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

The Wheat and the Tares

The turning point of destiny does not lie only in the garden of Eden, but in the battleground of Heaven, where the angels of God triumph over the demons and Satan is hurled into the abyss.

 

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Trinity

Matt.13:24-30; 36-43

Two sermons about seeds and sowing on two consecutive Sundays. Someone is trying to make a point. You might say that it’s Jesus himself, but then is he talking to the same group of people on each occasion? Some of them will be the same. His disciples were following him around, so they would have heard last week’s story about the seed that fell on the good soil, as opposed to on dry stony soil. Or is it the editor of Matthew’s gospel? Editorial privilege allows for a certain ‘slant’ on things, even for manipulation of the facts, as we know from the newspapers we choose to read. If you want one particular view your ‘go-to’ paper will give you what you want to hear, even reinforce your prejudices at times. This is something we know we have to be wary of, especially in the digital age we now live in. Anything can be done to the news.

With Matthew’s gospel we know that there is a particular editorial slant, but it is not the kind of slant employed by tabloid journalists or various kinds of malware that gets hacked into our computers. The writer of this gospel is writing primarily for a Jewish readership, which is why we frequently see him set the sayings and parables of Jesus in the context of a Jewish festival, or of the Law. He is concerned with, among other things, Jesus’s Jewishness and his understanding of morality, and of how his very different approach to moral questions is to be understood when it comes to the way Divine judgment works.

So bearing all these considerations in mind, what is this Gospel saying to us today? In what context does it speak most forcefully to us? As with last week’s gospel, we are dealing with questions of good and evil, and of ultimate judgment.

This week, we hear about the kind of evil that, to use a common expression, ‘messes’ with things. If we relate the story to last week’s, the good soil has indeed yielded the wheat but somewhere along the line something got in there and wrecked the crop – ‘messed’ with it.

I am reminded of the situation we face in regard to Russia seemingly trying to mess with the Covid vaccine that is being developed by other countries. The question is, why would Russia want to do this? Why would anyone want to mess up something that is so badly needed by the rest of the world? I don’t think you need to be a political pundit to find an answer to this question. People usually mess up the good that another does out of envy and spite. So much of the evil that we see happening in the world around us – in international relations, in scurrilous business deals, in countless personal betrayals – stems from this evil root. We, or ‘they’ want something they feel they don’t have.

Historically, Russia has always felt that it does not quite belong. Somewhere in its heart is a sense of being denied access to the family of nations, to being part of Europe. So it behaves like any alienated person who needs to belong by messing with the things others have. In this sense, Russia is behaving like an alienated individual, someone who feels shut out of things, but makes it very difficult for people to include them. The alienated individual is someone who allows the good that is in them to be ‘messed’ with through envy and jealousy.

The Creation story itself embodies this ‘myth’. The turning point of destiny does not lie only in the garden of Eden, but in the battleground of Heaven, where the angels of God triumph over the demons and Satan is hurled into the abyss. Satan wanted to be like God – greater than God, in fact. In more prosaic terms, you could say that this cosmic battle was in fact a battle between love and hate. The battle has been won for all time in the Cross, but it also continues today in every malicious thought and in every betrayal that invades the human heart and messes with its potential for goodness.

But the story does not end here. In both the parable we read last week and in the one set to be read for this Sunday, we hear of judgment. In last week’s story, it is as if we bring our own judgment upon ourselves, depending on the state of our hearts. The word either thrives and bears fruit, or it withers and dies of its own accord, because of the state of the soil (our hearts) that it is planted in. But this week’s is quite different. This week, Jesus tells us that the weeds are to be allowed to grow up alongside the good plants and that they won’t be uprooted until the last day. Whether he means our own individual last day, or the end of time as we know it is open to conjecture. The main point is that there will be judgment.

