Monday, March 01, 2021

The sun and the mist

 




The sun rose this morning; but then the sea mist rolled in, turning the disc of the sun from gold to silver before obscuring it completely, scattering and diffusing its light.

I am reminded of Ecclesiastes, one of my favourite books of the Bible, which speaks of life in terms of what is enduring, and ephemeral. The sun rises and sets; winter gives way to spring, gives way to summer, gives way to autumn, gives way to winter again; rain feeds rivers, which run to the sea, from where clouds rise, to fall as rain; we are born, live, and die, giving birth to and burying others along the way, and so life goes on. We live in, and as part of, a fundamentally dependable, ordered creation; and everything is beautiful in its time, wearisome when we try to hold it back or hold on to it—for we can no more do so than grasp the mist in our closed fist. Life endures; life is fleeting. Receive the moment, for what it is, and the next, for what it will be.

 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Transfiguration


‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

‘As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.’

Mark 9:2-9

If I may be honest, I have been finding recent weeks hard going. I know that I am not alone in this. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but in the meantime, to press that analogy, the railway carriage is claustrophobic. I am not taking in the mountain air. I cannot even watch the mountains drawing ever nearer through the window: only the ghost of the carriage reflected back at me. How do I meet with God, in this airless box?

The gospel reading for this Sunday is truly astonishing. It takes the seemingly ordinary, and reveals something extraordinary, as we shall see. And that might be exactly what is needed, today.

Our passage is set in a time when nothing has happened for six days. ‘Six days’ echoes the six ‘days,’ or epochs, of creation; and so, six days is more than the inside of a week: these days, in which nothing creative is recorded, sprawl on and on, outside of time. These days could just as well describe the insubstantial days I have ghost-walked through since last Sunday. And six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John.

In recent days, various combinations of our household have gone out for a walk around the block. But this phrase Mark chooses, took with him, is more than a record of who came along. It is the same word Matthew uses when he recounts an angel telling Joseph do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. It means to actively, intentionally, join another person or persons to yourself. In this action, Jesus brings Peter and James and John into covenant relationship with himself, to the effect that from here-on in you can read ‘Jesus and Peter and James and John’ as ‘Jesus-Peter-James-John,’ or ‘Jesus = Jesus + Peter + James + John.’ An ordinary little phrase, took with him, that transforms all their identities.

Next, Jesus led them up a high mountain. Again, the phrase ‘led them up’ means more than simply that they were out for a ramble with Jesus out in front. These words are used to describe offering something up a sacrifice, and also to bring something through a sequence of stages to a consummation or goal. In other words, Jesus joins his friends to himself as one common identity—later described as the Body of Christ—and presents that new being to his heavenly Father, in order that it might reach its ultimate purpose.

And this is revealed in what happens next. Jesus was transfigured before them. Now, unlike ‘took with’ or ‘led them up,’ ‘transfigured’ is not exactly an everyday word to us. And yet, it describes something absolutely familiar. It is the same word from which we get ‘metamorphosis,’ where something changes form in keeping with its inner reality. It describes the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly; or an acorn, an oak tree. Acorns don’t look anything like oak trees; but they are one in substance. We can confidently say that acorns don’t become butterflies. We can also observe that oak trees produce new acorns, and so the lifecycle carries on.

When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, what we are seeing is the Church, embryonic in Peter and James and John, as it will be in maturity, once the Son of Man (a communal term Jesus borrows from the prophet Daniel to refer to himself as representative of his followers) had risen from the dead. We are beholding the acorn and seeing the oak tree. We are observing the caterpillar and imagining the butterfly on the other side of the traumatic death-and-rebirth of the cocoon tomb. And there to witness this vision are Elijah and Moses, both of whom had solid credentials in witnessing God pass by them on a mountaintop, neither of whom had directly seen that divine glory revealed in this life.

Despite being terrified, the three friends grasp the significance of this fairly well. In suggesting that they build three tabernacles, for Jesus and Moses and Elijah—no mention of themselves—they have understood that they are now one with Jesus. But—nod to Moses and Elijah—the mountain itself, with its clefts and caves and cloud covering, is the place of meeting with God on the mountain; the tabernacle is the place of meeting with God in the valley. Go down, Moses, Elijah. Go down, Jesus-plus. Go down, press on to death and the tomb, trusting in love that is stronger than death and in the new life that springs from that love.

And what of us, in our confinement, acorn buried in the hard winter ground awaiting the spring? What about us in the shabby reality of our present circumstances, a Church that is so far from all that God would have us be, her clothes stained by scandals and injustices so ingrained that no launderer on earth could bleach them clean?

