Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Who can understand the human heart?


“...of course nobody, no one party, no one person has a monopoly of wisdom. But if you look at the history of the last 200 years of this party’s existence, you will see that it is we Conservatives who have had the best insights, I think, into human nature and in the best insights in how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart.”

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister elect.

This is a bold claim, and, whether one agrees with it or not—and, personally, I am of the view that the best insights into human nature pre-date all modern political parties by millennia—it is salient that the Conservatives, at least under the last Prime Minister, who famously did not take counsel from anyone, have precisely not exercised insight into how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart.

The chances of Boris Johnson doing so are precisely zero. The chances of him even having any intention of trying are, debatable. But this does not mean that he, or his speech writer, is not at least part right. Parliament must always seek to find a way, drawing on the wisdom of each member and every party, to manage those jostling sets of instincts. Indeed, society as a whole must seek to do so.

For those who are dismayed by where we find ourselves as a nation, and union of nations, today, our first response must be to acknowledge that we, collectively, have failed in this task. The biblical words for this are confession, and lament.

Our best insights have blind-spots, and unintended negative impact on others, and, if we are honest, we often ignore our best insights in favour of self-interest. And, from time to time, the consequences bear down not only on those others, but on us all.

Confession and lament bring us back to something greater than ourselves, greater than our tribe. They bring us back to our senses, to our true selves, in both the most personal and most universal sense, as children of God, by bringing us back to the One who both made the human heart and instructs it in wisdom.

Thus would I advise our Prime Minister elect, and thus would I counsel my own jostling heart.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Folklore


There are two great legendary heroes in English folklore: king Arthur, and Robin Hood. Both corpuses rise in times of national identity-crisis, and both look back to an earlier time of identity-crisis we might identify with.

The tales of king Arthur are set in the fifth century, in a time when Roman rule had given way to a weakened Romano-British culture (when the official machinery of empire drew back to defend Rome itself, what was left was Roman colonialists who had intermarried with the Celtic tribes the had earlier conquered) which was itself facing the threat of a new wave of invaders, the Saxons. But the tales of king Arthur establish themselves in the twelfth century, when the recently arrived Normans were trying to establish their cultural conquest of the (by now) Anglo-Saxons. (Can you see a pattern?)

The tales of Robin Hood are set in the twelfth century, in the historical period when the tales of king Arthur were gaining currency. But these tales of Robin Hood take captive the collective imagination in the fifteenth century, towards the end of the Hundred Years’ War with France, in which England had taken control of most of France, and lost it again; and had established a booming economy based on control of the international wool trade, only to fall to impending military defeat and, in the uncertainty, plunging into recession.

Later still, in a time of political and religious upheaval, William Shakespeare would turn to one of the high-points of the Hundred Years’ War—the English-Welsh defeat of the French at the Battle of Agincourt—to give us another folk hero, Henry V.

This is how folklore works. It tells a story from the past that addresses the crisis of the present in such a way that we can identify the hero-protagonists as ‘us’—even though they are many steps removed from ‘us.’ It tells us, if we have overcome crisis before, we can do so again. But it does not give us tactics. Rather, folklore gives us a story by which we can take hold of a thread—an unbroken thread—that runs from the past to the present and on into the future. Something of continuity of identity will survive, folklore tells us, even if much inevitably evolves. The genius of story—as opposed to tactics—is how adaptable story is, how capable it is of being brought to bear in any number of contexts.

Thus, the stories of king Arthur and of Robin Hood gain renewed currency in a later age when the English, shaken by total war, are losing their own modern Empire. Thus, they find new retellings in film and television. Thus, they have an appeal to English nationalists, who believe themselves to be under threat from invading waves of immigrants speaking unintelligible tongues, bringing foreign religions and alien values...

