Wednesday, April 22, 2020

On divine judgement in history, part 2

There is a wonderful book in the Old Testament named for its central character, Job. It is set in the ancient near east, at a time when our ancestors had domesticated livestock, established settlements, and formed alliances with neighbouring settlements. A world of networks and interdependency, in which life was no longer terrifying, nor survival all-consuming, and yet lived experience extended significantly beyond human control. A world in which some, at least, had the luxury of telling stories around the campfire; and in which receiving such stories was, if no-longer a necessity of survival, a prerequisite for flourishing. A world that, while far-removed from many of our lives, is not entirely unfamiliar nor consigned to the past.

Within this world, Job stands out as a man committed to being in rightly ordered relationship with others. This approach has served him well, and he is held in respect, by humans and gods alike.

Within this world, but on another level, we meet the gods, beings who are at once active in the world and, to a significant degree, veiled. Over all else is Yahweh. This God is not distant, but takes an active interest in (his) creation, in the experience and wellbeing of every creature. Yahweh exercises this concern both directly and, befitting one who delights in relationship and engaging others, through the gods who proceed from him. As the story unfolds, we are drawn into conversation between Yahweh and the satan, a restless god who is out of sorts. Like Yahweh himself, the satan explores the earth; but, in contrast, seems to find nothing in which to delight. Yahweh invites him to consider Job, in whom Yahweh delights; Job is known to the satan, who remains unimpressed. They enter into something of an experiment, in which Job is an unwitting player, but not, I would suggest, a plaything. At all times, Job retains agency.

As Job’s world collapses around him, his friends gather. And the first thing that they do is brilliant. For seven days, they simply sit with Job, in silence, in solidarity with him in the experience of which he cannot make sense, in solidarity with his suffering. These are the very best of friends. But after seven days, they break; entering, tentatively at first and with increasing boldness, into speculative problem-solving—in which they are further wrong-footed by the counsel of the satan by night. Meanwhile, Yahweh alone, present but in the shadows, keeps silence.

Eventually, when everyone else comes to an end of words, Yahweh rouses himself to speak; an act that stirs up a whirlwind, in whose wake job and his friends receive revelation. Yahweh’s speech is primarily a list of the wonder of creation, and his particular delight in and concern for all that he has made. Again, this is not a distant God who already knows all that can be known, but a person who seeks personal knowledge, shared experience, relationship. And who longs for creation, even rebellious gods, to enter into peace and joy.

Within his list of examples, Yahweh cites two famously untameable beasts, the Behemoth and the Leviathan. Some have sought to explain these as the hippopotamus and crocodile, but these are beings of cosmic mythic proportions, not simply zoological ones. They cannot be stilled with nets and spears, but only by one who is willing to hear their pain, their suffering, their turmoil, until it is spent and calm returns. Such is the wisdom and the love of this God.

In the end, and to the dis-satisfaction of many who read but do not listen, Yahweh restores Job’s lost fortune; and also calls on him to intercede on behalf of his tone-deaf friends, who were not attuned to pain.

What relevance might this have to the current novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, to God’s loving attention to his creation, and the exercising of divine judgement?

Firstly, this outbreak might be understood, theologically, as the cry of creation, against humanity, in the face of broken-down relationship. The creatures charged with exercising delegated divine rule, to bring the natural environment back into harmonious balance whenever its equilibrium is threatened by too much chaos, have not acted in good faith. Moreover, their technology will not prevail in subduing this cry, but only loving attention and patient listening. Viruses, like humans, have their place and part to play in the created order. But beneath the shrill notes of the novel coronavirus, we are called to hear the deeper parts of earth and sea and skies.

Secondly, then, we might speak of God’s judgement as being, ‘I will listen; I will hear your petition, and decide justly.’ This includes upholding the cause of the wider creation as a whole, but also the individual personal laments of humanity caught up in the bigger picture of suffering. That the earth has a legitimate plea in regard to exploitation at the hands of humans does not rule out the possibility that, satan-like or even satanically provoked, a virus should not overstep its bounds. All pain, including all human pain, matters to this God, who alone is capable of the eternal listening, active, attentive, that can draw all things into reconciliation.

