Thursday, July 29, 2021

Waters

 

I’ve been thinking about water over recent days.

The epic poem with which the Bible opens speaks of God drawing the conditions for life out of chaos. Three bio-spheres are established—sea and land and sky—within which, every element, every possible form of life, can find its place.

But what of water? Water is found in the seas. But it also falls from the skies. And permeates through the rocks of the earth. Water expresses itself as liquid and gas and solid. It rises from the oceans salty, and falls on the plains fresh. Water bubbles up in springs and gathers in lakes and roars in waterfalls and mighty rivers. It blurs the edges of distinct bio-spheres in mangroves and marshes and swamps. Water cleaves together tightly, refusing to be separated—without excessive violence against its being—in the earth’s ice caps and glaciers, for thousands of years of fidelity. Water makes up some 70% of human beings, the creatures drawn (and there is irony here) from the clay of the earth. It leaks from us in tears, and sweat. And, provoked by those who dwell in houses of clay, water can be unleashed in powerfully destructive ways, as we have seen, yet again, in recent days.

In what expression is water true to the divine imagination? Surely in all of her expressions.

And what of human beings, those who dwell in houses of clay? According to that epic poem, the same divine imagination that gave purpose to water appointed human beings to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. Where, in the context of God’s work, subdue must mean, resist chaos and create the conditions that allow life to flourish—primarily, in context, through migration and agriculture.

To multiply requires fertile males and females; but that does not mean that infertile couples, and no-longer fertile couples, and gay couples, and single people live outside of God’s imagination for humanity. It simply means that not every given human being fulfils every aspect of a true humanity in the same way. There is far more to being a community that experiences fruitful lives than procreation.

Moreover, a humanity that is true to the divine imagination must involve migration. Not conquering other people groups by colonisation, not overwhelming others like a flood, but nonetheless the continual movement of people groups, like ever-shifting water-courses refreshing the tired land. Again, in that ancient text of Genesis, we see God push the overly-settled out: of Eden, from Babel, from Ur. We do not possess the land we live on, but share a common oversight of the whole Earth.

Whether we read poetry too narrowly, or define anthropology too narrowly on any other basis, we are likely to fall short of the blessing God intends for creation. We are likely to exchange friendship with God for being like God: like God, whose friends turned away.

Psalm 42 speaks of water, both as the life-giving streams that flow in the wilderness places frequented by deer and through our own internal dry places, and as the breakers and waves of a cosmic deep that somehow is also experienced within the psalmist’s own body. Perhaps if we are to learn how to be more fully human, we need to listen to the waters around us, and within us.

 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Cry

 

At this time of year, the gulls who nest on the cliff-like tall buildings of the city centre are at their most raucous. Juveniles calling to their mothers, mother gulls calling to their young. It is loud and incessant and totally lacking the musicality of garden bird song; and it is the easiest thing in the world to allow ourselves to be irritated by it.

And so today, I made the conscious decision to decline the invitation to irritation, to say no to irritability, and, instead, to listen, to pay attention, in hope of hearing what I was missing.

As my ear attuned itself, what I heard was the sound of dependency, and the responding sound of encouragement. Utterances expressing something deeper than words (or tune) can express.

What I heard was the cry of the heart of all creation—including but so much more than the cry of the human heart—and the corresponding call of the heart of God.

 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Anne and Joachim

 

Today the Church of England remembers Anne and Joachim, the maternal grandparents of Jesus. They aren’t mentioned in the Gospels, which do not concern themselves with the childhood of their daughter, Mary. While the stories told about them are late, and utterly unreliable, their names pass down to us because Mary was not a storybook character lifted off the virgin page but a flesh and blood person, at the heart of the early Church: her story was known, if not written down.

This year we remember Anne and Joachim against a backdrop of the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and a great many little interviews with the families—back home—of our medal hopefuls. Parents and grandparents, who have invested in their daughter or son for a lifetime, un-noticed, unheralded, that they might shine. Unable to witness their triumphs in person; unable to console them in defeat. These little interviews are a nation’s thank you. As is the Church’s commemoration of Anne and Joachim.

Today is a day to celebrate grandparents, without whom we are—literally—nothing; and the investment of ‘spiritual grandparents in the faith,’ whom we may never have known, but whose story shapes our own.

 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Prayer

 

From the window on the half-landing at the turn of the stairs, I look down in the path below and note two blackbirds, side by side, both facing the edging stone that rises to the lawn, their heads bowing and bobbing.

It put me in mind of the fathers and sons I had seen, stood side by side before the Western Wall in Jerusalem, dressed in black. Fathers teaching their sons in prayer. Sons responding to their father’s invitation, modelling their own lives after their pattern. Intimate moments. Holy moments to see, not as a voyeur but as a witness.

And so I pause on the half-landing to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, to give thanks for my own daughter and sons, to reflect on what I model for them, and to bless the birds.

 

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Surprised by joy

 

Silksworth parkrun ends with a long, steep bank. For some, it is a killer, having already run four-and-a-half kilometres. But for quite a few, something happens at the bottom of that bank. Knowing the run is almost done, their hearts rise to the challenge. With renewed vigour, they take it in their stride. We used to start and end half-way up that bank. Today someone told me that they used to find that a killer; but that they had never found having to run the full way as hard, and I agree (I think not starting up hill helps).

Today, we were able to return to parkrun, after a break of a-year-and-a-half. Around 160 runners and volunteers turned out. And it was joyful. Joy, written on the smiles and, in some cases, tears, on 160 faces. And for me, the joy of being able to welcome them back, as Run Director this morning. As I surveyed the scene at the finish, I was deeply thankful.

