Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Job


There’s a book in the Old Testament called Job, after the central character. Job is portrayed as a righteous man, the servant of God, who loses everything. His flocks and herds are carried away by raiders; his buildings collapse; his children are killed; his intercessary prayers on their behalf no longer appear to have any efficacy; his own body is covered with terrible sores. What follows is a literary masterpiece of theatre, as Job and his friends discuss what has taken place, suggesting reasons why, and what Job might do to restore his fortunes. Themes cover the great existential questions, why do bad things happen to good people, and, if they do, is there any point to being upright?

But Job is no outpouring of individual angst. Though it is set in a far more ancient time, it in fact (most probably) dates from the time of the Babylonian exile, when Jerusalem had been destroyed and her royal court and civil service carried into captivity. Job is a literary cipher for the exiles—and so are his friends. In this, one of the greatest works of literature to survive from antiquity (and arguably one of the greatest literary works ever composed), a community sit down and try to make sense of what the hell has just happened to them.

We could do with a bit more Job today.

World Kindness Day


Today is, apparently, World Kindness Day. Kindness is surprisingly subversive. It is also, and quite clearly if you look at the world and the ways in which we treat one another, not a self-evident or universal virtue, not a given. Though someone of any or no religious belief can show kindness, it is, profoundly, a Judeo-Christian value. Here, then, are words taken from Paul’s letter to Titus, words set for Holy Communion today:

“But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy...”

Titus 3:4, 5

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

God the storyteller




I have really enjoyed reflecting on this passage from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews with other members of the congregation at St Nicholas’ this evening.

The word translated here as received/giving approval is martureo, which means to bear witness, or to give a good report. In other words, we know about these ancients because God told stories about them. God told stories about them, to people who passed those stories own, until they were written down. At least, that is the view of faith. And indeed, there are not other witnesses, so either these stories are completely made up, or God did, indeed, tell them.

The implication, from a faith perspective, is that God might also tell stories about you, as an heir of this long line of stories. About you, and how pleased God is with you. About you, and the struggles you have overcome, the risks you have taken, the scars that tell your story.

I can’t think of anything more honouring.

We’ll be reflecting on a different passage from the Bible most Tuesdays, 2.00-3.00 p.m. and 7.00-8.00 p.m. in the Lady Chapel at St Nicholas’ Church, if ever you'd like to join me.

Love is


My congregation is full of elderly widows and widowers, as well as women whose husbands walked out long before divorce was acceptable, and some who never married. Today I passed a happy hour with one congregation member who has unexpectedly and delightfully found love again at a late stage of life. The other night she was sat at home in front of the tv watching the latest David Attenborough natural history, and her gentleman friend was sat in his home in front of his tv watching the same programme. In this programme we saw a pair of Amazonian poison-dart tree-frogs. Discussing what they had seen over the phone, he coyly asked her if the frogs reminded her of anyone, another couple?

You know someone is in love when they take being compared to a poison-dart tree-frog as a compliment.

Something beautiful


Gospel set for Morning Prayer today: Matthew 5:13-20

Here, Jesus describes what the community of God’s chosen people should be like in the world, using the accessible metaphors of salt and light. Moreover, these sayings contrast being ‘no longer good’ with ‘your good works’. However, the repeated word ‘good’ in the English translates two different words in the Greek.

In the first instance, the word is ischuo, to have strength, power, potency, to prevail. In the second instance, the word is kalos, beautiful, the beauty that flows from noble, worthy and honourable character.

In other words, beauty has a potency in the world, to transform the world. And this beauty flows from godly character, and points to God. It is contrasted with ‘turning to foolishness’—moraino (mo-rah-ee-no)—the literal meaning of the salt ‘losing its taste’.

One way, then, we should measure the impact of what we do in the world is to ask, is the outcome something beautiful?

When the stranger is welcomed, the hungry are fed, the lonely find company; where human dignity is recognised, and, if necessary, restored; the beauty is in the outcome, in those moments of connection that result in the creation of something that was not there before, as nobility meets nobility, worth meets worth, honour meets honour.