Folklore gives us truth that is greater than the sum of its bare facts, not least by revealing to us our deepest selves. What is it that we fear, in the crisis we face? And what inspires the faith that gives us hope? What we do with those stories takes in the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Not dissimilar to the English, a community displaced from Jerusalem (and later returning, in part, and in three waves) in the sixth century BC and fifth century BC wove folklore of patriarchs and liberators, of local tribal military leaders writ large, of the coalescing and fragmenting of a kingdom, of a Golden Age lost but perhaps not gone forever. Like Arthur and Robin and King Henry the Fifth, there is history at the core, but embellished in the telling for a particular purpose, in the tales of Abraham and Moses, Samson and Deborah, David and Elijah. Of Esther and Daniel, stories set even in the jaws of exile. And more, so many more, a cast of thousands.

A network of little communities scattered across the Roman Empire and against the backdrop of the siege and fall of Jerusalem (yet again) retold those stories, this time bringing in a new hero, one not lost in the mists of time but who lived among them in the actual lifetime of the story-tellers. Jesus of Nazareth, and his band of followers, the mercurial Peter, the crazy Paul; Mary, whom he had liberated from seven demons, and to whom he appeared first when he was raised from the dead, a thing verifiable by many witnesses prepared to die for its truth. Moses, David, Elijah, all point now to Jesus. And the telling of his story, too, takes on the form of folklore, of memorable episodes we might tell over and over again and identify with in a wide range of crises.

Two thousand years on, these are stories that shape not national imagination and identity but, rather, that of a global kingdom; one that has taken local expression across time and space, down through centuries and criss-crossing continents. They are far greater and untameable than Arthur or Robin, both of whom, some say, will come back one day, in our hour of greatest need...

God so loved the world that he gave us a folk-story. Or, rather, a library full of them. And then breathed life into it, and stepped out of the pages.

For Christians, it is to these stories that we are invited to return, in the crises of our times, not for escapism but to discover, in how we retell them afresh, the truth of the matter: who on earth are we, now, we citizens of the kingdom of heaven?

Zeitgeist


Most of the Old Testament, in the form we know today, was written during the Babylonian exile, compiled from oral tradition and written texts since lost to us; some books, after the return from exile. The kinds of questions they wrestle with are, how did we find ourselves here? (and, how did we not see this coming?) and, how do we rebuild community, society? what values matter to us? These questions are, largely, explored through story and folklore, with a good measure of epic poetry and song thrown in for good measure.

The New Testament is written in the context of the Pax Romana—the bloated, hyperbolic, mercurial Roman Empire. The four Gospels tell the story of Jesus, the one appointed by God to establish (re-establish?) the rule and reign of God (the ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’) on earth, and to judge the nations. The Revelation to John depicts the triumph of the kingdom of heaven over the Roman Empire (this Apocalypse is grounded in history, the new Jerusalem representing the Church—which will, eventually, fall into the trap of becoming the new Rome). Between this opening and closing, the various letters of Paul and others to churches and individuals wrestle with how to live as counter-cultural communities that do not directly take on the power of the Empire but will ultimately overturn it. These communities, these lived experiences, are slow and painful, composed of men and women shaped by competing claims.

A question I am being asked more and more often is, what are we supposed to do about the state and direction of the society in which we find ourselves? [In nations led by men (mostly men) who are so emboldened as to not even bother themselves with deceitful half-truths any longer, but proudly declare lies of staggering magnitude, and dismiss all evidence to the contrary as fake.]

It seems to me that what we might do—or at least, what I might be able to help people do—is wrestle with a library of ancient books that ask the very same questions we are asking today.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Streams in the wilderness


We are convinced that the church can never be what God has called the church to be unless and until the apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding, and teaching voices are all empowered to speak up, are heard, and work together in order that we become a mature community (Ephesians 4:1-16). These are the five functions of human society, being formed by God, who sends us into all the earth to bless others (Genesis 1:28; Genesis 12:1-3), who emphasises the importance of hearing and being heard (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Psalm 18), who declares good news (Isaiah 61:1-4; Mark 1:1), who is compassionate in nature (Exodus 34:6-7; Matthew 9:36), and who calls us to seek wisdom (Proverbs 1:2-7, 2:6, 3:5-6, 4:13).

