Thursday, July 29, 2021

Waters

 

I’ve been thinking about water over recent days.

The epic poem with which the Bible opens speaks of God drawing the conditions for life out of chaos. Three bio-spheres are established—sea and land and sky—within which, every element, every possible form of life, can find its place.

But what of water? Water is found in the seas. But it also falls from the skies. And permeates through the rocks of the earth. Water expresses itself as liquid and gas and solid. It rises from the oceans salty, and falls on the plains fresh. Water bubbles up in springs and gathers in lakes and roars in waterfalls and mighty rivers. It blurs the edges of distinct bio-spheres in mangroves and marshes and swamps. Water cleaves together tightly, refusing to be separated—without excessive violence against its being—in the earth’s ice caps and glaciers, for thousands of years of fidelity. Water makes up some 70% of human beings, the creatures drawn (and there is irony here) from the clay of the earth. It leaks from us in tears, and sweat. And, provoked by those who dwell in houses of clay, water can be unleashed in powerfully destructive ways, as we have seen, yet again, in recent days.

In what expression is water true to the divine imagination? Surely in all of her expressions.

And what of human beings, those who dwell in houses of clay? According to that epic poem, the same divine imagination that gave purpose to water appointed human beings to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. Where, in the context of God’s work, subdue must mean, resist chaos and create the conditions that allow life to flourish—primarily, in context, through migration and agriculture.

To multiply requires fertile males and females; but that does not mean that infertile couples, and no-longer fertile couples, and gay couples, and single people live outside of God’s imagination for humanity. It simply means that not every given human being fulfils every aspect of a true humanity in the same way. There is far more to being a community that experiences fruitful lives than procreation.

Moreover, a humanity that is true to the divine imagination must involve migration. Not conquering other people groups by colonisation, not overwhelming others like a flood, but nonetheless the continual movement of people groups, like ever-shifting water-courses refreshing the tired land. Again, in that ancient text of Genesis, we see God push the overly-settled out: of Eden, from Babel, from Ur. We do not possess the land we live on, but share a common oversight of the whole Earth.

Whether we read poetry too narrowly, or define anthropology too narrowly on any other basis, we are likely to fall short of the blessing God intends for creation. We are likely to exchange friendship with God for being like God: like God, whose friends turned away.

Psalm 42 speaks of water, both as the life-giving streams that flow in the wilderness places frequented by deer and through our own internal dry places, and as the breakers and waves of a cosmic deep that somehow is also experienced within the psalmist’s own body. Perhaps if we are to learn how to be more fully human, we need to listen to the waters around us, and within us.

 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Cry

 

At this time of year, the gulls who nest on the cliff-like tall buildings of the city centre are at their most raucous. Juveniles calling to their mothers, mother gulls calling to their young. It is loud and incessant and totally lacking the musicality of garden bird song; and it is the easiest thing in the world to allow ourselves to be irritated by it.

And so today, I made the conscious decision to decline the invitation to irritation, to say no to irritability, and, instead, to listen, to pay attention, in hope of hearing what I was missing.

As my ear attuned itself, what I heard was the sound of dependency, and the responding sound of encouragement. Utterances expressing something deeper than words (or tune) can express.

What I heard was the cry of the heart of all creation—including but so much more than the cry of the human heart—and the corresponding call of the heart of God.

 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Anne and Joachim

 

Today the Church of England remembers Anne and Joachim, the maternal grandparents of Jesus. They aren’t mentioned in the Gospels, which do not concern themselves with the childhood of their daughter, Mary. While the stories told about them are late, and utterly unreliable, their names pass down to us because Mary was not a storybook character lifted off the virgin page but a flesh and blood person, at the heart of the early Church: her story was known, if not written down.

This year we remember Anne and Joachim against a backdrop of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and a great many little interviews with the families—back home—of our medal hopefuls. Parents and grandparents, who have invested in their daughter or son for a lifetime, un-noticed, unheralded, that they might shine. Unable to witness their triumphs in person; unable to console them in defeat. These little interviews are a nation’s thank you. As is the Church’s commemoration of Anne and Joachim.

Today is a day to celebrate grandparents, without whom we are—literally—nothing; and the investment of ‘spiritual grandparents in the faith,’ whom we may never have known, but whose story shapes our own.

 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Prayer

 

From the window on the half-landing at the turn of the stairs, I look down in the path below and note two blackbirds, side by side, both facing the edging stone that rises to the lawn, their heads bowing and bobbing.

It put me in mind of the fathers and sons I had seen, stood side by side before the Western Wall in Jerusalem, dressed in black. Fathers teaching their sons in prayer. Sons responding to their father’s invitation, modelling their own lives after their pattern. Intimate moments. Holy moments to see, not as a voyeur but as a witness.

And so I pause on the half-landing to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, to give thanks for my own daughter and sons, to reflect on what I model for them, and to bless the birds.

