Sunday, June 09, 2024

Faith, health, welfare and pensions

 

Here in the UK there will be a General Election on 04 July. Over the five Sundays in June, I intend to look at several key issues relating to how we vote, continuing, today, with health, welfare and pensions. My intention is not to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for—though I will touch on policies—but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote?

Our first reading today, Genesis 3.8-15, is part of the mythic story with which the Bible opens. By myth, I mean a story that transcends the context in which it was first told, and that takes on new layers of meaning in subsequent contexts. We have such myths in our national history—stories of King Arthur, or Robin Hood, for example, retold, reimagined, and repurposed to speak to distant descendants facing crises of their own.

In this myth, God creates the human being—male and female—in God’s image. The world of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, was a world of expanding empires. When an army besieged and defeated a city at distance from their own capital, they would erect a statue, an image of their king, to say though this king is not here in person, they are king here now. These representations expressed the ideal image of the time, to which others aspired. Look at statues of Roman emperors (a timeline that stretches beyond the New Testament) and you will see that the first thirteen, from Augustus to Trajan, are all clean-shaven. This changes in 117 CE with Hadrian: the next eight emperors all follow hirsute suit, sporting magnificently sculpted beards. But the Genesis myth presents us with something different: it is not a statue that represents the king in his absence, but living creatures, sculpted from clay, yes, but breathed into life.

God places the humans in a garden paradise, from which they are to go forth and multiply and fill the earth. But for now, there are boundaries: the limit of the garden walls, and a restriction on what they can eat—the fruit of any tree, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The purpose is not to keep them contained or ignorant, but in fact the very opposite: as we experience adolescence, as we navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood, we need space to explore, to take risks, to make mistakes and together with peers learn from them and decide on a way forward, to learn how to mend small ruptures in relationships, to take on progressively more responsibility, to spend longer periods away from our parents while having a secure base to return to and go out from.

In the garden, the serpent engages the woman in conversation. The humans, remember, are still learning, are facing the challenges that will help them grow. As the woman—with childlike impulse—attempts to help a fellow child grow in understanding, we discover that, whereas God has told them not to eat of the fruit of one tree, they are not yet brave enough even to touch that tree. But the serpent—whose motive is not childlike—claims that to eat its fruit will be good for them, making them like God. Children are predisposed to want to be like their parent—copying them, before we learn to obey, or disobey—and, together, the woman and the man eat. And in this moment, something changes. They see themselves with a heightened self-consciousness. And then, they hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hide.

When God calls to them, ‘Where are you?’ the man replies, I heard you, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid. Fear is a double-edged (s)word: it refers both to an elevated reverence for someone else, and to an elevated sense of threat to oneself. One biblical tradition asserts that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge or wisdom (Psalm 111.10, Proverbs 1.7 and 9.10). This, then, is the birthplace of wisdom, of learning how to approach God and of learning how to bear God’s likeness. [This reminds me of the conversation in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Susan asks whether the lion Aslan is “quite safe” and Mr Beaver replies, “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”] But here we also see the birth of comparison: the humans compare their naked selves against the Lord God and feel threatened. They also see one another as a threat, to be pre-empted.

What has this to do with health, welfare and pensions? I would suggest, a great deal.

First, across the English-speaking Western world in particular, we have witnessed a spectacular breakdown in the mental health of our young adults. In his book The Anxious Generation, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the impact of the virtual world on girls and boys. As backstory, Haidt notes the loss of play-based childhood from the 1990s onward, as adults became overly protective of children within physical space, denying them the freedom to explore. Drawing on many research studies, he charts the impact of the growth of the internet, and the advent of the smart phone from around 2010. This trend has been bad for boys and disastrous for girls. We all experience motivation to agency—to growing competence and assertiveness—and motivation to communion with others—to cooperation and empathy. But in general terms, boys are encouraged more towards agency, and girls more towards communion. Business understands this, and so, in the virtual world, boys have been targeted by video games (increasingly massive multiplayer platforms) and pornography (increasingly hardcore) and girls have been targeted by social media platforms. Boys have withdrawn more and more from the physical world, losing confidence and competence there, while girls have experienced the devastating impact of manipulated visual social comparison, relational aggression, and wanting to fit in by copying influencers. Girls have elevated impossible and unreal expectations of beauty and, unable to live up to them, have hidden themselves deeper into the forest of anxiety. Boys are being taught to blame women for their woes, exacerbated by a shift from male-heavy industrial communities to service-based economies where women are better-equipped to excel.

All of this is almost entirely unchecked by society, which still tends to overfocus on physical safety. But the physical safety of our children has increased for several generations (in part, perhaps, due to a withdrawal from the physical world). In the UK we have seen a significant rise in knife-enabled crime over the past decade, though injuries and homicides have fallen. Where children are carrying knives, mostly for defence, it is because they perceive the world outside to be more dangerous than it actually is, arguably because it has become a more alien environment to them. Addressing this may involve putting more police officers on the ground (Con 20,000; Lab 13,000), adult-organised youth hubs with mental health provision (Lab), or a dedicated mental health professional in every school (LibDem); but we also need to address the loss of public space where children can play unsupervised (including hostile attitudes towards groups of young people) as well as holding online platform developers to a far greater level of accountability. Where parties want to extend fast broadband, so no community is left behind (Green, LibDem), what measures do they propose to protect our children online? We should pay close attention to the proposals of the different parties in addressing this mental health crisis—a crisis of adult making, but falling on children, who are not a problem to be solved. They are certainly not to be demonised. Which brings us nicely to Jesus’ observation, in the context of being misunderstood and demonised, that ‘if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand’ (Mark 3.20-35).

Health, welfare and pensions are major issues in the forthcoming General Election. They are issues that have an impact on all our lives, and they are issues that play deeply to any insecurity in our sense of identity, and to the sense of fear that springs from comparing ourselves to others—or, for those whose circumstances change, comparing ourselves as we see ourselves today against how we saw ourselves in the past.