The good news though, is that the judgment that Jesus is talking about is a redemptive one, if we are willing to play a part in it. We are not passive recipients of evil thoughts and impulses. Neither are we passive recipients of salvation. We have a part to play. We have choice and we have at least a measure of control over the things we do and say. The judgment for us, then, involves being truthful with ourselves about the real motives that drive our words and actions. What is the ‘desire’, to use a phrase often repeated by St. Paul in his letters to young churches, that drives us? Sin, as St. Paul often tells us is driven by ‘desire’; the desire, or need, to be better, richer, more powerful or more important than someone else, the desire to win at all costs.

It is important to own our real desires before God so that he can effect a redemptive judgment on them, so that he can burn out of our hearts the desires that ‘mess’ with the goodness that is innately ours, by virtue of the fact that we are made in his image and redeemed by his Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. In the end, he will do the necessary ‘burning’ whatever happens, as the parable of the wheat and tares suggests, but we will be a great deal happier, and the world a more peaceful and just place, if we begin this work with him today.

 

 

 

Alan Bennett’s Irene

Bennet’s Irene is not a bad person. She is a deeply wounded person.

 

We watched the first instalment of Alan Bennet’s ‘Talking Heads’ (currently streaming on BBC i-player) last night, starring the incomparable Imelda Staunton. It made me think of all the people I have labelled ‘difficult’ over the years, mainly for want of the patience needed to get into their ‘heads’, to meet them on the road of wherever it is they’re coming from in life and so understand them better. And perhaps to meet myself along the way too, piecing together memories and associations, separated from each other by time, but which, taken together, reveal who I am, and yield self-acceptance.

Bennet, as always, holds up a mirror for us to behold ourselves as we are. But what is more important, on the basis of last night’s episode, is what he reveals to us about the people we, or society, or the Church, or the government, have given up on; people who are, for any number of reasons ‘difficult’, who don’t tick boxes and who appear not to care about that.

What we are seeing, of course, is a picture of the alienated individual, the person who, for whatever reasons or circumstances, has painted themselves into a corner in life. These are the people it is easiest to dislike, even to hate; the ill-tempered receptionist, the interfering and sometimes destructive neighbour, the carping and over critical parent or partner, the person who cannot recognize kindness, or acknowledge it when it is shown to them, the selfish, the controlling, the overbearing – all of us, in fact, because all of us have in some measure for at least some of the time, been directly affected by unhappy people and become like them ourselves. The memories associated with them continue to wound us and unhealed wounds lead to hardness of heart.

Bennet’s ‘Irene’ is not a bad person. She is a deeply wounded person. This in no way exonerates her for her treatment of the neighbours across the road, who she spies on and persecutes mercilessly. Neither does it oblige us to like her. This is a mistake that many well meaning people, especially Christians, make in regard to difficult people, that we must at least act as if we like them, that we are, in fact, under a moral obligation to ‘love’ them. To pretend to love someone who you find it impossible to like, for whatever reason, is pure hypocrisy, and yet the Church persists in communicating this impossible message to its members.

Bennet does not ask us to like Irene. What he does do, brilliantly, is to allow Irene an opportunity to reveal who she truly is, despite her new surroundings. (No spoiler here). We see what appears to be a transformation of her personality as a direct result of her being accepted by those around her. We sense, of course, the barbed nature of this ‘acceptance’. She is laughed at, but she is also given a sense of belonging and purpose. As a result of this, a new person emerges.

When a person is accepted unconditionally, either because a particular set of circumstances makes that more possible, or because love in its true guise gives them the benefit of the doubt, they get another chance at life. They can reveal their true selves to others, and perhaps to themselves, as Irene seems to do.

So what is Bennet inviting us to do in all this? I don’t think he is talking about the need for patient kindness, in the hope that our being nice to someone will somehow transform them over time. Irene gets that kind of niceness from the social workers and the occasional police officer who visit her. I think he is asking us to try to at least imagine where the annoying, mean, miserable individuals who may figure in our lives are really coming from. What is the unbearable grief that binds them to itself? What is the failure or disappointment, or heartbreak from which they will never recover? Where have they been crushed and humiliated? How can we begin to reach them in these places, without, of course, them realising that we are doing that, because that would only hurt or humiliate them further?

