Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Of dogs and lions

 

There’s a wonderful book in the Bible, called Qohelet in Hebrew and Ecclesiastes in Greek, a book of wisdom and philosophy, attributed by tradition to king Solomon. It is full of memorable images, such as the idea that pretty much every human activity imaginable is an attempt to herd, or shepherd, the wind. This, of course, conveys a sense of futility. But wind is also breath, and breath is the fleeting gift given over and over by God, and from ancient times God had been understood to be shepherd of a shepherding people; so there is also the sense of being made in God’s likeness, that our work participates in God’s work, and, perhaps, the idea that we habitually seek to be god of our own lives, to no avail.

There’s an idea swirling around the Gospels, an idea no-one can really grasp and hold on to, that Jesus is the Son of David, and in particular, the new Solomon the Wise. One who might even succeed in shepherding the wind.

In Mark chapter 7, we hear an account of Jesus in conversation with a culturally Greek, ethnically Syrophoenician, woman. Her daughter is afflicted by a demon, and she asks Jesus to help her. In Matthew’s account of the episode, though not Mark’s, she calls him Son of David. Jesus responds, it is not fair to take and children’s food before they have eaten their fill, and throw it to the dogs. The woman replies, yes Lord, but even the dogs beneath the table get to eat the crumbs that fall from it. For this, Jesus does as she asks. When she returns home, she finds the demon gone.

Some argue that Jesus is guilty of a racial slur and is schooled by the woman. I don’t find that convincing. Though Jesus is divisive, I do not see him ever as initiating or perpetuating distance between God or neighbour. There’s an exchange taking place here, on terms both understand, this Jewish man and Greek woman. On ground such as philosophy. Moreover, like the woman, I am a gentile; so, whatever it is Jesus has to say to her concerning dogs concerns me, so I want to understand too.

Qohelet/Ecclesiastes chapter 9 opens by observing that time and chance impact upon the righteous and the unrighteous, the clean and the unclean, without distinction. This is vexing (evil, though not in a moral sense). The end of all is death. ‘But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.’ (Qohelet 9:4) This being so, the best advice is ‘Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.’ (9:7)

(Lions are interesting. Not only is Jesus identified by his followers as the lion of Judah—a dead lion, though not one that stays dead—but Mark the evangelist will become identified with the image of a lion, becoming his symbol.)

What if Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman’s conversation is grounded in the wisdom of the son of David? What if by referencing a highly memorable phrase from that wisdom, Jesus is joining the woman with all the living? With those who, despite the seemingly cruel randomness of life which has left her daughter distressed by a conflicted spirit, still have hope? What if he is not so much connecting her as recognising—affirming—her connection before others?

What if Jesus’ central advice is to eat bread with joyfulness and drink wine with gladness? Eating with the righteous and the unrighteous, the clean and the unclean, Pharisees and tax collectors. Enacting on earth the heavenly banquet of a God who approves of you. Sharing bread and wine, to remember.

And what if the woman recognises that this wisdom of the Jewish people is not only for the Jewish people, but that even the crumbs that fall from the table are enough to sustain people like her, like me, joined to the living hope?

What if the crumbs of communion wafers, distributed from the Lord’s table at Holy Communion, keep that hope alive?

What if joy and gladness make my daily bread, breakfast, lunch and evening meal, a participation in the goodness of God, that drives out my restless vexation?

 

Monday, August 30, 2021

Professionals

Yesterday I had cause to reflect on the way in which the meaning of the word ‘professional’ has changed over time. In origin, it meant someone who gave their life to the honour of a vocation in the service of society, who, having professed their intention in a solemn oath (such as the one doctors of medicine still take), continued in their commitment as a lifelong learner of their skill. Today, while training is still an important factor, a ‘professional’ is first and foremost someone who gets paid to do something that others do as a hobby or pass-time. It can also reflect a gulf or barrier between those who are considered professional and those who are not, as in what is considered professional or unprofessional behaviour.

I was visiting my parents recently, and we got to talking about the village where my grandparents lived. Even as recently as my childhood (careful, now) the village doctor ran his surgery from a room in his home. This was once common practice. The same was true of vets. People would come to the doctor in the mornings, and he would make home visits in the afternoons, and be on call through the night. But he was known, and respected. The vicar lived a similar pattern, the doctor caring for people’s physical needs, the vicar for their spiritual needs. The other professional in the community, the school teacher, also lived in the community she served, cared for their children. You’d speak to them not at a rare parents’ evening, but in the playground.

