Thursday, October 14, 2021

You are not enough, and that is okay

 

There’s a thing you’ll see on social media, in relation to mental health and wellbeing, that tells you, You Are Enough.

That’s sweet an’ all, but if you need to hear that You Are Enough, you are already perfectly aware that you are Not enough. And that is actually the truth, and a good thing.

You were never meant to carry the burden of being Enough. And neither was some ‘soul mate’ waiting to be found.

The hope we have in God is that we don’t need to be enough. We are finite creatures. God is infinite, and God’s love never runs out. Wonder is infinite, the healing renewal of every sunrise, or looking into the eyes of a new-born child looking back at us.

Sometimes, God says to us, I am with you, and that, for now, in this moment, is enough.

Sometimes God says, lift up your eyes and look at the sunrise, or the ocean, or the mountains, or the stars; this, in this moment, is enough.

Sometimes God says, let’s go hear that symphony, or watch that match, and let’s go with friends, and be lost in a crowd bigger than ourselves; or get lost in a novel, if you prefer; that will be enough.

All of these things are bigger than us. The incredible thing is that all of these things are diminished without us, for, God loves to share the moment.

We are not enough, but we are a key part of whatever is enough. And that is enough. Especially when we come to the end of ourselves, and fall into the arms of Love.

 

Awkward

 


This morning I realised that I didn’t have my keys to hand. There aren’t many places where they could be. They sit on a shelf next to my desk, the keys to St Nicholas’ (missing) and to the Minster (there, as expected). I checked my bag—not there, either—and my coat, which has five pockets, where I eventually found the keys in the third pocket I tried.

In the Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today, Luke 11:47-54, Jesus says:

‘Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.’

In this context, ‘lawyers’ means experts in the Law and the Prophets and the Writings that make up the Hebrew Bible. That is, people like me.

It is good to be stopped in one’s tracks and made to confront the awkward self-examination questions, with necessary honesty.

 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

When a flood of waters covers us

 

One of the Bible readings set for this Sunday is from Job chapter 38.

‘Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? ...
‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
and say to you, “Here we are”?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cling together?’

Job 38:1, 34-38

I love the way in which the words ‘when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together’ roll around the mouth. The image, of course, conjures up the human beings, the creatures made from clods of earth, dust animated by wind.

And in the years ahead, we shall, increasingly, be channelled together by water:

by more, and more severe, floods;

and more, and more severe, droughts.

The question remains, will we fight to protect our patch of land from those forced from their homes, or will we cooperate? Do we have the will to cling together, rather than pull apart?

There’s an ancient story in Genesis concerning a Great Flood that covered the whole of modern-day Iraq from the Persian Gulf to the mountains of Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, and Jordan to the west. In the story, many lives perished. Yahweh, king of the gods, was saddened by the inability of humans to live in harmony. The gods (elohim, a plural term, for what we sometimes call angels and demons) took opportunity to wipe Yahweh’s creatures from the face of the earth, perhaps to win Yahweh’s favour (compare Jesus’ friends James and John wanting to call down fire from heaven on communities that did not welcome Jesus) but Yahweh secured a future for all life, in partnership with his friend Noah.

It is a mythic story, one that makes foundational meaning beyond its origins. I would argue that its primary meaning is found in the overthrowing of the neo-Babylonian empire and the new beginning that follows. But what foundational meaning might it offer, for building a future in our time of both metaphorical and literal floods?

If we run together into a mass, are we obliterated, or renewed?

 

The wind in the trees

 


Who Do You Think You Are?’ is a BBC show tracing the family tree of well-known actors, presenters, sports-people, and the like. The eighteenth series kicked off last night, following comedian Josh Widdicombe. I can’t claim to have seen every single episode, but—no spoilers—this latest was the most incredible I have seen, in part because of the stories uncovered, and in part because Widdicombe is so engaged and engaging.

When genealogy is brought to life by historians who raise the dead for us, the pursuit resonates with our shared human experience. The ancient writer Qohelet (aka Ecclesiastes) explored these themes. Qohelet impresses upon us the acknowledgement that life is as ephemeral and fleeting—and wonderous—as breath, wind. Moreover, we experience a great evil—not a moral evil, but an existential one—that all are brought low by death. Time and chance happen to all. The powerful are brought low; we work hard, only for some other, some stranger, to benefit. This being so, Qohelet advises that we take joy in the gift of life while it is ours. That we embrace life fully, while holding it lightly, and always mindful of the One who is Giver and Hallower and Sustainer of Life.

We see just such things in the stories of our great-great-many-times-great-grandparents, in their rising and falling, their opportunities and tragedies. In death, we sleep with our ancestors. In life, we work and eat and drink with them, hopefully finding satisfaction. In the lives to come, generations as yet unborn, the story continues, held in the love of God, who has made the world this way, in hope that we might ever reach out towards that love and hope held for us.

