Saturday, September 12, 2020

Dreams

Everybody has a dream, whether it is to be an astronaut when you grow up, or a bucket list to complete before you die.

Some people will tell you that People Like You have No Business having Dreams Like That. They might know you—sadly, they could be a teacher, or even a family member—but they don't care about you. The best thing you can do is ignore them; don’t even waste your precious energy proving them wrong (and yes, I know that is easier said than done).

Some people will tell you to Pursue Your Dream, may even be your cheerleader. But if that is all they have to say, then either they don't care about you any more than the haters do; or, they do care but no-one ever taught them what to do with dreams (and, sadly, this is commonplace).

Your dreams don’t want to be pre-emptively buried, or relentlessly chased; they want to be interpreted. And here, I’m not talking about while-you’re-asleep dreams and psychoanalysts (helpful though they can be). I’m talking about the way our waking dreams speak, and the way that we are made to speak into one another’s lives.

The ancient poetry of the Bible imagines us as being a fusion of clay and the breath of God. Of the mundane, and the magical. The poet Lucille Clifton described her life thus, “this bridge between starshine and clay”. Your dreams are the conversations between those two poles, about what they—you—want to experience in this world, which contains more than any one life can bear. Yet, because we are created for connection—for communion—with others, our component states don’t speak the same mother tongue. Hence, though we might learn to ‘get the gist’ of the conversation, we need others to help interpret the nuances, to follow the conversation fully. That is why, even though on the surface it may look a solo endeavour, Clifton’s words quoted above are from a poem titled Won’t you celebrate with me: though having no model to follow, this is a celebration shared with, and in part of, those who helped her shape a kind of life.

So, start asking clarifying questions of your dreams; and pray for the gift of people in your life who can help you understand what you hear. And though the kind of life you shape will not correspond with the dream, within it, we will celebrate.


Friday, September 11, 2020

Talk more

Stand in front of any urinal in any gents toilets in any motorway services in the country, and you will come face-to-face with an advert for either van insurance or erectile dysfunction.

The common denominator is a sense of loss, in forms targeting men. To be a man is to drive (and used to be—another loss—to fix your own engine). As for our penis, that is explicitly referred to as our ‘manhood’—though my internal jury is still out debating whether this is a false construction of manhood, or whether manhood itself is a false construct. In any case, the encouragement is for a quick fix: if your motor is stolen, we can get you going again. It is the same impulse behind (the success of) populism, the promise of making Britain Great again.

I don’t think men talk about van insurance much. We sure as hell don’t talk about erectile dysfunction. But the underlying taboo is admitting and navigating loss. Yet loss is a recurring part of life for all of us, and something that we can work through but could really do with not having to do it on our own. Help, not to find a fix, or a distraction, but to express appreciation and gratitude for what was good; to acknowledge the legitimacy of our grief; to articulate relief at the unhelpful baggage that has been lost with/in the loss; and to embrace the possibilities of a new season.

It seems to me that the mare that is 2020, and the occasion of Suicide Awareness Month, are good reasons to encourage men to talk more about loss, in all its forms. We’ve got this.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Heartache

You’ll hear people tell you to “follow your heart.” It is bad advice. The Bible tells us that the heart is the seat of our decision making, our capacity for free will; but also that it is unreliable. Don’t follow your heart, lead it; train it, according to wisdom.

With my heart of hearts, I want to go running. Because I love being with the people I run with; because it indirectly improves so many other areas of my life; and just because it is a joyful response to any glorious autumn day. With my heart of hearts, I want to go running.

But with a heavy heart, I need to say no to running for a season. To say no to the wanting to say yes, when my friends say, “we’re going running—who’s in?”

I have damaged something in my knee. There is a lateral weakness there. Last night, I was a looong way behind a pack I should, ordinarily, be right up there with; pushing through pain I ought to be listening to.

Today, a friend who has just torn his meniscus got in touch. Another friend, who ran with me last night, got in touch, to say I’d been on their mind all day. Everyone needs people like that in their lives.

With a heart so sad it is in my boots, I need to put my running shoes in the closet and walk away. For now, and for as long as it takes. If I’m lucky, my body will regenerate itself (they're brilliant like that). If not, I might need to seek professional help (they’re brilliant like that).

But, if you catch me flirting with going for a run, please help me to not follow my heart.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

Ancestors

The year the world was introduced to Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challah / Black Panther, Boseman was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer. Everything he went on to do with that and other roles, he did while being hollowed out, from the inside out, by the cancer and by his surgeons. This is, now, his legacy.

Chances are, you don’t have cancer right now; but, also, that you are being hollowed out by some malaise of our times. Chances are even higher you aren’t a Hollywood actor; but, nonetheless, your life-work tells a story that can inspire others.

The best way I know of to both overcome the gnawing and live a life that invites others to live their life fully—and I think Boseman knew this—is to sit in the counsel of the ancestors before you sit in the council of the ancestors.

For me, this is very much still an ongoing struggle. Salve, Chadwick Boseman. Rest in peace and power. Rise in glory.


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Strengthened

The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today are 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 and Matthew 24:42-51.

[1] In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable in which the master to whom we are all accountable is delayed in returning, in which the one given charge of the household might persist in diligent service of others or take opportunistic advantage to exploit those for whom they have oversight.

[2] In the opening verses of what is commonly referred to as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but is in fact Paul and Sosthenes’ letter, they write, not once but twice, of being strengthened to endure: ‘just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you’…’He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be faithful on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

This is no coincidence. Sosthenes’ name combines two root words, the first meaning to save or be saved, and the second meaning to strengthen or be strengthened. As a ‘Christian’ name (as a name given new focus and purpose by Christ) it points to the One who both saves and strengthens.

