Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas!

Christmas. It is all about the Bride, bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit, being brought by her Bridegroom to his Father’s house.

Not the beginning of the Gospel (John, at least, places that before the creation of the world, and therefore also before the ‘Fall’ of humanity) but the entirety of the Gospel from inception to completion. In a nutshell, or, at least, a manger.

An enacted parable of Jesus and the Church.

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Advent 2019, day twenty-four

When God creates the new heavens and new earth, there will be no hell. The gods who rebelled against the Lord of heaven and earth, and against his earthly co-regents, will have imploded within Tartarus, the Pit within Hades, the prison of the underworld. But for the human being, restored, one with the earth from which he came and the heavenly Life-Breath that animated her, there will be no need for hell.

Yet, for now, hell stands, for our good. Reminder that we will return to the earth — how, then, can we continue to destroy it by our thoughtless actions? Reminder that we will be purified through fire — how, then, can we allow ourselves to be consumed by worry as to whether God will welcome or reject us?

Tonight, a child is born who will go ahead of us, to show the way, laid to rest in the belly of the earth, rising again in glory we can barely dare to gaze upon. Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Advent 2019, day twenty-three

If Sheol is the most common term for hell—life is not an absurd comedy, but a tragedy shot through with gift—then another is Gehenna, the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, where waste was consumed by fire, including, in times of siege and fall, the bodies of the dead.

Here, the love and hatred, the jealous passions and mad revelry we are quite incapable of fathoming, of taming, are consumed for ever. What went down to the Pit was already affirmed by God. What returns, purified by fire, will be like him, knowing good from evil.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Advent 2019, day twenty-two

Having surveyed death, judgement, and heaven, the last of the four great Advent themes is HELL. The biblical authors employ various words to convey hell, the one most commonly used in relation to humans and animals being Sheol, the Pit or grave. This is a morally neutral hell, a resting place — though, like heaven, not the final resting place — of all who have lived.

For on all this I set my heart to sort out all this—that the righteous and the wise and their acts are in God’s hand. Neither hatred nor love does man know. All before them is mere breath. As all have a single fate, the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, and the clean and the unclean, and he who offers sacrifice and he who does not sacrifice, the good and the offender, he who vows and he who fears the vow. This is the evil in all that is done under the sun, for all have a single fate, and also the hearts of the sons of man is full of evil, and mad revelry in their heart while they live, and afterward—off to the dead. For he who is joined to the living knows one sure thing: that a live dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, and the dead know nothing, and they no longer have recompense, for their memory is forgotten. Their love and their hatred as well, their jealousy, too, are already lost, and they no longer have any share forever in all that is done under the sun. Go, eat your bread with rejoicing and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already been pleased by your deeds. At every season let your garments be white, and let oil on your head not be lacking. Enjoy life with a woman whom you love all your days of mere breath that have been given you under the sun, all your days of mere breath, for that is your share in life and in your toil that you toil under the sun. All that your hand manages to do with your strength, do, for there is no doing nor reckoning nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

(Qohelet 9:1-10)

(Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, The Writings, pp. 699, 700)

In light of hell, for God’s sake, enjoy life. In eating bread with rejoicing and drinking wine with gladness of heart, you prove God’s pleasure; the pleasure proclaimed over his Son, who was without sin, yet descended into hell — even there, in God’s hand.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Advent 2019, day twenty-one

Everything has a season, and a time for every
matter under the heavens.

What gain is there for him who does in what he toils?
(Qohelet 3:1, 9)

Whenever Jesus spoke about the kingdom of the heavens, he did so in the earthy toil of farmers and merchants, shepherds and fishermen, women baking bread. In every matter conducted under the heavens, human toil from generation to generation, there is the potential to be caught-up into that kingdom, for heaven and earth to be tightly knit together. It starts with the imagination, and finds expression in justice and mercy and in living each moment to the full. In light of heaven.

