Saturday, April 28, 2018

Prayer and tea parties

Today has been a full and rich day, and I need to get some reflections down ‘on paper’ before it is quite done. I spent most of the day with 4/5 of my family and some 120+ others at the Diocesan Prayer Conference 2018 (PC18), hosted by St George’s Gateshead; followed by afternoon tea with 5/5 of my family and some 50 others at Sunderland Minster, in (a deferred) celebration of St George’s Day.

A mix of sung worship, plenary sessions, seminar streams, downtime over food and coffee, and even a little prayer, the Prayer Conference provided plenty of food for thought on developing our practices of personal and corporate prayer. It wasn’t about providing ‘how to’ answers as much as opening-up the gift of time; and in that spirit I found myself contemplating a curiosity of the prayer life of the Minster community. The Minster is open throughout the day, every day. Every day, throughout the day, people who are not members of our regular congregation, many of whom are not regular members of any congregation, come into the building to pray. They sit awhile. They light a candle as a physical act to remember someone before God. They leave a prayer request pinned to the prayer board.

Members of our congregation rarely pin a prayer request on the board. They are almost entirely left by visitors, asking us to pray with them. And the requests reveal the burdens on their hearts they are hoping someone will come alongside and help to carry. Patterns emerge. The requests are to do with seeking God’s protection (as in the Aaronic blessing, the Lord bless you and keep you…), for family members, for the people of Syria, for refugees, for the dead (Christians from an evangelical background find praying for the dead a strange impulse; but we need to be attentive to the cry of people’s hearts). And the requests are to do with fear of the loss of identity: family members who have lost their job, or who are struggling with mental health issues, or are estranged from their family; and, again, the dead, in fear that if they are not held by God, if they are forgotten, then—at that point, not at their death—they will cease to exist. These are prayers for ‘the lost’—not in the fundamentalist sense of those heading towards an eternity in hell, but in the sense of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son: those who need to find themselves, found by God.

To put it bluntly, though I suspect that members of our congregation pray, I see more evidence that those who are not part of our congregation—the Minster community at its farthest fringes—pray than I do of our ‘core’ praying. And I found myself wondering how we might build connection, in both directions, between that fringe and core?

From St George’s, we came back to the Minster, and to a wonderful afternoon tea. This is a primarily social event, primarily aimed at older people—though, as is important for older people, it was not only for older people, but a gathering of young and old, with, on this occasion, the older generation being centre-stage. It was a wonderful event, wonderfully hosted by a fabulous team. They laid on bunting and pretty table-cloths, cut sandwiches and dainty cakes, an endless supply of refreshed teapots and cafetieres, and a quiz. Those who were there stretched far beyond members of our congregation.

This is not about trying to keep living in the past, but it is about visiting the past. Talking to one older man, he told me about wanting to revisit a sea loch where convoys had gathered during the war, but that when he did so, he didn’t recognise it. He’d put it down to seeing the loch from the shore, and not, as back in the day, the shore from a ship in the loch. It wasn’t what he was expecting, but neither was it a disappointment. The image felt relevant.

Afternoon tea at the Minster is a very practical response to the fear of the loss of identity, especially for those who find themselves multiply-bereaved of those with whom they share common memory (both personal history and social history, such as film and music and world events), and unable to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of technological change. In this act of hospitality, we discover ourselves loved by God, children at the table in our Father’s house. Here, we experience ourselves as found, not lost—and find ourselves again, having perhaps lost sight of ourselves in the winter of the world, or the autumn of our lives.

Our vision as Durham Diocese is a call to ‘blessing our communities in Jesus’ name, for the transformation of us all’. It felt to me that the two events I attended today went hand in hand in this. Thank you to everyone who made both possible.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

To bless and to curse

There are many stories in the Bible that make for very uncomfortable reading. Nevertheless, they are recorded, and are there for our instruction—of the nature of gods and mortals, and the relationships between them. Exodus 32 (Morning Prayer, today) is one such passage.

The god Yahweh has rescued the descendants of Jacob (aka Israel) from slavery in Egypt. But they have quickly abandoned Yahweh, who decides to bring disaster upon them and start again, in hope of a people who will be faithful. Moses speaks up, arguing that to do so would bring Yahweh’s reputation into disrepute, and appealing to his promises to their ancestors—and Yahweh listens, and changes his mind.