[3] Today, the Church remembers Monica, the black African mother who prayed for seventeen years that her son, Augustine, might come to put his hope in Jesus. For seventeen years, there was no evidence that her prayers were heard, let alone being answered. There was no evidence that Augustine was being drawn back to the faith Monica had raised him in as a child. And yet, after seventeen years her prayer was answered. Augustine went on to become a great theologian, and, indeed, a bishop.

I cannot think of Monica this year without thinking also of Julia Jackson, the black American mother of Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man shot seven times in the back by a so-called law enforcement officer. And of her prayer for the healing, not only of her son but—from before he was shot to public attention—of her racially divided nation.

[4] Yesterday, the theologian Miroslav Volf posted on Facebook, ‘When we lack reasons for optimism, hope is what we need. Optimism is about the future that grows out of the present. Hope is about the future beyond the possibilities latent in the present. Like the birth of Isaac, the object of hope is a new thing not coming from the situation we are in, but from God.’

There is nothing in Julia Jackson’s situation to be optimistic about, just as there was no reason for Monica to be optimistic. It is hope, alone, that resists despair, or the abandonment of doing what is right in favour of doing what is expedient or self-serving.

[5] We need to experience strengthening, because we are in this for the long haul, before we will see that which we hope for made manifest in our situation. The mother who prays for her children’s future, as she takes them to the food bank. The army veteran, contemplating suicide as they struggle with civilian life. The elderly man whose wife died not so long ago and whose daughter has just died of cancer, who cannot even imagine tomorrow and needs strength just for today, and today, and today, until tomorrow dawns. We need to know that the One who has saved us, and is saving us, and will save us, has strengthened us and is strengthening us and will strengthen us.

This is why Paul writes with Sosthenes.

 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Forbearance

The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today was 1 Samuel 26, an extract from the life of David. At this point in his life, David and his companions are outlaws. The older, power-holding and deeply insecure king Saul is seeking to take away their hope of a future, and they have been betrayed, to Saul’s advantage (and not for the first time) by the wider community around them. David takes a friend with him, and together they sneak into Saul’s camp by night, indeed, right into Saul’s tent while he and his right-hand-men are caught sleeping.

David’s friend sees this as a moment of opportunity, to rid themselves of Saul once-and-for-all. But David will not permit it. Saul’s downfall will come, in God’s time not at David’s hand. Instead, he takes Saul’s spear and water jar, and retreats to a safe distance. From there, he wakes the guard, exposing their incompetence, but keeping the focus on the injustice of Saul’s actions, humbly asking to be heard and using the situation to appeal for reconciliation. In this, David succeeds, albeit that Saul, true to form, will later go back on his promises.

In his wisdom, David sets an example for us in our own polarised context, and at a time when our young people find themselves thrown under the bus, of forbearance. Of refusing to enact character assassination by social media or perpetuate strife, while nonetheless exposing incompetence and highlighting injustice and taking a stand for the future of our young people, and other marginalised groups.

There is much heat and very little light this summer around (clear) governmental sleep-walking incompetence and injustice. The outstanding question is, how will the Church support young people to grow into their calling in such a world?


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

How To Be An Anti-Racist





This summer, I have been seeking to grow in my understanding of racism; to examine my own life in an ongoing, life-long process of repentance and belief, or, turning away from a particular outlook and pressing into a new one. To help me, I have been reading (and lining up yet-to-read) and listening in on conversations. I have sought to learn from female and male voices; UK-based and US-based and other global voices; Christian, Muslim, and secular voices; written and spoken voices—all while recognising that this is a life-long challenge, not a summer-long challenge.

I’ve just finished Ibram X. Kendi's How to be an Anti-racist. I would strongly recommend it, as being both helpful and hopeful. In marked contrast to much of the noise around this cultural moment, Kendi is unwaveringly honest about the complexity of the issue at hand (including about his own dishonesty). Though he wouldn’t use the terms, Kendi models an ongoing practice of what Jesus calls “repent and believe”—and the often painful or embarrassing moments of revelation that move us on from one stage in our journey to the next.

Kendi contends that the root of racism is what he terms powerful self-interest (I would also use the terms selfishness and self-centredness) which enacts racist policies and then creates racist ideas to justify itself. This, in contrast to the view that racist ideas result in racist policies which result in racist power. And while human beings in every age have known powerful self-interest, Kendi contends that racism, as we see it today, is only around 400 years old, an expression of modernity, conjoined from birth with economics. While humanity is not going to rid ourselves of self-interest, racism is not inevitable.

One of the key learnings for me is Kendi’s recognition that you cannot change hearts and minds in order to change bad policies that are, ultimately, killing us all. That approach is too abstract; and there is too great a sense of fear at what we will lose. Instead, we need to change policies (which requires taking opportunities to challenge, and to shape and test and refine and assess and repeat-the-process, policies). Hearts and minds will follow.

For me, so much of this book, written from a secular outlook, chimes with the gospel. With the repeated challenge and invitation throughout scripture from genesis to revelation to embrace the stranger, to reject othering—and to reject making others invisible in a false post-other-ing. With the repeated challenge to put to death our desire to be at the centre—to die to self—and to live for others, preferring them over ourselves. With the call to repent and believe, again and again and again. With the body politic and economic of the kingdom of heaven as an alternative society in the midst of the world, however (inevitably) imperfect it may be. And all in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I am grateful for Ibram X. Kendi’s voice.


Thursday, July 23, 2020

More or less

The Gospel reading set for holy Communion today is Matthew 13:10-17. An excerpt:

‘[Jesus] answered [his disciples], ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the crowds] it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ (vv. 11, 12)

The key question facing God’s people in every time and place is, will your values and your corresponding actions be shaped by God’s values and corresponding actions; or will they be shaped by the values and corresponding actions of the world around you, such that you are indistinguishable from anyone else?

