Tuesday, April 24, 2018

To bless and to curse


There are many stories in the Bible that make for very uncomfortable reading. Nevertheless, they are recorded, and are there for our instruction—of the nature of gods and mortals, and the relationships between them. Exodus 32 (Morning Prayer, today) is one such passage.

The god Yahweh has rescued the descendants of Jacob (aka Israel) from slavery in Egypt. But they have quickly abandoned Yahweh, who decides to bring disaster upon them and start again, in hope of a people who will be faithful. Moses speaks up, arguing that to do so would bring Yahweh’s reputation into disrepute, and appealing to his promises to their ancestors—and Yahweh listens, and changes his mind.

However, when Moses returns to the people and sees them for himself, he changes his mind, and reverts to Yahweh’s first intention. Moses calls to himself those who consider themselves on the Lord’s side; the sons of Levi respond; and at Moses’ instruction, appealing to the authority of Yahweh, they go through the camp putting their brothers, friends, and neighbours to the sword—3,000 people. In this way, Moses declares, they have set themselves apart for the service of the Lord.

Sit with that awhile.

This is a deeply disturbing episode. It is an episode in the history of the people of Israel; and—key to understanding—an episode in the history of the tribe of Levi within the people of Israel.

At the very end of his life, Jacob had called his sons to him and spoken over them his last words (Genesis 49). Last words have lasting impact. These are his reflections on the character of his sons—on how that has shaped their lives to date and is likely to continue to do so. They are words of blessings and curses: blessing being releasing some aspect of life into fruitfulness, and cursing being to contain or set limits on that which is no life-giving. Such words relate not only to the individual son, but to the ‘family likeness’ of their descendants. They imply family strengths—that will overcome disaster—and flaws—that need to be overcome.

Over time, our habitual actions shape not only our character, but the shared culture of our families, our extended families, our community. To extend blessings and curses is to recognise the truth of this; yet to refuse to accept it as determinism; but, rather, to embrace disciplines to build up virtues and to see even our vices redeemed.

Of Levi, Jacob declares that he is a man of violence, that his use of the sword goes beyond proportionate defence, that he does not control his anger or his sadistic cruelty. Levi is not one to take council from, nor ought one take any part in his actions. Jacob curses—restrains—Levi’s anger, because it is fierce, and his wrath, because it is cruel. They go far beyond the appropriate, proportionate response of a settled determination to resist injustice. Jacob ‘divides’ Levi from his brothers, and ‘scatters’ him among his brothers—actions that make fullest sense applied to Levi as a tribe, not an individual. They are both separate from and dispersed throughout the descendants of Jacob, to contain their violence and, perhaps, to enable their anger to be appropriately harnessed.

Moses and Aaron, by whom Yahweh delivered the people from Egypt, are of the tribe of Levi—as was their sister, Miriam, who, with Moses, has a streak that delights in destruction (Exodus 15). (Moses himself was divided from the people, nonetheless took a man’s life, and so was scattered to the wilderness.)

And here in Exodus 32 when Moses calls people to his side, it is the sons of Levi (Moses’ own people) who respond. They are called out from the people as a whole—still divided from them, but no longer scattered from one another—and then go through the people—scattering—in fierce anger and cruel wrath.

In contrast, Yahweh’s anger and wrath might be seen to be considered, re-considered, deferred, and justified rather than indiscriminate. Anger and wrath (punishment, direct or indirect) are not in-and-of-themselves negative attributes.

That said, Yahweh is as committed to the flawed tribe of Levi as to the other (flawed, in their own ways) tribes. Even when such commitment is necessarily complex. And while the weight of that realisation lies heavy on our hearts, beyond the weight there is a greater weight lifted. For who among mortals is without flawed character?

May we be given the grace to know our familial character strengths and flaws. And may we, too, receive the blessing and the curse we need.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Still Life


I’ve just finished Still Life, the first of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. It is beautifully crafted, and life-affirming. All the clues to the identity of the killer are there—no rabbits are pulled out of a hat at the end—yet so well-written you may well not arrive there ahead of time.

However, the identity of the murderer is perhaps the least interesting part of the story. Far better, this is a story about us: about how we are all flawed judges of character; how we all have blind-spots when it comes to ourselves, and others; how we are all unreliable witnesses. These are truths worth knowing. Indeed, it is perhaps impossible to be truly life-affirming until we discover them.

