Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Friendship

 


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

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

Robert Alter translates Genesis 2:18 in this way:

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

adding the Commentary:

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


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

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

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

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

 

Dog dirt days

 

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

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

 

Derailed

 



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

Everyday beauty on the cycle path.

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

 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

On drugs

 

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

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

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

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

 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Scandals in the Church

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Greatness revisited

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Woman of strength

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

 




Sunday, September 19, 2021

On greatness

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Universal Credit

 

The Gospel reading set for today is Luke 7:36-50. It is a beautiful account of an episode in Jesus’ life, but also one so sparse in detail that it reads our own prejudices, in what we supply.

The encounter involves a Pharisee who invites Jesus to eat with him in his house, and a woman known in the community as a sinner, who anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Do we assume that the Pharisee’s invitation is driven by the kudos of hosting a celebrity? Or that he is hoping to trap Jesus with his superior wisdom? Or that he genuinely wants to hear and learn from Jesus? And what do we make of the woman? What do we assume by ‘sinner’? Do we imagine her to be promiscuous? What do we make of her possessing an expensive asset?

The Pharisees sought to live lives so ordered that they would enjoy the benefits that, in turn, evidenced God’s approval. Sinners, on the other hand, were those whose lives did not meet the standard, who were excluded from the benefits of society because the circumstances of their lives self-evidently showed that God did not approve of them.

When Jesus speaks of debts being written off, he is not speaking metaphorically. He is speaking of the exclusion of the poor, and of a justice and mercy that breaks that cycle. When he says to the woman, your sins are forgiven, the sins of which he speaks is exclusion from society, and the forgiveness of which he speaks is release from that exclusion.

This week the Bishops of Durham and of Jarrow, along with the Bishop of Newcastle and senior leaders of other denominations here in the northeast, have written an open letter to the Government, asking them to reconsider their intent to cut Universal Credit by £20/week from October.

Universal Credit has replaced a range of other benefits as the backbone of welfare provision. Most beneficiaries are in low paid work. It was not sufficient before the pandemic, and there were already calls for it to be increased before then. The pandemic allowed the Government to increase support as a temporary uplift, but now, they argue, it is time to revert to the pre-pandemic rate. This loss of income comes at the same time as the ending of a temporary cap on utility bills, and a rise in National Insurance. The Government claim the cut can be made up by only an additional two hours’ work each week, but when you take into account the UC taper (63p removed for every £1 earned), tax, and NI contributions, the average loss is equivalent to nine hours’ work.

It takes five weeks for UC to come through, and though you can get a loan to cover those weeks, it is then paid back in instalments taken off the UC each month over the following twelve months. Recipients have almost nothing to live on for the second half of the four weeks between payments. £20 makes a huge difference, and many who work supporting those who find themselves living in poverty have called for the temporary uplift to be made permanent. Instead, it is being removed. This cut falls on people in many cases working several jobs in an attempt to make ends meet, with travel costs to and from work, childcare costs, perhaps bedroom tax liability, often debt owed to loan sharks at a rate on which they can pay back the interest but never the capital...

The poor are demonised in my society, where trolls question why poor people should enjoy such luxuries as, say, easy access to the internet (necessary for claiming UC, or for searching for work) or a tv or a spare bedroom in which their children might sleep every other weekend or anything nice that might have been passed on to them by their own parents or grandparents. And certainly, poor people, sinners, should not be seen, should not disrupt respectable society.

Speaking to the respectable man about how he and the society he lived in viewed the unrespectable woman, Jesus observed that those who have known very little love find it hard to show love—to love their neighbour as themselves. Those who have known order, and financial security, but not much love, not unconditional acceptance.

I commend to you the bishops’ letter. And I commend to you, for your prayers, our newly-reshuffled Cabinet. May they know love, and show love. May they enact justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, as those appointed and held accountable to speak up for others.

 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Ethics

 

Yesterday, the UKs four Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) recommended that children aged 12-15 be offered one dose of vaccine for coronavirus. If the Government decides to be ‘led by the science’ this will probably be delivered through schools, with parents being asked to give consent, but with the child having the determining say.

Some argue that this is a dangerous precedent, a removal of parental rights by government. In fact, this is nothing new, but it does highlight the importance of ethics in society. In this instance, a decision is made on the basis of interaction between the considered advice of experts, the deliberation of elected representatives, the parental responsibility for immediate duty of care toward their child, and the agency of the young person.

Secondary school aged children are well placed to be actively involved in this decision (and perhaps better placed than their parents). They are learning how to interpret arguments in English, and evaluate sources for propaganda in History. They are learning about bio-chemistry in Science, and probability in Maths. They are learning about ethics in Religious Studies, and how their decisions impact others in Personal and Social Development.