‘For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’ The world applies this principle to money, and to power. The world—which, in biblical language does not refer to a neutral description of how things are, let alone a positive description of how things ought to be, but rather a description of how things are in rebellion against God’s character of justice, mercy, and loving-kindness, expressed in particular concern for the most vulnerable in society. The world is built on hierarchies—race, and ethnicity; gender, and sexuality; economics, and (narrowly-defined) education—designed to keep some people consolidating power at the top, at the expense of those further down, whose very existence threatens the status quo. And so, we are encouraged to see those ‘below’ us, rather than those ‘above’ us, wherever we are located, as the threat to our existence. Such hierarchies are thoroughly normalised—the way the world is.

But when Jesus says, ‘For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’ he is referring to ‘the secrets of the kingdom of heaven’. That is to say, the more you take hold of the kingdom of heaven, the more it takes hold of you. What, then, are its secrets?

Well, within the Gospel According to Matthew, those secrets are laid out in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7), beginning with the Beatitudes that proclaim that it is those people whom we have been unconsciously educated to view as cursed and abandoned by God, to whom God is in fact closest. In Jesus’ insistence on love of enemies, riding ourselves of judgementalism, and in everything doing to others as you would have them do to you, the Sermon reveals another secret, the rejection of othering, of building and policing and perpetuating hierarchies that position us as superior to others. In his invitation and challenge to reject anxiety about food and clothing, another secret, utter dependence on God. As the gospel continues to unfold, Jesus reveals that those who would strive to enjoy life according to the world’s values will ultimately lose a meaningful life, while those who risk all on him will find what they long for (10:39). Highly educated powerful men are in the dark, while infants are let-in on the secret (11:25-27). And in his parables, seeds die in the ground, yeast loses itself in leavening bread, people sell all they possess in order to take hold of the greater prize, a net only serves its purpose when thrown into the sea (Matthew 13). And all of this is heading towards Jesus, naked and beaten, hung out to die on an executioner’s scaffold…before being raised by God and given all authority on earth and in heaven.

And the key question facing God’s people in every time and place remains, will your values and your corresponding actions be shaped by God’s values and corresponding actions; or will they be shaped by the values and corresponding actions of the world around you, such that you are indistinguishable from anyone else?

Again, and again, throughout scripture we are first warned and then shown that our decision has consequences.


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Pressing on

Two things I am appreciating this July:

on Monday evenings, listening-in on a series of four conversations between Denis Adide and Richard Moy on racism and anti-racism—and Denis’ reading lists;

and on Tuesday evenings, taking part in a series of four Bible studies on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, hosted by St George’s House.

In Philippians chapter 3, Paul lists the many hierarchies which have enabled him to benefit personally;

rehearses his coming to realise that he needed (not to disown his sense of self—not a self-loathing and hatred of his background—but) to deconstruct those privileges in order to participate more fully in what God was calling him (and others) to in Jesus Christ;

and calls those he is writing to, to imitate him in this ongoing act of leaving behind and pressing on towards the goal which is yet to be realised.

The pattern holds.


Sunday, July 19, 2020

Crisis, and beyond

Sunday morning, and I am thinking about the parable of the wheat and the darnel (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

Matthew’s whole presentation of the gospel—the good news of Jesus—emphasises the contrast between those who receive Jesus and those who reject him. And this is a parable of what the Church will look like. In contrast to the expectation that God would soon vindicate the Jews (as a whole) and judge the Gentiles (as a whole, and in particular the Roman Empire), Jesus points to a crisis—the end of the ‘Second Temple’ Age in 70 CE—in which God would judge the nations, beginning with his own people, and establish a new humanity made up of both those Jews and those Gentiles who found reconciliation in the community formed in and through and around Jesus.

This is a parable that profoundly undermines our culture wars.

In our own present crisis, God is again judging the Church and the world, in order to bring about a renewed humanity. The wheat and the darnel are both uprooted.

In what ways will the Church look different beyond this moment in history?

The truth is, we don’t know—because it hasn’t happened yet. But this is the story that is unfolding. And so, attentive to how it may unfold, we hold on to being a community shaped in and through and around Jesus, as we rehearse our creedal confession and participate in sharing in communion.


Saturday, July 18, 2020

Culture wars

We are currently watching Mrs America, the ‘dramatised history’ account of the efforts of second-wave feminists including Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Flo Kennedy and Bella Abzug to see the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, and the STOP ERA counter-movement led by Phyllis Schlafly. The production values are high; the cast, stellar. And it is fascinating to see how the culture wars of the 1970s have continued to shape the landscape today, and not only in the USA.

There is much that I would affirm of second-wave feminism. I take on board some of the criticisms levelled against it by later waves; while, on other issues, I’d remain more closely aligned to the second-wave: I do not subscribe to the idea that the values of each generation are inevitably and unquestionably better (or worse) than those of earlier generations. And alongside this, I have sympathy for some of the concerns culturally conservative women had—and have—regarding feminism.

What is striking about the series (which is not unsympathetic towards any character) is how deeply divided the women are, not only across the Right-Left, conservative-liberal, Republican-Democratic divide, but also within the uneasy (and, at times, unholy) alliances on either side of that divide. In this regard, of course, they are no different to—no better than, no worse than—the men who dominated public life. And while this is a drama based on history, shaped for dramatic impact, we can be confident that such personal battles took place, and still take place. [Though note this response on who benefits most from such a focus in their depiction.]

Left and Right, female and male, black and white, as mirrors—in a hall of mirrors seemingly with no way out?

And what is so deeply needed is to be able to see—without our distorting lenses—and appreciate the ‘other’. In its deep and generous empathy as well as its unvarnished honesty, Mrs America is a welcome example of engaging the challenge. Catch it if you can.


