Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Job


There’s a book in the Old Testament called Job, after the central character. Job is portrayed as a righteous man, the servant of God, who loses everything. His flocks and herds are carried away by raiders; his buildings collapse; his children are killed; his intercessary prayers on their behalf no longer appear to have any efficacy; his own body is covered with terrible sores. What follows is a literary masterpiece of theatre, as Job and his friends discuss what has taken place, suggesting reasons why, and what Job might do to restore his fortunes. Themes cover the great existential questions, why do bad things happen to good people, and, if they do, is there any point to being upright?

But Job is no outpouring of individual angst. Though it is set in a far more ancient time, it in fact (most probably) dates from the time of the Babylonian exile, when Jerusalem had been destroyed and her royal court and civil service carried into captivity. Job is a literary cipher for the exiles—and so are his friends. In this, one of the greatest works of literature to survive from antiquity (and arguably one of the greatest literary works ever composed), a community sit down and try to make sense of what the hell has just happened to them.

We could do with a bit more Job today.

World Kindness Day


Today is, apparently, World Kindness Day. Kindness is surprisingly subversive. It is also, and quite clearly if you look at the world and the ways in which we treat one another, not a self-evident or universal virtue, not a given. Though someone of any or no religious belief can show kindness, it is, profoundly, a Judeo-Christian value. Here, then, are words taken from Paul’s letter to Titus, words set for Holy Communion today:

“But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy...”

Titus 3:4, 5

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

God the storyteller




I have really enjoyed reflecting on this passage from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews with other members of the congregation at St Nicholas’ this evening.

The word translated here as received/giving approval is martureo, which means to bear witness, or to give a good report. In other words, we know about these ancients because God told stories about them. God told stories about them, to people who passed those stories own, until they were written down. At least, that is the view of faith. And indeed, there are not other witnesses, so either these stories are completely made up, or God did, indeed, tell them.

The implication, from a faith perspective, is that God might also tell stories about you, as an heir of this long line of stories. About you, and how pleased God is with you. About you, and the struggles you have overcome, the risks you have taken, the scars that tell your story.

I can’t think of anything more honouring.

We’ll be reflecting on a different passage from the Bible most Tuesdays, 2.00-3.00 p.m. and 7.00-8.00 p.m. in the Lady Chapel at St Nicholas’ Church, if ever you'd like to join me.

Love is


My congregation is full of elderly widows and widowers, as well as women whose husbands walked out long before divorce was acceptable, and some who never married. Today I passed a happy hour with one congregation member who has unexpectedly and delightfully found love again at a late stage of life. The other night she was sat at home in front of the tv watching the latest David Attenborough natural history, and her gentleman friend was sat in his home in front of his tv watching the same programme. In this programme we saw a pair of Amazonian poison-dart tree-frogs. Discussing what they had seen over the phone, he coyly asked her if the frogs reminded her of anyone, another couple?

You know someone is in love when they take being compared to a poison-dart tree-frog as a compliment.

Something beautiful


Gospel set for Morning Prayer today: Matthew 5:13-20

Here, Jesus describes what the community of God’s chosen people should be like in the world, using the accessible metaphors of salt and light. Moreover, these sayings contrast being ‘no longer good’ with ‘your good works’. However, the repeated word ‘good’ in the English translates two different words in the Greek.

In the first instance, the word is ischuo, to have strength, power, potency, to prevail. In the second instance, the word is kalos, beautiful, the beauty that flows from noble, worthy and honourable character.

In other words, beauty has a potency in the world, to transform the world. And this beauty flows from godly character, and points to God. It is contrasted with ‘turning to foolishness’—moraino (mo-rah-ee-no)—the literal meaning of the salt ‘losing its taste’.

One way, then, we should measure the impact of what we do in the world is to ask, is the outcome something beautiful?

When the stranger is welcomed, the hungry are fed, the lonely find company; where human dignity is recognised, and, if necessary, restored; the beauty is in the outcome, in those moments of connection that result in the creation of something that was not there before, as nobility meets nobility, worth meets worth, honour meets honour.

(With thanks to clergy colleagues who helped me expand my thoughts, as we reflected on this passage this morning.)