Taken as a whole, the income and wealth of pensioners has increased over the past 30 years but is subject to widening inequality. 33% of Asian older people and 30% of Black older people live below the poverty line, compared to 16% of White older people; while17% of pensioners are in the top fifth of all household income. This has significant impact on health, on life-expectancy and quality of life. It has a bearing on hospital-based care, and on social care to support independent living; on how we fund the NHS and how that funding is shared. The Green Party’s proposal for modest tax rises for the wealthiest, and Reform UK’s proposal to remove the ‘free at the point of use’ principle for those who can afford to pay are two very different approaches on offer.

And how do we go about addressing the overwhelming levels of need, including waiting lists, in ways that honour those who work in health and social care, who, despite our claiming that the NHS is a national treasure, are often treated—badly—as our household servants? In Genesis 3, the Lord God moves to remove shame and restore dignity. In Mark 3, Jesus redefines our understanding of family, beyond self-interest, and aligned with God’s desire for a caring society. No one party has a monopoly on the best way forward; these issues deserve cross-party collaboration, not the trading of apportioning blame and deflecting responsibility we have seen so far in this Election campaign.

It is easy to write-off politicians for such human behaviour—as if we are any different. But while there are things best delivered nationally, or regionally, repairing a caring society cannot be left to government alone or to market forces. It requires of us all that we act as those who bear the image of God, and that we recognise our neighbour as bearing that same image. Weigh the party manifestos and exercise your vote. But also ask, how might we as a local community address some of these issues, whether by creating space for young people or through the Parish Nursing movement, by identifying need and working with others to meet it in sustainable ways.

 

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Faith, work and the economy

 

It won’t have escaped your notice that here in the UK there will be a General Election on 04 July. Over the five Sundays in June, I intend to look at several key issues relating to how we vote, beginning, today, with work and the economy. My intention is not to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for—though I will touch on policies—but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote?

Work impacts all our lives, including the lives of children and pensioners. And work is a good thing, where it enables us to express something of ourselves, in ways that make a meaningful contribution to society, and in exchange to receive back what we need to meet our needs. It is also a sphere of life where humans exploit other humans, and people experience injustice. The UK has a very high level of income inequality [pay, bonuses, shares, pensions] compared to other developed nations, and an even higher level of wealth inequality [land and property ownership].

One of the foundational events in the Bible is the exodus of the descendants of Jacob from Egypt, where they had initially been welcomed as economic refugees but were later heavily exploited amid rising fear that their population had grown too large to live peaceably alongside their hosts. Soon after Moses leads their escape, God presents them with Ten Words—we know them as the Ten Commandments. These were fundamental for society to flourish but needed fleshing-out in practical case law. One of the Words concerned work, and, specifically, the key importance of regular rest from labour or exertion, grounded in the rhythms of nature itself. When, forty years later, Moses restated the Ten Words to the generation who had left Egypt as children, or who had been born after that experience, he reframed the Word explicitly as protection against exploitation:

‘Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.’ (Deuteronomy 5.12-15)

Sabbath means to cease exertion, to rest. And the Word concerning work flows out rest. That is to say, it places restriction on work. In a sense, it seeks to save work from itself. By putting a limit on work, it prevents a good thing from becoming an idol, an all-consuming thing that exploits us. It provides clear margins around work for rest, for celebration, for other expressions of community. And of course, this pattern presupposes that the labour of six days provides for seven. You cannot rest if you are worrying about how you are expected to choose between eating and keeping warm. So, we might want to ask, of each party’s manifesto, what is your understanding of work? And do you value people as more than economic units?

This Word is expansive: it starts with you and extends to others. The primary focus is on those with the most means. The Word places a limit on the pursuit of profit and insists on a duty of care towards others. These are not others who are ‘less fortunate than ourselves’—a phrase I dislike intensely, a phrase that shields the rich from addressing systemic unfairness. No, this Word is concerned with justice for all. The Labour Party’s policy of making the minimum wage a real living wage, and the Green Party’s policy of introducing a Universal Basic Income, giving everyone the agency to take time away from work to care for family, learn new skills, volunteer, or pursue other interests, would be ways of fleshing this out.

The Word turns to addressing young adults. What does liveable work and rest mean for them? Zero-hour contracts might sound attractive when the worker can easily step outside work commitments for a time and take up other employment fairly easily; but where a diversity of opportunity is missing, such terms are exploitative. I don’t know what you think of the Conservative policy that every 18-year-old should do National Service? Perhaps you think it is just what they need. Perhaps you think that many young people are already volunteering in the community, and perhaps it should be compulsory for all ages. Perhaps you think it isn’t a bad idea, but it needs more thought: who is going to supervise these young people, and monitor the value of the experience? But ‘[requiring] another person to perform forced or compulsory labour’ is an offence under the Modern Slavery Act 2015; and perhaps we should rather ask how do we protect the margin of free time around young adults? Related to this, we might ask, why is the minimum wage for those under 21 less than that for those who are 21 and over? Someone might respond that young people have fewer commitments; but that isn’t the basis on which we pay for labour. Why should they not have the opportunity to build up savings, rather than the idea that, in the long run, it is good for people to experience getting into debt? [It isn’t.]

Next, gender is addressed. Do not discriminate. In this country, it is illegal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same work. But it happens all the time. It happens in hidden ways, such as men being given larger bonuses, and also because women have too often assumed that the law is being observed. Women face discrimination, for example because maternity leave costs an employer in ways that have no immediate benefit to the employer: if profit is your bottom line, rather than a duty of care, women make poor employees, and all employees—regardless of gender—are disposable. What do the various party manifestos have to say about workers’ rights, and about the balance of care between the employer, the state, and the individual?

The Word addresses beasts of burden, which, in our context, might be expanded to include machinery and tools. There is something here about technology, about obsolescence, about the relentless exploitation of the natural world; and about commitment to a greater contentment and appreciation of what we have. Again, there is something here that resists reducing everything to short-term profit, and that asks whether we might reimagine what has been termed a ‘greening’ of the economy.