Thursday, July 16, 2020

Field notes




The Parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soil

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In Jesus’ parable of the sower, the seed, and the soil, the sower is the one who represents God’s active sovereign reign in and to the world, the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord; and the seed is the word of the kingdom, always new, each seed giving rise to new seed, scattered liberally, with no anxiety that it might run out, no anxiety that it will not all bear fruit, each seed the word that contains a potential expression of the kingdom, for those who hunger.

The soil is the human heart, depicted as a communal field, cultivated land on the edge of the village, within which each family in the village had its own strip. The heart—our ability to choose between good and evil—is composed of both personal agency and interconnection with others. Within the boundary of the field is found the path, providing connections; the rocky soil, providing foundations; and the thorns, providing boundaries. Connections, foundations, and boundaries are inevitable, and can even be good; but what has been good for us is not necessarily just and fair towards others; and what has been good in the past may need transforming. (The Lectionary pairs this parable with Isaiah 55:10-13, which depicts a vision in which the Lord sows; in which connections are renewed, creating paths that enable us to share joy and peace with one another; foundations are reimagined, reminding us of God’s faithfulness and encouraging us to praise his holy name; and boundaries are replanted, securing a place of shelter and healing rather than being a cause of enduring pain.)

As the seed is scattered, some are snatched away before we even register them. Some are received with joy, taken up with enthusiasm…and abandoned when proclaiming them results in trouble. Some sprout but, while still vulnerable, are chocked by our anxieties and our love affair with wealth and the comfort and status wealth promises. And yet, some words bear fruit, again with varying results.

An example: in this season, the sower is scattering seeds of racial justice. Some falls on the path, where social connections quickly mobilise in a defensive, dismissive response: “Black Lives Matter? No, All Lives Matter!” Some falls on rocky ground, a jumping on the bandwagon of a movement in the news cycle—perhaps even a buying of books, a subscribing to podcasts—but a moving-on just as quickly as we took-up the cause. Some falls among thorns, and is choked when enthusiasm wears off and hope—which always remains—has dirt beneath her fingernails and sweat on her brow. And some seed produces a harvest of righteousness, feeding the hungry and investing in sustaining future generations…


The Parable of the Seeds

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

In the parable of the sower, the seed, and the soil, both the sower and the seed are good, while the soil is varied. In Jesus’ following parable, two sowers are at work, with two kinds of seed. The custodian of the field sows good seed, which will bear a harvest of grain. But he has an enemy: and the Greek word here emphasises a person resolved to inflict harm, motivated by a deep-rooted and irreconcilable hostility. And under the cover of darkness, this enemy sowed seed of his own: and the Greek word identifies darnel, an inedible and potentially poisonous ryegrass that closely resembles wheat. Indeed, it so closely resembles wheat that the only way to tell them apart with certainty is to wait until the grain is ripe, at which point wheat grain is brown and darnel grain is black. This, then, is a subtle sabotage; the field is not captured by force, but the anticipated harvest is less than hoped for. It is a long-term strategy to persuade the owner of the field to abandon it for loss. (I have been to Galilee and stood in a field abandoned to darnel.)

What is surprising, even to his own servants, is the owner’s response, which is to let both grow together, even accepting the partial loss. To be proactive rather than reactive; to be true to the vocation of custodian of the field he fully identifies with, and not caught-up in the games of the one committed to causing him harm (hurting him by hurting the field which is essentially interchangeable with his own personal identity as custodian).

A parable is a comparison: if you want to know what x is like, consider y. If you want to know what the kingdom of heaven is like, says Jesus, consider (the sower, who is) the Son of Man. This is the title he gives himself (drawing on prophetic tradition) as representative of a faithful remnant community. In other words, the loving rule of the king of the universe is exercised on earth in the lives of persons in community focused on Jesus. And this community is active in the field, which is the world, the entire scope of human life, activity, and divinely mandated authority. Jesus says, the good seed are ‘the children of the kingdom’, that is, those who belong to the kingdom. This is multi-layered imagery, in which the community focused on Jesus is both the (rightful, opposed) custodian of the field who sows good seed, and the good seed that is sown: this is a community that reproduces a harvest for those who hunger for righteousness, so revealing the very kingdom of heaven they belong to and participate in…

The backdrop to this parable, as with the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, is the clear distinction between those who welcome and those who reject Jesus—and, by extension, his disciples—and the consequence of such rejection. That consequence, for the nation, will be that, having rejected the one who comes in the name of the Lord, they will find themselves judged, crushed by the might of Rome. The first and primary horizon of the explanation of this parable is the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, which brings to a decisive end the ‘Second Temple Judaism’ of Jesus’ day. In this moment of existential crisis, those who are revealed to be ‘children of the evil one’ are gathered-up by heralds of the Son of Man and consumed with fire, to the lament of their families.

It is a stark image, emphasising the stark choice between life and death. It is an image in continuity with the tradition that God will judge the nations that surround his people…starting with his own people—and judging them by a stricter measure—a vision in continuity with the exile into Babylon, and eventual fall of Babylon.

But it is also a story of rescue, of protection over the lives of the children of the kingdom, of the promise of continuity for the faithful remnant community beyond the imminent judgement—in continuity with the exodus from Egypt. And alongside that, a story of purification, where that judgement will consume that which does not produce a harvest, that which consumes nutrients and land without giving anything back.

Crisis—genuine national and international existential crisis, such as the times we are living in—reveals the human heart; the ways in which our accumulative choices, for righteousness or wickedness, ultimately shape our souls and our communities into something that embraces Life, or Death. In the end, we get what we desire.

Questions:

The custodian fully identifies with the whole field. Do we identify with the whole world, or just our small corner? Do we lack love for those in our neighbourhood; elsewhere in our nation; or of other nations?