If, then, the world is more mysterious, and more interconnected, than we imagine, might this present moment be a summons to appear in court, to come face-to-face with a merciful and breathtakingly daring judge?

And if so, might that have a baring on the restoration that will follow?

On divine judgement in history, part 1

Throughout both the Old and the New Testament, disruptive disasters, both ‘natural’ and of human origin, are understood as the means by which Yahweh exercises judgement, in history, in response to gross and persistent injustice. This is both foundational, and structurally key as the story told of this God continues to unfold.

The cradle of humanity is judged in both the flooding of the fertile crescent—an act that may hide within itself a struggle between the gods as to the extent of judgement, and through which Yahweh saves a family and secures a future—and the linguistic confusion of Babel(on), the pinnacle of human engineering.

Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by fire from heaven—perhaps by lightening striking tar pits; but ‘from heaven’ does not merely reference an originating direction, but, rather, an authorial intention—because they are merciless, because instead of offering hospitality to strangers they employ gang rape as a weapon of power. And in this episode, we see Abraham, the father of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, intercede on behalf of the people of the Cities of the Plain, albeit to no avail.

Yahweh brings a series of increasingly devastating plagues against Egypt, relenting each time that Pharaoh repents, but returning each time Pharaoh subsequently hardens his heart. This sequence, ultimately resulting in the liberation of the people of Israel, is presented as a clash not only between a god and a mortal, but between a particular God, Yahweh, and a pantheon of gods who exert influence for oppression.

Later, once the tribes of Israel enter and settle the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, defeat at the hand of neighbouring tribes in the time of the judges, and extended periods of drought in the time of the divided kingdoms, are alike seen as divine judgement on his own people, for their unfaithfulness to a covenant of just relationship.

Joel proclaims Yahweh’s judgement on his people in waves of locusts stripping the early and later harvests; but even within that devastation, holds out the possibility that blessing may be known.

Jonah is sent to the merciless imperial power of Nineveh, to notify the Assyrians—enemy of his own people—that unless they repent, their great capital will be overthrown in forty days. The king of Nineveh leads his people in public repentance, and—much to Jonah’s disgust—Yahweh relents from punishment. There is, however, no historical record of a lasting change of heart, and soon enough, Nineveh will be overthrown.

The defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians, and, later, of the southern kingdom Judah to the Babylonians, with the royal court of Jerusalem being carried off into exile, are likewise understood to be acts of divine judgement. Nehemiah teaches the community that the appropriate immediate response is lament, for all that was good that has been—arguably unnecessarily, had the people only repented when they had the chance—lost.

In the Gospels, Jesus is clear that, the people having rejected his persistent call to turn back to God, Jerusalem would fall (again) and the Temple be desecrated (again) and thrown down. While he healed physical sicknesses and drove out literal demons, these were at the same time symbolic of a communal social and spiritual disease, and the possibility to receive, or reject, cure. His response to the refusal of the leaders of the nation to receive him was to weep over Jerusalem; his response at the grave of Lazarus, whose death was grievous in and of itself but also symbolised a wider dying, was, likewise, to weep.

Later in the New Testament, famine is seen as divine judgement on the Greco-Roman world, within which a made-new humanity ensured that no one within their community would go without their needs being provided for. Ultimately, a succession of plague, famine, and warfare—imagined as apocalyptic horsemen—would bring down the grossly unjust Roman empire.

There is, then, no progression of understanding from a God who engages in history in such a manner to a God who does not, who is no longer directly concerned with injustice or active in history. There is, however, throughout all this, and pre-eminently revealed in the person of Jesus, a God who fully identifies with his people in particular and humanity in general in their suffering—Pharaoh will lose his firstborn son, but so will Yahweh—even if it is brought upon themselves by their rejection of God’s loving wisdom.

