Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Advent 4 (2020)

 


 

 

People of God: awake!

The day is coming soon

when you shall see God face to face.

Remember the ways and the works of God.

God calls you out of darkness

to walk in the light of his coming.

You are God’s children.

Lord, make us one as we walk with Christ

today and for ever.

Amen.

 

Remembering is a communal, a social, activity, attending to the maintenance of the connecting threads that run between us: “Remember the time when…?” “Yes! Wasn’t that also the day that…?” This being the case, even someone experiencing the knotted jumbling of grief—at advancing dementia, or the death of a loved one—who cannot trust their own recollections—may be held safe and secure in the loving memory-making of those committed to them.

Likewise, to remember the ways and the works of God is best undertaken as a communal activity. That is why we take part in nativity plays and carol services, and why we must find new ways of repairing snapped threads in a year when coming together in large gatherings is unloving of our neighbour. What part of the story of the birth of Jesus do you relate to most? Share your thoughts online. May be even post a photo of a nativity scene, whether handed down, or purchased, or home-made.

 

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Advent 3 (2020)

 


 

 

People of God: awake!

The day is coming soon

when you shall see God face to face.

Remember the ways and the works of God.

God calls you out of darkness

to walk in the light of his coming.

You are God’s children.

Lord, make us one as we walk with Christ

today and for ever.

Amen.

 

I have never seen electricity, though I have known it set fire to the sky and, one time, felt it pass through my body, leaving an exit mark on the sole of my foot on its way out. But there is a network of pylons and cables stretching the length and breadth of the nation, bringing electricity to every community, to power street lights and fairy lights, the screen on which these words appear as I type and the screen on which you are reading them now.

If we are to see God face to face this day, it will be in the face of our neighbour, and if they are to see God face to face it will be in our face. Nonetheless, if we are to shine as lights in the darkness, we need to connect again with the ways and works of God. You might begin by praying the prayer at the top of this post, each day this first week of Advent.

 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Advent 2 (2020)

 


 

People of God: awake!

The day is coming soon

when you shall see God face to face.

Remember the ways and the works of God.

God calls you out of darkness

to walk in the light of his coming.

You are God’s children.

Lord, make us one as we walk with Christ

today and for ever.

Amen.

 

Some mornings I resist. Why would I want to get out from under the duvet, where it is cosy and warm? Why should I get up, while my wife stays here in bed? Like you, I’m not one of the bad guys; my selfishness is very much of the common-or-garden variety. Even so.

Every now and then, I step outside, close the front door behind me, and watch the dawn. Sometimes the sunrise is spectacular, cerise sky turning to honey gold before giving way to palest blue, a brief but glorious bonus for those who made the effort to rise early. Other days, like today, the dawn comes in more muted mood, in indigo that lightens by the second. Sometimes it takes incredible, fleeting beauty to bring me to my senses. Sometimes it takes faithful determination, steadfast love. Morning by morning, God comes calling for me.

 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Advent 1 (2020)

 













People of God: awake!

The day is coming soon

when you shall see God face to face.

Remember the ways and the works of God.

God calls you out of darkness

to walk in the light of his coming.

You are God’s children.

Lord, make us one as we walk with Christ

today and for ever.

Amen.

 

Awake! When I open my eyes each morning, the first thing I see is a card on my bedside cabinet, a Banksy artwork: I’m out of bed and dressed—what more do you want? The card was given to me by my daughter last year, as she left home for university, and inside she wrote her heartfelt thanks for all the times I had been there for her over the years.

I’m generally the first person in our household to get up in the mornings, but I will confess that I have found getting out of bed and dressed a hard thing to do over this second national coronavirus lockdown.

What enables you to awake and face the day?

 


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Advent calendar

 

Tomorrow is the start of Advent, and, as in previous years, I intend to post a daily Advent calendar on my blog. This year, I’ll be reflecting on a series of simple prayers that can be used at the lighting of the Advent candle—whether the four large candles that are traditionally and  accumulatively lit on the four Sundays of Advent, or a daily Advent candle marked for burning down a little each day throughout Advent.

 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Three Billboards

 

Last night we finally got round to watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. As this film came out in 2017, I shall assume that I can talk about it without worrying about spoilers. It is challenging viewing, with language that some will find offensive, and dealing with issues such as rape, murder, and suicide, as well as systemic issues such as racism and poverty of economic prospects; but it is excellent, and well-deserving of the recognition it received. What makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri so good is how it tells its story.

There are no black-and-white heroes or villains here. Instead, there are characters we are led to sympathise with and root for (and in storytelling we are led to side with whoever we are introduced to first) who do things we surely cannot condone, and characters we are led to be unsympathetic towards who do things we cannot help but admire. And everybody hurts, everybody bleeds from an open wound. These tensions, and these assaults, are reflected in how different characters relate to one another, at different moments, and in how they behold themselves. How we view others, are viewed, and view ourselves.