Joy is the emotional response to wellbeing, and also to the realization of desire. When we experience wellbeing, our hearts lift up, are strengthened, and overflow. Joy enables us to face the challenge—to get up that bank—for wellbeing is not the absence of challenge, but the presence of harmony, within ourselves and among a group We all need to experience joy, not least in the face of ongoing challenges, and today, at parkrun, we did.

This joyful response is not a throwing of caution to the wind. The return of parkrun has been the culmination of many long months of careful planning, of implementing adaptations to practice in order to make the event as secure as possible. And it was great to see everyone embrace that today, marshals and runners alike, all playing their part in keeping one another safe—wellbeing: harmony between people in a community.

If you need some joy in your life, you might find it walking, jogging, or running 5K at 9.00 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

 

Friday, July 23, 2021

Kindness

 

I have a watch that it gives me a great deal of pleasure to wear. I bought it on a trip to America when Jo was pregnant with Susie, so I must have had it for about twenty-one years now; and a few days ago, the leather glue that holds the buckle gave out, and the watch fell apart, sliding off my wrist.

There is an amazing businessman here in England called Sir John Timpson. He owns a chain of over 2000 little stores where you can go to get keys cut or shoes repaired. They work with ex-offenders, offering 10% of their posts to people coming out of prison; and are generally considered to be a good employer. Along with his wife, who died a few years back, John Timpson fostered 90 children; and he remains involved in supporting charities working for child welfare.

I took my watch along to the local Timpson branch, to ask if they could repair it. The man who works there did, taking a stubby brush and painting the leather with glue, and blowing on it until it turned tacky, before pressing the leather together again.

It was a small job, using hardly any materials and taking only a few minutes’ time. But it meant a lot to me, a very great deal. I asked if I could give him anything for it, and he refused any payment.

That matters. It matters that there are people who are willing to do something, however seemingly small—small things often having great impact, as today—free of charge. It matters that people should not expect this—for, had I done so, it would not have been freely given—and that when we are given such a gift, we should find a way to honour the one who gave it—again, not out of duty, not paying a debt in order to be freed from generosity, but freely, so that the economy of grace is held together, not by leather glue but by the glue of kindness.









Thursday, July 22, 2021

Spirals

 

Today is the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene. We do not know how or when this Mary first met Jesus. Her story, prior to that Beginning, is hidden from us in darkness. We do not need to know. We are told that Jesus delivered her from oppression by seven demons. That, like the cosmos itself that had become overwhelmed (we know not how or when or why) by life-threatening forces hostile to God’s goodness, her God-ordained goodness had been overpowered, her own God-ordained life threatened. That, just as God, intervening decisively, had declared, ‘Let there be light!’ so Jesus declared, let there be light! Let there be life. Let there be renewed hope, restored faith, let there be love. And it was so, and it was very good. Mary’s personal story reflects a cosmic pattern.

Who better, then, to be chosen as the first witness to the resurrection? To Jesus, overwhelmed by demonic powers of darkness, by death itself, called forth from the tomb to life that cannot be suppressed, by Love that undoes all overpowering and overcomes all overwhelming? Jesus, reflecting, participating in, the same pattern that Mary’s life knew. If anyone would come to recognise him, it was her.

Though it comes in different ways, in stories that may be hidden from our sight, only those who have known this pattern can bear true witness to the resurrection.

(If we are honest with ourselves, we have all known this pattern.)

 

Feast of Mary Magdalene

 

Today the Church celebrates Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, first witness to the resurrection, disciple of Jesus. We are told that her world had somehow fallen into a chaos that could only be described as demonic, from which Jesus had called out life, order, harmony, which she embraced even as it embraced her.

The account of Mary going to the tomb, finding it empty, desperately asking what had been done, where her lord had been carried off to, then finding herself standing in front of him, holding on to him, sent by him to his brothers, as told in John 20:1-2, 11-18 is paired in the Lectionary with Song of Solomon 3:1-4

‘Upon my bed at night

I sought him whom my soul loves;

I sought him, but found him not;

I called him, but he gave no answer.

 

‘I will rise now and go about the city,

in the streets and in the squares;

I will seek him whom my soul loves.’

I sought him, but found him not.

 

The sentinels found me,

as they went about in the city.

‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’

 

Scarcely had I passed them,

when I found him whom my soul loves.

I held him, and would not let him go

until I brought him into my mother’s house,

and into the chamber of her that conceived me.’

 

I am struck by that great question, ‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’ This is perhaps the first and greatest profession of witness to the resurrection. Not rushing to bring Jesus to others, but enquiring, where have you seen the beautiful presence of God walking through this city? What rumours have you heard of his passing by? What traces have been left in his wake? Please tell me, have you seen him whom my soul loves?

Only after this does the lover find her beloved. Indeed, she does so almost immediately, after enquiring, even of those who do not believe that they can help her, that they have an answer to offer, any hope to hold out.

And only then is the lover able to bring her beloved home. There is something startling about this. Culturally, we would expect the groom to take his bride to his mother’s house, his father’s house. But here, the bride takes the groom to her mother’s house.

Where is my mother’s house, and the chamber of the one who conceived me? It is, perhaps, I might suggest, the Church, the community of the saints, all the faithful. Jesus, told that his mother was standing outside, once replied, Who is my mother? The one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Not that wives are subservient to husbands, but, in mutual submission to one another, they are intended to be of one will. Those whose lives are at one with the Father are the Mother, as, in fact, modelled to us, embodied, by Mary the mother of Jesus. And by Mary Magdalene.