These are not questions waiting to be asked. They are pain that is waiting to be salved. We salve the pain of others through silence, not through superfluous, if well intentioned, words. Silence means giving undivided attention to another person, listening to them as we hold their underlying pain, even if only for a few brief moments, and then taking it home with us to hold in the ambient grace of a loving God.

 

 

 

 

Now

There are many Christians who believe we are living in the ‘end times’.

 

Wars, rumors of wars, plagues, climate apocalypse in various guises, are all predicted in the bible, if you choose to read it only in that way. But more to the point, all are predictable, given the way human beings behave towards each other, towards other species, towards this planet.

There are many Christians who believe we are living in the ‘end times’. They are not entirely mistaken, because we have been living in these ‘end times’ ever since the moment Christ ascended into heaven. Like the disciples who were left staring into the sky, we are looking up and ahead to the ultimate moment while living in the ‘now’ moment.

A comparable situation exists for each of us as individuals, whether or not we are Christians or people of faith. From the moment we are born we embark on the journey of our mortality. We live our lives in ‘end times’. We do not know how long it will take for us to reach home, as it were, but we are all on our way there. I would hazard a guess that most of us are aware of this inevitable progression, and think about it quite often during the average day.

I found myself thinking about these things this morning, as I read about the outbreak of bubonic plague in China and of the new strain of potentially species-leaping swine ‘flu. I thought about it all in the context of that precise moment, while looking out at a greyish windy sky, a pool of water with its long grasses growing around it like thick hair and the bit of the tree I can also see from that corner of the room, a Crimson King that we planted 26 years ago and which has now come into its full glory. The pool took seven years to stabilise, so that the water is now kept crystal clear by the grasses and surrounding plants. It all took time. Now we are moving on, so that the couple who have bought this place can pick up where we left off.

I thought about how every day is a matter of picking up where we and others have left off and of the decisions that need to be taken, the mindsets that are needed to work good or ill in the world. I thought of all this as a single moment. I held it before God. I wondered if anyone else was doing something similar at that precise moment.

I think being able to simply hold the present moment in a good place in our minds is the beginning of prayer. The will to the good, to healing, to remaking the present, so that it can embody hope for the future, is something we are all called to do. But I also believe that there is more to it than that. It involves giving ourselves completely to the ‘now’ moment itself, surrendering into it, so that love can pour into the ‘space’ we create when we do this surrendering. So the other word for this kind of surrendering, involves dropping deeply into love, as we would jump or drop into a pool of water.

Prayer also involves what Jesus called ‘dying’, or living as if we were ‘dying into’ an eternal present moment. He tells us that for this to be possible we have to do some surrendering. We have to surrender ‘self’. He is not talking about suppression of who we are in order to become someone else. Neither does he mean trying to suppress what we think is unlovable in ourselves. Prayer is not about any kind of suppression. It is quite the opposite. It is about dynamic engagement with a God who loves us as we are, and it is about trust. By dynamic engagement I mean something akin to getting on to a moving walkway – but much more exciting and unpredictable than those we experience in airport transit corridors when one is too tired to walk at the end of a long-haul flight. When we pray we walk in step, in pace, with God.

Prayer is about getting on to the dynamic movement which, on the whole, we only understand as the passage of time. The present moment that we are surrendering into embodies all of time as we know it. If we do this exercise frequently enough we also experience that multi-dimensional phenomenon which some artists and mathematicians come close to describing, but which most of us simply know as eternity – time without end.

So why am I saying all this? I’m saying it because I’m inviting all of us to become practitioners of this kind of surrendering into the eternity of the present moment which is also a matter of movement, of ‘going with’ the purposes (the moving staircase, perhaps) of God. “But what if you don’t believe in God?” I hear some people ask. I cannot really answer that, except to ask that you do the surrendering and the dropping into love, in the moment, not with what you believe you have at your disposal in the way of focus and self-control, but with a willingness to self-abandonment, so that your courage and generosity of spirit can ‘move’ the power that heals, restores and redeems. You may change the world. You may also give the power a name some time. One never knows.

