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.

Blessing

Blessings are like the swifts who, at this time of year, are here one moment and gone the next, often only recognized after they’ve gone.

Some very brief thoughts on blessing.

I sit outside for the first hour of the day, while the weather is still warm enough. It seems I only have to sit down with a cup of tea for the action to begin. I have observed this to be a fact, and not just my imagination, as I always wait on the other side of the window to see if anything is going to happen before I go out there. It rarely does.

But within seconds of my sitting down about fifty swifts appear circling and dipping over the natural pool in front of the house. It is their drinking moment, to be repeated at around 6pm for as long as daylight allows. I think they sense the shortening days and that they must soon leave. They are making the most of this brief moment, of its blessing. The swifts are already lining up on the television aerials, flexing their wings and calling out to each other, to encourage the first-timers perhaps, urging them to keep up their exercise routines. I shall miss them, especially on that first day after they leave. They don’t take off singly, or even in pairs. The whole crowd is there one day and gone the next.

Most blessings are like that, I find. Here one moment and gone the next, often only recognised after they’ve gone.

It’s easy to miss our blessings in the times we’re living in, in the rather ‘potted’ state many of us who are still semi-isolated feel we inhabit. Longing for Covid to be a thing of the past constrains us even more in the realities of the present. How good it would be to take off with the birds. But if we were to take off, as many are desperate to do right now, there would be little room for the blessings of the present moment. We would be too busy anticipating what is about to happen, next week or tomorrow, instead of being fully present to what is happening right now, including the surprising blessings that crop up on the lowest of days.

I’m not saying ‘Always look on the bright side’, not that I’d want to reference the song and its (in my view) bafflingly ill chosen context in the Monty Python film. In any case, for many people right now there isn’t a bright side. To pretend that there is one is to deny the blessing, strange as that may sound. What we do have to do, then, is to keep a window open.

This reminds me of an apocryphal story told of Jesus who, between the hearings with Caiaphas and Pilate, was lowered into a pit (the equivalent of a police cell) for the intervening couple of hours. There would have been an opening at the top from which he would have seen the stars, and maybe the first light of dawn. Blessing works like that in times of depression. You notice it where you least expected it.

So what I’m really saying is be prepared for surprises, even in times of depression. An unexpected email, something funny being said over supper that distracts us from a gossipy dead-end conversation, from which nothing good can be salvaged without sounding insincere, or from words of forced gratitude said as Grace before a meal. Better to be silent and really plumb the meaning of the Grace, and then pour a glass of wine, break a piece of bread, be present to the Presence and to the blessing of the moment.

Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity

Matt. 16:13-20; Is. 51:1-6; Rom.12:1-8

“Who do you say that I am?”

 

Most Sundays, it’s quite clear which text is the one the sermon should be focusing on, but this week is an exception. All three readings are, in a sense, enmeshed. There is the urgency of the prophet Isaiah, each verse prefaced with words like ‘listen to me’, ‘pay heed’, ‘raise your eyes heavenwards’. There is the exhortation of Romans in which Paul, just as urgently, ‘implores’ his readers to offer their ‘very selves’ to God. And, finally, the stark question put by Jesus to Peter, and to all of us, “Who do you say that I am?”

Who, indeed, do we say Jesus is? And what kind of an answer is expected of us? I don’t think we need to look far to find it, because we are being asked to consider and answer this question with nothing less than our very selves, and with our whole lives.  

It is a question that brings together all the questions that have ever been asked about anything that pertains to the human condition, to the future of the human race, to the meaning and purpose of each of our lives. And yet it is a question whose answer eludes us, while also demanding a definitive response. It brooks no conditional half measures. It brings us to the place that Peter finds himself in, having no other words than those given to him by the gift of faith itself.

So really what we are dealing with in these texts is faith, faith as a gift. The problem with faith, though, is that it is a gift that even though it is freely given, depends on our wanting to receive it. Where there is indifference to God, where there is no desire for God, there is nowhere for the gift of faith to go. In fact, I would go so far as to say that downright hostility towards God is better than indifference when it comes to faith. The angry and the hostile are at least feeling something in regard to God and perhaps trying to express that anger with good reason. They may be angry on someone else’s behalf because of whatever they or another person has experienced at the hands of the Church, or of religion in general.  Anger and hostility embody passion and the God we read of in the passage from Isaiah is a passionate God.

So there are no half measures in regard to how we feel and then respond to the question put by Jesus to Peter. We are obliged to respond to it with our whole being.

I am willing to bet that in the solitude and isolation that many of us have experienced over the past months, and may still be experiencing, that we have been confronted by this question on numerous occasions. When we are alone, afraid or vulnerable, questions about the meaning and purpose of life and our own particular life trajectory tend to loom large, especially for those who have difficulty sleeping at night. Sometimes we find ourselves in that half waking nightmare (a favourite of Jung’s, by the way) in which we feel that we are falling into a great emptiness, a great darkness. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world is ‘falling’ in that way too. These are frightening moments and we live in frightening times. But it is precisely from such moments that we hear the question being asked by Jesus of Peter, and of all of us. Who do we say Jesus is?