It is also clear in this storytelling that our knowledge is partial and limited. Our foreknowledge is limited. Our best hope for growth, for moving forward, is hindsight (this is brilliantly set up from the very start); but our hindsight is also limited. At the end of the film, two characters set off to fulfil an act of vigilante justice. And we are left wanting to know what happens next. Enough has taken place to give us hope that they will not go through with it. Enough has taken place to carry the storyline onwards through further tragedy. Parallel universes diverge, and which road we take says something about which destination matters to us and which route we believe is most advantageous. At this point both roads leave Ebbing, Missouri, for wherever we happen to be. In my case, Sunderland.

What is absolutely clear and consistent throughout is that our actions (including turning a blind eye, which may be the best of possible actions in some circumstances) have consequences. Our actions (including our inactions) have consequences. It is not always clear what we ought to do, but what we do always has consequences—which we can hardly foresee and cannot control, once the word leaves our lips, once the projectile leaves our hand. Yet, it is these very consequences that carry us on down the road, with stumbling feet, in hope of being caught and held by grace.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a challenging and necessary story for our times, as much in need of mercy as of justice. For without mercy, justice is gutted to revenge; and, though justice be delayed, without it, mercy is abandoned to the bare bones of pity. Three billboards is a more than generous gift, if we will receive it. A rear-view mirror, unlikely travel companion, and an open road.

 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

International Men's Day

 

Today is the annual International Men’s Day, and this year the theme is Better Health for Men and Boys. Additional themes specific to the UK are: making a positive difference to the wellbeing and lives of men and boys; promoting a positive conversation about men, manhood and masculinity; and raising awareness and/or funds for charities supporting men and boys’ wellbeing.

The purpose of all such focus days is both to celebrate diversity and also to consider issues that, while more universal, may present in particular ways for different demographics, including ways which may be less visible to others or to ourselves.

I have three children, whom I love and delight in and of whom I am proud; and two of them are boys. And while I am aware that, living in a nation where universal basic and indeed quite advanced health care is free at the point of access, our experience is already blessed compared to that of men and boys living in ‘developing’ nations such as the USA, I am also aware that the health of both of my boys has been badly affected by this year of pandemic and the wider environmental point of no return within which it sits.

And so, this year I am especially thankful for those men who have invested time and care in my sons’ wellbeing. A small but precious band. Because while a man can father a man, it takes men to raise men (and remember, this is not to deny the essential role of women; it is about today’s focus). We don’t always get it right, and we do need to reimagine how we might do it better. But thank you, nonetheless.

 

How the White Stripe got its cracks

 


Once upon a time when the world was young, before ever anyone had even heard of populist politicians who told them to ignore experts and believe only fake news, the White Stripe’s hide was glossy and smooth. Day after day, it would sprawl under in the sun, stretching itself out from one horizon to the other, and all of the other creatures that walked along the path would admire the White Stripe’s perfect projection with envy.

But the White Stripe did not care to moisturise. And that is how it got its cracks.

Meanwhile, the path appears more divided than it actually is, to those who walk it to the left and the right; to those who are blinded because they are walking into the low winter sun, and those who see only their own shadow because they have their back to the light and their head bowed against the wind.

 

Phase space

 

I love stories and storytelling, and want to become a better teller of stories. And so, I spent some of a birthday book token on Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling. Pullman is, rightly, a celebrated storyteller. He is also something of a celebrated atheist. It doesn’t take much intellectual rigour or integrity of character to be an atheist—or, indeed, a theist—and perhaps both things are out of fashion anyway, but there must be some who possess both, and I am disappointed that Pullman does not seem interested in being one of them. When he writes about religious faith and religious texts, as he does a great deal, the deftness with which he deploys his fallacies does not make a sure path through the woods.

That said, he is an excellent storyteller, with a raven eye and the ability to weave a nest from idea-twigs. And one of the ideas he returns to over and again is that of phase space, a term stolen from theoretical physics, which, taken for his own purposes, Pullman considers as “something like the sum of all the consequences that could follow from a given origin.” [DV, p.87] This he describes by analogy as a vast wood, or forest, crossed by paths, such as the one taken by Little Red Riding Hood on her way to visit her grandmother. The purpose of the storyteller is to follow the path, making decisions as to which fork to take, perhaps slowing down to look at whatever may be found next to the path, but never stepping off it, for, the moment you do so, you lose your audience.

I am fascinated by this elegant idea, and how it applies not only to the telling of story in general but specifically how it applies to the library we know as the Bible. The sum of all the consequences that could follow from a given origin describes, to me, the knowledge of God, who sees the whole forest from above, and who walks its paths, from the track taken by Little Red Riding Hood to the paths made by a stag beetle in search of a mate and the deer in search of a safe hollow in which to give birth to her fawn, paths beyond number, both habitual and provisional, and every path not taken. That there is a wood which, moreover, can be traversed, and paths, taken or not, is blessing. That we must leave a character for now, facing a seemingly impassable obstacle, while we pick up the progress of another character along another path, curse.

Here is an idea by which to understand the Garden of Eden, that plays so very much on Pullman’s mind. He paints a picture of a petty God who wants to keep the humans in the servitude of innocence and punish them for losing it, and Satan as the Saviour who leads us from captivity to the wisdom of experience. I see a world of possibility and responsibility that calls for just such experience-gained wisdom, learned only through suffering that God would shield his children from for a time, but not for ever, and a long path out of childhood through adolescence to maturity. Every story needs a given origin, and ours begins in media res, not with a myth about origins but a myth about purpose, not asking how is it that we exist? but, what do we exist for? And not, why are we here? but, why are we here? Here, in exile in the walled garden city of Babylon, so far from our home in Jerusalem? And why must the great Father and Mother of All Humankind not consume the fruit of the tree God, not they, has planted in the very midst of their kingdom?