 





On grain and grapes

 

After some ‘universal’ myths (Adam & Eve, Noah, the tower of Babel—all of which make most sense, I would suggest, as meaning-making of the chronologically much later fall of the neo-Babylonian empire, return to and rebuilding of Jerusalem) Genesis (origins) re-boots with the story of Abraham.

Abraham originates on the Persian Gulf, and migrates up the Tigris-Euphrates as far as the mountains between modern-day Iraq and Turkey, before turning south towards a corridor of land between the Mediterranean and the northern-most limit of a deep rift valley that runs all the way down through Africa. He migrates with his nephew, Lot, making it clear that he comes in peace. As he travels down the spine that separates farmed hills falling towards the sea and more marginal land falling into the rift, a spine all along which there are settlements, he camps on the marginal side, to say, I am not a threat. Nonetheless, the marginal land cannot sustain both his own flocks and those of his nephew, so they part company, Lot descending into the rift valley floor, a wide and relatively fertile space.

Around the rift valley and in the hill country to its east, there were various settlements, each with its own king, or tribal chief, each forming alliances with their neighbours. It transpires that one king is most powerful, having eight vassal kings. Five of these rebel, including the king of Sodom, under whose patronage Lot is now living. The rebels are crushed, and Lot, his family and flocks carried off among the loot.

News of this reaches Abraham, and he, in turn, raises his own men and sets off to rescue his nephew. Abraham returns, successful, and is met by Melchizedek, king of Salem (later, Jerusalem). Melchizedek was never a vassal king, and, like Abraham himself, had played no part in the rebellion. However, Melchizedek, who is also a priest of the Most High God, brings out bread and wine to welcome Abraham home. Melchizedek proclaims:

“Blessed be Abram by God Most high,

maker of heaven and earth;

and blessed be God Most High,

who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

Melchizedek enables Abraham to make sense of his experience, and celebrate God’s faithfulness towards him—even though there remain many unanswered questions in his life. ‘Melchizedek, king of Salem’ means ‘King of righteousness, King of Peace,’ and he enables Abraham to enter into peace with his neighbour, which is not merely the end of war, but a transformation as profound as that of grain into bread and grapes into wine.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews claims that Jesus is a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, and not the later line of Aaron, whose priestly role was entirely different—and no longer necessary. But if Jesus is a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, then the Church is a priesthood of this order too.

This, then, is key to the role of all Christians, toward their neighbours, and of those called to a public ministry within the community:

to bless;

to help people respond to God in thankfulness for God’s faithfulness towards them;

to celebrate;

to hold questions without answers;

to nurture the conditions that make for peace, for wholeness and a culmination of every small part.

That’s a good story to be part of.

 

All the feels

 

We’re made to experience great, big feelings, in response to things in the world around us.

We’re made to experience wonder, looking up at the night sky, or mountain ranges, feeling at once very small and at one with everything else.

We’re made to feel anger at injustice, where we see, first- or second-hand, people withheld what they need to flourish, on account of being viewed as different, as inferior.

We are made to be swept off our feet by the beauty of another person, to catch our (common, God-given) breath at the beauty of every person.

We are made to experience fear, when those we love are put in danger.

We are made to experience joy and peace and grief and revulsion and all the big feelings. Not simply because they kept our early ancestors alive long enough to hand on their DNA, but because we are made in the likeness of a god who is not impassive, a god who knows, first- and second-hand, the fruit of both good and evil. A god who loves and grieves, who both marvels at the ingenuity of creation and constrains the overstepping of boundaries with wrath.

We’re made to experience great, big feelings, but we are trained to respond to them. We’re schooled to respond, for good or ill. To take that person who ignited feelings in us, and dominate them. Or to channel our feelings for good. To share in God’s nature is not only to bear God’s image but also to reflect God’s glory. Not only to experience big feelings but also to respond to them as God responds.

There’s a gem of an insight in the Letter to the Hebrews (a circular letter to early Christian communities among the Jewish communities of the eastern Mediterranean coast) that says of Jesus:

‘Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him...’

Hebrews 5:8, 9

That is, though he—like us—bears the likeness of God, Jesus engaged with the big feelings caused by the impact of others upon us (that is, what we suffer) in a particular way. He disciplined himself to listen out for God’s voice in response to the big feelings, to be shaped by how God responded to the big feelings as recorded in the stories handed down in the Bible. (To obey means to hear, to actively listen and be responsive; not to reductively follow rules.) He conformed his life to God’s life, projected into our lives. It was a process, of learning to be like God (and this is a mystery, for Christians claim that Jesus was very God from very God).

And because Jesus engaged with this process, he became the source by which God’s life is extended into our world, to us, moving us from destruction at the hands of our big feelings—which can toss us about like ships thrown onto rocks by a stormy sea—to the safe harbour of integration, wholeness. If we in turn listen for his word and seek to conform our responses to his.