And the Word addresses our attitude towards the resident alien in our towns. This is, of course, highly contentious in our society: but it is not an issue that will be addressed by ignoring it. Since the lifting of Covid restrictions, and the ending of the EU transitional arrangements, we have seen a very marked rise in long term immigration among non-EU nationals, with those on ‘skilled worker – health and care’ visas having overtaken those on study visas, and dependents of those with ‘skilled worker – health and care’ visas having overtaken primary applicants. We have experienced the impact of this on our own congregation, with healthcare workers from Nigeria and Ghana and India and their families worshipping with us. So, we might ask, if we are content for immigrants to perform care work, for which they are often both overqualified and poorly paid, what might we owe them, as a society? And if we do want to reduce immigration, how might we go about that well? Reform UK propose a higher rate of National Insurance to be paid by businesses that employ non-British nationals, though, tellingly, their proposal would exempt the health and care sector.

Moses ends with a reminder that we do this in part because of an appreciation of our own history of exploitation experienced by previous generations. That we are not to lightly throw away rights won. In this nation, this would include the right to vote, the right to Union representation, rights in the workplace, maternity provision, protection in times of sickness, benefits of the welfare state. Rights that are constantly resisted and pushed back on by vested interests who would exploit others for personal gain. There are many stories of resistance and demand for change in our shared history. Some have been championed by the Church, some ignored, some actively resisted. But stories, and how we tell them, matter.

Let’s turn to our Gospel passage, Mark 2.23-3.6. I’m not going to read it out, you can look it up for yourself later. Here, I simply want to offer some thoughts on how we should conduct ourselves over the coming weeks. The Gospel passage records two clashes between Jesus and a group who saw him as a threat to their vested interests, to their privileged position in society. Who saw Jesus as their enemy, to be destroyed. First, they use a very harsh interpretation of the law to discredit Jesus’ disciples; then they pretend that engaging with Jesus’ questions is beneath their dignity.

In contrast, Jesus reminds them of a story from their history that they have chosen to bury, a story that raises compassion above control. Every party, every candidate standing in this General Election will remind us of certain stories about our shared history, that emphasise particular characteristics. The point is not to seek balance, but to ask ourselves, are the stories told—the characteristics highlighted—ones we would choose to celebrate, or lament in penitence? And how do we respond to the stories we would distance ourselves from? Do we accuse the storyteller of being unpatriotic, or the enemy within; or do we recognise that our shared story is not reductive to the Right or the Left?

And, finally, Jesus ‘was grieved at their hardness of heart.’ He moves to restore a withered hand—to restore the man’s opportunity to contribute to society—while his opponents move to destroy him above all else. May we resist the hardening of our hearts against those with whom we disagree. May we love, and pray for, those we count as enemies.

 

 

Thursday, May 23, 2024

neurodivergent Nicodemus

 

The Gospel text set for this Sunday (John 3.1-17) recounts a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus combines the word for ‘victory’ and the word for ‘the common people’ and can mean victory of the people, or victory over the people, or victor among the people. Perhaps Nicodemus had overcome the expectations of his society to get where he was, to achieve what he had achieved in life. In recent years we have seen growing awareness of neurodivergence, though there is a long way to go. Some people argue that autism and other examples of neurodivergence are new conditions or simply excuses for unacceptable behaviour. But neurodiversity has always existed, even if we have known it by different names, calling those who diverge from the average savant geniuses or village idiots. Nicodemus displays several characteristics that would resonate with neurodivergence (see Ann Memmott).

Firstly, he comes to Jesus at nighttime. Before the advent of electric light, people slept twice, a short sleep to rest from the activities of the day, followed by a rising to meet with friends, meditate on life, or—as in monasteries—to pray, before returning to bed. So, a nighttime conversation is not unusual, but it is more conducive to someone who withdraws from the sensory overstimulation of the daytime—its crowds and noise and smells. It is often suggested that he came at night because he was afraid of what other people might think of him, and of being rejected: I’m unsure—Jesus had supporters as well as detractors among the Pharisees—but in any case, such social anxiety is common among neurodivergent people. When you have had to work hard to belong, you do not lightly risk losing that.

Secondly, we are told that Nicodemus is preeminent in his authority, and an instructor acknowledged as possessing mastery in the field of interpretation and application of the Law. In other words, he had a special interest, which he pursued to the highest level.

Thirdly, Nicodemus thinks in very literal terms, struggling to understand Jesus’ use of metaphor and analogy.

Fourthly, we will meet Nicodemus again, when he accompanies Jospeh of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus comes bearing a ridiculous, over-the-top amount of myrrh and aloes—a hundred pounds (John 19.39); a hundred times as much as what Mary anointed Jesus with (John 12.3)—desperately wanting to get it right but getting it brilliantly wrong.

None of these things are exclusive to neurodivergent people but taken together they build a strong case. We can’t say categorically that Nicodemus was neurodivergent, but we can say that he demonstrates neurodivergent characteristics. It is important to me to see Nicodemus as possibly being neurodivergent because I am neurodivergent. It is important that we should be able to see ourselves reflected back in the scriptures: to be able to say, ah, here is Jesus reaching out to someone like me; and if someone like me, then perhaps me also.

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. The Church affirms the Oneness and Threeness of God. The trap is to think that this is something we can break down into its parts, to understand how they fit together. As if God was a radio transistor, and we were tinkering with a screwdriver. But that would be to miss the point. Our Gospel passage illustrates this brilliantly. It starts with a Pharisee: that is, a separatist, from the action of dividing and separating, of remaining pure by being separated from sin. (There are many separatists, of one tribe or another, within the Church of England today, which I find tragically sad.) It ends with Jesus stating that God did not send the Son into the world as judge—as one who separates—but as the one who will rescue us from separation into wholeness.

Twice, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. ‘Son’ means ‘having the same nature as,’ and ‘Man’ means ‘humankind.’ Not (here) son of Mary (family) or Son of David (ethnicity) (though he is both these things) but one with every human.

God sends the Son—who fully identifies with human nature—to reveal what God is like—the nature of God—and to draw us into the life of God—which is, to be Spirit-filled.

God is not to be understood, but, rather, to be encountered, and known.

