Friday, August 26, 2022

Attend



I am paying attention to the wind, tugging seeds from a thistle growing in the wild corner of our garden, and lifting them high into the air. Patient. Persistent. Mesmerising. I resist the urge to give a helping hand, to sweep my fingers across the thistle heads and free the seeds. There is no excuse for inaction, but sometimes, often, the best course of action is simply to be attentive, to get out of the way and bear witness to what the wind/spirit/breath is doing.

 

Exams

 

Most Fridays I go for a 10K run with friends, although, post- having Covid, it will take me a while to get back to that level of fitness. And there is a clear ritual to the process. Each week, a map of the proposed route is posted on Facebook. At some point in the course of every run, Brian says, When I said that [previous hill] was the last hill, I had forgotten about this one ... and I always respond, To be fair, the route is always flat on the map ...

Maps are incredibly helpful but limited. A road atlas doesn’t show the topography, or let you know where there are roadworks or traffic jams. Maps need additional information, and interpretation.

We can think of exams as maps. They tell us something, and they certainly aren’t a waste of everyone’s time, but there is plenty they don’t tell us. A pupil’s exam results don’t tell us the road they travelled to get there, the additional challenges they faced and had to overcome. We can locate where someone is on the map, but it is possible that one child got there climbing a steep ascent, while another child got to the same location, from another starting point, by way of a flat route or even a free-wheeling downhill section. Exam results can never be truly comparative. But, taken with other information, they can be helpful in making decisions about where to go from here.

The past few years have been incredibly challenging for our youngest son, Elijah, not primarily to do with the pandemic. But he has achieved an amazing set of GCSE results, and we are proud of and delighted for him.

 

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Faithfulness

 

In the days immediately before his death, Matthew records, Jesus spoke extensively about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Within this discourse, he told a parable about what faithfulness looks like (Matthew 24:45-51).

Jesus compares the faithful and wise slave whose master charges him with providing the other house-slaves with their food in season, with the wicked slave who abuses his fellow slaves and indulges in reckless living. The former is entrusted with all that his master has; the latter is cut to pieces in the place of weeping.

At one level, this is a parable of perspective. From one perspective, the priests are the faithful servant, administering the daily sacrifices at the Temple; and Jesus is the glutton and drunkard who will be executed outside the city walls. From another perspective, Jesus is the faithful servant, feeding the people in the wilderness; and the priests are those who will be cut down in the city rubbish dump when the Temple is destroyed along with most of Jerusalem. What do you see?

At another level, this is a description of the idolatry that has led to this inevitable outcome. On close reading, there is only one servant, who starts out faithful and becomes wicked. The priests did not set out with the intention of being wicked. But somewhere along the line, the servant takes his eyes off the master, and allows the house-slaves he was appointed to minister to, to become an idol.

Whenever this happens, whenever the thing we love, the vocation entrusted to us by God, becomes an idol to us, we flip. Conservatives become destructives. Bible-believing Christians become biblically illiterate fundamentalists. Liberals become deeply illiberal. Catholics become schismatics.

The corrective against this is to keep our eyes on the master we serve, and to understand the season we are in, in relation to the thing entrusted to us. There is a time for every matter under heaven, a season for bearing fruit and for refraining from fruitfulness, for working and resting.

Learn to know the season your calling is in, and to notice the rhythmic changes from one season to the next. And how it relates to the vocations of others, also needed, in their season, for the good of the whole.

 

Monday, August 22, 2022

Creation Season

 

The Season of Creation, which runs from 1 September to 4 October each year, is that part of the church calendar dedicated to God as Creator and Sustainer of life. The great poem of Genesis chapter 1 is a text of many layers, enabling us to discover something new each time we go there; but as we approach Creation Season, I am reflecting on it as a curriculum of habitat, the study of God preparing a home for all life.

First, the vocation of light (day) and dark (night). Of habitats for diurnal and nocturnal animals (and diurnal plants that unfold their petals with the unfolding light, and twist to track the sun through the course of the day, before folding their petals again for sleep). Day and night, of course, are not binary, and this first work of creation also creates habitats for crepuscular animals, both matutinal (active at dawn) and vespertine (active at dusk).