But this is far from the self-understanding of the local church. If we are to see genuine, lasting culture change, better education alone will have little impact. Education does not change how we live (if it did, expository preaching—which does matter—would have a far greater impact than it does). More than that, we need equipping. But most of all, actual change in how we live needs immersive experience. When I was at school, I learnt about the Impressionists, not only their paintings but their lives. The Impressionists interest me. I like their paintings. I’ve even taken oils and brushes and a canvas and easel outdoors and dabbled in painting; and I’ve even gone along to art classes. But I have never immersed myself in a community of artists, in the sharing of ideas and experimental techniques and the joyful monotony of everyday life. I’ve never painted day after day after day. I may have some artistic potential, but I have invested my energies elsewhere.

Lasting culture change calls for a mix of education and equipping and experience, and not in equal measure. Culture change comes about by a 10% focus on education, 20% on equipping, and 70% on experience. (This is why fundamental changes in our practices towards the environment are so hard, despite knowing more about the impact of, say, plastic waste or energy production and despite having a growing range of tactics available to equip us to live more lightly on the earth; because we, in the west, have yet to experience the impact first-hand.)

So, where we have a congregation who are deeply settled in the unconscious biases of what church ought to look like, reinforced by their experience having far greater weight than any re-educational impact we can bring, what is to be done?

Here is what I think we are trying to do.


Education: 10%

I am a Bible story-teller, and when I do this in the context of the gathered church I do it through the lens of move-listen-share-care-learn, asking such questions as:

How does this passage move the story on?
Who speaks? What do they say?
Is there any good news to share?
How is the community built up?
How does this passage connect with what we already know?

There are, of course, other areas of education—which will more often than not take the form of unpacking and making sense of experience, but will sometimes precede experience.


Experience: 70%

We cannot easily take an aging congregation to other contexts where they might experience different ways of being church; but we can and do seek to help them to parse their own lives (in which they are immersed) and our neighbourhood (parish, city, nation, global) through the same lens:

Where have you been this week? What did you see? Who did you meet?
What have you heard—from God? from others?
Do you have any good news stories to share?
Who is in especial need of care? (And how might we respond?)
What are we learning to do as we follow Jesus together?


Equipping: 20%

In many ways, this is the hardest sphere for me, and one that calls for putting tools into people’s hands. But it is good that it is hard for me, as this only emphasises the importance of teamwork, of bringing to bear all the voices, all the talents. For example, Jo is far better than I am at inter-personal skills, at (almost every form of) communication, at finding and arranging resources, and at the practicalities required to make things happen.

Move: equipping the congregation to be sent out will need to engage with the Church of England’s national initiative Setting God’s People Free, and involve working more closely with other local congregations as part of a Deanery Plan. But I am also in this two-year transition role to help a congregation re-imagine how to be and do church without a full-time vicar, and so far this has included a (modest) change in the Sunday services to include a monthly service that is not dependent on being clergy-led, has opened up some new opportunities for new people to bring their gifts to bear in music and in Bible study, and includes hearing stories from the lives of the congregation through the week.

Listen: establishing a pattern of corporate prayer. So far this has included having the building open for prayer through the day in Holy Week, and Morning Prayer in the week leading up to Pentecost. My intention is to introduce Evening Prayer, perhaps twice a week, and to run The Prayer Course (Jo: resource-finder) on Tuesday evenings in September-October.

Share: I recently posed the challenging question, how many people do we expect to see come to faith in the next six months? and this calls for attention to equipping people to share their faith, although I am already hearing reports of positive conversations being had (here, the evangelists—those wired for sharing good news stories—will take a lead). We’re also working on social media presence (again, Jo is great here).

Care: the charism (the grace given by God for a particular purpose) of this church, named for St Nicholas, is surely to be a community that holds out safe have for those who find themselves ‘all at sea’. The story of sailors caught in a storm who cry out to God to be saved and to whom God sends a vision of Nicholas to guide them to harbour is depicted in stone over the main entrance and in stained glass window, and another window depicts Jesus’ disciples caught in a storm on the lake. Many in our community find themselves ‘all at sea’ due to the enormity of the global environmental crisis, or the national ‘Brexit’ omnishambles, or the impact of Austerity, or due to cancer or marriage breakdown. We are called to such people, and will tell the story of our charism, in a variety of ways, on a regular basis.