 

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Surprised by joy

 

Silksworth parkrun ends with a long, steep bank. For some, it is a killer, having already run four-and-a-half kilometres. But for quite a few, something happens at the bottom of that bank. Knowing the run is almost done, their hearts rise to the challenge. With renewed vigour, they take it in their stride. We used to start and end half-way up that bank. Today someone told me that they used to find that a killer; but that they had never found having to run the full way as hard, and I agree (I think not starting up hill helps).

Today, we were able to return to parkrun, after a break of a-year-and-a-half. Around 160 runners and volunteers turned out. And it was joyful. Joy, written on the smiles and, in some cases, tears, on 160 faces. And for me, the joy of being able to welcome them back, as Run Director this morning. As I surveyed the scene at the finish, I was deeply thankful.

Joy is the emotional response to wellbeing, and also to the realization of desire. When we experience wellbeing, our hearts lift up, are strengthened, and overflow. Joy enables us to face the challenge—to get up that bank—for wellbeing is not the absence of challenge, but the presence of harmony, within ourselves and among a group We all need to experience joy, not least in the face of ongoing challenges, and today, at parkrun, we did.

This joyful response is not a throwing of caution to the wind. The return of parkrun has been the culmination of many long months of careful planning, of implementing adaptations to practice in order to make the event as secure as possible. And it was great to see everyone embrace that today, marshals and runners alike, all playing their part in keeping one another safe—wellbeing: harmony between people in a community.

If you need some joy in your life, you might find it walking, jogging, or running 5K at 9.00 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

 

Friday, July 23, 2021

Kindness

 

I have a watch that it gives me a great deal of pleasure to wear. I bought it on a trip to America when Jo was pregnant with Susie, so I must have had it for about twenty-one years now; and a few days ago, the leather glue that holds the buckle gave out, and the watch fell apart, sliding off my wrist.

There is an amazing businessman here in England called Sir John Timpson. He owns a chain of over 2000 little stores where you can go to get keys cut or shoes repaired. They work with ex-offenders, offering 10% of their posts to people coming out of prison; and are generally considered to be a good employer. Along with his wife, who died a few years back, John Timpson fostered 90 children; and he remains involved in supporting charities working for child welfare.

I took my watch along to the local Timpson branch, to ask if they could repair it. The man who works there did, taking a stubby brush and painting the leather with glue, and blowing on it until it turned tacky, before pressing the leather together again.

It was a small job, using hardly any materials and taking only a few minutes’ time. But it meant a lot to me, a very great deal. I asked if I could give him anything for it, and he refused any payment.

That matters. It matters that there are people who are willing to do something, however seemingly small—small things often having great impact, as today—free of charge. It matters that people should not expect this—for, had I done so, it would not have been freely given—and that when we are given such a gift, we should find a way to honour the one who gave it—again, not out of duty, not paying a debt in order to be freed from generosity, but freely, so that the economy of grace is held together, not by leather glue but by the glue of kindness.









Thursday, July 22, 2021

Spirals

 

Today is the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene. We do not know how or when this Mary first met Jesus. Her story, prior to that Beginning, is hidden from us in darkness. We do not need to know. We are told that Jesus delivered her from oppression by seven demons. That, like the cosmos itself that had become overwhelmed (we know not how or when or why) by life-threatening forces hostile to God’s goodness, her God-ordained goodness had been overpowered, her own God-ordained life threatened. That, just as God, intervening decisively, had declared, ‘Let there be light!’ so Jesus declared, let there be light! Let there be life. Let there be renewed hope, restored faith, let there be love. And it was so, and it was very good. Mary’s personal story reflects a cosmic pattern.

Who better, then, to be chosen as the first witness to the resurrection? To Jesus, overwhelmed by demonic powers of darkness, by death itself, called forth from the tomb to life that cannot be suppressed, by Love that undoes all overpowering and overcomes all overwhelming? Jesus, reflecting, participating in, the same pattern that Mary’s life knew. If anyone would come to recognise him, it was her.

Though it comes in different ways, in stories that may be hidden from our sight, only those who have known this pattern can bear true witness to the resurrection.

(If we are honest with ourselves, we have all known this pattern.)

 

Feast of Mary Magdalene

 

Today the Church celebrates Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, first witness to the resurrection, disciple of Jesus. We are told that her world had somehow fallen into a chaos that could only be described as demonic, from which Jesus had called out life, order, harmony, which she embraced even as it embraced her.

The account of Mary going to the tomb, finding it empty, desperately asking what had been done, where her lord had been carried off to, then finding herself standing in front of him, holding on to him, sent by him to his brothers, as told in John 20:1-2, 11-18 is paired in the Lectionary with Song of Solomon 3:1-4

‘Upon my bed at night

I sought him whom my soul loves;

I sought him, but found him not;

I called him, but he gave no answer.

 

‘I will rise now and go about the city,

in the streets and in the squares;

I will seek him whom my soul loves.’

I sought him, but found him not.

 

The sentinels found me,

as they went about in the city.

‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’

 

Scarcely had I passed them,

when I found him whom my soul loves.

I held him, and would not let him go

until I brought him into my mother’s house,

and into the chamber of her that conceived me.’