Trinity is the best language we have for that, but it is, nonetheless, inadequate.

But in this Gospel passage Nicodemus encounters Jesus, in whom the God who sends us and who is with us (‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’) is revealed.

The nature of God, revealed to us, is that God prefers ‘kosmos’—an ordered system of life in all its wonderful diversity—over destruction, over reduction and conformity. That God both generates and sustains such life.

This Jesus is the one who unites heaven and earth—two distinct realms, indivisible—as divine nature come, in love, to us; and human nature, raised, in love, to God.

The nature of God, revealed to us, resists separation. It does not divide between flesh and sprit—between the life given us by our parents, with its unique combination of genes and culture, the colour of our eyes and skin, the fault in our heart—and the life given us by God, that can’t be analysed, only lived. Jesus says, these two go together; both are necessary. One does not rule out the other: and so, the family of God is as diverse as human beings are.

God sends the Son—who fully identifies with human nature—to reveal what God is like—the nature of God—and to draw us into the life of God—which is, to be Spirit-filled.

And Nicodemus is drawn to this beautiful light of life that shines in the darkness and is not overwhelmed. Does he understand everything that Jesus says? No (and thank you, Nicodemus, for your honesty, for giving us permission to be honest, too). But he came to Jesus, as Jesus came from God; and is sent by Jesus into the world, just as Jesus was sent into the world by God. Sent, not to be understood, but to be a sign of the Spirit. A sign that doesn’t make sense (One hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, Nicodemus? Really!? What were you thinking?) but—like the wind—might just sweep up others (Joseph of Arimathea?) into the life of God that cannot be destroyed, that cannot perish.

I see in the Gospel—the good news—that someone like me is caught up by the life of God. And if someone like me, then, why not me too?

 

On disability and ableism

 

On disability and ableism.

The Gospel passage set for Holy Communion today is Mark 9.41-50. But in order to understand them, we need to look at the chapter as a whole. As always, much is lost in translation.

The chapter begins with Jesus going off with three of his disciples. When they return to the others, they find a father who has brought his son to be healed. His son has a spirit that causes him to be mute, and to experience seizures marked by foaming at the mouth, shaking, and rigid limbs. Mark does not record this as demonisation, but as a characteristic of the child’s own human spirit, and Jesus later confirms this to his disciples (who have assumed that it was a demonic issue and had failed to address it) saying that this condition runs in families, and cannot be addressed by any means, if not by prayer.

When Jesus asks the father for more information, he learns that the condition has often caused the boy to fall into fire or water. When Jesus speaks, with authority, to the condition, calling this part of the child’s breath out from him, the boy falls into another, severe, seizure, so much so that he appears to onlookers to have been left dead; but then he comes round. He will not fit again.

Following this episode, the disciples argue among themselves as to which of them is the greatest. Jesus slaps them down (technical term).

Then John seeks approval by informing Jesus that they had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but had told him to stop, because he wasn’t one of the Twelve. This is the immediate context of the verses set for today. Jesus again slaps them down.

Jesus states that it if anyone, by their actions, scandalises those seeking to follow him (are you listening, John?) it would be better (beautiful, honourable, praiseworthy: much lost in translation) for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea (to lose control of their limbs and fall into deep water, as had happened many times to the boy they had recently encountered).

Jesus then goes on to state three times that those who are disabled (with impairments to arms, legs, and sight) and who live lives that display their trust in the beauty and honour of God the King (so, not simply by virtue of having a disability) are beautiful and worthy of honour and praise; in marked contrast to those who are able-bodied, and who, by their scandalous way of life (so, not all able-bodied people) demonstrate that they deserve being thrown out into Jerusalem’s rubbish dump (Gehenna) where waste and dead animals and sometimes people were burned in fires that were kept alight continuously (again, note the connection to the boy with seizures).

This has little, directly, to do with a post-mortem hell, though Gehenna is also the sight of divine judgement of the unrighteous at the resurrection of the dead. It has more, directly, to say about our attitude towards disability and our internalised ableism.

There is not only room for disability within the vision of the kingdom of God, but a place of honour.

There is no room for the idea that being able-bodied is an indicator of divine approval. Indeed, those who are able-bodied (and here we might add all forms of body that are more enabled in our society than others, such as male bodies, white bodies, heterosexual bodies, young bodies) to be aware of their scandalous attitudes and behaviour, that cause others to fall away from following Jesus.

 

Thursday, May 02, 2024

pockets

 

My trousers have impractical pockets. The purpose of these pockets is that I should stick my hands in them, to stop me from waving my hands about, because neurotypicals find neurodivergent people stimming in order to self-regulate, dis-regulating. Bless. Anyway, I put inappropriate things in my pockets, such as keys, and coins, my wallet, and my mobile phone. And these things wear holes in the cotton. And every so often, I ask my wife to stitch the holes up. (This is not sexism, but an awareness of my dyspraxic limitations).

The hole is not a thing. It is the absence of a thing (in this case, cotton). It has no ontological existence. My wife and I are only able to speak about the hole, and to have a common understanding of what we speak of, because of the cotton surrounding it.

What we call evil is a hole. An accumulated absence. An absence of trust becomes an absence of faith becomes an absence of hope becomes an absence of love, until we find ourselves killing young boys in the street. A hole created by things with sharp edges, such as fear (fear, of course, is not inappropriate in and of itself, any more than keys or phones are: it can save your life; the issue is what we do with our fear, where we put it).

We don’t have to let an absence of trust develop into an absence of faith, hope, or love. We can choose a stitch in time, and to change our habits. My wife mends the holes in my pockets with coloured threads, and the pocket is enhanced (though no-one gets to see: beauty for its own sake). I still put things, inappropriately, in my pockets.

Put your hands in your pockets. Or wave them about if you prefer or need to. But, whichever you choose, be a person of substance rather than absence.