Learn: this one is less clear. I think there is a historic love of singing, and I would love to see a regular (termly?) opportunity to come together to learn some new songs; but ongoing listening might result in the development of other areas as well or instead.


That’s the plan, right now, in as much as there is a plan. It isn’t secret, but neither is it owned, yet—and it might not be. It isn’t the culture round here, but the best means of necessary culture change. It is a beginning, and a slow one, involving bringing to light our unconscious biases (starting with my own!) that will create resistance. Yet it holds true that God declares,

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)

Monday, July 08, 2019

Training


Running helps train me to live life loving God and those around me, by attending to kardias and psyche and ischui and dianoia (Luke 10:25-37).

kardias: running is an act of will, before it is an act of the body; a choice, for coming alive.

psyche: running is concerned with attending, closely, to our breathing.

ischui: running is embodied force, the body at times overcoming the resistance of the mind.

dianoia: running engages the imagination, of what is possible, especially done together.

Life


On one occasion, a life coach asked Jesus, ‘How must I live in order to possess, right here right now, the quality of life I long for, not in fleeting moments but as a sustainable daily experience?’

As so often, Jesus replied with a question of his own, ‘What instruction have you embraced—and what do you instruct those who look to you for help?’

The man responded, ‘You have to align kardias and psyche and ischui and dianoia with that of God; and live not only for yourself but for those near you.’

Jesus replied, ‘You are right, and if you live like this, you will truly know that you are alive.’

Our heart—kardias—refers to moral preference, and the ability (and responsibility) to make decisions, to choose for good or evil; to choose for life, or for death. Choose as God chooses.

Our soul—psyche—refers to our breath, to our unique personhood, which is the direct consequence of God breathing God’s life into us. Stay close. Let your breath keep time with God’s breathing.

Our strength—ischui—refers to force, to the ability to overcome resistance. To the ability to act on our decisions. In our case, as humans, by having a physical body, that can do the right thing, even when that requires resisting pressure to do what is not right.

Our mind—dianoia—refers to our imagination, to thoughts and feelings working together in a balanced and harmonious way. Let your imagination, of what the world can be like, be shaped by God, from whom life and creativity in interdependent diversity explode.

When the life coach asked Jesus to expand on how this relates to those near us, Jesus told a story, of a stranger whose imagination was moved with pity for the victim of a violent crime; who went to him, with healing touch, and carried him to safety; who entered into an ethical contract with another person to support full recovery; and whose personhood, initially obscured by a label (Samaritan, other, stranger, enemy), is revealed to be virtuous, expressed in the world through showing mercy.

Mind and strength and heart and soul, aligning with the imagination and force and moral preference and very breath of God. That’s when you know you are alive.

You can read about it in Luke 10:25-37.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

The harvest


I posed the congregation a question today, in response to Jesus’ assertion that ‘the harvest is plentiful’—picture-language for people ready to receive him and his message calling people to live under the sovereignty of a good God in the often-troubled world.

I asked, by way of anonymous poll:

how many people do we expect to see come to faith in the next six months?

To clarify, by ‘how many people’ I mean within our own context, not across the world. And by ‘come to faith’ I mean something along the lines of someone being able to say, ‘I wouldn't have described myself as a person of faith, and certainly not as a follower of Jesus, only six months ago; but I think that I would now.’

The largest response was those who abstained. There may well be several reasons for this, including my ineptitude in conducting the poll. But it may also suggest a degree of illiteracy in talking about faith, that would fit with long-term congregational decline [across the Church of England and other traditional denominations].

The second largest group was those who responded ‘zero’. This is, I think, an honest assessment of where we find ourselves, with aging and shrinking congregations. As one person said to me after the service, you have given us food for thought as to what will become of [this local church congregation] as the present members die? And as I said at the time, I think God can work with honesty.

Of those who responded with other numbers, the most common were 2 or 3. Several people wrote down a number (including one person who wrote 0) with an added not to the effect of hoping and praying for more. This seems to me to reflect both realism and faith that wants to know more of God at work in and through our lives. This gives us a baseline to work from.

It was a snapshot poll. There were a number of committed people absent today. My intention is to continue to build up our data, alongside working to create ways in which we can work together to open up more ‘God conversations’ in the community. But the conversation has to begin somewhere. I’m looking forward to where it might take us...

