Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Empathy


There is no pain like being a parent; nor like not being a parent. No pain like sharing your home with others; nor like living alone. No pain like that of youth, life stretching, out of reach, too far ahead of you; nor like that of old age, life stretching, out of reach, too far behind; nor, again, like that of those stranded between those two horizons.

Every condition of life has its own unique sorrow, that can only be known from the inside. But the purpose of all pain is to train us in empathy. I do not know your pain, but I know pain. We are in this together. We get to choose whether we harden ourselves against pain, which will harden us against the pain of others; or allow pain to soften our hearts, our souls, towards one another.

Be as gentle and as courageous as you are able today; and forgive yourself and others where, in our pain, we lose sight of these things. This will take a lifetime.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The household manager, part 2


Further thoughts on Luke 16:

[1] The parable at the start of the chapter is not primarily about money, but about ‘true riches.’ However, our attitude towards money, how we use or are used by money, reveals our attitude towards true riches. So, it is about money.

[2] I propose that we might see the rich man as the nation of Israel (and perhaps, in a secondary sense, as the Pharisees). That he is rich is significant. As Jesus points out, you cannot serve both God and money (the wealth of injustice). This parable sits within the tradition of the Old Testament prophets sent by the LORD to confront the wealthy over their injustice. So, for example, Amos—whom the Lectionary pairs with this Gospel reading—accuses the rich of buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals (Amos 8:4-7).

[3] This parable also sits within Jesus’ continued polemic against a group of Pharisees who are objecting to his behaviour, his failing—refusing—to separate himself from sinners. Jesus has turned from addressing the Pharisees, to speaking to his disciples in front of the Pharisees. The Pharisees see themselves as the godly—to use a phrase that had currency at the time, as ‘sons of light’—and as the wise interpreters, par excellence, of Torah; but they are not as wise as they think they are. And for all their considering themselves set apart, they absolutely share the love of money at the heart of the corruption of the nation.

[4] Jesus casts himself as the manager of the household of Israel. If the charges brought against the manager are correct, he has already been giving away the rich man’s wealth, redistributing, subverting injustice from within. And, indeed, Jesus repeatedly has charges levelled against him, including of misrepresenting his opponents and of inappropriately blessing those on the margins by the way he has been conducting himself.

[5] As matters come to a head, the manager subverts the system—the exploitation of the poor by the rich—even more flagrantly. This, too, is an analogy for Jesus’ mission, as he moves towards Jerusalem.

[6] In the parable, the master of the house, who was set to dismiss the manager, repents, and, instead, praises the manager, who, according to the terms of an unjust system, has acted unjustly. The rich man, who has served wealth rather than God, repents, and accepts a redistribution of resources. This, too, is part of Jesus’ polemic: he is not only challenging the nation (including the Pharisees) over their love of money (the wealth of injustice), but extending the invitation to be like the rich man and repent. However, the Pharisees reject this invitation, and, instead, ridicule Jesus. The rulers of the nation, including also the Sadducees, will likewise reject Jesus as the manager over the household of Israel.

[7] Jesus tells his disciples not to be like the Pharisees, who see themselves as godly and wise but are in fact complicit in godless foolishness; but to be like the manager who takes what the rich have built up for themselves and give it back to the people. This should be read at both the material and the spiritual level, as our attitude towards money and our attitude towards true riches.


Yet further thoughts on Luke 16:

[8] The sin of the elite of ancient Israel was to hold the poor in material poverty through injustice, while at the same time patronising the common people both intellectually and morally. In contrast, Jesus came to set the captives free.

[9] This couldn’t possibly have anything relevant to say to contemporary British society, where we live in a utopia in which multi-millionaires are the champions of the honest hard worker...

The household manager, part 1


It is my contention that Jesus is always talking about himself in his parables, yet without any need to massage his ego, allowing him to cast himself as the weak and humiliated character through whom conventional wisdom is subverted.

