Thursday, July 14, 2022

time and eternity

 


Photo credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl, Carina Nebula


Within time, we are aware of past, present, and future.

Within eternity, we are aware of what was, what is, what is to come. Or, in Jesus, of the One who was and is and is to come.

These are not the same.

Whenever we carry the past with us, it is a burden. This week, I have sat with a family who have been haunted for five generations by a baby stillborn almost ninety years ago. Such generational post-traumatic distress is not unusual. The future harbours as many ghosts again.

When we carry eternity in our hearts, that is to say, when we consciously choose to dwell on what was (and is and is to come, held by God) rather than on the past (present, and future) then we experience life in its fullness.

This week we have seen incredible images from deep space, the labour wards of stars, light long vanished still shining. We have already come to know that the dust referenced in the words

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return

is stardust, and not only the soil beneath our feet. That we are part of something far more vast than we can ever imagine. What was and is and is to come.

More wonderful still, we are loved, and can return love; a four-score-years perfection, billions of years in the making. In one of the great prayers of thanksgiving offered when we break bread and share wine (Eucharistic Prayer F) we declare:

Lord God, you are the most holy one,
enthroned in splendour and light,
yet in the coming of your Son Jesus Christ
you reveal the power of your love
made perfect in our human weakness.

May you know that your frail body carries eternity, that our biographies are more than histories. May you know the love of Christ this day, and for ever.

 

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

run, walk, run

 


Yesterday afternoon, I went for a run on my own. I had decided that I would head over the Wearmouth Bridge, dropping down to run along the river, past the Queen Alexandra Bridge and on as far as the Northern Spire Bridge, cross back to the south side of the river and back as far as the Queen Alex, then home along the cycle path.

It was warmer than I had anticipated, and harder going. At the Alex, I reassessed, cutting the third bridge from my route. Even then, I had to drop to a walk climbing up from the riverbank and crossing the bridge (the light and dark blue sections on the map). I was dehydrated, and had pushed too hard, and my Achilles is telling me so this morning.

Running often brings me closer to God, and to myself. The word ‘soul’ means breath, our life-breath. Jesus said,

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:38-30)

There is, in these short verses, a beautiful invitation, to bring our heart (our capacity to make choices) and soul (our breath, which sometimes becomes laboured) and mind (our capacity to think, and feel, to learn experientially) and strength (our capacity to act, which grows weary over time and needs to be refreshed) together, into harmony, into rest. To move in God’s unforced power (that’s what ‘gentleness’ is getting at) recognising our dependence on God (this is what ‘humility’ means).

We discover in the Gospels that God moves at walking pace, at 3 miles an hour. At a pace where the breath is not laboured. Which is not to deny the place of effort, or the joy at the fruit of our labours that follows physically demanding activity; but to return, again and again, to a lightness of breath, a soul at peace with herself and the world.

 

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

the Other

 

Everything we thought we knew about the background of one of our greatest Olympians is wrong.

On several occasions, I have spoken as an expert witness and character witness at the appeal hearing of an asylum-seeker. The Home Office lawyer has always suggested that the person whose appeal is being heard is lying, and that I, along with all other ministers of religion, am naïve. I respond, you are clearly not an ignorant man; you are surely aware that frightened people lie to protect themselves from further perceived harm, and that traumatised people bury their past and construct origin stories as a survival mechanism: I can only assume that you are victim-blaming.

Mo Farah is not deserving of special treatment, that sets him apart from others in similar circumstances; but, rather, of the embrace and inclusion that all should receive. You don’t need to be an Olympian to build a new life and contribute to society, to British life.

I am thankful for the teachers who saw him, fought for him, who have helped him come to the time and place, years later, where he can tell a fuller story. And I am praying for all people like them, and for more people like them, who will embrace the Other.

 

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

how to be human

 

The Bible opens with two accounts, widely taken as creation stories. And they are, but, as I have argued at length elsewhere, not of the creation of the world by God (which is taken as a given) but of the creation of a new Israel. The poetic narrative of Genesis chapter 1 depicts the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple, and the exile into Babylon, and subsequent restoration, with the impact of that restoration on the good of the nations. The prose narrative of Genesis chapter 2 concerns Babylon (Eden), the Babylonian ruling dynasty (Adam), the ruling dynasty of the Medes (Eve), the population of Jerusalem taken into captivity in Babylon (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) and God with his people in exile (the tree of life).

