Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Cry


I walk to the Minster along the cycle path, and back again along the main road. Both routes now take me past arson sites: a burnt out rubbish bin, and a large pile of fly-tipped rubbish (the fire was dealt with by the fire brigade, but the council have not removed the hazardous waste; nor, of course, was it dealt with before the arsonists targeted it) along the cycle path; and the pedestrian subway under the main road.

Much of such arson is the activity of youths. In addition, here in the north east, there has been an increase in incidents of groups of youths starting fires to bring out the fire brigade, and then pelting them with missiles as they work to put the blaze out. This is completely unacceptable, and not to be tolerated.

It is also a cry for help. A cry for attention. To not be ignored.

And it will not do to say that this is the work of an anti-social tiny minority. That is like saying that a person whose skin is covered in little red chicken pox blisters does not have chicken pox in 99% of their body, but only where there are spots. As a society we have given rise to a generation who feel at best ignored, at worst demonised. And yes, at times their actions may well encourage us to further ignore, or demonise, them. But who are the grown-ups in this?

It will take intentional effort to see young people, to hear their cry, to like them despite their unlikeable behaviour. And if central funding cannot be found — and what there was has been torched — then we might just have to re-imagine a different story.

The death of us


“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.” Psalm 116:15

People routinely assume that December is my ‘busy time of year.’ It isn’t. Yes, there are additional services; but there are also more mundane things that can take a break. Even those extra services place more demand on church wardens and choir members, who are called upon to enable them alongside other commitments, than on stipendiary clergy. We’re not sitting around twiddling our thumbs; but neither, on the whole, is it our busy time of year, compared to, say, our parishioners who work in retail. December brings a variation, rather than significant increase, to what I do.

Surprising from the outside, my diary is often fuller in January and February; not least due to the spike in funerals. As everyone dies, you might suppose deaths to be evenly spread, but they are not. The human spirit is remarkably strong, and many an elderly or terminally ill person finds the will to give their family one last Christmas. And then there is the toll of a hard, cold snap (and, similarly, a summer heat wave).

I have taken receipt of the funeral of an elderly gentleman who has no family. The only instruction he left behind was that at his funeral a particular hymn be sung. I called the nursing home where he died, in search of some sense of who he was. I hoped to find a convenient time to meet with someone there, but, instead, the phone was passed from person to person until someone felt qualified to tell me the most meagre of scraps of information.

I’m sure they aren’t bad people. It’s just the way we live these days. Passing our days in isolation. Resources stretched. Transactional duties done to the best of our ability, but with a nagging sense of embarrassment that there ought to be more to life than this.

We will give him a full and proper funeral, knowing that, even if no-one else remains who knew him, he was known to God, who bears witness to his life. And we will entrust him, and one another, to God’s justice and mercy. For whom we are is ultimately dependent on nothing else; and, moreover, in this is hope of being restored to renewed community, including those who have died before us.

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.

Gotta hand it to you


The Old Testament reading set for Holy Communion today is the account, from 1 Samuel 17, of David and Goliath. Goliath is a seasoned warrior, an expert in close-quarter, hand-to-hand fighting; whom the young David defeats by choosing ballistics.

In its telling, the story focuses on David’s hands. We are told that he sets out against the giant with his shepherd’s staff in one hand and slingshot in the other. That, in response to the Philistine’s taunts, he declares that “God will deliver you into my hand;” that he put his hand into his bag, took out a stone, and slung it into Goliath’s forehead; that he prevailed over the Philistine with no sword in his hand — but that he then grasped Goliath’s sword, drew it out of its sheath, killed him, and cut off his head with it.

The irony of the tale is that king Saul, himself a giant of a man, who cowered before Goliath, was from a tribe that was renowned for its skill with the slingshot. But Saul was caught in a story he could not break out of.

The account is paired with a Gospel passage, Mark 3:1-6, in which Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The man’s condition is underlined. Jesus instructs the man to stretch out his hand — potentially exposing his weakness, to ridicule or shame — and when he did so, his hand was restored.

The Pharisees, however, are incensed. They are trapped in a story they cannot break out of, that it was not lawful to heal (a form of work) on the Sabbath.

