Saturday, September 12, 2020

Dreams

Everybody has a dream, whether it is to be an astronaut when you grow up, or a bucket list to complete before you die.

Some people will tell you that People Like You have No Business having Dreams Like That. They might know you—sadly, they could be a teacher, or even a family member—but they don't care about you. The best thing you can do is ignore them; don’t even waste your precious energy proving them wrong (and yes, I know that is easier said than done).

Some people will tell you to Pursue Your Dream, may even be your cheerleader. But if that is all they have to say, then either they don't care about you any more than the haters do; or, they do care but no-one ever taught them what to do with dreams (and, sadly, this is commonplace).

Your dreams don’t want to be pre-emptively buried, or relentlessly chased; they want to be interpreted. And here, I’m not talking about while-you’re-asleep dreams and psychoanalysts (helpful though they can be). I’m talking about the way our waking dreams speak, and the way that we are made to speak into one another’s lives.

The ancient poetry of the Bible imagines us as being a fusion of clay and the breath of God. Of the mundane, and the magical. The poet Lucille Clifton described her life thus, “this bridge between starshine and clay”. Your dreams are the conversations between those two poles, about what they—you—want to experience in this world, which contains more than any one life can bear. Yet, because we are created for connection—for communion—with others, our component states don’t speak the same mother tongue. Hence, though we might learn to ‘get the gist’ of the conversation, we need others to help interpret the nuances, to follow the conversation fully. That is why, even though on the surface it may look a solo endeavour, Clifton’s words quoted above are from a poem titled Won’t you celebrate with me: though having no model to follow, this is a celebration shared with, and in part of, those who helped her shape a kind of life.

So, start asking clarifying questions of your dreams; and pray for the gift of people in your life who can help you understand what you hear. And though the kind of life you shape will not correspond with the dream, within it, we will celebrate.


Friday, September 11, 2020

Talk more

Stand in front of any urinal in any gents toilets in any motorway services in the country, and you will come face-to-face with an advert for either van insurance or erectile dysfunction.

The common denominator is a sense of loss, in forms targeting men. To be a man is to drive (and used to be—another loss—to fix your own engine). As for our penis, that is explicitly referred to as our ‘manhood’—though my internal jury is still out debating whether this is a false construction of manhood, or whether manhood itself is a false construct. In any case, the encouragement is for a quick fix: if your motor is stolen, we can get you going again. It is the same impulse behind (the success of) populism, the promise of making Britain Great again.

I don’t think men talk about van insurance much. We sure as hell don’t talk about erectile dysfunction. But the underlying taboo is admitting and navigating loss. Yet loss is a recurring part of life for all of us, and something that we can work through but could really do with not having to do it on our own. Help, not to find a fix, or a distraction, but to express appreciation and gratitude for what was good; to acknowledge the legitimacy of our grief; to articulate relief at the unhelpful baggage that has been lost with/in the loss; and to embrace the possibilities of a new season.

It seems to me that the mare that is 2020, and the occasion of Suicide Awareness Month, are good reasons to encourage men to talk more about loss, in all its forms. We’ve got this.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Heartache

You’ll hear people tell you to “follow your heart.” It is bad advice. The Bible tells us that the heart is the seat of our decision making, our capacity for free will; but also that it is unreliable. Don’t follow your heart, lead it; train it, according to wisdom.

With my heart of hearts, I want to go running. Because I love being with the people I run with; because it indirectly improves so many other areas of my life; and just because it is a joyful response to any glorious autumn day. With my heart of hearts, I want to go running.

But with a heavy heart, I need to say no to running for a season. To say no to the wanting to say yes, when my friends say, “we’re going running—who’s in?”

I have damaged something in my knee. There is a lateral weakness there. Last night, I was a looong way behind a pack I should, ordinarily, be right up there with; pushing through pain I ought to be listening to.

Today, a friend who has just torn his meniscus got in touch. Another friend, who ran with me last night, got in touch, to say I’d been on their mind all day. Everyone needs people like that in their lives.

With a heart so sad it is in my boots, I need to put my running shoes in the closet and walk away. For now, and for as long as it takes. If I’m lucky, my body will regenerate itself (they're brilliant like that). If not, I might need to seek professional help (they’re brilliant like that).

But, if you catch me flirting with going for a run, please help me to not follow my heart.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

Ancestors

The year the world was introduced to Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challah / Black Panther, Boseman was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer. Everything he went on to do with that and other roles, he did while being hollowed out, from the inside out, by the cancer and by his surgeons. This is, now, his legacy.

Chances are, you don’t have cancer right now; but, also, that you are being hollowed out by some malaise of our times. Chances are even higher you aren’t a Hollywood actor; but, nonetheless, your life-work tells a story that can inspire others.

The best way I know of to both overcome the gnawing and live a life that invites others to live their life fully—and I think Boseman knew this—is to sit in the counsel of the ancestors before you sit in the council of the ancestors.