Even here, Jesus takes the initiative; comes and takes us to himself, not to a place but into the closest imaginable lifelong relationship; lifts us up, presenting us before the Father, into their shared delight; and brings us through to maturity, not back to how things once were but to where they are heading, to an altogether greater glory. That is where we are going, together. To be honest, some days I identify more with Elijah, with Moses, with seeing only in my minds eye what others will experience in their bones. And yet, Jesus. And yet, Jesus.

Perhaps we might make three dwellings after all, not on the mountaintop but in the valley of the shadow of death; and learn to embrace the now-and-not-yet—the kingdom at hand, breaking-in, and the kingdom yet-to-come—as Jesus brings us through the sequence of stages that end in the consummation we long for? Before we get to Eastertide, we must journey through Lent. May God grant us a vision of that glory, to strengthen us to endure these days.


Reading between the lines


No perfect sheet of snow on our drive this morning. By the time I had got up, the milkman had already trudged his way up to our door, and back.

I love a blank page. But what is perfection? A fresh sheet, waiting, ready to receive a million possible stories? Or the page on which a story has already been written down, one in a million, started out at least?

The memory of the milkman’s boots.

I can find opening the door to the cold air and stooping down to lift up the crate—six bottles, one with snow crystals on its neck—deeply satisfying AND savour the exquisite disappointment of spoiled snow, right? Or am I wanting to have my breakfast cereal, and keep it?


Blackbird


A tiny scalene triangle, goldenrod orange, catches my eye as it bobs and jerks in the hedge across the lawn. The ivy that creeps along the fence and climbs through the for-now bare branches is too dark a backdrop for me to make out the blackbird itself—to which the wagging beak surely belongs—but I watch anyway, until he breaks cover at the hedge-top and pins me with his rimmed eye. Good morning to you!

 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Trespass

A troupe of primary school children are crocodiled past our house by their teachers. I hear them coming before I see them through my study window. They marvel at the expanse of virgin snow covering our driveway, and one is brave enough to dare a small detour—a tiny trespass—describing an arc of boot prints between the pillars, the beautiful blank canvas gone in a heartbeat. The other children are thrilled by the audacity, but this child will go far


Snow


The ground is more-or-less white, not deep, but freshly falling snow is already filling the prints left by my cat when she reluctantly ventured outside to toilet earlier on. Cold out.

I sit by the window and watch people pass by along the main road. A couple walking a Spaniel, who is clearly far more excited by the snow than my cat is. Mind you, is there anything that doesn’t excite a Spaniel?

Sitting in the same place yesterday, I watched a blackbird eye to eye through the glass, plucking red berries from the shrub growing along the front wall of the vicarage. Beneath the hedge beyond the lawn, a regular robin, a fleeting wren. Snow crystals settle on the tiny shrubbery leaves, shivering in the breeze. There are no birds out today.

Another dog walker. This time a West Highland terrier, white hair and dark pink coat, straining at its lead, shaking its beard at a tree.

We might run later, after work. Or maybe not.

Whatever your response to snow—or, indeed, whatever the circumstances you face this day—may you be blessed with whatever grace you need to grasp hold of life.

 

Ashes

 

God our Father,

you create us from the dust of the earth:

grant that these ashes may be for us

a sign of our penitence

and a symbol of our mortality;

for it is by your grace alone

that we receive eternal life

in Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Amen.

 

This year, Ash Wednesday is on 17th February*. This year, due to coronavirus restrictions, I am unable to impose ashes upon foreheads. This year, some question whether a reminder of our mortality is what is needed. And this year, I approach this day against the backdrop of watching Russell T Davies’ incredible It’s a Sin.

To be clear, this five-part series depicting the lives of a group of (mostly) gay young men living (and far too often tragically dying) through the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s won’t be suitable for everyone. There are a lot of explicit sex scenes, though these are in no way gratuitous, but integral and essential to the story being told, the lives being honoured. There are painful scenes of the void between parents and sons, the gulf between the necessary institutions of society and a compassionate society. You’d need to make your own decision on whether to watch or not. My wife and I are watching with our teenage sons (and the only reason we aren’t watching with our teenage daughter is that she has already left home).

Ash Wednesday is about truth and grace: about acknowledging our mortality in its heart-bursting joy and heart-breaking pain; about recognising our failures and the complex ways in which we wound one another—through weakness, through negligence, through our own deliberate fault—and receiving forgiveness for guilt and cleansing for shame. It’s a Sin is a touching exploration of all of these things. (It also sits well with the life-lessons of Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament book the lectionary for Morning Prayer is working its way through at the moment.)

I do not believe that HIV/AIDS was God’s judgement on homosexuality. I am more inclined to believe that it was God’s judgement on wider society for our refusal to embrace gay sons, though I am not convinced even of that. In any case, there are times when our hearts must be broken and made new. I’m not sure how far we have come in British culture, in terms of sons (in particular) talking openly and honestly to their parents about, well, anything of importance to them. I’m not sure how far we have come in how we face up to a mysterious and terrifying epidemic that is spreading through the community, either.

