The Why? Question

A great cosmologist dies and is buried on March 31st, Easter Eve, as it is kept by Western churches. For the Orthodox churches, Easter comes a week later. This year, partly due to the disparity which exists between the Eastern Julian calendar and the Western one, the Western celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation was moved to April 9th. It often falls in the latter part of Lent or in Holy Week itself. This year it would have fallen on Palm Sunday. So the Western church allows it to be a ‘moveable’ feast.

This year the Russian Orthodox church kept the feast of the Annunciation of the birth of Christ on Holy Saturday, the dark day of the tomb, while this year, in the West, it falls at the beginning of the second week of Easter itself. Either way, there is only the shortest of intervals between the sombreness of Holy Saturday, the exhaustion and joy of Easter and the day that we celebrate the becoming of the Word Incarnate. There is barely a moment between the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. All of this, as I said before, coincides with the passing of possibly the greatest cosmologist we have known.

Professor Hawking was somewhat ambivalent about God, at least the God of the bible, as many people read it. He was constantly being pressed for a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about God’s existence, but he declined to give an answer. This was probably because he knew that he was being asked the wrong question. His work, and the work of scientists before him, was more concerned with why there should be anything at all, let alone a consciously creating higher power. I think he was right. If scientists and theologians are going to make progress in making sense of the universe and of the meaning of human existence, the question which they, and the rest of us, need to ask is ‘why?’

When it comes to an answer, it will be those with the uncluttered minds of children who will probably supply it. I would hazard a guess that these are most likely to be poets, artists, and perhaps even priests. The latter is a risky guess, given the Church’s standing in the eyes of many people at the moment. But I do believe that there are priests, both official and unofficial, who minister into the world’s need to make sense of life. These ‘ministers’ do it through simply being present to its pain, both in prayer and in the business of everyday life, without succumbing to the urge to supply answers.

I also think it more likely that the question will be answered in its own asking. Somewhere there are connections to be made between the ‘why’s’ that are wept and sighed in the pain and suffering of the individual, and especially of the innocent, and the moment of the Incarnation of the Word in the acceptance of a young woman’s fiat. We get our answers through letting go into the question. Perhaps Professor Stephen Hawking did this, as he allowed for infinite possibilities in the cosmos and in the nature of existence itself.

I sometimes wonder if cosmologists think of the question, and its possible answer, as hovering somewhere between the contingency of new life, its dependence on Mary’s ‘yes’, and the Cross as the gateway to eternal life, which we only know as death. Professor Stephen Hawking’s funeral took place on Holy Saturday, coincidentally the Orthodox feast of the Annunciation. So the day of his funeral marked the first ‘letting be’ and the last, the day after the final ‘letting be of Christ’, and the ‘why?’ question which Jesus spoke from the Cross, the place where human destiny is transformed.

Professor Stephen Hawking’s funeral took place on a day when the alpha and the omega meet, when a young woman’s fiat meets the summation of all life in her Son’s commending of his spirit to the Father and in his own ‘why?’ question. I wonder what Stephen Hawking is making of this dual contingency, coincidentally reflected in the timing of his own death.

 

 

True Resurrection

If you are someone who has to speak publicly about the events of Good Friday, and if you have done that with integrity and the conviction of faith, you will be feeling pretty wrung out by Saturday morning. A single day, the day we call Holy Saturday, is hardly enough time to gather shattered emotions together and turn a numb brain towards thoughts of the Resurrection, but it must be done, and it must be done with as much conviction as anything that was said on Friday.

The difficulty with speaking about the Resurrection lies not in its literal truth, but in the conviction of faith held by the one doing the speaking. Conviction has very little to do with belief. You can believe or not, as you choose. With conviction, the choice is made for you. In terms of doing theology, conviction is what shapes the message and drives the work. But by conviction, I do not mean trying to put across something that we don’t really believe in in a way that sounds convincing. It doesn’t even begin with trying to convict ourselves. Conviction is not about persuading ourselves, or anyone else, that something is true. Conviction lays hold of a person. It is not something we decide to do or become, either intellectually, or for that matter, spiritually, although it does entail a certain ‘assent’ in both these areas.