Recognising that he is not exempt from this, Gamache employs, and offers, four simple sentences to navigate such terrain:

“I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know.”
“I need help.”
“I was wrong.”

In this way, there is hope and not despair.

Penny is an insightful writer. I’m looking forward to reading more. Thank you to Sean Gladding for the introduction.

Friday, April 06, 2018

What the world needs right now


The world does not need you to be ‘true to yourself’.

The world needs your disciplined, determined resolve to do good.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Beyond liberalism


Waaay behind the curve, we went to see The Greatest Showman. It is fantastic.

It is a film about roots/rootlessness and family. The trailers beforehand were also for films about rootedness and family. This is perhaps not surprising, as trailers are pitched at the audience: if you like this, you will probably also like these...More surprising, all the advertisements before the trailers were also about roots and family. One was for a bank. This is the zeitgeist of our times.

The Greatest Showman is so loosely based on PT Barnum it is best treated as fiction, and is, of course, a story for our own times. Barnum seeks to transcend his roots, as a self-made man. To this end, he will use other people, holding out the same promise. He is charming, but his philosophy is ugly. It is the philosophy of our times, liberalism*. But today that philosophy is under unbearable strain. Hence roots and family, among other things—including protectionism, and violence—as we look for an alternative philosophy.

As the story unfolds, liberalism proves to be an inadequate answer to the prejudices it (certainly) faces. Another solution is offered and explored: virtue. To be fair, two of the characters who most represent virtue are seduced by money—by the liberal dream of self-made autonomy—though not necessarily irreversibly so. This is a genuine struggle between world-views. But in the end, virtue has her new day: a loved but unlovely man (for whom love was not enough) finds redemption through the love of the unloved and perceived-as unlovely.

This, however, is only possible when the ‘freaks’ move beyond the social contract (heartily embraced, in stirring song) that enables them to be self-made individuals, to see themselves as family. Family not in the social-contract sense of class snobbery, nor in the vice that holds together the ethnic/territorial gangs of New York, but family defined by virtue.

This family is composed of people who have no roots, having been disinherited. The roots they need, then, also tap-into virtue, far older than the values of their society—which turns out to be more fake than the circus. Virtue goes far deeper than acceptance within a community. It transforms trauma into hope.

There is so much here for the Church to draw on, as we rediscover virtue, and hold it out.


*Alan Roxburgh quotes Patrick Deneens definition of liberalism:
‘It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion for themselves their own version of the good life…Political legitimacy was grounded on a shared belief in an originating ‘social contract’,
adding:
‘The basis of this liberalism is the autonomy of a self-making individual operating within a social contract with others.’
(Roxburgh, Journal of Missional Practice, Winter 2018)

Sunday, April 01, 2018

While it was still dark




God did not raise Jesus from the dead so that he could be my personal Lord and Saviour. I am simply not that important. God raised Jesus from the dead to vindicate Jesus’ faithfulness even unto death, and to demonstrate that God had appointed Jesus as judge over first the unfaithful people of God and then the rebellious (gods of the) surrounding nations.

This would take place in history. The judgement of God’s people is (most immediately, as a first horizon) seen in the fall of Jerusalem, in AD70. The defeat of the pagan gods is (as a first horizon) seen in the fall of Rome and its empire, and the (historical, and limited) triumph of Christendom.

Those who recognised that God had appointed Jesus as judge—first the Jew, and then the Greco-Roman or gentile or non-Jew—would be vindicated in their faith by being delivered through the coming outpouring of judgement, or wrath, as a covenant community that survived the end of the(ir) world. Christ is our Passover lamb (I may not be that important—see above—but I am included).

Related to this judgement are both hell and resurrection. Hell is primarily an image of the desecration of Jerusalem by the Greeks, and its later destruction by the Romans. Resurrection from the sleep of death ‘ahead of time’ or before ‘the end’ is almost entirely limited to the Jewish martyrs killed by the Greeks and Christian martyrs killed by the Romans, as a sign of the restoration of the fortunes of God’s people in general.

Where does that leave us today, long after the fall of both Jerusalem and Rome? It leaves us living and interpreting history in continuity with what God has done in Jesus. So, we might ask, where, currently experiencing or anticipating judgement on the Church and the nations, do we hope to be vindicated in our faith in Jesus?

