What To Do About Lent

People are too tired, discouraged and generally fed up to be able to take on Lent. But the season is upon us, so what are we to do with it?

            I admire those who can claim that Lent is a time of renewal and refreshment. Right now, I doubt many of us can think of it in that way, if we’re honest about it. We have had almost a year of Lenten privation, but without the sense of joyful anticipation and purpose that should normally accompany this season. People are too tired, discouraged and generally fed up to be able to take on Lent. But the season is upon us, so what are we to do with it?

            Here I’m not just writing what I imagine a lot of Christians are feeling. I also sense that many people look forward, if those are the right words, to a period of abstinence in the calendar year. We all need to get a grip on ourselves from time to time and Lent provides us with an ideal opportunity to do this. But right now many of us simply don’t have the emotional reserves to do it.

            This being said, I think there is more than one way to think of Lent and to set about making the best of it. The first consists in braving out the inevitable feelings of guilt and worthlessness that accompany this season, however we choose to think of it. If I give something up and after a couple of weeks give up on giving up, I feel bad. If I banish Lent altogether and pretend to ignore it, after a couple of weeks I feel just as bad and, added to that, I also feel I’m missing out on something positive and good. This year, the last thing we need to be feeling is guilt but we don’t need self-induced ‘feel good’ techniques either, as these seldom work even at the best of times.

            In these times of deprivation there are three things that we really do need: companionship, a sense of purpose for our lives and the experience of hope. Given the present circumstances, I don’t think giving things up, aiming at spiritual goals that are way beyond our capabilities, even when we are at our best, and generally trying to become someone that we’re not, are going to deliver on any of these fronts. So why not try something more modest, and more humble this year?

            Christians reading this post will remember that Jesus tells us to take upon himself his ‘yoke’ which, he says, ‘is easy’ and in doing so to pattern our lives on his gentleness and humility of heart. You may think that this is a soft option, but it is in fact quite hard. For one thing, it will not give you anything much to feel pleased about in regard to having achieved anything, because the point of the exercise has nothing to do with achievement. The ‘yoke’ is the Cross which, at face value, is the opposite of achievement. It is the sum total of failure, all of our failures, both real and imagined.

            So we could spend some time this Lent unpacking our ‘failures’, sorting the real from the imagined. I think we’ll find that most of these failures will prove to have been imagined and should be binned. The space they leave could then be filled with gratitude for the realisation that we are not failures. This will be quite a difficult exercise for some of us to do. If we can stay with it for long enough, we might also take the opportunity to thank God for the fact that we are talented, marvellous, beautiful and in every way loved. Again, quite a difficult exercise.

            Another thing we could be owning this Lent is our sense of loss. We are experiencing loss on any number of fronts, but what we are most experiencing is the loss of companionship. We are all lonely. Even people who have family or partners with them are experiencing loneliness and loss. Being cooped up with the same person or people for months on end can be a lonely thing to experience. So during Lent, we could practice being in solidarity with other lonely people. We might even begin with those closest to us. How often in a single day do we ask our partner what they have been doing, how their work is going and engage with it intelligently? Do we notice if they look particularly down? Do we lovingly encourage them with a joke or a gentle reminder of how valuable they are to us? All of this has to do with being in solidarity with the lonely.

            I wrote about solidarity last week in the context of prisons. We are all, up to a point, prisoners of the Covid pandemic. We are prisoners in our own homes, but also prisoners of uncertainty about the future and all the anxieties and stresses which that places on us. Being in solidarity with the lonely means being present to the anxieties and stresses that pertain to the particular kind of loneliness that others may be experiencing. We get out of our feelings about our own situation in order to enter into what others may be going through and keep company with them in it for a few minutes every day. Having done this with those close to us, we can also do it for people we will never meet. We can hold them (thinking of them as individuals rather than as a broad category) and their experience of loss and loneliness, even as we are held in our own loneliness, in the love of God.

            The sense of purpose and hope that I spoke of are, I think, bound up with what comes out of the Lenten exercises involving gratitude and solidarity with others. To start with gratitude: It is only when you thank someone for something that, in a sense, you truly receive what it is you are thanking them for. The gift becomes a reality in the word or gesture of gratitude. If we are never grateful for anything, we never fully receive the blessings and gifts bestowed on us – which returns me to the discussion about failure. If we can’t bring ourselves to own our strengths, as well as our weaknesses, and be thankful for them, we will never learn how to deploy them in a way that becomes a blessing for others and which also honours God.

            This takes us back to solidarity. Being a blessing for others involves giving. Lenten giving can also be a source of guilt and a general sense of failure, but if we learn to be a blessing to others in gratitude for what we are and for what we have, it will very quickly be made clear to us who are the people or situations most in need of our material giving, be it money or any other kind of material asset.

            Having followed this meandering Lenten thread to its conclusion, we arrive first at the Cross, which is God’s absorbing of all that we hate about ourselves, and then at the empty tomb where we are met by the Risen Christ who is the embodiment of Hope. We don’t have to wait until Easter Day to experience this Hope, because it is not an event that we look forward to as a reward for having done Lent properly. It is with us now, in the moment of hearing our name called from within the silent space that these Lenten exercises has created in our own hearts.