This begs a question. In the light of what empirical evidence, some of it dubious, that has been garnered over the centuries for the physical resurrection of Christ not having taken place at all, what are we to make of the event, for ourselves, as well as for others? Any number of arguments can be put forward in defence of its not having taken place. Some of these border on the absurd, such as the idea that Jesus having somehow survived the torture and the piercing with the soldier’s spear, was taken down from the Cross and then disappeared to India with Mary Magdalene. There are, for sure, slight variations in the gospel accounts, but these neither prove nor disprove the Resurrection having taken place. The altercations that have been around for centuries concerning this topic suggest, then, that something more is needed than simply believing, or proving, that the event was categorically true. Even if it could be proved categorically, it is part of a far wider salvation story, enmeshed in other stories, so if it is true, it is true on more than one level.

For those who have known its truth at a different level than simple belief, the Resurrection of Christ is pivotal. Without it, Christianity makes no sense and, as St. Paul suggests, we are no better off, than we were before God ever involved himself with the human predicament (a loose definition of ‘sin’) in the person of his Son. The categorical truth of something – of an event or of a related story, for example, does not invariably stop at the point where what we are talking about ceases to be a matter of whether or not particular words were spoken, or a particular event happened.

This is especially important in regard to how we read scripture. There are plenty of stories in the Old Testament which are true but unlikely to have taken place in precisely the way described, if at all. All reporting, all story writing, needs to be placed in a context which makes sense to the reader of the time. The real truth about the Resurrection, the test of its veracity, does not only consist in its having taken place. The most important thing about it is that it is still going on all around us. The truth is still going on for us in our time.

But to return to the issue as categorical truth, however we choose to read the Gospels of John and Matthew, it seems that there were other people involved in the event. Even if they were not conscious in the moment it took place – the stunned soldiers for example. Also, something was said. A verbal exchange took place between Christ and Mary Magdalene. The greeting, and Mary’s response, takes us beyond the empirical, or propositional truth of that moment because of the way it was said.

When our name is called by someone we love and trust and who knows us well, it resonates with our true self. In the case of the exchange which took place between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene, the words suggest a kind of mutual knowing. The greeting took on an altogether different significance, and greater depth, than it would have done when he spoke it before he was crucified, as we sense he must have done on many occasions.

In these kind of exchanges it is not only what is said that matters, but how it is said and under what circumstances. These are in turn shaped by mood and possibly a person’s general state of health. Mary would have been both emotionally and physically exhausted. If the tomb really had been robbed, she would have had neither the physical strength or the reserves of courage needed to go and complain to the authorities, so, understandably, she appeals to the gardener. The ‘gardener’ does not proffer any useful information, or even offer assistance. He simply calls her by name, in a voice she has always known. He is unrecognizable at one level, disguised as a gardener, and yet profoundly recognizable at another.

What strikes me about this moment of truth is that he calls her by name in a quite normal way, not sounding broken or weird, as if he were a ghost or a hallucination. Neither does Mary’s response suggest she is afraid. He is simply fully and completely there in the fullness of the moment, a moment which is for all time. Part of the problem we have with the truth of the Resurrection is that it is often hard to see it as a reality with cosmic significance – of one particular time, one specific moment, but for all time, all moments, up to and including this one.

Perhaps the best way to verify the truth of the Resurrection is to seize this moment, as it belongs to that other moment, and hear the voice calling us by name – and answer…?

Judas

Betrayal is anachronistic. It is all about lies, and yet at the heart of the moment lies a kind of truth. Whatever form betrayal takes, the person being betrayed experiences something like shame – naked exposure, perhaps. In the moment of betrayal that person is defenceless, without ‘cover’ of any kind. They look and feel foolish because they have trusted their betrayer. It is their own trust which makes them feel defenceless and ashamed as much as the act of betrayal itself.

The one betraying, whatever their reason for doing so, needs to justify the lies involved and the pain caused by more lies. They must justify it to themselves, so that the betrayal seems in some way ‘necessary’ and therefore not of their choosing. “I had to do it” they will say. “I had no choice”. Apart from justifying the moment, or the act, they must maintain their integrity, at least to themselves, by distancing themselves from any direct responsibility for the damage they have done, and thereby exonerating themselves from being held in any way accountable for it.