However, when Moses returns to the people and sees them for himself, he changes his mind, and reverts to Yahweh’s first intention. Moses calls to himself those who consider themselves on the Lord’s side; the sons of Levi respond; and at Moses’ instruction, appealing to the authority of Yahweh, they go through the camp putting their brothers, friends, and neighbours to the sword—3,000 people. In this way, Moses declares, they have set themselves apart for the service of the Lord.

Sit with that awhile.

This is a deeply disturbing episode. It is an episode in the history of the people of Israel; and—key to understanding—an episode in the history of the tribe of Levi within the people of Israel.

At the very end of his life, Jacob had called his sons to him and spoken over them his last words (Genesis 49). Last words have lasting impact. These are his reflections on the character of his sons—on how that has shaped their lives to date and is likely to continue to do so. They are words of blessings and curses: blessing being releasing some aspect of life into fruitfulness, and cursing being to contain or set limits on that which is no life-giving. Such words relate not only to the individual son, but to the ‘family likeness’ of their descendants. They imply family strengths—that will overcome disaster—and flaws—that need to be overcome.

Over time, our habitual actions shape not only our character, but the shared culture of our families, our extended families, our community. To extend blessings and curses is to recognise the truth of this; yet to refuse to accept it as determinism; but, rather, to embrace disciplines to build up virtues and to see even our vices redeemed.

Of Levi, Jacob declares that he is a man of violence, that his use of the sword goes beyond proportionate defence, that he does not control his anger or his sadistic cruelty. Levi is not one to take council from, nor ought one take any part in his actions. Jacob curses—restrains—Levi’s anger, because it is fierce, and his wrath, because it is cruel. They go far beyond the appropriate, proportionate response of a settled determination to resist injustice. Jacob ‘divides’ Levi from his brothers, and ‘scatters’ him among his brothers—actions that make fullest sense applied to Levi as a tribe, not an individual. They are both separate from and dispersed throughout the descendants of Jacob, to contain their violence and, perhaps, to enable their anger to be appropriately harnessed.

Moses and Aaron, by whom Yahweh delivered the people from Egypt, are of the tribe of Levi—as was their sister, Miriam, who, with Moses, has a streak that delights in destruction (Exodus 15). (Moses himself was divided from the people, nonetheless took a man’s life, and so was scattered to the wilderness.)

And here in Exodus 32 when Moses calls people to his side, it is the sons of Levi (Moses’ own people) who respond. They are called out from the people as a whole—still divided from them, but no longer scattered from one another—and then go through the people—scattering—in fierce anger and cruel wrath.

In contrast, Yahweh’s anger and wrath might be seen to be considered, re-considered, deferred, and justified rather than indiscriminate. Anger and wrath (punishment, direct or indirect) are not in-and-of-themselves negative attributes.

That said, Yahweh is as committed to the flawed tribe of Levi as to the other (flawed, in their own ways) tribes. Even when such commitment is necessarily complex. And while the weight of that realisation lies heavy on our hearts, beyond the weight there is a greater weight lifted. For who among mortals is without flawed character?

May we be given the grace to know our familial character strengths and flaws. And may we, too, receive the blessing and the curse we need.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Still Life

I’ve just finished Still Life, the first of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. It is beautifully crafted, and life-affirming. All the clues to the identity of the killer are there—no rabbits are pulled out of a hat at the end—yet so well-written you may well not arrive there ahead of time.

However, the identity of the murderer is perhaps the least interesting part of the story. Far better, this is a story about us: about how we are all flawed judges of character; how we all have blind-spots when it comes to ourselves, and others; how we are all unreliable witnesses. These are truths worth knowing. Indeed, it is perhaps impossible to be truly life-affirming until we discover them.

Recognising that he is not exempt from this, Gamache employs, and offers, four simple sentences to navigate such terrain:

“I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know.”
“I need help.”
“I was wrong.”

In this way, there is hope and not despair.

Penny is an insightful writer. I’m looking forward to reading more. Thank you to Sean Gladding for the introduction.

Friday, April 06, 2018

What the world needs right now

The world does not need you to be ‘true to yourself’.

The world needs your disciplined, determined resolve to do good.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Beyond liberalism

Waaay behind the curve, we went to see The Greatest Showman. It is fantastic.

