Saturday, June 10, 2017

On believing in transformation

What’s that strange whirring sound?

That’ll be Mo Mowlam spinning in her grave at the Prime Minister’s willingness to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland in order to stay in power.

The last thing Theresa May needs is 10 members of the DUP to lend her government a majority.

On the other hand, perhaps the thing Theresa May needs most of all is for 10 members of the DUP to teach her how Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness found a way to work together for the common good—and even became close personal friends in the process.

If the DUP and Sinn Fein could find a way—however hard—to share power, just imagine how politics in the wider UK could be transformed...

Hanging in the balance

A hung parliament reflects the diverse nature of our population, and the complexity of our interactions. We should neither expect nor demand that a would-be Prime Minister should command a majority. The best hope for the common good is to be found not in persuading a majority of the electorate to share a common ideology; or in securing enough opposition to curb ideological excess; but, rather, in the hard work of recognising those whose hopes, fears, and working-solutions differ from our own, and seeking to create room for one another.

The theological term for this deep recognition of the other is ‘communion’. The term for its absence is ‘impaired communion’. While the Church acknowledges the reality of impaired communion, we see it as a grievous scandal. We are, it seems, unable to recognise every other; but our failure to do so also inflicts violence on our own selves.

‘Strong and stable’ government is not good for democracies, and especially in uncertain times.

Instead, we need governments who will listen;
who will reach out to the other;
who will give-and-take [not simple asking, what part of my agenda am I prepared to surrender, but, what resources can I offer in support of someone else’s priorities?];
who will cooperate rather than compete—
in short, who have the skills to negotiate, nationally and internationally.

However imperfectly, and despite some arguing for a more ‘worldly’ political model, the Church has considerable experience of the joy and sorrow of communion/impaired communion. So, to, do the people of Northern Ireland, where a constructive peace was painstakingly brokered between former enemies, enabling and enabled-by ‘power sharing’ (communion was embodied in Ian Paisley of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein). However, communion tends to break down into impaired communion, and continually needs to be renewed. This is the case in Northern Ireland at present; and to best facilitate communion, the government in Westminster has always remained impartial—until now.

Much of the political chatter and gossip—and posturing—in the aftermath of the General Election—including the Prime Minister’s willingness to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland in order to prop up oppositional power—shows just how addicted we are to dominance over others. There is a better way.

In the context of 2017, I commit myself to seek communion.


Thursday, June 08, 2017

Casting votes

Today is General Election day in the UK.

If you are a Christian, your primary identity is within the kingdom of God, your primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God. This must inform how you vote, as a citizen of the United Kingdom.

Jesus’ manifesto is this:
to bring good news to the poor.*

*this will look like:
bringing release to those who’s experience of life is best described as being held in captivity, to, or by, others;
the recovery of sight to those who are blinded, who can see no hope or no way forward;
letting those who are oppressed by others go free, to experience the same freedom everyone else enjoys;
the writing-off of debt.
(Luke 4:18, 19)

moreover, it will look like:
feeding the hungry;
giving the thirsty something to drink;
welcoming the stranger;
clothing the naked;
taking care of the sick;
visiting [and, implied, meeting the needs of] prisoners.
(Matthew 25:31-46)

These things can be interpreted, and sought to be implemented, in different ways. No political party does so perfectly. Your responsibility is simply to give due consideration to the ways in which political manifestos would address these things, and then to contribute to society by allocating your vote as you see best.**

**and to remain personally and communally invested in these things, regardless of the outcome of the election.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ascension Day

Today is Ascension Day, the day we remember Jesus’ returning to the Father – and the significance of this event. For those who are interested in APEST, Ephesians 4 is an ascension text:

‘But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.’*

(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.’

Ephesians 4:7-16


*Here Paul, the writer, references Psalm 68:18


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Come together, not apart

A 22-year-old suicide bomber is not some different-to-us category of evil person we can’t understand or do anything about.

He is likely isolated, struggling with big questions and looking for answers, disaffected with society. In other words, he is no different from many of our young people.

Instead of coming under the influence of terrorists, he might have been found by the local drug dealer, and spiralled into self-destruction. Or a local gang, and knifed a kid at a bus stop.