I have already argued elsewhere that in Luke 15 Jesus casts himself as the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the younger son who ‘was dead and now is alive’ and now I would contend that, in the following chapter, he casts himself in the role of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-13).

Jesus is here speaking to his disciples, in the hearing of a group of Pharisees; but the backdrop is that the Pharisees are increasingly distancing themselves from Jesus, as the tax collectors and sinners are drawing near to him.

In this parable, I would suggest, the rich man stands for the nation, or ‘household,’ of Israel; with an additional layer of meaning, in keeping with the earlier prophets, connecting the public leaders of the people with the wealth of injustice.

In the parable, Jesus takes upon himself the role of the servant who oversees the life of the household of Israel (a role his disciples would see as divinely appointed in the case of Jesus, as opposed to a character in a parable). And an accusation has been brought against him, that he is mis-managing that role.

Knowing that he is to be rejected from the position he holds, the manager sets in motion a plan to be welcomed into another home. Not as a friend, or guest, but as overseer. In keeping with his plan, he writes-off considerable amounts of debt to his master.

Now, why would anyone go on to appoint as manager over their affairs someone whom you knew first-hand would operate by writing-off those debts owed to you? You would only do so if you knew that the debt owed to you was considerably less than the debt you owed...

And this is where it gets really interesting, because the nation was in debt to the tax collectors. That is, the nation funded public works by auctioning the rights to collect certain taxes to the highest bidder—usually a ‘society’ of tax collectors, rather than an unlimited personal liability—who, at the end of the contract would expect to earn interest on their loan, plus—as pure profit—any tax they raised in addition to the amount they had anticipated on raising when making their bid (there was, of course, the risk of making less than anticipated).

So, if anyone would not welcome the debt owed to them being written-off—if any households would be unlikely to rehome the rejected manager—it would be the societies of tax collectors. And yet, these were the very groups drawing near to Jesus. Why? Because debt, here, is an analogy for forgiveness and empathy. And the tax collectors, despite providing the means of funding public work, were widely despised.

Jesus goes on to instruct his disciples to use ‘the wealth of injustice’ to make friends, so that, when the money runs out, they may be welcomed into ‘the age-long tabernacle.’

All money is dirty money. We are all complicit in injustice, in our financial dealings. Moreover, all money that can be made can also be lost, will run out. The same is true of social capital. We gain social capital by loaning our social standing to others, in hope of a good return; or by demanding a high interest-rate from those who would seek to gain from association with us. We seek to have our sins forgiven—our debts written-off—while withholding forgiveness from others. Yet, if forgiveness is the true currency of maturity, Jesus instructs us to squander what we steward for our household, to forgive and forgive and forgive others until we have nothing left to our name.

What happens then? Here, Jesus switches from the language of the settled household, with its place in relative economic stability, to the language of tent-dwelling, from the time Israel wandered in the wilderness, knowing themselves to be dependent on God.

(Moreover, when, in AD 70, the nation loses the temple, the ultimate symbol of both its wealth and—according to Jesus in Luke 19—its injustice, in robbing the gentiles of a house of prayer, all that remains for them is a tabernacle...if I may be permitted a little intertextuality between Luke and John.)

Only once we have lost our name, as the manager in the parable lost his name, as Jesus lost his reputation among the scribes and the Pharisees, will we discover what it means to know the age-long provision of God-in-our-midst: that we are forgiven our debts, endlessly and without measure.

“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us...”
Jesus, Luke 11:4.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

True story


The reason I love the Bible so much is because I find it to be true. Not, primarily, on the basis that the events told therein happened to someone a long time ago in lands far away; but because they resonate, in my deepest being, with my personal experience of being part of humanity. And not only with me, but with everyone I see around me; indeed, I would suggest, with everyone who has ever lived. The largest scientific sample ever undertaken.

Take, for example, the Great Lie, in which our first parents, the archetypal Earthling and the Mother Of All The Living were deceived into believing that God did not want the very best for them. There were consequences to such a belief. Are consequences.