When we hear stories of God already out and about in our neighbourhood, then we find the one for whom our heart longs, the one in whom our soul is satisfied. And in response we bring that report back to our sisters and brothers, our mother, the Church. And in so doing we encounter Jesus, anew, in our midst.

Happy Feast of Mary Magdalene!

 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Grace

 

I went to put the bin out tonight, and was surprised by the sky and the moon, so impossibly blue and so brilliantly orange, so perfect a fit together. I hadn’t known, hadn’t planned to stop everything and take in the moon, hanging there, framed by the roof tops across the street from my front door. I hadn’t known that I needed to pause, to give thanks. Everything is grace.

 

Fragmentary

 





There’s a small plinth outside Sunderland University’s Fine Art building for displaying a rolling programme of work. Currently on display, Su Devine’s Fragmentary, a mother’s blouse and young girl’s dress, cast in what to my utterly untrained eye looks like fibreglass.

It speaks to me of the adventurous relationship between God’s trustworthy, playful Spirit, and my trusting, playful spirit—or, at least, the possibility, a mystery experienced infrequently, in small and indeed fragmentary moments when I dare to be present to the One who is fully present, if invisible, hiding in plain view.

I could wander off the direct path and stand in front of it for hours, minutes, outside of time passing—and today, I did.

 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

As long as it takes

 

This morning when I got up at my usual 6.15 a.m. my teenage son was already awake. This is unusual. Normally, he remains in bed until lunchtime. But in an attempt (whether wise, or other-wise) to re-set his broken body clock, he had stayed up all night. And now he decided to make pancakes for breakfast.

He is a good cook, but a slow one. And so, on the offer of pancakes, I passed on my habitual bowl of cereal and waited. And waited. And a little after 8.00 a.m. I sat down to a substantial plate of pancakes. (Too late for Jo, who has to set off on her commute to work by 8.00 a.m.)

My son’s gift to me today was not only—not even primarily—pancakes, but, rather, the invitation to rediscover what children know and have squeezed out of them: that things take as long as they take.

I’m not saying we can ignore the clock. I have agreed to take a funeral at 12.15 p.m. today, and I cannot turn up at 2.00 p.m. and say, “Hey, I’m here now, that’s just how long it took.” Moreover, there is genuine benefit in regular rhythms—the very thing my son is trying to re-set and re-establish with his sleep. Be that as it may, we do violence to ourselves, to the essence of our very being, and to the personhood of others, when we try to conform the world to a divided- and divided-up diary schedule. This must happen at such an hour, and be done by such a time. This church community must look different in this and this and that ways within such and such a timescale.

What God is up to in the world takes place in God’s sweet time. It takes as long as it takes. It is gift. Perhaps not the gift we want, but something even better than we could ask for or imagine.

 

Show mercy

 

Later today I am taking a funeral, at which I have been asked to read the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It is, I think, a relatively well-known story, though an unfamiliar one in the context of a funeral. And yet, it is fitting.

The painful, disorienting experience of being bereaved can be compared, by way of analogy, to being beaten, stripped, and left as good as dead on the side of the road. And at such times we may find that some of the people, places, or even memories we would have expected to support us are unwilling or unable to do so. People are embarrassed; don’t know what to say; are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Even so, God comes to us, in and through unexpected means, cleaning our open wounds, binding our broken hearts, carrying us. Also drawing others into the narrative of our slow recovery, perhaps for the first time or in a new dynamic.

At times, we find ourselves the man left to die on the side of the road. Robbed of our self-sufficiency as well as our loved one—humiliated—we must rely on the mercy of strangers. Must learn, also, to forgive those who stand at a distance. At times, God invites us to be the innkeeper in one another’s story, to be the one through whom ongoing support is given—and this is a holy mystery, that God should use any one of us in this way. In such other-focused ways we step, or stumble, into the fullness of life.

Where have you found yourself, or where do you find yourself, in the parable? In what unexpected form has God come to you?

 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Sons and daughters

 

Today, the mandatory measures introduced for the common good in a pandemic are lifted in England, becoming a matter of personal choice.

The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today is Ezekiel 14:12-23. In it, God sets out four possible consequences that a nation might bring upon itself by acting in bad faith according to God’s concern for the land, the poor, the most vulnerable, and the foreigner. These consequences are listed as famine, being over-run by wild animals, sword (war), and pestilence (epidemic). In each circumstance, God invokes the names of three characters from ancient mythology known for being righteous, or living in right relationship with their neighbours, against a backdrop of widespread self-interest: Noah, Danel (not the biblical figure Daniel, despite the English translation), and Job. Even if these righteous individuals were found in such a land, God says, they would save only their own lives, and not be able to save others, even the lives of their children.

Then God asks, and what will happen when my chosen city of Jerusalem brings judgement upon itself? Here, God’s own righteousness will extend to sparing sons and daughters, and these will be spared by their being carried off into exile, a second wave joining the already-exiled community of which Ezekiel belongs.

What of my people, today? Our bad faith has brought about catastrophic climate change, weather patterns that are now impacting even the wealthy West; has brought about a new mass extinction; has sold weapons and sown instability across in particular the Middle East. All these things have exacerbated human migration, people seeking asylum, which will only increase in the coming years; yet at this very time, we have turned our back on our neighbours, cutting foreign aid and making it illegal to seek asylum (something guaranteed under international law). And today, in a pandemic, we take steps that threaten to destabilise the global course of this disease.

What future, for our sons and daughters? Perhaps, as before, exile is their only hope.

Lord, have mercy.

 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Rest

 

Without a doubt, my favourite day of the week is Friday. My day off, when I am not available to work.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my vocation—seeking to attend to God and the lived experience of my neighbours and wider currents in society (how we relate to one another) and culture (the artefacts we create to express ourselves and what matters to us, to explore and engage with the big questions of life and the challenges we face) and attempting to articulate what I hear.

