Monday, February 28, 2022

Bandages

 

Last week was February half-term. We had planned to spend it with dear friends down south. January and February had been relentless, and we needed this healing break. Then, two days before we were meant to be together, we got the call. Unexpectedly, M was going to have to begin another round of chemotherapy. We would not be able to stay with them after all.

Quickly, efficiently, and with the grace of God, Jo found us a Plan B. A holiday-let owned by the sister of a friend, in a quiet seaside village just along the coast from a seaside town, overlooking what, until the First World War, we commonly called the German Sea. And then we grieved, for our own loss as well as for our dear friends, for life is not a zero-sum game, nor grief competitive, but to be human is to weep—and to be comforted.

On the last evening of our break, we sat in the dark of a small seaside town cinema, having been sown to our seats by an usher, having admired the sashed curtain and the cinema organ in front of the screen. Thirty-seven people huddled together in the back third of the room—we need one another, more than simply needing some distance from the big screen; if we want to watch a film in the privacy of our own home, there is more choice than you can imagine—while every so often we heard distant rumbles from one of the other three screens. As I sat there, I thought of others, huddled with neighbours and strangers beneath the streets of Kyiv assailed by the pounding of distant shells, and prayed for peace.

And then the film began, the latest adaptation of Death on the Nile. Opening on the devastation of a Belgian landscape in the First World War. Providing a backstory for (Kenneth Branagh’s) Hercule Poirot, a farmer caught up in the great conflict, a man who hoped to be a farmer again, beyond this waking nightmare, and the husband of a farmer’s wife, and yet who possessed a rare mind and a great deal of youthful certainty. I was reminded of another retelling, not so long ago but on the small screen, in which (John Malkovich’s) Poirot was a Catholic priest, whose neighbours ran to the church for shelter as the Germans advanced on them, only to be trapped inside and massacred, Poirot alone surviving, left to carry the burden of faith in God and in humanity burnt to the ground, yet life carrying on. Agatha Christie herself takes little interest in her creation’s backstory: canonically, it is implied that he was a police officer in Belgium, but as Poirot is a notoriously and intentionally unreliable narrator of his personal history, this can not be taken at face value. He is undoubtedly a refugee who has made a new life. Why not a farmer, or a priest?

Sometimes life gets in the way of our plans. Derails them and then blows up the wreckage. It is not taking the road less travelled that makes all the difference, nor even making the path by walking it, so much as, what? So much as picking up the pieces and piecing them together, in such a way that life can carry on, not as it was before but as it can be now. There are no guarantees that this will be better than the life we planned or hoped for—life is not a benign benefactor, nudging us into something good we had missed at first glance, but the chronicle of all that happens, for better or worse—but it has the advantage of being where we find ourselves. And where we may be found. Where our wounds, visible and invisible, may be dressed by love.

 

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Third Day

 

From the Gospel set for Holy Communion today:

‘Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”’

(Mark 8:31-33)

Today in the Church calendar we remember Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Bogo-Zaire, murdered on or around this day in 1977 on the orders of Idi Amin. May he rest in power and rise in glory.

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is teaching his disciples that he will be killed, and on the third day rise again. What is it that God did on the third day? On the first day, God said Let there be light! and there was light. But on the third day, God drew the earth out from the waters, and then vegetation from the earth, fruit-bearing trees, seed-bearing fruit.

On the third day, God will draw the Son of Man — the creature made from the earth and given life by the breath of God — out from the waters of death that have overwhelmed him. God will cause this life to be fruitful, bringing joy and sustenance to many. And God will cause this fruitful tree of life to bear seed, that is, to reproduce itself.

The fruitful life of Christ, who suffers at the hands of violent men and is killed, and who rises up on the third day, is the life that is reproduced in his followers. We do not seek martyrdom, but we proclaim that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Janani Luwum was a true follower of Jesus the Christ. His life was fruitful, and the manner of his death gave glory to God and renewed life to the Church.

May we not set our minds on human things, but on the things of God, and of the Christ in and through whom all things are being reconciled to God. Amen.

 

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Flow

 

Flow.

The Sixth Year Common Room was zoned. There was the smaller end-room where the arty kids hung out, the ones who arranged to go see Del Amitri play the Barrowlands at the weekend. That was the space where I spent the most time. There was the large room, a more general space, but zoned, around the in-crowd. I was reasonably welcome there, but never entirely comfortable. I had been popular in the First year, not least because I was the one who brought a leather football to school, for the sprawling matches that occupied our playtime breaks; I kept goal, diving on tarmac, repeatedly going through the knees of trousers, causing my mother great distress; but in the Second year, depression touched my life, and from then, I was on the edge, in case the shadow be contagious. And then there was the space, just inside the door, that the outsiders made their den. The one who fantasised about killing people (and probably would have done, had it been America). The ones who today would be called Incels. The ones who were deliberately ‘deviant’ in their sexuality, as an act of rebellion. The one who would become the first of our cohort to die, of an overdose, not long after we left school. I deliberately spent time there, too. Once, a girl from a ‘good’ Christian family asked me, “Ugh. Why do you hang out with these people? They are…repulsive.” All I could offer her in response was that Jesus loved them and would have me be their friend. I don’t know that I have much more to add to this day.

They offered one another acceptance in that space, but it wasn’t a healthy space. The misfits who gathered there could be themselves, but in many ways, it was as toxic as the in-crowd space, where no-one was truly themselves at all (including, but by no means limited to, the ones who would come out at some future time).

I won a couple of school prizes that year, for Geography and for History, and chose books on architecture, poured over line drawings setting out principles of the flow of people (and light, and wind) through architectural space.