It is an ongoing process, and while there are times when we might wish the feelings weren’t so very big, or the learning so very long, it is a mystery that fires the soul.

 

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Book of Remembrance

 

The readings set for Holy Communion today are Malachi 3:13-4:2 and Luke 11:5-13.

In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce bought land on the beach in Los Angeles County, for $1,225. They named it Bruce’s Beach and set about developing a resort for the Black community living under Segregation. They built a bathhouse, and a dining house.

In the 1920’s, against a backdrop of increasing harassment of the Black population, the city moved eminent domain procedures (what we, in the UK, call a compulsory purchase order), allegedly in order to create a public (i.e. for White people) park. The bathhouse and dining house were torn down. The land, left derelict. No park was created until the 1960’s, when the state feared being sued over the matter.

One week ago today, on 30 September 2021, the Governor of California signed a Bill returning the land—now worth $75 million—to Willa and Charles’ descendants.

(Thank you to Mike Royal for bringing my attention to this story.)

Malachi records and confronts the views of his people that it is in vain to serve God, because evildoers prosper, while the righteous receive no reward. If there is no justice, one might as well embrace injustice, and prosper. Part of the community, however, renew their reverence of the Lord, who promises to act, declaring:

‘See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.’

Luke records a parable told by Jesus, concerning persistence. In it, a man knocks on his neighbour’s door in the middle of the night, asking for the loan of three loaves of bread. He has nothing to set before a guest who was delayed in coming, while the neighbour has more than his family has needed to live. Jesus says, even though the neighbour refuse to acknowledge the bonds of friendship and insists that it is now too late to meet the request (surely there must be a statute of limitations on seeking justice!?), even so, eventually, and due to persistence, he will give the claimant what they ask for.

Therefore, Jesus says, ask, until it is given you; search, until you find what you are looking for; knock on the closed door, until it is opened to you. And though Justice be a guest delayed in coming to you, the day will come when you shall be able to dine together in the dining house.

Jesus concludes, ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children—’

and don’t the evil know it, even taking what rightfully belongs to others, to give instead as gifts to their own descendants—

‘how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

The Holy Spirit is not some private gift, but the life-giving power by which previously segregated communities are transformed into one body and empowered to be such. The dining house shall be rebuilt, not as provision for an excluded community—an accommodation within an unjust system—but for all, sitting down together, held in the bonds of mutual affection.

See, the day is coming. The sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.

 

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Mythical creatures

 

Mythical creatures, or On the nature of human beings.

The early chapters of Genesis are myths, that is to say, stories that are not so much concerned with describing what was as with making sense of what is. Myths stand the test of time precisely by retelling in different contexts, by remapping. Not every element of the story finds a neat correlation in every retelling; and every retelling carries within itself the earlier tellings. Myths are living stories.

It seems to me that the First telling of Genesis 1-3, not (by a long way) in terms of chronology but in terms of importance, sets the story (very late) in the Babylonian captivity, where:

Adam represents Nebuchadnezzer II, king of the neo-Babylonian empire;

Eve represents his marriage alliance to the Medes;

the walled garden in Eden represents Babylon;

the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the centre of the garden, from which Adam and Eve are prohibited to eat, represents the population of Jerusalem transplanted into Babylon by their God, Yahweh;

the tree of life represents Yahweh, sustaining the life of the city into which he has sent his people in exile;

the serpent represents the dragon Mushussu, symbolic animal and servant of Marduk, patron god of Babylon;

the offspring of Eve who will crush the serpent’s head is Cyrus the Persian, ‘Yahweh’s chosen instrument,’ who captured Babylon, claimed triumph over its god Bel—a conflation of Marduk, Mushussu, and other gods, by this time worshipped as Bel the dragon—and allowed the captives to return to Jerusalem;

and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden represents the fall of the neo-Babylonian empire to the Persian empire.

In this reading, the people whom the story primarily addresses—the people who worship Yahweh—bear both good and evil fruit in their lives, by their very nature.

In this reading, human mortality and human capacity for wickedness are not consequences of a fall from grace, from a primordial state of innocence, but, rather, are fundamental to human creatureliness: both our mortality, and our capacity for both good and evil, tell us of our dependency on God, to live at all, and to live in such a way that life may flourish.

This reading does not in any way deny the need for divine judgement, or deliverance.

It does, however, problematise both an anthropology that sees humans as fundamentally evil, and an anthropology that sees humans as fundamentally good.

 

A word

 

Some thoughts on policing...and pastoring.

[1] You don’t get praise for doing your job without sexually assaulting people. That’s just doing your job.

[2] You don’t get to resent not getting praise for doing your job without sexually assaulting people. That’s just creepy.

