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.