There are times when there is nothing that we can do to change the circumstances, and we must choose between daring to love fiercely or pushing away unbearable pain. The pain is real, and beyond bearing in our own strength, whichever way we decide. We are but dust, and to dust we shall return; but, for now at least, we are animated dust—dust that, as an eloquent friend of mine puts it, sings. Oh, the songs!

There are times when we can, and must, change circumstances, at least to a mitigating extent; where we must reckon with both our responsibility towards our neighbour, and our limits. 100,000 deaths with Covid since last Ash Wednesday would suggest that we need a different approach to bravado. That we need this moment this year as much as any other.

If you have not already watched It’s a Sin, and if you can bear it, it might be something to consider as we contemplate our lives in the shadow of an ashen cross.

Lord, have mercy.

 

*The date of Ash Wednesday moves around, tied, as it is, to the date of Easter Sunday, which is, in turn, tied to the lunar cycle; in contrast to, say, Christmas Day, which is always the same date, and instead wanders around the days of the week.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

New day



A new day dawns. There is work to be done. For now, pause: breathe. Savour the gift of this moment. Re-centre yourself in the Giver of Life.

 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Last night we sat down to watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016). As with the more recent Jo-Jo Rabbit (2019), Taika Waititi—who in both cases wrote the screenplay adaptation of other people’s novels—shows that he is sensitive to a good story, a story-for-our-times; to children who are lonely and looking for a tribe to belong to; and adults who are, with good reason, suspicious of the dominant tribe; and what becomes of them.

To see the world equally convincingly through the eyes of vulnerable child and vulnerable adult is a rare gift. As a director, Taika Waititi is also clearly aware of others who might share this sensitivity. The chemistry between central child-and-adult actors, between Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and between Roman Griffin Davis and Scarlett Johansson in Jo-Jo Rabbit, is mesmerising, drawing you in to the story. So, too, the deftness with which dark humour and difficult subject matter (respectively, children’s social services in a broadly contemporary New Zealand, and the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany) combine in order to engage the audience. We may not all share rare levels of empathy, but we can be helped on the right path, to higher ground.

To be a ranger requires not only ‘the knack,’ but also learnt skills, and Taika Waititi’s learnt (and ongoing learning on the job) skills include the use of motif in storytelling. In Jo-Jo Rabbit it is as simple as tracking a pair of shoes. Hunt for the Wilderpeople employs a one-shot montage technique to convey the passing of time, recapping the story so far and moving it on, at times getting nowhere fast, at times covering ground at pace. Both motifs remind us that we leave a trail behind us as we go, which others may follow, paths crossing by purposeful intent or un/lucky chance.

Watching Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I am also provoked to reflect on the Church, as relationships between unlikely people, variously damaged and hurting people, whose lives are brought together by an intermediary who has, at different times, sought both parties out and welcomed both parties in. Who, in turn, come to realise their need of one another, following on from a growing (and perhaps grudging) affection for one another; who discover the need for repentance (which includes reparation and accountability) and forgiveness (which—though necessarily following true repentance—involves commitment to reconciliation) as the ongoing process towards deeply longed-for personal wholeness, societal healing and unity.

There is a scene in the film where Taika Waititi takes on the cameo role of a minister conducting a funeral, in which he notes:

 

Minister: “You know, sometimes in life, it seems like there’s no way out…like a sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves…And you know that if you’re ever in that situation, there are always two doors to choose from. And through the first door…oh, it’s easy to get through that door and on the other side waiting for you are all the nummiest treats you can imagine. Fanta, Doritos, L&P, Burger Rings, Coke Zero. But you know what? There’s also another door, not the Burger Ring door, not the Fanta door; another door that’s harder to get through. Guess what’s on the other side? Anyone want to take a guess?”

Ricky: “Vegetables?”

Minister: “N-No, not vegeta…No.”

Woman: “Jesus?”

Minister: “You would think Jesus. I thought Jesus the first time I-I-I-I came across that door. It’s not Jesus. It’s another door. And guess what’s on the other side of that door?”

Woman: “Jesus.”

Minister: “Jesus. Yeah, Jesus. He’s tricky like that, Jesus…So let us pray, to Jesus, please, and make it a bit easier to get through those doors, uh, to find you and your bounty of delicious confectionary.”

 

It is touchingly awkward, and yet profound. For in the initially disorienting space between the door and the door beyond the door, Jesus does indeed meet us, hidden in plain sight, and help us get through. That space, it turns out, might be a million hectares of New Zealand native forest (or, conversely, in Jo-Jo Rabbit, a cramped false room in an attic) or our own homes in a bungled pandemic lockdown. While we are here, you could do worse than watch (or re-watch) Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Who knows what you might find?