We do not hear it as judgment. It is not a test. It was not a test for Peter either. Jesus’s response was not to say “Well done. You got it right, so now you can relax in the knowledge that you’re saved”, or going to heaven – or some other equivalent. He says “it was faith that made it possible for you to know this”. Peter must have wanted that gift of faith. I wonder if he was surprised by what it felt like when he got it.

I ask this because I think the gift of faith is not only there for us when we want it, but that it does not always turn out to be what we think it is. It is not about making a magical transition from a place of not believing anything to believing everything the bible says, literally as written, or the Church teaches, as given. Faith is not about gearing yourself intellectually and emotionally to ‘believe’ things. It is about knowing. By that I mean the kind of knowing that was given to the prophet Job, and to Isaiah who speaks with such urgency in the reading set for this Sunday.

The ‘knowing’ of faith comes with experience, the kind of experience that demands our total self-giving as a response to God’s invitation to listen, to take heed, to raise our eyes heavenwards. The empty days that we may still be experiencing as a result of Covid ought to make it easier for us to do this self-giving, or self-emptying.

The whole of Jesus’s life, leading to his death on the Cross, was an act of self-emptying, or kenosis as it is also called. He prepared for it for forty days spent fasting in the desert, an empty place. He knew emptiness as hunger, as fear and as loneliness. But he knew it most importantly as the culmination of his willingness to be given over to us in our emptiness and in the spiritual emptiness of our materialist society, a materialism that drives our lives for most of the time.

Interestingly, Christian mystics who have spent time alongside holy men and women in India have found that the language of kenosis is not at all foreign to them and is even at the very core of their own belief systems. Who is to say that Jesus does not meet them with the same question he put to Peter, and puts to each one of us? And who is to say that their answer, if they have one, which they probably would not presume to have, differs in essence from the one given by Peter? At the heart of kenosis is the strange silent ‘not knowing’ that leads into the deep knowing of God that Isaiah speaks of.

These are difficult things to speak of without sounding overly abstract which is why Job, at the end of his tribulations, is reduced to silence. So, in effect, must we be. Remaining silent is not a matter of giving up on the knowing of God, as something far too esoteric and difficult. It is more about allowing the presence of Jesus in our lives to be his presence to a world and society that is badly in need of it. So it would be wrong to ‘accept the gift of grace (which leads to faith) in vain’ as St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth (2 Cor. 6:1). We accept the gift of grace which leads to faith in whatever capacity it is given to us to accept it, and we live our lives accordingly. We do not live in a self-interested way, protecting our precious beliefs against all comers, lest our faith be compromised. We live in a kenotic way, emptied, as Christ was, so that we can be filled with God and with the world’s need for God’s love and God’s passionate desire to heal it and restore it to himself, just as the prophet Isaiah promises.

 

Hope Un-deferred

I received an email this morning confirming, in the nicest way, that my name had been added to the ‘lost’. The writer had meant ‘list’ of course. I loved that typo.

Sometimes we need a reason to laugh, or at least not to take ourselves too seriously. The problem with too much seriousness is that it makes the really serious things in life, its problems, pains and perplexities, seem insurmountable and even dangerous. Sometimes we have to sit lightly to our anxieties, even when there is every reason for us to be feeling anxious.

I am thinking especially of American politics right now. I am not an expert on the subject, but I have few delusions when it comes to why I believe people (perhaps men, especially) seek high office. They seek it because they want power. But I believe we have to hope that they want that power for the right reasons. In any case, their reasons for wanting it will become quite obvious in a very short period of time after they are elected, as we saw with Donald Trump.

I dare to think that Joe Biden’s and Kamala Harris’s bid for power stems from quite different motives than those of Donald Trump. In fact, I am determined to think that, and to hold them accountable if their motives are revealed to be other than for the good of the people they will be called (God willing) to serve.

That is not to say that I will hold them accountable for failing to achieve every single one of their objectives, most of which will involve the slow and necessarily discreet undoing of the damage inflicted by Trump in just about every area of governance; from raising the minimum wage and reinstating Obama’s plans for a universal system of health care, to rejoining the global climate accord and repairing and rebuilding trust in what have become dangerously volatile international relations. Clearing up someone else’s mess is never glamorous and Biden, should he succeed in any of it, will probably get little credit for doing so four years from now, but succeed he must.