For one thing, the Earthling, knowing the world to be not as it should be, not all it could be, would strive to make the world right, to subdue and cultivate it according to their will; until their strength was spent, and, at last, they would have to make peace with their own limitations...

For another, all the children of the Mother Of All The Living would know pain, in the bearing and sustaining and letting-go of more children, of one another. Pain matched by, and at least in part caused by, the desire to love and be loved, to protect and be protected...

If you can honestly tell me that this is not your story, not the story of your family and friends, not the story you read in the paper each morning, then I recommend that you don't waste your time reading any further with the Bible.

But if, in all honesty, you know this story to be true, then I can only recommend that you waste no more time in not reading the Bible.

That blue shirt



You see this shirt, I just pegged out on the line to dry? I graduated from Sheffield University wearing that shirt, back in 1995. My girlfriend was there. We’ve been married for almost 23 years. My parents were there, and hers too. We went for a meal at a pizzeria on West Street. We graduated alongside a good many friends, who are still friends, who will see this post on Facebook.

And I still wear that shirt. It is a little threadbare at the collar and cuffs. And the other day, a button frayed loose: it is sitting on my desk; I really ought to ask Jo to sew it back on (that’s not sexist, by the way; that’s dyspraxic fingers speaking). But we’re not done yet.

The apostle Paul wrote, “above all, clothe yourselves with love...” Love, of course, is storied. And clothes are, sometimes, books, journals, albums. That item, belonging to a loved one, you hold on to; or pass on, with love, so that the story might continue, taking on a life of its own.

Clothe yourselves with love, with all its running repairs. x



Time to get dressed


Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today: Colossians 3:12-17 and Luke 6:27-38

Writing to the church in Colossae, Paul takes up the imagery of getting dressed—a daily activity: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness [that is, teachability], and patience...above all, clothe yourselves with love.”

In our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of being robbed of clothing: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you...from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”

What if those who sought to rob us of our compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, our love, found themselves enveloped in these things, by our response?


“Above all, clothe yourselves with love.” Colossians 3:14

Maybe it is because I do the laundry in our house, but I very much word-associate socks with socks-and-[under]pants; whereas, my youngest son very much word-associates socks-and-shoes. So, socks are almost the first thing I put on in the morning, and almost the last thing my son puts on.

We all get dressed in our own idiosyncratic way. And what our clothes look like says something of the culture we live in, of the generation we belong to within that culture. What we wear may say something about the role we play (as do my clerical shirts) or an activity we are taking part in (as does my hi-viz running top: there is a time and a place). Sometimes, we need to put the clothes on and keep putting the clothes on until we own them (I went for a lot of runs before I saw myself as a runner).

And some of us need help in getting dressed—for which, if we are loved by the helper, we need feel no shame, but may do nonetheless.

Ultimately, clothing protects us from the elements, and also from the shame of public nakedness. From over-exposure, in more than one sense. Though in our intimate settings, we remove our clothes.

Paul writes, above all, clothe yourselves with love. Like clothes, love is universal, but how it is expressed may vary somewhat from culture to culture, context to context. Like clothes, love is something we may need to grow into. Like clothes, love is something we sometimes need help to put on. Like clothes, we sometimes remove love in our intimate settings, hurting (often unintentionally, and to our deep shame) those closest to us.

Like clothes, love is something we must put on, afresh, if not always fresh, each day.

The seasons are turning, here in the north of the northern hemisphere. You might want to dig out a jumper, or pull on a coat. But, wherever you live in the world, and whatever you wear today, above all, clothe yourself with love.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

This is not a post about sexuality or politics


What happened to nuance, a friend of mine, dismayed by the quality of public discourse in our polarised society, recently asked on Facebook? When did nuance die?

The apostle Paul wrote a letter to the house churches in Rome, concerning the nature of the standing, before God, of two formerly-divided camps, the Jews and the Gentiles. He introduces his theme (Romans chapter 1) by way of a consideration of same-sex intercourse.