Who do we judge as being darnel, while considering ourselves as wheat?

Conversely, do we consider ourselves as darnel, of less worth than others who, in contrast, we consider to be good wheat?

How might we view the times we are living in through the lens of biblical imagination, in particular relating to crisis and judgement?

What is Jesus saying to us—personally, as a family (however you define that), and as a community (however you define that)?

What is Jesus saying to us—personally, as a family (however you define that), and as a community (however you define that)—that we are ignoring?


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

On earth, as in heaven

I’ve been doing plenty of reading and listening to podcasts around the issue of racism recently, from the perspective that it is a pervasive evil, but also seeking to understand the push-back I note among my family, friends, local church congregation, and the wider city where I live. This push-back is deeply rooted in cultural conservatism, which differs from political conservatism: it is possible to be politically socialist and culturally conservative (indeed, that might describe a majority of the population of Sunderland), and, moreover, advocates of cultural conservatism would argue that the Conservative party has capitulated to the Left on culture (for example, it was a Conservative government that legalised same-sex marriage). The key argument of cultural conservatives is ‘Take Back Control’.

I would contend that the Left is pretty much spot-on in its critique of the Right, but, mirroring it, fails to offer a genuine alternative. Those on the Left are right in claiming that power exists, and is often marshalled to oppress people (and so provides an ‘umbrella’ for such groups). The Right dissembles on this, presenting the myth of the heroic individual who, by virtue of their superior qualities, overcomes the struggles every human faces, and so demonstrates that they are best-qualified to guide nations. The Left, they argue, is ideologically committed to destruction. This is at best a half-truth, equating deconstruction with destruction and positions in their ‘logical’ extreme with a wide spectrum of thought and practice. But in general, the Left and the Right only play one another at their own game.

The argument, from both sides, goes like this. Thinkers and influencers on the Left realise that they cannot overthrow the Right by force, and so seek to do so by stealth, by subversion and resistance within cultural institutions. Seeking to take control. Thinkers and influencers on the Right recognise the success of this, that they have lost the culture war—that the Left has occupied and consolidated their hold over our places of education, the BBC, the Church of England, even the Conservative Party—and that they must now employ stealth, subversion and resistance in order to take back control. Winning the vote to leave the EU was a victory, but the war is far from won.

Take Back Control expresses a fundamental truth of the human heart, that we desire to be just a little bit above others.

When I look to scripture, I see a clear contrast.

A recognition of sin—of the fundamental breakdown of relationship and universal need for reconciliation—expressed at the personal level (as the Right emphasises) and the structural level (as the Left emphasises) of ‘powers and principalities’.

The choice of Jesus to empty himself and willingly take on the nature of a slave (Philippians 2) and the call on his followers to be of a like-mind.

The insight that those who fight to save their lives will lose that life, while those who lose their life will find life. For control is an illusion, with destructive consequences for ourselves and those around us.

The building of diverse communities of reconciliation that, for all their difficulties, are able to not only survive but flourish beyond the end of the world as they have known it, the great and regular cultural upheavals of history.

And in almost every case where taking control is spoken of, it is not control of a nation (the exception being the books of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha/Deuterocanon, which concerns taking back control from an occupying Empire) or over another person, but self-control.

Interestingly, much of what I have been reading on racism is concerned not with control of others, but with self-control. In How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram X.Kendi writes:

“The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what—not who—we are.”

We should not be afraid to examine our own views, for the life of discipleship is a call to the habitual practice of repentance and belief, of turning from one perspective and embracing another. Not by coercion, but as ministers of reconciliation. This is not of the Left, as it is not of the Right; but of the wholly other kingdom of heaven, the loving active participation of God with humanity in this world.



UPDATE adding a conversation with a friend in response to the above:

‘Thank you, Andrew … I particularly appreciate your observation that “Take back control expresses a fundamental truth of the human heart, that we desire to be just a little bit above others.” I like how you frame this as a fundamental truth, not just a problem that some other people have. And it definitely resonates with some of the push back I have felt from some of my family and friends to expressing an anti-racist perspective—the fear of ‘where will it stop?’, rooted in the fear of becoming oppressed (or at least not in control).’

and my response:

‘I think you get at something really insightful here in rooting the desire to control in the fear of becoming oppressed or at least not in control. I think this is, in fact, a fear of humiliation, of being humiliated before others, which, albeit in different ways, stems from childhood experiences—of being bullied, for a variety of reasons. It is a matter of shame, and a life-long attempt to have control over shame. Again, I come back to Jesus, who put shame to scorn by choosing to humble himself; and who, through his being humiliated by people but vindicated by God, triumphs over shame and empowers us to triumph over shame by not only being our example but our promise of future hope.’


Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Hannah

The Old Testament readings set for Morning Prayer on Monday and Tuesday this week (1 Samuel 1:1-2:11) tell the story of Hannah. She is an amazing woman, and an incredible exemplar of faith.

When we meet Hannah, she is longing for a child she has never been able to conceive.

Her husband, Elkanah, loves her, and is distressed at her distress; but he does not fully inhabit the covenant relationship between husband and wife. As much as he loves her, his ego is wounded that he is not enough for her, that she wants a child. He seems unwilling or unable to put himself in her position, or see through her eyes. Indeed, he cannot, for Elkanah has children by another wife, which further adds to Hannah’s pain.

Eli, the priest, sees Hannah praying in anguish, and assumes that she is drunk. He chastises her for being drunk in God’s house. He does not fully inhabit the covenant relationship between priest and people. Perhaps his ego is also wounded by this unseemly behaviour on his watch; but he is, at least initially, unable to see through Hannah’s tear-washed eyes.