But it is rest that makes it all worthwhile.

The need for rest is enshrined in the Ten Words (also known as the Ten Commandments), which form a constitution for a new society. These words are given twice, in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. They are essentially the same on both occasions, the exception being the word concerning a day of rest in every seven.

In Exodus 20:8-11, this word is rooted in creation, in the lived experience of God, who, having established harmony in six creative acts, rested on the seventh day, in order to delight in what he saw. Rest, like, work, is a creative act. The fruit of work, not only mine but the contribution of every other element, from the tiny beetle that sparkles like a jewel in the sun, to that of my fellow humans.

In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, this same word is rooted in deliverance from slavery, in the lived experience of the people being brought into being by God, drawing the necessary conditions for life to flourish out from the chaos that threatens to overwhelm life. In other words, this is a continuation of the so-called creation narrative, of the rhythms first established ‘in the beginning,’ in Genesis 1.

The Hebrews in Egypt were not like the race-based chattel slaves of more recent times. Their experience was comparable to that of their Egyptian neighbours, who were also slaves of Pharaoh; and the Hebrews themselves had slaves. It is an experience much more comparable to being an employee today, which can be under positive or negative conditions; but regular, dependable rest was absent, as it is for so many today.

Rest enables me to re-set. To look back and take delight on all that has been good. To know that there are limits on all that is deeply frustrating, on work that remains outstanding, because work is ongoing. Therefore, rest resists the lie that we must get it all done before we can rest. Or the lie that our identity and value is found solely in our work, in our economic contribution, rather than in being human in this world, a creature with a whole creation to enjoy. And rest confronts the lie that it all depends on me, that I am some kind of saviour. Rest invites me to enjoy a whole other creative act in the company of God and of my neighbours.

I love Fridays. Lying in my hammock, reading a novel. Or sitting on the sofa, watching a box set, with Jo. Perhaps going for a walk. Almost always, these days, a run in the early evening, with friends. Good food. A bottle of wine.

 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Exiled

 

The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today was Ezekiel 12:1-16. In it, the exile Ezekiel is instructed to act out the experience of being an exile before a community of exiles, in carrying an exile’s baggage and digging through the city wall.

When our marriage breaks down, when our kid gets given that life-changing diagnosis, when we are made redundant or our home is repossessed, and in countless other such ways, we find ourselves, in a sense, exiles. No longer living in the life we had known, up till then, and unable ever to go back to the time before.

And, despite the fact that we are surrounded by other exiles—for marriages break down, children die before their time, careers are lost, and so it goes on, all the time, all around us—we find ourselves invisible, the other exiles studiously failing to see us. To acknowledge our exile’s baggage—for to do so would be a painful reminder of their own. To acknowledge the sheer hard work of grief, the needing to find our own way through it, the habitual path and practice of others simply blocked to us at least for now.

God says to Ezekiel, they might notice, or perhaps they won’t. Do it anyway. Carry your baggage and dig your way through the wall. I see you. I will give you strength. You shall find me in that place, and, with me, what is needful for the moment. And, in time, new life.

 

Exiles

 

The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today is Ezekiel 12:1-16. The context is this: Judah and its capital Jerusalem had been a vassal state to the neo-Babylonians; following a rebellion, many of the people of Jerusalem, including the priest Ezekiel, were carried off into exile; several years later, following a second rebellion, the remaining members of the royal court and civil service were also taken into exile.

Today’s verses are set between those two deportations. God instructs Ezekiel to enact for the already-exiles the impending second and more decisive wave.

The people are identified as having eyes but not seeing, and ears without hearing. Or, at least, they are short-sighted and hard of hearing, in need of a corrective lens and a hearing aid. This, in the context of relationship to their land, to place. While there is much to be said about rootedness, those who have only ever lived in the same place, among a stable community, at very least risk becoming blind to their own construction of life: the way we do things appears self-evident; even if, with a heady dose of nostalgia, we might say things have gone into decline, possibility is constrained, and we double-down on a sense of pride in contrast to the ways of others.

The experience of exile—even as temporary and privileged as holiday abroad—can open our eyes to another way of living. Indeed, Spain is home to a great many English expats, who prefer the way of life—a complex construct!—as well as the more reliable sunshine. But even expats, even any exile, may have blind-spots, may take a defensive stance.

Ezekiel is instructed to prepare, and publicly carry, an exile’s baggage. Exiles tend to carry limited physical baggage. Back in 2005, our family explored moving to Australia for a few years. We gave away many of our possessions, packed clothes into two giant cases, and stored our remaining furniture in a freight container, to be shipped around the globe. In the end, we did not go. For some, the physical baggage is no more than the clothes on their back and whatever items they can carry. But physical baggage is only the tip of the iceberg.

An exile’s baggage is mostly internal, and invisible. Memories of what you are leaving behind. The ghosts of futures that will not come to pass. The hopes of new beginnings. Family ties, being stretched across vast distances, or severed. A whole culture, unmoored from its artefacts. How to sing a familiar song in a strange land? Only an exile can know an exile’s baggage; but even then it is not automatic. Make it visible, Ezekiel, make it obvious.

And then, he is to dig through the wall. A city has many gates, often each gate associated with a different community within a wider community: a trade guild, an ethnic group. You pass through, or are denied access, in, or out. Belonging, status, control—you, having control; others having control—all play their part. When a city falls, exiles stream through the gates; but not otherwise. At the gates, you are a traveller, a businessman, a tourist. Love, actually, is all around us, at the arrivals and departures gates. Until everyone is forced into exile, exiles don’t use gates. They might cross borders at night, or the sea in an overloaded dinghy. The ones who do sit in a departure lounge do so oblivious to the fact that they are about to be an exile, to have their life changed, even in two weeks in the sun. Exiles dig through walls with their bare hands.