It is a film about roots/rootlessness and family. The trailers beforehand were also for films about rootedness and family. This is perhaps not surprising, as trailers are pitched at the audience: if you like this, you will probably also like these...More surprising, all the advertisements before the trailers were also about roots and family. One was for a bank. This is the zeitgeist of our times.

The Greatest Showman is so loosely based on PT Barnum it is best treated as fiction, and is, of course, a story for our own times. Barnum seeks to transcend his roots, as a self-made man. To this end, he will use other people, holding out the same promise. He is charming, but his philosophy is ugly. It is the philosophy of our times, liberalism*. But today that philosophy is under unbearable strain. Hence roots and family, among other things—including protectionism, and violence—as we look for an alternative philosophy.

As the story unfolds, liberalism proves to be an inadequate answer to the prejudices it (certainly) faces. Another solution is offered and explored: virtue. To be fair, two of the characters who most represent virtue are seduced by money—by the liberal dream of self-made autonomy—though not necessarily irreversibly so. This is a genuine struggle between world-views. But in the end, virtue has her new day: a loved but unlovely man (for whom love was not enough) finds redemption through the love of the unloved and perceived-as unlovely.

This, however, is only possible when the ‘freaks’ move beyond the social contract (heartily embraced, in stirring song) that enables them to be self-made individuals, to see themselves as family. Family not in the social-contract sense of class snobbery, nor in the vice that holds together the ethnic/territorial gangs of New York, but family defined by virtue.

This family is composed of people who have no roots, having been disinherited. The roots they need, then, also tap-into virtue, far older than the values of their society—which turns out to be more fake than the circus. Virtue goes far deeper than acceptance within a community. It transforms trauma into hope.

There is so much here for the Church to draw on, as we rediscover virtue, and hold it out.

*Alan Roxburgh quotes Patrick Deneens definition of liberalism:
‘It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion for themselves their own version of the good life…Political legitimacy was grounded on a shared belief in an originating ‘social contract’,
‘The basis of this liberalism is the autonomy of a self-making individual operating within a social contract with others.’
(Roxburgh, Journal of Missional Practice, Winter 2018)

Sunday, April 01, 2018

While it was still dark

God did not raise Jesus from the dead so that he could be my personal Lord and Saviour. I am simply not that important. God raised Jesus from the dead to vindicate Jesus’ faithfulness even unto death, and to demonstrate that God had appointed Jesus as judge over first the unfaithful people of God and then the rebellious (gods of the) surrounding nations.

This would take place in history. The judgement of God’s people is (most immediately, as a first horizon) seen in the fall of Jerusalem, in AD70. The defeat of the pagan gods is (as a first horizon) seen in the fall of Rome and its empire, and the (historical, and limited) triumph of Christendom.

Those who recognised that God had appointed Jesus as judge—first the Jew, and then the Greco-Roman or gentile or non-Jew—would be vindicated in their faith by being delivered through the coming outpouring of judgement, or wrath, as a covenant community that survived the end of the(ir) world. Christ is our Passover lamb (I may not be that important—see above—but I am included).

Related to this judgement are both hell and resurrection. Hell is primarily an image of the desecration of Jerusalem by the Greeks, and its later destruction by the Romans. Resurrection from the sleep of death ‘ahead of time’ or before ‘the end’ is almost entirely limited to the Jewish martyrs killed by the Greeks and Christian martyrs killed by the Romans, as a sign of the restoration of the fortunes of God’s people in general.

Where does that leave us today, long after the fall of both Jerusalem and Rome? It leaves us living and interpreting history in continuity with what God has done in Jesus. So, we might ask, where, currently experiencing or anticipating judgement on the Church and the nations, do we hope to be vindicated in our faith in Jesus?

Today, the Church faces God’s judgement for failing to care as we should have done for vulnerable children, among other sins. We hope for a community that will survive: that will be put to death, with Christ, by the authorities—and be raised to life with him.

Today, the nation of Iran persecutes the Iranian Church. We long for the day when our Iranian brothers’ and sisters’ faith in Jesus will be vindicated, by regime change (or change of heart) and their being able to live openly as Christians in their own nation.

This is something of what Easter means to me today, as a member of the Church of England, and a congregation which is one third Iranian.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!