The aging process reveals the heart, and has a beauty of its own that is quite distinct from the much-prized outward beauty of youth.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Education Minister Michael Gove has called for longer school hours and shorter school holidays. This, he believes, will help working parents; and reverse the disadvantage our children are currently at in the global economic competition with Asian children.
This makes sense, if working parents are what parents are, primarily: homo operarius; and if this is what children are born to become, whether they themselves have children of their own or not. If ‘Arbeit macht frei.’
Jesus asked the question, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?”
Jesus asked a lot of questions. He asked more questions than he gave answers. He undermined the assumptions of the self-assured, and opened up space for another way of experiencing the world to be discovered.
What might it mean, to forfeit one’s soul? Might it mean to lose oneself, to surrender the unique gift God has given to you, in you, which he has never given before and will never give again? To be so subsumed in the pursuit of gain external to oneself – money, power, fame – that one is lost to oneself...and, therefore, to the possibility of relationship with another, whether our Creator or our neighbour? To merely exist, when one might have lived?
In his approach – both inquisitive and provocative – Jesus drew on an earlier teacher, identified as the Teacher, whose key discovery and lesson was that anything pursued to excess – study, play, work, advancement in the world, riches – loses its true value as a gift from God to be enjoyed in its time. We are not masters of our own destiny, but in attempting to be so we will find ourselves dissatisfied with the present and disappointed with the future. You can read this view of holistic education for life in the book known as Ecclesiastes in the Christian Old Testament, or Qohelet in the Hebrew Bible.
Today is the festival of George, martyr, patron of England. The story goes that George was a knight (or at least, a soldier) who fought a dragon (or possibly a crocodile; or may have stood up to a human tyrant, and therefore defeated a work of the devil, that serpent of old: anyway, it’s complicated...). Without question, he had nothing to do with England, but was adopted by English knights on the Crusades.
Patron saints are strange creatures, and the stories we tell about them take on a life of their own, shaping us in turn, long after the stories are lost and the ‘saint’ stands as a hyper-real sign that represents something that does not exist but is presented, and indeed consumed, as real: in this case, ‘Englishness.’
Here are some competing Georges and dragons, some competing Englishnesses, for St George’s Day:
George the ‘immigrant’ who represents the inclusion of other peoples and cultures within Englishness;
George the soldier who sets out on his travels, setting other people free from that which tyrannises them, whatever form it might take;
George the superior military might who inflates crocodiles into dragons and personifies mortal men as evil incarnate in order to perpetuate a status as liberator;
George the dragon;
George the symbol of racism;
George the deeply ironic symbol of racism, exposing the vulnerable belly of the beast and cutting it open with its own sword;
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer divides the population into two neat columns, the Strivers (+) and the Shirkers (-), he is indulging in hyper-reality: presenting us with something that looks human, realer-than-real saints and sinners (monsters, even); but a version of citizen that airbrushes out:
the person who finds themselves in a low-wage, low-morale job;
the person who believes there is more to life than overtime;
the person whose work responsibilities stretch far beyond their competence;
the person who would like to work but cannot find work, or is too ill to work;
the person who has worked all their life, whether in paid employment or as a homemaker, and is now elderly;
the person whose life has fallen apart through tragedy;
the person who has good days, and bad days;
productive days (however we might measure that) and unproductive days (however we might measure that);
life-to-the-full days, and oh-just-f***-it-all days;
the person who will go the extra mile for some people, and cross the street to avoid others;
the person who embraces certain responsibilities and shirks others;
the person who has been cheated or conned;
the person who...
I have been several of these people at one time or another – several in one day – and might or indeed will become others at some point: because I am a real human, and a real citizen, not a hyper-real image.
But this indulgence is equally true of those opposed to the Chancellor’s policies as it is of the Chancellor. And in creating a hyper-real George Osborne, the possibility of positive transformation in the real lives of real people in the real world is short-circuited. Not only would the real George Osborne be justified in not recognising the hyper-real Osborne to be himself (after all, it isn’t), but those who paint him as a Villain invariably paint themselves as ‘better’ than they are (enhancing their moral superiority with a tuck here, an enlarged-but-gravity-defying curve there).
We are entirely surrounded by high-definition twenty-four-seven hyper-reality.