(With thanks to clergy colleagues who helped me expand my thoughts, as we reflected on this passage this morning.)

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Baton-change


In the last chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are told of two of Jesus’ disciples who are walking away from Jerusalem towards Emmaus on the day Jesus rose from the dead. As they walk, Jesus comes into being alongside them, but they do not recognise him. He asks them, what are these words you are exchanging? and one of them responds, are you the only resident alien dwelling in Jerusalem in these days who has not heard about the things that have come into being, concerning Jesus? (They go on to tell him all about Jesus; and Jesus responds that they haven’t joined-the-dots.) It is when they invite Jesus to stay the night with them in their home that it comes into being that their eyes are opened to recognise him. With hindsight, they describe the experience of being with him as one which caused their hearts to be consumed with fire.

If you then turn over the page, you come to the prologue to John’s gospel. It concerns the word that comes into being in the world. Though the world came into being through the word, the world did not recognise the word. The word came to his own people, and his own people did not recognise him. But those who did welcome him came into being, through him, as children of God. He came and dwelt alongside them, as a resident alien, a tent-dweller on the edge of the city. He was seen by them, a supernatural seeing, one described at least in hindsight as beholding glory, a majestic brightness.

In other words, John begins his gospel exactly where Luke ends his. It is a perfect baton change.

John wrote later than the other gospel writers, possessing a familiarity with them, and apparently believing them to be true as far as they went but having left out too many of the good bits. But he did not write with any expectation that, at a later date, others would collate these writings in such an order that one might come to the end of Luke, turn the page, and begin reading John.

Yet the third-to-fouth-leg hand-over is absolutely flawless.

BOOM!

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Three things about everyone


Over the past few weeks, I have been reading three books by Joanna Cannon, the novels The Trouble With Goats & Sheep and Three Things About Elsie and a memoir, Breaking & Mending. Cannon is a psychiatric doctor, and her deeply compassionate novels are inspired by the lives of her patients.

Three Things About Elsie is concerned with how what at the time appear to be small, insignificant choices can have the biggest impact on our lives, and the lives of others. But it is also a wonderful exploration of what it is to be human; a fictionalised companion to Prof John Swinton’s Dementia: living in the memories of God.

Swinton speaks of three selfs that, together, shape who we are; and all three can be traced through Three Things About Elsie.

Self 1 is first-person self-awareness in the present moment. This has begun before our first birthday, and we never lose it. This is most apparent in the chapters with a time stamp for a heading. Flo, the first-person narrator, has fallen in her flat and is waiting to be discovered. Flo lives with dementia, but possesses Self 1, and over these chapters, and the course of the novel, is making peace with the present moment.

Self 2 is made up of how we think and feel about ourselves. This is most clearly explored in the chapters headed FLORENCE (first-person narrated), MISS AMBROSE and HANDY SIMON (both told by a third-person narrator), in which three characters reflect on themselves. We see the things they value, even when other people do not share the same values. We see their regrets, and how choices they made have resulted in those regrets. We see them tell themselves stories, constructed from the past, to help them in the present. We note how they compare themselves against others. We note that they (and by extension, we) are not reliable narrators, not reliable constructors of themselves, both in that they are not in full possession of the facts and in their ongoing struggle to accept themselves, to forgive and own and love themselves. Self 2 changes, many times, over the course of our lives, changing through big events (such as moving into sheltered housing, or the death of a friend) and through incremental series of small choices. We can never hold on to our Self 2, though we hoard all our previous Self 2s in the corners of the room of our lives.

Self 3 is social, various social personae, that are and can only be constructed in interaction with others. We see this in how Flo, Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon see each other, and in how each of them is impacted by interaction with a wide range of other characters, past and present. We see this in being a friend (you cannot be a friend without another), a work colleague (how you are seen, and how how you are seen can change, changing, in turn, how you see yourself), in being a vulnerable adult standing in front of a doctor or a policeman.