The Hebrew Bible is precisely a collection of stories concerned with a path through the woods. A path that rescues life through a cataclysmic flood, unleashed by shadowy forces, a path the protagonist is pointed to by a powerful ally who, from then on, will often be described as walking on the waters. Paths that lead out from the Plain of Babel, though we cannot follow them all and must choose which one to take. A path that beckons Abram and Sarai out from Ur into the unknown, to live as sojourners in a place that their descendants will call home. A path through Egypt, to save many peoples from famine and out of Egypt as refugees, and seemingly around and around the wilderness while those who have known nothing but slavery to capricious gods might find paths to a new identity. Paths in and out of a land of promise; paths that lead, through love and betrayal, to unity and to division; paths that detour into long exile. And, in exile, a collection of Writings on the theme of wisdom, borrowing from other nations, other ideas about the world, yet distinctive in the way in which the forest is mapped by Jewish cartographers.

One of the key ideas that really comes to the fore in these Writings but has in fact been there all along at the corner of our eye is that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. And this has often been understood as, if you are wise, if you know what is good for you, you will be in fear of God: this fear will prevent you from stepping out of line, off the path, where the Monsters lurk. Though, of course, in such a reading, God is the ultimate Monster; or the best weapon of the ultimate human monsters. But in every other case, the something of the Lord refers either to something that is inherently the Lord’s—the arm of the Lord, the eyes of the Lord, recognising of course that these are metaphors—or to something that has been given a particular purpose by the Lord—the angel of the Lord, the mountain of the Lord. So, it would only seem fair that we should take the fear of the Lord to refer either to a fear that is the Lord’s, or to fear that is surrendered to the Lord.

Many Christians don’t like the first option, because we have been conditioned to think of God in Greek Platonic terms, the Ideal far above and behind the jealous, squabbling pantheon of Greek gods. Some atheists, such as Stephen Fry, claim they would have more time for an honestly jealous God; Pullman seems to see no such distinction. But Yahweh is not at all a Greek god, and fear is a perfectly legitimate thing for such a god as this to experience: fear for those he loves, for avoidable pains and unavoidably suffering on the path from naivety to maturity. Wisdom might flow from such a fear, as drops of blood from a man in another garden on the night before he is tortured and executed. Or, and these need not be mutually exclusive understandings, it may be that when such a man willingly surrenders his fear to God, so that God takes ownership of it, it is transformed into wisdom. In any case, there is something reciprocal here, and generous, and brave. In these Writings we might discern the discovery of some given magnetic field, the invention of a form of compass, and their use by adventurers to venture beyond the horizon.

And in these Writings, the path of wisdom is absolutely grounded in the material world, from close observation of the natural world from lizards and ants to rock badgers and gazelle, snakes and eagles, rivers and winds and trees, and every conceivable realm of human experience, from ships carrying traded spices on high seas to ivory towers of learning, hard toil both honest and bitter, extravagant and modest pleasures. This world is also inhabited or visited by a divine council, including the satan or counsel for the prosecution, by freshwater and saltwater and celestial non-human sentient beings. What we make of these—and the earliest tellers of these stories seem not to be of one mind—matters. We can claim that they are metaphors that are erroneously taken literally, and who are in any case no longer required as we have found better explanations for what they were groping towards, but that would be to entirely misrepresent ‘metaphor’ and ‘literal’ and ‘better explanation’. This world also takes in, within its compass, a shadowy realm of the dead; but the goal of the story is not to leave this world behind for a fairer shore, but, rather, the making new of our world, countless times over, through the rise and fall of civilisations, through the planting of human society as ‘trees’ and the (re)movement of human society as ‘gardeners’.

In short, the story Philip Pullman finds himself so compelled to tell is already told, and well. This is, of course, hardly a surprise; for every fresh story is a variation of archetypal stories, and none the worse for it, as he himself frequently acknowledges. Every great story is a path through a phase space that bears re-walking, and the taking of previously unchosen paths, and Pullman is well equipped to play in the woods. But he urges the storyteller to pay attention to the path through the wood and not be distracted by the trees, and I fear that he has failed to take his own advice.

 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Complex


The human body is incredibly complex. I have one myself; but I don’t overly focus on that complexity. I am not a Doctor of medicine. Instead, I focus on some fairly simple things: am I getting the exercise I need? Is my diet healthy? Am I getting enough sleep? Is my mind over- or under-occupied? And the way that I lead—or, take responsibility for—my body is, firstly, to listen to it; and then, to discipline it (which is not to punish it, nor even necessarily to treat it harshly for its own good, but to attend to its wellbeing). From time to time, in the shower, I might be wise to check for any lumps where there were no lumps before, but not compulsively. On the whole, however, it is a matter of being familiar with my body, with what is generally good and bad for it, and how to continuously make small adjustments that have positive impact.

