, or taking better care of his Aston Martin BD5), but knowing that he and I are already part of the same British Everyman: and that before I pass judgement on him, I need to allow him to interrogate me – and maybe even teach me a thing or two about how to face the unfinished future...

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Presidential Elections

The rest of the world doesn’t get to vote in US Presidential elections, but what happens in the US has an impact on all of us, and what is truly good for their citizens is (must be) truly good for everyone else. While the domestic outcome was close, scanning global media and social media both in the run up to and in response to the outcome of yesterday’s election suggests that public opinion across the rest of the world is far more in favour of Obama and the Democrats than Romney and the Republicans. Both sides of America’s deeply partisan population would do well to reflect on this.

Every nation has a lifespan, and the defining characteristics of its culture very much reflect the stage in that lifespan that it has reached. The USA is an adolescent nation. This is not intended as a negative comment, but simply as an observation of where the USA is in its lifespan, with every season having its positive and negative aspects.

American culture displays adolescent arrogance – the self-confident belief, at individual and corporate levels, that they know better than anyone else and don’t need anyone else; adolescent insecurity – the need to be adored and longed-for; adolescent myopia – the belief that the challenges they face are greater than any faced, and overcome, by previous generations; adolescent concerns – strength and youthful beauty and self-indulgence, and the corresponding denial of sickness and aging and poverty; and adolescent potential – hope and vitality, questioning and questing, and many years ahead of them.

If arrogance and insecurity and the like sound negative, I do not intend to be judgemental: they are in fact inevitable, at every stage; and if they can be mastered (as opposed to allowed to master us) they are in fact essential to us in progressing to the (inevitable) next stage well.

Britain, on the other hand, is a much older nation: not yet in its terminal decline, by any means, but at that stage of early retirement where we see people trying to redefine their role in life. Like adolescence, it is a particular fraught ‘transitional’ season. British culture displays ‘active retired’ arrogance – the belief that we are indispensible; active retired insecurity – the need to be needed; active retired myopia – here the particular problem is not that our vision becomes less flexible with age (this is perfectly natural and should be perfectly acceptable) but the vanity that refuses to wear spectacles, or benefit from correcting lenses that help us see with clarity; active retired concerns – how to extend our independence and resist encroaching dependency on others; and active retired potential – experience, and the energy to share it.

Of course, we see ‘active retired’ behaviour in America (helicopter parents) and ‘adolescent’ behaviour in Britain (last summer’s riots; the growing cult of celebrity), because societies are made up of people of every stage; but I am attempting to paint a big-picture of our respective dominant cultures, which change over long periods.

One of the key reasons, I believe, why Obama’s re-election is so widely welcomed outside of America is this: that most of the world does, indeed, love America and wants to see all her adolescent potential blossom into a mature culture; and for a host of reasons (some, undoubtedly, misguided) we identify Democrat policies and electing Democrat Presidents with America daring to grow up, and Republican policies and electing Republican Presidents with America retreating to the safe familiarity of adolescence. (I’d suggest that Carter, Clinton and Obama are all more respected internationally – for domestic as well as foreign policy – than Reagan, Bush Senior or Bush Junior.)

This is, surely, worth reflecting on, whether you are a Republican who fears the worst for your nation’s future – you can fight growing up, but you can’t fight growing older, and what served you well as adolescents won’t serve you well as mature adults – or a Democrat who hopes that the best is still to come – you will make a host of bad decisions along the way, and then discover that new challenges, as well as opportunities, await.

It is also worth reflecting on as the rest of the world, because the USA will be an adolescent culture for a long while yet, whoever comes and goes in the Oval Office, as it negotiates this (deeply and bitterly contested) transition; and we must enjoy the gift of adolescent America among the family of nations, and live in such a way that helps her grow to maturity, neither fearing her nor disapproving of her, but supporting her with humility, patience, encouragement, celebration, correction, wonder, prayers...

Monday, November 05, 2012


The goal of remembering is reconciliation.

Remember: to bring to mind in the present that which took place in the past.

Re-member: to stitch back together that which has been torn apart; to unite what has been separated.

The goal of remembering is reconciliation, because by and with and in Christ, God is at work to make all things new, to restore all that has been lost, to reconcile all that has been estranged, to bring harmony out of discord.

This takes time.

This takes time, because it requires of us that we remember rightly, in order to re-member rightly. It requires of us that we recognise ourselves and our enemies honestly. That we refuse to deal in generalisation or stereotype or misrepresentation, neither painting ourselves as innocent nor our enemy as without cause. That we recognise where we have fallen short of loving our neighbour, and where we have trespassed onto and claimed for ourselves that which God has given to them; that we ask God – and where possible, our enemy – for forgiveness; that we seek forgiveness for where we have accused our enemy falsely, in our propaganda. That we identify where our enemy has trespassed against us – and that we choose to forgive them, and choose to forgive them, and choose to forgive them, for as long as it takes for receiving and extending forgiveness to do its work in our lives. When forgiveness’ work is done, we are left with the scars that tell the story from which we have been redeemed, but we discover that the wound is healed.

That in my generation, British and German and Japanese can be friends.

That in my grandchildren’s generation, post-Christian Westerners and Eastern Muslims might be friends.

That the descendents of abusers and the descendents of the abused, living in a culture that has turned a blind eye to abuse and then turned-about into a witch hunt, might bear one another no animosity.

All this requires of us that we put to death false memories, the pseudo-memory folklore that stokes the fires of resentment.

This is why this short Season of remembrance – which, in the northern hemisphere coincides with the evenings drawing in – 

All Saints (November 1), where those of every tribe and tongue may be re-membered; and

All Souls (November 2), where those of different generations may be re-membered; and

Bonfire Night (November 5), where (here in the UK) those of different religious belief may be re-membered; and

Armistice Day (November 11), where those of different nationalities may be re-membered – 

is so important, is such a precious gift.