[3] You don’t get a free pass, or even extra points, for doing a job that asks you to step into contexts others would not step into. That is true of any job that comes with a uniform, and many that don’t. And it provides cover for abuse (“If you had to deal with the level of crap we deal with day after day, you’d need to ‘let off steam’ sometimes, to...”).

[4] You don’t get to respond to valid concerns and legitimate calls for culture change and systemic reform by making out that you are the victim. You don’t get to sulk about having your feelings hurt. You don’t get to trot out that ‘one bad apple’ BS. If you want to own celebration of all that is good, you need also to own lament and true repentance over all that is evil.

[5] This is not an attack. It is a word to the wise.

 

Lament and repent

 

I am devastated by the report published today into the extent of child abuse by French Catholic priests from the 1950s to the present day, as I am by the sins of my own Church of England. The headlines are truly horrific.

According to the authors of the report, the only context in France where a child is in greater danger of abuse than in the Church is within their own family and circle of family friends. This, too, is salutary.

Like police officers who sexually abuse women (in England and Wales there were 1,500 accusations of sexual misconduct against police officers between 2012 and 2018, and this is undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg, for not only are such assaults under-reported, but who is going to trust the police to police themselves?) these priests are not the exceptional ‘one bad apple,’ but evidence of a far wider problem. Human beings are not, as we want to believe, fundamentally good. Human beings—priests, family and friends, police officers, everybody, every body—are fundamentally capable of great good and great evil, of moral courage and moral cowardice.

These are not monsters, to reassure ourselves of our moral superiority; nor a cancer that can be removed by violence without perpetuating more violence, including sexual violence. They are devastating examples of what happens when we turn away from the light. All the more devastating when they hold any office that purports to represent light. And in response, we should lament the state in which we find ourselves, and repent of our complicity.

Both actions, lamentation and repentance, presuppose a centre of the moral universe outside of ourselves, before whom we are accountable, by whom we might be saved from ourselves, through whom that which is good within us might draw strength, might even be raised from the dead.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

 

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Light / heavy

 


It is a beautiful day.

Not where I am.

Perhaps not where you are, either.

But for somebody, somewhere, the sun is shining, the stars are aligned, the kind of day when it is a joy to be alive.

Genesis describes the sky as a slab, a vault. The prophet Leonard Cohen sang There Is A Crack In Everything, That Is How The Light Gets In. There is a crack in the leaden sky as I walk beneath it, and a diffuse light is getting in, but mostly what the hairline cracks in the vault of the sky is letting in today is rain, the waters above the sky.

Genesis also speaks of the wind/Spirit/breath of God, of moving air as divine presence. Moreover, Genesis describes human beings as creatures made from the humus of the earth, animated by the breath of God. But today, there is no movement to the air, no wind to drive the heavy clouds that have settled in for the duration. Today there is no breath animating me, and I am clod-like, heavy, rain-soaked clay.

This is not to say that it is not a beautiful day, somewhere, nor that God does not breathe life, but simply to acknowledge the full range, and the horizon—at times expansive, at times closing in on us—of our experience as creatures within creation.

 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Cognitive dissonance

 

Today, a man, known jokingly by his colleagues as ‘the Rapist,’ has been sentenced to life imprisonment for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard.

Today, also, as in many days since the start of the football season, the morning news was full of the on-pitch finesse of a man accused by at least three women of having raped them.

The defence is always “whatever happened to ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty’?” But presumed innocent until proven guilty is not a statement of fact. If a man rapes a woman, he is guilty of rape from that moment. If a man kidnaps or murders a woman, he is guilty of kidnap and/or murder, not innocent until that guilt is proven. Presumed innocent until proven guilty sets out a legal process, in which the cards are stacked in favour of the accused. And there are, perhaps, good reasons to uphold this principle; but it is a principle that can be easily abused.

Very few rape cases come to trial, largely because the ‘justice’ system subjects the women who need justice to incredible trauma. The most powerful football player on earth can engage lawyers who will present these women with a choice: be crucified by us in court, and by hundreds of thousands of trolls on social media, or accept compensation out of court, in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement. This is the closest to justice you can hope for. What should such women do?

An out of court settlement and NDA is an admission of guilt without consequence. (Sure, there is a financial consequence, but one easily absorbed.) Guilt without being held to account. Without having to face up to one’s actions. Because there was insufficient evidence to meet the legal threshold, in circumstances where such evidence is almost impossible. She said, he said.

When men perpetrate sexual violence against women (and yes, women perpetuate sexual violence against men, by how it is handled by society is different) we rally round to recast the victim as predatory gold-digger and the perpetrator as victim. And when we hold up these ‘wickedly wronged’ men as role-models, we tell less famous, less wealthy, less powerful men, this is how to treat women. This is what you ought to aspire to.