The ability to discern between good and evil, and to choose for the good, is the defining characteristic of human beings, who are found in the likeness of God.

When we choose to ignore discernment between good and evil, determining that it is of no use to us, and ignore it consistently enough and for long enough, eventually we become less-than-human. Brute beasts of the field, without sense, or self-knowledge.

When we do this, we may take hold of all that we grasp, but in doing so we despoil that very thing, and all else with it. When a ruler grasps power in this way, eventually God’s forbearance reaches its end, and they are removed from their place.

This is what has become of our Prime Minister, though he has not yet arrived at the limits of God’s forbearance. He is a brute beast, unable to recognise good or evil, let alone tell them apart. It is a tragedy, for him, and a warning to all who look on him. And this is what is happening also to those who choose to sit at his table, serving at his pleasure. Tragedy begets tragedy.

Meanwhile, our land lies in ruins; and whatever light it held out to the nations, not on account of any special place in the divine economy but because all peoples are called to let their light shine, is obscured.

And yet the foundational story of the people of this God is one of restoration of hope. And, rooted in this story, I am not dismayed.

 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

priest, offering, altar

 

There’s a prayer we say after receiving Communion, that goes,

Almighty God,
we thank you for feeding us
with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies
to be a living sacrifice.
Send us out
in the power of your Spirit
to live and work to your praise and glory.
Amen.

In the Gospel set for Holy Communion today, Matthew 9:1-8, we meet a group of people who carry a paralysed man to Jesus. The Greek text suggests that they are bringing this man to Jesus as one would bring a sacrifice to God, and that he was on a low couch such as was used to recline at a meal table.

These people inherently recognise that Jesus is the altar of God, at which the bread of God is offered. These people, including the paralysed man, symbolically act as Aaronic priests, in contrast to the priests in the temple at Jerusalem. Moreover, the paralysed man is not only priest but also offering carried to the altar.

However, these priests and this offering fall short of the instruction of the Law. For Moses instructed Aaron, concerning his descendants, that no one who is lame may approach the altar to offer the bread of God. He may eat of it, but not bring it. And, while every firstborn male of flock or herd was to be consecrated to the Lord, being eaten in the Lord’s presence at the place of his choosing, no lame firstborn was to be eaten in this way. Such a blemished offering was to be eaten in the people’s own towns and cities, but not in the Lord’s presence in the place of his choosing.

As both priest and offering, the paralysed man falls short, doubly so, and with him, those with him, by association. But Jesus, seeing their faith, sends away the shortfall, forgives them their sins. And when onlookers object to this interpretation of the Law, Jesus demonstrates his authority by restoring the paralysed man to physical strength. Not out of able-ism, but in placing the letter of the Law in service of the spirit of the Law and not the other way around.

Which brings us back to where we started, to understanding ourselves to be living sacrifices, offered on the altar that is Jesus, the bread of life; and sent out by him to live and work to the praise and glory of God.

 

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Choose blessing

 

As I was mowing the front lawn, a large bird crapped on my head from such a great height that it stung.

Some would say that it is lucky, to be crapped on by a bird. But while I believe in luck—believe in a playful Creator god who would give birth to such an element of chance in the universe—by its very nature (at least, as I understand it) luck cannot be tamed or trained by human skill.

I do not believe that good luck is coming to me, carried on the wings of this portent. But I can choose to curse, or to bless, the bird.

Blessed are you, o bird,
for you are free:
you live unburdened by regret,
free to let go of whatever is
in excess of your needs,
whatever is surplus
to your nourishment,
without shame.

And blessed are you,
for you interrupt my
preoccupations
without fear,
and bring me down
just enough, in my own eyes,
to lift me up, and
lift up any who would
interrupt me this day.


Monday, June 27, 2022

Blessings

 

Twice, this evening, I have been called upon to give a blessing.

Having walked with Jo to the running club, from where she was boarding a minibus to take part in a women-only race, I was asked whether I had turned up to give the team a blessing. In fact, by the time the question was posed, I had already given my blessing, in the form of strawberry, galia and watermelon skewers I’d made for the picnic after the race.