And in this, there is unimaginable gain.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Advent 2019, day twenty

Various mythologies of Antiquity tell of an originating and distant father-of-the-gods who swallows his offspring; and of human beings as the slaves or playthings of the gods. The biblical storytellers imagined the human as a bringing-together of the heavens and the earth, formed from soil and animated by divine Life-Breath. On dying, the soil returns to the ground from which it was taken, becoming, in time, one with each other again. The life-breath returns to the Life-Breath: God swallowing his offspring, not into the stomach (from where to be passed out through the gut) but into the lungs (from where to travel to every cell of God’s being, to employ anthropomorphic imagery). Having no breath in its lungs, that which returns to the soil no longer praises God. But resurrection will be no reanimation of a corpse (even Ezekiel’s vivid imagery of bones regrouping into skeletons, clothed with organs and muscles and sinews and skin and given new breath is not an image of end-of-times resurrection but of a devastated community restored in time). When God makes new the heavens and the earth, it will be the treasure kept for now in heaven that is given new soil, new earth. For earth will not ascend to heaven, but heaven descend to earth. Christmas is the foretaste of this.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

In my father's house

Christmas is a time of homecoming. And a time when the pain of not being able to come home is particularly sharp. The other day, at the Christmas lunch edition of the monthly meal served at St Nicholas’ for fifty of the more vulnerable folk in Sunderland, one man, originally from Australia, told me with real sadness that he doesn’t think he'll ever be going home for Christmas again.

Matthew’s Gospel starts the Christmas story in Nazareth, in the home of Mary’s parents. Joseph is also there. They are quite likely distant cousins, and, following their betrothal — which makes them husband and wife — they are living with Mary’s parents while Joseph offers a length of service working for his father-in-law, in fair recognition that they will thereafter lose the productive hands of their daughter.

Luke (has already told us something of Mary’s story, but) takes up the account of Mary and Joseph at the point where Joseph completes his service to his father-in-law and brings his wife home to his father’s house, where they will begin the next season of their life together. (This is referred to as ‘accompanying one another,’ and becomes a metaphor for all the years to follow. Mathew’s account is of events before they accompanied one another, badly translated as ‘before they lived together’ in the same home.)

So Luke’s account is of a husband taking his wife to his father’s home.

Years later, on the night before he died, Jesus told his disciples that he was going ahead of them to his father’s house to prepare the room he and his disciples — metaphorically, his bride — would share together; and that he would then come back for them, to accompany them to his father’s house.

[Note that Jesus and the Church are already betrothed at this point, husband and wife. Jesus has been living with his disciples for three years now. When, on one occasion, he is told that his mother and siblings had arrived to take him home, he asked, ‘Who are my mother and siblings? Those who do the will of God.’ In this, he was not dismissing the family he grew up in, but identifying with his bride’s family — and saying, it is not yet time for me to return to my ancestral family home; I have not yet completed my bride-price service.]

In other words, Joseph models for us at the start of the Gospel what Jesus says he will do at the end. In his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus completes his service, his bride-price, and inaugurates the next stage of the marriage between Christ and the Church, which will be fulfilled when he comes again in glory.

Christmas is all about homecoming.

Welcome home!

Advent 2019, day nineteen

Once, I found an old key in a cupboard in the vestry of a church I served. It was large, far larger than a modern key, with an elaborate bit and bow, and had been the key to the door of the church a long time ago. No one seemed to value it, and I was tempted to take it with me when I moved on to serve another church community, as a memento. But it was not mine to take; it belonged to the community through the generations, whether they knew it or not, and not to any given individual who passed through.

If Jesus is the key to the kingdom of the heavens, then the heart — our God-given capacity to make choices — is the lock. But not, primarily, at an individual level. The heart in question is that of a community, the God-given capacity of the church to make choices, of what to bar and what to release. And the Holy Spirit is the oil that keeps the lock free-turning.

It is a source of frustration to some that the Holy Spirit should lead different churches to open and close different doors. But this is given to remind us all that none of us has a monopoly on what the kingdom of the heavens looks like beyond those doors. We are simply door-keepers in the house of the Lord, each given responsibility for a different door, by which the greatest number of people might find their way home.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Advent 2019, day eighteen

In recent days, in the UK, there has been much debate around democracy. In truth, who among us can remember when things were any different?

And yet, no one measures the weightiness of democracy in kilograms per cubic metre; nor its advance, or demise, in metres per second squared. No one assesses how precious it is in carats. By any such standards of international agreement, democracy does not exist. And yet, we are unable to let go of democracy, as the thing we define ourselves for, or against.

And so it is with heaven.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Advent 2019, day seventeen

Heaven is not an escape from, nor a reward for, life. Heaven is a realm meshed to our own, the earth; turning together, by the same key.

That key is Jesus.

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery:
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The key is Jesus, already placed into our hands, entrusted, not for safekeeping but for use.

What will you open, what will you close, today?