With the best will in the world, Elkanah fails as a husband (as I fail as a husband). With the best will in the world, Eli fails as a priest (as I fail as a priest) (neither failure need be the final word). In contrast, Hannah understands and fully inhabits the covenant relationship between Yahweh and the Israelites.

If we see her prayer, in which she asks God for a son and promises that she will give him back to God, as an attempt to persuade God to act as she wants, we utterly misunderstand what is taking place. However familiar this approach is—"God, if you will only spare my life, or save my child, I will go to church for the rest of my days!”—this is not it. Hannah is not hoping to persuade a reluctant god, or give herself grounds to believe with more certainty. She could not be more sure, in evoking the covenant relationship between them; a relationship in which God is greater—able to do what she cannot—but in which both parties have agency. She calls on Yahweh to act in accordance with the covenant between them, to deliver her from barrenness; and reaffirms her side of the covenant, that, in response, she will dedicate her first-born son to the Lord.

As I said, an incredible exemplar of faith.

Sometimes, God may give us the benefit of the doubt when we try to win divine favour. In fact—and for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish—that favour has already been held out to us. Hannah knew it. You can know it, too.


Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Grace and peace

This morning I led Morning Prayer at Sunderland Minster for the first time since March.

The Old Testament reading, Judges 15:1-16:3, part of the Samson saga, is a litany of abuse and violence, against women, animals, the natural environment and the communities that depend on the fruit of the earth, tribal rivals—the whole passage is concerned with the evils of ‘othering’—and even the built environment.

For some, this passage (and others like it) is reason enough to reject the Bible as worthy of shaping community, and to reject the community that holds it to be authoritative. Personally, I am glad that this passage is in the Bible, confronting me to recognise that there is nowhere I can stand outside of such a cycle of hostility, no community I can join that is above such things. I am not exempt.

Where is God in this passage? The spirit of the Lord rushes upon Samson to free him from his captivity; and, after Samson has routed his enemies, God responds to his thirst by splitting a hollow place and bringing forth water. We can see this as divine approval; or we can see it as grace: as the loving favour of God to even the most undeserving of sinners, or, those estranged from their neighbours and captive to destruction.

The passage is paired with Luke 18:15-30, in which we see Jesus interrupting the endless cycle of violence, just long enough to see whether others will step into the vulnerable space created. He interrupts his disciples in their intent to order people who were bringing infants to Jesus to stop; telling them that they must become as a little child if they are ever to enter into the kingdom of God. He interrupts a certain ruler (or, a man with enormous privilege in an unjust world) who is seeking even greater fulfilment through gain; calling him to give away his wealth to the benefit of the poor. In a world of enmity, calling him from a position of neutrality to be a peacemaker, one with God-given authority to participate in the active positive relationship between God and humankind, made possible by God’s initiative and revealed in the person of Jesus.

The ruler baulks, and walks away. The disciples don’t really get it, but stick with it, with wrestling with the call of Jesus on their lives—which is a call into community, the people of God, those who are in Christ.

The word of the kingdom is new every morning, always calling us afresh to know grace, and peace. However uncomfortable the reading from Judges; however barely-more-hopeful the reading from Luke; both readings this morning bring me back to this.


Monday, July 06, 2020

hiSTORY

Like many people, we have watched Hamilton: an American Musical on Disney + in the last few days. We saw it live in London last summer—you must see it live—and it was interesting to compare the original and London casts, and an American and British audience.

Hamilton is as good as musicals get, as good as theatre gets. Lin Manuel Miranda is a genius, with so many strings to his bow, not least such a gifted collaborator (though, dare I say it, not the best of singing voices). But it is important to know what you are watching. This is art, not historical record. Hamilton takes enormous liberties with chronology, geography, and personalities, in order to tell a compelling story in 2 hours 40. Lin Manuel Miranda makes choices as to who ‘lives’, who ‘dies’, who tells the story. If you want to know some of those choices, start with reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, which inspired Lin, and Lin’s own luscious book of the making of Hamilton. And then keep going.

Anyone who comes away seeing Alexander Hamilton as a hero has missed the point. (And, by the way, he was neither an immigrant nor an abolitionist; though he did alienate would-be allies, and was at the centre of America’s first political sex scandal.) Indeed, there are no heroes here. Washington comes closest, but works hard to disabuse us of such a nonsense, to deconstruct his own legend, revealing the human beneath. There are no heroes, or even anti-heroes, but several characters who serve as protagonist and antagonist to one another: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson—founding fathers, all—and, in a sub-plot of their own, Angelica and Eliza. What Hamilton presents to us so well—and here, Lin’s acting of the titular role is so good—is the insecurities that drive each character, the moments of doubt and self-doubt. The ways in which characters that see themselves as polar opposites are, in fact, mirror-images, sharing the same weaknesses. In many cases, despising most in another character what most reflects themselves. Too cautious, too reckless, too clever, too venal.

On reflection, it turns out that Hamilton is history after all. Because, all history is a telling of a story, selective, crafted, certain things placed in the spotlight and others lost in the shadows. And not only history, but a deep exploration of American psychology (note the productions sub-title: an American Musical). It could not be a more current commentary of the contradictions of American politics.

In understanding ourselves, we need neither to simply possess a history nor to erase and replace that history, but, to listen to the ways in which our history—the story we tell—impacts on others, and to listen to their story, their telling of history. Paying special attention to the voices that have been written out of our narrative. Seen in this light, Hamilton is not the final word, but unfinished words that should give hope, and not just entertainment.

You’ll be back.


Thursday, July 02, 2020

Personhood

Gospel set for Holy Communion today: Matthew 9:1-8.

And after getting into a boat he crossed the water and came to his own town.