An example: I have come to love running, for itself as well as for its health benefits, but at the moment I am not running due to a knee injury. I can still walk, and know that I ought to keep active; but, perversely, it is harder to go out for a walk than a run, I think because the effort required by a run—to get changed into running gear; to factor in the time for a shower on my return—makes it a more deliberate and empowered choice than pulling on my coat and walking out the door. By listening to my body, I have become aware of too many days in a row of having been too sedentary: my gut is telling me this, and not because it is visibly flabbier (yet) but because it is out-of-sorts; my mind also, not because I know in an abstract knowledge sense that exercise is good for me, but because my mind is lacking focus. So yesterday, and today, I have been for a walk. It has taken effort, and is not met with immediate reward. But today I walked for long enough to find myself standing in front of a lake, watching a family of swans, and having a conversation with my own body and the lake and God (who often speaks to us through our bodies, and through the world around us).

Sometimes I do this listening and leading well, and sometimes less so, and when I do these things less well it is either because I am choosing to focus on the complexity rather than the simple but hard disciplines, or because I am avoiding the hardness. Sometimes I say to my body, ‘Let’s go for a run!’ and my body says, ‘Yes!’ Other times, it responds, ‘Really? Wouldn’t you rather sit on the sofa watching a gameshow while drinking beer and eating donuts?’ and I must tell my inner Homer, ‘That’s not a bad idea! We’ll do that on Friday night, except we’ll swap prosecco for the beer because you know perfectly well that you are intolerant of hops [true story] but for now, we’re going for a run!’

The human body is incredibly complex, and the same is true of human communities, whether church congregations or villages or cities or nation states. And the same applies: the way we lead, or take responsibility, in the face of complexity is to listen attentively, and hold out the appropriate discipline.


Wednesday, November 04, 2020

The green, green grass of home


Walking along the cycle path, I am struck by how vivid a green the grass is wearing today, stark contrast to the gold and reds and browns of the trees.

Leaves turn from green to brown heading into winter; grass turns from green to brown in the height of summer. It is almost as if one solution to the challenges of life does not fit all.

I listen in on their conversation. This, too, is striking. The trees do not belittle the grass, nor the grass rail against the trees. Instead, each one compliments the other, and with good reason; the whole is more beautiful than any of the parts.

As I drill down in Red States and Blue States, I notice that, broadly speaking, urban counties turn blue and rural counties turn red (and this would be mirrored in the UK, although we use the same colours with the opposite symbolism). Almost as if one solution to the challenges of life does not fit all.

Elections are not zero-sum game battles over the soul of a nation (though they often feel that way). The real struggle is to love one another, to love your neighbour as yourself, including the injunction to love your enemies as your friends. The battle line is drawn not on a map, but in our own heart.

Consider the trees and the grass of the field. Or urban park.

 

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Torn, part 2


Following on from my previous post…is it possible that we might see being torn as a positive alternative to, say, being at ease?

The apostle Paul knew what it was like to be torn, by frustrating circumstances, by the commixture of hostile motives and (the possibility of) beneficial outcomes, even torn between the desire to die and be with Christ and to live on and be of service to Christ and the Church. And on one occasion, in such a position, Paul found himself aware of Christ saying to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect through your weakness.”

And here I think one ought to note that the point is not that Christ’s ego power-trip demands Paul’s humiliation, but that the power that raised Jesus, who had humbled himself even to the point of crucifixion—a literal tearing—from the dead was now being shared, through Paul—and others—for the restoring of the world to a state of wholeness and wellbeing.

There is a principle at work here, one that even those who do not share Christian faith might recognise, that when we embrace our own weakness and limitations, we find ourselves able to tap-into a life-sustaining and enhancing power that is from outside of us; that is held in communion with others.

And that this possibility is only available to be experienced by those who know, in their day-to-day experience, what it is to be torn.

Elsewhere, in what have become known as the Beatitudes, Jesus taught that those who can enter into true personal happiness are those who live under such individual limitations.

Perhaps the deeper invitation of this frustrating week in this frustrating year is to enter into the lived reality that the limitless powerful wind of Life makes even bare trees dance?

 

Torn


Today, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London have joined other faith community senior leaders in calling on the Prime Minister to make a U-turn and allow public worship to continue in the second, coming lockdown.

I am utterly torn by this, as to be fair I am sure they are too.

On the one hand, I agree with them that faith is not a private matter; that our places of worship are ‘Covid secure,’ with no scientific evidence that the virus is being spread through public worship [though, we have no means of collecting such evidence]; that there is research-based evidence supporting the positive benefits to mental and emotional health; and that our corporate worship is significant in sustaining our service to the wider community at this time, through for example, food banks, or any of the £12bn worth of social value contributed by the Church not counting the support offered by other faiths.

On the other hand, these things are not exclusively true of faith communities; special pleading undermines solidarity, in deeply damaging ways; and I do not believe that public worship is essential to what constitutes and sustains us. If that were so, one could not speak of the Church in China, or Iran.

Christian faith, like Judaism, is grounded in love of God and neighbour, with special attention to justice and mercy. Both traditions stand on prayer and service of our fellow human beings in the mending of a torn world, and these things can be done in the temporary absence of public worship. And from a specifically Christian perspective, it is the person of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, who constitutes and sustains us, not our ability to gather together.