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The twins, or Faith and Doubt


Doubts are not the opposite of faith. Fear is the opposite of faith.*

Yesterday was the Feast of St Thomas, but as we don’t have a Wednesday service at St Nicholas’ church we marked Thomas today: John 20:24-29

Thomas, we are told in John’s Gospel, was not there when the risen Jesus first appeared to his disciples, following his resurrection; and refused to believe until he had seen with his eyes and touched with his hands. A week later, Jesus appeared again, and Thomas confessed him his God-appointed Lord.

For his stance, his insistence, Thomas is often labelled Doubting Thomas, though the gospel-writer calls him Thomas the Twin. And the Doubting usually comes with a negative tone.

But where was Thomas not there? He was not there hiding behind locked doors for fear of those who had orchestrated Jesus’ execution. Alone of the disciples (and despite Jesus’ habitual training of sending them out in twos) Thomas is unafraid to go out into the city, to investigate the lie of the land, and to bring back needed supplies.

And after Jesus appeared to him, later on, when most of the disciples carried the gospel west, Thomas struck out in the opposite direction, planting churches as he went, all the way to Kerala in the very southern tip of India. (Today the Thomas Church there is one of the longest continuous Christian communities in the world.) Unafraid.

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. The church has long struggled with Thomases and Thomasinas, who make us uncomfortable with their difficult questions and awkward demands. But the struggle itself exercises our faith, disciplining it leaner, stronger, more sure. Less afraid.

So if you find yourself wrestling with doubts today, in matters of faith, know this: you are a gift to us. Your courage brings us all into a fuller experience of Jesus’ grace. May Jesus, in due course, satisfy your doubt; but may you never lose your capacity for doubting, which draws you out into the world for Him.


*Someone has counted that the encouragement “Do not be afraid!” is declared 365 times in the Bible, or once for every day in the year.

Journey


Holy Communion: lectionary readings Genesis 22:1-19 and Matthew 9:1-8

Two stories, that share in common a journey with others, an encounter with God, and a return home, changed.

The story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice his son Isaac is a strange one, a story to wrestle with. It is a story in which all is not as it appears. We are told that God tested Abraham. But beneath layers of tradition and translation, it is the elohim (gods) who provoke Abraham towards filicide, and Yahweh (God) who intervenes to save both Isaac and indeed Abraham from the consequences.

We set out believing we have heard God, but the truth is that it may not have been God whom we heard at all. But it does not end there. The deeper truth—the revelation in the journey—is that God hears us. Hears us, and moves to bless us and to send us home—to return, changed—to be a channel of blessing to others.

There is a story in the Gospels of friends who carry their paralytic friend to Jesus to be healed, and when their way is barred by the crowd, they climb up onto the flat roof and literally tear it apart to lower their friend to Jesus. But in Matthew’s version of the story, they meet Jesus on the lakeside. It isn’t even clear that they were looking for him. The faith Jesus recognises in them might simply be the lived-out faith of including the paralysed man, of journeying with him. Surely they knew of Jesus, but the stories of our lives are ambiguous, open to more than one telling.

As Yahweh to Abraham, so Jesus to the paralytic: a blessing—forgiveness—and a sending home, through which others are blessed—you, too, can know forgiveness.

This is the epic journey told over and over again:

a crisis that drives us out from the familiar—though often it takes a trick or misconception to nudge us over the thresh-hold;

companions to help us, and a mentor to champion us;

a battle to win;

and a prize to win, which is not for us alone but to be shared by the community we return to.

We tell the story not as escapism from life but because it is our story, the story.

Where do you find yourself in that story today?

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Mark


I have so enjoyed looking at Mark’s Gospel with eleven Farsi-speakers this afternoon.

Mark wrote down the memoirs of Peter when Peter and Paul were both under house-arrest in Rome, in days that ultimately led up to the execution of both Peter and Paul for their Christian faith, at the decision of the emperor. Frightening days for the church.

Together, Peter and Mark crafted a telling of the Jesus story that focuses, with great urgency, on confronting fear. Reasons to be afraid are very real; but fear does not get to have the last word (even if it very almost does).