Paul argues that same-sex desire transgresses the purity code, and that same-sex intercourse is ‘contrary to nature.’ And here, traditionalists part company with the LGBTQIA+ agenda; progressives part company with Paul; and both miss the point that he is only just getting going in making.

(Of course, same-sex intercourse is contrary to nature in as much as it must override an almost universal desire to pro-create. But the point Paul is establishing is a theological one.)

That the Gentiles are included in the church at all has already been established, through the vision God gave to Peter of God’s bursting the purity laws, specifically in relation to clean and unclean foods. But now, Paul goes further. Taking a well-established image of Jewish socio-political identity, the vine, Paul says that God has broken Israel off from its own vine and has grafted-in the Gentiles ‘contrary to nature’...and then, will graft the Jews back in, again, ‘contrary to nature.’

In several places, Paul writes about human sexual relationships with incredible nuance, as do other New Testament writers.

On the one hand, (heterosexual) marriage is an illustration of the relationship between Christ and the church—and widowhood, of the relationship of the Christian to the Jewish law.

On the other hand, Paul critiques such relationships according to the gospel, making clear (among other things) that they ought not to be conducted in a way that dishonours either party, or any third party.

One the one hand, same-sex intercourse is (by virtue of its being contrary to nature) an illustration of God’s desire and action in establishing Jews and Gentiles within one community on the same basis.

On the other hand, same-sex exploitation is condemned. To give a concrete example, there is no place in the kingdom of heaven for the common Roman practice of masters exercising control by raping adolescent male slaves, and those who did so formerly must do so no longer.

Moreover, we are not at liberty to weaponise the marriage illustration against those who are single and celibate.

And, also, we ought not to consider same-sex desire, in all its brokenness, as being outwith God’s bigger picture.

Nuance. The ability to see something that points to God in anything, while not naively embracing everything about it. To build a robust case through making careful, qualified statements.

The greatest polarisation in British society today is over Brexit. That two camps might be brought together as one seems as unlikely as the bringing-together of Jews and Gentiles as equal standing in the early church. It will take not only the grace of God, but careful, nuanced, theological reflection, to break down the dividing walls and any desire to establish first- and second-class citizens in the new world order.

Unless we can see, in the desire to Leave the EU, something that reveals the nature and activity of God to us, we have lost sight of the gospel.

Unless we can critique the values and actions of Leavers, according to those of the kingdom of heaven, we have lost sight of the gospel.

Unless we can see, in the desire to Remain in the EU, something that reveals the nature and activity of God to us, we have lost sight of the gospel.

Unless we can critique the values and actions of Remainers, according to those of the kingdom of heaven, we have lost sight of the gospel.

And if nuance really is dead, here’s to the raising of the dead!

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

World Suicide Prevention Day



I am a survivor.

It was on my twelfth birthday, that is a year younger than my youngest child is now, that I first found myself assaulted by suicidal thoughts. Though they were in my head, I’d say they came from ‘outside of’ me...

The second time came when I was seventeen, and that time, it was more of an internal wrestle. As with many, maybe all, survivors, I did not want to die, I just wanted the pain I felt, after years of depression, to end.

The first time, I felt all alone in the world. I think there must have been angels fighting for me. The second time, I was surrounded by some good friends, who I could talk to. They got me home, got me talking to my parents, my GP, a child psychiatrist. I was able to access support, of various kinds, and so began a two-year journey towards life.

At university, I discovered there were plenty of other people going through something very similar, and that I was able to listen, to be a friend to them in their need, as others had been a friend to me. I discovered, as again so many survivors do, a sense of life-purpose through my experience of pain.

When I was going through the selection process to be a vicar, I was sent to the Priory, and they gave me a clean bill of health. I’ve known low mood since, but I’m not in that place. I wouldn’t wish my past on anyone, but I don’t resent it. It has more-than been redeemed.

If you are struggling, reach out. If you are concerned about a friend, reach out. Night is long and cold and dark, but the dawn comes. We can watch the sunrise, together.