People regularly tell me the same stories. I don’t mean older folk who are getting forgetful, and don’t remember that they have told me this already, not ten minutes ago. I mean stories told me week by week or month by month, stories they seem unable to break free from. Often, stories that portray someone else — or an institution — as a bully to be overthrown, and yet who still exerts control over their imagination.

But they will never see breakthrough unless they are able to see the situation from a different perspective.

When we come to receive Communion, we stretch out our hands, to take hold of Jesus. And in this simple act of faith, it is just possible that our perspective shifts just enough, and for just long enough, that we might see the world from his perspective. Possible, but not inevitable.

What has a grip on you, restricting your freedom, your ability to take hold of life in all its fullness?

The breakthrough you need today might just be to hand.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The end of the world is nigh


The Bible readings at Morning Prayer this week are concerned with surviving the end of the world.

The Old Testament readings are working their way through the account, in Genesis, of the Great Flood, an account of devastation and new beginning.

The Gospel readings are from Matthew 24, where Jesus draws on the apocalyptic imagination of the prophet Daniel (paying special attention to Daniel chapter 7) to speak about a time of disaster which will be followed by the revealing of the Son of Man.

Though some take this to predict the future End of the World, apocalypse is concerned with making sense of events we live through in history; and Daniel’s Son of Man functions as a representative for a faithful remnant community, understood to be accused before God through the actions of Gentile empires, but, surprisingly, vindicated by God.

In Matthew 24, the primary and imminent event Jesus sees coming over the horizon is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans — this took place in AD 70 — and the subsequent emergence of a new form of Judaism, not dependent on a rebuilding of the Temple and a return to its daily rounds of ritual sacrifice. And — though Jesus might not have had this in mind — the divergence of his followers from Judaism.

Of course, in a secondary sense, this continues to speak. Indeed, the Bible, from beginning to end, is concerned with the forming of communities that can survive, in a new form, the inevitable end of the world as they have known it. And not only survive, but thrive.

And the end of the world takes place over and over and over again. For those who experience divorce, or the death of a family member. For communities destroyed by bush fire or flood, famine, or reduced to rubble by missiles in times of war.

There is no guarantee of given individuals surviving the end of the world. Others survive, but fail to thrive. Yet here is a long, tried-and-tested resource, testimony to God’s faithfulness and loving-kindness in a world that, for a host of reasons in complex interaction, is unpredictable.

If you are living through the end of the world right now, may you know the goodness of God, and the adaptable robustness of God’s people.

Monday, January 20, 2020

A long obedience in the same direction


After the service yesterday morning, I was talking with an elderly member of the congregation. He trundles down the road here in his motorised wheelchair, accompanied on foot by his wife. He told me that today as they were on their way to church, a man drove past them on the other side of the road, pulled up, got out of his car, grinned at them, waited for the traffic to pass by, and crossed over to them. “Do you remember me?” he asked. “You used to teach me [many years ago when he was at school]. I often drive past you on a Sunday morning, and it always lifts my spirits.”

“Can you imagine,” my friend asked me, “that an old man in a wheelchair, with an old woman walking along beside him, could lift anyone’s spirits?”

Yes, Bill, I can.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

On performing comedy and scripture


Last night we went to the theatre to see I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Radio 4’s long-running antidote to panel games is on tour. In between rounds, the host tells humorous anecdotes about local people and places, only the local place names changing from night to night.

Last night we were treated to the tall tale of a well-known local landowner and employer, whose gardener lost most of his limbs in the First World War, but was enabled to keep his job after the War. The nobleman paid for his servant to be fitted with prosthetic limbs — mahogany legs, and arms of oak and leather straps for joints. Years later, asked why her father should go to such expense for the gardener, his daughter simply said that he’d been with the family so long he was part of the family.

audience laughs

The furniture.

audience laughs

The host screws up a piece of paper, and throws it away, muttering, it wasn’t funny anyway

audience laughs

The first time we laugh is like Pavlov’s dogs. We know where this joke is going, and when, and how it will end. We prepare to laugh, feeling clever that we have got there ahead of the teller. And then, even as the laugh erupts, it changes into laughter because he has got the punchline wrong. That wasn’t what we were expecting.