 

I am struck by that great question, ‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’ This is perhaps the first and greatest profession of witness to the resurrection. Not rushing to bring Jesus to others, but enquiring, where have you seen the beautiful presence of God walking through this city? What rumours have you heard of his passing by? What traces have been left in his wake? Please tell me, have you seen him whom my soul loves?

Only after this does the lover find her beloved. Indeed, she does so almost immediately, after enquiring, even of those who do not believe that they can help her, that they have an answer to offer, any hope to hold out.

And only then is the lover able to bring her beloved home. There is something startling about this. Culturally, we would expect the groom to take his bride to his mother’s house, his father’s house. But here, the bride takes the groom to her mother’s house.

Where is my mother’s house, and the chamber of the one who conceived me? It is, perhaps, I might suggest, the Church, the community of the saints, all the faithful. Jesus, told that his mother was standing outside, once replied, Who is my mother? The one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Not that wives are subservient to husbands, but, in mutual submission to one another, they are intended to be of one will. Those whose lives are at one with the Father are the Mother, as, in fact, modelled to us, embodied, by Mary the mother of Jesus. And by Mary Magdalene.

When we hear stories of God already out and about in our neighbourhood, then we find the one for whom our heart longs, the one in whom our soul is satisfied. And in response we bring that report back to our sisters and brothers, our mother, the Church. And in so doing we encounter Jesus, anew, in our midst.

Happy Feast of Mary Magdalene!

 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Grace

 

I went to put the bin out tonight, and was surprised by the sky and the moon, so impossibly blue and so brilliantly orange, so perfect a fit together. I hadn’t known, hadn’t planned to stop everything and take in the moon, hanging there, framed by the roof tops across the street from my front door. I hadn’t known that I needed to pause, to give thanks. Everything is grace.

 

Fragmentary

 





There’s a small plinth outside Sunderland University’s Fine Art building for displaying a rolling programme of work. Currently on display, Su Devine’s Fragmentary, a mother’s blouse and young girl’s dress, cast in what to my utterly untrained eye looks like fibreglass.

It speaks to me of the adventurous relationship between God’s trustworthy, playful Spirit, and my trusting, playful spirit—or, at least, the possibility, a mystery experienced infrequently, in small and indeed fragmentary moments when I dare to be present to the One who is fully present, if invisible, hiding in plain view.

I could wander off the direct path and stand in front of it for hours, minutes, outside of time passing—and today, I did.

 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

As long as it takes

 

This morning when I got up at my usual 6.15 a.m. my teenage son was already awake. This is unusual. Normally, he remains in bed until lunchtime. But in an attempt (whether wise, or other-wise) to re-set his broken body clock, he had stayed up all night. And now he decided to make pancakes for breakfast.

He is a good cook, but a slow one. And so, on the offer of pancakes, I passed on my habitual bowl of cereal and waited. And waited. And a little after 8.00 a.m. I sat down to a substantial plate of pancakes. (Too late for Jo, who has to set off on her commute to work by 8.00 a.m.)

My son’s gift to me today was not only—not even primarily—pancakes, but, rather, the invitation to rediscover what children know and have squeezed out of them: that things take as long as they take.

I’m not saying we can ignore the clock. I have agreed to take a funeral at 12.15 p.m. today, and I cannot turn up at 2.00 p.m. and say, “Hey, I’m here now, that’s just how long it took.” Moreover, there is genuine benefit in regular rhythms—the very thing my son is trying to re-set and re-establish with his sleep. Be that as it may, we do violence to ourselves, to the essence of our very being, and to the personhood of others, when we try to conform the world to a divided- and divided-up diary schedule. This must happen at such an hour, and be done by such a time. This church community must look different in this and this and that ways within such and such a timescale.

What God is up to in the world takes place in God’s sweet time. It takes as long as it takes. It is gift. Perhaps not the gift we want, but something even better than we could ask for or imagine.

 

Show mercy

 

Later today I am taking a funeral, at which I have been asked to read the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It is, I think, a relatively well-known story, though an unfamiliar one in the context of a funeral. And yet, it is fitting.

The painful, disorienting experience of being bereaved can be compared, by way of analogy, to being beaten, stripped, and left as good as dead on the side of the road. And at such times we may find that some of the people, places, or even memories we would have expected to support us are unwilling or unable to do so. People are embarrassed; don’t know what to say; are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Even so, God comes to us, in and through unexpected means, cleaning our open wounds, binding our broken hearts, carrying us. Also drawing others into the narrative of our slow recovery, perhaps for the first time or in a new dynamic.

At times, we find ourselves the man left to die on the side of the road. Robbed of our self-sufficiency as well as our loved one—humiliated—we must rely on the mercy of strangers. Must learn, also, to forgive those who stand at a distance. At times, God invites us to be the innkeeper in one another’s story, to be the one through whom ongoing support is given—and this is a holy mystery, that God should use any one of us in this way. In such other-focused ways we step, or stumble, into the fullness of life.

Where have you found yourself, or where do you find yourself, in the parable? In what unexpected form has God come to you?