Butterflies

The Gospels are full of accounts of finding, and being found by, Jesus. But who was the first to do so?

One could make a case, from the Gospel According to John, for the young fisherman, Andrew (John 1:35-42, prompted by John the Baptiser; though we have already met people searching for the Messiah earlier on, in verses 19-28).

Or, from the Gospel According to Luke, for the shepherds, sent by angels (Luke 2:8-20).

Or, from the Gospel According to Mark, for Simon Peter, searching for the visitor who had slept in the guest room last night but hadn't shown up for breakfast this morning (Mark 1:35-37).

Or, from the Gospel According to Matthew, for the star-led, gift-bearing Magi (Matthew 2:1-12).

But before all that, Matthew tells us that “Mary...was found to be with child” (Matthew 1:18).

And the first person to find that Mary was with child was...Mary.

At this point, Luke is hopping up and down in the background, clamouring, “Tell’em about the angel, Matt! You haven’t told’em about the angel!”

And of course, Mary knew that she would be with child. But that is not the same thing at all. The angel is to Mary what the angel is to the shepherds, the star to the Magi, John the Baptist to Andrew, and Andrew to Simon Peter.

My wife was informed that she was pregnant by a magic stick. But that is a world away from feeling that first flutter inside, which she did, long before I first felt the kick of a foot impressing itself through her skin.

Finding Jesus, for the 1st time or the 1001st time, begins with butterflies in the stomach.

When did you last feel them?

Sunday, September 08, 2019

What use is a human?


Of the 27 first-century documents that together make up the New Testament, 13 are letters written to churches or individuals by the apostle Paul. This was a communal exercise: often, the transcript of a discussion between Paul and co-workers, in response to a presenting issue; carried and read out to the recipients by further co-workers.

From prison in Ephesus (a major city in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey), Paul sent a letter to the church in Colossae (a small city in Asia Minor). With it, he sent a personal message to Philemon, in whose home that church met, concerning the letter-carrier, Onesimus.

Onesimus was a runaway slave, a slave of Philemon’s household. The name Onesimus means ‘Useful’, but he was not. ‘Onesimus’ was a common name conferred upon a slave. It speaks of a society in which a person’s value was determined by utility, by their usefulness. A slave is useful, until they are no longer useful.

Onesimus runs away to the anonymity of Ephesus, where, as luck or divine will would have it, he somehow comes across Paul. It is unlikely that they had met in person previously, though Onesimus would have known about Paul through the conversion of his master Philemon. Though under no obligation to do so, and at personal risk, Onesimus finds Paul in prison and begins to serve him. Over time, he, too, comes to faith in Jesus.

Some time later, Paul persuades Onesimus to return to Colossae, and sends a letter advocating for him. In it, he speaks of Onesimus not, primarily, as one who has fulfilled the role of a useful slave, but as one who has become like both a child and a brother to him. Likewise, he invites Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a brother; not simply as a useful member of the household, but as a member of God’s family.

We live in a society in which, as in that of Paul and Philemon and Onesimus, people are valued in as much as they are useful. And as those shaped by our environment, this is easily internalised. We observe that the elderly, the disabled, the long-term sick, the unemployed, the asylum-seeker barred from work, are not valued by society. We also observe our own struggle with, say, having gone from being a teacher to a retired teacher; with the empty-nest; with the infirmity of aging.

Where is your identity found?

In your role, the useful contribution you make to society?

Or in being, and knowing that you are, a child of God?


Friday, September 06, 2019

Lost and found


In Luke 15:1-10, the sinner who repents, causing joy in the presence of the angels of God, is not the sheep that was lost or the coin that was lost, but the shepherd who lost a sheep and the woman who lost a coin, but who, in each case, set about rectifying the matter (i.e. repenting).