 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

park life

 


I am sitting in the park. An older couple—he will tell me that he is 75—approach me. He asks what I am doing sitting in the park, instead of the church? I respond that there are upwards of 15,000 souls living in my parish (let alone those who come here to work or study) and that I like to place myself where I might meet them. He asks which is my parish, and I respond by pointing to the church tower just visible through the trees. He tells me that he used to go there as a boy, he had a little book and was given a picture of a Bible character each week he went. But it is many years since he stopped going.

He tells me that our society is in a worse state than it was forty or fifty years ago. He puts it down to people no longer going to church—here is an irony there he doesn’t seem to notice—to the widespread rejection of Christianity—he doesn’t think you have to believe in the resurrection, or even that what(ever) you believe matters, so long as you are law-abiding; and, again, does not register the dissonance in his opinions—and to the obsession of minority groups with talking about issues, rather than quietly getting on with hidden lives.

There is both wisdom and folly in his words. He is not an idiot, or a dinosaur, a bitter old man to be dismissed by those who are younger and know better. Silence, for example, can hide a multitude of injustices; silence can also spare us from self-inflicted wounds. But he is—as we all are—a bundle of inconsistencies.

He carries pain and confusion, and needs to express these, safely; even as his wife, who presents with dementia, is becoming agitated by his stream of words. Both need the presence of a priest in the park today, even if they do not recognise the institution or the community of the Church. This is why I am sitting here.

 

Thursday, April 04, 2024

World Autism Acceptance Week

 

2-8 April 2024 is World Autism Acceptance Week.

We hear more today than we used to about Autism Awareness. But the idea of Autism Awareness is somewhat problematic. The diagnostic conditions for Autism are based on how autistic people respond to stressful situations (and diagnostic interviews are incredibly stressful). These might include situational mutism, where someone finds themselves so overwhelmed that they are unable to speak, that their voice is stolen from them.

But if we take the time to reflect on it, we will recognise that for all of us, for anyone, how we operate when we are under stress is not the same as how we operate in environments where we are relaxed, where we feel well-supported. Imagine how you would feel if I were to define neurotypical people by how you operate under extreme stress! Neurotypicals dont sleep, lack focus, have short tempers, and may be prone to violence.

And so, the unwelcome result of growing Autism Awareness is more people saying, You dont come across as autistic. Or even, We know that you arent meant to say You dont look autistic”—see how autism-aware we are!but you just dont come across as autistic.

Perhaps my autistic engagement with rest and joy doesnt match your stress-based expectations. Perhaps I am not autistic enough for you when I am running alongside someone (who I can talk to without having to look at).

Acceptance goes beyond Awareness because acceptance opens us to the lived experience of the other. It is marked by taking a genuine interest in another person, rather than prejudice based on stereotype. It does not mean (in any context) that we must fully agree or fully affirm everything about one another; but it does require of us a commitment to everyone having what they need for their wellbeing, their wholeness, which the Bible calls shalom.

Awareness is unlikely to lead to acceptance. But Acceptance might just result in a more rounded awareness.

What will you do to take part in World Autism Acceptance Week?

 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Easter Day

 

‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ Mark 16.8

God is the author of Life, and death is an affront, a direct challenge to, the goodness and good rule of God.

The Christian faith stands or falls on the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in their Gospels, Matthew, Luke, and John record multiple accounts of people encountering the risen Jesus. But Mark tells a different side to the story. Mark does not present us with Jesus, come forth from the tomb. Mark presents us with a group of women, disciples of Jesus, come forth from the tomb. And these women have a problem.

If we are to understand the problem they have, we need to understand how God has ordered the world.

First, the world is divided into things that are holy and things that are common. This is not a moral distinction. Most things are common, but some things, and some people, are set apart by and to and for the Lord God. Six days are common, but the Sabbath is holy. Mount Horeb, where God instructed Moses, is holy; as is Mount Zion, and the Temple in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem itself. We understand this. We have an island, off our coast in the northeast of England, known as Holy Island. We consider our churches holy.

Second, the world is divided into things that are ritually clean and things that are ritually unclean. Again, this is not a moral distinction. Most things are clean, most of the time. But things that convey something of death—that affront to God—are unclean. So, those who have a skin condition that makes them look like a corpse are unclean. Anything related to reproduction and childbirth makes someone unclean, not because these natural things are bad, but because of the high mortality rate for babies and mothers (not only in the ancient world). And contact with a corpse, or a tomb, makes one unclean. Again, this is not a moral failing: indeed, there was a moral obligation to bury the dead.

Ritually clean things in either holy or common places pose no problem. Ritually unclean things in common places pose no problem in themselves, as long as the person involved follows the God-given instruction for purifying themselves from death in all its forms, usually through a combination of time and washing. But ritually unclean things coming into even unwitting contact with holy places is a problem because death is an affront to God, and the mortal who carries death into the presence of God may die as a result. When death comes into the presence of God, God kicks it out; and when God kicks out death, any mortal who gets caught in the moment is in trouble. (Alternatively, when people persist in bringing unclean things into holy space, God may choose to withdraw, which is also bad for humans.)

[Matthew Thiessen’s Jesus and the Forces of Death is really good on the holy/common clean/unclean matrix—he uses the terms holy & profane, purity & impurity—but, somewhat strangely to my mind, does not deal with the immediate implications of Jesus’ death for his disciples.]

The women have a problem. They have gone to the tomb to anoint the corpse. This is, indeed, a moral obligation, but one that will make them ritually unclean for seven days, and anyone else they come into contact with ritually unclean for a day. They go to the tomb—which is outside the city boundary because the dead cannot be within the holy perimeter—but this isn’t a problem in itself. It just means that they cannot enter holy space. Second Temple Jews held a range of interpretations: all were of the view that someone made ritually unclean by contact with a corpse or tomb could not enter the temple; some were of the opinion that such a person could not enter the city around the temple. Jesus’ mother and her relatives were devout temple-based Jews. As such, they would want to ensure maximum distance between uncleanliness and the temple. They were already ritually unclean, having assisted Joseph and Nicodemus in taking Jesus’ corpse down from the cross and preparing it for its hasty burial; and—unlike the male disciples, who kept their distance at the cross, and who were staying in an upper room in the city—they were likely already keeping outside the city, perhaps with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in nearby Bethany.