We need to learn to see through the hyper-real images. We need to learn to see ourselves, to see one another, inevitably as though reflected in polished brass but nonetheless closer and closer to the true self that God alone, for now, sees fully (1 Corinthians 13). How is God able to see in this way? Because he loves us, for God is love. And to the extent that we allow his love to show us ourselves and our neighbour, to that extent we will be able to opt out of hyper-reality and embrace the real.
We love to put people in boxes. To idolise them, or demonise them. The recent death of Margaret Thatcher, whose funeral took place this morning, is a reminder of this. But we don’t only do this with politicians and celebrities. We do it to our neighbours, against whom we hold a grudge or with whom we become infatuated. We do it to ourselves, whenever we claim to be, essentially, a good person – when we refuse to take responsibility for our own complicity in what is wrong about our society; and whenever we tell ourselves that we are, fundamentally, a bad person – when we refuse to take responsibility for our own responsibility to help shape the world for better.
Not only do we put people in boxes; we go over the box again and again, with the result that the image we hold – and project – is distorted a little more each time.
I am reminded of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the Simulacrum, the breakdown of the relationship between representation and reality, between signs and what they refer to. Baudrillard identified four stages in this process:
 an image that is a reflection of a reality
 an image that is a masking and perversion of that reality
 an image that marks the absence of the reality
 an image that bears no relation to any reality – where reality is redundant and has been replaced by hyper-reality.
Consider Margaret Thatcher. Here was a living, aging human being. An image that reflects that would require a great deal of information. A photograph contains huge amounts of information; a serious biography, even more so. An honest assessment – a sober judgement – of her life, and yours and mine, cannot be represented simplistically. But even here, we are removed from reality: this is a reflection, and a reflection – like my reflection in the mirror – is already a distortion.
The next stage is a masking and perversion of that reality: in Margaret Thatcher’s case, whether by satirical political cartoonists or her own propagandists. In the case of you and me and our neighbour, the subtle – and not so subtle – ways in which we build up an image that begins to obliterate the Other, or the Self...until that image makes it hard for us to see the reality of a human being created and honoured and loved by God.
The third stage is familiar to us if we consider politicians and other celebrities: people we have never met, and yet believe that we know them and can pass judgement on them, for good or ill. This is easier to live with than reality, which is complex and fragile, and requires something of us; yet it leaves us unsatisfied, holding at arm’s length the inter-dependence we were created for.
As the final stage is reached, images multiply and take on a life of their own. The hyper-real Thatchers – Thatcher the Saviour of Britain and Defender of the Free World; Thatcher the Wicked Witch and Bitch of Grantham – obliterate any possibility of serious evaluation of a real person, or of the complex ways in which relationships with real people shape us and we them.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
The Garden was a hive of activity yesterday afternoon: running repairs on a section of wall that had been knocked down by a neighbour’s tree; borders that needed redefining; a silted-up water feature; some planting. Spring has arrived, and the garden is returning to good shape.
It isn’t only the garden that goes through seasons: the gardening team had been pruned right back, through various pastoral circumstances; and had experienced a time when those left were unable to do very much; but is now growing vigorously again, with evidence of fruitfulness to come.
Not only is it a great part of the life of the church; it is a great illustration of the life of the church, and of the rhythm of life with its seasons of pruning, abiding, growing and bearing fruit (John 15:1-17).
I’m hoping that we get a better summer this year than last, with scope for quiet days, outdoor services, and a party or two...
Monday, April 08, 2013
I posted these as Facebook statuses on Saturday, but wanted to slightly expand and post them here too, where I can archive them.
 “I conducted a wedding this afternoon. It was particularly moving for the groom’s Grandma, as she had been married for 60 years and her husband died last year. She told me that she thinks the first 20 years are the hardest.”
Why did she think the first 20 years are the hardest? Because, she said, it takes time to get used to living with someone else. By which she meant, years. Perhaps 20 years. During those early years (perhaps not the full 20) there had been many times when she thought that she could not continue, but she had, and had not regretted it. Now of course, there are reasons why relationships – whether marriages or friendships or any human relationships – break down, perhaps beyond the point of recovery, and my point is not to judge us against 60 years; but her perspective was fascinating set against our cultural context, and every bit as encouraging as it is challenging. It is perhaps not surprising that our relationships cannot bear the weight we place on them...