Today, the vicar is the only professional who still lives in the community among which she practices her profession. And if she shares with her bishop the cure of souls of several parishes, then she lives only in one of them.

I’m not prepared to look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. But neither am I prepared to swallow the lie of progress. What we have lost, the growing gulf and the breakdown of trust through the pursuit of efficiency, through elevating money over all else, must be reckoned alongside the gains. What we have lost may be what we need to rebuild, and it will be far harder to do so now.

  

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Anxious People

 

The purpose of fiction is to teach us empathy—teaching not as passing on an abstract idea like algebra or the representation of topography by the drawing of maps but teaching as drawing out something already inside us that regularly draws back like a frightened animal. If you read a novel and have no empathy for any of the characters—likeable or not, for people are not always likeable—then the unwritten contract between the author and you, the reader, to embolden empathy has broken down. This happens, for all manner of reasons; and is not in itself reason not to try again, with another author, another reader.

The first novel by Fredrik Backman that I read was Beartown. It is, I think, the most achingly beautiful story I have ever read. The story is a painful one: of a schoolgirl who is raped by a boy, and the community who rallies around him and turns against her family, because in Sweden—as in my own country—the life and future of a boy is worth far more than that of girls. Because this story is so regular an occurrence, there will be many people for whom Beartown is too painful to read, but I wish that as many as can, would. It might not stop boys from raping girls, but I do believe (I recognise perhaps na├»vely) that it might change society, the gross injustice of those whose responsibility it is to uphold justice—not only the police and legal system, but, to an extent, every citizen—compounding injustice upon injustice.

Anyway, Beartown is another story from the one I am trying to tell, and a beautifully told one. So perfect that I was hesitant to read another book by the same author, lest I be disappointed. I was so invested in the characters, in rooting for them, that I did risk the sequel, Us Against You, and it is also a fine story, though not as perfect. But I have never risked Backman’s earliest novel, A Man Called Ove, despite many endorsements, nor anything written before Beartown.

But the other day, when, on holiday, I was failing to find a book to read, and having walked into a bookshop for the third time searching, my wife pointed to a book on a table just inside the entrance and said, ‘What about this one? You like this author.’ And that was that.

Anxious People has been a delight. In part because it is so different in style from Backman’s other storytelling (including, I'm told, ones I have not read), thus avoiding the trap of disappointment. It is a charming story, a comedy of errors and a whodunnit and a love story, of the author’s love for his fellow human beings in spite and because of their short-comings. It is a story that falls over itself to tell itself, returning to a new starting-point again and again; and one so well written as to catch you out again and again, lovingly bringing you face to face with your own limits, the limits that make you as flawed and loveable as the characters.

Anxious People is a story about the ways in which our lives affect one another, without our even being aware. Of how the lives of at first glance strangers are intertwined. It touches, gently but deeply, on a suicide, and the lifelong impact of that action on several lives, and for that reason some might need to choose whether they want to read it or not.

Fredrik Backman is a writer who can help us navigate the painful and the frighteningly wonderful vulnerabilities of the human condition, working with us to embolden empathy. To take a risk on our neighbours, on who they could become, given the chance, given acceptance of where they (and we) are, and forgiveness of what brought them (us) to that place where necessary, and support to get where they (we) need to be in the next chapter—however short or long, but no more than that—of our story. All accomplished, as only fiction can, by catching us up in a truthful deceit.

 

Monday, August 23, 2021

On blessing

 

People-watching, on the third of four trains today: a family join the train, mum, dad, teenage girl, pre-adolescent boy. The dad’s forearms are covered with tattoos of satanic symbols and images. He wears a t-shirt depicting a children’s cartoon character above the legend MOTHERF*CKERS [with asterisk] and complains that his wife has not allowed him to wear his Charlie Uniform November Tango t-shirt instead.

The son sneezes, three times. Each time, the father responds, Bless you.

It feels...incongruous.

Is he performing an exorcism of angels? Or is blessing something that will not let go of us, even if we seek to reject its baggage?

 

A blessing

 

People-watching, on the first of four trains today: a younger couple, thirty-something, get on the carriage. She is pushing a stroller. He is carrying their daughter, who has not yet reached her second birthday. Old enough to be able to walk, but still looking more like a baby than a toddler. He holds her as he sits down, gently enough to allow her to discover how her body relates to the space of a sideways-on seat in a jolting train carriage; securely enough for her to know she is safe, will not be thrown forward through space, chin hitting floor. He runs his hand over the back of her head, baby curls, reassurance, as she moves from standing to sitting.