In the end, there are limits to Selves 2 and 3. We construct our lives, in collaboration with others, but God and nature and time and eternity conspire to save us from ourselves, to tenderly strip away our outer clothing until our Self 1 is present(ed) to us, and we are invited to make peace—or, as Swinton puts it, to make friends—with the present moment.
It is amazing how much energy we put into shaping a Self 2 to our (current) liking, and how much energy we expend on trying to control the input of others into our social Self 3; and how hard we work to push away the Self 1 that was our first self in the world, our only constant self, and the self we will be at the last.


Postscript: there is a sentence hidden in Three Things About Elsie, a landmine in a field. If you have not read The Trouble With Goats & Sheep, you won’t stand on it; but if you have, you will, and, though you keep your weight on it for as long as possible, eventually you will shift and then, only then, it will explode...

Friday, October 25, 2019

Construction work


If there is a general malaise in our society, against which we rail, it is a profound anxious sense of lack, not simply in relation to what we possess and consume (including FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out) but, crucially, in relation to our sense of self (that is, living with shame). Indeed, the perpetuation of the free market depends on stimulating such a sense. Among my peers, who are at a mid-point deconstructing-and-reconstructing stage of life, the presenting issue is arguably bagging marathons, ultras, and venturing into triathlons. For my children’s peers, who are deconstructing childhood and constructing an adult life, it relates to sexuality. I’m not suggesting here that running and sexuality are of comparable weight, but noting the impact of an artificially stimulated sense of lack on both.

Sexuality has become the primary identity issue for the subculture in which my sons find themselves living (it may be different for my daughter, who has left home). The first-asked and most-repeated question is, ‘Are you gay, straight, or bi?’ Yet at the same time, we have never before lived in times of such anxiety and confusion regarding sexuality; such pressure to make surprisingly uninformed choices so as to not be lacking, not to be ashamed. This is the irony: the more desperate our search for completeness, the more disconnected we become.

Identity, including sexuality, is constructed. According to one story, God formed human beings from localised soil and free-roaming wind. Made (constructed) us, moreover, as persons, socially constructed and constructing. Together, and intended to be in partnership with God, we construct identity, from givens and choices, from grounded starting points, from decisions and consequences, from vocations and challenges, affirmation and undermining, welcome and unwelcome opportunity, by way of missteps and rescues, endings and new beginnings, employing love and hate, leaving home and returning home again, through story-telling and pragmatism. Elsewhere we read that we remain malleable clay, worked and reworked.

The first great task of life is to construct our identity. But this takes time: slow down; take a broad view (drawing on a tradition of story-telling that is deep and long and broad will help). Undoubtedly, our sexuality both propels us out from home into the world in the first place, and navigates us toward others, to not be alone in the world (not simply in terms of one or more sexual partners, but to a tribe, with its own culture and cultural rules). And so, it is understandable that it is of greater importance to those who are in the process of leaving home. But it is hardly adequate to be the primary issue, even at this stage in life (and not least because it becomes less important). Indeed, shackled to the free market—to constantly shifting choice, terms and conditions, built-in obsolescence—sexuality stymies us in the very task of construction.

It is no coincidence that Jesus was raised by and apprenticed to a builder; nor that he spoke of himself as a builder of a communal identity, under the direction of his heavenly Father, the architect. No coincidence that he gave Simon (whose name means ‘listen!’) the additional name Peter (which means rock) and made him the foundation of a new community which Peter would describe as a temple of living stones being constructed by, and held together by, Jesus. For those who have ears to hear, construction work is not driven. Cathedrals are built over centuries.
 
How, then, might we construct identity well, whether for the first or a subsequent time? Here are some initial thoughts.

Take time to lament the loss of your childhood—or your thirties, or your children leaving home, or whatever the loss happens to be. The deconstruction of every season, to make space for the emergence of the next, can feel like destruction. Don’t rush to rebuild. Find others with whom it is safe to say, I miss what was good back then, with whom you can sit in the uncertainty of the present, and with whom you can hope for the future.

Root yourself in a community that has a deep and long and broad story to draw on.