Today, the Church faces God’s judgement for failing to care as we should have done for vulnerable children, among other sins. We hope for a community that will survive: that will be put to death, with Christ, by the authorities—and be raised to life with him.

Today, the nation of Iran persecutes the Iranian Church. We long for the day when our Iranian brothers’ and sisters’ faith in Jesus will be vindicated, by regime change (or change of heart) and their being able to live openly as Christians in their own nation.

This is something of what Easter means to me today, as a member of the Church of England, and a congregation which is one third Iranian.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!



Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Shame



The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today are all concerned with shame. Whereas guilt relates to what we have done or failed to do that we ought to have done, shame relates to our identity, our sense of self.

Shame is the game whenever we ‘victim-blame’—and, indeed, even that term is a source of shame, for the popular usage of the word ‘victim’ has shifted from ‘one who has been wronged’ to ‘one who, by their nature, attracts trouble like a magnet attracts iron’.

We shame women who have been raped (the man is guilty), saying that they ‘we’re asking for it’. We shame men who take a beating from their girlfriend (the woman is guilty), saying if they were ‘man enough’ they’d walk away from the relationship. We shame children who suffer anxiety, dismissing their fears as inconsequential. We shame workers who are cowed by arrogant bosses. We shame people for coming from a given city, or part of the country, or because of where they went to school, or the choices they never had, or for receiving benefits they are entitled to under the welfare state (though, interestingly, we rarely shame employers who don’t pay their workers a living wage).

We shame others in a doomed attempt to feel less ashamed ourselves; to lift ourselves up, relative to others, by putting others down. And though we have become adept, as a society, at passing-the-buck when it comes to guilt, shame clings to us and will not be shaken off.

Shame is massive in twenty-first-century Britain; but it is not new. Isaiah knew the life-taking ways of shame, and shaming, and shouted-back into the gale, ‘and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.’ The writer of the letter to the Hebrews (who may have been Priscilla, the only female author in the New Testament) had these words to say about shame: ‘let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame’.

Crucifixion, you see, was all about shame: heaping shame on a family, a community, a nation.

In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus put shame to shame. Did you notice how, in his dealing with Judas, the eye-witness John recalls, ‘Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him’? Jesus is concerned that none of his disciples will have to live with shame: not even his betrayer.

The antidote to guilt is forgiveness. Some things are undoubtedly harder to forgive than others, but forgiveness is relatively easy (and if we struggle to forgive ourselves, that is often because shame has complicated matters). Shame is harder to deal with.

If the fast-working antidote to guilt is forgiveness, the life-long antidote to shame is honour.

Jesus honours Judas by not exposing him in front of the group.

He honours him by holding out intimacy, by which I mean the radical choice to be with someone and remain with them; to remain open to them; to share bread with them, even if there are no words that can be offered back.

He honours him by respecting his freedom, to walk away; demanding no reciprocation, not requiring Judas to fill or sate the well of sadness and agitation that is opening-up within Jesus.

The Passion and crucifixion of Jesus deals with shame as much as, and perhaps even more so, than it deals with guilt. And yet I come across so little mention of this, in our hymnody and sermons…

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Confession


Yesterday afternoon, I took a seat on the Metro to Newcastle, opposite a very young, very recently-together lesbian couple. In their wide-ranging animated conversation, they rehearsed a lengthy litany of (the failings of) each other’s various ex-lovers.

I felt for them—and glad that I am no longer so young. I remember being their age, having girlfriends; I remember the ways in which they wounded me, and I wounded them; the times I needed to forgive, and be forgiven...

And I thought about how wise a gift general Confession is—and how few people of their age, regardless of gender or sexuality, have access to it.

When we gather as the local church, we begin in Confession, speaking both for ourselves and on behalf of our wider community, the society in which we live, and in recognition of the human condition. The tried-and-tested words we use include several variations of recognition that “we have sinned against you [God] and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault,” asking—with confidence in God—for mercy, forgiveness, and enabling to live a restored or renewed life.