It is a thing of beauty to observe. As we prepare to alight at the same station, I tell him so. He tells me their daughter is almost two. I tell him mine is twenty, that it goes by faster than you can imagine. He says he hopes it gets easier. I say, it gets different; you get more sleep. That would be a blessing, he replies, with a grateful smile. It is, I say, as our paths diverge.

This stranger on the train used the word blessing, understood gratitude. No wonder it was beautiful to behold. Such awareness transforms everything.

 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

On putting on the habit

 

I am a creature of habit.

Most days, I say Morning Prayer. On Fridays, I do not pray, in any formal sense, for prayer is the work of God, and Friday is my day of rest from work. Six days a week, I am reminded that my voice, however small, makes a difference in the world; and one day each week, I am reminded that nothing in this world depends on me, that should I die before this day is out, the world would carry on without me, just as it did before me.

Most every day, I receive the gift of the presence of Jesus, in bread (and sometimes, wine). Some days, with formal liturgy, prayers that echo through the ages; other days, with a simple blessing offered by a grateful heart. Often, I receive the presence of Jesus in bread that is spread with butter and marmalade, because the Bible says that God’s Word is like honey, but that is only because people had not yet learnt how to make marmalade. Afterwards, they did—thanks be to God!

Some days, two or three times a week, I go running.

I do the laundry.

I pause each late afternoon, to cook a meal for my family.

Most things that I do, I find ways to encourage and enable other people to do, too.

Except the laundry. The laundry is my cross to bear, on which I am daily put to death by my children’s refusal to put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket at the end of each day, as any god-fearing person should. And only Jesus can help bear the weight of my cross.

That’s about it. The rest of my time is held, open, and used in a variety of irregular ways, such as the funeral I took today, or visiting the housebound as I did yesterday, or being available to those who need to unburden themselves of anything, except laundry, as happens often enough.

I am a creature of habit.

 

Mercy flows

 

The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today pair Joshua 3:7-11, 13-17 and Matthew 18:21-19:1.

Back story: Abraham had lived as a nomad in Canaan, largely at peace with the established inhabitants of the land, God fulfilling his promise to bless those who blessed Abraham and curse (or, place restrictions upon) those who cursed him. Later, Abraham’s descendants had gone down to Egypt, where, after generations of peaceable living, they had been conscripted into forced labour. Eventually, God had delivered them, and now, after years of being led by Moses in the wilderness, they were about to enter the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, under the leadership of Moses’ successor, Joshua.

God promises Joshua an extensive territory. But Joshua goes beyond, reading into that the driving out of the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites, en masse. (This is never fulfilled.) These are the descendants of Noah’s middle son, Ham—whereas the Israelites traced their lineage from Noah’s firstborn son, Shem. The enmity between them stems from an account in Genesis 9:18-29. Post the trauma of the Great Flood, in classic survivor’s guilt, Noah gets drunk; and Ham at best dishonours and perhaps sexually abuses his father. In consequence, God blesses Noah’s other sons and curses Ham, declaring that his son Canaan shall be the servant of his older and younger brothers, Shem and Japtheth. So the tribes of Canaan are the servant of Israel—as Israel is the servant of the Lord God.

As already noted, the text from Joshua 3 is paired today with one from Matthew 18, and Peter’s questions to Jesus concerning the limits of forgiveness of a brother, and where the limits of mercy are set. Would, for example, enmity between peoples justified by an ancient tale of abuse, fall outside the boundary? But, just as the banks of the river Jordan had burst at the time when the Israelites entered the land to take possession of it, so Jesus insists that forgiveness, and showing mercy, overflow their banks. The river, of course, returns to its course eventually, but this reflects not the limit of forgiveness but, rather, the completion of its work, the restoration of relationship between estranged brothers.

There is no such thing as sole possession of a land, and this is even more important to understand in our context of increasing displacement of peoples due to political oppression, war, or environmental disaster. A land is simply a resource with which we can show, or withhold, mercy. Choose wisely, for choices have consequences. Choose mercy. Always, choose mercy.

 

Monday, August 09, 2021

Table of nations

 

‘In you, O Lord, do I seek refuge;
let me never be put to shame...
What troubles and adversities you have shown me,
and yet you will turn and refresh me
and bring me from the deep of the earth again.’