Solidarity

In times of loneliness, boredom, loss and separation, we can be in solidarity with prisoners. Solidarity means being present to those going through a worse version of what we are experiencing as a result of lockdown..mindful that were it not for circumstances and the grace of God, we might be prisoners ourselves.

            I have only once ever visited a prison. The thing which most struck me about this visit was how familiar the prisoners’ faces seemed. I did not know any of them personally but I felt I could have known them all. They could easily be my friends or my family. In fact, they could be me had my life been other than it was, had my circumstances been different and as a result faced me with a more difficult set of challenges.

            Prisoners are spending up to 90% of their day in their cells.[1] These ordinary people whose lives have gone terribly wrong, and who may well have done terrible things, are experiencing the effects of Covid-19 with even greater intensity than many of us. Sometimes the effects are exacerbated by the company of another person, because some prisoners are also enduring ‘doubling up’ arrangements whereby they not only share a space, but eat often with an uncovered toilet within feet of where they are sitting. On the other hand, if they are alone in their cell, most of their day will be spent deciding when to sit on the bed and when to sit on the chair. Family visits have been stopped, physical exercise severely curtailed and the usual mental health services available for those soon to be released have all but ceased, the latter often resulting in re-offence and a speedy return to prison by ex-offenders.

            There is probably very little that the prison authorities can do about all of this, given the need to keep prisoners safe from Covid. Here it is worth noting that up to 2000 prisoners in England and Wales could have died by now if these additional strictures had not been put in place. So this unhappy situation seems pretty unavoidable.

But there is something the rest of us can do, as we experience a very minor version of the kind of confinement prisoners are enduring right now.

            In times of loneliness, boredom, loss and separation from those we love, we can be in solidarity with prisoners. Solidarity, as the word suggests, means being solidly present to those who are going through a worse version of what we are currently experiencing as a result of lockdown restrictions. In the case of prisoners, this also requires something more of us. It requires that we engage in this solidarity without judging or pre-judging the people we are thinking about, always mindful of the fact that were it not for circumstances, temperament and the grace of God, we might be there ourselves.

            If we can get ourselves into this mindset in regard to prisoners it will take us to a different and quite surprising place in regard to how we think of ourselves, especially those aspects of ourselves, or memories, of which we are perhaps secretly ashamed. If we can be in solidarity with prisoners and make even the smallest allowance for them and for what they have done with their lives, we may find, to our amazement, that something within us, some inner voice or presence, is giving us permission to let go of whatever secret it is that we are ashamed of.

            It’s tempting, of course, to refuse to let go. It’s often easier to continue to beat ourselves up privately about whatever it is we’re ashamed of as a way of perhaps ‘purging’ the moment itself in the hope that this will somehow lead to our forgetting it altogether. We are wasting our time. The idea that forgiveness and forgetting go together, especially regarding something that has caused real damage to another human being, is a myth and most of us know that. So how does being in solidarity with prisoners help us in dealing with our own need to forgive and be forgiven, while still remembering what happened?

            It helps because being in solidarity with someone who is suffering has nothing to do with sympathy, or even with vaguely religious talk of compassion. It has to do with a sense of belonging with them in it. We belong with prisoners because we share in their humanity and thus could quite easily be in the position they are in. So we can be grateful for that. I am not talking about the gratitude of the Pharisee (the man in the gospel [Luke 18:9-14] who thanked God that he was not like the miserable tax collector who didn’t know how to pray properly or keep God’s holy Law, as he did) but the humble gratitude that these prisoners afford us in allowing us the chance to love them and ourselves in sincerity and truth.

            To love in sincerity and truth is to strip away all pretence and self-delusion. It is also the source of immense freedom. The Pharisee in the story I have just referred to was anything but free. He was bound by laws, protocols and prescribed ways of speaking to God. There was nothing wrong with these laws and customs. It was just that he believed himself to be in a good place in all of this, thanks to his own upright character and hard work. But he did not know freedom.

            The prisoners in any number of gaols here and elsewhere have been deprived of their personal and physical freedom. They cannot relate easily to those they love and they are not free to leave their cells for 90% of the day. But they might begin to experience real freedom if they know that we are standing with them in mind and spirit, if not in body, if we are praying with them, and not just for them. This is not an easy thing to do because many of the people who are in prison have committed terrible crimes and it is hard to feel sorry for them, or even to pray for them. But we are not called to feel sorry for them. We are called to be in solidarity with them, remembering that at one time or another in our lives we have known the kind of feelings they may still know, and which may have led them to do the things they did.

            As Christians, we know that we cannot do this work of prayerful solidarity on our own, so we look to the One who is already in solidarity with us and claim the grace that is offered to us to do it. Sometimes we use words to help us to do the claiming, and to claim the freedom of spirit we want prisoners to know. But it’s even better if we can dispense with words altogether, especially when they inhibit our own freedom to love and to surrender the wrongs done to us, while still remembering the pain.  Sometimes words literally fail us, but it’s when words fail us that the work of prayer and solidarity truly begins.


[1] BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55957048 downloaded 11th February, 2021

Candlemas – A reflection on Luke 2: 22-40

     Candlemas is one of those feasts that we would like to have go on almost indefinitely, so I think it is fine to treat it as a ‘movable feast’. Though tinged with just a tiny bit of regret, because it marks the end of the Christmas season, it embodies peace and hope for the future. It sits in the Church’s year like a ship leaving harbour, still just connected to Christmas and rather tremulously looking out to sea to the months that lie ahead – what is left of winter, and then early Spring and the beginning of Lent.