Those words speak so pertinently to our common experience of betrayals, for a complexity of reasons, some of which we can understand and accept (which is not to excuse) more easily than others. But the words are unsparingly honest that we are as guilty of breakdown of relationship as everyone else (which is not to judge equal responsibility in every breakdown) through negligence, weakness, or deliberate fault. And yet, recognising that we all share the same burden, Confession and Absolution is generous in liberation, in transformation and in empowerment, flowing from God’s reputation as a merciful parent.

We got off the train at the same stop. They walked a little ahead of me in the crowd, but near enough for me to over-hear them turn to a new topic of conversation: a litany of vicars and vicar’s children who had judged them for their sexuality.

By viewing them as sinful-and-beyond-forgiveness, by virtue of their sexuality; as opposed to sinners-to-whom-forgiveness-is-held-out, by virtue of their humanity; people they are right to identify with me have cut them off from the very thing that can heal the wounds left so open and raw...

That can only bring me to Confession.

Most merciful God,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
we confess that we have sinned
in thought, word and deed.
We have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.
In your mercy
forgive what we have been,
help us to amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be;
that we may do justly,
love mercy,
and walk humbly with you, our God.
Amen.

May the God of love and power
forgive you and free you from your sins,
heal and strengthen you by his Spirit,
and raise you to new life in Christ our Lord.
Amen.

OR

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against you
and against our neighbour
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorry
and repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
who died for us,
forgive us all that is past
and grant that we may serve you in newness of life
to the glory of your name.
Amen.

Almighty God,
who forgives all who truly repent,
have mercy upon you,
pardon and deliver you from all your sins,
confirm and strengthen you in all goodness,
and keep you in life eternal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Not enough?


Today, as I was minding my own business eating my lunch, a woman I had never met before lent over the next table to ask me:

“If it is not too personal a question, what happens to us when we die?”

I replied that, as I have not yet done so, I don’t know.

We talked *. The woman went on. She had been told that heaven was a place of goodness and love, and her concern was:

“What if goodness and love are not enough? Im worried that I will be bored!”

On the one hand, I wonder why we should consider goodness and love boring; why we have portrayed them as such and bought-into that portrayal!?

But on the other hand, I think she is on to something. That is why, for me, “God loves you” is a true but inadequate gospel, or, good news. It is why I want to talk also of purpose, and what makes us come alive; of vocation, and physical embodiment; of skill, and pleasure; of boundaries and limitations, and mystery that is encountered both within and beyond them...


* Hebrews 11:1 describes faith in this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Regarding the question asked of me, I went on to reply, I have faith in a physical resurrection, on earth; with my body and the earth itself (both of which suffer from decay and will, ultimately, die) made new. That is my hope, revealed in scripture and confessed in the historic creeds of the Church.

Beyond that, I’m agnostic about details, or timing, or temporary states; which I think is the most honest position, given that the Bible, as a record of human faith, holds out paradoxically several different understandings of post-mortem experience. I have faith that my life, both before and beyond death, is held and kept within the love and purposes of God; and that is enough.

And I’m happy to share further the grounds of that faith—it has to do with Jesus—but that goes beyond the question I was asked.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Saint Joseph


Today is the feast day of Joseph, the father of Jesus (don’t ever say that adoptive fathers are not fathers). He is often known as Joseph of Nazareth, the place he made his home, rather than his own hometown Bethlehem; which is, in a sense, to honour the place of work in human dignity.

The readings for Morning Prayer today hold together Joseph’s family tree and his vocation. Isaiah 11:1-10 begins, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse...” Christians interpret the shoot as Jesus, and the stump of Jesse as Joseph, descendant of (Jesse’s son) king David, whose family line had lost the kingdom, a tree cut down but with a living stump remaining. Matthew 13:54-58 records Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth, to be rejected as a teacher and wonder-worker, on the grounds that he is (only) the son of the carpenter.

So, Joseph is both tree and carpenter; and as Jesus’ father helps to shape him as fresh wood growing out of the past, and as wood that is harvested and worked for a purpose; shaped for an executioner’s frame, or to create an additional room in a family house.

To be a father is to provide roots and to train—which involves both shaping a life and equipping that person to continue to work with the grain of life. It is not confined to biology, but, rather, defined by commitment.

Joseph turns out to be both a teacher and a wonder-worker, if only his neighbours could see it. Today, I am praying for fathers, that they would share in the grace given Joseph of Nazareth.