Islam is also rooted in prayer and a concern for one’s neighbour, and while corporate payer is foundational, it too recognises that circumstances may exempt believers from certain practices. Indeed, all faiths have had to adapt to circumstances, throughout history. And we are living in a pandemic that is uncontained.

I am torn, also, because it is exhausting to have to form and hold parallel plans: for gathering in one physical space; and for gathering in time held in common but across various spaces. This week is exhausting.

None of this is to criticise the senior Church leaders listed above, nor in search of pity for a poor vicar, but, rather, a recognition that life is often and for many a torn reality. To give just one other example, this will be true of many voting in the USA this November.

How, then, ought we to live? Firstly, by acknowledging that this is so, including creating safe spaces to express the pain of it all, to lament.

Then, by seeking to be gentler, with ourselves and towards others. Recognising that those days when we can operate at fresh-out-of-the-box full capacity are not the default days against which we should measure expectations, but gifts to be enjoyed when we do experience them.

Finally, to recognise that different people will hold different views and reach different conclusions; that this will always be the case, and it does not make them—or us—villains; but it does add to the complexity of life—which, in turn, brings us back to lament and gentleness.

 

Monday, November 02, 2020

Who are we when...?

 

Morning Prayer for today, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day).

The Old Testament portion is Daniel chapter 1. As Jerusalem falls to the Babylonian empire, Daniel and his three friends are displaced in multiple ways. They are displaced from nobility within the royal court of Jerusalem to service within the royal court of Babylon (this is displacement, rather than upending, as nobility/service are not opposites but synonyms for those ‘versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace’). They are displaced from the study of the literature and language of the Israelites to the study of the literature and language of the Chaldeans. They are displaced from the geo-political setting of Judah to the geo-political setting of Babylon. They are displaced in their interpersonal identity from their Hebrew names to other, colonised, names.

These circumstances hold the potential for two contrasting directions of travel: the erasure of their identity, or the expansion of their identity. And the key is their response to the circumstances over which they have no control, but may yet influence. Daniel, we are told, resolved that he would not defile himself. That he would not dishonour his foundational identity, while fully engaging with the new reality in which he found himself, and seeking to build relationships of honouring and serving others, even those who, outwardly, determined his day-to-day experience. In response, God extends the knowledge and skill of the four friends, and gives to Daniel even greater psychological insight into visions and dreams.

As we prepare to go into Lockdown 2.0, and as local church congregations are asked, once again, to suspend public worship, what we resolve will be the determining factor in whether our identity is erased or expanded: whether our calling to be those through whom all families on earth are blessed is taken from us, or whether God is able to position our lives for even greater possibilities of service.

 

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Deciduous

 


Deciduous trees have the wisdom to know that at times you need to let go…to leave room that was previously filled, in order to reveal what was previously obscured…to put down deeper roots in the dark and unseen place…to grow imperceptibly more resilient than the year before. The wisdom to know that, in order to provide enduring habitat for other life to flourish, those lives too may need to hibernate at times.

In Lockdown 2.0, may our communities decide to be deciduous.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

On demonisation

 

When our children were small, Jo took several years out from paid employment. During this time, I also spent two years at theological college. Being a low-income family, we received Healthy Start vouchers, that could be exchanged at supermarkets for fruit and vegetables, milk (including follow-on formula milk), and certain other items. Of course, that might ‘free up’ money to spend on treats, for our children, or for ourselves, such as a bottle of wine at the end of the week.

The tragedy exposed yet again this half-term is not a civil discussion on the relative roles of the state, parents, and, in between these two, the wider community, in the raising of children—all three have a role to play; and there are various ways we might imagine how they interconnect, or what each might best deliver—but the way in which we normalise one ‘class’ of people and demonise another. Our words, spoken and unspoken, reveal who we believe define what it means to be human, and who we believe to be sub-human.

Because we are a middle-class family, when our children were young, Jo might have been described as a homemaker, and I as (re)training: two laudable choices. Were we working class, the same choices might be described by some as deliberately choosing to make ourselves a low income family despite having the temerity to have had three children before I had the decency to be sterilised.

Of course, those living in poverty are not the only ones who are demonised. Politicians are also regularly demonised in how we speak of them, and this is both party-specific and as a generalised mass. Over recent years, populism has deliberately stirred this up; and those who would reject populism must reject its play book. And then there is the dangerous assumption of normativity by a Left-leaning middle class, that not only demonises the political Right (of aristocracy and disenfranchised left-behind communities) but also places themselves above question, both morally (no-one else cares as much as we do) and strategically (no-one else is as wise as we are).

Often, when we meet demonised people in the Gospels (including children), others have tried to contain/constrain or fix or ignore them, inevitably without success. No-one responds well to such moves. Jesus listens, enters into conversations, seeks to find a way forward, in which persons experience dignity, compassion, challenge to formulate next steps (which might not be their first choice); and communities experience the disruptions of both measurable, painful economic cost and social restoration. And this is to say nothing of those we meet in the Gospels who were not described as demonised, but might be today: the way the scribes and pharisees normalised their own group, and demonised the prostitutes and tax collectors.