For me, this is very much still an ongoing struggle. Salve, Chadwick Boseman. Rest in peace and power. Rise in glory.


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Strengthened

The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today are 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 and Matthew 24:42-51.

[1] In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable in which the master to whom we are all accountable is delayed in returning, in which the one given charge of the household might persist in diligent service of others or take opportunistic advantage to exploit those for whom they have oversight.

[2] In the opening verses of what is commonly referred to as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but is in fact Paul and Sosthenes’ letter, they write, not once but twice, of being strengthened to endure: ‘just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you’…’He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be faithful on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

This is no coincidence. Sosthenes’ name combines two root words, the first meaning to save or be saved, and the second meaning to strengthen or be strengthened. As a ‘Christian’ name (as a name given new focus and purpose by Christ) it points to the One who both saves and strengthens.

[3] Today, the Church remembers Monica, the black African mother who prayed for seventeen years that her son, Augustine, might come to put his hope in Jesus. For seventeen years, there was no evidence that her prayers were heard, let alone being answered. There was no evidence that Augustine was being drawn back to the faith Monica had raised him in as a child. And yet, after seventeen years her prayer was answered. Augustine went on to become a great theologian, and, indeed, a bishop.

I cannot think of Monica this year without thinking also of Julia Jackson, the black American mother of Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man shot seven times in the back by a so-called law enforcement officer. And of her prayer for the healing, not only of her son but—from before he was shot to public attention—of her racially divided nation.

[4] Yesterday, the theologian Miroslav Volf posted on Facebook, ‘When we lack reasons for optimism, hope is what we need. Optimism is about the future that grows out of the present. Hope is about the future beyond the possibilities latent in the present. Like the birth of Isaac, the object of hope is a new thing not coming from the situation we are in, but from God.’

There is nothing in Julia Jackson’s situation to be optimistic about, just as there was no reason for Monica to be optimistic. It is hope, alone, that resists despair, or the abandonment of doing what is right in favour of doing what is expedient or self-serving.

[5] We need to experience strengthening, because we are in this for the long haul, before we will see that which we hope for made manifest in our situation. The mother who prays for her children’s future, as she takes them to the food bank. The army veteran, contemplating suicide as they struggle with civilian life. The elderly man whose wife died not so long ago and whose daughter has just died of cancer, who cannot even imagine tomorrow and needs strength just for today, and today, and today, until tomorrow dawns. We need to know that the One who has saved us, and is saving us, and will save us, has strengthened us and is strengthening us and will strengthen us.

This is why Paul writes with Sosthenes.

 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Forbearance

The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today was 1 Samuel 26, an extract from the life of David. At this point in his life, David and his companions are outlaws. The older, power-holding and deeply insecure king Saul is seeking to take away their hope of a future, and they have been betrayed, to Saul’s advantage (and not for the first time) by the wider community around them. David takes a friend with him, and together they sneak into Saul’s camp by night, indeed, right into Saul’s tent while he and his right-hand-men are caught sleeping.

David’s friend sees this as a moment of opportunity, to rid themselves of Saul once-and-for-all. But David will not permit it. Saul’s downfall will come, in God’s time not at David’s hand. Instead, he takes Saul’s spear and water jar, and retreats to a safe distance. From there, he wakes the guard, exposing their incompetence, but keeping the focus on the injustice of Saul’s actions, humbly asking to be heard and using the situation to appeal for reconciliation. In this, David succeeds, albeit that Saul, true to form, will later go back on his promises.

In his wisdom, David sets an example for us in our own polarised context, and at a time when our young people find themselves thrown under the bus, of forbearance. Of refusing to enact character assassination by social media or perpetuate strife, while nonetheless exposing incompetence and highlighting injustice and taking a stand for the future of our young people, and other marginalised groups.

There is much heat and very little light this summer around (clear) governmental sleep-walking incompetence and injustice. The outstanding question is, how will the Church support young people to grow into their calling in such a world?


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

How To Be An Anti-Racist





This summer, I have been seeking to grow in my understanding of racism; to examine my own life in an ongoing, life-long process of repentance and belief, or, turning away from a particular outlook and pressing into a new one. To help me, I have been reading (and lining up yet-to-read) and listening in on conversations. I have sought to learn from female and male voices; UK-based and US-based and other global voices; Christian, Muslim, and secular voices; written and spoken voices—all while recognising that this is a life-long challenge, not a summer-long challenge.

I’ve just finished Ibram X. Kendi's How to be an Anti-racist. I would strongly recommend it, as being both helpful and hopeful. In marked contrast to much of the noise around this cultural moment, Kendi is unwaveringly honest about the complexity of the issue at hand (including about his own dishonesty). Though he wouldn’t use the terms, Kendi models an ongoing practice of what Jesus calls “repent and believe”—and the often painful or embarrassing moments of revelation that move us on from one stage in our journey to the next.