Candlemas is a time of transition from darkness to light, coinciding more or less with the Spring equinox when the days are just beginning to draw out and the night is beginning to recede. Only a couple of weeks ago, in the UK, it was dark by 4.30, now the darkness is held back until just after 5.

     The picture that returns to me every year in connection with this feast day is one of moving from darkness to light, or rather of light emerging out of darkness. It’s not difficult to see why this is so. Just picture what it might have felt like to be Simeon or Anna. Both have waited a life-time to see God’s Messiah, as they were promised, but they may not have expected the moment to occur quite in the way it does. They have probably been looking for a descent of the Almighty from clouds ‘riven with angels’ wings’, as the Christmas carol describes them, rather than a young quite inconspicuous couple walking towards them through the darkened temple in the very early morning with their young baby. It is so early, in fact, that they may be wondering what they are doing there at that hour.

     At what point, then, do Simeon and Anna realise that something quite out of the ordinary is going on, something they are not at all prepared for? This is, after all, an ordinary morning. Simeon and Anna are just two faithful people on the temple rota, going about their business in the way they have always done, just as so many church people do in our own churches and parishes and just as we have all been doing in our ordinary lives, until the covid pandemic brought our lives to a standstill.

     This is why Candlemas is so special for us right now. It invites us to encounter Christ in the ordinariness of the present moment. The encounter that takes place between Simeon, Anna and the young couple is an intensely ‘now’ moment. In other words, what we are witnessing to as we think about this faithful couple and the fulfilment of God’s promise to them, is God’s faithfulness to us now and how, like Simeon and Anna, we are called to respond to God’s faithfulness from within the times we are living in. We are called to be present to Christ in times when everything seems to have stopped and there is still no clear sign of what the future will look like and whether we will be able to pick up our lives where we left off once the pandemic is over, assuming it is eventually defeated.

     Here I am not advocating optimism, but rather inviting us to be fully present to the now moment and to stay with it, to be faithful to it, knowing that God does not abandon us and that he keeps his promises, especially his promise to always be with us. In this respect, God is most fully present to us in the seeming banality of things as they are right now. Depression and boredom render things and activities that were once interesting and worthwhile banal and pointless, a situation that gets worse the more tired of the restrictions imposed on us by Covid we become and the more uncertain we become about what the future holds for our country and for our Church in so many areas of its life.

     This is a very good time to be thinking about the Church and its life in the future, since it is in this present moment that God chooses to manifest himself to two faithful church people in the temple building, as he might have chosen to do to one of us in one of our churches in a way that is perfectly ordinary and normal. I think the Covid experience, especially in regard to the restrictions it imposes on church worship, invites us to reflect on what it really means to be church now, during this covid pandemic, and, in doing so, to realise that Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child are walking towards us to meet us in every moment of it – in moments of boredom, of loneliness, when life seems to be slipping by with no change in sight, when we imagine what we might be doing or becoming were it not for this virus. But the feast of Candlemas also reminds us of what it is we are called to be, and to continually become, as Church. We are called to be people who rejoice together in God’s faithfulness to his promise to us in Jesus.

     Remembering that we are doing this together is what matters. You might think that I am inviting some sort of exercise in collective positive thinking, that somehow we must get ourselves into a frame of mind where we believe all this when right now we are finding it very hard to do so. Simeon might have been in a similar frame of mind when he saw Jesus for the first time and then found himself holding him in his arms.

     One of the things we miss most at the moment is being able to touch or hold another person. It is a situation which has been proven to be very bad for people’s mental health. But as people of prayer, there are things we can do to make this sensory and emotional deprivation a little bit easier. The Candlemas story, as it is told in Luke’s gospel, invites us to literally get into it in a sensory and emotional way. It is not hard to imagine, or remember, what it feels like to hold a small baby, to feel the warmth of her skin, the softness of her hair and to look into her eyes, eyes that are so often wide open in expectation of something surprising and good and that are full of trust. Imagine doing the same thing alongside Simeon and Anna. Feel the weight of the Christ child, look into his eyes and allow him to look into yours. Do not flinch from his gaze. Allow yourself to return his smile. You are not alone. God is faithful and all will be well.

Silent Witness

        

Live updates: Pelosi says House will resume validating Biden's win at  Capitol after riots | News 4 Buffalo

 

   The difficulty lies in knowing what to think, despite all that has been said about how so many of us feel in regard to the events that took place on Capitol Hill earlier this week. They were unprecedented events, shocking, existentially disturbing.

            The attempted destruction of democracy; was it the end of civilisation as we know it, or the beginning of the end of the world, as some Christians will be thinking. “Bring it on” the millenarians among them will be saying. Or has Yeats’s ‘blood dimmed tide’, briefly ‘loosed’ on Wednesday, having built tsunami-like over the past four years whilst most of us were in denial, been stemmed? If so, by whom?