Again and again, 2020 has pushed us to broaden our definition of human beyond our own tribe; and again and again, we have tried to respond within our existing, deeply defensive, frameworks. Those frameworks are not fit for purpose. At the end of the day, we de-humanise, we demonise, ourselves, in demonising others. The deliverance we need, and sometimes even long for, will not come from ourselves.

None of this is to say that we should not pour out our anger at injustice, our bewilderment at hard-heartedness, our cognitive dissonance, before a God who may appear indifferent. The biblical term for this very thing is lament. It is just that when we do so with integrity, we might hear back more than we bargained for.

 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Rethink Reskill Reboot

 

Yesterday, we watched the first in the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? (actor Jodie Whittaker), in which people in the public eye discover the stories behind their family tree. This often involves the de-bunking of family stories, passed down the generations in Chinese whispers or arising from adding 2+2 and getting 5. Also, the processing of new information, a dismantling and the construction of a new (though equally partial) meaningful story.

Yesterday, I also took part in the funeral of a man who had started out working for the Gas Board, later retrained as a teacher, and had an active retirement.

Also in the ether, much chatter around the inevitable pressure of (Austerity and Brexit and) Covid 19 to require some people to retrain—some unhappily so; others, as welcome opportunity—along with questions as to which forms of work are valued by society, and which are not.

And it causes me to wonder, what, if anything, happens when our vocation is co-opted by others for their construction of meaning?

This coming Sunday is the Feast of St Luke, who wrote the Gospel According to Luke (a biography of Jesus) and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles (a biography of the early Church). From early on, Luke is identified as a physician, essentially on the basis that in one of his letters Paul refers to Luke the physician. It is often noted that he has a particular interest in healing miracles, but there is no real evidence to support this confirmation bias. What if Paul writes ‘the physician’ to distinguish one Luke from another, from the better-known man of the same name?

Luke the author inserts himself as a character in three distinct sections of the second half of Acts, switching from third-person to first-person narration.

The first recounts a sea journey from Troas to Samothrace, Neapolis, and Philippi.

The second is concerned with a sea journey from Philippi to Troas, Assos, Mitylene, opposite Chios, Samos, Miletus, Cos, Rhodes, Patara, (off Cyprus), Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, and on inland to Jerusalem.

The third describes in great detail a sea journey from Caesarea to Sidon, (off Cyprus), Myra, off Cnidus, off Salmone, Fair Havens near Lasea, past Crete, off Cauda, and ending in shipwreck at Malta…

…and, three months later, in a second attempt to get to their original intended end point of Rome, a fourth sea journey from Malta to Syracuse, Rhegium, Puteoli, and on by land to Rome.

It is clear that Luke, who appears in the account whenever a sea journey takes place, is not only an eye-witness but an expert witness, a sailor who understands ships and the Mediterranean.

But Luke the merchant seaman, who served the Church in somehow facilitating Paul’s missionary journeys—and who perhaps turned his back on the sea to become a biographer—is later retrained to be Luke the posthumous physician, patron saint of physicians. Rethought. Reskilled. Rebooted.

Was the Church in need of a patron saint of physicians? And, today, are we in need of a new meaningful story, of exploration around the coast, the liminal edges of chaos (the great Sea) and shelter (the harbour)? Of surviving being lost at sea, and shipwrecked?

Or, for those working on the frontline of the NHS at present, a physician-seaman, a ship’s doctor?

What, if anything, happens when our vocation is co-opted by others for their construction of meaning?

 

Thursday, October 08, 2020

A friend in need, part 2

 

Jesus’ parable of the three friends (Luke 11:5-13) challenges us in our view of friendship, and invites us into a fresh understanding. At its heart, the parable in search of evidence of friendship is laid before us to address the question of God’s covenant friendship. What is the evidence of God’s covenant friendship? He gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

This Holy Spirit is associated with wisdom, love, and power; with companionship, comfort, and courage; with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

To return to the dynamic at play in the parable: I come to you, having reached the end of my wisdom, my love having worn thin, my courage run out. This is not hypothetical; I am, among other things, the father of two (out of three) children on the Autism Spectrum; like all children (and even more so) they don’t come with a manual (though, God knows, plenty of books have been written offering advice).

You, however, are fresh out of wisdom, love, and courage, at this moment in time. Which is no slight against you, for, we’ve all been there, right? So, you turn to another friend, God, in prayer and say, “My friend, Andrew, needs some wisdom right now, and I haven’t any to offer, in evidence of my friendship. Could you lend me some? Indeed, could you lend me three loaves’ worth, so that you, Lord, and he and I can eat together?” (literal companionship is the sharing of bread with another.)

That’s how it works, my friend.

 

A friend in need, part 1

 

In the Gospel passage set for Holy Communion today, Luke 11:5-13, Jesus tells a story about friends, that is to say, about people who claim a particular devotion and affection in their association with one another, as opposed to mere acquaintances. Friend C arrives at Friend A’s door in the middle of the night, and Friend A has nothing to set before them, or, no evidence to produce in support of the assertion that C is indeed their friend. And so, Friend A goes to Friend B, requesting the loan of three loaves. In other words, Friend A asks Friend B for evidence that A is indeed their friend, evidenced by redistributing their surplus, the loaves they have left over at the end of the day.