None of this poses a problem, until the angel instructs them to go and tell Peter and the other disciples with him that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of them to Galilee.

The women have a problem. Our English translation tells us that they are gripped by terror and amazement. The word translated ‘terror’ conveys the anxiety of having a religious duty and not knowing how one will be able to discharge it. The word translated ‘amazement’ has a universal meaning of being displaced from one’s usual place: it can refer to the displaced mind, but also conveys the sense of being displaced outside the city, as those who were ritually unclean on account of contact with a corpse were required to do.

How can they bring a message to Peter when they cannot return to Jerusalem for seven days? Remember, Jesus’ mother and her relatives are devout, temple-focused Jews; and, moreover, Jesus insisted that he had not come to abolish the law but to bring it to completion or fulfilment. So, they tell no one, in the immediate; though they will find a way to get the message to Peter. (And, having gone to the tomb himself, Peter will return to the upper room. On the matter of whether tomb contact excluded you from all Jerusalem or only the temple itself, it is likely that the Galilean disciples had a different view from Jesus’ relatives; though even Peter hesitates to enter the tomb and thus make himself ritually unclean.)

Indeed, Jesus does not abolish the law, but breaks the power of death that required the law to be put in place for our protection. And though we still experience death, this has real implications. The presence of death in our lives no longer separates us from God, even temporarily. So, whereas the Jews buried their dead outside the city wall, away from the holy, Christians came to bury their dead immediately surrounding their churches, as close as possible to—and even within—their holy places. More than this, the bereaved draw close to God. Jesus did not die instead of us, but ahead of us, so that we might follow, unafraid, held every step of the way by God.

Jesus is so infectiously holy that, through his death and resurrection, he makes even death—the thing that separates us from God, albeit temporarily—holy. So now, rather than separating us from God, death—our own, or any death that we must face—is an open door into God’s presence. Into the presence of Love, the author of Life. A door no one wants to go through, but that all can go through, if they trust that God, revealed to us in Jesus, is good.

And that, in my opinion, is good news.

 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Maundy Thursday

 

Each spring, one of the toughest endurance races in the world is held in the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. Participants attempt to complete a five-lap route—or, as our American cousins pronounce it, rout—which is, in total, between 100 and 130 miles. The exact route changes each year, but roughly one third is on forest trails, the other two-thirds off-trail. The total ascent and descent are equivalent to going from sea-level to the summit of Mount Everest and back. Twice. The five loops must be completed within a strict 60-hour cut-off. And the American pronunciation rout is fitting: each year, 35-40 of the world's best endurance runners take part. To date, since 1989, a total of 20 people have finished (three more than once). If you aren’t a runner, it is possible that you heard of the Barkley Marathons for the first time this year, as British runner Jasmin Paris became the first woman ever to finish.

The race is legendary, with its own mythic lore. Jo and I have watched two documentaries on it, and we are in awe. Two things stand out. The first is that it simply isn’t possible to know what it is like to take part in the Barkley Marathons unless you have taken part. Even if you are a seasoned ultramarathon runner. Which I am not. The second is that as participants drop out of the race, they become the most amazing support team for those who remain. No assistance is permitted except in camp, between loops, and there, the most experienced ultra runners in the world are willing one another on. They are on hand with advice, to wash legs shredded by briars, to pierce blisters so the other can carry on.

Both these things speak to me of the Christian life.

On the Thursday of Holy Week, the Church gathers to hear again the old, old story of the Israelites eating a hurried meal before heading out into the wilderness at night, walking pole in hand, in their escape from Egypt (this, too, is mirrored by the Barkley Marathons, where, between loops, runners take on hurried food for energy) and the less old story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

As Jesus moves from disciple to disciple—those who have been with him on the Way—Peter is aghast that his greatest hero might stoop to serve him. But Jesus responds: You don’t understand, don’t perceive what I am doing, in this precise moment; but then [somewhat ambiguously and unhelpfully translated as ‘later’ in some English translations] you will.

What is it that Jesus wants Peter and the others to understand? That they were to delight in one another and prefer one another to themselves. That is to say, when we look out for ourselves, we are alone; but when we look out for one another, we have a tribe on our side. As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

And Jesus says, it isn’t possible to know, to perceive, to ‘get’ what it means to love one another through observing others—let alone by reading about it or watching a documentary. You only get to understand this by doing it. Only those who have attempted to run the Barkley Marathons know what the Barkley Marathons are about.

The only way to know what it is to follow Jesus, with others who are following Jesus, is by following Jesus together. Not as an idea or a philosophy, not as head-knowledge. You discover it in your hands and feet, in aching limbs.

I am never going to run 130 miles around the mountainous forests of Tennessee inside 60 hours. I wouldn’t even try. But I have been walking with Jesus for over fifty years, and I have no intention of dropping out now. I have yet to reach the cut-off point. Let’s go again.

 

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday

 

A poem written for Ash Wednesday 2024:

You have heard it said that you are too little, or too much, to be accepted;
and, taking those words to heart, you have been consumed by their flames.

You have heard it said that you are more deserving than others;
and, internalising that mantra, you have been razed by its fire.

But I say to you, rise up:
by the grace of God
arise from the ashes,
O Phoenix,
dust stirred to life by the kiss of love,
by the breath of God
that gives life to the dead.

You are the phoenix of Christ,
given new beginning in his name.
Neither too little nor too much,
nor deserving nor undeserving,
simply loved to life,
again and again.

Do not fear returning to dust.
Receive this mark upon your head,
a sign of hope, and trust.
And by the grace of God,
arise.

 

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Nicodemus

 

There have always been autistic people among us, we simply haven’t always understood or valued them. I love Ann Memmott’s take on Nicodemus, a friend of Jesus who displays autistic traits:

He is an expert in the scriptures – they are his specialist subject – and offers expert advice to his peers.

He first comes to Jesus at night when there would be less sensory stimulation and crowds of people to overwhelm him. In their conversation, Jesus offers him a metaphor, which he takes literally and therefore as impossible, so that Jesus needs to unpack the idea in a different way.