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Baton-change


In the last chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are told of two of Jesus’ disciples who are walking away from Jerusalem towards Emmaus on the day Jesus rose from the dead. As they walk, Jesus comes into being alongside them, but they do not recognise him. He asks them, what are these words you are exchanging? and one of them responds, are you the only resident alien dwelling in Jerusalem in these days who has not heard about the things that have come into being, concerning Jesus? (They go on to tell him all about Jesus; and Jesus responds that they haven’t joined-the-dots.) It is when they invite Jesus to stay the night with them in their home that it comes into being that their eyes are opened to recognise him. With hindsight, they describe the experience of being with him as one which caused their hearts to be consumed with fire.

If you then turn over the page, you come to the prologue to John’s gospel. It concerns the word that comes into being in the world. Though the world came into being through the word, the world did not recognise the word. The word came to his own people, and his own people did not recognise him. But those who did welcome him came into being, through him, as children of God. He came and dwelt alongside them, as a resident alien, a tent-dweller on the edge of the city. He was seen by them, a supernatural seeing, one described at least in hindsight as beholding glory, a majestic brightness.

In other words, John begins his gospel exactly where Luke ends his. It is a perfect baton change.

John wrote later than the other gospel writers, possessing a familiarity with them, and apparently believing them to be true as far as they went but having left out too many of the good bits. But he did not write with any expectation that, at a later date, others would collate these writings in such an order that one might come to the end of Luke, turn the page, and begin reading John.

Yet the third-to-fouth-leg hand-over is absolutely flawless.

BOOM!

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Three things about everyone


Over the past few weeks, I have been reading three books by Joanna Cannon, the novels The Trouble With Goats & Sheep and Three Things About Elsie and a memoir, Breaking & Mending. Cannon is a psychiatric doctor, and her deeply compassionate novels are inspired by the lives of her patients.

Three Things About Elsie is concerned with how what at the time appear to be small, insignificant choices can have the biggest impact on our lives, and the lives of others. But it is also a wonderful exploration of what it is to be human; a fictionalised companion to Prof John Swinton’s Dementia: living in the memories of God.

Swinton speaks of three selfs that, together, shape who we are; and all three can be traced through Three Things About Elsie.

Self 1 is first-person self-awareness in the present moment. This has begun before our first birthday, and we never lose it. This is most apparent in the chapters with a time stamp for a heading. Flo, the first-person narrator, has fallen in her flat and is waiting to be discovered. Flo lives with dementia, but possesses Self 1, and over these chapters, and the course of the novel, is making peace with the present moment.

Self 2 is made up of how we think and feel about ourselves. This is most clearly explored in the chapters headed FLORENCE (first-person narrated), MISS AMBROSE and HANDY SIMON (both told by a third-person narrator), in which three characters reflect on themselves. We see the things they value, even when other people do not share the same values. We see their regrets, and how choices they made have resulted in those regrets. We see them tell themselves stories, constructed from the past, to help them in the present. We note how they compare themselves against others. We note that they (and by extension, we) are not reliable narrators, not reliable constructors of themselves, both in that they are not in full possession of the facts and in their ongoing struggle to accept themselves, to forgive and own and love themselves. Self 2 changes, many times, over the course of our lives, changing through big events (such as moving into sheltered housing, or the death of a friend) and through incremental series of small choices. We can never hold on to our Self 2, though we hoard all our previous Self 2s in the corners of the room of our lives.

Self 3 is social, various social personae, that are and can only be constructed in interaction with others. We see this in how Flo, Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon see each other, and in how each of them is impacted by interaction with a wide range of other characters, past and present. We see this in being a friend (you cannot be a friend without another), a work colleague (how you are seen, and how how you are seen can change, changing, in turn, how you see yourself), in being a vulnerable adult standing in front of a doctor or a policeman.

In the end, there are limits to Selves 2 and 3. We construct our lives, in collaboration with others, but God and nature and time and eternity conspire to save us from ourselves, to tenderly strip away our outer clothing until our Self 1 is present(ed) to us, and we are invited to make peace—or, as Swinton puts it, to make friends—with the present moment.
It is amazing how much energy we put into shaping a Self 2 to our (current) liking, and how much energy we expend on trying to control the input of others into our social Self 3; and how hard we work to push away the Self 1 that was our first self in the world, our only constant self, and the self we will be at the last.


Postscript: there is a sentence hidden in Three Things About Elsie, a landmine in a field. If you have not read The Trouble With Goats & Sheep, you won’t stand on it; but if you have, you will, and, though you keep your weight on it for as long as possible, eventually you will shift and then, only then, it will explode...