Second, the vocation of the water cycle. Of (ice and) fresh water, saline water, atmospheric water. Of evaporation, condensation, precipitation. The processes of producing and sustaining the 1% accessible freshwater life depends on, as well as directly shaping the lifecycle of some animals, such as frogs that spend most of their life sleeping buried in mud, waiting the rains and the release of tadpoles that will grow into frogs by the time their pool evaporates.

Third, the vocation of land (and plants) and seas. Again, these are not binary, but meet and flow into one another. Forests and grasslands and semi-arid zones and deserts and icesheets. Marshes and estuaries and intertidal zones and reefs.

Fourth, the vocation of sun, moon and stars as markers and guardians of the seasons. Of aestivation (animals that sleep through the summer months) and hibernation.

Fifth, the vocation of marine biodiversity and birds. Of krill, and great migratory whales; migratory swallows; and category-defying penguins and ostriches.

Sixth, the vocation of land animals and, last to appear on the scene, people. Of migratory butterflies and zebra; migratory domesticated cattle, and their migratory nomadic herders. Of human ethnic diversity, and the many ways we have made our home in different habitats.

Seventh, the vocation of rest. God moves from care for creation—a home for every living thing—to enjoying, delighting in, creation. And God draws humans to first delight in creation, that we might care for creation.

 

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Love and Thunder part 2

 

The purpose of mythology is to help us navigate our own time. Key to Thor: Love and Thunder is an exploration of rebuilding life after your world comes to an end. The ways you can do so unhealthily, or healthily.

Following the destruction of Asgard, the surviving Asgardians founded New Asgard on earth. But it has become almost a parody of itself, its story told as a theme park for tourists rather than to provide their children with roots that go deep. Asgard no longer exists, at least in a physical sense; yet New Asgard, which does, is not as real. It lacks any thickness, lacks substance. What will it take to transform this, to reawaken a community?

Thor is lost to himself; his former girlfriend Dr Jane Forster is lost to herself; each is lost to the other. What must they let go off, in order to remain true? What fears must they overcome? What fears must they surrender to?

Thor’s magical hammer, Mjolnir, has also been destroyed, and lies dormant, a curiosity, a tourist attraction; but Mjolnir reassembles itself—its broken parts held together, visibly scarred—by the power of love. Not even love can heal a history that remains subject to denial; and the future we are yet to discover bears the marks of the past we did not entirely choose, though had some degree of agency within.

Heimdall’s daughter wishes to be known as Heimdall’s son. Thor is deeply uncomfortable with this. Does that make him transphobic? Or does he understand that there is a deep vocation to being the daughter of Heimdall, that should not be lightly laid aside, even for an alternative expression? Or is it enough to be able to say, I am uncomfortable with this; I have questions, and concerns, about where the limits of individualism lie; but, nonetheless, I will treat you with dignity, I will support you with love? In the complexities of life, we do well to extend honour, and not judgement, towards one another.

The purpose of a movie is to entertain. But, under the cover of escapism, sitting in the dark, questions are posed, explored, left unresolved, taken away with us. How has my world gone through these things? Or what might happen next? Questions always tied to our own personal histories, the ways in which our lives have been destroyed and reconstructed, securely, or insecurely. And to all our possible futures.

The New Testament reading this Sunday, from the Letter to the Hebrews, speaks of everything that can be shaken, being shaken, so that, in the end, only what cannot be shaken remains. Of inheriting a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and therefore of the possibility—truth even—of experiencing joy, in the midst of our world being shaken violently, to the core. Not entertainment, but sustainment. Not a settling for a shadow of the past, but the awakened hope of a more substantial future, calling us.

Our world is being shaken. How will we respond?


Love and Thunder part 1

 

We went to see Thor: Love and Thunder, which is loosely based on, but far less bleak than, the comic book Gor: the God-butcher.

When the gods do not answer Gor’s prayers that his dying child live, he sets out to kill all gods, inevitably becoming corrupted, and, at least in the comic book, ironically becoming the very thing he despises. (In this, Gor represents the human condition, for we have killed our gods and found not promised freedom but terror.) In this way the story explores the origins, perpetuation, and nature of suffering. Are gods to blame, or be rejected on account of suffering? And does anything good come from suffering; or, to put it another way, is there anything we gain from suffering that we would otherwise fail to embrace?