It’s hard to know where the clean up job will need to start and, for that matter, how anyone opposing Donald Trump will navigate the minefield of an American election campaign, especially without the customary razzmatazz to distract them from some of its less savoury realities. Virtual communication is just what it says. It is virtual, essential, the bare bones of what needs to be said or seen. For this reason, it also obliges all of us (whether or not we are American voters) to exercise in-depth discernment, to look for truth, for sincerity that goes beyond well-meaning, for the will to the good, and to sit more lightly to our personal anxieties so that we can see these things more clearly, so that we can hope for them and pray for them.

We need to do this not only because anxiety does not lend a single hour to our life span (Matt. 6:27) but because it obscures truth. It casts a pall over things, a heaviness. We owe it to the people who, right now, need to be absolutely serious about what they think, do and say (because our future and that of the planet depends on them) to hold that seriousness from within a certain lightness of heart.

Lightness of heart gives credence to hope, although there are many who would say quite the opposite, that to have a light heart is to believe in a make believe world, to be deluded in some way, to be irresponsible. But it points to something quite different. To find lightness, or the possibility of light where there has been nothing but darkness, is like shining a torch into a dark room. It gives shape and substance to the frightening and the unknown and in doing so diminishes the threat these unknowns pose. It provides a known landscape from which we can plot our way forward. It embodies hope.

There is nothing vague or delusional about hope, even if the way we communicate it involves stumblings and mistakes. Biden has made a few of these mistakes, inadvertently, no doubt, but with becoming humility. Trump has made a great many of them, but arrogantly with only his own vested interests in mind. The world, and not only America, needs Joe Biden’s modesty, and the hope it speaks of.

Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Trinity

Matthew 15: 10-28

Jesus heals the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter

The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, as this is known, has to be one of the most baffling and disturbing episodes recounted in any of the gospels. Jesus appears indifferent to this woman’s plight, having earlier publicly reviled the teachers of the Law as ‘blind guides’ who are concerned only with outward appearances. The only other comparable moment, in regard to the woman, is his brief exchange with the person sent to tell him (while he is in the middle of a conversation) that his mother and family would like a word with him outside (Matt. 12:47). You will remember that his rather curt reply consisted in using the moment to emphasize the fact that his true mother, and brothers and sisters are those who hear the word of God and act on it. This is not the Jesus we like to think we know.

We have grown rather used to a polite and accommodating Jesus. In fact, the lectionary, as set for this Sunday, even offers us the opportunity to miss out the first ten verses, the ones about the things that defile, and go straight to the story of the woman who Jesus appears, at first, to be ignoring. But I think it is important to treat the whole passage as a single piece, even though they may pertain to two entirely unrelated incidents. The writer, or compiler, of Matthew’s gospel would have had his own reasons for placing them together.

For us, today, having them side by side is very helpful. Right now, we are living in an emotional climate where defilement or ‘contamination’ is a serious issue. We are becoming used to living with the need to sanitise our surroundings and to keep a distance from one another, and this situation may go on for some time. But we also need to be reminded of what real contamination consists of, which is not in any way to minimise the measures we all need to take to avoid catching the covid virus.

The contamination, or ‘defiling’ that Jesus is talking about in the first part of this reading, relates to the human heart, the things we think, as well as say, that diminish us, or diminish someone else. The thoughts that hover over our heads like speech bubbles.

Anyone who remembers reading comics as a child will know what I mean when I speak of speech bubbles – they can be hard and spiky or soft edged, depending on whether the words are being said or thought. The speech bubbles hovered over the heads of Desperate Dan or Dennis the Menace with whatever it is they were thinking or saying written in them, or implied by exclamation marks.

We all go around with a speech bubble hanging over our heads. They are the product of our thoughts, of the state of our hearts and, more often than not, of our fears. When we are afraid, we look around, unconsciously perhaps, for someone to blame, or to look down on, or to simply ignore so that we can feel a little more secure, in whatever ways we need to feel secure.

 So there follows from Jesus’s quite harsh words on the subject of defilement the incident with the woman who comes to him begging for her daughter to be healed. He remains silent. If this were a comic strip, what would be written in the speech bubble over his head? What is he really thinking? we ask ourselves. It seems that she does not qualify for his attention, let alone his healing, because she is a gentile. She is referred to as a Canaanite and the Canaanite people were pagans at the time. So it seems that she does not qualify for healing because she does not belong to the right group, and she is the first to admit this. Jesus, ignores her, it seems, for this reason and this makes for very uncomfortable reading for us today, unless we take the time to get further into the situation and read it for what it is.

It turns on the subject of faith and belonging. To trust in Jesus is to belong to him and to all those who truly love him. Tribal loyalties have no place in the economy of the Kingdom, an economy that is built on trust, mercy, and above all, love. We read this passage then, taking full account of what Jesus’s silence really means. We sense that he already loves this woman. Perhaps she knows this. She is fearless both because of the urgency of her need and perhaps because her need for him emboldens her, as it did other women who were close to him. Our love for Christ, and the extent to which we recognise our need for him, breaks down the barriers of otherness, as it did for this woman. It compels us to step forward in love so that healing or forgiveness can take place where there has been nothing but fear and distrust.