Monday, December 16, 2019

Advent 2019, day sixteen

I have been sitting with Qohelet this Advent. To refresh ourselves:

Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.
What gain is there for man in all his toil that he toils under the sun...
A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and to its place it glides, there it rises.
It goes to the south and swings round to the north, round and round goes
the wind, and on its rounds the wind returns…
I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere
breath, and herding the wind.
(from Qohelet chapter 1)

And recall your Creator in the days of your
prime, until the days of evil come, and the years arrive, when you will say,
“I have no delight in them.” Until the sun goes dark, and the light and the
moon and the stars, and the clouds come back after the rain…
And dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the life-breath returns to God Who gave it.
Merest breath, said Qohelet. All is mere breath.
(from Qohelet chapter 12)

(Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, The Writings)

The heavens frame all our activity on earth, watching over us, faithfully marking our times and seasons, our prime and our return to the soil we toil and from which we came, and the return of our life-breath to God who gave it.

In Matthew 16, the Pharisees and Sadducees — two groups that mix like oil and water! — demand of Jesus a sign from heaven. He refuses them any such sign. Instead, he will go on to do something unimaginable: give to Peter, the human — indeed, the rock-man — the keys to the kingdom of the heavens. Whatever this human — representative of the Church — binds on earth will be bound in the heavens, and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in the heavens — all this, in order to ransack Hades below the earth. In other words, the maker of the sun and the moon asks of them to step aside for the kings and queens of the human realm.

Your will be done, on earth as in the heavens.

Your will be done, in the heavens as on the earth.

That was unexpected.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Mary and Joseph

Let’s be absolutely clear, this Christmas, that there is no scandal around Mary being an unmarried mother. Mary and Joseph were betrothed. And in first-century Palestine, that means that they were legally married, with the rights and responsibilities that come with it. Betrothal was the legal agreement between two families, from which point a couple were married but lived in the home of the father of the bride (in this case, in Nazareth). The wedding came at a later date, at which point the groom brought his bride to his parents’ home (in this case, Bethlehem). They then lived in a small room in the home of the groom’s parents. In a patriarchal society, betrothals often happened as a girl was on the edge of becoming a woman, biologically, moving from one family to another.

Joseph and Mary are betrothed, and, when they came to Bethlehem, they are married. It does not matter that we do not read about their wedding at any point in the gospels — it is assumed — nor does it matter that a Roman census had any impact on the timing of the two parts of the process — though it does matter to the story, for reasons of fulfilling prophecy, that Jesus be born in Bethlehem.

While they were staying there — in a small room (mistranslated ‘inn’ by the King James Version, and descendant translations) in the home of Joseph’s parents, as opposed to later when they lived as refugees in Egypt, or later still when they returned to Mary’s town of Nazareth because it was safer than Joseph’s town — Mary gave birth to her son, Jesus.

Because their room was too small for her to give birth, attended by the village midwives and Joseph’s female relatives, she gave birth in the main room of the house; and her son was placed in the hollowed-out trough from which the domesticated farm animals ate at night.

If Joseph was not the biological father of Mary’s son, no-one knew that other than Mary and Joseph. No-one knew, because it was naturally assumed that Joseph was the father, of a son born in wedlock; and because Joseph was a righteous man who had not wished to bring Mary into disgrace. As such, on discovering from her that she was with child, he had decided to divorce her quietly, before being instructed by an angelic messenger not to be afraid to remain married to Mary and to raise her son as his own. That knowledge in no way changed his righteous intent not to expose Mary to disgrace; therefore, no-one would see her as an unfaithful wife, any more than they would see her as an unmarried mother.

If we see her as an unmarried mother, and assume that the couple were shunned for this, we betray our ignorance of the family customs and expectations of the time and place.

The ostracised people brought into God’s story of redemption at the nativity are not a young married couple, but the shepherds. Shepherds were as welcome in many homes then as ex-offenders, or the homeless, might be in many homes in my culture today. But they are welcomed in, with the reassuring sign that a baby who brings hope to the world might lie in an animal feeding-bowl just as much as the lambs the shepherds might feel more at home with.

This is a story of family ties, however flawed they may seem through our eyes, and of the relationship between the centre and the margin of community. This Christmas, may we see the nativity and our own homes and community through fresh eyes, and a new heart.

Advent 2019, day fifteen

The theme of the third week of Advent is HEAVEN.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The heavens are the vault established over the earth, separating — parting — the waters of chaos. And God created the sun and the moon to rule over the heavens; and the human being, male and female, to rule over the earth.