In Thor: Love and Thunder exploration of these deep questions is mostly reworked through the lenses of self-preserving distance, stage 4 cancer, and childhood nightmares, to explore our longing for love, and our need for courage. With a generous side-helping of humour, high-octane soundtrack, and dodgy costumes. Which is exactly what a 12A movie should do. Though, arguably, the best bit was the trailer for Wakanda Forever, coming this November, before the film started.

 

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Upside-down kingdom

 

The Gospel set for Holy Communion today is Matthew 22:1-14. Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven has been made this way: and goes on to tell a story.

Jesus tells the story of a king who wishes to secure his dynastic line of succession. He throws a banquet for his son and invites the great and the good. But these despise the king and refuse to come—some even revolt—and the king, enraged, has them all killed. He then sends his soldiers into the streets to press-gang whoever they find to attend, that he and his son might look popular and beloved. Think North Korea, Putin’s Russia, or any other dictatorship. One man stages a dignified protest. He is there, under duress, but he refuses to wear wedding clothes. When interrogated by the king, he refuses to speak. And so, he is bound, and taken beyond the walls, to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The man is Jesus, who will be first dressed in a purple robe by soldiers in mock homage and then have that robe removed; who will be silent before Pilate, refusing to respond to his accusers; who will be bound, and led outside the city walls to the place of execution, and executed, along with others, while their women weep.

When Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven has been made like this, he is not saying that the kingdom of heaven has been made to be the same as the kingdoms of the earth, where those in power will kill to remain in power; but, rather, that the kingdom of heaven has been made to be a subversive, non-violent alternative in the very midst of such kingdoms.

This matters, enormously; because the ‘conventional’ way of reading this parable, where a king must always refer to God, and the son therefore to Jesus, leads not only to a defence of eternal conscious torment but also, and always, to the ‘Christian nationalism’ co-opted by Trump and Orb├ín. Whenever the Church seeks to hitch itself to earthly power, it results in a bastardisation of the faith, a perverse ‘righting’ of the upside-down kingdom where the weakness of God is true strength and the foolishness of God is true wisdom; a false witness that profanes the reputation of God among the nations (Ezekiel 36:23-28, the Old Testament reading paired with Matthew 22:1-14 at Holy Communion today).

Jesus ends by saying that those who have been invited into the kingdom of heaven are beyond number, but that those who respond to the call are few. A call to refuse to play by the rules of the world, even though the world may very well kill you (metaphorically or literally) is hardly popularism. And yet, it is through these few, who have said yes to God wholeheartedly, that the world may be transformed.

 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Son of David

 

The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today is 1 Samuel 20:18-42, the continuation of the account of David and Jonathan.

This passage contains at least three parallels with the Passion narrative concerning Jesus, the Son of David. These are:

David is hidden from sight by a large stone until the morning of the third day // Jesus lies in the tomb, sealed by a large stone, until the early morning of the third day.

When Saul demands that David be put to death, Jonathan responds, ‘Why should he be put to death? What has he done?’ // When the chief priests demand of Pilate that Jesus be put to death, Pilate responds, ‘Why? What has he done, deserving of death?’

The intimate one-to-one meeting between David and Jonathan, where Jonathan must let David go, to fulfil his calling to become king // The intimate one-to-one meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, where Mary must let Jesus go, to fulfil his calling to become king.

And, arguably, an additional parallel in that the vow made between David and Jonathan throughout all generations forever finds a parallel in the covenant between Jesus and the Church.

These parallels are playful and fun, but they also serve to identify Jesus as the Son of David and to prompt us to ask, what kind of a king is this king Jesus? And this matters, in the light of what follows his resurrection, that this is not the moment when an immortal Jesus will take back Jerusalem from the Roman legions.

In short, what follows on from this moment in the story of David and Jonathan is that David, who was already anointed as king some years earlier, goes into hiding, eventually in a cave, for thirteen years, during which all those who were dispossessed by Saul’s rule gathered to him and were transformed into a purposeful family, before David is eventually publicly recognised as king.

This is the pattern for Jesus’ kingship: anointed since his baptism; in his resurrection and ascension, hidden from sight; drawing to himself the dispossessed; awaiting the day when he will be revealed as king before all nations.

David // the Son of David.

 

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Death

 

‘But truly, as the Lord lives and as you yourself live, there is but a step between me and death.’