Resist being too-narrowly defined. Explore different areas—work hard, play hard—as gifts from God; but don’t expect to find what you are looking for in any of them. Let that be enough. Pursue contentment.

Be a good friend to as wide a group of people as you can, regardless of how they identify, or label you. Be quick to listen, for understanding; and slow to speak, but willing to speak up against folly masquerading as wisdom.

Seek out the counsel of those who are older than you, including earlier generations, who can help you to discern between the sense of eternity within each of us—the awareness of every possible potential moment within every given present moment—and the imposter sense of lack in every present moment. Train yourself to say no to the insatiable appetite of the imposter voice.

Forgive others, often, as often as it takes to lay down whatever they have burdened you with. And forgive yourself.

The work of building a life—a liveable, life-giving existence—takes a lifetime. You are a holy work of progress.


Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Cardiosclerosis


Jesus said that he had come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it. When questioned about divorce, he declared that divorce was provided by Moses—the great law-giver and liberator of the people from slavery in Egypt—because of cardiosclerosis (the Greek is skl─ôrokardian).

This is the very same condition displayed by the ruler of Egypt, who hardened his heart.

In other words, divorce is a provision given as the promise, and realised hope, of not being enslaved in a marriage to a partner whose heart has irreversibly hardened towards you.

Indeed, this is the principle underpinning the entire Law, to protect us from the hardening hearts of others, and to keep our own heart from hardening towards others.

To hold God, and those who bear God’s image—not idols, things objectified, but human beings of flesh and blood—with reverence, a child-like outlook of awe and wonder.

To embrace rest, enjoy freedom, refusing to be taken captive by the insatiable demands of the market, the spirit of the age, the voices in our head. To disconnect, in order to reconnect.

To treat others with respect, honouring their story, the struggles they have faced and overcome, the grace they have received; that we might see that same grace—something gifted to us, not earned by our effort or deserved by our privilege—at work in our own lives.

To refuse to cause hurt or harm, through unchecked fear or self-interest.

To receive our lives as gift, and rejoice in the good fortune of others.

These principles, especially when held in common with others, returned to again and again, will keep our hearts from hardening.

They are both medicine and exercise for the heart (our ability to make choices) and mind (our ability to train thoughts and feelings, which inform our choices) and strength (our ability to act on our choices) and soul (our whole, though often fractured, being).

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Circle


We have been watching Channel 4’s fascinating social experiment, The Circle (the second series ended on Friday). The premise is relatively simple. A group of contestants enter an apartment block where they live without coming into contact with one another, or any contact with the outside world; communicating only by intranet chat (the Circle). They can, therefore, play as themselves or as a ‘catfish’—someone pretending, online, to be someone other than their true identity, with the deliberate intention to deceive others. On a regular basis, contestants are made to rate the others; the two players scoring highest becoming influencers, and having to reach agreement as to which of the other players to block from the Circle. Regarding strategy, some choose to be friendly—something apparently so unusual it arouses suspicion—and others (catfish or not) to be manipulative. The viewing audience get to see more of what is going on, including players’ rationale (though we, too, are being manipulated to a degree, by editorial decisions; which may matter, as we, too, have votes at certain times, making us both quasi-player and quasi-production team).

One of the things that this experiment highlights is how much time and energy we all spend second-guessing the motives and responses of others, especially in but not restricted to our online interactions. Some of this, of course, is based on our previous experience; but it often exposes our own prejudice and the near universal belief that we are a good judge of character.

Another, related, thing that is highlighted is how much of our identity is constructed—even if we are not a catfish. For example, sexuality is a (very complex) construction. LGBTQIA+ sexualities are, clearly, social and political constructions; but so, equally, is being straight—and in the construction of ‘straight’ there is an excessive weight given to the male gaze, and (as an aspect of patriarchy) of the desiring-to-control gaze of the older man upon the younger woman. God didn’t give you any of these identities; though God did make us persons, socially constructed and constructing beings.