I hope that today feels like some kind of justice for the family of Sarah Everard. I hope that there are some very uncomfortable conversations within the Met, and that they lead to genuine culture change. But when I look at the bigger picture, I don't see the will, among men, to help make the world a better place, in which all can flourish.


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Maturity

 

Some thoughts on the Gospel reading set for Harvest:

Matthew 6:25-33

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’

 

[1] ‘And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?’ The word lifespan, hēlikian, contains within the scope of its meaning ‘maturity,’ and ‘stature’. The observation here, then, is that anxiety does not produce maturity. That anxiety, as seed, does not produce maturity as harvest. A harvest, a culmination, of maturity requires a different seed.

 

[2] God is not anxious, does not sow seeds of anxiety.

 

[3] Jesus points to God’s reliable activity in relation to the birds of the air and the flowers of the earth. From this, the human, the creature made of and for the earth and the air—soil humus fashioned by God, and animated by the breath of God—is to extrapolate meaning. (That is, the choice of birds and flowers as examples is not random.)

 

[4] God is not anxious. Yes, I know I have said this already. See also [7]

 

[5] God provides food for the birds and clothes for the flowers. This addresses two very specific anxieties. In Jesus’ culture, in marriage vows husbands committed themselves to provide their wife with food and wool/yarn/cloth, and wives committed themselves to turn these into meals and clothes—we might share the labour of love differently, but the principle of partnership remains—and each committed sexual and emotional faithfulness to the other. We know that of Jesus’ disciples at least one, Peter, was married, and called away from the family business, the most obvious means of fulfilling his marriage vows. As the progenitor of birds and flowers and humans, God is our Father—and Mother—in heaven; but as provider of food for the birds and clothes for the flowers and whatever is to be extrapolated for the humans, God is our spouse, husband—and wife—to creation. The primary thing we do not need to worry about is God’s faithfulness, God’s covenant commitment to us. To be non-anxious, which is to display true maturity or stature, flows from knowing this.

 

[6] The life God calls out of us—and the life God calls us out from—is held in covenant love. The soil and the breath, and the creature formed of the two, the mystery of life, and the interdependence between all life—when this flourishes, it is called ‘righteousness’—these things are all cherished. This is the seed that produces maturity.

 

[7] God is a (the) non-anxious presence in our lives. What God has spoken will not return void, what God has planted will bear fruit, what God has sown will produce harvest. All in rhythms and cycles, as God has created the world.

 

[8] ‘But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness [or, for the kingdom and its righteousness], and all these things will be given to you as well.’ This righteousness is the alignment of ‘cosmos’—the world as we experience it—and ‘ethos’—the world as it ought to be. Sometimes the ‘cosmos’ pulls away from God’s ‘ethos,’ resulting in injustice, in an inequitable distribution of resources. Sometimes our ‘ethos’ pulls away from God’s ‘cosmos,’ as when we seek to secure harvests that, through our ingenuity and ‘work-ethic,’ violate the cycles of nature, exhausting the earth. Where we learn to see and commit to the nearer-alignment of our ‘cosmos’ and ‘ethos’ with God’s, there life flourishes.

 

[9] How might we ‘strive’ [search for, desire, demand] for such alignment, in a non-anxious way? Perhaps through paying attention to small things, as signs of the First thing, or thing from which the kind of life in which all life flourishes, flows. In this way, we might keep First things first.

 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A drenching

 

Yesterday, I travelled to attend a gathering of clergy colleagues from across Durham Diocese, seeking to encourage one another in how we might share the good news of Jesus Christ with some of the 99.2% of the population of our region who are not part of any church. As my train approached the station, it began to rain. As I stepped onto the station platform, the heavens opened. With nowhere to shelter, I had no option but to head to the church where we were meeting, four minutes’ walk away. By the time I arrived, I was soaked to the skin. I could not have been wetter had I stood under my bathroom shower, fully clothed. It was a miserable start to the day, but one that made me utterly dependent on the hospitality of others, and in that there was greater blessing.

This coming Sunday, one of the churches I serve is marking Harvest. In previous years, this has been a major celebration. Every windowsill has been dressed in floral glory. The cubs and scouts, brownies and guides, have attended, parading flags. The food donations of a community have been brought forward, gathered together, for distribution to those in need. This year, while we shall be supporting two local organisations we partner with, harvest will be on a far smaller scale, something that is a cause of sadness. Deeper than that, it is a cause of shame.

The Old Testament reading set for harvest this year is taken from the prophet Joel. The context is one of successive failure of the harvest, due to invasions of locusts. This is the context in which Joel is called to share good news, a word of encouragement that is good news for the soil, for the land and for the human, the creature made of soil. God’s loving-kindness drives out fear, and in its place, joy follows.