Psalm 71:1, and 20

Many of the athletes who have competed at Tokyo 2020 are immigrants to the nation they represent, refugees embraced as children long before their talents were known; or first-generation, the children of immigrants, born in their adopting country; while others are second-generation on one or both sides.

This, then, enables us to explore ideas of nationality and nationhood.

What do you do, when your motherland is ravaged by war or climate disaster, or when you are rejected by your own people on account of your religious or political beliefs?

What do you do, when people come from elsewhere, wanting to contribute to the life of your nation, asking to be counted as one of you?

For the first time, all of the medals won at Tokyo 2020 were made from 100% recycled gold, silver, and bronze. If minerals extracted from the ground can be recycled, what of humus-kind, the creature moulded from clay? Might not the humus-kind be recycled, melted down and recast through the crucible of adversity, brought once again from the depths of the earth, from the shadowy land of the dead to a new life?

And what of land itself? Is it something we posses, by virtue (or vice) of our heritage? Or something that possesses us, inspires us to contribute to the good of a particular community? Are we British, or American, or Dutch, or Belgian, regardless of what we contribute—some inalienable right—or do we continuously became more or less so by virtue (or vice) of our contribution or lack thereof?

When first- and second-generation immigrants shut the door to others, they make themselves bastards and orphans, cut off from their motherland and adopted motherland, from past and future. And when those who can trace their family tree further back, rooted in a particular soil, reject the precious minerals offered to them, they impoverish their own place, their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

What does it mean to be of a nation? What difference does it make to add ‘together’ to ‘faster, higher, stronger’?

 

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Stipend

 

Unlike, say, professional football players, Team GB Olympians do not receive a salary; but, thanks to National Lottery funding, they are given a training stipend.

A salary is reimbursement for work done. We can debate whether Premier League footballers are over-compensated, or NHS nurses under-compensated, but we can largely agree on what that work is.

A stipend, on the other hand, is a fixed payment for a contribution that is recognised as adding value to the wider community, but is harder to quantify. After all, how do you quantify the work of an athlete, whose public performance comes down to a week or two each year; or when in one event, anything less than gold is a bitter disappointment, while in another, coming well down the field can be a brilliant success? And—full disclosure—I am in receipt of a stipend, rather than a salary.

In most cases (and a full clergy stipend would be an exception), stipends aren’t sufficient to live on—a training stipend might be supplemented by sponsorship, prize money, support from family members, or some other career—but they do allow the recipient choices, including the choice of having time released from some other employment, in order to work towards Olympic glory.

Most of us will never compete at an Olympic Games. But we might add value to the wider community in different ways, just as hard to quantify. The idea of a Universal Citizen’s Income is a form of stipend, funded by taxation, not enough to live on but enough to give the recipient choices: to take some time away from paid employment, to care for an aging parent, or volunteer in the community, or learn a skill that does not relate to your job but reflects a wider interest. Laura Muir, who won silver in the 15,000m at Tokyo, is a qualified vet, who is also a world-class runner. You might be a medical student, who loves baking or dress-making. Or a teacher, who is also a magistrate (an unpaid role, in the criminal or family courts).

And yes, of course many of us earn enough to be able to enjoy a hobby in our unpaid free time—and some of us might even work for an employer who is happy to release us for a certain number of days a year for voluntary service—but an unconditional stipend is a fully-costed investment in human beings, in life that is more than (not less than) our day (or night shift) job.

In my opinion, some form of Universal Citizen’s Income is an idea that isn't going to go away, but whose time is coming.

 

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Hear

 

Tomorrow, the Church reflects on the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is an astonishing story, profoundly pastoral and deeply political. In a light-diffusing cloud on a hilltop, Jesus makes conference with Moses and Elijah, two great figures of his people’s past, concerning his imminent exodus (or departure, as the English renders it).

Moses, of course, led his people out from slavery in Egypt. The gods of the Egyptians had stopped their ears against the cries of a shepherding people living in the north of their kingdom, conscripted into city-building. Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews, the god who hears, heard their cry. In a series of plagues, Yahweh permitted the gods of Egypt to experience pain; restoring equilibrium whenever their spokesperson, the Pharaoh, cried out. Yet time after time, they rose up again, hardening their hearts. Eventually, Yahweh, descending in a pillar of cloud, led out his people, through the parted waters of the Sea, and to a mountain in the Sinai peninsula, on which the cloud of Yahweh’s presence settled. Moses, alone, was permitted to approach within the cloud, granted audience.