Teenagers are also impulsive, change their minds, bow to peer pressure, and experiment with drugs. They need, and should be able to expect to have, checks and balances in place (such as those that already exist on parental consent forms, where consent may be given, or withheld, with reasons given).

What 12-15 year olds need from their parents is parents who will recognise and affirm their agency; support them in making a decision for themselves; and continue to support them in the long-term consequence of that decision.

Clearly, not every child has parents who are willing or able to do that for them. Not only parents who don’t take responsibility, but also those who take too much; parents who believe that they know better and are acting in the best interests of a child who cannot see it yet because they are not an adult. You’ll find such parents across every demographic group by which you might sub-divide society.

Sometimes the rights of children overrule those of parents, and it is important that there are regularly reviewed due processes for determining this.

Ethics is a process of dialogue, that calls on us to listen attentively and care-fully—that is, having care for the person we are listening to—and speak courageously. It is a conversation in which no-one has the last word, because there is no last word. Where even when a child’s decision overrules that of their parent, the conversation must carry on: child and parents supported to be a family; families and Members of Parliament and experts in all manner of fields supported—supporting one another—to be a healthy society, able to face complex challenges.

 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Remember

 

There’s some kind of conifer growing outside my kitchen window, one can almost imagine being on the edge of a forest (there is no forest) and, standing at the kitchen sink this morning, it triggered thoughts of childhood holidays.

My childhood holidays, visits to grandparents in the southeast of England aside, were spent in Scottish villages, in the homes or bolt holes of friends of my parents. Port William, on the southwest coast; Corpach, just outside Fort William in the west Highlands; and Brora, on the far northeast coast.

I don’t remember how many times we stayed in each place. I can recall one memory from each. Finding a dead dog fish washed up on the beach at Port William. Tadpoles in the bath at Corpach, the peaty-brown water fed directly from a burn (stream) that ran through the property. Buying an Airfix model of a WWII vehicle in the village shop at Brora and constructing it. That’s it. That’s your lot.

As we emerge from the travel restrictions of the past year and a half, holiday destinations and agents will put pressure on parents to make ‘priceless’ holiday memories for their children. I recognise that I am not neurotypical, but nonetheless I suspect that for the most part such memories are not stored in destinations we revisit.

The purpose of a holiday is not to make memories (though that may be an added bonus) but to spend time together in the present moment. It doesn’t really matter where you do that, or what your budget is.

 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Open

 

Two teenage women are playing tennis in New York. One is British. Her father is from Romania, her mother from China. The other is Canadian. Her father is from Ecuador, her mother Filipino-Canadian.

Who wins?

Humanity wins.

Emma Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez.

 

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Hospice

 

One of the churches I serve marks its eighty-second birthday this weekend. St Nicholas’ was dedicated as a place of Christian worship in the early days of the Second World War. One member of our present congregation was there, as a choir boy, on that first day.

The congregation is struggling with the challenges of aging. In fact, of dying. Across the West, the Church is dying. Here in the north-east of England, 1% of the population belong to a church congregation, of any denomination. Very locally to us, the Methodists have just closed three of their churches, for ever.

I was asked, earlier this week, if I take this reality personally, if I feel that it is due to my failure. No. My ego is not that insecure. That the church is dying is not due to my failure, any more than, if the church were strong, it would be due to my success.

It is a reality of the natural order that every living entity dies. Trees grow over many decades, die, and can remain standing, dead, for a long time, before the wind topples them. Due to environmental factors, a whole forest can die at the same time. Cities, too, grow and die, often over centuries, with periods of accelerated growth and decline.

The same is true of the supernatural order. Jesus said, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains but one seed; but if it dies, it bears a harvest. He also said, anyone who would follow me must take up their cross and die. The Church proclaims that God leads us not from life to death, but from death to life, through death into life. Our Scriptures chart the history of many communities, across centuries, who experience the end of the world as they have known it, only to return, renewed.

The Church across North Africa and the Middle East has been dead for centuries; and is now bursting into new life. The Church in much of Asia is in its infancy; in much of Africa, a confident adolescence; in much of Latin America, a maturity; and in the West, approaching death. I have no doubt that the Church in parts of the world where it is currently at other stages will get there in time; and that the Church in the West will be reborn. But not without passing through death.

Is that sad? Well, yes, just as the death of any person is sad, for those who knew them. Does it distress me? No. It is the Way. Would I rather be living out my calling in some other time or place? No. This is what God has prepared in advance for me to do.

If the church were simply a gathering of individuals, we might expect to see every stage present at every moment in time. But the Church is not a collection of individuals, it is a living entity, within an environment. Not every congregation is in exactly the same place, but, nonetheless, the Church moves through the stages of life on a larger scale than the microscopic.