Or he might have been found by a sports coach, an inspiring teacher, or a sympathetic employer. He might have been found by a preacher of love, a local political party, or grass-roots community. By a neighbour who smiled and said hello.

It is easy to worry about who is influencing young people.

It is better to be an influence for hope and a future.


To seek to understand actions that seem inexplicable to us is not necessarily to condone them, but to insist on showing compassion, which, I believe, is the only way we guard our humanity.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Baptism and APEST

I’ve been thinking about baptism and the preparation of candidates for baptism, and also about APEST (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers) recently, and find myself making the following connections between them.

In our liturgy of baptism, there are three symbols: oil, water, and a candle.

The oil comes first, as we mark the candidates with the sign of the cross, in oil, on their foreheads. This is an anointing. As such, we are recognising that the candidate has been chosen by God to fulfil a special role. It is a deeply Christocentric anointing – they are marked with the sign of the cross, the sign of Christ, along with the words ‘Christ claims you for his own’ – but it is the candidate who is anointed. That is to say, they are anointed into a share in Jesus’ calling.

Note that this comes before we get to the act of baptism. At this point, they are not yet identified with Christ as members of his Church, but rather are being identified with Christ in his humanity, as members of the human family. What we are recognising – what we are anointing – is a unique share in Jesus’ fully-human nature, his incarnation; and this anointing is for the purpose of taking a stand against all that rebels against the God-given commission that we should steward this earth.

According to Ephesians 4, there are five human impulses that Jesus perfectly expresses, and that we share in. These are:

the apostolic impulse to innovation and pioneering, to taking ourselves beyond the known;

the prophetic impulse to pursue justice and to protect beauty – and often, to use beauty to resist and overcome injustice;

the evangelistic impulse to share good news, wherever it may be found;

the shepherding, or pastoral, impulse to care for others, paying special attention to the most vulnerable;

and the teaching impulse to learn and pass on learning.

Each of us carries all five impulses to varying degrees, but we tend to have one or two that are primary. It is this Jesus-defined humanity we are recognising here. Where baptism candidates are infants, we have yet to (help them to) discover the role for which we are anointing them: we do so in faith.

Next comes the water of baptism. Here, we are identifying the baptism candidate with the saving work of God, who always comes to rescue us from chaos. The water of baptism, poured out three times recalls God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – drawing out dry land from the waters; saving Noah and his family during the Great Flood; bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through the Sea of Reeds, and, after many years in the wilderness, across the River Jordan into the Promised Land.

In baptism, we are symbolising the reality that God has ransomed the candidate. This finds its expression in Ephesians 4 in verses 8-10, which draw on Psalm 68 and the imagery of God descending on Mount Sinai and ascending Mount Zion, liberating captives and receiving tribute. We move from Jesus claiming us, as members of the human family; to God saving us, into the family of the Church…and then to Jesus giving us to one another and for the world.

The third symbol is the giving of a candle, lit from the Paschal Candle which represents Jesus the Light of the World. Here, we are commissioned to shine as lights in the world. Again, this is to have a share in Christ – lights, dependent on the Light. The baptism candidate has been anointed, passed through the waters, and is now sent out into the world, to make a difference. The person they are by Jesus’ involvement in their coming into being (Creation Order) is redeemed (Salvation Order), liberated to fulfil their calling, shining in the world according to an apostolic or prophetic or evangelistic or shepherding or teaching impulse.

The role of the Christian community – with parents and godparents often having special responsibility – is to support the baptised to grow in their understanding of what they have been anointed and liberated for, and where and how we are called to shine as a light. This is as true with adults who come to baptism as it is with infants who are brought for baptism. It is a lifelong journey made by faith, in community. It is a journey made in response to the call of Christ, from which we get the word vocation as a way of coming to our right selves.

I am convinced that the pattern of Ephesians 4 is key to our practices of disciple-making, and is therefore rightly there in the very liturgy of baptism – and all that brings us to that point, and flows out from it.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Tragedy

God came to us, and we killed him. And some of us killed him for love of God; because the tragedy of the human condition – as Shakespeare knew so well, and expressed so powerfully in plays such as Romeo & Juliet – is that, one way or another, we kill those whom we love as much as those whom we hate.