Jesus’s silence also affords us with an opportunity to look at those places where we are silent in regard to others, to those who don’t belong, where we create a ‘them and us’ society, or church, or neighbourhood. It invites us to consider where we stand in relation to people who are different.

It also takes us back to the terrible hatreds that have re-surfaced over these past months in regard to race. When we are afraid, where there is a climate of fear, there is also violence. The Black Lives Matter movement arises, in part at least, out of fear, the nameless fear and the need to blame someone or something for whatever it is we are afraid of in the ‘other’, and to perhaps project onto them the dark fears swirling out from a pandemic that we do not understand and cannot control.

That then, is us, in the moment of silence between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

But what are they both saying to us, in regard to our unnameable fears and hatreds? She, who is after all the person most in need of a response, holds steady. She even dares to question Jesus. He likes that about her. But that is not why he heals her daughter. He heals her daughter because of her unwavering trust and courage, the kind of trust and courage that enables her to cross a line, to inhabit a different place in regard to what really matters to God, these things having nothing whatever to do with issues of defilement or race.

All of this returns us to the place we are still inhabiting in regard to Covid and all the strictures it still places on us. What are the lines that we must’nt cross? And what are the lines that we can and must cross? Of course, the answer to the first question is any line that puts the health of another person or our own at risk. But what about the lines we must cross? I think these are the lines that subtly delineate the limits of our own courage and faith in regard to how we think of ourselves, our communities and this continuing virus. When God seems silent, and people all over the world are ill or dying, we who have been spared so far must hold steady in the knowledge that God holds all things to himself, including what is still a very uncertain future. Faith is about this knowledge. It is the knowing that matters, the knowing that in Jesus we have a God who walks with us, who will yet heal us of our fears and of the hatreds they can engender, a God who even now lives deep within us.

Living Well

I badly need the sense of purpose that comes with knowing that the first hour of the day will be dedicated to silent prayer.

Almighty God, you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen. Collect for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost.[1]

I think this prayer just about sums up the conflicting emotions and the general depressive low that is hanging over us all with the latest surge in Covid spikes. Sometimes we have to be brought to a point where we realise that ‘we have no power to help ourselves’ which is not to say that serious medical advice and hope for a vaccine in the near future should simply be abandoned in favour of throwing ourselves on the mercy of God. I often think being told to throw yourself on the mercy of God sounds a little hysterical. We are not called to give in to panic and collective hysteria, tempting as it sometimes is to do just that. Or, if not panic and hysteria, to disappearing back under the duvet when the alarm goes off and staying there. Sooner or later the dog will need feeding, or someone will come to the door. The day will be thrown off kilter which makes depression even harder to deal with, or so I have found, and we are left worse off than when we started, ‘with no power to help ourselves’.

Mental health is greatly helped by routine because routine gives us a sense of being in control, especially when going through a period of depression. And this is where throwing ourselves on the mercy of God does have a part to play.

I badly need the sense of purpose that comes with knowing that the first hour of the day will be dedicated to silent prayer, even though I often only just about manage the hour. But the hour is a blessing because it supplies the energy and motivation needed to stick to the structure I’m used to, which is to write for two to three hours in the morning. I think writers are particularly in need of the Collect quoted above because we are in the habit of believing that our work is all down to us and that if we don’t sit down at the accustomed hour and produce something reasonably coherent and, we hope, meaningful for at least some people, then we have failed, not only as writers but, in a sense, in life as a whole.

It is so easy to give in to the belief that we have failed and then wallow in it to the point of nearly drowning. Wallowing in failure and going back over old rejections constitute the kind of adversities which the writer of this Collect must have had in mind. They are the ‘evil thoughts that assault the soul’. They are also directly linked to the ‘adversities which may happen to the body’. We are all experiencing these adversities. Thousands of people have caught the corona virus and still more of us experience the physical adversities that both feed and are fed by depression – insomnia, headaches, problems with food and often illness that resembles the virus itself, or is possibly symptomatic of it.

Here is where some kind of meditation or prayer routine helps. However you go about your meditation, you are calling on grace in some form, not as a passive recipient, but as someone to whom it is given to engage with the world in its suffering right now. You have work to do and it matters that you do it. It helps, then, to see ourselves in the wider picture, as individuals who belong to a family, or community but, most importantly, to the world in this present time of travail. We are in it together. I think this is a helpful thing to keep in mind when struggling to get out of bed in the morning, especially if you are facing more weeks of isolation. We belong together and, yes, it’s fine to throw ourselves together on the power and mercy of God.

[1] Celebrating Common Prayer: A Version of the Daily Office SSF