Kendi contends that the root of racism is what he terms powerful self-interest (I would also use the terms selfishness and self-centredness) which enacts racist policies and then creates racist ideas to justify itself. This, in contrast to the view that racist ideas result in racist policies which result in racist power. And while human beings in every age have known powerful self-interest, Kendi contends that racism, as we see it today, is only around 400 years old, an expression of modernity, conjoined from birth with economics. While humanity is not going to rid ourselves of self-interest, racism is not inevitable.

One of the key learnings for me is Kendi’s recognition that you cannot change hearts and minds in order to change bad policies that are, ultimately, killing us all. That approach is too abstract; and there is too great a sense of fear at what we will lose. Instead, we need to change policies (which requires taking opportunities to challenge, and to shape and test and refine and assess and repeat-the-process, policies). Hearts and minds will follow.

For me, so much of this book, written from a secular outlook, chimes with the gospel. With the repeated challenge and invitation throughout scripture from genesis to revelation to embrace the stranger, to reject othering—and to reject making others invisible in a false post-other-ing. With the repeated challenge to put to death our desire to be at the centre—to die to self—and to live for others, preferring them over ourselves. With the call to repent and believe, again and again and again. With the body politic and economic of the kingdom of heaven as an alternative society in the midst of the world, however (inevitably) imperfect it may be. And all in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I am grateful for Ibram X. Kendi’s voice.


Thursday, July 23, 2020

More or less

The Gospel reading set for holy Communion today is Matthew 13:10-17. An excerpt:

‘[Jesus] answered [his disciples], ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the crowds] it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ (vv. 11, 12)

The key question facing God’s people in every time and place is, will your values and your corresponding actions be shaped by God’s values and corresponding actions; or will they be shaped by the values and corresponding actions of the world around you, such that you are indistinguishable from anyone else?

‘For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ The world applies this principle to money, and to power. The world—which, in biblical language does not refer to a neutral description of how things are, let alone a positive description of how things ought to be, but rather a description of how things are in rebellion against God’s character of justice, mercy, and loving-kindness, expressed in particular concern for the most vulnerable in society. The world is built on hierarchies—race, and ethnicity; gender, and sexuality; economics, and (narrowly-defined) education—designed to keep some people consolidating power at the top, at the expense of those further down, whose very existence threatens the status quo. And so, we are encouraged to see those ‘below’ us, rather than those ‘above’ us, wherever we are located, as the threat to our existence. Such hierarchies are thoroughly normalised—the way the world is.

But when Jesus says, ‘For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’ he is referring to ‘the secrets of the kingdom of heaven’. That is to say, the more you take hold of the kingdom of heaven, the more it takes hold of you. What, then, are its secrets?

Well, within the Gospel According to Matthew, those secrets are laid out in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7), beginning with the Beatitudes that proclaim that it is those people whom we have been unconsciously educated to view as cursed and abandoned by God, to whom God is in fact closest. In Jesus’ insistence on love of enemies, riding ourselves of judgementalism, and in everything doing to others as you would have them do to you, the Sermon reveals another secret, the rejection of othering, of building and policing and perpetuating hierarchies that position us as superior to others. In his invitation and challenge to reject anxiety about food and clothing, another secret, utter dependence on God. As the gospel continues to unfold, Jesus reveals that those who would strive to enjoy life according to the world’s values will ultimately lose a meaningful life, while those who risk all on him will find what they long for (10:39). Highly educated powerful men are in the dark, while infants are let-in on the secret (11:25-27). And in his parables, seeds die in the ground, yeast loses itself in leavening bread, people sell all they possess in order to take hold of the greater prize, a net only serves its purpose when thrown into the sea (Matthew 13). And all of this is heading towards Jesus, naked and beaten, hung out to die on an executioner’s scaffold…before being raised by God and given all authority on earth and in heaven.

And the key question facing God’s people in every time and place remains, will your values and your corresponding actions be shaped by God’s values and corresponding actions; or will they be shaped by the values and corresponding actions of the world around you, such that you are indistinguishable from anyone else?

Again, and again, throughout scripture we are first warned and then shown that our decision has consequences.


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Pressing on

Two things I am appreciating this July:

on Monday evenings, listening-in on a series of four conversations between Denis Adide and Richard Moy on racism and anti-racism—and Denis’ reading lists;

and on Tuesday evenings, taking part in a series of four Bible studies on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, hosted by St George’s House.

In Philippians chapter 3, Paul lists the many hierarchies which have enabled him to benefit personally;

rehearses his coming to realise that he needed (not to disown his sense of self—not a self-loathing and hatred of his background—but) to deconstruct those privileges in order to participate more fully in what God was calling him (and others) to in Jesus Christ;

and calls those he is writing to, to imitate him in this ongoing act of leaving behind and pressing on towards the goal which is yet to be realised.

The pattern holds.