The second laugh is also layered. We laugh because the joke is funny, even if it was messed-up. But this also morphs, as about two-thirds of the audience realise that the ‘mistake’ was intentional, part of the joke ... a knowing laugh with undertones of superiority, for, we are sure, two-thirds of the people in the theatre haven’t got the joke.

The third laugh contains a sympathy for the joke-teller — even professionals screw up sometimes, we’ve all been there — and admiration that a joke can be mined, or saved, by sheer bravado and deflection.

Perhaps most funnily, the members of the panel, who have heard this joke told night after night, still laugh, at every point. For they are watching a consummate pro, who has just pick-pocketed an entire theatre, despite the fact that many in the audience had arrived on their guard, expecting just such an attempt to be made.

The Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 49:1-7, is similarly layered. It speaks of the Lord’s servant, who is the people of Israel/tribes of Jacob, and the prophet known as Isaiah, and, in the understanding of many people, a passage that speaks of or points to Jesus.

There are layers of knowing. And these layers comfort us by their familiarity ... and unsettle us with their twists. They bring to light our sense of superiority, of being more in-the-know than others ... only to expose our foolish pride. They transform our failures into a work of genius, scripted by a pen that never fails to deliver ... and send us out with glad hearts. They catch up Sunderland, and every other place, in a shared story of being both special and a sorry state, loved in spite of it all.

And, no matter how many times you hear these words, they keep on giving, they never get old.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

On knowing God


The other day I saw something on Facebook that said, God is always speaking, but we aren’t always listening.

That is nonsense, and harmful nonsense at that. For one thing, how insecure would that make God!? And it certainly isn’t true to the witness of the authors of the Bible.

In the beginning, we are told, God would visit the man and the woman in the cool of the evening, to stroll in the garden and talk about their days.

Abraham — the father of all who live by faith, not sight — experienced God as a visitor to him — and his community — from time to time.

God doesn’t make an appearance in the book of Ruth. Is only indirectly present in Esther, and plenty places besides. Only turns up at the very end to Job and his friends.

The community of psalm-writers testify to God’s presence and absence.

And it doesn’t change in the New Testament. In the Gospels, we hear almost nothing from Jesus throughout his childhood. Beginning with an extended absence in the wilderness, he regularly excuses himself from the presence of his community, his followers, his friends. After he is raised from the dead, he turns up and disappears again, several times. True, he promises his disciples that he will be with them until the end of the age; but not as a limpet. Yes, he sends the Holy Spirit; but he himself has described the Spirit as being like the wind: ever moving, but not experienced, at ground-level, in every place at every time.

Connected to the idea that God is always speaking is the idea, still very much current in my lifetime, that Jesus is always watching (over us). The invisible man, spying on children. A voyeur, outwardly disapproving of what we do in secret, but inwardly getting off on it. This concept of God has left many people with a religious hangover; and fostered a culture of priestly — God’s representatives — voyeurs.

The idea that God is omnipresent owes more to Greek philosophy than biblical revelation. But, in any case, God is present as a person, relationally. And to whatever extent God may be in every place, God need not be present to every person in that place simultaneously.

When we imagine God — and I wrote yesterday about how the imagination is where we encounter God — we do better to imagine God coming by, dropping in on a friend, genuinely interested in finding out what we have been up to. Not testing us to see whether what we say matches what he has already noted down. Not expressing disappointment that it has been a while since we spoke — or listened — to him.

That is how healthy, mature, genuine relationship works. And that is what God dreams of for us.

God is not always speaking, not even always present. But don’t mistake the times of distance or silence for indifference. You are in God’s fond thoughts today.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

On conversations with God


If I tell you that I have conversations with God, is what I am describing just my imagination?

Well, first let us consider the difference between the imaginary and the imagination. The imaginary exists only within the imagination. But the imagination is not restricted to the imaginary. The imagination is the faculty by which we also experience those things which we can only experience indirectly. Democracy would be an example, as would love, and God. None of these things exist, if our understanding of existing is restricted to that which can be seen, touched, measured by direct means — though all of these things are made manifest in and impact upon the material world.