Joel helps the community to see God’s goodness towards them in the failure of the harvest, and in the bounty of the harvest. This is a key insight for us to grasp. Harvests are vulnerable, expose our vulnerability. The bringing-in of a full harvest is, indeed, a cause for celebration. But the failure of a harvest to materialise, due to flooding or drought or disease, invites us to identity with those whose survival is tenuous, with those more closely tied to a local harvest that is more greatly impacted upon by a global environmental crisis. The inconvenience of bare shelves at the supermarket invites us to reconsider the idol we have made of convenience, and all we have sacrificed to that god. A more sparse collection to carry to the food bank invites us to consider afresh the systemic injustice that necessitates their existence. And all of this gives us cause to recognise our own frailty, our dependency on others.

God is in the harvest devoured by locusts, as well as in the harvest that fills the barns. Lament and repentance and hope and praise and celebration are all part of the experience of faith, of walking through life with God, of becoming progressively aware of God with us in all circumstances.

The passage from Joel concludes with the declaration, repeated for emphasis, that God will deal with his children’s shame. The experience of shame is that profound sense of being ‘not enough,’ and God’s response to shame is to cleanse us of it. Hence the imagery of abundant rain, poured down (and my recounting being soaked to the skin). Apart from God, we are not enough; but God obliterates our self-sufficiency in a gracious flood that renews the earth, the creature made from the soil.

99.2% of the population of the northeast are missing from our churches. For those who remain—for the most part the remnant of a generation who were brought up going to church and who met their spouses through church youth and social groups—this abandonment is a cause of shame. But they were beautiful in their time, and something new will be beautiful in its time. This community flourished as a church plant, in response to changing times, eighty years ago; and some new form will flourish again.

The best thing I can do for this people is to speak peace to their fear; to remind them of God’s goodness, loving-kindness over the years, both lean and full; to declare cleansing for shame; and hope for a future, that extends beyond what will see us out; to point to the signs of God in our midst, however small or strange those signs might be.

And no, it does not cause me worry that our Harvest will be small this year. God will yet deal wondrously.

 

Joel 2:21-27

‘Do not fear, O soil;

be glad and rejoice,

for the Lord has done great things!

Do not fear, you animals of the field,

for the pastures of the wilderness are green;

the tree bears its fruit,

the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

 

‘O children of Zion, be glad

and rejoice in the Lord your God;

for he has given the early rain for your vindication,

he has poured down for you abundant rain,

the early and the later rain, as before.

The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,

the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

 

‘I will repay you for the years

that the swarming locust has eaten,

the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,

my great army, which I sent against you.

 

‘You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,

and praise the name of the Lord your God,

who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,

and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.

And my people shall never again

be put to shame.’

 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Friendship

 


I’ve been thinking about friendship, what it does, why we need it, why we find it so hard to make and sustain such relationships—especially, perhaps, as we get older.

And, on Sunday evenings, we’ve been watching Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone fishing (series 4, BBC2) in which comedians Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse travel around the UK, going fishing, and having gentle conversations about life and growing older. Paul obviously knows more about fishing than Bob, but you don’t need to know—or even care much—about fishing to appreciate this study in sustaining friendship.

Robert Alter translates Genesis 2:18 in this way:

And the LORD God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.”

adding the Commentary:

sustainer beside him. The Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo (King James Version “help meet”) is notoriously difficult to translate. The second term means “alongside him,” “opposite him,” “a counterpart to him.” “Help” is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.


It is not good for the human to be alone, so God provides another. At this stage in the story, there is not yet gender differentiation: though we will come to a man and a woman—which will then be further related to marriage—even more fundamentally than that, here is the intended relationship between people. Any people.

I shall make him a sustainer beside him. The word beside can also express opposite, counterpart. It can refer to the two corresponding banks of a river. Hence the image of Mortimer and Whitehouse, standing alongside one another on one bank of a river flowing past them, casting a line towards the other side. And the wider the banks are apart, the greater the body of water they hold between them. As it matures, the capacity of such a relationship—whether a marriage or any friendship—to hold blessing for others grows. It carves out space to the benefit not only of the friends themselves but for life in its wider sense. Friendship shapes, and helps sustain, the world in which it is found.

So Bob and Paul mess about on the river bank, or on a boat on a lake, or on the sea shore, fishing. And in the evenings, they ask questions of one another, about life, their childhoods, their experience of growing older, where they still find wonder in the world, what gives them joy. They relate to one another in a way that is sustaining, they intervene for one another. In their conversation, casting out a line, a float bobbing on the apparently inconsequential surface, only to be pulled into the deep and moving, out of nowhere, if you have the patience; then reeled in, perhaps too rushed, an insight getting away before it can be examined closely, others held in the hand, enjoyed for its beauty, released back into the wild, carried off by the stream.

If you want to understand friendship, you could do a lot worse than watch Mortimer & Whitehouse.