I am committed to proclaiming the gospel, in finding ways to help people to connect, with greater confidence, with the God who is already present in their lives. In fact, this is my everyday experience. But I do not expect that to result in the growth of my congregation, or to the rescue of the Church.

Why not? Because our congregations are hospices for the dying. In many cases, for those living with Parkinson’s or dementia or cancer. And it takes an extraordinary person to choose to join a hospice community, to be a doctor or nurse or cleaner or groundskeeper, or to be a palliative care nurse in the community. Of course, their work is valued, and people will take part in sponsored activities to raise funds for just such charities. But, to join them takes more. My sister was a hospice doctor. I have sat beside hospice beds, and I know that I could not work in such an environment. It takes someone quite extraordinary. By which, of course, I do not mean that the rest of us are bad people; just that most of us cannot bear to be faced by death so imminent, or life so raw and, in a paradoxical sort of a way, so very alive.

I am committed to proclaiming the gospel. But the death of the church does not scare me. Resurrection lies beyond. I resist the temptation of the death-avoidant culture around me, to desperately attempt to push death away. The Church, in the West, is a hospice. There is no cure. But there can be dignity, and a good end. And, outside of the Church as we have known it, there is still faith, hope, and love...

 

Aging process

 

Walking across Minster Square, I was stopped by a passing couple who wanted to express how disgraceful it was that, after so much money has been spent on the regeneration, the white stone is already blackened by the wheels of bikes and skateboards.

I pointed them to the tower of the Minster. Can you see, I asked, the clean stone where stones have had to be replaced, and the dirty stone that is older? Is it a disgrace that the stone is dirtied? (After all, it is dirtied by our collective pollution.)

This space was a dead area before. People passed through it as quickly as they could. These dark marks tell me that this is a living space now, that young people like to spend time here, along with older people sitting on those benches. Is that a disgrace?

Hear me, I appreciate that the regeneration requires work on all our parts to build bridges between generations. I am fully aware that there are older people who are troubled by the noise. I know that some young people are selfish and inconsiderate, as are some old people. But I will not join in cursing what I see as a blessing.

The discoloration of the stone is inevitable. That it has begun so soon is, in my opinion, an endorsement of the work that has been done to transform the space.

I hear what you are saying, the man said, but I can’t go there myself. I’m a fair bit older than you.

Yes, yes you are. But you approached me, and I will seek to build bridges, not walls that divide. And what I might say to a younger person would include inviting them across that bridge towards you.

Build bridges, not walls. Speak blessing, not curses.

It isn’t you, he asked, making these marks? Oh no, I replied, I don’t have the balance for skateboarding.

On the other hand, playfulness is a great way to reduce the symptoms of being a grumpy old man. Perhaps I should risk it, some time...

 

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Rejoicing and mourning

 

I am loving seeing so many Back To School photos on Facebook at the moment.

I don’t have one to share. I have a school-aged son, but he doesn’t go to school. For me, the start of a new term is the resumption of a daily round of leaving a message on an answer-machine notifying the school that he is not in, again, today. Last term, he managed three days. We’ll see how we go this term. It is heart-breaking. Please refrain from offering advice, thank you.

For others, these photos are painful reminders of the children they hoped for but never had; or of a child who should be returning to school but who has died. For some, the best thing to do is to disappear from Facebook for a week or two, until it passes. Be gentle on yourself.

For me, I choose to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn, to the best of my ability, knowing that one does not cancel out the other but that the joys and sorrows of life coexist.

It is that time of year again. However that finds you, be blessed today.

 

Blessings and woes

 

Gospel set for Holy Communion today: Luke 6:20-26

20 Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh...

24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep...

Blessing and woe. In this passage, Jesus places side-by-side ‘proverbial’ ideas from the Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible and justice ideas from the Prophets. I have set the latter [verses 22, 23 & 26] aside for now, because, important though justice is, I want to draw out the more often overlooked Wisdom dimension.

There’s a small but key word in these verses, and that is now. It carries the meanings at this present moment and also as a logical consequence of what has gone before. There are people living among us who are hungry, today, because of systemic injustice, a system that forces people to work for less money than it is possible for them to live on, so that they have to choose between rent and utility bills and food. And the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven compels us to face that reality and confront it. That’s the Prophetic tradition.

But, alongside that, the Wisdom tradition reveals to us a broader reality. Every one of us is subject to time and chance, to gifts and griefs. It is entirely right that weeping is the logical outcome of remembering a loved one who has died. And yet, we also know that though we are weeping in this present moment, we will know laughter again at some point in the future; perhaps even the near future. Emotions are not binary; in this fleeting life, joy and sorrow go hand-in-hand, together.