There is much chatter in these days of the indominable spirit of the English people, of their deep love for their country and their community. There is also much chatter concerning the viability of certain forms of work, what can be supported or bailed out and what cannot.

Cards on the table, my work role is not viable. Not, it brings in billions but has not been recognised; but, at least in economic terms, it is not viable. Yet, I believe that what I do adds real value to society, some of which is measurable and some of which is immeasurable. And this is true of other forms of work (not to mention children and pensioners, neither group being viable, though at least children grow out of it, and pensioners, die out of it).

The question is, this talk of friendship, that is implicit in how we want to perceive ourselves, where is the evidence? In the terms of this parable—and yes, it is only a story, but a story that might provoke us—where is the redistribution?

One of the things I believe the pandemic has highlighted is the need to adopt a universal basic income or citizens’ income. This is not an extreme form of socialism, let alone communism. If (UK context) you have ever been in receipt of married couples allowance, child benefit, working tax credits, if you have ever been in receipt of a state pension, you will have experienced the partial redistribution of personal resources through taxation. A basic income, ensuring the essential needs of every child and adult, is evidence of a fair society, of genuine friendship.

A Conservative government won’t go for it, because they believe in meritocracy, or, that you get what you deserve: if you have little, it is because you deserve little; if you have much, it is because you deserve much. A Labour government won’t go for it, because the universal nature is essential to the idea, and they don’t believe in giving even a tiny percentage of the common purse to the super rich. Neither of these positions, in themselves, are reasons not to keep raising the matter.

May God give us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and love, of friendship and boldness.

 

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Unclean

 

There’s a story in the Gospels of a woman whose severe gynaecological bleeding (or possibly haemophilia) has kept her isolated from community for twelve years. She is ritually unclean, which is to say, removed from society, with anyone who touches her also having to remove themselves from society for a short while.

This ritual removal was part of the regular rhythm and flow of her culture. Women would remove themselves in the monthly cycle of their period. Ritual uncleanliness is not sinfulness, or moral failure, and ritual cleansing is not sin management or the management of the Other; but, rather, to participate in ritual uncleanliness and ritual cleansing is to enter into the pattern of death and new life, to be an actor in deep mystery. Every one of us, regardless of sex, age, or culture, regardless even of introvert or extravert preference, needs regular times of withdrawal from and restoration within society. But for this woman in this story, the withdrawal had been extended out indefinitely.

We know that she has spent all of her resources on physicians who were unable to cure her. We know, therefore, that she has felt human touch, and under the most vulnerable of conditions. But it is quite possible that she had gone for months at a time between experiencing human touch, for years. We do not know, but it is possible that she had family members who, in order to provide such touch, essentially self-isolated in order to shield her; even so, she is removed from her neighbours. Given that we know she had spent all her resources on the hope of a cure, and that she was still alive, we may imagine that one or more of those neighbours left food on her doorstep, in a spatially distanced compromise they had to make work.

All of this seems meaningful, in 2020.

This woman hears that Jesus has arrived in town, and resolves that if she can push through the crowd, unnoticed, and only touch the hem of his garment, she might hope to experience the healing she needs, the kind of healing she has heard that others have received from him. And so, she takes the risk. She, surely, makes others ritually unclean by her contact. She reaches out for Jesus. And straight away, he is aware that power has left him. And straight away, she is aware that she is healed. And Jesus responds in such a way that everyone, who have just been made ritually unclean, is ritually cleansed. The whole community goes through death and new life (which is really interesting, because Jesus is in fact, at this very moment, on his way to raise the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue from death).

How do we go about our lives under the tension of needing to interact with people who are mutually exposing one another—and by extension others who have not chosen so to meet—to risk?

How do we live with the very real emotional and psychological impact of the extended loss of human touch—and the added impact on those who are removed from the possibility of touch, but nonetheless must look on as others break the rules?

How do we nurture empathy and compassion for those most affected by isolation, over extended time that erodes our empathy and compassion?

Where might Jesus, and the community gathered around him, feature in our thinking?

How might the story of this woman help us?

 

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Comfort and Joy

 


2020 has been a hard year. The Church of England’s theme for this Christmas is Comfort and Joy, recognising that this year Christmas will be, for many, a strange mix of the numbness of loss and the longing for that celebration of love that strengthens our bones in midwinter. Jo and I would like to share some Comfort and Joy by giving every home in our parish a bespoke bauble, to create a community-wide Christmas tree, in our homes and also hopefully curated online. As we look to bless our neighbours, we have asked a local business to make the 7,000 baubles for us, and they look great.

Here’s how you can help.

[1] Could you donate to our Just Giving page, to help us cover the cost? The link is https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/comfort-and-joy

There will be some additional costs (printing of an explanatory flyer; possibly ribbon) but our target of £1,750 relates to 7,000 laser-cut baubles at 25p each.

[2] Do you have any ribbon you don’t need and could give to the project? It needs to be 15-20cm lengths, between 3mm-(max.)10mm wide.