Being an exile is hard work. And, in a sense, it does undermine the walls of a community, the defences they have constructed to keep themselves safe from outsiders. Ezekiel is an exile who is digging a hole out through the walls within which his fellow exiles have constructed a new life. What he enacts speaks to those back home—you, too, will go into exile—but also to his fellow already-exiles: the wall, the gates, these things are not the same for you. Even if you are accepted at the gates, you won’t be fully accepted, you might not fully accept yourself there. You are different now, neither fully of your home nation/town, nor fully of your host or adopted nation/town, but one who makes holes in the walls and glass ceilings, provisional, subversive, back-breaking hard work.

Those who have experienced exile know just how hard, how unjust and unfair, how tragic and ridiculous life is. And how wonderful, how utterly wonderful. They might even discover the loving-kindness of a faithful God, whose nature is revealed afresh in the experience.

 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Heart

 

The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today is Ezekiel chapter 11, from verse 14 to the end of the chapter.

These verses are not concerned with twenty-first century England and her global family. They concern a different people, at a different moment in history, some 2,500 years ago. And yet, for the communities for whom these words are held as scripture, they speak to us, also, of our humanity and lack of humanity, and of God’s judgement and mercy.

These verses address a people exiled from their own land, the consequence of their collective arrogance and false ease. Back ‘home,’ Jerusalem is a shadow of her former self. Even so, those who remain determine that this land is theirs alone now, and they will not share it. Yet God speaks, through the priest Ezekiel, to the exiles, saying, I shall bring you home, to this land. Land meant more than national geography, but symbolises hope and a future—a hope that was always meant to embrace those from other origins, and now, not for the first time, would embrace children and grandchildren who were yet to step foot in the land.

The vision God holds out is of dealing with hard-heartedness, of replacing hearts of stone set one against another with soft hearts, able to recognise one another. And for those who persisted in hard-heartedness, they would experience the consequence of their choice. That which they hoped for towards others, for ill, would rebound upon them.

As already noted, this is not a commentary on contemporary England (or anywhere else). Yet it holds up a mirror to us. Are we closed and defensive, possessive, narrow in our definition of peoplehood, nationhood, and sharing a land—a future, together—with those whose background is different to our own? Are we hard-hearted, or soft-hearted? Are we able to say, in keeping with God to the exiles, we have been a sanctuary to those living in exile from their own homeland, in our land? Is there any detestable thing within us, of which we need rid?

These are questions not only for those who claim this ancient text, who identify as Jew or Christian, but for anyone humble enough to want to learn from history. These are questions for today.

 

Dear England

 

Dear England,

About our racism problem. It isn’t an ignorant minority, who can be shamed (or educated) into better behaviour. It is the majority of us, at our worst. The good news is that no-one—not one of us—is fully or solely defined by our worst. And our best is truly amazing, inspiring, can hold its head high. But racism, and its side-kick xenophobia, is our shame. And the cure for the poison of shame is not found in further shaming (or, indeed, in educating) but in acceptance. Not the pretence that racism is acceptable (denial), nor even inevitable (resignation), but the acceptance of the truth, the acceptance of the alcoholic who confesses, “I am an alcoholic, and I need the help of a higher power.” Without acceptance, without choosing to love ourselves in our unloveliness as well as our presentable and easily loveable characteristics—to not give up on ourselves—there can be no lasting transformation.

We can address racism, in sport and every arena of our lives. One day at a time. Together.

 

Monday, July 12, 2021

On a day of salvation

 

The New Testament reading from Morning Prayer this morning is 2 Corinthians 6.1-7.1, from an ongoing and at times difficult correspondence between Paul and the church at Corinth. In particular, in these verses, Paul is addressing the way in which he, who has served them, has been treated badly for his efforts. While I resist the temptation to read scripture as being ‘all about us,’ I find, there, principles for all of us; and this morning I cannot help but read it against the experience of recent weeks during the Euros 2020/21.

Like Paul, both Gareth Southgate and RaheemSterling have written open letters to (in their case) fans, holding out their lives and the lives and record of their team-mates—players whose lives are scrutinised, every error of judgement but also every misinterpreted move punished by public crucifixion—and asking that, in return, those for whom their hearts have been put on the line might open their hearts to them.

In the face of critics who see the very presence of some of the squad as imposters, who refuse to see in them the image of God and the inspiration of the breath of God, this is a squad and a manager who have conducted themselves with dignity; who are more than winners, despite an empty trophy cabinet; and who have held out for us the day—moment, opportunity—of salvation from tribalism, racism and hatred: to respond as we choose. We see that response, clearly, as clear as light and darkness.

They have shown us what it is to be family, and to be rich. And they have participated in, and pointed to, something greater than fleeting national pride. And so, this morning, in collaboration with saint Paul, the lions inform my prayer.

 

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Control


Today’s Old Testament reading at Holy Communion is taken from the long Joseph cycle that forms the climax of Genesis. Years before, Joseph’s older brothers have trafficked him into slavery in Egypt. For years since, they have allowed their father to believe that his son was killed by a lion, to exist in a fog of bereavement for a child he could not even lay out and wash clean and lay to rest. They have saved their own skin, at the cost of a gnawing away at their very souls.