The work of Holy Saturday is to let that sink in, to refuse the impulse to excuse ourselves from the human condition.


Holy Saturday



Friday, April 14, 2017

By night

‘After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though secretly because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.’
John 19:38-40

I am struck that Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night, should come to him again at his darkest hour. Might it be that faith forged in darkness is all the more enduring for it? I think so.

I am also struck by the way in which these early disciples of Jesus were so fearful of the authorities – fearful, and yet overcome their fear. This is also the testimony of my Iranian brothers and sisters, who must appeal before our authorities.

Wounds of Christ




Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Behold the beauty

Morning Prayer:
“One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
Psalm 27:4

Because our bodies are temples to God’s Holy Spirit, poured out on all flesh, we do indeed live all the days of our life in the house of the Lord; are always and everywhere there.

Because God is spirit, and has no physical form, the only way in which we can behold the beauty of the Lord is in that beauty being made manifest in his temple. In me, and in you.

That beauty is made manifest in our brokenness, in the parts we think of as being ugly, those parts of us we don't think are big enough (our love is too small, too thin) and those parts we don’t like about ourselves (such as anger or despair). These are the places God is drawn to, the places where love and light and grace pour in and shine out. The unlikely places made beautiful by our placing ourselves in God’s hands and God taking us up into godself.

This is a holy mystery, revealed to us in the Songs of the Suffering Servant, in the Passion of the Christ.

You are holy ground, beloved and beautiful in God’s eyes. And God’s beauty is revealed in you, broken one.


Friday, April 07, 2017

Self

Freshly risen from the grave – and I know that I am ahead of myself here, but bear with me – Jesus is thought to be the gardener. We take this to be a case of mistaken identity – Mary cannot see clearly through her tears, cannot think clearly in her disorientation – but it is not; at least, not exactly.

Throughout most of the Gospels, we are presented with Jesus’ false self – that is to say, the self that is constructed by the expectations placed upon ourselves, by others and by us; expectations we try to live up – or down – to. Jesus consistently refuses to take such expectations on board, at every turn chooses to listen only to the voice of the Father. You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased. Nevertheless, the Gospels present us with the false self that others ‘see’ and seek to place upon him. The satan, or Accuser. Jesus’ family. The crowds. His disciples. The Pharisees – both those who are drawn to him, and those who oppose him. Even in their moments of deepest revelation from the Father, Jesus’ followers do not see him as the Father sees him; do not see his true self.

When Jesus dies on the cross, and is laid in the tomb, his false self – the expectation that he will lead a popular uprising to overthrow the Roman army of occupation; to overthrow the puppet king and restore the royal house of David; to bring about reform of the corrupt Temple authorities – dies.

When Jesus is raised from the dead by the Father, his false self remains dead: like the grave-clothes in which he had been embalmed, pressed onto him, weighing down on him, outwardly conforming to his shape but in fact seeking to conform him to the expectations of others.

It is his true self that rises. That is why, again and again in the accounts of his resurrection appearances, we are presented with one who is definitely Jesus but not immediately recognised.

And when Mary sees Jesus’ true self, she sees the gardener. Why? Because, as Paul will write in years to come, his true self is the Second Adam: the human placed in the Garden to tend to it, to irrigate the earth and enable all life to flourish, in unbroken partnership with God.

As we approach Holy Week, we hear again the call of Jesus, take up your cross and follow me. As we come to Good Friday, we are called to die with Jesus. To see our false self – at least, something of it; for this is the work of a lifetime – surrendered into the Father’s hands, and dying under the cruel weight of human expectation, in the hope that what will emerge from the tomb is – something more of, degree by degree – our true self. For our true self is not who we offer to God, but who God offers to us.

What expectations of us need to die this year?


Thursday, April 06, 2017

Dwell

I love the provision made by the Common Lectionary to remain with John 11:1-45 at Holy Communion every day this week, from last Sunday to this coming Saturday.

Sometimes, that is just what we need…


We’ve been dwelling in John 11:1-45 this week, the death of Lazarus.

At the mid-week Holy Communion on Wednesday we included in our number and man whose twin brother had died on Monday, and his wife who had therefore lost her brother-in-law.