There are those who have, whether material goods or a prosperity of relationships, but who are so concerned that they might lose what they have, that they are quite unable to enjoy it. This is a tragedy, a great woe. For the reality is, we all lose what we have. We all experience loss, bereavement, poverty of spirit. We all experience comfort, too; not as a reward that demonstrates that we are more worthy, more deserving than others; nor as a right, because we have earned it; but because of the gift of God, to the righteous and the unrighteous, the good and the evil, the hero and the villain, alike.

Blessed are those who are experiencing the loss column in the ledger of life right now, on account of what has befallen them, but who know that they will soon experience the gain column. Who can give thanks to God that God does not abandon us in our grief, as well as for all of God’s good gifts we have enjoyed in the past and will enjoy in the future. For sorrow and joy, and life itself, are fleeting.

But woe to those who have been blessed and don’t recognise it. Who kill their spirit in trying to grasp that which is fleeting, and cannot be held on to. Who close their fist so tightly that they crush the gift in their hand.

Whatever you are experiencing now, have a blessed day.

 

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Is there a dog in this tail?

 

Shared culture is all-pervasive. If I say that I learnt French at school using the Tricolore books, or that I watched seemingly endless episodes of dubiously-dubbed Heidi on tv, there will be a whole cohort who know exactly what I am talking about.

Jesus was a first-century Jew. Most of the people whom he speaks with in the Gospels were Jewish, though some were Gentiles living among Jews. Most of the people who told and compiled the stories about Jesus were Jewish. Their shared culture was curated not in movies and pop music, but in the library of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus was a builder, but he didn’t do woodwork at school, he learnt it by apprenticeship. At school, his curriculum was the Bible. For entertainment, albeit not exclusively so, more stories from the Bible.

This all-pervasive shared cultural background resonates with every conversation in the gospels. So, when Matthew and Mark record Jesus having a conversation with a Syrophoenician woman about a dog, like Pavlov's bell it calls to mind the various references to dogs in the Hebrew Bible.

Though some see the term as a racial slur, nowhere is it used as such in the Hebrew Bible. The comparison is used to describe someone as of no importance, as when the Philistine champion Goliath asks the boy David if he comes at him as if he were a dog, and not a mighty warrior; or when people humble themselves before a dignitary to ingratiate them to him. But it is not ethnicity that is being interrogated.

Dogs are, on the other hand, repeatedly invoked in the judgement of illegitimate rulers whose downfall is being prophesied. Anyone belonging to Jeroboam or Baasha or Jezebel or Ahab will be eaten by dogs, who will lick up their blood.

In the Psalms, dogs—unclean scavengers—symbolise circling enemies.

There are two wonderful evocations of dogs in the Proverbs:

‘Like a dog who returns to its vomit is a fool who returns to his folly.’ (26:11) and

‘Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.’ (26:17).

And in Ecclesiastes, the wonderful evocative expression:

‘But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.’ (9:4)

So, when Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman discuss dogs, and when Matthew and Mark’s earliest audiences listen along, these and a handful of other dogs are circling the story.

Jesus is probably not pulling a passing dog’s ears, meddling in someone else’s quarrel, asking—deserving—to be bitten for his trouble.

He may well be invoking a judgement on the illegitimate rulers in Jerusalem. After all, he has come fresh from an encounter with scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem, some of whom will reject him, others of whom will continue in their interest. Though he is far from Jerusalem, he will soon enough turn towards that city. But first, like Elijah or Elisha in hiding, does he invoke dogs from the surrounding nations to prophesy the downfall of the Herodians at the hands of the Romans? Does he do so here because this woman has seen him for who he is, the Son of David, the true heir? Or do Matthew and Mark see this? Do they construct their story with this in mind, or their readers read it in between the lines? One cannot be fully certain of authorial intention, but this is how shared cultural reference works; the active making of certain connections, multiple, thick with meaning.

When Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman speak of children and dogs, are they speaking of Jews (children) and Greeks (dogs) or of the woman’s daughter and the unclean spirit that afflicts her? Is Jesus speaking against a system that has encouraged the woman to appease the demon, and the woman expressing concern not only (understandably) for her daughter but also for the demon (an early example of Stockholm Syndrome)? It may sound far-fetched, but there are plenty of cultures that seek to placate the spirits, plenty of people in my own culture that will advise you on how to do so. And elsewhere, even Jesus treats such spirits as troubled creatures in need of being seen, heard, and released from their torment, as much as releasing those tormented by them.

Will Jesus, who has removed himself from his critics and enemies return, as a dog returns to its vomit? (Yes, he will. And, moreover, he will go to Jerusalem. Does he not learn!?)

And what of the living dog and the dead lion? This evocative saying is, in my view, very much at the heart of the exchange. Jesus who will give his life that others might live, not only on the cross but in all his actions leading up to it.

I’ll admit to being dyslexic, to lying awake at night wondering whether there is a dog. It turns out that there is, and that he has a tail to tell.