Theologically, it is right that we should speak of novel coronavirus COVID-19 as an outpouring of divine judgement—one that was repeatedly forewarned by voices we chose to ignore. But how we speak of it matters, too. This pandemic is an outpouring of judgement on and for the whole world. On our common humanity—and, emphatically, not some group we can ‘other’ in order to socially distance ourselves from them—for the liberation of the non-human world we have argued over but refused to release from exploitation. In this present disruptive moment, the planet itself gets to breathe, to exhale the pain of subjugation as a prayer of longing, and inhale hope and a foretaste of the world made new, sharing in a glorious liberty.

Theologically, it is also right that we should intercede on behalf of our neighbours; prophetically call the nations to repentance; hold out the possibility even in judgement to experience blessing; lament the good things that have, for now and perhaps forever, been lost, and the poverty that comes in the wake of disaster, including upon those who were poor to begin with; model a new way of being that ensures that every member of the community has what they need; extend compassion, and not seek to shield ourselves from suffering.

Moreover, it is right to note that this is a recurring pattern, on a long trajectory of liberation. We must speak out, prophetically, resisting the siren song to return, as quickly as possible, to how the world was: for ‘how the world was’ was, in need of divine judgement. Instead, we must foster an imagination for justice, for the earth we share, and for all her inhabitants, including (but not limited to) all people regardless of where they come from. Economics concerns the ordered running of the household, for the wellbeing of society, and is a good servant but a poor master. If this moment in history is something that those of us with the most resources come out of least scathed, unrepentant and glorying in our ego, it will be merely a stay of execution.

In this present disruptive moment, the planet itself gets to breathe. But it also holds its breath, watching to see how we will respond.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020


The protests against (and counter-protests in support of) pandemic restrictions on personal freedom in the USA are interesting. At one level, this is an almost uniquely American phenomenon, a manifestation of their collective identity as the most adolescent nation on earth. Founded (for understandable reasons) in rebellion, the US has never really moved on from their foundational charism. Their history since then is an ongoing story of individual rights kicking against collective responsibilities. Adolescents, attempting to navigate from childhood to adulthood.

Yet, on another level, the protests are a manifestation of the need for all of our bodies to be free, to move, to explore the world around us, to burn off energy and feel alive, to encounter others. In one sense, in this strange moment, we are all adolescents, and the USA is simply better-versed.

Here in the UK, we are not natural adolescents. We are older. We are, in many ways, in the middle of a prolonged mid-life crisis, which began long before the world had heard of novel coronavirus COVID-19, and was most recently manifested in the fraught divorce from the European Union, in which we wanted to keep everything. And here, our bodies have responded to the public health crisis lockdown in a different way. While our American cousins protest, we have bought all the flour and yeast that can be found. We are making our own bread.

This is not rational. The supermarkets are short of many things, flour included, but not, especially, bread. Smaller artisan bakers are struggling to source flour, but those with bigger purchasing power are not. So, why are we stocking-up on flour?

Just as the bodies of Americans are telling them something—that they need to get out of the house—so, too, British bodies are telling us something. And what they are telling us is our greatest need. For a long time now, our greatest need has been presented to us as sexual intimacy, that to be single is to somehow have failed. But coronavirus has shown us that, in fact, our greatest bodily need is not for sexual intimacy, but for companionship: literally, someone to share our bread with.

Our bodies are telling us to make bread. To share our creations with other members of our household, if we share a house with others; but to drop Tupperware boxes of cake or brownies or jars of sourdough starter off on a friend’s doorstep during our daily exercise, if we live alone—and even where that is not possible, to learn skills we hope to deploy once the lockdown is lifted.

Our bodies are telling us this—and that is why we are making the bread to share, not simply buying it. To kneed bread is a physical workout, and it turns out that we need to kneed the bread we need.

