Friday, May 14, 2021

Ascended


Wednesday evening and Thursday this week saw the Christian celebration of Ascension Day (the start of Ascensiontide, the final ten days of the 50-day long Eastertide) coincide with Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim celebrations marking the end of the month of Ramadan.

While there are profound differences in how Christians and Muslims view Jesus, both faith traditions claim that he ascended bodily to heaven, from where he will return, to take up a judicial reign of justice and peace.

Ascensiontide is the Christian expression recalling Jesus ascending to the throne prepared for him at the right hand of God, to be seated there until God subjugates his enemies under his anointed one, establishing the heavenly reign on earth through this faithful anointed one who will judge the nations. In this, Jesus fulfils the intention begun in David, king of Jerusalem (see Psalm 2 and Psalm 110), of whom it was claimed God bestowed the title ‘my begotten son’.

Ascensiontide is, for Christians, a period set aside for prayer that this future reign of justice and peace might not only come soon but also be anticipated, felt, in the present. That we, who acknowledge Jesus on the throne, might be empowered as peacemakers, in our troubled world. That the nations, and indeed the whole cosmos, might be brought into harmony—not a uniformity, but an interdependent diversity.

Peace be with you, today. Peace be between you and your neighbours, of all faiths and none. Peace be on the holy city of Jerusalem, and on the whole human family. Lord, have mercy on us.

 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Ascension Day


I just love the Preface to the prayer of thanksgiving on Ascension Day, today. It cries out for children (and the young at heart) joining-in with big, bold, expressive actions:

 

It is indeed right and good,

our duty and our joy,

always and everywhere to give you thanks,

holy Father, almighty and eternal God,

through Jesus Christ the King of glory.

Born of a woman,

he came to the rescue of the human race.

Dying for us,

he trampled death and conquered sin.

By the glory of his resurrection

he opened the way to life eternal

and by his ascension,

gave us the sure hope

that where he is we may also be.

Therefore the universe resounds with Easter joy

and with choirs of angels we sing for ever to your praise:

 

(Proper Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer on Ascension Day, from Common Worship: Times and Seasons, copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2006)

 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Deep waters

 

I’m baptising some folk at the weekend. They asked me to include the well-known religious poem Footprints, which speaks of Jesus walking alongside us throughout our lives, and carrying us in the hardest times. I’m happy to, but I shall also be retelling an account from the gospels, where Jesus tells his fishermen friends to put out into deep the water, and there, their empty nets—for they had fished all night without a catch—are miraculously filled.

Much of the gospels are centred on Lake Tiberius, the Sea of Galilee. And the lake functions in the stories of Jesus in at least three ways.

It is, firstly, the compass of the everyday lived experience of Jesus’ fishermen friends.

However, throughout the Bible, the sea, contrasted against the gift of the land, often represents the chaos that routinely threatens to overwhelm our lives—the shore, then, being where the gift of life and the possible destruction of life meet.

And yet, the lake is also the place where the disciples are given a deeper insight into who Jesus is—calming the wind and the waves, walking on water, directing miraculous catches of fish. Into the mystery of who God is, in and through this neighbour who is, in some undefinable sense, more than the boy next door. Here, then, the shore is the meeting-place of the fully human and fully divine.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, and it pertains to all of us, in our everyday lives: the things we do, the places we go, the people we live alongside.

It is possible to live with underlying mental health issues that are well-managed, enabling us to experience life fully, and, broadly speaking, positively—just as it is possible to live well with underlying physical health issues.

It is possible to have no underlying mental health issues, and yet, at times, feel overwhelmed, even to the point of great danger, the threat of losing (or, indeed, the consequence of having lost) what we hold dear.

It is possible to know both gift and danger in our personal makeup—and to encounter God in both the gift side and the danger side. To grow deeper into the blessing of the particular clay—with its unique properties—God has fashioned me, or you, from, breathing life into us. And to put out deeper into the mystery of the God who has created us, and invites us into friendship.

Don’t be afraid of your mental health, and don’t be afraid to speak about mental health. Put out into the deep water. You might be surprised by what happens.

 

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Abstaining

 

Across the UK today, 06.05.21, people are voting in a variety of elections. The Church is non-partisan, but encourages people to use their democratic right and responsibility wisely, and church buildings are commonly offered to the wider community as polling stations in order to facilitate that. Once again, both churches I currently serve are hosting polling stations today.