Then, let us also note that the imagination is not simply my unruly id breaking out against, or my super-ego berating, my ego. The imagination is made up of past, present, and possible futures; and shaped communally. It concerns personhood — that we only exist, and only experience, in relation to others — and is the faculty by which we are able to relate to those who are not directly present with us but with whom we participate in a web of relationship: whether my daughter, who has returned to university; my grandparents, who are no longer alive; or God, with whom I sit and converse. My relationship with God, made possible by means of the imagination, is shaped by a particular history of a community; and changes over time, through unfolding episodes of continuity and change, as does any relationship between persons.

And so my conversations with God are neither ‘just’ my imagination, nor just ‘my’ imagination. But they are, indeed, of the imagination. Wonderful gift that it is.

You can, of course, still believe that God is my imaginary friend; mine and that of billions of others. But the fact that something can only be experienced indirectly, through the imagination, does not inevitably mean that it is imaginary. At least have the imagination to see that.

Keeping appointments


Today has been largely a day of one-to-one listening.

I was listening to someone this afternoon, who was telling me many things and on several occasions over the course of our time together paused, and asked themselves, “now, why am I telling you that? How did I end up there? It wasn’t what I had set out to tell you...”

And the only answer I can suggest is that you ended up there because that is where you needed to be. Because there was an appointment to be kept there — perhaps with God, perhaps with yourself — in which I am only a witness, a friend to give you the necessary courage simply by being with you so that you don’t have to go alone. Because appointments are often bigger and scarier in the anticipation — even if, at a conscious level, you didn’t know you were anticipating it — than they turn out to be in the event.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Improvise


Some flooding to our boiler-house knocked out our church heating. It will be seen and (hopefully) fixed first thing tomorrow; but, rather than sitting scattered across an auditorium that comfortably seats 200 people, watching our breath curl in front of us, this morning 35 people gathered in the Lady Chapel, which comfortably seats 20, but, having a separate heating system, was warm. We improvised, and, in improvising, found it to be not simply making-do but making a very positive shared memory.

Before Christmas, my family went to the local cinema to see Knives Out. After we parted with our money — almost £50 — we were informed that the heating was broken in the auditorium. We were charged full price, because ‘people experience temperature differently’ but, if we decided that we wanted to leave within the first 20 minutes of the main feature, we would be refunded. The film was most enjoyable, and, having made the effort to come out, we stayed. But the room was not enjoyable — who would pay £50 to sit in the cold?

On Friday just gone, Susie’s last night at home before returning to university, we went out to the cinema again, to see Jojo Rabbit. (We don’t go to the cinema very often, but if we do, it tends to be around holidays.) Noting that it was being screened in the same auditorium as our ill-fated previous visit, we enquired as to whether the heating had been fixed? It had not. We enquired as to whether the ticket prices were being discounted? They were not — though the person serving us did offer to ask his manager, an offer we took up. The manager, who was not brave enough to speak to us in person, conveyed the message that no, there was no discount. If we wanted to leave near the start, disrupting other paying customers, we could ask for a refund.

Having paid £50 already, we were not prepared to make it £100 to sit in the cold, and so — still wanting to watch Jojo Rabbit — we walked out.

If the cinema had offered discounted tickets, we might have stayed. Even if they had made entry free, they would have made money on drinks and popcorn, and perhaps even shockingly marked-up sweets. In the weeks since the heating had broken, they could have brought in a supply of cosy blankets. They could have closed screen 8: there would still be another eleven screens, and, looking up what was showing, we would not have set out to see the film we did, but might have come in time to watch something else. They could have offered free hot drinks. Or a discount voucher for a future visit. But they didn’t improvise. Instead, they banked on us deciding to stick it out.

That is shockingly poor customer service. Even more so given that almost any time I do go to the cinema there is no more than (often far less) 35 people scattered throughout an auditorium that seats 200. Not only did they get no money at all from us on Friday night, but I am not inclined to go back. Other cinemas are available, if further afield. To care so little is crazy.