Peter is there in the story as a man who knew fear, who even denied knowing Jesus three times over following Jesus’ arrest, while Jesus is being hauled up in front of an illegal trial. But Peter can tell the story because he has come to know, personally, that fear does not have the last word. Indeed, he passes on the story, ready to face his own torture and execution.

Mark puts himself into the story, too, a cameo role as the un-named young man who wriggles out of his robe and flees naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest when the guards lay hands on him too. At least, thus has the church understood this strange vignette. Mark does not appear by name until the Acts of the Apostles, where he runs away a second time, abandoning Paul and Barnabas. Yet later he and Paul are reconciled, and Mark proves himself to be of great help to both Paul and Peter in their imprisonments. Later still, the church conferred upon Mark the symbol of the fearless lion; for he, as much as Peter, had learned what it is to be unafraid.

This is a great gospel for women and men who have had to flee a regime that arrests, imprisons and even executes Christians; who have travelled across a continent in the back of a lorry; who now face the potent unwelcoming mix of Theresa May’s hostile environment and good old fashioned English racism; who wait, in limbo.

Their reasons to be afraid are very real; but fear does not get to have the final word.


Dove


Walking home along the cycle path, lost in thought, I am startled out of my interior world by a pigeon, breaking out of the trees to my left and flying over to the trees on my right, a leafy branch held in its beak.

It reminded me of Noah. The Bible tells us of a time when Yahweh expressed deep sorrow at the corruption of humanity, and the lesser gods saw an opportunity to compete to bring about their destruction. Rain fell incessantly for five weeks. The Tigris and Euphrates burst their banks, while the Gulf rose up and swept-in over the Fertile Crescent, flooding the earth from horizon to horizon, covering the basin of Iraq, hemmed-in by the mountains of Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, and Syria to the west.

Forewarned, Noah follows Yahweh’s instruction to build an ark and to fill it with every domesticated animal and semi-domesticated bird, along with the crops to feed them. To prepare to begin again. Some in pairs, and some in greater numbers, depending on husbandry and purpose.

After the ark comes to rest on the foothills of the Turkish mountains, and the waters begin to drain away, Noah sends out a dove, a pigeon. It returns with an olive branch in its mouth, a sign of life. Later Noah sends it out again, and it does not return. Why choose an ark over a world, unless, of course, you have to?

Here’s the thing. I wasn’t only reminded of the story of Noah because of the bird with a branch in its beak. I was reminded of the story of Noah by the bird with a branch in a moment when I felt overwhelmed by waves of sadness, as might flood over any of us from time to time. As I was expressing that sadness in conversation with God.

There are other stories in the Bible that equate the dove with the Spirit of God.

Whether the dove was God or sent by God, or simply that a story was given by God long ago to give us a certain perspective or outlook, I met with God on the cycle path, and heard the promise that, while floods happen, this too will pass.

As the motto of the city of Sunderland has it, nil desperandum, auspice deo. Do not despair in anything, only trust God.


Alienated


Alienation.

Again and again in the Bible, God instructs us to care for the aliens living among us. To treat the foreigner, or person of foreign descent, who has chosen to live alongside us, as one of us. This instruction is not simply a matter of hospitality, important though that is, but of self-knowledge. Do this, remembering that you were once aliens in the land of Egypt; that you were once exiles in Babylon. To forget is to become alienated from ourselves.

I’m struck by how prominent a sense of alienation is today, and in particular by how many people feel like an alien in their own land.

This is true of those to whom the rise of populism appeals, and to those who are bewildered by it. True of those, in the UK, who voted for Brexit, and of those who voted to Remain. True of those who voted for Trump, in the US, and for Democrats in Trump’s America. True in the resurgence of nationalism across Europe. True, perhaps, also for those resisting regimes in Hong Kong and Sudan and Venezuela and Burma...

It is true for British ex-pats who would rather be ‘legitimately’ foreigners in a foreign land than the cognitive dissonance of feeling like aliens in their own country. It is true for young people facing global environmental crisis while the grown-ups squabble over who owns the toys in the burning tree-house.