How might we go about voting, and relating to one another well in a society where people hold diverse opinions, on a wide variety of issues? At our service of Holy Communion today, we heard again Acts 15:7-21, an account of a time when the church was wrestling with issues of diversity within the community and determining the level of conformity that is needed for that community to be community at all. Key principles in this process included much debate—no quick or uninformed decisions—and respectful, attentive listening to people’s experience, including their experience of having been with people from very different backgrounds and worldviews. Only then is a way forward offered: that what was needed for a diverse church to flourish was to abstain from the contamination of idolatry, and from the commodification of sex, and from treatment of animals that did not revere their life.

Clearly this list is contextual, and relates to the church rather than wider society. Might it, nonetheless, have anything to say to us in relation to how we vote, and how we relate to those who vote differently? Perhaps.

An idol is something—usually, something good in and of itself—that has been elevated above all else, taking the place of God in our affections. Political parties can become idols. If, for example, we believe that the party of our preference is the only party capable of addressing the issues we face as a society, then it has become an idol to us, a good thing contaminated. Or to give another example, the NHS has become an idol to many. For some, this justifies selling it off. For others, this proposed course of action is an example of the idolatry of Money at play. How we view, and review, the NHS is a complex matter to which we must attend, but in doing so, we might want to reflect on what happens to us when we elevate anything—socioeconomics, even healthcare itself—above all else.

The commodification of sex objectifies both us, ourself, and others—as opposed to a mutual self-giving in which each person is both the object and the subject of desire, desirable and desiring. This extends beyond sexual activity to the recognition—or not—of sexuality. But this misuse of bodies, our bodies, is a principle we might extend to any objectification of others: for being poor, or rich; native, or foreign…In how we chose to vote, and in how we relate to those who vote differently, in addition to asking “What do we care about too much?” (above) we might want to ask, “Who do we care about too little?”

Finally, from Acts 15, our voting might do well to be informed by care for the environment, the wider creation. Again, this is not a simplistic matter—there is more than one approach to environmental sustainability—but it is a simple matter: if a candidate has no informed opinion, or denies that the environment matters, they are not going to be a good steward of something that is of a fundamental importance to the flourishing of community.

These, then, are matters for much debate, and attentive listening to one another, not only as we come to cast our vote but as we then work out what it means to live together with the outcome.

 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Closure

 


As of today, 04.05.2021, the way in which marriages are registered in England and Wales has changed. Some of the changes are long overdue, some feel like an opportunity missed. But one part of today’s transition has been the closing of the elegant hard-bound, olive-green, gold-lettered Church of England Register[s] Of Marriages. Today, I have drawn 344 diagonal lines, in archive quality ink, through 172 record entries (in duplicate registers) that will never be used. It felt like the end of an era that it is, but also an unexpectedly therapeutic activity.

[In recent years, as the number of church weddings has fallen, these registers became slimmer; but there have never been many weddings at St Nicholas’ and so these were the older 250-entry registers, in which 78 weddings are recorded, between 1993-2017. The registers at the Minster are more recent, and therefore contain fewer entries, and will require fewer lines drawn through them—though this will be done by one of my colleagues.]

 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Our duty and our joy, at all times and in all places

 

Something quite marvellous is happening across the UK this spring. At nine o’clock on Sunday evenings, an estimated nine million of us are sitting down in front of LineOf Duty—and revisiting it at the water cooler on Monday morning.

Not literally, of course. Anyone who is employed in the kind of workplace that has a water cooler is still working from home. But Line Of Duty is a prime example of the water cooler phenomenon, that shared experience so powerful it spills over into our everyday lives. Thanks to social media we don’t need to wait until Monday morning, we don’t need to wait at all. On the other hand, we are made to wait a full week for the story to be carried on. This feels almost counter-intuitive at a time when so many of us have turned to streaming on demand to get through lockdown (Jo and I watched all eight series of French drama Spiral between Christmas and Easter). And yet that water cooler phenomenon relies on it, on a necessary mass of us watching this together in time, even if others will be catching up later.

In a world of engaging at our own convenience, we are reminded of our need for a collective experience—and one with drama, and a good measure of confounding mystery, and a cliff-hanger to boot.

There is much to reflect on here, as one called to curate the things, the good news, of God—to present the gospel afresh in each generation, within and beyond the Church:

the joy of shared familiar liturgy (in the case of LOD, technical policing terms in general, and Ted Hastings’ Ted-isms in particular);

an appreciation that not knowing what is going on, indeed not having a clue, is not necessarily a barrier but can in fact be a positive, where we are drawn deeper into mystery;

the central importance to our wellbeing of experience shared in time with other people;

a forensic attention to our motivations and behaviour, with brutal honesty and some wisdom as to how much to share with whom;

the kind of conclusion to our shared hour that propels us back out into the world wondering how things will unfold, and buzzing with our thoughts, our personal investment, to share.