Meanwhile, by a convoluted route of misfortune and chance, Joseph is now second only to Pharaoh, and administering grain in the middle of a global famine. His brothers, slowly starving, travel down to Egypt in hope of salvation, and Joseph recognises his betrayers. And to begin with, perhaps to buy himself some time, he plays a game, of exercising control over them as they had done over him. This goes on for some time, the brothers even now, in crisis, unable or unwilling to come clean to their father.

The situation only moves on when Joseph gets to the point when he is no longer able to keep control, even the pretence of control. He breaks down, in private, in front of his brothers. It is messy. Tears, snot, the works. As painful for them, albeit for different reasons, as for him.

And then he invites them to enter-into the place of not being in control. Yes, he instructs them to come closer; but he has no idea what they will do. The last time they came close, they threw him in a dry cistern to leave him to die. And the brothers respond, stepping out of control, not knowing whether Joseph will take his revenge.

Instead, Joseph declares that God sent him ahead of them, to preserve life. God, the eternal child, who has no need for control, but chooses in every circumstance to work for the preservation of life, in order that, though it might not be flourishing in the present moment, life might flourish again.

Our almost-fifteen-year-old son went to school today, for only the fifth time this calendar year. He has not engaged with online learning; this is as much as he has been able to face. He is one of the over 30,000 children who were going to school before the pandemic, who have felt unable to return during it. School have been brilliantly supportive. But we, his parents, have a legal responsibility to get him to school, and we are entirely unable to get him up in the mornings. He is exercising the only control he can, in the face of the chaos of a pandemic in which school has been disrupted by whole cohorts being required to self-isolate over and over again.

Young children have no need to be in control, unless some trauma forces it upon them. But adolescents seem to have a need to take control, of some aspect of their life, if only in order to learn that none of us are in control, however hard we pretend. And we can pretend to ourselves for years, a lifetime even.

It is a necessary step, from dependence to interdependence. The breakdown of our attempts to be in control, the point at which we might discover that God is present in our lives, all our lives, for the preservation of life. This is the reason why this moment comes as we build to the climax of Genesis, for it is the end point of our beginning.

In the long-term, he will be fine. And in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ For now, we get to bear witness to a goodness he cannot see, and resist our own temptations to take back control, that we too might know God preserving our lives.

 

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Sin


There is a Big Idea in the Bible, called sin. It is not as big an idea as God’s grace, nor as powerful as forgiveness; but, nonetheless, it is one of the big ideas. It is not good for human beings to be alone in the world; and yet we are drawn to pull away from the obligations of our relationship with people, and place, and our place within the wider ecosystems of our world. The ways in which we distance ourselves, and particularly the habitual ways that start out small but end up bigger than us, enslaving us, are what is meant by ‘sin.’ But big though sin is as an idea, it is swallowed and transformed by God’s commitment to human flourishing.

There is a fascinating account in the history of the relationship between the god Yahweh and the people whom Yahweh had rescued from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites, recorded in Numbers chapter 32. This people, presented to us as a confederation of tribes with distinct tribal characteristics, have been living away from the land God had promised to them, the descendants of his friend Abraham, for half a millennium; and now they are about to return. It is a land that lies on both sides of the river Jordan, and they shall enter the land from the east. Working together, they are to drive out the present inhabitants of the land; and once the land is secured, then it is to be divided between the tribes to settle. (Throughout the long period of history covered by the narrative of the Bible there is near constant moving of peoples from one place to another, forced by famine or military invasion; a complicated narrative of what it means to be human in the world in which we find ourselves, in relation to the land, and other ‘gods and men.’)

We are told that the tribes of Reuben and Gad were cattle farmers, and that coming to the part of the land to the east of the Jordan, they noted that it was good for cattle. And so, they asked permission to settle this land for their possession and inheritance, and not cross the Jordan to fight for the possession and inheritance of the rest of the tribes of Israel. But Moses, the leader by whom Yahweh had rescued them from Egypt and through whom had established a formal treaty with the people, confronted them: was it right that their fellow Israelites should fight for one another while Reuben and Gad distanced themselves? Indeed, Moses points out, you are repeating the pattern set by your fathers. A tribal habit.

The tribal leaders of Reuben and Gad make a counter proposal: they will secure the infrastructure of the land to the east of the Jordan, and then, once that is done, once they can leave their women and children and livestock in safety, they will cross over the Jordan with their brothers and fight alongside them. And Moses replies,

“If you will do this—if you will arm yourselves before the Lord for battle and if all of you who are armed cross over the Jordan before the Lord until he has driven his enemies out before him—then when the land is subdued before the Lord, you may return and be free from your obligation to the Lord and to Israel. And this land will be your possession before the Lord.

“But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out. Build cities for your women and children, and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.”

Here is the fascinating little phrase: you may be sure that your sin will find you out.

In context, it cannot mean, as it is often taken to mean, that your sin will come to light, for it would be plain for all to see from the outset. Perhaps it should be understood in this way: that your habitual sin will be the very thing through which you discover, by the grace of God, your way back to yourself as a person in restored relationship with others.

The sin of the Reubenites and Gadites, the move by which they sought to distance themselves from their obligation—as opposed to fulfil their obligation—was ‘cattle.’ They were cattle farmers. That is not to say that cows (or Reubenites, or Gadites) are evil; but, simply, that the well-trodden paths of the cattle were the route by which they sought to draw back, to withhold something of themselves. Yet the cow in the stall, and the flocks in the pens—like a redeemed elephant in the room—are the reminder of promises made. They cannot escape being cattle farmers, and indeed there is nothing inherently wrong with being a cattle farmer, but it is the sweet spot where the battle they need to fight meets the means of victory.