 


Thursday, December 31, 2020

Soul searching

We watched Disney Pixar’s Soul last night. This might well be a minority report, but I didn’t love it. There was too much “Look, we've worked out how to animate crowd scenes where every individual is unique!” and not enough story. And the jazz is excruciating, in a way that I suspect it would not be if we were listening to it being played live, but we are not.

Joe is a middle-aged man who experiences a crisis that (eventually, and only after a great deal of unsuccessfully trying to fix the problem) disrupts his self-absorption long enough to reveal the irony that his obsession with not living an insignificant life is the very thing preventing him from seeing the significance of life, shared and constructed with others. So far, so It's A Wonderful Life, or The Muppets Christmas Carol. The very slight twist is that this discovery comes less from omniscient spirits and more from helping (unwittingly) another soul who is literally too afraid to live—a character called 22, cue laboured improv and visual gags around catch-22. Nonetheless, other films explore this basic plot with greater deftness, including (not only the two classics mentioned above, but also) Pixar’s own Coco.

That said, there is a reason why this is a basic plot, one of those stories we revisit and find new ways to tell on a regular basis. Life is not about getting it right, or seeing our dreams come true just as we imagine them. Rather, its beauty comes from the ways in which we riff off one another, as we see the world through one another’s eyes. There is plenty to be awakened to here concerning discipleship, and vocation. But in this regard, the stories that surround and touch upon Joe’s story—his mother’s, his barber’s—are paths I’d rather explore…

 

Update: 03.01.2021

I wrote the other day that I had watched Disney Pixar’s Soul and didn’t love it, concluding that I would have been more interested in the story of Joe’s mother or barber. This engaging post helps me see why more clearly. And to be clear, yes, transformation from human form sometimes happens to White characters, too—think Queen Elinor (and the three young princes) in Brave—but representation, and how it is handled, matters.

 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Pieces

 


Elijah has decided that 3 missing pieces out of a brand new 1,000-piece jigsaw is mathematically acceptable. I’m torn—proud of his graciousness, but also thinking there are certain jobs (customer service, civil engineering) I hope he doesn’t take up. But, mostly, I am humbled, and learning from my son. Life is rarely about possessing all of the pieces; and resilience, maturity, and wholeness is constructed not through ‘perfection’ but through a sense of ‘enough’ to make sense, to see what you behold with understanding and an awareness of its imperfect beauty.

 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Advent day 26 (2020)

 


 

People of God: prepare!

God, above all, maker of all,

is one with us in Christ.

Maranatha!

Come, Lord Jesus!

God, the mighty God,

bends down in love to earth.

Maranatha!

Come, Lord Jesus!

God with us, God beside us,

comes soon to the world he has made.

Maranatha!

Come, Lord Jesus!

We are God’s children,

we seek the coming Christ.

Maranatha!

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

…we seek the coming Christ.

I wonder what it is that you hope for this Christmas? Perhaps you have had to revise your plans—and your expectations in line with them, refashioning them into something smaller in the hope of not being disappointed. Perhaps you hope for moments of joy, or peace, in the bitter-sweet bustle or boredom.

The Christ is a person, of course, but his coming is an event, and perhaps, even if you won’t be opening your door to far-flung relatives this year you might hope to welcome him. But our prayer goes beyond hoping, to an active searching-out: we seek the coming Christ. And if we might recognise him at some future arrival, we might do well to rehearse our part in his many unheralded arrivals, in rooms behind closed doors. How might you seek the coming Christ, hidden in plain sight, this Christmas? In whose eyes, or voice, might he be found?

 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Advent day 25 (2020)

 


 

People of God: prepare!

God, above all, maker of all,

is one with us in Christ.

Maranatha!

Come, Lord Jesus!

God, the mighty God,

bends down in love to earth.

Maranatha!

Come, Lord Jesus!

God with us, God beside us,

comes soon to the world he has made.

Maranatha!

Come, Lord Jesus!

We are God’s children,

we seek the coming Christ.

Maranatha!

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

God beside us, comes soon…

I had dropped into a local block of sheltered flats to deliver some small gifts, and the manager asked whether there was any possibility that I might organise some spatially distanced carol singing in the carpark, to cheer the residents. We put this morning in the diary. It has dawned the wettest day in days—Carols in the Carpark hastily rechristened Carols with Rain, Dear. Not a good morning to discover that I have left my umbrella behind somewhere, almost certainly at the other church I serve.

Whatever day God comes to us, we are never fully ready. There is never enough time—from our perspective, even as we long for the waiting to end. But that is okay. God doesn’t wait until all is perfect; God comes to make all things right. God beside us, in the mess of our lives, bringing chaos into harmony, making all things well.

 

Update: the rain held off!