Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Shepherding breath


How should I exercise the cure of souls (literally, the care of people’s life-breath) when my own life-breath is caught, listless, in the doldrums of Covid on the hottest, breezeless, day in the UK since records began?

Qohelet, the great Teacher of ancient Israel, explores the recurring theme of chasing after the wind. It is a phrase he employs nine times (plus one additional labouring for the wind) and in seven of those nine times pairs with the statement that all is vanity.

The word translated vanity conveys the idea of something fleeting, ephemeral, insubstantial, as breath, which is all these things, and yet essential to life.

The word wind can also be translated spirit or breath.

The root of the word to chase after is to pasture, or shepherd: to lead a flock from place to place, in search of grass and water, in times of drought as well as times of abundance.

Essentially, everything Qohelet turns his hands to is both fleeting, and a pasturing of the breath—his own, and that of others, those he teaches and those he speaks up for. A participation in the gift of life, given and sustained by God.

There is potential frustration to this (the more common description of what I do is herding cats) but also a potential freedom. In the end, I believe, Qohelet comes down on the side of hope, not despair, and the maturity to value all life.

Though my breath is slight today, I can still point to the One from whom the life-breath comes. I can look up at the wispy clouds that do not move overhead, and offer no shade, but, rainless, scatter the heat across the sky, and say: this too is fleeting, and in a dry and barren land pasture is sought out for my soul by the Good Shepherd. Trust with me.


Thursday, July 14, 2022

time and eternity


Photo credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl, Carina Nebula

Within time, we are aware of past, present, and future.

Within eternity, we are aware of what was, what is, what is to come. Or, in Jesus, of the One who was and is and is to come.

These are not the same.

Whenever we carry the past with us, it is a burden. This week, I have sat with a family who have been haunted for five generations by a baby stillborn almost ninety years ago. Such generational post-traumatic distress is not unusual. The future harbours as many ghosts again.

When we carry eternity in our hearts, that is to say, when we consciously choose to dwell on what was (and is and is to come, held by God) rather than on the past (present, and future) then we experience life in its fullness.

This week we have seen incredible images from deep space, the labour wards of stars, light long vanished still shining. We have already come to know that the dust referenced in the words

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return

is stardust, and not only the soil beneath our feet. That we are part of something far more vast than we can ever imagine. What was and is and is to come.

More wonderful still, we are loved, and can return love; a four-score-years perfection, billions of years in the making. In one of the great prayers of thanksgiving offered when we break bread and share wine (Eucharistic Prayer F) we declare:

Lord God, you are the most holy one,
enthroned in splendour and light,
yet in the coming of your Son Jesus Christ
you reveal the power of your love
made perfect in our human weakness.

May you know that your frail body carries eternity, that our biographies are more than histories. May you know the love of Christ this day, and for ever.


Wednesday, July 13, 2022

run, walk, run


Yesterday afternoon, I went for a run on my own. I had decided that I would head over the Wearmouth Bridge, dropping down to run along the river, past the Queen Alexandra Bridge and on as far as the Northern Spire Bridge, cross back to the south side of the river and back as far as the Queen Alex, then home along the cycle path.

It was warmer than I had anticipated, and harder going. At the Alex, I reassessed, cutting the third bridge from my route. Even then, I had to drop to a walk climbing up from the riverbank and crossing the bridge (the light and dark blue sections on the map). I was dehydrated, and had pushed too hard, and my Achilles is telling me so this morning.

Running often brings me closer to God, and to myself. The word ‘soul’ means breath, our life-breath. Jesus said,

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:38-30)

There is, in these short verses, a beautiful invitation, to bring our heart (our capacity to make choices) and soul (our breath, which sometimes becomes laboured) and mind (our capacity to think, and feel, to learn experientially) and strength (our capacity to act, which grows weary over time and needs to be refreshed) together, into harmony, into rest. To move in God’s unforced power (that’s what ‘gentleness’ is getting at) recognising our dependence on God (this is what ‘humility’ means).

We discover in the Gospels that God moves at walking pace, at 3 miles an hour. At a pace where the breath is not laboured. Which is not to deny the place of effort, or the joy at the fruit of our labours that follows physically demanding activity; but to return, again and again, to a lightness of breath, a soul at peace with herself and the world.


Tuesday, July 12, 2022

the Other


Everything we thought we knew about the background of one of our greatest Olympians is wrong.

On several occasions, I have spoken as an expert witness and character witness at the appeal hearing of an asylum-seeker. The Home Office lawyer has always suggested that the person whose appeal is being heard is lying, and that I, along with all other ministers of religion, am naïve. I respond, you are clearly not an ignorant man; you are surely aware that frightened people lie to protect themselves from further perceived harm, and that traumatised people bury their past and construct origin stories as a survival mechanism: I can only assume that you are victim-blaming.

Mo Farah is not deserving of special treatment, that sets him apart from others in similar circumstances; but, rather, of the embrace and inclusion that all should receive. You don’t need to be an Olympian to build a new life and contribute to society, to British life.

I am thankful for the teachers who saw him, fought for him, who have helped him come to the time and place, years later, where he can tell a fuller story. And I am praying for all people like them, and for more people like them, who will embrace the Other.


Wednesday, July 06, 2022

how to be human


The Bible opens with two accounts, widely taken as creation stories. And they are, but, as I have argued at length elsewhere, not of the creation of the world by God (which is taken as a given) but of the creation of a new Israel. The poetic narrative of Genesis chapter 1 depicts the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple, and the exile into Babylon, and subsequent restoration, with the impact of that restoration on the good of the nations. The prose narrative of Genesis chapter 2 concerns Babylon (Eden), the Babylonian ruling dynasty (Adam), the ruling dynasty of the Medes (Eve), the population of Jerusalem taken into captivity in Babylon (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) and God with his people in exile (the tree of life).

The ability to discern between good and evil, and to choose for the good, is the defining characteristic of human beings, who are found in the likeness of God.

When we choose to ignore discernment between good and evil, determining that it is of no use to us, and ignore it consistently enough and for long enough, eventually we become less-than-human. Brute beasts of the field, without sense, or self-knowledge.

When we do this, we may take hold of all that we grasp, but in doing so we despoil that very thing, and all else with it. When a ruler grasps power in this way, eventually God’s forbearance reaches its end, and they are removed from their place.

This is what has become of our Prime Minister, though he has not yet arrived at the limits of God’s forbearance. He is a brute beast, unable to recognise good or evil, let alone tell them apart. It is a tragedy, for him, and a warning to all who look on him. And this is what is happening also to those who choose to sit at his table, serving at his pleasure. Tragedy begets tragedy.

Meanwhile, our land lies in ruins; and whatever light it held out to the nations, not on account of any special place in the divine economy but because all peoples are called to let their light shine, is obscured.

And yet the foundational story of the people of this God is one of restoration of hope. And, rooted in this story, I am not dismayed.