I am not a cattle farmer, but a herder and breeder of words. Words, written by myself or by others, by which I may seek to avoid sharing life with others, or, by the grace of God, to encourage others. When I fail, I may be sure that my sin will find me out, that I may come to my senses and be brought back to where I need to be, to where and with whom I am.

 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Place


I have always been drawn to spaces, and the flow of movement through spaces. In my final year of high school, I undertook a Geography project, mapping the land use of several square miles of the west end of Glasgow. As is the way with schools, the finished map was still displayed on a corridor wall, facing the Geography classrooms, years after I left. That year, I won prizes for both Geography and History, and spent both on books on principles of Architecture. On leaving school, I worked as an architect’s draftsman before setting out on the first year of an Architecture degree, though I dropped out, switching to Biblical Studies, after that first year.

Spaces, and their connections to other spaces, fascinate me. Places, I find more complicated. I have lived in Sunderland since October 2013, and have not found it an easy place to love. Perhaps that is because I am an outsider, an in-comer, into a place fiercely loved (if, often, run down in conversation) by native Mackems.

But spaces only exist in places, and it seems that everything I am reading lately has been speaking to me of place, and love of places, love of a place. Louise Penny’s latest Gamache mystery, All The Devils Are Here, this time set in Paris, but with her trademark delight in place, be it Paris or Montreal or Quebec City or the fictional village of Three Pines. Elizabeth Strout’s collections of sparse short stories set in a fictional community on the Maine coast, Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again. Winn Collier’s authorised biography of Eugene H. Peterson, A Burning In My Bones, conveying Eugene’s deep grounding in his beloved Flathead Valley, Montana. Love of place. Love of place. Love of an actual place (even if it finds literary expression clothed in a fictional place).

Invitation to go deeper into love of the place where I find myself. To the extent that I already love this place, it has come about, little measure by little, as I have walked the parish, and run through the city. Walk, and run. Walk, and run. At three miles an hour, and six. Well worn pavements, well-worn shoes. Cardiac exercise, training the heart.

 

Attend


That which is unseen (which is over-looked, as opposed to overseen) is unloved. And that which is unloved becomes unlovely over time through neglect, though not irredeemably so. All that is needed is love, and all that is necessary for love is to notice—really notice—to give attention, to wonder at the gift of this thing, be it a flower or a stone, a forgotten corner of the city or a human being. Attend!

 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Phoenix


The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today is Job chapter 29. Job is speaking, recalling how his life was before everything was taken away from him. How he had defended the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and had been held in honour by all, a man of gravitas. And then he says,

Then I thought, “I shall die in my nest,
and I shall multiply my days like the phoenix;

(Job 29:18)

A phoenix. Huh.

The Hebrew reads the ‘swirling sand’ and, combined with the setting of the nest, points to the mythical bird the Greeks later coined Phoenix, which died in a swirling death and was reborn in a swirling rebirth.

I shall die and shall multiply my days, like the Phoenix.

Or, even when all was going well for Job, in the days when he experienced God’s hand of blessing over his life, he intimated that he would experience disorientating loss—swirling death—and that out of that experience, he would know life-beyond-loss, rebirth from the ashes. That the wind that stirred up the sand—the breath of God that animates the dust of humanity—would not abandon him, but regenerate his life, his impact on the community. Not just as a legacy passed on, but in his own time.

This is not about the resurrection of the dead, though I hope in that. Rather, it is about hope in this life beyond suffering and despair. About having an impact on others, for good, after we pass through trial. Perhaps even a greater impact than before.

Then I thought, “I shall die in my nest,
and I shall multiply my days like the phoenix;
my roots spread out to the waters,
with the dew all night on my branches;
my glory was fresh with me,
and my bow ever new in my hand.”

(Job 29:18-20)

If your present experience might be described as dying in a sandstorm, a perfect storm, hang on, by whatever means you can. And if you know someone going throw the mill, hang on to hope for them. God has not finished with you yet. It is, perhaps, the dying of a season in preparation for the birthing of another.

 

Let me listen


Listening to the musicality of the street corner where I live:

 

The rumble roar of rubber over tarmac
as the cars pass by,
keeping time at 30, maybe 35,
miles per hour

Here comes the rattle of a lorry,
ting, ting, ting, with
every turning of the wheels as
they jolt along uneven surface

Over the surface,
can you hear the sound of
birdsong?

And the clicking of the claws
of the paws of the wolfhound
walked along the street
by an owner whose thick grey hair
matches its coat
as they keep step in time

Under the surface,
can you hear the sound of
birdsong
sound of birdsong?

That’s my corner

 

 

In The Heights


We went to the cinema to see In The Heights. I loved it! Here are just some of the reasons why.

Genesis

You get to see the genesis of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s later musical Hamilton in the rhythms and cadences and some of the tunes of this earlier musical, like the workings pages of a maths exam, or up-cycling clothing or furniture. (I loved this, but Jo was disappointed by the extent of recycling.)

Place

The push-pull of place on our heart, and the recognition that for some of us, our hearts are caught between the push-pull of two different places. And, of course, that push-pull is connected to family history, past, present and future. Place is only ever loaned to us, to tend and then hand on. There is something here about loving place—with the joy and pain that comes with that—and the key to entering deeper into love of place is appreciating its unique street-noise musicality: “Let me listen to my block.”

Skin

Young women have beautiful bodies. Young men have beautiful bodies. Older men and women have more substantial, complex, interesting, storied, weathered, accommodating bodies—and souls. And the most beautiful feature of every human being is their eyes.