All of this is the stuff of politics, of international relations, of the life of the Church and of our own experiences of betrayal, as victim or perpetrator. One could say that it is a universal principle, but it is also complex. Take, for example, corruption or betrayal in institutions whose integrity we need to take for granted, we need to trust; the fiddling of party election expenses (and in some countries the election process itself), police pay-offs for saying nothing in the context of organised crime relating to the grooming of young people for sex, the treatment of people held in police custody (especially if they are black), the power games and personal betrayals (both public and private) of government, sexual exploitation and cover up by the institutional Church along with the countless glossed-over betrayals of loyal and faithful clergy who have served it in good faith, often for years.

Betrayal leaves us dealing with truths we would perhaps rather not face because in the moment of betrayal we see ourselves and others differently. Two such moments occur within a very short space of time in the final hours of the life of Jesus. Neither came as a surprise, but that did not make the betrayal easier to bear. The first took place in a garden at night where one of his own friends shopped him to the religious police. His friend identified him with a kiss.

Betrayal so often comes masquerading as love. ‘I did this or said that because I love you.’ Or ‘I behaved in that way, but you know I really love you.’ Both are lies, of course. We do not harm others because we love them, no matter how justifiable the action may seem to be at the time. We do not abuse trust by exposing another to pain.

Judas was trying to force Jesus’s hand politically. He was prepared to take the risk of his master’s suffering (which Judas may have imagined would somehow be averted at the last minute) to turn Jesus into what he ‘should’ have been. It was about control and manipulation.

The control or manipulation of others, especially those who trust us, is always betrayal. In the moment of the kiss Judas knows that Jesus also knows the truth of the situation, and the truth about Judas. Jesus has known it for a long time in allowing Judas to be what he was, a pilferer of the common purse who had got his priorities all wrong.

Then there was the incident in the courtyard later that night, or possibly early the next morning. Peter, nicknamed ‘the rock’, the one who could be trusted, denies ever having known his closest friend. This moment, held in the meeting of their eyes as the cockerel crowed for the third time, also held every lie that has ever been told for the sake of saving one’s own life or reputation at the expense of the life or reputation of another.

The two moments I have just described are seminal. They are the soil in which the reversal of all betrayals germinates and takes root. Both reveal divine love at its source. They also reveal what that love looks and feels like. It looks like vulnerability and trust. In these two moments Jesus invites us not to look away, not to hide from our betrayals, or from the lies we have lived with for years, but to look quietly and bravely into his eyes, not asking for anything, but simply allowing ourselves to be seen, forgiven and healed.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

The ‘nones’ (those who, when responding to surveys, tick ‘none’ in the box marked ‘religion’ but who might possibly tick C of E if pressed) need look no further for a home. Bishop David Jenkins, that prophet of our time, once was heard to declare that God is not interested in the Church. God is all about the Kingdom.

It follows that if and when we stumble upon the Kingdom in the context of the Church, we do not need to look further to find God. The problem lies in defining the Kingdom, if such a thing is definable. You could say the same thing about the Church. It is not easy to describe what the Church is, still less what it ought to be, if it is to be true to its Kingdom calling.

The original commission to go out and make disciples has acquired a rather hollow tone, given the Church’s history of conquest and forced conversion, not to mention prejudice and plain hatred. But the kernel of truth remains at the heart of its true calling. If the Church is called to be anything at all, it is called to offer to the world the peace which only God can bring, the peace of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church is called to embody that peace. Peace is its garment, and peace is the substance of its members, the body it clothes. The Church is called to give that body to the world, as Christ gave his.

The Church cannot simply talk about peace in rather abstract terms overlaid with the clothing of piety. We need to tend the hurt body lest we be accused, like the Emperor who failed to realise that he had no clothes, of being completely naked.

The build-up of hurt, the collective betrayals, untruths and resistance to the goodness and giftedness in people, and its resistance to healing, make it difficult for the Church to truly embody peace. As with any physical body, allowing wounds to fester can render them life threatening. Could it be that this is what is happening in the life of the institutional Church? We keep knocking each other’s old wounds without pausing to consider the damage. We are more concerned with filling our churches and with preventing them from falling into disrepair than we are about healing the hurts which we inflict on ourselves.