            Because the question all this obliges us to face is; are there in fact checks and balances at work that somehow re-calibrate the off-the-cuff decisions of a megalomaniac in such a way as to avoid the catastrophic? In time, no doubt, we shall learn the answer. Meanwhile, or at least until this week, many of us have continued to believe that the democracies we take for granted are indestructible, that there are always checks and balances, or discreet individuals, civil servants of sorts, quietly managing the day to day affairs of the country, so that World War III is avoided simply by removing a crucial communiqué from the desk of Donald Trump before he has the chance to see it and fire off a tweet that would bring us to the brink of destruction. Or, then again, perhaps there are not.

            But Wednesday’s coup makes even these simplistic questions more opaque and therefore more worrying. Were there discreet individuals oiling the works on Trump’s side too? Why did the National Guard take so long to get there? Why the shaming discrepancy between the way his mob was dealt with by the police in comparison to the military operation that was called in to brutally suppress the Black Lives Matter demonstration? Were the police, understaffed and seemingly badly trained, set up by other discreet individuals from within a now sophisticated and well co-ordinated conspiracy theory movement, manipulated like puppets by their top man, who was safely out of harm’s way, watching all that was going on from his TV screen in White House?

            All of this is to say that small people working behind the scenes, if there were such people and I think it is not unreasonable to suppose that there were, along with a parallel phalanx of clever social media operatives, can turn the blood dimm’d tide. How then, is it to be turned back?

            Joe Biden will do everything he can, as will his vice-president, advisors and supporters. But they can only work within the constraints of their professional limits and there are only so many hours in the day, and there is so much to do. But it is the turning of the blood dimm’d tide that must take absolute precedence over anything else, or at least before anything else can begin to be effected, including putting in place a national disciplined plan of action for halting the exponential growth of Covid 19. So who will be the ‘little people’, the undercover ‘civil servants’ who will work now for a righteous leader, with the same discretion and determination of those who perhaps worked for his predecessor?

             They will not be people in his immediate surroundings, although some may be. The vast majority of them will be completely anonymous. They will be you and me.

            There will be no visible road map for us to follow, no plan of action, no call to take to the streets or launch social media petitions. What there will be is an imperative to first return in silence to the memory of these past days and ‘stand’ in it, stand in it silently. By that I mean hold steady in it. Remember it in its shocking and brutal reality. Refuse to deny or forget it. Refuse to hate the participants. Regret deeply what it has done, especially if you were a participant yourself and then, especially if you are an American, remember that America calls itself ‘one nation under God’, so do this standing and remembering under God.

            God’s time is not linear. Moments in the past, even the very recent past, are redeemed and thereby opened up to new redemptive possibilities by the way we choose to remember them and then think of them in the present and by the way we all take responsibility for them. This is about acknowledging wrong from deep within ourselves, whether or not we were party to that wrong or complicit in it, whether we tacitly condoned it or went along with, or were perhaps indifferent to it. Indifference has played as big a part in the loosing of the ‘blood dimm’d tide’ as any amount of conspiracy theory rhetoric. Indifference is the wrong kind of silence when it comes to crises of the kind we have just witnessed.

            But, ironically, it is now silence that we most need, a different kind of silence. The silence of a call to collective prayer and repentance for which we must all take responsibility. First, we need to find repentance in ourselves, a place where we can be silent before God, bringing to mind the events of the past few days in the way I have described and then, for churches and people who pray, asking through the appropriate authorities, to be allowed to physically stand on Capitol Hill, silently holding candles signifying hope, light coming out of darkness, signifying repentance before God. The world will be standing with you in that hope and in the spirit of repentance that it requires.

Has Christmas Failed Us?

‘..The Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings’, words taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘God’s Grandeur’.

    I am not sure if he was thinking of Christmas when he wrote them, but they seem to me to be most fitting for the Christmas we are currently experiencing, with their implicit reference to the maternal in God, the ‘brooding’ over a world that seems in so many ways to have been bent out of shape by Covid. The world is out of kilter with the divine whose coming we often forget, or count as irrelevant, and especially irrelevant to the collective and personal trauma of the Covid pandemic.

    Christmas has failed us with its sentimentality. We need something more, something that can hold the pain for us.

When we suffer, we tend to protect our pain, to not allow it to be touched, even by the kindest of hands or voices. We soldier on, presenting a confidence we rarely feel. Soldiering on emotionally, as well as physically, makes it hard for others to touch our pain, to allow them to see how frail and vulnerable we are, how truly afraid we are in the dark watches of the night, afraid of losing someone we love, or of losing our own lives or livelihoods to this pandemic. I think it is best to be honest about this fear, to admit, even, that anxiety levels are such that it is often impossible to pray. There is plenty of advice out there on how to cope with depression and anxiety, but nothing is ever said about prayer, either because people are afraid of it or deem it irrelevant.

    What makes prayer difficult right now is that in order to pray, one has to let go of something, whatever it is that takes up most of our inner space, the space within us that God inhabits, whether we are aware of his presence, or not. God never vacates that space. There is no question of God saying “I’ll come back some other time when you’re less troubled and anxious.” God simply allows the turbulence but is not driven out by it. It is God whose abiding Spirit prays in us, rather than the other way round.

    This is what made me think of the ‘bright wings’ in Hopkins’s poem, perhaps because Christmas is traditionally the season for wings, usually angelic ones, but not the season for the Holy Spirit, which is odd because Mary conceives the Christ child through the power of the Spirit, the same Spirit who ‘broods’ over us. The essence of Christmas has to do with this close brooding presence. I like the fact that God is also vaguely likened to a hen, a creature of little brain but of massive instincts for the care and protection of its own.