 “One of the things that I love about being part of the Church is that I have friends - real friends - ten and twenty years older than me, and ten and say fifteen years younger. And one of the things I value most of that is that I have friends whose lives - for all kinds of reasons - have fallen apart, and who, by the grace of God, have rebuilt their life. That gives me hope, in the uncertainties of life. I feel for those who don't have such a breadth and depth of friendship.”
Thursday, April 04, 2013
As I reflect on the ways in which our society is being incited to objectify and vilify certain groups of people – in particular the poor and the disabled, by politicians and the media (ironically, two other groups we are also encouraged to objectify and vilify) – I have been thinking about these words written to a community in competitive strife: 1 Corinthians 13. In such circumstances, Paul directs our attention to love.
Love is not something that we possess, in greater or lesser – or even increasing or decreasing – measure. It isn’t something we can store up, or deplete. It certainly isn’t something we can fall in to, or out of. (Here, at least, we really are ‘all in this together.’)
Love is God breaking-into our lives and possessing us, drawing us further into him.
And though we might (or might not) experience love in the present, we only understand love – if at all – with hindsight. The cumulative little acts of love that has brought us to this day – however this day finds us – broke-into our yesterdays.
Paul speaks of prophecies ceasing, tongues being stilled, knowledge passing away, and love remaining.
‘Prophecies’ refers to God-given insights into conditional futures: if we choose to live in this way, we will shape this kind of future...if we choose to live in that way, we will shape that kind of future: segregation or integration; injustice or justice. If we resist love, we will part company; but if we allow love to possess us, our wills and God’s will for us will grow closer. When we arrive at the place God is preparing for us – when it is no longer something breaking-into our present (in protest against society; modelling an alternative reality) but something that has fully taken the present into itself (in transformation of society) – there will be no need for prophecy.
‘Tongues’ refers to ecstatic utterance, given us by God to express the longings of our hearts that are too deep to articulate: the moans of a lover, the groans of a slave. When we arrive at the place God is preparing for us, and discover that God’s love has fulfilled all our longing – has somehow fulfilled the longings of very different peoples, fairly – there will be no need for tongues.
‘Knowledge’ refers to God-given insight into something hidden. Ever since Eden, we have all hidden that which we have done or that another has done to us of which we are ashamed: it is a self-preservation mechanism. Shame is not the preserve of any particular class or group, but universal. Words of knowledge are God’s way of revealing to us, through another person as messenger, that God knows us and, loving us, wants to cleanse us of our shame. They are not the exposé of the tabloid press, for our downfall and destruction; but a way of showing love for someone who believes themselves, if truly known, to be unlovable. When we arrive at the place God is preparing for us, where nothing remains hidden to be revealed and all our fear has been driven out by perfect love, there will be no need for such knowledge.
In these three examples, then (which, ironically, the Corinthians were claiming as evidence that some were more ‘spiritual’ – and therefore more important – than others), we see love as God coming to us, declaring himself to be for us and claiming us for his own.
Love is eternal, having no beginning and no end; and infinite, having no measure. Therefore, it cannot run out, but is always given to us, in every circumstance, if we will but receive it and hold it out for one another to receive.
It is the antidote to impatience, to unkindness, to envy, self-aggrandisement, pride; to the carelessness of using language to belittle what is good; the carelessness of putting ourselves over and before others; the carelessness of easy anger, and of refusing to be rightly angered by injustice; the carelessness of passing sentence over one another, locking one another out. Love is the powerful antidote to the venom of evil and lies. Love surrounds us to protect, so that, receiving love, we might protect others. It lifts us up by dignifying us with the revelation that God trusts us as partners with him in the world, so that, receiving love, we might trust one another. It strengthens us by daring to hope for us, so that, receiving love, we might stand firm against the temptation to abandon hope. It perseveres, so that, receiving love, we might preserve in the face of every means by which God’s enemy – the one described as the accuser, the thief, the father of lies – will seek to destroy us.
We need love; and that love has been extended to us, and is extended to us, daily.
Loving God, I receive your love for me today.
Help me to extend your love to others:
to those I am told I must not love, and to those who tell me not to love:
to the poor and the disabled,
to the Government cabinet minister and the Daily Mail journalist,
and to the Opposition MPs looking for political gain.Amen.