A Bounded Freedom

As someone who is called to serve the Church in an ordained capacity, I have been giving some thought to how we can best respond to this calling, and to how the Church is to be for people, once churches are allowed to fully re-open for public worship. What will be asked of it?

 

It seems that these endless weeks of bounded freedom, the only name I can think to give to this period of lockdown, are drawing to a close – for the time being at least.

There will have been days which literally defy description and there will be have been others which have passed like a dream, with day and night merging into a single colourless continuum. We have been thrown back on ourselves and on our own emotional resources. For many people, these resources are now at a very low ebb. Our faith, if we have one, may have been severely tested through depression or loneliness, through disorientation and a strange sense of uprootedness and disorientation, perhaps.

Faith is nurtured through relationship, through human exchange at every level. For Christians it is also nurtured through coming together to seek God on a weekly basis, with whatever words and actions we are given, or that have been handed to us by tradition. Despite everything that is being done online, some of us miss our Sundays, the day that punctuates the week in this rather formal way. We miss our church and its regular pattern of worship and ministry. We miss the communion of it, communion through the sacrament if we have that, and communion with one another at a very real level, real in the sense of being physically present to one another in a shared space that has been used for this purpose for generations.

Church is a place of rootedness. But people are mistaken when they think of church as a sterile environment stuck in the past. If roots are simply ‘stuck’ a plant or tree cannot live. Similarly, if prayer and worship are no more than habit, if it is emotionally stuck or out of touch with people’s lives today, it will not be a channel of life. But if prayer is genuine, if it consists of everything a person has to bring to the moment, worship will be genuine too. It will also be rooted, not boring, repetitive or trite, but sourced in the unchanging nature of God and rooted in the richness of our individual lives.

God does not change and yet God moves, within us and around us. Churches exist to signal this particular reality that we experience together. In the context of a church service, we are present to God from what can only be described as our real self, the place of no pretence where we meet the God who knows us and loves us as we are.  We are also among people we trust, or at least we should be. The purpose of church is to affirm and celebrate this rootedness in God and in one another, to celebrate a trust between people that has accumulated across the generations and throughout the centuries and will continue to do so for centuries to come.

The other name for this is communion, the communion of ‘saints’. Saints are not perfectly holy individuals. They are flawed human beings, past and present, who recognise their need for Christ and try to love one another in that place of need. Some of them will come together on a Sunday and do this in church.

The responsibility for celebrating this communion, or union of people at the deepest level of meaning in God, lies with those who minister the church service. They can be ordained or lay, depending on the tradition of individual churches. Either way, it is a particular calling and one which extends beyond the confines of any one parish or church building.

As someone who is called to serve the Church in this way, I have been giving some thought to how those of us who share in this calling can best respond to it, and to how the Church is to be for people, once churches are allowed to fully re-open for public worship. What will be asked of it?

I am getting a sense of what this might be from the relationships that have been formed or strengthened up and down the lane where I live. It is more than a sense of people looking out for each other, or being more friendly than usual – notably when it comes to negotiating one or other of the few passing places we have along this lane. We smile and make eye contact with the person who gives way, which is not something that always happened in the past. Courtesy is very much part of our shared life these days. We are not in such a hurry as we were. There is deeper communion between us as a result of the restrictions imposed by the Covid pandemic.

Being in deeper communion with one’s immediate neighbours, as a result of our shared experience of lockdown, says something about what it means to be the Church. We are in fact being the Church when we practice courtesy to one another. But there is more to it than that. For the Church, courtesy is a graced action. It comes from having spent time engaging with the source of all courtesy and kindness, with engaging deeply in God. The isolation and solitude of the past months have meant that many of us have had to re-learn the habit of dropping down into silence in a way that sees silence as the source of all goodness, and of life itself. There have even been times, during these months, when silence literally ‘commands’ our attention.