Some eight hundred years later, the people of Israel were reeling under the totalitarian rule of their queen, Jezebel. Promoting the uprising of the Canaanite gods, under the lordship of the sky-and-lightning god Baal, she had countless worshippers of Yahweh put to death. Elijah had already been evading the authorities and performing miracles for several years by the time of his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Again, the matter at hand is over who hears the cry of their people. Baal is deaf to the cries of his prophets; Yahweh hears and responds to Elijah’s voice.

But in the immediate aftermath of Yahweh’s victory, and the breaking of a three-year drought—equilibrium restored, in the heavenly realms and so on earth—Elijah, fearing for his life, runs all the way to Sinai, and the mountain on which Moses had met with God. There, Yahweh meets with him, opening Elijah’s ears to the cry of thousands of other faithful worshippers in hiding, initiating the events that will lead to the overthrow of an oppressive political regime, and identifying a successor for Elijah, who will be taken up into heaven, no longer to be found on earth, as Moses before him.

Some eight hundred years on again, and it is Jesus on the hilltop. His people live under the occupying rule of Rome, before whose sky-and-lightning god Jupiter all must bow or be crushed. Once more, a confrontation is coming, between an unmoving god and a god who is moved by what he hears. A god whose greatest word through Moses was, ‘Hear, O Israel ...’ and a god who declares to Jesus’ disciples, ‘... listen to him.’

So Jesus and Moses and Elijah are in conference concerning Jesus’ exodus, which will take place in Jerusalem. His going outside the city, to suffer and die, familiar words from the psalms on his lips, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?’ Words, heard, by Yahweh who moves, restoring life, raising Jesus from death on the third day, followed forty days later by his ascension, his returning to the Father, taken up in a cloud.

Luke’s first audience would have heard this story in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the levelling of the temple at the hands of the Roman army. The victory of Jupiter over this minor people. And yet, the Transfiguration. The promise of things to come. Of another exodus, a saving out from the hands of the gods, the Roman pantheon that would bow before the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ as the Church brought reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, women and men, slaves and freeborn, children and fathers. As the cries of the oppressed were heard and responded to. Not a reversal of fortunes, but a return to harmonious peace.

In many parts of the world today, our sisters and brothers are experiencing persecution on account of their faith, in the name of other gods, other ideologies. Their cries are not unheard, and neither are the silent cries of their oppressors, who perpetrate violence against themselves. Tomorrow, the Church reflects on the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is an astonishing story, profoundly pastoral and deeply political.

 

On earth as in heaven

 

The Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today continues in Mark chapter one, and continues the theme of the physical realm mirroring the spiritual realm.

Earlier in the chapter, we have already seen Jesus being driven out, with some force, into the wilderness by the Spirit [of God]—the very action Jesus himself will take towards the compromised spirits, and, by chapter 3, give his disciples authority to take towards the compromised spirits. Spirit > human > spirit, and Spirit > human > human > spirit patterns. There in the wilderness, Jesus meets the Satan, Job’s restless wanderer after the pattern of Cain. There also, angels—gods in the service of the Most High God—serve Jesus.

Today’s reading opens with the first woman to appear in Mark’s Gospel, the mother-in-law of Peter. Raised up from fever, she serves Jesus. The weak English translation suggests a domesticity, pouring cups of tea and passing round plates of cucumber sandwiches. But Mark uses a word he only uses on one other occasion, indeed, has already used. Peter’s mother-in-law mirrors the angels. She is raised up the equal of the gods.

In Mark’s world, what happens on earth is as it is in the heavens. And, without removing the free will of angels, demons or humans, through the central actor Jesus, all things are being reconciled, in the heavenly realms and the earthly realm.

This confronts our Western worldview, within which only the physical realm is acknowledged. Nonetheless, plenty of people believe in a spiritual realm, whether with fear or fascination. Mark holds out a third way, the good news of Jesus.

 

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Unlikely disciple

 

In the ancient book of Job, we see the Lord God summon the gods to report to him. Among them is the satan, a god who has been wandering the earth to and fro without rest. This is the same fate as Cain, son of Adam and Eve who murdered his brother Abel, for whom the earth would refuse welcome but over whose life God placed a mark of protection, in order that Cain would not be killed.

The compassion of the Lord God would appear to extend to the anguished satan, and, indeed, to the monsters of the deep, Tiamat, Rahab, Behemoth, Leviathan, who cannot be tamed by might but can be calmed by the Lord’s presence, and by attentive listening to their pain (whether self-inflicted or otherwise is a mute point). Brought back to equilibrium by being heard, in love.