Pleasure


Growing up in Scotland, the son of missionaries in Asia, where I myself had been born, it was inevitable that one of my childhood heroes should be Eric Liddell.

Liddell was a ‘missionary kid’ born in China, where he would return as a missionary, dying young in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. But in the early 1920s he had been both a Scotland international rugby player, and an Olympic sprinter, coming third in the 200m and taking gold in the 400m at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

That part of his story was portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. The film took some artistic liberties, of course. Liddell, who refused to run on the (Christian) Sabbath,* did not find out that the 100m heats would take place on a Sunday only en route to France, but several months earlier, switching his training to the 400m at that point. Nor did he argue with his disapproving sister, who thought it all a distraction from a higher calling. His actual sister was supportive, and hurt by her fictionalised persona.

Nonetheless, the imagined scene provided context for a famous Liddell quote, whether or not he said it:

“I believe God made me for a purpose [to be a missionary]. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” **

Today the Church marks the Baptism of Christ, an occasion we participate in, in our own baptism, that is all about being plunged into God's approval or pleasure.

Baptism is an unrepeatable event. But it has ripples, many other events remind us of our baptism.

So, a question for this day is, in doing what are you made aware of, and actively participate in, God’s pleasure?


*This is very Presbyterian.

**It is not very Presbyterian to speak of feeling God’s pleasure. Indeed, it is not very Presbyterian to speak positively about feelings at all. And yet, I believe that Eric Liddell knew the truth of these words — whether he spoke them, or not.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Genre


I love detective fiction, especially Nordic Noir / Scandi-Noir. I love it for binding-together past and present, person and place, body and soil; for the psychological profiling, the forensic attention to details, the pooling of patterns. I love it for the detectives at the heart of the story; for the way they lay bare, as on the autopsy table, the consequences of the decisions we make; for the exposition of human nature, in its complexity, and the dark secrets we all hide like a landscape lying beneath virgin snow. I love it for the wrestling with chaos, and order; the exorcising of ghosts; the guarding of community, and of the human heart.

And I realise that this is the manner in which I read, and find myself read by, scripture. The way I construct sermons, and conduct investigations into faith, hope, and love.

I recognise that this is not the only way in which scripture might be read. That it is not necessarily the best way. That some might not even consider it to be an appropriate way. But, when it comes down to it, it is the way I love.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Treasure


This weekend, many churches will be celebrating Epiphany, re-telling the journey of the Magi to pay tribute to the infant Jesus. They opened their portable storehouse and gave treasures of gold and frankincense and myrrh, and then returned to their own country by a different route to that by which they came.


The treasure chest, or portable storehouse, symbolises the heart, our capacity to make choices. As an adult, Jesus often described the heart in this way.

Gold symbolises purchasing power, our ability to acquire what we value. It includes privilege, the associations and investments-in-us that multiply our opportunities. It includes givens, such as natural abilities we might invest in, and more liquid currency such as the extent to which we might take risks or exercise caution. We are all traders, all give something of our gold to those we believe it will be advantageous to align ourselves with, the thing we worship whether that be the stock market or the Son of God.

Incense symbolises prayer, a recognition that, regardless of how much privilege we may enjoy, life involves chance, and forces — some benevolent, others malign — outside of and beyond our control. There is more to life than I can handle alone. We seek a covenant partner to stand alongside through thick and thin, and who will come to our aid; and we get to choose who that partner will be.

Myrrh symbolises romantic, erotic love. It was also used to embalm the dead. The desire to know love, to love and be loved in return, to give passionately of ourselves to another person or to a great consuming cause, is almost universal. Sooner or later, the experience of loss, of death and walking the valley of the shadow of death, is truly universal. Certainly, you cannot know the first without the second, for they go hand-in-hand.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh represent the treasures that are locked away, kept close together and under guard, in all of our hearts. We all make choices in relation to all three. And Jesus is the key that unlocks the storehouse, that enables us to share what we have received, and so find it to be true treasure: to find that we are enough, for others as well as for ourselves. For God, however inadequate we might feel.

This Epiphany, may your heart be unlocked.