When the Son came into the world, he taught his disciples to pray that the will of God our father in the heavens be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In other words, Father God, let your will be done in the realm ruled over by the human being, just as it is done in the realm ruled over by the sun and the moon.

The sun and the moon rule over their realm as instructed by God, in equity with one another, taking turn and turn-about, marking days and seasons. From the perspective of the far north on earth, where I live, the sun takes on the greater burden in the summer months, and the moon in the winter months, in a majestic dance, a king and queen attended by their court of stars, honouring one another.

May the heavens be our pattern.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Advent 2019, day fourteen

In the ancient imagination of Genesis chapter 2, God forms the human being from the soil, for the soil, blowing into his nostrils the breath of life in order that the human become a living creature. As the story unfolds, in chapter 3, the Lord curses the soil for the human’s sake (certainly, the text can be understood this way, even if that is not a traditional Christian translation), until the human return to the soil from which they were taken. Then God drives the human out from the divinely planted garden that needs no tilling, to till the soil from which he had been taken.

To curse is to place limits on something; to bless, to release something into life. So, in the relationship between the soil and the human formed from the soil, for the soil, God both places a constraint on the soil for the human’s sake — preventing the soil from getting out-of-hand — and releases the human into the world, to fill it and to till the soil. This, then, creates a dynamic: the soil will produce thorns and thistles, but these will not overwhelm domesticated, edible grain; the human will need to labour, breaking sweat to water the soil, but will be able to feed their offspring. And the human from the soil will eventually return to the soil: soil set free by the life breath taken upon itself the curse, or constraint, of the soil from which it came.

This speaks quite literally to our interdependent place within the created order. But, as soil-beings, it also speaks symbolically to our own beings. To the blessing and the curse within us, both God-given, both for us — and for others.

So, when we allow what we have hidden as shameful into the light, truly into the light that came into the world in Jesus the Christ, it is not to revel in darkness but to see our curse as part of the whole. As the clouds in the night sky which temporarily obscure but cannot extinguish starlight. As the thistles constrained by the word of the Lord who says, let it be until the end of the age when I shall separate them from the grain without harm, that none of the lasting goodness be lost and all that has served its purpose be consumed by fire.

In my life and in yours, as much as in the lives of those we do not see eye to eye with, there is curse and blessing, frustration and flourishing, limitation and enduring hope. Let it be so, for now.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Advent 2019, day thirteen

Every one of us has something about ourselves of which we are ashamed, which we fear being exposed before others. Not a guilty secret of some misdemeanour, but something about our very self. Often, we’ve hidden it so deep for so long, we don’t even know it at a conscious level. But this is common to us all. There’s a story to reveal it to us in Genesis chapter 3.

There’s nothing quite like the results of a General Election to stir up our brightest light and murkiest darkness, in a swirl of inchoate emotion. And our first response is often to project our shadow onto others.

If, today, you are sad and angry, this testifies to your noble instincts, to act in what you genuinely believe to be in the best interest of your nation. But, if you allow it, it will also bring to light your shadow. Is your anger at self-interest a projection of your own greed, your deep fear of that being exposed? Is your sadness that people have been so played a projection of your deep fear of not being as knowing as you feel compelled to be? Is your looking for someone to blame a deflection from a deep fear that, in the final instance, you are always to blame?

If, today, you are rejoicing, this testifies to your noble instincts, to act in what you genuinely believe to be in the best interest of your nation. But, if you allow it, it will also bring to light your shadow. Are you convinced that left-of-centre parties are financially irresponsible? Perhaps your deepest fear is of being exposed as irresponsible, of having squandered what was entrusted to you. Do you think they are well-intended, but naïve? Perhaps your deepest fear is of being exposed as gullible, a poor judge, one who when it matters cannot be depended upon.

I’m not suggesting that these are your shadow; but you have one, and so do I. And, however we feel, today and the coming days are a time for shadow work.

It takes great courage to confront our shadow. More than that, it requires a sense of security. The judgement God declares over you is relentless love, which has never and will never hold back anything that is for your good. Even living as exiles within our own lives, we are not abandoned. All that is asked is that we step into the light.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Advent 2019, day twelve

Today, in my nation, we go to the polls, to elect our Members of Parliament. For weeks, they have been canvassing for our approval. And in this, they truly are our representatives. A people desperate for approval; deep down, not really believing we are worthy of the approval, denied us in our formative years, we so crave; vaunting ourselves to triumph over disaster, daring it to confirm our self-loathing.