In the Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today, Mark 1:21-28, we encounter an unclean spirit. And I wonder if this spirit is, in fact, the first disciple sent out by Jesus to prepare for his arrival in all the places he would soon go?

This spirit is described as unclean, or impure. Lacking in purity, or having mixed allegiance, mixed motives. As the Gospel unfolds, it would be fair to say the same of the Twelve, of Simon Peter, and James and John, of Judas, and the others, sent out together ahead of Jesus.

We are told that Jesus tells the spirit, with some force, to be silent. The Greek word Mark uses refers to a muzzle, which is not so much a means of silencing as of exercising mastery over an animal. One might muzzle a dog because it is dangerous, or over-excited, or scared. One would not permanently muzzle a dog. There is, then, something also of training in this. A time to be silent, and a time to speak.

And then, in response to Jesus, who brings the unclean spirit from distress and heart pain to stillness and peace, the spirit goes out from the man, from the synagogue...and the news about Jesus, who he is and what he has done, goes out from the synagogue, from Capernaum, out across the region of Galilee. Carried by whom? Human messengers, undoubtedly, amazed—temporarily speechless—by what they have witnessed. But also, perhaps, by a spirit whose conflicted loyalties have been reordered by a fair hearing. Who expected to be destroyed, but found himself liberated instead; just as the Lord God liberated Behemoth and Leviathan, and would go to incredible lengths of patient listening to bring even the satan into peace.

If your allegiances are conflicted, if you a restless with your life, or even afraid of what God might do to you, these things do not rule you out of the scale and scope of divine goodness. Jesus enters in, bringing crisis that contains the possibility of peace; and sends us out ahead of him, to spread the news.

 

Come and go

 

Enter-into. Go out from.

There’s some beautiful mirroring going on in the Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today, Mark 1:21-28.

Jesus and his freshly-minted disciples enter into Capernaum, with an immediate effect: on the sabbaths (plural, lost in translation) Jesus quickly establishes a pattern of entering into the synagogue, where he teaches with a remarkable authority, speaking with his own voice. This is contrasted with the scribes, who teach in the voice of their own rabbi (as the disciples will, in due course, speak in Jesus’ voice, as scribes of the kingdom of heaven).

Jesus is mirrored by the man with an unclean or impure spirit (the word for spirit also conveys breath or wind, and while a distinct ‘personality’ is clearly intended, the play of halitosis or toxic farts is not entirely inappropriate). Though not explicitly stated, it is implied that this spirit has entered the life of this man, as Jesus has entered the town and its synagogue. There is an ambiguity as to whether it is the man or the unclean spirit who speaks, whether it is the man or the unclean spirit Jesus addresses, and this is in keeping with the ambiguity of the scribes’ teaching voice, and in contrast to Jesus’ authoritative voice.

Jesus addresses the man/spirit. And while this is rightly translated as a rebuke, a corrective warning, it has been suggested that the same word can carry, without negative connotation, an honouring. So, we might see here not ambiguity but a word that differentiates between the man and the spirit, between whom others (perhaps including the man himself) cannot differentiate: honouring the man, warning the unclean spirit.

(Even more, the honouring may carry within it a warning, and the rebuke an honouring. Contrary to the expectation of the unclean spirit—of the thief who comes to kill, steal, and destroy—Jesus comes to bring life…even to unclean spirits?)

Jesus honours/rebukes, and the unclean spirit goes out from the man. And the mirror of this is that the news about Jesus goes out from the synagogue, from Capernaum, into the surrounding region of Galilee. (And in the very next verse, just to underline the mirror pattern—for Mark does not cut up his story the way the Lectionary does—Jesus and his disciples go out from the synagogue.)

Jesus is the one with authority to enter and go out from, and to direct others to do likewise. Both actions, both directions, entering and going out from, bring life in greater fulness than previously experienced.

Where do you see this Jesus-directed entering into and going out from in your life, and the life of your community, today?

 

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Net work

 

The Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today was Mark 1:14-20, in which we encounter God’s sovereignty expressed through the cleaning/mending/preparing and casting of a fishing net. But what does that look like, in concrete terms, grounded in place, rooted in my life as one who has read these words again today?