It was interesting to observe how sexuality was played by the players. The young lesbian woman who catfished as a straight female, to avoid being judged or the unwanted interest of men seeing ‘turning’ her as a challenge; but who felt that she needed to be ‘straight’ (as opposed to undeclared), to seek opportunity to flirt with guys to gain advantage. The straight men who flirted, aggressively. The younger straight women, who, within their armoury, dressed to kill; and who, when in girl group chat (and much to the discomfort of a male catfish) became very ladette. The middle-aged straight woman, catfish, who used photos of her son, but who—instead of playing as someone she presumably knows very well—sought to adopt the generic persona of a twenty-something straight lad, and did so with toe-curling clunky-ness; the clumsy flirting of a black woman catfishing as a white middle-class guy—embarrassing; but not necessarily inaccurate—and the recently-divorced cougar off the leash. The female catfish adopting a less glamourous female persona, so as not to be judged as nothing more than a body, while passing the most judgemental views on the bodies of women that didn’t conform to her own real-life construction. The tedious predictability of two straight contestants, strangers brought together in a shared apartment, getting it on. The brazen lust of a young gay man, and the way he used sexuality to evaluate the usefulness of other players to him, and the way in which a straight male strung him on. The inquisitiveness of the youngest contestant, a male identifying as bi-sexual, at ease in affirming other players regardless of gender or sexuality, but sensitive to unease (and so a great catfish detective). The dissonance of a male catfish, presenting the viewers with trimmed beard and bulging biceps (top never on) and the other players with a photo-filter single mum missing her baby son—a vulnerability hiding behind toughness, and a toughness hiding behind vulnerability.

The confidence of straight contestants, and the cautious approach of those of other sexualities. They ways in which sexuality, which impacts all of our relationships and not just potential sexual partners, was used to make first impressions and strategic decisions concerning who posed a threat and who posed little or no threat.

It was frankly refreshing to witness a middle-aged celebrity catfish relate to a beautiful young woman (on being blocked, players get to meet one player of their choice face-to-face) without objectifying her.

It was interesting, too, that the only player (celebrity catfish aside) to be in a long-term relationship, an older gay man, was so very comfortable in his own skin. This is not to suggest that you have to be in a long-term relationship to be so, but he had no need to impress anyone. Moreover, he had clearly constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed himself, in various ways, many times; finding joyfulness and a genuine interest in how others were doing the same, taking ownership of givens and strategies in relation to the gaze of others, to construct a more fully liveable life.

Every contestant was a work of social construction, and was further socially constructed within the Circle. Such is all our days. Overall, we’re quick to justify our own constructions, our power-plays for ‘right reasons’ and to ‘good ends’; quick to judge—favourably or unfavourably—others on their constructions; and quick to weaponize what we construct. But underneath, there is a person, wounded and wounding, healing and healing others, to be seen and loved and interrogated for understanding—best done face-to-face over a meal—not for our advantage.

Thank you, Channel 4. We love The Circle.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Cry of the heart


Four times, the prophet Jeremiah describes the cry of pleasure and delight that escapes the lips of the bride and bridegroom. Our English translations are coy, but this description is of the cry, the roar, the scream of orgasm; the timeless moment which both takes us out of our body and unites us with another. And it is a metaphor for communion between God’s people—as a community—and God.

The first three times, God, speaking through Jeremiah, says that he will banish such sounds from Jerusalem; the fourth time, God says he will restore such sounds to Jerusalem. This, then, is a way of speaking of the experiential absence of God, and the experiential union with God.

In Luke 11:42-46, the Gospel set for Holy Communion today, Jesus declares a series of woes to the Pharisees and scribes. ‘Woe’ is a visceral cry of lament—the phonetic rendering is oo-aa-ee! It is the cry of deep personal loss, such as the death of a child, or weeping over Jerusalem. It is the longing for that reversal of fortune only God can bring—for only the felt presence of God can satisfy the felt absence of God. It is the mirror image of Jeremiah’s cry.

Jesus’ heartfelt cry over these particular Pharisees seems to be that they believe that by doing and saying the right things, they will keep the world from falling apart; when, in fact, the world they were living in was already devastated and they knew it not. He calls them to join in with the cry of lament, of longing for the day of the restored cry of orgasm. And they will know this communion with God in communion with the people, as a community, or not at all.