 

Dog dirt days

 

There’s an enormous pile on dog dirt on the cycle path, that must have been left by a large dog, a Mastiff perhaps. It has been lying there for several days, slowly drying out, cracking open. As I passed by today, a shimmer of fat flies were at work on the carcass, jewel-like in the sun, flashing bright emerald. At my approach, the cloud dispersed; returning soon, I’m certain.

Flies, like rats, who also deal with waste, get bad press. ‘Spreaders of disease,’ we feel uneasy about them. Yet the flies were only doing exactly as they were commissioned to do by their Creator, work dignified by a bejewelled uniform. If anyone was at fault, it is the owner of the dog. Flies breaking down waste, spiders containing the fly population. There’s a delicate but ever-so-strong web of connection, of interdependency, that holds all living things together. Each has their place and purpose. The human, alone, forgets theirs.

 

Derailed

 



Sometimes, a fallen leaf is all it takes to stop you in your tracks.

Everyday beauty on the cycle path.

(It is a shame about the fly-tipping, done by those who fail to notice beauty, and so are unable to cherish it.)

 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

On drugs

 

Yesterday, we were visited by some neighbouring pub landlords. They had suffered some significant destruction to their property over the weekend, had reason to believe that the addicts sleeping rough in our grounds were responsible, and they were understandably angry. What were we doing about it, they asked? The answer is, we are working with the City Council, the police, and several agencies, to address a complex situation, for which we are all under-resourced.

People go to pubs for the same reason that they take classified drugs, or attempt suicide: to numb their pain, and forget about their worries. Pub landlords are licenced drug dealers, of regulated drugs. So, too, are GPs and pharmacists.

Drug addiction, with its antisocial behaviour and cost to society, is a whole-of-society issue, and one fuelled by an every-man-for-himself isolationist outlook. Carrying more than we can bear; self-medicating; turning away. To be in deep despair and look over the road and see pubs full of people numbing their pain, indifferent to your pain, while others make a profit from it all; well! Is destructive rampage justifiable? No, absolutely not; and this is a matter for the police. But is it understandable? Yes, I believe that it is. And if we fail to understand, if we refuse to attempt to understand, we show ourselves to be part of the problem, not the engagement with addressing the problem.

Neither rough sleeping nor drug addiction are inevitable in our society; they are symptoms of a breakdown we are all complicit in, and can address, together. There are no easy answers, or quick fixes; no naïve happy-ever-afters. But it begins with admitting that I can do nothing on my own, but need the help of a greater power. It begins, and ends, with Love.

 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Scandals in the Church

 

Having been chastised for posting sermon notes after-the-event, I thought I’d take a march on this coming weekend. The Gospel set for Holy Communion next Sunday is Mark 9:38-50.

I’m not sure where the rendering ‘stumbling-block’ comes from. The Greek is skandalizó, to cause to stumble—from which we get our word scandal—and is repeated several times over. It is relevant due to the monotonous regularity with which overseers of the church are found to be guilty of some scandal: of abuse, in one form or another, of members of their congregation.

When Jesus speaks of throwing that person into the sea with a millstone hung around their neck, he seems to be playing on the little (micron) status of believers and the small size of the seed, a favourite symbol of Jesus for transformative faith. That is to say, the scandal that causes people of faith to stumble in their faith is the scandal of those who have power and authority devouring others for the satisfaction of their own personal appetite. Again and again, this has led people to walk away from the Church, often wounded, angry, and with a sense of shame or bewilderment.

Jesus is not speaking of literal mutilation, nor of a place of eternal post-mortem punishment. Rather, he is speaking of the seriousness with which the scandal of abuse, in all its forms, must be taken. It is not only better to enter-into the lived experience of God’s rule, maimed; arguably, it is only possible to enter at all as a disabled community. I know of no attempt to sustain a scandal-less community—whether in the Church or any other society—that has ever succeeded. The alternative scenario is a body thrown on the municipal rubbish tip, where fire consumes waste and worms break down whatever remains. The end goal of these processes is to minimise the spread of disease, and to return whatever is salvageable to a humus from which life can spring again. It is, in fact, a form of redemption, but one that comes at a cost Jesus would spare us of, if we would only listen.

The tragedy is that, over and over again, the Church chooses to control its reputation over confronting scandal. To play the game of determining who is on the inside, in the in crowd, and who we attempt to silence, to ostracise. It is a repeated scandal.

And yet, it is in being brought face to face with the internal inconsistency between the gospel we proclaim and the way we behave, that we might be refined by the refiner.

 

Greatness revisited

 

The Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today, Mark 12:28-34, picks up where the Gospel reading set for Holy Communion yesterday left off, pondering greatness.

Here, the context really is one of dispute, or argument (suzéteó) as opposed to debate (dialogizomai). And the argument is brought to an end by a consideration of what is the ‘first’ and ‘greatest’ commandment—the one from which all instruction flows, which all instruction follows; the one with the widest, all-encompassing, scope.