It is not that church (or, more significantly, the gospel) is, or ought to be, like watching Line Of Duty. It is not that those who like LOD might like church. It is simply that those who believe in something greater than the welcome distraction of a good tv drama might have more questions to ponder than easy answers. Something quite marvellous is happening across the UK this spring. Those with eyes to see, take note.

 

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Five crosses



That piece of church furniture we call the altar—the table at which we make our memorial of Jesus’ offering up of himself once for all, and, in response, offer up our own sacrifice of thanks and praise—is marked by five crosses, one in each of the four corners and one at the centre-point, recalling the five wounds of Christ on the cross: the nail-piercing of his wrists and ankles, and the spear thrust up through his ribs to burst open his heart.

For most of the year, these crosses are covered by a fine linen cloth, but on Maundy Thursday we strip the altars bare, exposing them until the altar is made ready again to celebrate on Easter Sunday.

This photo is of the stripped altar in the Lady Chapel at St Nicholas’. I love its elegant, elongated form.

These crosses, beautifully tactile, usually hidden from view, are just about my favourite piece of symbolism in the symbol-rich Christ-shaped imagination of the Church. Our hands, our feet, our heart, none of which escape wounding, are to be conformed to his likeness. What we do, where we go, and what motivates us, not for our glory but, for the most part hidden, one with him. Our mandate, to love one another, as he has loved.

 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Drops of blood

 

I’m always interested in cultural-creative references to the Bible—my PhD focused on such uses in popular music from the 1960s-90s—and this is no exception. An artistic adaption of Nike trainers emblazoned with the reference Luke 10:18, ‘He [that is, Jesus] said to them [his disciples], “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning…”’

The trainers also contain a drop of human blood, and I want to juxtapose that against the Gospel reading for Morning Prayer today, Luke 22:24-53. This passage includes the account of Jesus praying immediately prior to his arrest, wrestling with what he knows is to come and pouring out his heart to the Father. It includes verses 43 & 44, which read, [[Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]]

The double editorial brackets [[ ]] indicate that these are disputed verses. They are present in some of the ‘ancient authorities’ (earliest surviving copies of the text, and commentaries on the texts) but not in others. They have either been added, adorning the text; or censored, an attempted removal from circulation. Drops of human blood are controversial.

The linked article also notes the ‘Christian nationalism’ backlash, of which Nike is an innocent victim. The call to fight, hard, for the very soul of the youth of the nation is as predictable as it is disappointing. The way of Jesus is that blood voluntarily shed, without resistance, (somehow, ultimately) brings about reconciliation. Indeed, at his arrest, one of his disciples attacks with a sword, cutting off the ear of one of the crowd sent to take Jesus into custody; but Jesus categorically rejects this course of action, touches the severed ear and heals the wounded slave.

Nike have every right to seek to protect their reputation, against a powerful political lobby. But the idea that these shoes are a threat to souls, rather than the opening up of a conversation about the kingdom of God breaking in—to the kingdoms of the USA, or free-market economics, or culture wars, or insert your own—is reactionary, defensive, and misses out on grace. Rather than praying, “Father, if you are willing, remove these shoes from us…” we might better pray, “…yet, not my will but yours be done.”

 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Acquainted

 

“Blessed are you, Lord God of our salvation,

to you be praise and glory for ever.

As a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief

your only Son was lifted up

that he might draw the whole world to himself.

May we walk this day in the way of the cross

and always be ready to share its weight,

declaring your love for all the world.

Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Blessed be God for ever.”

 

This is a prayer that is said at the start of the time of Morning Prayer in Holy Week, the days leading up to Easter. It is a blessing directed to God—that is, a recognition of the ‘fit-ness’ or fit-for-purpose of God’s nature—that invites us to notice that God is not indifferent to human sorrows and grief, but that it is in God’s very coming alongside us in the experience of suffering that we may be drawn into that place of reconciliation, of wholeness, that is found in Jesus Christ.

And walking in this way, we may discover that an acquaintance with sorrow is our blessing also, that only the person who identifies with sorrow and grief is truly a person at all, one who is formed by and for compassion.

We expend so much energy trying to shield ourselves, and those whom we love, from the sorrows and grief of life—I weep every time I hear a parent say, “I just want my children to be happy”—and our efforts contribute to the pushing-apart of the whole world, to its destruction. We have never needed Holy Week more than we do now. Lord, have mercy.