These woes, then, are not primarily a warning (though they are that) or a judgement (though they are that, too) or even an insult (though they were taken to be that). They are, primarily, an invitation. An invitation to longing, to desire, and to the expectation of desire’s consummation.

But that is perhaps a little too much for an English congregation on a wet Wednesday morning...

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Visual storytelling


Today at the lunchtime Eucharist, I employed some visual storytelling to retell the Gospel reading, Luke 11:5-13. With apologies for the poor quality of the images, taken on my phone immediately before the service.



In Fig. 1, the chalice represents Jesus.




In Fig. 2, the silver cruet represents the disciples, who come to Jesus, through the dark night of the world, journeying on the Way (also Jesus, here represented by the lavabo towel).




Fig. 3, the chalice is empty, for Jesus has emptied himself, making himself entirely dependent on the Father, and on the Holy Spirit as testimony to their relationship.




In Fig. 4, the lidded silver cruet represents the Father—the disciples and the Father both being the trusted confidants and dearly-loved friends of Jesus. Jesus goes to the Father to ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit, to be shared between them.




In Fig. 5, the three ‘loaves’ of bread, or wafers on the paten, represent the gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives evidence of the covenant relationship established between the disciples and the Father, in and through Jesus. This evidence remains, after Jesus is no longer physically present with his disciples, or, for all those who will become his disciples through the good news story carried by them.

Bread of testimony


The Gospel set for Holy Communion today is Luke 11:5-13.

On one occasion, Jesus told a story involving three friends. B turns up at A’s door at midnight; but A has nothing to offer B. So, A wakes C and asks for bread; and C is reluctant to help, at first, but eventually A’s perseverance prevails.

It is a strange story to our ears, and C’s reluctance to be a good neighbour feels churlish. How hard is it to fetch a loaf of bread from the cupboard, and go back to bed?

As always, there is more going on than meets the eye.

The Greek word used here for ‘friend’ conveys more than we might mean, especially on Facebook: a trusted confidant, a dearly-loved friend. Both B and C, then, are closest-of-friends to A.

B has arrived, having journeyed to A on the way (or, the Way).

The Greek for ‘to set before’ means to commit to [something] in a very personal way; and carries the sense of to entrust, and to give evidence. But A has nothing to set before B.

Friend C responds by pleading with A not to cause him laborious toil, extreme weariness. The request is greater than we imagine. It would require kneading flour, water, oil, and yeast to make dough; and, while it proved, setting a fire and letting it burn down to charcoal. Effort, and time.

So, here is a man who has two trusted confidants, two dearly-loved friends—but nothing to testify to that being so. And what he wants is three loaves, or, one for each of the three friends. This is not primarily about hospitality towards B, or borrowing from C, but about relationship being established between B and C, with A as the intermediary.

The principle point Jesus is making here concerns the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the bread, the evidence that testifies to the deep friendship between Jesus’ disciples, B, who have come to him, and the heavenly Father, C, as brokered by Jesus, A.

While I do not want to press the analogy too far, A’s lack of resources is suggestive of Jesus’ self-emptying; and the laborious toil asked of C (presumably with A’s active involvement) is suggestive of the cost to the heavenly Father in this endeavour.

Jesus goes on, inviting his disciples to continue to be B, journeying on the Way, through the dark night, until they arrive at his door...but also inviting them to step into the role he occupies (A) and to intercede on behalf of the world (an extended B), asking that others might come to experience the Holy Spirit, who testifies to our friendship with God. Though they are ‘evil’—not in essential character, but in that they act in ways that cause pain; as A causes pain to C—they know how to give good gifts; and the heavenly Father all the more so.

This, then, is a story about the dynamic between Father, Son, Holy Spirit, the Church, and the peoples; a story in which we participate in physical and spiritual nourishment.

It is the simplest of stories imaginable. And yet, it is bigger on the inside.