And just then some people were carrying a paralysed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ Then some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.’ And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

 

The term ‘individual’ is appropriate for a wrapped chocolate biscuit, but insidious when applied to human beings. Human beings are not individuals but distinct persons: that is, we exist in, and only in, inter-woven connection with others.

Reading this Gospel passage from an individualistic perspective, we see a disabled man and an unspecified number of able-bodied people. Heard from the perspective of personhood, we note a community of people who are each enabled and enabling, who are enable-embodied. The paralysed man can move because of those around him, and they can move with purpose and towards Jesus because of him. And when the paralysed man walks, he does not move from being ‘less’ to being ‘more’, but remains enable-embodied, in new-found ways. This is important for many reasons, including the fact that paralysis remains present in the community, not least as demonstrated by the scribes.

This difference, and tension, between individualism and personhood goes to the heart of Jesus’ engagement with the scribes (even if individualism, as we know it today, is a later idea). Even though they associate tribally as ‘scribes’ (and here we must note that it is possible to be enabled and enabling in unhealthy ways), within this grouping we see a severing of the ties with fellow human beings. They have chosen to think the worst of someone else—as is so prevalent a reflex today.

In calling them out on this, Jesus chooses to use the term ‘the Son of Man’. This is a symbolic figure from the book of the prophet Daniel, a human form who represents a remnant community, through which God will demonstrate enduring faithfulness in a new beginning. This is underlined in Matthew’s commentary on the response of the crowds, who see in the action claimed as being done in the name of the Son of Man that God has given authority to forgive people to human beings, plural.

The heart of the matter, then, is how as a new community we learn to be healthily enable-embodied; and the first step is learning to forgive those who inevitably get it wrong—knowing that we, ourselves, will need such forgiveness.


Wednesday, July 01, 2020

A tragedy in the making

On Friday, a 28-year old Sudanese asylum-seeker was shot dead by armed response police officers in Glasgow, after stabbing six people. I don’t doubt the bravery of those police officers, nor that this was their last, not first, resort. This is a tragedy for all concerned, and for my hometown. And at the centre of the tragedy is a young man whose hopes of a new life were cut short. His name was Badreddin Abadlla Adam.

I am not a journalist, and I have not researched his background. But until last year, Sudan had lived under a 30-year long dictatorship, that had imprisoned and tortured opponents and practiced ethnic genocide in Darfur. This young man never knew what it was to live in a society at peace. He was precisely the kind of person who should qualify for asylum, having made it to the UK, most likely through the exploitation of people traffickers.

Before any facts were established, Nigel Farage had tweeted that this was precisely the danger to our citizens we face for allowing illegal immigrants. To be clear, this man was not an illegal immigrant, he was an asylum-seeker. But Farage is not entirely wrong, in as much as we do treat asylum-seekers as criminals. From the moment they arrive, they experience the ‘hostile environment’, official government policy (only just acknowledged and now to be reviewed) of making their life so miserable that they will choose, at any point in the process, to voluntarily return home. Preferring to take their chances with a genocidal dictator than in a democracy. Let that sink in.

Then, rather than direct resources to provide essential, expert mental health support for people suffering from PTSD, money is given to private companies to provide the most basic accommodation. Asylum-seekers being an income stream for unscrupulous landlords. In effect, they become property.

And so, yes, it is perhaps inevitable that sooner or later some such young man might just break, with devastating consequences for those who happen to be around him.

And it is easier to blame immigrants than to take responsibility for our own actions.

According to the most recent statistics I could find, two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales; and a further two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in Scotland. As Scotland has a much smaller population, I can only assume that it is an even greater problem there than south of the border, that the men of the long-term, predominantly white, British population cannot control themselves and are a danger to those around them, especially British women.

And the silence is deafening.

So, don’t give me your bullshit about how we are civilised men of honour, taking a principled stand to protect our communities from those who would betray us with their bleeding hearts.


Sulking children

Author Candice Carty-Williams has won Book of the Year at the British Book Awards for her novel Queenie. She is the first black woman to do so. Interviewed, she admitted to a host of emotions: pride at her work, and gratitude towards her publishing team, alongside sadness and confusion that she should be the first black woman to have won the award.

BBC Radio 2 shared the news on social media, and the comments are vile, ranging from the racist, “this isn’t about talent, it’s about politics: no white authors will win prizes for the next few years” to the racist, “she’ll have to live with never knowing whether she only won because of the colour of her skin” (white authors, how confident are you?) to the racist, “this prize should be about writing, not skin colour” (indeed; so why is she the first? and why are you so defensive?) to the desperately emotionally-stunted, “If she can’t even be happy to win, she should give the award back.”

In the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, from Matthew chapter 11, Jesus describes his society as being like children sitting on either side of the marketplace, one group calling out, “we played the flute for you, but you would not dance,” and the other responding, “we wailed, and you would not mourn.”

Jesus is describing learnt, coded, culture. Men led the community in celebrations, such as weddings; women led the community in lament, such as funerals; and boys and girls learnt their expected roles—as leaders and followers, depending on context—through role-play, while the adults went about their daily business. But the role-play had broken down, into two camps, each aggrieved at the other.

Jesus’ point was, surely, (at least in part) we’ve forgotten how to hold celebration and mourning together. He goes on, John (the Baptist) came in prophetic severity, proclaiming God’s imminent judgement on injustice, and you dismissed him; I came proclaiming God’s embrace of the marginalised, and you dismiss me. But the two go hand-in-hand, each taking a turn to be the leading- and responding beat.

It seems to me that Carty-Williams gets this, and that her critics don’t.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Idol chatter

And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods beside me. You shall make you no carved likeness and no image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters beneath the earth. You shall not bow to them and you shall not worship them, for I am the LORD your God, a jealous god, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons, with the third generation and with the fourth, for My foes, and doing kindness to the thousandth generation for My friends and for those who keep My commands.”