    But this is perhaps to mix the images a little too much. Right now, what we have is an over-arching Presence that is entirely constituted in love. Such a thing is hard to imagine and yet we see glimpses of it in the myriad acts of kindness and sacrificial living going on around us. Each, in its way, is a manifestation of the over-arching love and strength of God at work, gently straightening what has become crooked and bent, holding the pain of sickness and death, and all the unspoken pain and sickness of heart and spirit that we carry within us right now.

    So it helps to see these graced moments as God’s gift to us, something to be taken in when prayer, as we normally conceive of it, is difficult or impossible. We can do this ‘taking in’ at the end of the day, by just remembering the graced moments we have experienced and allowing them to touch, with infinite gentleness, our particular experience of suffering.

Season of Hope

We need something more than optimism in these difficult and dangerous times.

            I read this morning of a mother in Hong Kong who is taking her daughter out of school. It seems that the Chinese authorities are tightening their grip on teachers and on what can or can’t be taught to children, especially in regard to the concept of freedom and the State.

            Then I read of all the things Donald Trump could do, or is doing, to de-stabilise global relations and undermine fragile peace accords in some of the most dangerously volatile areas of the world. As he sets about sabotaging his successor’s job, some pretty frightening questions come to mind.

            If, for example, given his power and his mood, he chooses to attack Iran, what will the global consequences be? And what about the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which is fast becoming a reality? If that happens, it will leave a power vacuum ready for the Islamic State or the Taliban to fill, and from which to operate. And if Trump continues to avoid paying real attention to Iraq, Sunni extremists in that country will be indebted to him.

            And what about climate change? Global temperatures have sky rocketed and the rising trend would appear to be unstoppable, despite all of our best individual efforts to eat less red meat, heat our houses in ways that are not detrimental to the environment, switch to electric or hybrid cars, or cycle more.

            And what about Covid and the social ills that come with it? It’s unlikely to go away in time for Christmas.

            The general picture is a bleak one. There are probably many people who are choosing, metaphorically speaking, to hide under the duvet, hoping perhaps to wake up to a new and better world. Who can blame them? After all, things like Civil Wars and coups don’t happen in America – do they? Covid should be a thing of the past by the summer – shouldn’t it?

            How do we live with these questions without giving in to collective despair?

             I think one thing we need to start doing is to move from plucky optimism to well-founded hope. We have tried optimism for so long and it has not really proved up to the job of sustaining us in these critical times. We’re thrown about by what’s trending on fake news, with little time or energy to seek out in-depth coverage of events by reliable sources and, in any case, we are not sure where those sources are, or how to get an objective ‘take’ on anything. Objectivity requires time and a degree of confidence about facts and history. I would hazard a guess that not many of us have that kind of confidence.

            So perhaps what’s needed is a different kind of confidence, the kind of humble confidence that grows the more time you spend in prayer. By prayer I mean just letting God be God in whatever situation most concerns us, giving space for God in it, rather than looking for answers and solutions. It’s the space we make in ourselves for God that changes things.

             What I have learned, especially since the outbreak of Covid, is that God is already in the mess and pain, and very much in our anxieties. He has bound himself to both the causes and the effects of the ills we bring upon ourselves. He has bound himself so closely to our fears, to the terrible realities that could yet come about, that they are somehow held in him.

            The work of prayer, which is vital for the survival of the world and of each one of us, consists in constantly returning to that place where God is. We find the place in the centre of our true selves, or what is often called ‘the ground of our being’.

            It would be tempting to think of this returning to centre as a form of escapism, like hiding under the duvet. But it is quite the opposite. Prayer is about turning into reality, not away from it. It is about turning into the the reality which God sees in all the complex and often dangerous situations with which we are faced at the moment. Prayer involves contemplating the fragility of human beings with an untroubled gaze, and acknowledging our flawed nature, which makes a person especially vulnerable when they are driven by the need to hold on to power.

            But the reality we face into has to do with the ‘deep down goodness of things’, to paraphrase the poet G.M. Hopkins[1]. This deep down goodness is the Divine that is already in us and which overcomes the destructive forces of darkness, because its essence is light. Darkness cannot overcome light. When we set our minds and hearts to prayer, we are engaging with this pure light, drawing it into the world’s conflicts and into our own fears.


[1] ‘There lives the dearest freshness deep down things’ G.M. Hopkins God’s Grandeur

A Sermon for Bible Sunday

This Sunday is Bible Sunday, so I want to reflect a little on what the bible means for each one of us, and to invite us all to be honest with ourselves about how important, or unimportant, the bible is to us in our own faith journey.

            Just a few weeks ago the world’s most powerful leader was seen using the bible as a prop for a quick photo opportunity outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC. He had just delivered a speech, having first had the streets cleared of people protesting the brutal murder of a black man by the police. In his speech, President Trump proclaimed that he would be bringing in the National Guard to ‘dominate the streets’ should what he deemed to be an unjustifiably violent protest continue. The whole incident has come to be seen as one of the most flagrant violations of civil liberties in recent American history and a defining moment of Trump’s presidency.