At the more traditional end of the Church, we hide complacently behind beautiful but arcane (in the minds of many) liturgy, clerical dress and the kind of managerialism which consists mainly of moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. At the other end lies a mixture of naïveté and hubris, a blinkered reading of scripture which often goes with an implicit sense of superiority in regard to other faiths, or even other Christians. Neither of these scenarios provides a setting in which the ‘nones’ are likely to meet God in his Christ.

What is needed is for the Church to take ‘time out’, a couple of years’ sabbatical perhaps, on order to focus prayerfully and pastorally on its relationships, especially on those which relate to authority and to the pastoral care of its people, clergy and laity alike. During this sabbatical, those with the most power and authority would be subject to those with the least. In the current hierarchical and still patriarchal system, such a reversal of order could help to break down existing power blocks and help us all identify where true authority lies. So it is those with authority and power who must begin this re-structuring work of peace-making in the Church, because peace-making is both the mandate and the sign of true leadership.

Peace-making in the Churcb will entail the hard practical work of seeking forgiveness and the bridge-building which will follow. It will be hard because it will first require that everything that is not of love be burned away. Love must do the burning. This, incidentally, comes as close as it gets to a definition of hell. The fire of hell is the burning fire of love. Hell is hell insofar as it is the conflagration of consuming love, love burning up all the petty hatreds of life in community.

But the institutional Church as we know it is not all bad news. There are acts of heroic self giving which pass unnoticed in its life. Priests who minister in and for the love of Christ, and whose work is largely ignored by the Church’s critics, embody the healing fires of love. Their work endures in the hearts of those whose lives they have touched. Bishops who are true to their calling as peace-makers and as pastors to their clergy do the same. It will, nevertheless, take time for the Church to be transformed in such a way as to make the ‘nones’ want to tick a different box, but I am convinced that it will happen. Such is the nature of the faith we proclaim, that we will be changed ‘in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye’.

Keeping Busy

“Keeping busy?” is the question that retired people get asked.  Perhaps the person asking the question reckons that a retired person has nothing left to live for, apart from filling the void left by the ‘busyness’ which has been taken from them through retirement.

The question is loaded with anxiety. The person asking it may be worrying about their own impending retirement and the spectre of idleness which it raises. It also leads into far deeper questions pertaining to the meaning of life itself.

We do not live, in the fullest sense, by keeping busy.  Neither, for that matter, are we truly rich when we have simply made a lot of money or acquired power or status during the course of our professional lives. Money and status are only of use in this lifetime, in any case, and there is still that part of us that achievements and attributes fail to satisfy, or ‘reach’.

Retirement focuses this truth, which until now was only vaguely apprehended, into reality. Left to ourselves, we are faced not so much with the past (although the past is significant in shaping our thoughts about the present) as with the present moment and with the increasingly relevant idea of eternity. Unlike life as we know it now, eternity has no future. It is an eternal present moment. Having to be still and resist the need to be busy allows us a glimpse of eternity, of a sense of the brevity of our lives and of the significance of the present moment.

Being still and contemplating eternity places our life in a wider dimension. It gives a life greater significance, rather than less. It also begs two further questions; will we be wealthy in the only way that matters in this eternal dimension? In other words, will we have lived richly towards God? And will we have lived gratefully?

Living richly towards God means allowing every present moment to become our whole life, to live it fully and gratefully, however insignificant it may seem. The mystery and beauty of eternity is composed of all the seemingly insignificant moments that have been fully lived, lived with integrity, beauty, courage, generosity and humour.

So the question we are faced with when it comes to keeping busy is whether or not we are living, in the fullest sense of the word. And were we really living when we were busy working? The creative ‘rush’ that makes for fulfilling work is of a piece with the energy of a creating God, a God who is still creating. This energy is what makes the ‘rush’ of creativity endure, or ‘bear fruit’ into our later years.

Part of being creative involves enabling the creativity of others, of colleagues, friends and family. It also involves gratitude. Gratitude only really begins when we meet the creator God at the deepest level of our being. Gratitude restores creativity. It also gives us permission to be grateful for being who we are. Retirement is not just a matter of getting through another empty day by keeping busy. Each day is the beginning of a whole new phase of creative living. It is the beginning of eternity.

