Wednesday, February 08, 2017

You are what you eat

The lectionary readings for Morning Prayer today are Genesis 2.4-9, 15-17 and Mark 7:14-23. In the first, God warns the ‘dustling’ not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the second, Jesus declares that it is not what goes into the body that defiles us, but what comes out of the heart. How do these readings relate?

The first two chapters of Genesis tell two different accounts of creation. These are symbol-rich stories whose purpose it not to tell us the mechanics by which the earth came into being, but rather to tell us about the kind of world in which we live. In chapter 1 we see order and life brought out of chaos, and that life is pronounced ‘good.’ In chapter 2, we come across something that is not ‘good’ – the knowledge, or lived experience, of evil, alongside good. We also discover that it is ‘not good’ in God’s eyes for the dustling to be alone. God addresses the first ‘not good’ through instruction – don’t eat of that tree – and the second through provision – enabling the dustling to be fruitful, and multiply.

The symbol-rich story continues to unfold, and in chapter 3 we discover that there is already at least one creature present in the garden who has set themselves against God and against the privileged relationship the human beings enjoy with God. We also discover that separation from God has an impact on the fruitfulness of the earth itself, as well as on the fruitfulness of the dustlings made from it.

And with these new pieces of information, we can look back at chapter 2 and understand that already, as a consequence of the decision of the serpent to set itself against God, there has been an impact on the fruitfulness of the earth. Among the trees there is one that is bringing forth not only fruit that nourishes good but fruit that nourishes evil. Yet even this might be redeemed, as an opportunity to learn discernment.

Jesus says, it isn’t about what you eat. So what were the Jewish food regulations about? Where they simply misguided? Or are they now superseded? Elsewhere Jesus claimed that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. The purpose of the law is to instruct, to train us for right living. The food regulations aren’t about what you eat; they are about what you consume and what you nourish; and about learning to decline something that look perfectly good and justifiable, because not everything that looks perfectly good and justifiable is good for us.

There is a rich diet readily available that will nourish the potential for evil in us, whether newspaper articles that encourage us to fear certain groups; or adverts that feed discontentment and greed, promising satisfaction forever just out of reach; or juicy gossip that eats us from the inside out; or images that objectify others, seeing their physical form (shaped from dust) but not the breath of God that animates them. And, in the end, it will kill you.

There is also plenty of food available that will nourish the potential for good in us, while starving the potential for evil. Tempted in the wilderness to feed a sense of entitlement, Jesus declared, The dustling does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Words that are patient, and kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; not insisting on getting their own way, or irritable, or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing, but rejoicing in truth; words that enable us to bear all things, to believe, to hope, to endure. Such words, wherever they are spoken, have their origin in God; and God’s words don’t return empty-handed.

What are we consuming? And what is it nourishing in us?

What do we need to reduce in, or cut out of, our diet? What do we need to eat more of than we have done?

Thursday, February 02, 2017

How are you, really?

Today is The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas. In Tudor times, this day marked the fortieth and last day of Christmas.

Much more recently, the first Thursday in February has been designated Time to Talk Day, a day to help us overcome the stigma of mental health problems. A day to recognise that talking, and listening, really does save lives.

The Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today – Luke 2:22-40 – tells of the elderly Simeon and Anna encountering Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus within the temple at Jerusalem. It is instructive to read the account through the lens of mental health awareness.

Simeon takes the child in his arms and praises God, saying:

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…’ (verse 29)

Simeon has an encounter, a healing experience, that enables him to move forward – ultimately, to have a good death – in a state of peace. This implies that he was not, previously, in a state of peace. We might note that, habitually or formatively, Simeon has been particularly aware of those around him in need of consolation (verse 25). He has most likely shared something of their need.

We might also note that the encounter does not reflect a change in external circumstances, nor a change in internal outlook (there is no simplistic connection between devotion and peace). Rather, what we have is a moment of coming-together, in which Simeon, Joseph, and Mary all discover – perhaps not for the first, or last, time; but discover in this moment, nonetheless – that they are not alone.

Simeon goes on to specifically address Mary, telling her:

‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (verse 35)

Here is an acknowledgement of wounding, not at a physical level but at the level of the soul. The soul is not something we have: we are a soul. In biblical understanding, the soul is what is brought about in the coming-together of dust and breath – the human formed from the dust of the earth, having life breathed into it by God. And so a soul is all that we are: bodily, cognitively, emotionally, wilfully.

To have our soul wounded is to bear a wound that hurts us bodily, without being physical; that damages our ability to ‘move’ free from pain, in thinking and feeling and in making and acting on decisions.

To have our soul pierced is a description of what we, for want of a better word, refer to as an issue of mental health. It impacts us wholly.

Mary’s soul will be pierced in very particular experiences, very particular moments. Not everyone’s soul is pierced by watching her son being executed in front of her. But, of course, everyone’s soul is pierced in very particular events in our personal history. To have one’s soul pierced by a sword is an inescapable aspect of being a mother, a wife, a woman, of being a human being.

And yet this unavoidable truth is acknowledged in the context of the act of blessing (verse 34), the intentional invocation of relationship between Creator and creature, the deliberate act of recognising another soul.* This blessing is a lasting moment of soul-healing, however often the soul might experience piercing and be in need of healing again.**

Candlemas does not always fall on a Thursday, but how wonderful that it does this year. Following the example of Simeon, whom might you have a conversation about your mental health with today?

*soul = dust + breath, or, the deep connection between creature and Creator.

**please note that Simeon is not a priest: to bless in such a way is not reserved for priests.