After Jesus has died, Nicodemus brings spices to embalm him, but he brings an excessive amount – wanting to help, but totally over the top.

All these things are common autistic traits, within the spectrum of lived experiences of autistic people.

I also love that as a neurodivergent, autistic vicar, who recognises myself in Nicodemus, I am Priest in Charge of St Nicholas Church. For Nicodemus and Nicholas are the same name - Victory of the Common People - in two different forms [nike demos, nike laos].

 

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Tyre

 

In the Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today, Mark 7.24-30, Jesus visits Tyre.

Tyre is one of the world’s oldest cities, her ancient walls rising out of the Mediterranean, a jewel of the sea, a drop of human creativity in the ocean.

It was famous for two things: firstly, purple dye. The story goes that Tyre was founded by the god Melqart for his lover Tyrus. One day they were taking a romantic stroll along the beach with her dog, when it bit into a shell and its fangs dripped purple. Tyrus requested that Melqart make her a dress in the same colour: he gathered up every sea snail he could find, boiled them to extract the dye, and presented her with her prize. From then, it became the choice of kings and queens and emperors: Mark (and John) will report that at Jesus’ coronation as King of the Jews, the Romans will put a crown on his head and a purple cloak on his shoulders, a Tyrian robe.

The other thing Tyre was famous for was high quality wood from the cedar forests of Lebanon, that part of the mainland they controlled. This wood made the best ships – Tyre had two harbours, one facing north and the other south, and a fine merchant navy, crossing the Mediterranean, founding colonies on her shores, including Carthage and Cadiz, through trade not conquest, and even venturing out into the Atlantic – and the best temples.

David, king of Jerusalem, was friends with Hiram, king of Tyre. When David made the arrangements for the temple his son Solomon would build, he contracted Hiram to supply wood and purple yarn and cloth – including the great curtain that hung in front of the Holy of Holies – in exchange for wheat, Tyre possessing no arable land of its own.

Such alliances were often cemented by marriage, including Solomon, and the later king Ahab, who married Jezebel, daughter of a king of Tyre. Jezebel championed the worship of the gods and goddesses of the Canaanite pantheon, reigning in tumult and eventually being thrown to her death from a window, her blood licked up by dogs, reminiscent of the dripping fangs of Tyrus’ dog.

No one could capture the island, though many tried. Nebuchadnezzar besieged and captured Jerusalem but besieged and failed to take Tyre. Again and again, they withstood enemy armies, until Alexander the Great. They held out against his siege, too, until in frustration he had his army throw great stones into the sea, building a causeway they could march along, all the while the Tyrians throwing boulders and flaming arrows back at them. Eventually, causeway complete and a mercenary navy recruited from Tyre’s treacherous neighbours in Sidon, Alexander’s forces captured the city. The women and children had already been evacuated by sea to Carthage, but the men were struck down, including 2,000 who were crucified – the Romans weren’t the first or only ones to use crucifixion to make a point.

The Greeks settled the city, the Romans following, though all the while Tyre managed to emerge, Phoenix-like, from its own ashes – the word Phoenician, meaning worker-of-purple-red-dye, and phoenix, or purple-red bird, share the same root.

To this city, now connected to the mainland, Jesus came. Trying to lie low, the word gets out. A Hellenised woman of Syrophoenician origin (that is, the Phoenicians of this coast, rather than the Phoenicians of their daughter colonies around the Mediterranean) comes to see him. Her young daughter has been taken captive by an unclean spirit, and she begs him to cast it out.

The following exchange is enigmatic, a weaving of several threads of yarn. In saying that it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, Jesus may well be making the point (his own, or the view of his disciples) that he must attend to his own people before the neighbouring peoples. But the relationship between them has always been more dynamic than that. Perhaps we might hear, in his words about throwing down and dogs, in this Tyrian context, a concern about violence. He makes the point that young children should be fattened up first. Perhaps he is implying that the casting out of demons is a violent business – later, in Mark 9.14-29, we see Jesus cast such a spirit out of a boy, who is convulsed terribly, such that, at first, he appears left dead – and it would be better to wait until the young girl was bigger, stronger.

But the mother responds by pointing out that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table. Crumbs falling is far gentler than bread thrown or cast out. Perhaps she is indicating her trust that Jesus can cast out the occupying spirit without causing further violence to her little daughter.

And Jesus says, It is done, as you understood it could be when you came to me.

Jesus comes, not as an invading conqueror – not making a way, where there was no way, for control over another's autonomy and dignity – but hidden; proclaimed by a whisper on the wind; to restore us to our own self, and to one another, and to the God who made us in and for love: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. He treats all with gentleness and compassion, with concern for their dignity and choice and partnership.

He comes that we might all be Phoenicians, phoenixes, rising to new life from the ashes.

 

Sunday, January 28, 2024

blessing

 

Accompanied by her husband, a young mother brings her firstborn son to public worship for the first time, at forty days old. As they come into the space and look around, an older man approaches, takes the child in his arms (always ask for, and be given, permission before doing this; and don’t take offence if permission is not forthcoming) and sings a song of praise. First, he honours God; then, he blesses the father and mother, and their child. As he does so, an older woman joins them, takes up the theme, and extends it to include others who had gathered in that place.

Simeon was not a priest, not the public face of the faith. Anna was recognised as a prophet, an oracle who spoke words of godly wisdom; but she had no official role or office. They were simply human beings who were well-soaked in the ways of God. And uttering blessings is central to such a life—not something reserved for vicars. You don’t even need to be Christian.

To bless something—whether a person, or some other part of creation, or a place, or a tool, or a circumstance—is to affirm its essential goodness. From our faith perspective, that essential goodness is God-given.

Jewish blessings always begin, ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe …’

Christian blessings, which derive from Jewish blessings, are similarly framed, ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation …’

If we are to bless, we first need to meet what we find, where we find it, and then pay it attention. Simeon meets Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the temple court, takes the child in his arms, and pays close attention. Then, he speaks out what he sees.

