Sunday, October 31, 2021

I can see Uranus


Stories matter. They give meaning to our lives. But how we tell them, and how we receive them, matters too. At the start of COP26, the New Testament reading set for today is Revelation 21:1-6, which has abused by fundamentalists who see our world as dispensable: God is going to replace it anyway. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand what we are looking at.

The Book of Revelation is not a foretelling of the end of the world, at least not in the sense that is usually understood today. It is apocalyptic literature, that is, a revealing what is going on right now—at the time of its writing—beneath the surface. John is writing to a minority community experiencing persecution at the hands of a global super-power, and he writes in coded form to give them hope.

The first heaven and earth have departed; a world of new possibility has taken their place; the sea is no more.

That is: Ouranus and Gaia, the sky and the earth, parents of the Titans who are, in turn, parents of the Olympians, have gone; and so has Thalassa, primal sea goddess, who created Aphrodite—whom the Romans fashioned Venus, their principal patron goddess—from sea foam and the castrated genitals of Ouranus, after Gaia took revenge on his hatred of their children by persuading their youngest son, the titan Chronos, to castrate his father...

That is: the Greco-Roman world, and in particular the cruel-hearted Rome, are about to be re-purposed, for a new story, full of new potential. A story in which the principal deity, the god of the Jewish people, is not distant but now makes his home among human beings, wiping away their present tears.

This vision is primarily fulfilled through the conversion of the Roman empire, and the establishment of the Church in Rome. It is a clash of stories, of mythologies, of meaning-making. It led to a world-ending and world-birthing transformation of the world as those who heard the Revelation knew it.

And it is in our past, in a world—and a Church—in need of regular re-imagining. Indeed, Revelation 21:1-6 is a re-telling of the Jewish text Isaiah 65:17-66:2, for this is a new beginning for Jews as well as for Gentiles. (Appropriately enough, today is also Reformation Day, as in, a recognition that the Church is always in need of reforming.)

So as we face up to catastrophic climate change and injustice, needing stories to help us imagine and birth a new world for future generations, we must return to Revelation 21, among other stories. But we must do so in a responsible manner. Unworthy gods are passing away, including the ones we have made in our own image.


Thursday, October 14, 2021

You are not enough, and that is okay


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

When a flood of waters covers us


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

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

Job 38:1, 34-38

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

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

by more, and more severe, floods;

and more, and more severe, droughts.

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

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

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

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


The wind in the trees


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

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

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


On grain and grapes


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

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

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

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

“Blessed be Abram by God Most high,

maker of heaven and earth;

and blessed be God Most High,

who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

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

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

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

to bless;

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

to celebrate;

to hold questions without answers;

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

That’s a good story to be part of.


All the feels


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrews 5:8, 9

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

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

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


Thursday, October 07, 2021

Book of Remembrance


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Mythical creatures


Mythical creatures, or On the nature of human beings.

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

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

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

Eve represents his marriage alliance to the Medes;

the walled garden in Eden represents Babylon;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A word


Some thoughts on policing...and pastoring.

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

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

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

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

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


Lament and repent


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

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

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

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

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

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.


Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Light / heavy


It is a beautiful day.

Not where I am.

Perhaps not where you are, either.

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

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

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

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