It will be interesting to see what happens once restrictions are lifted. Americans, no doubt, will find something else to protest. But will the British continue to make their own bread, and enjoy companionship; or will their recipe books (and as a nation, we are obsessed with buying recipe books) retreat back on the shelf, to gather (flour) dust?

[Here is a link to an excellent article on our bodies, and what they may be trying to teach us in quarantine.]

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Curious Case of Captain Moore

I’m fascinated by the media frenzy around Tom Moore, the 99-year old WWII veteran who set out to raise £1000 for NHS Charities by walking around his garden 100 times, and ‘accidentally’ found himself raising £18million and counting. The social media sharing I have seen has been overwhelmingly positive, with a small non-concurring minority, and I find myself troubled by both camps.

First, the nay-sayers. The backlash to the Tom Moore story has centred on how broken it is that we are looking to an old man to fund the National Health Service, rather than adequate taxation. Indeed, some have shared the German observation, “In Germany we don't do charity, we do taxation.” Well, here’s the thing: in Britain, we do both, taxation and charity; we don’t see them as an either/or, small State/big State polarity. To be clear: Tom Moore is not fundraising for the core provision of the NHS, which is paid for (inadequately) by taxation, but for the NHS Charities. These exist, and would exist even if the NHS was adequately funded by taxation (which it isn’t), in order to go above and beyond. They exist for, and because of, those people who have been helped by the NHS who say, “Over and above paying my taxes, I want to do something to help, to give some small thing back, bearing in mind that I can never repay the debt I owe and I know that you would never ask me to.” This is public-private (or, perhaps better, personal) partnership; the person as both citizen of the state and participant in the community. We might argue that the balance is not right at present, but the argument that, “It is a scandal that the NHS should be supported by charity” actually undermines the very important argument that the NHS should be significantly better funded by taxation, because it presents, by simplistic sloganeering, a false case.

All this being so, I am disturbed by the Captain Tom Moore story. Firstly, I am disturbed because here is an elderly man who has been exploited—albeit willingly; and I choose the word ‘exploited’ deliberately—by a media whose interest is in a very different circulation figure than 100 laps of a garden. Media outlets including, though not restricted to, newspapers who have exerted all the resources at their disposal to keep political parties proposing progressive taxation and better funding for the NHS out of power. This is bread and circuses, a distraction—and we lap it up.

Secondly, I am disturbed by the sheer disproportionality of the public response. Tom Moore wanted to raise £1000, as a personal thank you, from himself, from those who know him and who know what and whom he is thankful for. But this is denied him, by the British obsession with the Grand Gesture—not only giving millions, but also calling for a knighthood, and on us all to send him a birthday card. There is something deeply unhealthy about this, and something that says much more about us, collectively, than a shared belief in the NHS being a good thing deserving of our support (which it is—though, devoid of personal connection, this episode does veer towards taxation by proxy). That is to say, our motives are mixed, and alongside something good there is something murky we are turning a blind eye to, in the hope that if we ignore that persistent cough it won’t ‘turn into’ (or, out to be) lung cancer. At best, we just don’t know how to respond proportionally and in sustainable ways. We feed ourselves on exciting stories of war heroes, and neglect role models who got on with the hard work of rebuilding a quiet world, recovering from the fever of competitive injustice.

I wish that most of us had never heard of Tom Moore. His worth is not dependent on our acclaim, and ours is not enhanced by his. Let us, like him, play our part, and let that be enough.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter in time of Covid-19

Easter Sunday in time of Covid-19 lockdown. We gathered for worship online, each household with its own candle to welcome the light of Christ, and water with which to renew our baptismal vows. Professing the faith of the Church with ‘latency’, that lag between our speaking and hearing the voices, between the reality of our action and its manifestation.

While it is disconcerting—takes some becoming accustomed to—latency is a powerful symbol for Easter; for the gap between Jesus rising from the dead and his followers catching up; for the gap between the world being changed for ever and the visible impact in our lives. Now and not yet.