And over all our babel sounds, God sings, you are enough.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Advent 2019, day eleven

A Song of the Wilderness

The wilderness and the dry land shall rejoice,
the desert shall blossom and burst into song.

They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weary hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to the anxious, ‘Be strong, fear not,
your God is coming with judgement,
coming with judgement to save you.’

Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

Then shall the lame leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;

The ransomed of the Lord shall return with singing,
with everlasting joy upon their heads.

Joy and gladness shall be theirs,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Say to the anxious, ‘Be strong, fear not, your God is coming with judgement, coming with judgement to save you.’

When God comes in judgement, it shall not be to condemn, but to save.

To open our eyes where we are blind to the enough-ness of ourselves, and our neighbour. To unstop our eyes where we have become tone-deaf to the song of our innermost being, and to the cry of our neighbours’ hearts. To work deep physio to torn hamstrings, and to set free the voice of the silenced. To strengthen the weary, and to take up our infirmity.

God’s judgement upon giving you life was and is and will be ‘very good!’

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Advent 2019, day ten

‘I have a drink problem. I am in recovery. And I wanted to thank you, and the PCC, for allowing Alcoholics Anonymous to meet in the church hall. But I also need to tell you about the judgement I have had from other people. “You’re not one of them, are you?”’

‘Thanks for coming to see me, vicar. I’ll get straight to it. I’ve had a diagnosis of dementia.’

‘In the end, it was mercifully quick. But we’d lost her three years ago. She thought I was my father.’

On what basis does God judge us? On our best days, or our most vulnerable? For the coping mechanisms we turn to, that then turn on us? On who we were, or who we become?

The writers of the New Testament affirm that God has appointed Jesus as the one who will judge the peoples. But what measure will he use? Not, I think, on whether you have subscribed to the right doctrinal statements; but weighing, as no-one else has judgement to weigh, the question God asks of each one of us:

‘What make you of the life I have given?’

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John 1:1-14)

Monday, December 09, 2019

Advent 2019, day nine

If I had £1 for every time a member of one of my congregations has told me that they thank God that we are not like those judgemental Christians in such-and-such a church over there — an Irony Tax, if you will — I would be a rich man.

A sober acknowledgement of the judgement that awaits us all is the very opposite of a judgemental outlook. It is also the antidote.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Advent 2019, day eight

The traditional theme of the second week of Advent is JUDGEMENT.

God alone is qualified, is capable, to judge me.

And this means that, on the one hand, I am freed from passing judgement on myself; and, on the other hand, that I am compelled to live according to God’s judgement.

The judgement God passes on me, on you, on each and every one of us is enough:

‘When I made you, it was enough, lacking nothing. The life I have given you is also enough.’

This is in stark opposition to the insidious whisper of the Accuser, that I am never enough, that what I have is never enough. We are driven to compete, against ourselves and against our neighbour, the survival of the fittest, to control a scarcity that exists only in our imagination.

I am struck by how many people, of late, have told me that they are not enough. That they are not enough to be considered good company; that they are not enough in front of others; that they are not enough as a parent or a child or a student or a worker or a neighbour or a friend. It hasn’t been one or two people; more like an endemic condition in our society.

To say that you are enough is not the same as to say, don’t change for anyone. We desperately need change, to change, in every place where we believe ourselves to not be enough. But the starting point is a right and sober judgement on judgement.

To say that the life we have received is enough is not to say that the gross inequality of experience is God-ordained. Inequality is, rather, the fruit of insecurity, of fear-driven insatiable hunger for more — recognition, status, experiences, toys — at the expense of others. Again, the starting point to the change we all need is right and sober judgement on judgement.

Staring judgement in the face, neither lowering our eyes nor turning away, may be precisely what we need in these dark days.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Advent 2019, day seven

A time to be born and a time to die.

In the days to come, we shall celebrate the One in whom the merest breath of our common human experience, and the untameable wind/life-breath of God, come together without striving.

John, the Baptiser, came weeping and mourning; and his departure, his removal through death, birthed Jesus, come laughing and dancing. And dying — and rising; ascended — and coming again.

When he first came, the men who presiding over his execution could not bring themselves to tear his robe; instead, they threw dice, gambled against death. But even the great curtain in the Temple was torn, from top to bottom; as the Father rent his garments at the news of the death of his only Son. Yet it is neither robe nor shroud nor Temple curtain that has been repaired in his rising, but the very fabric of the universe, of space and time. For, truly,

Everything has a season, and a time for every
matter under the heavens.

and all are fulfilled in him.