Colour

There has been some controversy around this film, that a predominantly light-skinned Hispanic cast and extras should (mis)represent a predominantly dark-skinned Hispanic neighbourhood. Whereas casting Black, Hispanic and Asian actors to play White characters in Hamilton invites us to think about race, whitewashing a community takes a back-step. What I value here is that LMM has responded with grace, not defensiveness, and promised to do better next time. He has done well, and can do better. We all can. ‘It is the little details that tell the world we are not invisible.’

Generations

Children, younger cousins, surrogate grandmothers. The at-times difficult relationship between parent and adult child. The messy creativity with which chance and necessity and ingenuity and love form family bonds. The raw materials of life, community. The relationship between In The Heights and Hamilton. A homage to love, made with love. The themes of responsibility for, and accountability to, each other, explored with sensitivity.

Dignity

It is in the little things, attending to detail with great love, that we assert our dignity, and the dignity of others.

Friendship

A joy to see LMM cast Anthony Ramos and Christopher Jackson again.

 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Mine


The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today is Job 28, which begins:

‘Surely there is a mine for silver,

and a place for gold to be refined.

Iron is taken out of the earth,

and copper is smelted from ore.

Miners put an end to darkness,

and search out to the farthest bound

the ore in gloom and deep darkness.

They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;

they are forgotten by travellers,

they sway suspended, remote from people.

As for the earth, out of it comes bread;

but underneath it is turned up as by fire.

Its stones are the place of sapphires,

and its dust contains gold.’

I love the use of the earth as an image for the human being, the creature made from the dust of the earth—dust that contains seams of gold—and of the minister as miner, swaying suspended between the seen and unseen, between two worlds of sunlight and deep gloom, often remote from people’s sight, working to draw out from a congregation what is hidden from themselves. And of the common goodness of human life—out of the earth comes bread—and the deeper work forged by God through the circumstances that turn us up in the inner places, as magna churns through the earth’s crust, leaving sapphires in its wake.

What a deep calling, to be a minister of God’s grace! What a calling, deeper still, to be a human being, a creature in receipt of that grace!

 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Training


Yesterday, I ran 10K in around seven minutes faster than I have done over the past year, including six of the ten kilometres at a (sustained!) sub-5-minute pace. Encouragement along the route helped. Needing to pee from before the start, and being determined not to stop to use any of the port-a-loos on the way, may have helped. But what really made it possible was the kilometres run in training, with my club, including far more experienced runners, and under the direction of a great coach overseeing regular track sessions.

Yesterday, I also composed three short sermons ‘on the hoof,’ each in about the time it takes me to run a kilometre. The key is the same, but whereas I have been running through Sunderland for about six years, I have been covering the ground of the Bible for forty-nine. (There remains a lot of room for improvement, in my running and in my proclaiming the gospel, but I have a significant head start in the latter.) My advice to almost anyone starting out in the skill, and discipline, of preaching is, spend less time focussing on the event of any particular sermon preparation, and set apart more time to the training it stands or falls on—to immersing yourself in the story, attending to the lives of those who will hear, learning from others who do it well.

(Oh, and when it comes to delivering a sermon, the needing to pee thing may help, which is why vicars, at least, train our bladders with more tea.)

 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Rooted


The Old Testament reading at Evensong today was Jeremiah 10:1-16, a text that highlights the futility of idols. Here are some extracts:

‘For the customs of the people are false:
a tree from the forest is cut down,
and worked with an axe by the hands of an artisan;
people deck it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
do that it cannot move.’ (Jer. 10:3, 4)

and, later,

‘Everyone is stupid and without knowledge;
goldsmiths are all put to shame by their idols;
for their images are false,
and there is no breath in them.’ (Jer. 10: 14)

I am about half-way through reading A Burning In My Bones, Winn Collier’s authorised biography of Eugene H. Peterson. Peterson was an American pastor, who loved the language of the Bible—the Hebrew and Greek—and the ordinary people in his congregation; who loved connecting the words of God and the people of God; and whose broadest legacy was to write a transliteration of the Bible into the idioms of the American English spoken by his congregation, published, in stages over many years, as The Message version.

Though he was a Presbyterian pastor, Peterson was born into a Pentecostal family, in Montana. His father was a butcher; his mother, an itinerant preacher in the Assemblies of God. In an early chapter, Collier recounts a story from Peterson’s early years. Each year, at Christmas, his father would drive them into the forest, where they would choose a tree which his father would cut down with an axe, put on the truck, and drive home, where it would be decorated. One year, his mother announced that there would be no tree. She had read Jeremiah chapter 10, and decided that this custom was false in God’s eyes.

This did not go down well; and the following year, without any discussion, the tree was back.

This might sound funny, but in fact Peterson’s mother was quite correct in recognising that the customs of our culture (whether American, or British, or any culture) do not necessarily align with God’s values. Those who would live in faithfulness with God will need to weigh our own culture against the patterns we see in scripture, in the stories passed down to shape our communal lives. And we will want and need to do so humbly, open to saying, with Peterson’s mother, ‘We didn’t get that quite right’ at times.

When a tree is cut down, removed from the soil, from the blessings of the sun and the rain, and transported inside, it can point to something bigger than itself, but, eventually, it will die, its needles will drop to the floor. In the same way, if we cut ourselves off from the breath of God’s animating Spirit, we remain in the world as no more than idols. Indeed, this is how we view other people: perhaps, at this moment of Euro ’21, perhaps, footballers, worshipping them when they win, and toppling them when they fail to win.

But if we remain rooted in the love of God, in the wisdom, the grace, the mercy, the forgiveness of God, then we are not idols, but icons: windows onto the majesty of God's glory, pointing beyond ourselves to something far greater, wilder, life-giving.