Well, this morning at Sunderland Minster we had a picnic for families. I lost track of how many nationalities were represented, but there were people from across Eastern Europe, people from the Gulf States, people from the Horn of Africa. The lawns on the south side of the Minster a patchwork of blankets; children colouring and cutting and pasting and glittering suns and moons and stars; sprawling over cushions while eating a sandwich; wiggling toes and laughing at the wonder of their own feet; running off and being brought back again; adults engaging in wide-ranging conversations. Christians and Muslims and in all probability atheists sitting down together in friendship. Life shared, between people for whom life has, at times, been precarious and in need of cleaning, mending, preparing, and casting again into a new and deep unknown that may hold the promise of goodness, found here, in our midst, in this city on the edge of the North Sea.

Here is the sovereignty of God, made ready for the moment in the preparing of packed lunches; the filling and cutting and wrapping of sandwiches, the putting out of a selection of crisps and fruit, the serving of drinks, both hot and cold; and in the bringing out of blankets, play mats, pens and paper, scissors and glue; and in the putting away of these things again at the end, the carrying of rubbish to the bins and the setting out whatever will be needed for next time.

And this is just a snapshot. But then, so is Mark 1:14-20.

 

Net

 

One of the fun images from these Olympic games has been British diver Tom Daley sitting in the stands knitting or crocheting as he supports his teammates. While they twist and turn their bodies, according to a pre-determined pattern, Tom twists and turns his hands, according to a pre-determined pattern.

There’s a similar pattern at play in the Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today, in the synchronised casting and knotting of Andrew and Simon, James and John. And a nice transition from the preceding verses, too. Jesus’ passing along the Sea includes the sense of walking away from it, while the fishermen’s casting a net into the Sea carries the sense of rushing into it; so, when Jesus calls them to follow him, he is literally calling them to repent, or, change the direction they are moving in.

From now on, they are called to be fishers of people. But what that means is hinted at in what they are doing now, casting a net and making ready a net. In Olympic diving terms, one pair executing their dive; the other pair, up next, going through their moves one last time. Elsewhere, Jesus employs the net as a parable of the kingdom, the sovereignty of God, which has drawn near. Thrown into the sea, it gathers up good fish and bad.

The sovereignty of God is thrown wide, catching up all manner of people, all manner of lives, our best moments and our worst, the good and evil we swim in, perhaps as unaware of what shapes us as fish are of the water that surrounds them. The sovereignty of God is exercised in hours [chronos] of careful preparation as well as moments [kairos] of decisive action, in patience and a toil given and received as gift.

If we desire to enter-into that kingdom, if we are ready to repent and believe, then we must turn away from the polarising trajectory that gathers around us only those who see the world as we presently do; and work to mend the knots that hold together a society, where they have been torn by rupture or frayed by circumstance. As we seek to repair our communities, local, regional, national, global, in the aftermath of pandemic and in the face of environmental crisis, those who would orientate their lives by following Jesus should have much to offer, as well as much to learn.

 

Monday, August 02, 2021

Twisties

 

Diving. Gymnastics. Trampolining. BMX freestyle. In all these disciplines and more, athletes twist, upside-down, in mid-air. And thanks to multi camera 30 fps replays, at the Tokyo Olympics we have been able to follow the action like never before.

We’ve also been introduced to “the twisties,” the loss of sense of where the body is, in relation to the space around it, that can disorientate an athlete with potentially dangerous consequence, despite their training to do what they are attempting to do.

Living with dyspraxia, I sometimes have such blackout moments simply walking across a room. But the sudden and sometimes prolonged loss of orientation, especially when we are placed or place ourselves under pressure to perform, is something I think many of us may be able to relate to. Not, necessarily, in a physical sense, but in a loss of confidence in our ability to make sound judgements in a rapidly changing world, or simply a suddenly changed personal situation.

Whether you are a person of faith, or none, we all orientate ourselves according to some belief system, constructed by inheritance, nurture (whether embraced or rebelled against) and discipline (rehearsed day after day). And many of us find ourselves, at some inconvenient moment, having to deconstruct our orienting belief system, and build back from the floor.

The key to moving through space is not having both feet firmly on the ground—heels dug in—but being able to orientate ourselves in relation to the world. Temporarily losing that can be a gift, that reminds us, and others, that we (and others) are human. Finding it again is also a gift, reminding us of just how amazing humans are.

 

Bones

 

The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today is one of the most evocative passages in the whole Bible, Ezekiel 37:1-14.

In a vision, the exile Ezekiel is carried off to the site of a massacre. The jackals have had their fill of the carcasses of a fallen army; the bottle flies have bloomed; the carrion birds of the air have gorged themselves, and fed their young; the ants have picked clean whatever was left; and the sun has bleached the bones brittle dry.