One of our congregation died yesterday. His wife of 61 years was in our midst this morning. Through the limits of technology, we could hear each other, and she could see us, but we couldn’t see her. Yet we were together, in a profound and comforting way, in continuity and discontinuity, Jesus and the Church. And all together in a sense that is already secured but yet to be made manifest.

This photograph is taken through the glass of my front door. A garden, as blurred as one seen through Mary’s tears, yet as real, as solid, as the one in which Jesus, real and solid, spoke to her. Another way of thinking about Easter, which invites us to know that the world is not as we see it, but as it is—spoken by the Alpha and Omega Word—and as we will therefore experience it.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

The fear of the Lord

Did you know that God experiences fear?

That sounds wrong, right? And yet, Christians believe that Jesus is both fully God and fully human, and that if we want to know what God is like we must look at Jesus. And Jesus experienced fear. In an olive grove at the foot of the Mount of Olives, he was so afraid of what might take place that his sweat fell in beads like blood.

Of what was Jesus afraid? Or, to put it another way, what does God fear? Jesus prays that the cup be taken from him. To answer this question, what does God fear, we must ask, what does this cup symbolise?

Over the course of the Passover meal, the remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, four cups of wine were drunk. They relate to the four-fold declaration of God:

“I am the Lord, and I will bring you out [first cup] from under the yoke of the Egyptians.

I will free you from [second cup] being slaves to them, and

I will redeem you with [third cup] an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement [this is the cup which Jesus reimagined as his blood of the new covenant].

I will take you as [fourth cup] my own people, and I will be your God.”

Exodus 6:6,7

The cup Jesus fears having to drink is the fourth cup, the cup that is a sign that God is taking this people as his own people, and that he will be there God.

Jesus experiences fear at the anticipation of this. Fear that this people will respond with deicide. Fear that God drawing near to them, exposed, will kill them, too.

What is significant is how Jesus—and, hence, God—deals with fear. It is possible to be paralysed by fear. But those who do not know fear act recklessly, endangering themselves and others. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament speaks of the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom. Traditionally, that has been taken to mean, wisdom springs from human reverence for God; but this does not make sense. It does not make sense grammatically, because in every other case, the x of the Lord is taken to refer to God’s initiative and agency—the mountain of the Lord, the arm of the Lord, the eyes of the Lord, the angel of the Lord. And it does not make sense theologically to proclaim human beings as the originators of wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the Lord’s active engagement with the experience of fear, to reveal god-self to us, for the purpose of blessing.

Jesus does not deny fear. He sits in the dark with it, he prays, he looks to the support of his friends, he prays for them. He responds consistent with his character, with the nature of God, as God has always been and always will be, emptying god-self for love of a cranky, quirky, unpromising people. He makes peace with fear, as he will make peace with those of and for whom he has good reason to be afraid. And then, at that moment and not before, the time is right. The fear of the Lord reveals the Lord to those who come to arrest him, and, according to John’s Gospel, they fall on their faces.

Of what are you afraid? At this present time, it may be that every person you come into contact with, in order to offer help, might ultimately kill you or be killed by you. We can be paralysed, or reckless. Or we can look to Jesus. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Liturgy and trauma

While we aren’t simply sitting in front of the tv in these days, we are continuing to work our way through season three of This Is Us. It is, in my opinion, the finest tv show of all, and an incredible study in trauma. Trauma is much more common than is acknowledged, and will be the lasting collective impact of the C-19 crisis.

In the most recent episode we have got to, an older man looks back over his life, disrupted by Vietnam, and says, “First [as a young child] I wanted to be a writer. Then [as a teenager] I wanted to be a doctor, or a scientist. Then [after Vietnam] I didn’t want to be anything.”