            The photo op which followed gave the bible totemic significance. The bible was being used as a visual aid to convey the ‘truth’ of what Trump stood for, and its rightness or, to employ a more biblical term its ‘righteousness’. It was being used in the service of a lie, even though it was especially aimed at his own political power base, the American conservative Evangelical Right.

            While it is easy to condemn Donald Trump, who perhaps acted in ignorance as much as out of vanity, for using the bible in this way, Christians are often heard doing something similar. We all use the bible to justify our opinions and actions from time to time. The bible makes it quite easy for us to ‘pick and mix’, to hurl conflicting texts at one another in arguments and in debates over issues that matter to us.

            How then is the bible to be read?

            It helps to remember perhaps that the bible is not a single book written by one author. It is a library of books written over the course of a few hundred years and edited in various places to fit the circumstances of the day, most notably those of exile and persecution. There is a whole section of the library devoted to poetry and another to the chronological history of the kingdoms of the north and south, Judah and Israel. Much of the bible was written with the benefit of hindsight. Its prophecies are as much about lessons to be learned from the past as about things that will take place in the future. Christians will read much of the Old Testament as prophecy pointing to the coming of Christ and, in this respect, we would do well to bear in mind that many Jews find our way of interpreting their scriptures problematic.

            All of this makes us wonder at times what we mean when, at the end of a reading, the reader says “This is the word of the Lord”. Does God speak to us directly through the bible? I think he does, when we read it wisely. Note that I say wisely and not correctly. Wisdom is not a matter of one line of argument, or set of facts, being deployed in a battle to ‘win’ the argument and thereby prove something. The bible should be read with reverent wisdom because Wisdom, or Sophia,is not only a central tenet of scripture, but a name for God.

            So when we say these words at the end of a reading, do we mean that what we have read is to be taken, along with everything else in the bible as true in a literal sense, as provable and undeniable fact? Or does faith require that we swallow whole bits of the bible that are clearly unethical, if not downright evil, in the light of today’s scientific knowledge and social mores, along with anything that history may have taught us? For example, should we see God as in favour of child sacrifice, when Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac, his young son? or of war, given the battles he wins for his own people? Or are we being asked to revere a petty tyrant who is given to changing his mind on a whim when it comes to giving them his love and support? These are only some of the more difficult bits of the bible that the Church lectionary, on the whole, spares us from having to read. But they are there, all the same.

            This returns me to the need to read the bible wisely. Wisdom, or Sophia, connotes life. The other word for it is the Hebrew ruah which means breath. The Word of the Lord which we hear read to us in church is the breath of life. Life brings movement, transformation and change.

            The Word of the Lord, the Word of scripture, is therefore a living breathing thing, something that we must take into ourselves like oxygen. Jesus would have said that we are to ‘munch’ on it. The Greek word is browsis which roughly translates as ‘chew the cud’. We are to nourish ourselves with it as if it were bread. But we do not take in the Word indiscriminately. We sift it for the deep truth it is speaking to us in these our own times, for the pearl without price, for the gift of understanding. We ask for this precious gift, as the psalmist does (Ps.119:34)  that we might sense from within our hearts how we are to think and act in the world of today, keeping close to the living Word as we do so.

            To keep close to the living Word is to judge what we read in the bible through the lens of compassion. This is how Jesus read and judged scripture in his conversations with the teachers of the law. The teachers of the law feared him because he was bringing a new and living truth concerning scripture and the law to the people whom they controlled. The people would immediately understand or, ‘get’ this truth, because it was rooted in compassion and it would set them free from the dead letter of the law which was used by the religious authorities to control them and extort money from them.

            At the heart of the good news of the Gospel is a transformation of the way we think about scripture. It tells us in the words of the psalmist (Ps.119:174), that the law is for us to delight in, rather than a dead letter that seeks to control and suppress. The ‘law’ is the ‘word of the Lord’, a living word that empowers and sets us free from every kind of bondage.

            As Christians, we have a responsibility in regard to this freedom. We are sent out not to convert people to thinking exactly as we do about everything the bible says, but to set them free from the things that bind them, even as we have been set free. The word of God, and salvation as it is brought to us in Christ, sets us free from old habits of mind and from the cold hearts that condition us to fear and hate people who are different from us. The living Word obliges us not only to re-examine, and possibly revise, the way we read scripture, but to be open and receptive to the wisdom we need in order to realise this freedom for ourselves and for the world.

More On Angels

Michaelmas is a season that is hard to let go of, which is why I’m returning to the subject of angels, or at least angelic matters. I think what fascinates me about angels is that they are impossible to describe. Artists and writers have tried to depict them, not always appropriately, in my view. Those rather fat discreetly draped cherubic beings, beloved of Renaissance artists, don’t always invite further engagement, whereas later, more subtly suggestive works do. Here, I’m thinking especially of the series ‘Angels in Combat’ by the Islamic artist Afruz Amighi and, in particular, of his painting entitled ‘Tent’. Perhaps I’m especially drawn to the ‘Tent’ painting because I’m also reading Sebastian Barry’s brilliant novel about the First World War A Long, Long Way to Go.

The painting and the novel present us with two very similar contexts in which we might expect to see or sense angels. Although Barry makes no explicit reference to them, we sense that only a very thin veil exists between the idea of angelic presence and that of a human being who is utterly compassionate and utterly wise, as well as supremely courageous. I am thinking of the regimental Catholic padre as he figures in Barry’s story.