My back door faces east, and I can stand there a while and watch the sunrise. ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, giver of light and love. And blessed be you, O dawn, that paints the sky in pink and orange to welcome the day.’

Then, as I stand there, I become aware of the dawn chorus. ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, who feeds the birds of the air. And blessed be you, garden bird, who fills the sky with your song.’

Or perhaps this morning it is raining, and I can choose to be grumpy about that or I can choose to bless the rain. ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, who gives the water of life. And blessed be you, rain, that refreshes the earth.’

If we can get into the habit of blessing, it will form us over time, so that we meet all things open to the goodness hidden within them—even if that goodness is not immediately apparent. So, for example, if you fall and break your leg, ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, who has fashioned our flesh and bone. And blessed be you, O femur, who have borne my weight all these years, and who now calls me to rest and to heal.’

So, let us have a go, and together learn how to bless. Who, or what, might you bless today?

 

Sunday, January 21, 2024

winter wedding

I wonder what the furthest distance is that you have travelled to attend a wedding. In the straw-poll conducted with our congregation this morning, the top 5 distances were: 5. Toronto, Canada. 4. Lexington, USA. 3. Chingola, Zambia. 2. Kochi, India. 1 Melbourne, Australia. In our Gospel reading today (John 2.1-11) Jesus and his disciples and his mother Mary had travelled 25 miles to attend a wedding, which isn’t far by car, but cars hadn’t been invented.

Weddings are a big deal, and they were a big deal then. The whole village would turn up, along with other guests from miles around.

If you’ve ever been on any journey, you’ll know that often the first thing you want to do on arrival is splash some water on your face. In Jesus’ time, guests would be welcomed by servants pouring water on their feet and hands and splashing water on their heads, as a way of saying, ‘You are welcome; we are so glad that you have come to us.’ At this wedding there were so many guests that they poured out the equivalent of 900 modern .75l bottles of spring water, or wine.

Weddings are a big deal, and they were a big deal then. The whole village would turn up, along with other guests from miles around, and they would stay for as long as it took to consume all the food and wine. When all the wine was drunk, that was the social cue to go home. And so, eventually, Mary turns to her son and says, ‘The wine has all been drunk; that’s our cue to leave; round up your friends, say goodbye to the bride and groom, it’s time to go.’

Jesus replies, ‘Woman,’ Woman. What a beautiful, tender moment. It resonates with the creation story. God had made a human from the soil and breathed life into it; but whereas everything else God had created was good, or very good, it was not good for this human creature to be alone. God saw that the human needed someone to stand alongside them, to sustain them, at times rescue them. So, God drew it into a deep sleep, took it up, broke it in two, and gave each part to the other. And the man cried out, in delight and relief, ‘Here at last, this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman for she was drawn out from man.’ In my culture, to call your mother ‘Woman’ may seem dismissive, but when Jesus calls his mother ‘Woman’ that delight in their shared humanity, their intimate biological belonging to one another, and the sense that Mary is the one who stands alongside him and sustains him are all there.

‘Woman,’ says Jesus, ‘what has this social cue to do with us? My hour has not yet come.’ Other than the sense that he is not ready to leave, that is a rather enigmatic statement that will just hang there for the next ten chapters until, speaking of his imminent death and resurrection, Jesus reveals that his hour has come (John 12.27). Ah, now we recall the wedding at Cana, and see that it was the first sign pointing to this moment.

Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus asks of them. And what he asks them to do is something very ordinary. He asks them to refill the water-jars. Something they would have done many times. An ordinary task for a servant, involving a trip to the well; something they would undoubtedly have done later as part of the clearing up after the guests had gone. But instead, they do it now. And when Jesus asks them to draw out some water, it has been transformed into wine.

The master of ceremonies is livid. He calls the groom aside and gives him a dressing down: This might be your first wedding, but it can’t be the first time you’ve been to a wedding!? Everyone knows that you serve the best wine when the guests arrive and hold back the cheaper wine until they’ve had plenty to drink. You have totally messed up!

The master of ceremonies doesn’t understand what is going on. But what is going on?

The water of hospitality had run out. The wine of hospitality had run out. But this is not the end of the story, only a necessary moment within the story. Jesus demonstrates the principle of death and resurrection, of the new life that is only possible because the old life has come to an end. It is a principle we see at play in the world around us, in nature. It is winter, and the plants and animals have withdrawn deep into themselves. The trees look dead, but something profound and necessary is going on beneath the surface. Only we humans are hard-headed and hard-hearted enough to live as if every month, every season, were the same. It is winter, and yes, spring is coming; but we cannot force it to arrive before winter has done its work. The world is renewing itself.

Our youngest son is in his second (final) A-level year. And he is flying. He is excelling academically, he has an active social life, he is making hopeful plans for his future. But there was a time when, for over two years, he could not face leaving the house, didn’t leave the house. I can tell you, that was a long, hard winter. I don’t mean December, January, February.

Jesus is the God who became one of us, who entered-into the death and resurrection of creation. Who blesses the life that we cannot hold onto, and the life that we receive if only we let go of the life we had.

This happens to us over again. This coming Saturday, at a service at the cathedral, we will mark Bishop Paul’s ten years of service among us as our bishop, as he retires. And we will pray for Paul and Rosemary as they begin a new life, in a new place; a life that is only possible because this life and ministry is coming to an end.

Sometimes we have varying degrees of choice, sometimes not. No one chooses bereavement; but Jesus says, just as I was with you, just as I blessed, the life that has run out, so shall I be with you, and so shall I bless, the life that still lies ahead.

What Jesus does at the wedding in Cana is the first signpost on this road.

It is such a beautiful, tender, and hopeful gospel.

 

Here, then, are some questions for those who would consider following him:

Where have you experienced death? It could be the death of a dream, the death of a marriage, a literal bereavement. In what part of your life are you dying right now?

Where have you tried to resist death, or deny the reality of dying? It could be in resistance to change or by masking the natural process of aging.

Where have you known resurrection—new life, not necessarily better than what was before, but different, and hopeful? What did that awaken in you? Is there any part of your life where you are experiencing resurrection life right now?