On the way home, I passed my friend and neighbour Mario, mowing his lawn, and crossed over the road to say hello. Gardening is not his favourite thing. As we talked, and he took a break from pulling up weeds, another friend passed by, and stopped, and joined in the conversation. Mario jokingly claimed I had come by to bless his weeds. I jokingly responded that he should ask me to curse them instead. As we talked, Mario’s wife came out of the house, and the joke was repeated. After she drove off and we continued to chat, three men, one standing on the garden terrace above us, one leaning on the garden wall, one (me) sitting on the wall, several other friends from the running club came running along the pavement towards us. I stretched out my hand to high five them as they passed.

On reflection, and joking aside, Mario was right, and I was wrong. For it was a blessing that the weeds in his garden needed, and not a curse. And it was a blessing that they received.

To bless is to see something for what it is, for what it is in its own right and not its utility towards us; to suspend judgement on whether it is a good thing or a bad thing; and to become open to receiving its blessing in return: not necessarily the blessing we think we want (it would be nice not to have to do the gardening so often) but the blessing it has, to bestow on us.

Blessed are you,

rosebay willow herb growing in Mario’s garden,

for you gave occasion for our paths to meet this day,
and invitation to stop and talk a while,
with other friends and neighbours,
and will do so again.

Blessed are you, oh grass,
for you turn sun and soil and water into life,
and by the sweat of our brow
that did not bring you forth
but enables you to flourish within bounds,
we discover again that we are also alive,
gift of the same God,
and flourish, within the bounds of birth and death
and where we have been planted
and with whom.

Blessed are you, Mario’s garden,

for, despite his protestations,
and despite my own,
you bring us together.

 

More tea, and best biscuits

 

It is a standing joke that vicars drink a lot of tea, so much so that the question “More tea, vicar?” is a recognised standard phrase or saying in the English language. The practice of clergy, and indeed lay members of a local congregation, to pay home visits to their parishioners derives, at least in part, from Jesus’ instruction to some of his earliest followers, sent out ahead of him, to enter a house and eat and drink whatever is set before them. In my case, almost always, chocolate biscuits washed down with tea.

‘After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”’ (Luke 10:1-9)

‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to his house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.’ This is Jesus the Jew, upholding the Jewish welcome: ‘Shalom aleichem’ ‘Aleichem shalom,’ ‘Peace unto you’ ‘Unto you, peace,’ a blessing mirrored by the Islamic ‘Salaam alaykum’ ‘Alaykum salaam’ and, in a weaker construction, the Christian ‘Peace be with you’ ‘And also with you’. The person who speaks expresses their readiness to make unity between themselves and the other. The one who responds does not merely acknowledge that desire, but affirms that they, too, want this peace. And in their agreement, that unity, which is of God and found in heaven, is brought into the physical world. Or, as Jesus expresses it, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

This nearness is to be found when people sit down together over food and drink, take time to be together, to get to know one another. And with this, Jesus says, ‘kai therapeuete tous en autē astheneis,’ ‘and cure the sick who are there.’ The word ‘therapeuó,’ the root of our English word ‘therapy,’ means ‘I care for, attend, serve, treat, especially of a physician; hence, I heal’ while ‘astheneis’ refers to those who are ‘without strength, weak, infirm, sick’. Jesus is instructing those he sends to care for the housebound infirm, which in my context would include both those who are permanently housebound on account of age or physical frailty, and those who are temporarily without strength due to the devastating impact of bereavement. When I sit and listen to a family tell the life-story of their loved one who has died, or an elderly parishioner tell me stories of their childhood, I am curing the sick, one cup of tea at a time. (Indeed, I share in the ‘cure [care] of souls,’ which is both my bishop’s and mine.)

But Jesus also sends out his followers in vulnerability, ‘like lambs into the midst of wolves,’ without means or resource, dependent on welcome and the hospitality of strangers. In other words, there is a mutuality to this. The guest enables the cure of the host as the host cares for, cures, the guest. We do not bring peace, wholeness, to a household. We bring our desire to be at peace, to live in wholeness, with our neighbour; and peace is made manifest between us when they agree, and together we sit under the blessing of peace.

We do not bring the kingdom of God to our neighbours; we discover its nearness in their welcome.

There is nothing trivial about sitting with our neighbours over food and drink. In fact, there is almost nothing more important, which is why the lupine world will throw everything it can at you to ensure you are simply too busy to do so. But your visiting, of even just one home (it is the commitment to relationship that matters, not more relentless superficial socialising), is making a torn-apart world whole again.