 

What of Forgiveness?

The easiest way to heal the wounds of abuse, some might say, is not to think or speak about them. When it comes to abuse, you just ‘deal with it’ . But ‘dealing with it’ can be toxic. For one thing, it is a lie. You never ‘deal with it’, so why do we pretend that this is possible?

The #MeToo movement is epoch changing. It has given us all, across the generations, permission to re-connect with our pain. On the whole, we do this privately, in our own dark corridors of remembrance, and in solidarity with millions of others to whom this movement has given voice.

Abuse is not an emerging phenomenon. It has been around for centuries. Most abusers have themselves been victims of abuse of one kind or another. This does not exonerate them. Neither does it oblige (still less enable) us to forgive them – as if forgiveness was purely a matter of understanding context, cause and effect, thereby accepting the abuse as inevitable. But this is how women, as well as men, who have been abused in childhood try to come to terms with what a generally abusive childhood or youth still does to them.

There are two serious flaws in thinking that we can ‘deal with’ abuse and the effects of abuse. First, it tends to ignore the fact that abuse is not limited to the sexual and physical. Sexual abuse is more often reinforced by what seems at the time a natural and ‘deserved’ shaming of the person concerned. If an adult implies that we are ugly, stupid and to be laughed at rather than with, we accept it as a given. Patronizing ‘put downs’, the remarks deemed as OK, but which are deeply wounding, enforced compliance with how we should look or behave, all in the context of dishonest and manipulative relationships, build a toxic mix of shame, anger, fear and self-loathing.

Very few abusers will want their victim to feel that he or she is beautiful, intelligent, unique and loved. On the whole, they will either intuit, or possibly know, that their victim has been conditioned to believe none of these things. This makes them fair game. Emotional abuse will, often as not, occur between members of the same sex, first in family contexts and later in social and professional life. By then, it is more commonly known as bullying.

Each time we say the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be forgiven as we forgive those who have sinned against us. To be honest, I find it extremely difficult to pray those words when I think of my own abusers, as well as the millions of women who have come forward in the #MeToo solidarity movement.

What, then, does forgiving entail for us? As I have never really found an answer to this question, I tend to mentally ‘bracket’ the words Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us as I am saying them, but without altogether abandoning the people concerned. Later, I ask God what he thinks those of us who have been sinned against are supposed to do with our recurring memories, with our feelings about our abusers and with our own anger and shame.

Again, there seem to be no answers to such questions. But I do believe that we pray to a God who not only understands, but shares the feelings which prompt them. There are many ways we could visualize this sharing. Being present to the words Why have you deserted me? spoken by Jesus from the Cross is one of them, although his words may not seem that effective when it comes to having our negative feelings about forgiveness validated in the moment. There is a tendency to feel angry and guilty about not being able to forgive while at the same time trying to deal with all these negative emotions.

Perhaps a better way is to see our wounds, wounds we still carry, as making us honored and worthy of the inheritance we have been promised. In them we share in Christ’s glory, beginning with the shame and agony of his suffering and death, but moving with him to his embracing of us in his risen life. This is not a pious metaphor, or some kind of mental cop-out. It comes as a single revelatory moment of profound understanding about the meaning of suffering.

Such an understanding gives us the greatest freedom. This does not mean that we are given permission to indulge in gratuitous hatred and desire for revenge. It means that we too are forgiven for finding it impossible to ‘forgive’. But such freedom brings responsibility. We are now ‘responsible’ for our abusers, lest they fall into the abyss.

This means that we must be willing to receive what is needed for us to have a transfigured way of seeing them, so that we can hold, or ’embrace’ them. It does not mean persevering or reviving destructive relationships. It means allowing ourselves to have deep compassion for those who abuse us or, in the case of historic abuse, for their memory. We ‘hold’ what we know of them, as best we can, in the safe space of the mercy and forgiveness of God, a space which we ourselves are also occupying.

 

The Power And The Glory

Turning into Passiontide. Is this the ‘home run’ of Lent? It may be tempting to think of Passion Sunday as light at the end of the tunnel, at least in regard to Lenten discipline, or to feelings of guilt for having in some way fallen short of the mark, as if Lent were an endurance test qualifying us all for – what?