At the mid-week Holy Communion on Thursday we included in our number a woman who had heard, just before the service, that her cousin’s husband had died; and a (Methodist) visitor, a woman who came today because it was the first anniversary of her husband’s death.

For each, this was exactly what they needed. To be reminded that Jesus weeps with us; receives our weeping; and that with his presence comes what we need, even (and especially?) when we have no idea what it is that we need.

This story is our story. And in Jesus, God draws near.


Here’s a link to my sermon on this text from last Sunday.


Rest

Morning Prayer:
‘I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.’
Psalm 40 verse 1

The stillness is our part; the movement is God’s.
Be still, o my soul.


Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Homecoming

This morning at Morning Prayer I read Psalm 55 – ‘And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.’” – with one of our asylum seekers; and, at Holy Communion, read John 11:1-45 with someone whose brother has just died.

These are not just words on a page. They are our story.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Take up your cross

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday is the raising of Lazarus, John 11:1-45, an episode that pre-figures Jesus’ own death, burial, and resurrection.

Verse 34 reads, ‘He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”’

I am struck by the echo of John 1:35-42, John’s account of the very first people to follow Jesus. ‘They said to him, “Rabbi...where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”’ (verses 38, 39).

From beginning to end, the call of the Gospel is to embrace dying to self, in order to enter into life.

In both the passages above, this process involves the loving support and witness of others: whoever had opened their home to Jesus, and the grave to Lazarus; the disciples of John the Baptist, and the friends of Mary and Martha...You cannot die to self in your own heroic will to live!

I came that they may have life

Morning Prayer: I am meditating on Jesus’ words, ‘I came that they may have life,’ John 10:10. Turning each word over in turn, as each one flows from the one before.

I – Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father, of one being with God...

came – setting aside the glory of heaven for this beautiful, broken world...

that – his coming is purposeful, and effective...

they – all – all – who hear and respond to his voice...

may – by divine permission...

have – freely given to us to possess...

life – fulfilment of our deepest longing, which we are unable to meet ourselves, for all who seek to save their life lose it while those who lay down their life before him discover it...


Monday, March 27, 2017

Love breaks in where we are broken open

Yesterday evening, my son, my youngest – his mother and sister and brother had gone out, leaving us to our own introvert devices; to his self-containment, and my nagging fear that presence and telepathy might be Not Enough for love – put away what he was doing, came and sat in the same space as me, and asked, ‘How has your day been?’

How has your day been?

And I, after a moment’s consideration, replied, ‘The best moment has been this one: your asking me “How has your day been?” In this moment, I am blessed beyond measure. Thank you.’

A minute or two later, he wandered off again. Or was it a life-time?


Sunday, March 26, 2017

A tale of two mothers

Hanging from a cross, his life ebbing away, Jesus notices among the women standing beneath his feet his mother, Mary, and a lone boy, John, the youngest disciple. Shoring himself up, he clutches at breath to summon words: woman, behold your son; child, behold your mother. In this moment, the two are yoked together. And we, looking on from a distance, shake our heads at the wonder of such sacrificial love, to think of others even here, even now.

Blinded by this, we miss the piercing wounds. John already has a mother. Mary already has sons and daughters. Neither is alone in the world, in need of being taken care of.

John’s mother is almost certainly there. She has travelled with Jesus to Jerusalem. Just days before, she had come to him and asked that when he sat upon his throne, her sons would sit one at his right, the other at his left. But now, for all to see, his throne’s an execution scaffold – and how relieved she must be that he could not grant her rash request. Nevertheless, John at least is there, at his side, just beneath him. Do demons hiss and whisper in her ear, ‘You’ll lose him yet, my dear!’?

Like John’s mother, Mary is numbered among the wider circle of disciples, as are at least some of Jesus’ siblings; even if – like all of the disciples – they didn’t always understand what Jesus was doing, or why. They will follow him, however falteringly, beyond the tomb. Jesus’ brother James will have care of the fledgling church in Jerusalem entrusted to him; but not care of his mother.