In these parables, Jesus is the lost sheep, celebrated by the sinners searching him out; Jesus is the lost coin, with the sinners calling their friends and neighbours to celebrate.
Finding something (ultimately, in someone: Jesus) that we have an awareness of having lost, and the resulting joy when what was incomplete is made complete again, is at the heart of the Gospel-writers’ message (much more so than the forgiveness of sins, which Jesus only mentions twice; and one of those is to emphasis the action of a woman who already knows that she has experienced this).

As in Jesus’ day, in my own experience, those outside of the respectable community of the church are much better at this, than those inside.

Joy happens when the transcendent is made imminent. In our secular society, we have, within the church as much as outwith it, traded the possibility of joy for the imminent-made-transcendent, which is any form of escapism from the daily grind. The two are, at least on the surface, hard to tell apart; but only one results in an accumulative cure of chronic grumbling.

When did you last experience joy?

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Building the future


Now, large crowds were following Jesus, and he spoke to them using metaphors, describing them as builders who, before starting out, had considered matters and arrived at an estimated cost, and decided that they had the means to pay the price, even if, as was so often the case, the final cost turned out to be somewhat greater than the initial estimate.

(Jesus, of course, was a house-builder by years of apprenticeship, and knew a thing or two about which he spoke.)

The crowd were confident that they could follow in the wake of this popular rabbi, swept along but never getting in too deep. In short, they were in control, and would not be exposed to ridicule.

The crowd, of course, saw themselves in just such a metaphor. Knowing. Judicious. Having a certain status in the world. Respected by others. Not a laughing-stock.

And then Jesus springs the trap. Tells them that, if they stick with him, they will indeed get in too deep; it will cost them everything they have, and, even then, they will not be able to complete what they have begun.

In the Gospels, as everywhere, crowds are not to be trusted, swept along as they always are by whichever way the wind is blowing. Jesus is always extending the invitation to step out of the crowd, to step away from even the crowd at its best; to embrace loss and ridicule and emptiness and servitude and death, when it comes, as it always does; to discover that in the rubble of what we cannot keep, God is building something that cannot be shaken.

The realisation that you have been swept up in something you thought you could manage, but have since discovered will cost you more than you have; that you have embarked on a course of action you will never be able to complete, and at huge loss of reputation; is a kairos moment.

There are, I suppose, three possible courses of action: to seek to return from where you came, and try to forget the whole, unfortunate recent past; to plough on regardless, suffering massive loss but pretending otherwise; or, to become a disciple, one being shaped for the kingdom of heaven on earth—a vision altogether greater than our towers and armies, our empire-building, could ever imagine or deliver.



Pray


Last night was the first of our eight-week Prayer Course, exploring the Lord’s Prayer. Then Jo and I went home to watch The Great British Bake-Off (recorded, whizzing through the advert breaks).

After a while, Jo said, “There’s a lot of prayer going on in that tent.”

And there was. It was striking. Again and again, as contestants put their biscuit mix in the oven, they commented:

“All I can do now is pray.”

“I just have to pray that it bakes in time.”

I don’t imagine that most of them would describe themselves as religious. And yet, their go-to is prayer. I can’t be certain, of course, but I think that what they are saying is:

“I’ve done all I can; and I know that it is not enough. I need the universe to smile on me. I need a little magic.”

What good is prayer? Well, prayer does two essential things. It connects us to a power that is greater than ourselves. And it reminds us that that power is not of ourselves.

Without that connection to a power greater than ourselves—however we understand that—we quickly deflate, give up. Without recognising that that power is not of ourselves, we become self-important, think too highly of ourselves, and, too little of others.

Prayer, as those in the know, know, both energises and grounds us.

Prayer won’t make biscuits cook any faster in an oven. But it will energise and ground the baker. It will empower them to enjoy the experience, no matter the outcome; not taking themselves too seriously, power to rise above being a sore loser or an inconsiderate winner; power to cheer on fellow competitors, to bond with others. Power to keep on baking, for others, beyond the tent.

It is not surprising that there is a lot of prayer in that tent. It is not surprising that there is a lot of prayer in the world.

Whatever you face today, take time to pray.