This is the moment when it is tempting to ask what all this giving up of things is about, whether it is simply an extended self improvement exercise, or whether it presages some kind of renewal, which we all desperately need but find it hard to name.

I rarely blog about the Sunday readings, and never the upcoming one. In fact, I rarely look at the upcoming one before Thursday of that week. The preacher needs a fallow period, however short. Without a Sabbath rest between one Sunday sermon and the next, ideas either meld into each other, at the risk of repetition, or ‘crash’ due to overload.

But this coming Sunday is different. The reading (John 12: 20-33) glimpsed this Monday morning, draws us into itself, vortex-like, through its own compelling force. There is no question of waiting until Thursday to begin to contemplate it more deeply. It is already too familiar, too much with me.

Christ speaks of the glory that is to be revealed in his being ‘lifted up’ on the Cross. He speaks of all people being drawn to him in that moment. The victim’s ‘glory’ is revealed, paradoxically, as he suffers at the hands of the vicious, the vindictive and the cruel. It is profoundly disturbing, shaming to the reader, and yet compelling. The terrible paradox obliges our attention, so that not attending to it becomes a conscious and deliberate act of will, a resistance to that greater driving force.

How can such degradation sit easily with the idea of ‘glory’ and what can such an implausible revelation of glory, through torture and death, have to do with us and with the whole concept of ‘redemption’?  Redemption from what? we ask ourselves. Should we try to domesticate these terms, in order to better understand them perhaps? Or should we do the opposite, categorize them as ‘mystery’ and then move on, untouched, uncomprehending.

This coming Sunday, the gospel coincides with another kind of glory, all too apparent in our world, the glory and competing drive for power between nations. I try to make sense of the glory spoken of in the gospel in the context of the latest parade of nuclear ballistic missiles in Pyongyang and of the rhetoric of Trump, which seems to change from one day to the next. Military strength, volatile exchanges between enemies and among their supporters create their own vortex of fear, their own compelling force.

Viewed against the backdrop of world events, the contrast is such that it makes the glory of Christ seem irrelevant. What can the glory that is ostensibly displayed in abject failure and humiliation possibly have to do with the events of today, or with our difficult and fear driven lives?

But ‘irrelevance’ is perhaps where the whole discussion about redemption and glory needs to begin. After all, for many people the Christian story, and the Church itself, are indeed ‘irrelevant’ – until we sense some unnameable force at work in the story and in the Church when it lives as it should, as the Body of Christ. In the life of the Church there abides a force which overwhelms evil.

Perhaps all this is a little too abstract. It seems to bear no relation to our lives. Perhaps it is indeed ‘irrelevant’. But to whom shall we turn in our fear and despair? In reflecting on this question, it seems we are left with no choice but to return to the ravaged figure dragging the instrument of his own execution through crowded streets, the enduring and ultimate image of failure and disgrace.

Salvation is another word which it is difficult to make sense of, especially in the context of the glory which is the weakness and failure depicted in Christ’s Passion. For certain powerful leaders, salvation is only really effected in the finality of ultimate victory achieved through sheer force. On an international stage, this means enough military strength for whoever wants the ultimate glory to have the last word, even if ultimate glory spells ultimate destruction for the rest of us.

Readers of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker will have a sense of how the world might yet feel 2,500 years after this ‘glory’ has been won by one or other nuclear superpower. What seems to endure though, in Hoban’s post-language futuristic novel, is ‘the little shining man’, his being pulled apart, and the ‘rememberment’ of him. St. John’s gospel is also a kind of ‘rememberment’. It is a ‘rememberment’ of Christ’s being ‘lifted up’. But it is also a ‘rememberment’ of the present. He is lifted up to the place of ultimate disgrace and failure in order to meet all of us, as nations and as persons, in that same place now.

We might still wonder if all of this is still relevant in regard to our collective and private fears concerning the outcome of world events. But the relevance lies in the mysterious glory of the suffering of God’s Son, in the way it meets our suffering, catches it, drops down into it, raises us up through it and by which we see the light of Easter.