The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today is 1 Samuel 20:1-17 and records a conversation between David and his dear friend Jonathan. David is (rightly) convinced that Jonathan’s father, Saul, intends to kill him. Jonathan is sure that if that were the case, his father would have confided in him. David responds that Saul is keeping his intention from Jonathan, because he knows that it will grieve him. And David reasserts that ‘there is but a step between me and death.’

As far as I am aware, no one is out to murder me. Yet though the particulars differ, David reveals a universal truth: there is but a step between me and death. People die, every day, people we know and love, and people known and loved by others, and for the most part we do not know the hour of our death. Such knowledge is hidden from us, and for good reason. Nonetheless, we are all but a step away from death, though for as long as our steps run in parallel, we live.

This morning, the lines came close for me. As I stood waiting for the lights to change, to cross a three-lane road, an approaching car in the far lane slowed down and stopped. Assuming the light had gone red for traffic, and was about to turn green for pedestrians, I cautiously stepped into the road. A taxi pulled out from behind the waiting driver into the middle lane and blasted me with its horn. I have no idea why the other driver would stop for a pedestrian when it was not safe, for them or the pedestrian, to do so. But in any case, my steps and death did not converge. One day, perhaps even later this day, they will.

Life is a gift, from God. Death brings that gift to an end, even though I believe God has gifts for us beyond this life. There are times when that gift seems strange or unwelcome, too much or too little to bear. It is perfectly valid to ask the Giver, ‘What is this for?’ or, ‘Is it meant to be like this? Has it somehow been broken, and can it be repaired?’ Such questions are good, even when we do not receive an answer, immediately or at all, or the answer we were hoping for. The kind of gift that life is, is a mystery, too deep to be understood, too vast to be contained in our understanding. To receive it at all calls on our heart and mind and strength and soul, and even combined we cannot fathom its depths.

All that said, this day, receive the gift held out. This day, choose life. And when the time comes to step in time with death, know that Life has chosen you, to rest in peace and rise again in glory.

 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Blessed

 

Today (15 August) the Church honours the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. The Gospel passage set for Morning Prayer is Luke 11:27-28,

While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”

Jesus’ response mirrors that of the woman, and goes deeper: blessed (happy) are those who hear and comprehend the word spoken by God so that faith is birthed within them (the idea here is conception, not full-term birth) and who guard, protect or watch-over it (the idea here is pregnancy, of the foetus developing in the womb, and the mother cherishing this miracle of new life within and with her). In other words, Mary, who said yes to God and in whose womb the Word of God took on flesh, and who treasured these things in her heart (the word rightly translated womb in Luke 11:27 can refer to any internal organ and the inner being) is the model for all.

But there is more to this brief exchange on the birthing and nurture of God’s word in our lives. In the Greek, verse 27 begins, ‘It came into being, or, to birth, by Jesus saying this, that a woman in the crowd lifted up her voice and said to him...’ By Jesus saying what, exactly? In Luke 11:14-23, Jesus casts out a demon who has prevented its ‘host’ from speaking, and the crowd is divided in its opinion: some argue that it is by the authority of the ruler of the demons that Jesus casts demons out. Jesus responds, how can a kingdom divided against itself stand? Rather, I do this on the authority of God, and as a sign of God’s kingdom among you. Jesus continues (Luke 11:24-26, the saying that births a response in the woman), explaining that when an unclean spirit is cast out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions in search of a place to rest and be refreshed, and, finding none, determines to return to the person whom it had made its home (‘my house from which I came’) and, finding ‘the house’ in order, brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and together they take possession of the person’s life, such that their state is now worse than before.

Jesus is speaking about our lives as a resting place, either for the Holy Spirit (of whom Jesus speaks in Luke 11:9-13) or for unclean spirits. Even if spirits who afflict a person’s life are driven out, unless the life-giving Holy Spirit is received, the relief from affliction may be short-lived. We don’t like to admit that we aren’t fully in charge of our own lives, but if we are honest, we know it to be true (even as I was writing this, I nipped out to buy milk; the woman in the queue ahead of me confessed to the cashier that she had fallen off the wagon over the weekend, and the cashier replied, oh well, it can’t be helped). And the woman in the crowd hears and comprehends that Jesus is the fruit of another woman who had welcomed the Holy Spirit and made first her very body and then her home, both building and family, a resting place for the liberating word of God, breath given voice.

May we be as the unnamed woman in the crowd, who was, in turn, a woman in the pattern of the Blessed Virgin Mary.