When we get through the present suspension of public worship, Church will look very different, and that is a good thing. But I hope that it won’t look completely different, because we have learnt a thing or two about living life to the full—as fully as is possible—with the reality of trauma. And much of this is carried in our liturgy, our habitual words taken up together over and over again, by which our lives are shaped and remade, new every morning.

First, there is the recognition that lives ‘in recovery’ need the structure of regular meeting—at least weekly and sometimes more often than that—with people who go from strangers to family, through commitment to one another and to relentless forgiveness when we, inevitably, let ourselves and one another down. The AA and sister organisations understand this too.

Then, there is the Prayer of Preparation, a beautiful prayer that speaks of God as the one ‘to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden…’ This holds our deepest selves, our God-given longings, including those that have not been fulfilled and might not ever be fulfilled, due to the circumstances of our lives. Nonetheless, we are known and loved and held by this God.

Then, there is the regular practice of Confession and Absolution. Of receiving forgiveness for our guilt and cleansing for our shame, over and over again—for that is what the one who has gone through trauma needs, whether, objectively, their guilt or shame is justified or not.
Known. Loved. Held. Forgiven. Cleansed. Again and again, one day at a time. In how we re-imagine Church for these disorienting times, we must not lose sight of these.

Those who suggest that all we need is Jesus are naïve. Jesus himself, having cleansed ten lepers, sent them off to take part in the liturgical response of the faith community, not simply to verify their cleansing to others but also to reiterate it to themselves. Yes, thankfulness was also needed, but we also need one another, and a communal wisdom.

Friday, April 03, 2020

And if you didn't know, now you know

The number of people in (at least, applying for) receipt of Universal Credit grew by almost 1 million in just two weeks. A million citizens who never expected they would need the support of the welfare system this year. And in response, the Government has increased the amount by £20/week, for a year. This is an admission that you cannot live on Universal Credit. It is also an expression of the ideology that there are deserving and undeserving citizens.

In any case, in the past few weeks millions of us have experienced an insight into just how damn mentally, emotionally, physically tiring it is to live with constant anxiety as to whether you will be able to pay your bills, your rent/mortgage, will be able to get hold of food, or medicine should you need it. And this might be a lesson we need to learn.

We’re also being brought to the key realisation of income inequality.

The moral case for a fundamental rethinking of how we do society grows daily. The moral case for replacing much of the current welfare system (which, of course, includes state pension) with a universal citizens basic income grows. This would be affordable, though would take the imagination that, until now, has been unthinkable, especially for the media. The security of knowing that you won't be plunged into poverty is not a disincentive for work—nor is it an undervaluing of anyone else’s work—but a platform (as opposed to a safety net) on which we might be free to be creative in giving our best to the world, through work, through voluntary service and association, through care for others. But whether we go down this route or some other, this crisis is an invitation to system-level change.

Long story

Long story for you.

This is a photo of a postcard of a stained-glass window at St Nicholas’ Church. This story has many layers. The window depicts an event in which some sailors had been given or mis-sold a vial of poison by an unknown evil person. Their lives are in danger, and they know it not. A ghostly St Nicholas appears to then, Obi-Wan-like, and tells them to pour the oil away; and as it hits the sea, it bursts into flames.

That’s it. But to understand the story, you have to dig deeper. Sometime after his death, it was observed that the bones of St Nicholas were miraculously producing an ‘oil’ and that this oil had miraculous healing properties. Various theories have been put forth, from out-and-out fraud to the capillary action of the soft stone on which the bones were laid to rest. In any case, pilgrims came from far and wide in hope of a miracle. I don’t doubt that the vials of oil themselves were freely given; but the pilgrims’ need for food and accommodation, along with generous alms giving to the church, were all good news for the local economy. I also believe that the oil worked, at least sometimes. It is amazing what the power of belief can do. We see it at work in all kinds of ‘magical thinking’ even in our own post-religious, post-secular society.