Into this backdrop, the New Testament (and especially letters such as 1 Peter, and Hebrews) speaks of living as strangers in the world. Not because our home is away from this planet, but because our identity is not primarily shaped by nation and empire, but by a kingdom that embraces all as welcomed stranger, and a king who lives among the displaced and dispossessed.

We’re all human. All in the same boat. And we all forget, over and over again, and need to be instructed, to rediscover ourselves, in the eyes of the alien in our midst.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Fearful


Today, in preparation for a baptism preparation class tomorrow, I re-read through the Gospel According to Mark in one sitting.

The first thing that strikes you is the urgency with which Mark presents Jesus to us: his favourite word is ‘immediately’—in addition to which Mark uses several synonyms.

But today I was struck by another motif that recurs almost as often, that of fear. Fear is what Jesus confronts, again and again.

Over again, his followers are afraid, and Jesus must address their fear.

Again and again, we see people in positions of authority or power, afraid of losing face, afraid of losing position, afraid of the crowd. (How easily we forget that those in positions of privilege fear the population they preside over.) We see them take actions they do not want to do, out of fear; and form unlikely alliances because of fear.

We see unclean spirits fear what Jesus will do, for they too have much to lose.

We meet people who come to Jesus in hope of liberation from fear; and even those who are afraid of how Jesus might respond to them.

We see fear motivate people to become enemies of Jesus, and fear cause his followers to desert and deny knowing him.

Through it all, Jesus addresses our fear, saying Do Not Be Afraid.

This is the good news according to Mark, God stepping in to deal with our greatest need. This is what is so very urgent, what necessitates such immediacy.

It seems to me that Mark presents us with a gospel for our times, in which we recognise ourselves.

What do you fear? And who are you afraid of? For that may be the very ground on which you meet Jesus.


Monday, July 01, 2019

Storm rising


There’s a story in the Bible of king David leading a great crowd of people in worshipping God, shirt off, underpants hanging out, to the delight of the young women. When I watched Stormzy lead the Glastonbury crowd in Blinded By Your Grace Part 2, I thought of it.

It is a controversial story. David’s wife, Michal, looked on and held him with contempt. She tore into him. He lashed back, called on God to strike her barren. A woman who had risked her own life to save his; whom, as thanks, he had abandoned for years, while nineteen other sexual conquests are recorded; before demanding her back.

An awkward footnote later in the story notes that she was given to another man, and bore him children. Which tells us two things: that God thought David was being an arse; and that his official biographers really struggled with that...

David was a musician, and a mentor to other musicians. His lyrics, and theirs, include break-outs of shocking violence; tales of heart-breaking betrayal; boasts; penitence; celebration. As I watched Stormzy’s Glastonbury set, I thought of David.

David’s lyrics reflected his life. He wanted to build a house on earth for God, but God would not let him, because there was blood on his hands. A man of violence, of sexual appetite, of song, of homies known as the Mighty Men, of cheating on friends and girlfriends, of pomp and excess, of welcoming those failed or actively excluded by power, of raising up others. Transplant David to the UK today, and he’d be a grime artist from south London.

This same David is also described in the Bible, by God, as a man after God’s own heart.

Which is not to say that God is a violent womaniser, who condones such behaviour. Rather, it is to say that this complex, flawed character, shaped by the world he lived in with its deep injustices and terrifying triumphs, was a true worshipper. A man who longed to know God, and to align his heart with God’s heart.

In the Bible, the heart refers to our capacity to choose. Our free will. Our choices that lead us away from God and our choices that move us to return closer to God. David knew that the heart was untrustworthy, yet longed to be one who chose as God would choose, and who acted consistent with such choices. However many times he failed. However many times he ****** up. However many times he had to turn around and humble himself and come back. However many times he even managed to **** up the coming back.

All that is what came to mind as I watched Stormzy wow the crowd, in ways that somehow connected deeply with their own hearts, their own capacity to make choices, and live with the consequences.

As David’s son king Solomon put it, there is nothing new under the sun. Instead, we find ourselves on the same ground—the dust from which we came and to which we shall return—again and again. Maybe for the first time.