Jesus responds that the first commandment is this, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and will all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ With the unity of being the God in whose likeness we are created possesses.

But Jesus continues, ‘The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’

Second. deuteros: that which is in second place, which follows the first in procession; and also, for a second time—a re-telling of the first, as Deuteronomy is a re-telling of the Law given in Exodus.

In other words, loving our neighbour as ourselves is both evidence that we are loving God harmoniously, and a re-iteration of the commandment from which all others flow. Not something secondary, but the omega that completes what the alpha initiates. The first and last word.

 

Woman of strength

 

Yesterday, I preached on Proverbs 31:10-31.

I spoke about how the role of the often contradictory conventional wisdom of Proverbs and raw wisdom of Job and subversive wisdom of Ecclesiastes is not to provide us with simple answers but to lead us into wonder.

I spoke of how the wisdom of the Proverbs culminates in an acrostic poem on the theme of the woman of strength. And of how in many Jewish families, this poem is said or sung at the Friday night meal at which they celebrate the arrival of the Sabbath. Of how these verses are understood, allegorically, to speak of the Sabbath—the Queen of days—and of the feminine expression of the divine presence; and that they are sung as a recognition of the Sabbath itself, but also as a hymn of thanksgiving in honour of the female head of the house, in appreciation.

I spoke of the redemption of relationship between woman and man, and human and work (both these things being somewhat lost in translation). Of light in the darkness, and warmth in the cold, and confidence in doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

I reflected on the relationship between Jewish and Christian tradition; on the Holy Spirit as divine presence, sometimes associated with the feminine expression of God in whose likeness male and female were created; and on the Church as both Bride of Christ and Body of Christ; and what the Spirit might be saying to the Church through this text on this, our holy day of rest and worship.

I pondered the invitation to honour the women of our congregation; and to renew our sense of the specialness of this day as the weekly arrival of Christ among us; and to participate in the task of bringing our cosmos—the world as it is—more closely aligned to our ethos—the world as it should be.

And afterwards, someone came up to me and said, “I am going home to tell my wife about Proverbs, and that she should obey them.”

Sigh.

Lest we judge, he is hardly alone. And lest we are tempted to believe that this is precisely the dangerous problem with religious texts, we would be wise to recognise that the same issues face scientific texts, or histories. If we reject one category, we should probably reject all texts; which is, of course, the logical end of hyper individualism.

I believe in the role of texts and of study and of sermons (and other forms of public speaking in general). But what shapes us is embodied practices, repeated over and over. A shared meal. A shared song. Family traditions, that cultivate wonder and thankfulness. Traditions we will push against, but find our way back to.

Such traditions are hard to maintain, in an age of digitally enhanced separation, an age in which cosmos and ethos pull apart. They are hard, also, to invent from scratch. But build them, we must.

Here’s to the women of strength! And to all who are strengthened through being graced with such presence in our lives.

Photos: Proverbs 31:10-31, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter

 




Sunday, September 19, 2021

On greatness

 

The Gospel reading set for today is Mark 9:30-37.

In my English translation, we read that Jesus’ disciples were arguing about who, among them, was greatest. But the Greek word rendered as an argument is dialogizomai, from which we get our English word ‘dialogue’. It means, I reason (with), debate (with), consider. They are having a considered debate as to who is greatest.

The word translated ‘greatest’ carries a range of meaning, including who is senior by age, or what is widest in scope. As someone who regularly runs with people younger than myself, or whose girth is considerably more slender than mine, I can pride myself in being the greatest runner in the pack, even if I will never be the fastest. Seriously though, a considered debate on greatness depends on the metrics we measure, and whether or not we can agree on those metrics.

Jesus does not dismiss their argument, so much as enter-into their debating (having, apparently, been kept out of it up till now: no-one wants the sure favourite in the room when you are debating who is greatest). And his contribution for their consideration is that whoever wants to be first must be last of all. Whoever would be the protos—the first in a procession, enabling others to follow—must be the eschatos—the end of all things, its summing up to completion.

The one possessing the greatest width is the one who is the Alpha and the Omega (first and last letters of the Greek alphabet), the Beginning and the End—to employ a title by which the Church would come to honour Jesus.

In the context of the preceding verses, in which Jesus is attempting to prepare his disciples for what is to come, that Jesus will be killed and, three days later, rise again, the protos and eschatos is the one who will lead the way passing from death to life, in whom none who follow shall be lost.

Jesus, the pack leader who both leads the pack out, and regularly regroups to keep those running at the back from falling away.

Greatness is no bad thing to aspire to, nor something to be embarrassed about. But if you are going to go down as one of the greats, be known as great for what you did for others, for how you inspired and empowered them, folding them into something greater than the sum of all our parts.