Jesus tears John from his mother, Mary from her children. Do we see compassion now? Perhaps his judgement has been blurred by pain? Or, what? What is this wounding, and re-membering in fresh configuration? The action leaves those caught-up with life-long wounds, that will open again and again. ‘He saw fit to give my son away (and now my other son is executed).’ ‘He saw fit to give our mother away (and now her new son has taken her to Ephesus).’ ‘Wounded, he has left us wounded too.’

Wounded, he has left us wounded too. This is not that the family of faith must come before the family of flesh-and-blood. This is the insight, from the cross, that the place of pain is the place of communion, of being one with him. Of being his body in the world. The illogical, paradoxical place of wholeness.

A mother knows, pain cannot be avoided.

A mother knows, pain brings forth life.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Hidden Figures

Back in February we went on a family outing to see Hidden Figures, the film based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and the many other women, both black and white, whose work at NACA and later NASA helped America to win the Space Race.

Initially Jo had thought it might be a good film to take Susannah to see, but on second thoughts felt that Noah and Elijah needed to see it too. As the credits rolled and we stood up to leave the cinema, the boys declared, ‘That was fantastic!’ and, ‘When that comes out on dvd, we need to get it!’

Inspired by the film – which is excellent but, as the nature of the medium requires, conflates story- and time-lines – I bought the book, which is a masterpiece of research, as readable as it is meticulous.

On a day off, I was sitting in a local café reading it when a waitress came over and enthusiastically asked if I had seen the film. We got chatting, and I recommended the book to her. I recommend it to you, too.

I passed the book on to my daughter, and she showed it to her History teacher.

The lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson weren’t exactly hidden. From the outset, for propaganda reasons, NASA conducted its work in public. And these and other women also worked tirelessly in their locality and, in time, far beyond, to inspire and raise up future generations to overcome gender- and racial-barriers in pursuit of new horizons. It is more that they were overlooked. It is more that their stories weren’t gathered and recorded, deployed, and told in a unifying narrative that wove together apparently unconnected trails like pages and pages of elegant equations advancing towards a breakthrough that changed the game forever. Until now. That is what Margot Lee Shetterly has done, in her extraordinary history.

These stories deserve to be told, and heard. To be celebrated. They have the power to inspire far more than future scientists. They have the power to inspire future life itself, in all its diversity.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Poet's Chair | Part 4

Jesus told an audacious parable, or bare-bones story, (Luke 15) in which he depicted God as a woman* who experiences domestic violence.

She has lost one of the coins on her head-dress, symbol of her status in the community - and of her husband’s standing. Such coins could be drawn on in economic emergency, but only with the woman’s husband’s permission. In this case, there were only 10 coins to begin with, few enough for him to notice that one is missing. She is terrified. How could she have failed to notice the thread fraying? Her husband will accuse her of parting with the coin as token to a lover, of defying and humiliating him in public. She is in for a beating tonight.

In desperation, she turns the house up-side-down looking for the lost coin, until she finds it.

And when she does, she is so relieved that she calls all of her friends, to share in her joy. Because she has been spared another beating.

And Jesus said that the joy in heaven whenever a sinner repents can be compared to that of a desperate woman. It is that visceral.

And the powerful men who knew that this parable was spoken against them – God’s abusive husbands; the sinners who need to repent - conspired to kill Jesus because of this parable.

We might want to tell the woman to leave her husband. Certainly, it puts more weight on the parable than it can bear to use it to insist that women put up with domestic violence. That is not the point Jesus is making.

But we might want to say this: by all means discount Jesus’ God because you have no use for a god who chooses to identify with our pain, and transform it from within; but not because you believe that God to be indifferent to human suffering.


*in his parables, Jesus often depicts God in as a human character, often a man such as a merchant or father or king, but also as a woman kneading bread or searching for a lost coin. This is not to say that God is human, is male or female; but it is to fully-identify God with men and women. Sometimes Jesus locates himself in his parables, such as the younger son who goes on a long journey (from heaven to earth), squanders his father’s wealth in partying with sinners, makes himself ceremonially unclean, was dead and is alive again, and is given by his father symbols of authority. On other occasions, Jesus tells parables to contrast the way of the world with the ways of the kingdom of heaven: not every king in every parable should be assumed to represent God.