To pay attention is to respond to a command from God to listen deeply to the world and to our immediate surroundings. It invites us to draw people we know into the presence of God, from within our own deepening encounter with silence and with whatever we wrestle with in moments of real solitude. But we also do this in solidarity with our neighbours, naming the ones we know, or simply holding the ones whose names elude us in the ambit of God’s love. This is what the Church of the future will consist of, a body of people who have learned how to hold others in God.

Despite lockdown, some figures suggest that there has been a marked increase in interest in Sunday church services over the past weeks. On one particular Sunday the internet briefly collapsed under the sheer weight of Christian prayer, teaching and worship. This is interesting because there are many parish clergy who have felt lost and disorientated over these past months, despite some of the wonderfully imaginative outreach that has been effected through the internet and despite the pastoral sensitivity and vision of some of our bishops. It has been a wilderness time for them.

The Church, like many people, is enduring a wilderness period, not only because its doors have been closed, and may remain so for a while yet, or because collective worship has not been possible, but because we are being invited, perhaps, to deepen into this sense of loss and absence, into the wilderness, and, what is more difficult, to not be in too much of a hurry to emerge from it.

As with lockdown itself, I believe we clergy need to emerge slowly and cautiously from the wilderness we may have been experiencing. We need to own it fully. Owning our own wilderness enables us to minister in the fullest sense to the emptiness and loss which many people experience in their lives, irrespective of Covid. These feelings of loss can be attributed to specific crises, of course, but for the most part they constitute a general state of mind, a sense of purposelessness and futility, a lethargy of the soul. If the Church, and its ordained ministers in particular, are to speak to this soul sickness, and thereby proclaim the good news of the Gospel, those of us who do so in an official capacity will need to re-learn acceptance, acceptance of who and what we are before God (and that takes some doing) and acceptance of the world and the Church itself, as they are before God. In the eyes of God, both the Church and the world are fundamentally good and deeply loved.

Herein lies the paradox of the Church’s prophetic vocation. We are to know ourselves as loved by God, and capable of goodness, while at the same time being acutely conscious of the evil and suffering that is perpetrated in the world and within the Church’s own bounded structures. Holding these two opposites together, the capacity for good and evil, becomes a way of life, not just something we do when we feel up to it, or can find the time, but as the guiding knowledge that we are called to live by.

We also do it in solidarity with previous generations. We inherit both the good and the consequences of the evil that may have begun through their actions, in both the Church and the world. We are in solidarity with the BLM movement now, because injustice and racism continue, but we also bear the burden of slavery itself which, lest we forget, continues, as people are trafficked all over the world into various forms of modern enslavement. We carry the burdens of previous generations, and of our own, but we do all this from within a place of inner silence which is not closed in on itself, but open to the possibilities of redemption and of forgiveness. We do it from a place of knowing that all that we are holding is held in God, as we ourselves are held.

Those called to the ordained ministry will need to have learned to know themselves from within that silence and see it as their ‘default position’, the place or ‘locus’ of understanding to which they continually return in order to rightly understand and live out their calling as deacons, priests and bishops in God’s Church. Lockdown may have helped some of them begin to face the realities of this calling, the seeming loss of direction and purpose, the irrelevance of status and ‘job description’, and of pointless and energy sapping meetings and committees. Without this time-consuming activity, some of them will be feeling marginalised, even redundant. They may even be questioning their calling. This is hardly surprising, since these very skills were probably being sought for when they were first selected, and subsequently trained, for ordination.

But the good news is, that much of what we clergy have become accustomed to, and even comfortable with, is not God’s idea of what it means to be the Church. In fact, without all these distractions from our true vocation, during these wilderness months, the Church’s life is only now just beginning. We can be confident then, that as long as we love one another and God’s world from within that often lonely and silent place, and work together for healing, as the apostle Paul wrote to the clergy in Corinth, we ‘do not accept the grace of God in vain, for now’ he says ‘is the acceptable time; See, now is the day of salvation.’ (2 Cor. 6:3)