The Lord instructs Ezekiel, like a forensic investigator leading a detective through a crime scene, and, highlighting Ezekiel’s humanity—Mortal—asks, ‘Can these bones live?’ Ezekiel replies with an honesty that is exposed and unashamed: You know, what I do not.

The Lord instructs Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, and, as he does so, bone comes together with bone, sinews re-joining them, flesh covering them. This is no zombie apocalypse, but the giving back of what was taken from them, as they were, on the day they fell. But there is, as yet, still no life.

Then the Lord instructs Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath of Life, calling it from the four corners of the earth, to come to these precise coordinates and re-animate those who dwell in homes of clay.

Ezekiel is instructed to speak what he has heard from God, in relation to both components of human life: that which is of the ground and that which is of God. The bones that had returned to the earth from which they came, and the breath that had returned to God from whom it came. Ezekiel is instructed to speak restoration, and this as a sign and a symbol of the restoration of a people to come. The valley of dry bones, a metaphor for exile, for the tragedy of national humiliation, becomes the grounds on which to rebuild.

The problem facing nation states—and today we prayed for Afghanistan and South Africa, but the list goes on—is that they experience (internal and external) factions who play a zero-sum game. Men and sometimes women of violence, who refuse to be joined to those who are bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh, until their acts become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Seen through the lens of Jesus, who was stretched out to die, surrendered his spirit—his share in the life breath of God—and whose body and breath were given back to him, the vision given to Ezekiel is expanded, to take in not only a fallen Israel but an exiled humanity.

One of the most positive statements of the Olympic games (despite the IOCs murky underbelly, which needs at least lancing) is the Refugee Olympic Team. It is truly an act of prophesying, to the bones and to the breath, before the watching world. A prophetic act that proclaims judgement and deliverance. A sober joy.

Lord, have mercy.

 

Subdued

I’ve been loving the camaraderie on display at the Tokyo Olympics. It is a joy to behold. Behind every success, and, indeed, upholding athletes in disappointment, there’s a team.

In the epic poem that opens the Bible, human beings are invested with the dignity and purpose to be fruitful, and multiply, and subdue the earth—which, understood in context, is to draw out the conditions for flourishing from the chaos that threatens to overwhelm.

Also in the great myth, or meaning-full story, in which that poem is grounded, human beings are described as earth-lings, creatures made from clay, animated by the breath of God. The ground zero for subduing the earth is located within ourselves.

At the Olympic games, we see gold, silver and bronze, extracted from the ground, refined, shaped by the skill of human hands, and given back to the clay that is extracted, refined, and shaped by God's hand, so to speak.

We also see something of what it means to be fruitful and multiply, as belief breeds belief, and success liberates further successes. We’ve seen that in team GBs performances in the pool and on bikes, and in the double gold medals won by Italy on Sunday in the men’s high jump and 100m.

But this Olympics, perhaps on a platform like never before, we have also seen what it looks like to have to subdue the earth. To face the chaos that threatens to overwhelm. Sometimes we get to see the triumph over the chaos, only hearing after the event the tale of the scale of the internal struggle overcome (Max Whitlock, Adam Peaty). And sometimes, at these games, we have been given an insight into the stage before victory, the place where the earth is breached, the moment when the flood waters have rushed in (Simone Biles).

In another ancient epic text, the book of Job, we may discover great insight into such times. In Genesis, we are shown the moment when God speaks, declaring, ‘Let there be...’ But in Job, we join the action earlier on, witnessing God’s silence, God’s attentive listening to the cry of the overwhelmed clay, to the sound made by the breath, given by God, returning to God. Listening, honouring, until the breath returns to calm.

There is a time to triumph over adversity, and a time to listen to the body and bide your time. And those moments show no respect for whether it is the hours of unseen practice or the hour of the most public stage. If anything, the chaos that seeks to overwhelm life desires to do so at the moment of maximum humiliation, to destroy us, to bury us if it could, with critics piling in like Job’s friends of old.

It is sheer nonsense to claim that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, but, the One who animates clay re-animates us, again and again. We are made to subdue the earth, in order that it may be fruitful.

Chances are, you are not and never will be an Olympian. But you are of clay. Listen to the clay, and, just as important, try to note where you find yourself right now, in relation to the waters and the darkness that break out against you. And know that, though it happens, you will emerge again into the day.