The story goes that there was an enterprising woman, in Sicily, who bottled poison and sold it to women across Italy who were looking for a way out of unhappy marriages, transporting the poison in the innocent guise of bottles of St Nicholas’ miracle oil. True or no, this came to be widely and deeply believed. It is reported that on his deathbed, Mozart claimed that it was by means of this poison that he had been done for. Perhaps he believed so (remember, belief is powerful). Perhaps he was simply referencing the story (stories are powerful, too). Or perhaps he has been woven into the story itself (stories have a power of their own).

So, we have a miracle oil, and a poison oil, both sought for and highly prized. And within this construct we can imagine that a group of sailors came to Bari in search of hope, and were tricked by someone who had taken advantage of the desperate hope of unhappy wives to inflict death upon random victims. The dealer had no means of knowing to whom the sailors were carrying the vial, but got off on holding the power of life and death over others. An early serial killer, if you will. Foiled, by saintly intervention.

That, then, is the story. I told you that it was long, and layered. And it is not a story with a moral; but it is a story that sweeps us up into it, in the parish of St Nicholas’ with its church with its beautiful window by master-craftsman Leonard Evetts, in a time of pandemic and of a web of stories spinning on social media.

It is a story that reminds us of the power of stories; of the deep and at times desperate need for hope; of the ways in which belief, itself powerful, is complicit in life and death, truth and the limits of our understanding. It is, if nothing else, a stark reminder that if we do not stay at home any one of us may be carrying death to our friends and family unawares. It is a story to sit with today, to seep up capillary veins and marinate our bones. In the spirit of St Nicholas the gift-giver, it is my gift to you.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The washing of feet

I know that Maundy Thursday, when we remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, isn’t until next week, but I’m thinking about it now.

Their world was awash with disciples. Every Jewish rabbi and Greek philosopher had their students, and they were known as those who followed their master so nearly that they walked in the cloud of fine dust raised by his feet. And so, Jesus’ disciples’ feet were dusty, precisely because they were Jesus’ disciples.

The foot-washing, then, works at several different levels. It is more than skin deep. In washing their feet, Jesus affirms that these have, indeed, been his faithful followers. And yet, in washing their feet clean of the dust he has covered them with, Jesus is also indicating that, where he is now about to go, they cannot, for now at least, follow. Their journey, their active following in his footsteps, has been put on hold.

Deepest layer of all, in washing their feet, Jesus is cleansing them of their shame at not being able to follow. He is cleansing them of their shame of — despite all their protestations — failing to meet his expectations, which, it turns out, are not his expectations but theirs.

I am thinking about these things now because of a conversation with a friend. The highest authorities of the land, the highest authorities of the Church, his friends, including me, and, most importantly, his wife, have all told him to stay at home. And he has resisted, tooth and nail. Conceding defeat, he admitted to feeling not only guilty but ashamed. For to stay at home means to not be able to feed the hungry (personally, and first-hand). Our society is not caring enough, and, to fail in one’s duty to God and our neighbour to feed the hungry, is, indeed, to add to the lack of care.

I suspect that he is not alone. Indeed, I am aware that many of the physically active seventy-somethings in the Church of England are struggling under the burden of the same sense of deep shame.

I could say more about their strong sense of duty, of how it is a double-edged sword. Of how the church as they have known it simply could not continue without them; but also of those younger generations who have walked away from the church not because they no longer believe in God but because there is no room for them to take on any roles. Of how the loyal soldier that served the church well in their youth now holds the church to ransom. But none of this helps address their shame at being asked to stay home, to watch and pray and wait on the Spirit.

No, that requires a foot-washing. Not physical, of course — this, too, is suspended this year. And not a one-off either, but again and again, until they are able to take hold of their cleansing; resisting their Simon Peter zeal that, if they are to be washed, then not only their feet but also their hands and head.

For any church leader who has members of your congregation over the age of seventy, now is the time to take off your outer garment and pick up the towel.

image: Sieger Köder, Fußwaschung