We know that many of you might have some ribbon saved for a project you’ve never got around to, or even the hanging loops from a dress or top. Here is another way to get involved. We need 7,000 strips in all, but every contribution helps, however small. Any colour will do, especially if Christmassy. If you are further afield, you could post them to us—message me for our postal address on andrew [at] dowsetts [dot] net if you need it—and if you are local, you might even be willing to thread some of the baubles for us?

[3] Local friends, would you be able to help deliver baubles door to door, later in the year? Let us know!

 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Hidden in plain sight


The God of the Bible (there are many gods in the Bible, but I mean Yahweh, the god who is vulnerable enough to approach us in hope of friendship) is not all-powerful.

This god insists, and consistently models, that power is dispersed across all creation. To stars and planets, including our own, whose physics makes life possible. To the moon over the sea, to the sky and the sea and the land. Among all living things, plants and animals, to reproduce and evolve, and hold all in self-giving mutual interdependence.

To angels and mortals; to mighty emperors and lowly disciples; to women and children and men; to widows and orphans and aliens, and to those who honour them. To all. To you. The very breath of life. Power that this god does not retract when it is misused by others; which is by no means to abdicate personal responsibility for justice.

No, this god is not all-powerful. And therein lies this god’s freedom, this god’s majesty, beauty, holiness. This god’s ability to transform the world, for good and not evil.

 


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Into thin air

 

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, with its Old Testament reading from Genesis 28:10-17.

Jacob finds himself at the outset of a long journey. Unable to carry on, for now, he stops for the night, in a certain place. The place matters, but it has no name, nothing there, only a stone for a pillow and the ground for a bed. And as he sleeps, Jacob dreams grandiose dreams. Contrary to the English rendering ‘ladder’ he dreams of a ziggurat, a tower of ramps and terraces, rising to the heavens. The template is that of the mythic Tower of Babel, an early attempt of a people to build a lasting name for themselves. Such is where Jacob would expect to meet with God. Such is how he would seek to be remembered.

And, in grace, God does meet with Jacob in his dream, with angels descending and ascending the tower, just as they had gone down to find out what the tower of babel was all about. And God promises that he will go with Jacob, and bless him, to be a blessing to others. But what will that look like? Being scattered to the four winds (again, like babel, though this time as blessing rather than curse, as redemption after constraints).

Jacob awakes to realise that God was present in this place. This empty place. Not the ziggurat of his vain imagination.

So where is God when your dreams vanish into thin air?

 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

This is not That (but they are connected)

 

The murder of police officer Sgt Matt Ratana is an absolute tragedy. My heart goes out to his family, his colleagues, and the families of all police officers who will sleep a little more fearfully for a while.

But today I am seeing a disgusting meme circulating, asking, rhetorically, whether Black individuals in the public eye will take a public stance, and answering that they will not. I should not have to point out why this is wrong, but, apparently, it is needed.

First, this meme implies that the named individuals lack a shred of human decency: of course they do; they are sub-human, after all. Not like us.

Second, this meme accuses them of double-standards: of speaking out at the death of a Black man or woman at the hands of the police, but not at the death of a police officer at the hands of, it is assumed, a Black man. But these are not the same.

Police officers are called to protect the public, a calling that at times brings them face-to-face with criminals, and danger; not to criminalise, or endanger the public. We can argue that what happens to Black Americans has nothing to do with British Blacks, but that is to fail to attempt to understand the complexity of their different and yet connected life experience. We can argue that police officers who kill unarmed men or sleeping women are ‘bad apples’—so why are they not held responsible?—or that their victims were far from innocent—so they don’t deserve a fair trial? Both these moves are excuses, to justify racism. We can argue that this is the UK, not the US, but that is to deny that racism is an issue here. Here, where a Black, female barrister was assumed to be a defendant three times (and a journalist once) on the same visit to a magistrates court. And yes, that’s just one example, so, listen to the experiences of Black people in England, both British and other nationalities.

It has already been pointed out to me that the reason this police officer was shot inside his own station was because the Met’s hands are tied because of the media profile of a ‘semi-famous athlete and her boyfriend’ who were ‘legitimately’ stopped and searched. Why does it matter whether they were semi-famous, world-famous, or unknown? That’s just a put-down. And, in the absence of the results of IOPC review, how can it be claimed to be legitimate to stop and search those guilty of owning a nice car while Black? But, worst of all, such a view puts the blame for the death of Matt Ratana on the Black community and their allies. Because, again, it is the Blacks who are the problem.

Again, the murder of a police officer is a tragedy. If the suspect, who, apparently, turned his weapon on himself, survives, he will be charged and tried and sentenced according to law. There will be an enquiry into what happened, not to point the finger of blame, but to see what lessons can be learned; with recommendations that will, in turn, be considered, and, perhaps, implemented. The family of the officer will not get their loved one back, but they will at least get the justice they need and deserve. No, this is not the same as for other families.

All lives matter, and police lives matter. But to use Police Lives Matter, like All Lives Matter, as a response to Black Lives Matter is not to support the police—it certainly does not honour a Maori officer—but to take a stand against those who experience systemic racism every day. To stand with racists, in a sick, manufactured competition. You wouldn’t want to do that, unthinkingly.

The murder of a police officer is a tragedy. People using it to stoke racial hatred is a disgrace.