The question that they present us with, in both the painting and the novel, concerns what angels actually do, what part they play in the bigger picture of the outworking of human destiny, so much of it being done through the bitter and brutal circumstances brought about by wars. But if angels have work to do, I do not think that it is limited to war situations, as if once treaties have been signed and the soldiers have gone home, the angels are also given orders to return to heaven, to put it in rather simplistic terms.

I think that angels, whose primary calling seems to be to mitigate the sufferings brought about by the stupidity of human beings, go on being present in their ‘warrior guardian’ capacity in life as we know it right now. The wars, and the chaos they bring, go on in many parts of the world. They also go on even when guns are not being overtly deployed.

Right now, a climate of chaos prevails in what we like to think of as the free world. There is a sense of things ‘falling apart’ to quote Yeats’s often used poem ‘The Second Coming’. The chaotic non-debate of two presidential contestants, one of whom is now seriously ill as a direct result of his own drastic failure as a leader in regard to this pandemic, feels to me like a kind of black hole into which democracy, and possibly civilisation as we know it, is in danger of being irretrievably drawn. We are on the brink of something cataclysmic which is hard to define, let alone understand.

There were moments during the First World War when soldiers felt this way about the appalling circumstances they were caught up in. They could not understand or make sense of them, of their own place and purpose in them, or even who they were fighting for. Something like this is happening to us now, existentially speaking.  

We are all caught up in our own political vortex, driven largely by fear. So it is time to be calling on the angels, not in a passive way, as if to ask for help or divine intervention, to magic everything away. That is not enough and, in any case, the angels are already hard at work intervening where they can. What is required is that human beings of all political persuasions engage with them in this work, rather than wait in the vague hope that if angels exist they will somehow leap to our rescue before we either disintegrate as a civilized society or destroy ourselves with guns, both of which are in danger of happening given the situation in the US right now.

Angels expect us to work with them. We need to work with them, even if we don’t ‘believe’ in them. Believing in angels, or not believing in them, usually amounts to not being able to visualise them in any way. Scientists have provided a non-graphic portrayal of angels as akin to photons, which is helpful if nothing else has presented itself in a person’s spiritual journey. Plenty of people have seen or dreamed angels, so a discussion of what is meant by their ‘existence’ is superfluous, especially right now when we need their pure light (photon light, maybe), their pure energy, their pure intelligence (an idea possibly derived from the thinking of Aquinas) and their uninterrupted worship of God to be working with us into the chaotic vortex we may be about to experience.

How this is done will depend on the single hearted thinking of each person, by which I mean on the amount of energy we have to bring, in our thinking and willing for the good to prevail in our world. We then harness this will for what is truly good, because it is essentially of love, be it ever so slight, to the greater energy of the angels, those powerful forces of invisible light that surround us and that counteract every dark thought, every moment of despair, that overwhelm with their own brightness the smouldering embers of hatred burning quietly in all our hearts from time to time.

Once in this conceptual space, in our heads and hearts (even if it is only for a few seconds – it will grow exponentially, the more we occupy it) we can use words that come to mind, as we focus on the chaos, words like Kyrie eleison, eleison emas. Lord have mercy, have mercy on us and on our world.

The Season of the Angels

Today is the feast of Michaelmas, the beginning of the season of the angels.

As a child, I did a fair bit of travelling, usually on small airplanes. They were small by today’s standards, to the extent that I don’t remember there being a central block of seats, just two sets of three on either side of the cabin, which meant that most people could see out of the window. We children were invariably given the window seat or, if not, the one next to it, so you always had a reasonable view. The flights were fairly short, so I spent more time looking out of the window than filling in colouring books.

One of the things that I took for granted, and came to expect the minute the plane had become fully airborne, was to see someone who I took to be a mechanic positioned towards the middle of the plane’s wing. He appeared to be slightly bent over, as if he was investigating something. I took him to be a ‘he’, although gender was by no means a distinguishing feature of this personage. I occasionally asked my mother what he was doing there. She declined to comment, which was wise of her.

I’m not sure at what point in my travelling life this person no longer appeared on the wing of the plane, but I do remember realising that he or she wasn’t there anymore. I took this to be a normal aspect of growing up, that perhaps this guardian was no longer needed, or that I didn’t need to see him. It never occurred to me, and still doesn’t, that he might have been a figment of my imagination. This is because I assumed that it was perfectly reasonable for someone to be on the wing of a plane at thirty four thousand feet, or perhaps a little less in those days. I just noticed him there and thought little of it.

When you notice something, you don’t think about it beforehand. It just seems to occur from nowhere. I have had one or two similar experiences in later life, but very few. As with the guardian figure on the plane, they were never imagined.

To imagine something involves a degree of suspension of disbelief which, to begin with at least, involves a willingness to let go of one reality in order to grasp another. Both realities are true in a prosaic sense, although as we grow older we tend to distinguish one realm of truth from another. The film or story is true for as long as we are caught up in it, but ceases to be true in the same way when we close the book or turn off the television.