Exodus 20:1-6

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

In these days, I find myself in conversations with very defensive white people. Our defensiveness ought to tell us something, if we will listen. I hear bewildered statements like “The world’s gone mad” and “Where will it end?” and a particular focus on statues.

The power statues have over us calls to mind the Commandments. Through Moses, God warns against the raising of likenesses, images. Later in the biblical account, as this word is ignored, such likenesses are called idols. Representations of some claimant over us, to our allegiance; things made by God, for blessing and fruitfulness, to whom we hand over a power to hold us captive. To enslave us.

When we cannot even acknowledge that there may be good reason to pull down the likeness of a literal slave trader, or, even more recently, to revisit whether it is a good idea to immortalise a man who was a vocal supporter of Adolf Hitler, then are not these images idols?

I am not arguing that there should be no sculpture, no three-dimensional tactile art. Indeed, such things are a way in which we explore the world, and our place in it.

I do wonder whether it might be a good practice for any and all public statues to stand on their plinth for one hundred years, and then be removed; alongside an assessment—a re-evaluation—of their impact. This would not be to erase history—and certainly, not to lose the gift of the sculptor to society—but to engage with history.

In issuing such a strong warning against the power of likenesses to cut us off from our Creator and Redeemer, from ourselves as created and redeemed, and from our neighbour, God speaks about generations. God demands retribution from only three or four generations, and upholds treaty obligation to the (vastly more) thousandth.

And this is why I wonder about a one-hundred-year statue limitation. Three or four generations. The longer reparations go unreconciled, the more difficult they become. We are all guilty of sin, of that which separates us from God and neighbour, and of the particular ways that manifests itself in our lives. It isn’t enough to argue, “On such an exacting measure, no-one is guiltless!” and it isn’t enough to say, “It is dangerous to assess historical figures on the morals of our times rather than theirs.” Yes, Baden-Powell’s vocal homophobia must be seen in the context of a society that was structurally hostile to gay people; yes, our common values are very different today; and, yes—take note—these may change again in the future. Neither removing a statue too soon nor leaving it for ever are wise.

Statues commemorate the people we look up to, and statues in turn shape us, mould us, set us hard—and brittle—in bronze. The longer we gaze upon a slave trader in admiration, the harder it is for us to be set free from our own captivity to the believe that some people are justifiably more human than others. (The great irony being the diminishing of our own humanity.) The longer we gaze on statues of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, in public parks and squares the length and breadth of the land, the longer we justify ‘our’ Empire, and the harder it becomes to journey on into freedom.

Sometimes what we need is to be melted down and remade, by the One who creates and redeems, and who is committed to doing so through all generations.

Where does it all end? My hope is in it arriving at the life shared with us by the God who unites all. My expectation is that this will be a life-long pattern of being brought out of the house of slaves. I note how hard we resist that kindness. Lord, have mercy.


Corpus Christi


Today is Corpus Christi, the day the Church gives thanks for the institution of Holy Communion. That institution took place on the day we call Maundy Thursday, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, illegal trial by night, hours before his murder. We mark that too, but as a sombre occasion. This day, Corpus Christi, is a celebration of the gift, of the benefits of this tangible expression of an intangible reality, Jesus with us, nourishing is with his presence.

As a faith tradition, we remember by enacting. Our memory, our belonging, our identity is embodied. Our being drawn into the body of Christ is embodied. As a faith community, the local congregation of which I am a part enacts Holy Communion every Thursday and Sunday. But this year, we have been unable to enact Holy Communion, on Maundy Thursday or Corpus Christi, or any of the days since we went into lockdown. So, what does that do to our remembering? What impact does it have on our memory, our belonging, our identity?



For most of my life, I have been a writer. From perhaps the age of four, I wrote, first with a pencil and then with a pen, until the age of eighteen. A pencil and a pen are not the same, exactly, for it is easier to erase what you write with a pencil; but they both involve the physical shaping of characters with a tool.



From the age of eighteen, my writing experienced a shift to a keyboard. The muscle-memory of writing started to be over-written. As it happens, I have dyspraxia, a spatial and memory impairment, and one that has impacted me more as I have grown older. I have never been able to keep hold of the layout of a keyboard. I go looking for every letter every time.



More recently, my writing has experienced another shift. Now, most of my writing is done on a virtual keyboard. Now I write with my two thumbs, rather than the index and middle fingers of my right hand. Now, the gap between locating the letters is shorter, though I still have to locate them.

I am a writer, and yet I have forgotten the art of using a pen. That is to say, I can still make marks on a page—indeed, I do so as a deliberate, intentional discipline, keeping a paper journal of my days—but they are scrawls. As a lover of words, and a lover of letters, as a lover of crafting these things and of the physicality of paper over a screen, these inky scratchings rarely give me pleasure.

When we gather together in a church building and share in a common liturgy that draws us once again to Jesus, standing around the Lord’s table or kneeling before it side by side at the rail; when I take bread in my hand and press it down onto the outstretched hand of another member of the body of Christ; this is a precious thing.

But it is far from what Jesus did. As fundamentally connected, and as fundamentally removed, as writing this on my smartphone is from writing it with a pen. We have lost the embodiment of a meal eaten together, watered it down to elements of wafer and wine, followed by a chocolate-coated biscuit and a cup of tea.

At this moment in time, we cannot meet together to participate in Holy Communion as we have been familiar. But we still need to eat and drink. And in so doing, we may remember or forget Jesus.

It isn’t the same, and I’m not dismissing the practices of my church tradition that have evolved over time. But here is an opportunity to pick up something that has been lost long before novel coronavirus, rather than wring our hands at something that has been suspended because of it.

So, eat and drink boldly, with thanksgiving. A broken blessing, and a blessed breaking.