There are limits to spaces. There is a place for designated spaces, bedrooms for example, but also for communal spaces and still other spaces that connect them all. There is a place for open-plan space, for daily life shared, in common and without differentiation, segregation, privacy. But there are limits to open plan living, too. And every solution raises its own set of problems, notably unforeseen or perhaps dismissed as worth the cost, by those who will not be the ones living with the cost.

We all need spaces for our lives to be lived. Purpose-built, well-constructed, safe. But every space has its limits. At the limits of identity politics, in all its expressions, potential friends are pushed to become enemies, those who demand to be seen and heard refuse to see and hear others, those who needed to leave a space in which they were not permitted to ask questions refuse to be asked genuine, respectful, and sometimes challenging questions.

The ways in which our designated spaces connect, and the flow of movement between them, matters. And we will feel more, and less, at home from one space to another. Will relate to people differently, in each of our intimate, our personal, our social and our public spaces.

How do we create robust communal spaces, where we can co-exist well?

In a polarised society, this question is one we need to attend to.

 

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Strength

 

Mr Putin is amassing invasion-ready troops on the border with Ukraine—and simultaneously accusing the US administration of provoking a war as a pretext to impose economic sanctions against Russia.

This is classic bully behaviour: reframing the story, when they are stood up to, the bully insisting that they are the one being bullied. The narcissist, on being held to account, crying, ‘I am the victim of a witch-hunt against me!’

Politics (in the widest sense) is about power: including the power to do good; and—with the best of intentions—to cause unintended harm. And power is easily abused. Therefore, (well-intentioned, most often Left) political solutions to the problem of bullying produce systems that are susceptible for co-option by the bullies themselves. The very structures put in place to protect the vulnerable end up creating cover for the √úbermensch.

I am currently enjoying watching the tv series Superman & Lois with my wife and our teenage son. In the pilot episode, Clark Kent, his wife Lois Lane, and their teenage sons Jonathan and Jordan Kent move from Metropolis to Smallville, the backwater Kentucky town where Clark grew up. Smallville needs them; but Clark and Lois recognise, their family needs Smallville as much as (perhaps more than) Smallville needs them. This family needs Smallville, and something that is found in Smallville, but that Metropolis lacks.

Superman and Clark Kent are not so much alter-egos as the same person in different spheres. Superman is saving the world; Clark is trying to be a father to teenagers.

One sphere is concerned with power—and, yes, how to exercise self-control, and build (or lose) trust, and be accountable, all of which a father needs to pass on to his sons, for the political sphere is a sphere of all our lives.

The other is concerned with covenant. With commitment to the common good of a group of people who have much that is not shared in common. People with different personalities, facing different challenges, having different values and aspirations, coming to different conclusions as to the best way forward—yet committed to one another.

Smallville has endured some hard times, but here there is still a civil society based not on power or expediency but on neighbourliness and free association. It is at risk, cannot be taken for granted; but, nonetheless, it is still there, in the fabric of the place.

If we hope to be the kind of society where bullying does not flourish, we won’t get there by legislation, which is not to say that legislation does not have its place, but that it has is limits. We will need a very different vocabulary, a different playbook. We will need to learn to be curious, to ask questions for clarification, to suggest ways forward held lightly and open to counter-suggestions, to negotiate compromises, to take time-out, forgive, ask for forgiveness, seek to bless, prefer others over our own interests. In such ways we build resilience and healthy esteem for ourselves and for others.

There is a strength to power. But there is a greater strength to vulnerability.

 

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Righteousness and justice

 

I am struck by the Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today, taken from Genesis 18. In it, the LORD and his friend Abraham are in an honest and robust conversation.

Ahead of this, we are reminded that the LORD’s call on the descendants of Abraham—that is, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims—is that through them every human society might be blessed. Might enjoy life, in its fullness. This will come about as the family of Abraham attend to righteousness and justice.

Righteousness is the antidote to sin. For sin is the distance that, left unattended, grows between us; whereas righteousness is the paying of careful attention to all our relationships.

Justice is the antidote to evil, or wickedness—which is to act according to evil. For evil is indifference towards our neighbour, indifference towards whether they prosper or languish, flourish or wither; whereas justice attends to the conditions that enable all to flourish.

The LORD lets Abraham know that a report has been brought to his ears concerning the great sin of Sodom, and that he intends to investigate and to pass judgement. We know nothing of how that great sin is manifest; but do well to remember that sin is distance between us. We first hear of the great sin of Sodom at the point where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, settles there. Between them, Abraham and Lot’s flocks and servants were sufficiently great that they needed to part company, as neighbours rather than one unit. But in noting that Lot moved away as far as Sodom, the distance is emphasised. The distance between uncle and nephew is great. Later still, the city of Sodom is defeated in battle and its inhabitants, including Lot and his family, are carried off even further away from Abraham—who sets out to bring them all back, for his nephew’s sake.

Now, in conversation with the LORD, Abraham asks God to do as Abraham has done. To bless all communities, by allowing the unrighteous to enjoy the benefits of the righteous. Abraham asks the LORD not only to look for evidence of sin—which will be easily found—but also to search for evidence of righteousness and justice, however few examples may be present.

This matters, in investigating, gathering evidence, and coming to a decision as to how to respond. That reports of great sin—of a gulf between the perpetrators and wider society—be taken seriously, not dismissed, not swept under the carpet. But that evidence of righteousness also be looked for, noted, honoured. And for the sake of a righteous remnant, not that there be no consequences for the wicked, but that the whole community is not consumed by wrath.

In our anger at the wickedness of the Executive—their utter indifference towards their neighbour—may we refrain from writing-off all our elected Members of Parliament.