There are exceptions to this. The two truths, the two realities, can become one in moments of extreme need. Take the story of the apostle Peter who was led out of prison by an angel and ‘awoke’ to find himself in the street, his companion having disappeared (Acts 12: 1-11). This, I take to be an event that happened in real time, real space, but it had its origins in an altogether different dimension. Put in the clumsy language of ordinary mortals, it would seem that this liberator stepped from one reality, the reality beyond time as we know it, into another, the reality of time and the constraints, challenges and ultimate death that come with the passage of mortal time. In Peter’s case it was the reality of prison.

All of this raises a host of questions about the nature of belief and faith. There is plenty of scope for cynicism and for the despisers of religion to make what may seem like a convincing case against belief in angels. But, to my way of thinking, their arguments only convince to the extent that we confuse belief with faith and try to separate them, when ideally they should belong together.

Children remind us that confusing the two is not the right way to arrive at an understanding of faith and an appreciation of what informs true religion. A child who sees what they presume to be an angel, sees that entity without questioning its ‘existence’. Existence means nothing to the clear visioned child because the idea of existence demands proof and rational explanation. The child does not have the means for this at their disposal, especially if they are very young. The child sees, knows and believes. Very often the child does not even need to see in order to know and believe.

A person who arrives at this stage in later life might be described as a person of faith. They may arrive at this point of knowing as a result of a long and painful intellectual or spiritual search, or they may simply arrive at what can only be called a place of deep understanding, which is also a place of knowing. This can also happen in the aftermath of grief, illness or personal trauma.

I think this returns us to the season of the angels. Angels seem to be around people who are more interested in the understanding that leads to knowing, rather than in proof. This is what happens to the prophets. They have to be brought to a place of knowing, so that they do not burden themselves, and distract others, with the need to prove that what they have seen, heard and said is true and provable. They need to be in a place which allows them to be, in a sense, transparent interfaces with that other realm, so that they can assure the rest of us that the world and all that is in it is somehow held in the power of an ultimate goodness. Prophets and their angels are badly needed right now, but I can’t help thinking that they are very much around.

Where Love Should Be

Lived realities have more to do with memory and association than they do with what may be going on right now.

The evenings are drawing in but right now it’s so hot you’d think it was mid-summer. The mood is drawing in too. There is a sense of impending stricture about life, the almost certain knowledge that full-blown lockdown is perhaps only days away. There is uncertainty. And yet there is sunshine, proclaiming, for the last time, perhaps, an eternal summer, that false certainty we experience on a warm day in mid-September, that somehow summer will never end.

There is also a hint of past summers in the air, faint memories of childhood revived by the smell of cut grass, the last cut of the year, or sudden changes in temperature – shorts and T-shirt one minute, woolly jumpers the next. And these memories trigger other associations. You recall a conversation overheard on just such a day, in which you understood certain things about where love should be, but is not. The kind of conversation and memory that takes you forward into life as you would soon learn it will have to be lived. It will have to be lived with integrity, the kind of integrity that refuses to deny the truth of your memories.

Lived realities have more to do with memory and association than they do with what may be going on right now. This is a fact that is often hard to come to terms with. Now is now, and then was then, you tell yourself. You may think that the feelings you experience right now, in regard to the things you may remember from past Septembers, are manageable. In fact you may feel that they do not belong here, with the early autumn sunshine, and with your now happy life, but shut away somewhere in a box labelled ‘issues resolved’.

You will remember the morning you looked down at the house and made a silent promise to yourself, that this would never happen to your children. But it happened in a quite unexpected way, as a result of your trying too hard to get it right. The sins of the fathers and mothers are often re-visited on their grandchildren in quite the opposite way that their children experienced them. Where love was lacking we now over love in triple helpings, just to be sure.

Today is Holy Cross Day. Some will be finding it strange, even disturbing to be reminded of the Cross on a beautiful day in mid-September, and out of season too, when we should be thinking of harvest, and even Advent. Why the Cross now?

I think it’s very helpful that we are given a stark reminder of this emblem of all that stands for pain and suffering when we are trying to make the best of this fine weather, without allowing ‘issues’ from the past to emerge from their dark hiding places and spoil it all. It’s helpful because it assures us of the truthfulness of our painful memories, that they were not imagined, as some may have wanted us to believe. It validates them. It also tells us that these memories and associations are precious in the eyes of God.

This is all very well, you may say, if you are someone who prays and believes in God. I did neither of these things on the day I looked down at the house, at least not with any great conviction. But I’ve since learned that prayer and the Cross itself don’t work in linear time and they don’t depend on my faith, or the lack of it, at any given point in my life, because life, prayer and the Cross are all of a piece.  

The effect of prayer, and the way it draws directly on the energy, or grace, of the Cross is outside time as we understand it. It also does not depend on the faith, or spiritual giftedness of the individual at any given moment or in any particular circumstance. There will have been others praying and looking to the Cross when I was looking down on that house. So what I was then did not compromise any prayer that may have been going on in places and through people unknown to me at the time.

Where someone is praying, no matter when, or for whom, the energy they draw on is the same energy that emanates from that unflinching Cross. It heals our individual lives, and the life of the world, and propels us all forward in a Godward direction, in the direction of divine love. To the extent that we resist the call, or pull, to prayer and to the Cross itself, that energy is proportionally diminished. This is, I believe, true across time and on into eternity, which is why we ask good people who have died to carry on praying for us. It is also why we pray for those who cannot or will not pray, whether they are alive or dead, and despite the memories or associations we may still harbour in regard to them.