Wednesday, February 08, 2017

You are what you eat

The lectionary readings for Morning Prayer today are Genesis 2.4-9, 15-17 and Mark 7:14-23. In the first, God warns the ‘dustling’ not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the second, Jesus declares that it is not what goes into the body that defiles us, but what comes out of the heart. How do these readings relate?

The first two chapters of Genesis tell two different accounts of creation. These are symbol-rich stories whose purpose it not to tell us the mechanics by which the earth came into being, but rather to tell us about the kind of world in which we live. In chapter 1 we see order and life brought out of chaos, and that life is pronounced ‘good.’ In chapter 2, we come across something that is not ‘good’ – the knowledge, or lived experience, of evil, alongside good. We also discover that it is ‘not good’ in God’s eyes for the dustling to be alone. God addresses the first ‘not good’ through instruction – don’t eat of that tree – and the second through provision – enabling the dustling to be fruitful, and multiply.

The symbol-rich story continues to unfold, and in chapter 3 we discover that there is already at least one creature present in the garden who has set themselves against God and against the privileged relationship the human beings enjoy with God. We also discover that separation from God has an impact on the fruitfulness of the earth itself, as well as on the fruitfulness of the dustlings made from it.

And with these new pieces of information, we can look back at chapter 2 and understand that already, as a consequence of the decision of the serpent to set itself against God, there has been an impact on the fruitfulness of the earth. Among the trees there is one that is bringing forth not only fruit that nourishes good but fruit that nourishes evil. Yet even this might be redeemed, as an opportunity to learn discernment.

Jesus says, it isn’t about what you eat. So what were the Jewish food regulations about? Where they simply misguided? Or are they now superseded? Elsewhere Jesus claimed that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. The purpose of the law is to instruct, to train us for right living. The food regulations aren’t about what you eat; they are about what you consume and what you nourish; and about learning to decline something that look perfectly good and justifiable, because not everything that looks perfectly good and justifiable is good for us.

There is a rich diet readily available that will nourish the potential for evil in us, whether newspaper articles that encourage us to fear certain groups; or adverts that feed discontentment and greed, promising satisfaction forever just out of reach; or juicy gossip that eats us from the inside out; or images that objectify others, seeing their physical form (shaped from dust) but not the breath of God that animates them. And, in the end, it will kill you.

There is also plenty of food available that will nourish the potential for good in us, while starving the potential for evil. Tempted in the wilderness to feed a sense of entitlement, Jesus declared, The dustling does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Words that are patient, and kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; not insisting on getting their own way, or irritable, or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing, but rejoicing in truth; words that enable us to bear all things, to believe, to hope, to endure. Such words, wherever they are spoken, have their origin in God; and God’s words don’t return empty-handed.

What are we consuming? And what is it nourishing in us?

What do we need to reduce in, or cut out of, our diet? What do we need to eat more of than we have done?

Thursday, February 02, 2017

How are you, really?

Today is The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as Candlemas. In Tudor times, this day marked the fortieth and last day of Christmas.

Much more recently, the first Thursday in February has been designated Time to Talk Day, a day to help us overcome the stigma of mental health problems. A day to recognise that talking, and listening, really does save lives.

The Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today – Luke 2:22-40 – tells of the elderly Simeon and Anna encountering Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus within the temple at Jerusalem. It is instructive to read the account through the lens of mental health awareness.

Simeon takes the child in his arms and praises God, saying:

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…’ (verse 29)

Simeon has an encounter, a healing experience, that enables him to move forward – ultimately, to have a good death – in a state of peace. This implies that he was not, previously, in a state of peace. We might note that, habitually or formatively, Simeon has been particularly aware of those around him in need of consolation (verse 25). He has most likely shared something of their need.

We might also note that the encounter does not reflect a change in external circumstances, nor a change in internal outlook (there is no simplistic connection between devotion and peace). Rather, what we have is a moment of coming-together, in which Simeon, Joseph, and Mary all discover – perhaps not for the first, or last, time; but discover in this moment, nonetheless – that they are not alone.

Simeon goes on to specifically address Mary, telling her:

‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (verse 35)

Here is an acknowledgement of wounding, not at a physical level but at the level of the soul. The soul is not something we have: we are a soul. In biblical understanding, the soul is what is brought about in the coming-together of dust and breath – the human formed from the dust of the earth, having life breathed into it by God. And so a soul is all that we are: bodily, cognitively, emotionally, wilfully.

To have our soul wounded is to bear a wound that hurts us bodily, without being physical; that damages our ability to ‘move’ free from pain, in thinking and feeling and in making and acting on decisions.

To have our soul pierced is a description of what we, for want of a better word, refer to as an issue of mental health. It impacts us wholly.

Mary’s soul will be pierced in very particular experiences, very particular moments. Not everyone’s soul is pierced by watching her son being executed in front of her. But, of course, everyone’s soul is pierced in very particular events in our personal history. To have one’s soul pierced by a sword is an inescapable aspect of being a mother, a wife, a woman, of being a human being.

And yet this unavoidable truth is acknowledged in the context of the act of blessing (verse 34), the intentional invocation of relationship between Creator and creature, the deliberate act of recognising another soul.* This blessing is a lasting moment of soul-healing, however often the soul might experience piercing and be in need of healing again.**

Candlemas does not always fall on a Thursday, but how wonderful that it does this year. Following the example of Simeon, whom might you have a conversation about your mental health with today?

*soul = dust + breath, or, the deep connection between creature and Creator.

**please note that Simeon is not a priest: to bless in such a way is not reserved for priests.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The miles before us, the miles behind

Yesterday I watched The Straight Story, a film given me by my brother for Christmas. It is not a new film (1999), but I had not seen it before. It is an unlikely film (directed by David Lynch and distributed by Walt Disney) based-on the unlikely true story of Alvin Straight who, in 1994 and aged 73, his eyesight too poor to hold a driving licence and disliking travelling as a passenger, rode 240 miles on a sit-on lawnmower to visit his estranged brother, having heard the news that his brother had suffered a stroke. At a top speed of five miles an hour, and with various mishaps along the way, the journey took six weeks.

If you like your movies larger-than-life, this will not be the film for you. There is drama, and humour, but it is very gentle. Very slow. Nothing much happens, other than the common-or-garden you-won’t-believe-what-so-and-so-has-gone-and-done of any-town, anywhere.

It is a film about making peace, with oneself and with those whom it matters most to make one’s peace with before it is too late.

A film about the ways in which we rebuild our lives to accommodate those events we cannot change; and the consequences, good and ill, of our coping mechanisms.

A film about the redemption and transformation – for and in us, for and in others – made possible by telling our stories.

A film about making those changes we can, and the power of both repentance (the decision to change) and penance (the desire to make amends, often through symbolic action as well as practical action).

It is a film about neighbourliness, and the willingness to trust those we know and love, and those who are a stranger to us.

A film about generosity and hospitality; sending out, and inviting in.

A film about the gift of the present moment, to disrupt the flow from past to future in surprising and joyful, life-giving, ways.

A film that explores the limits of what we are able to receive from others; the limits of our interior landscape (Alvin is stubborn and proud, but a good man. He brings an end to his stubbornness and swallows his pride in order to repair relationship with his brother; but, being stubborn and proud, must negotiate limits on the help he is willing to receive, which is less than that he is willing to offer).

It is a film about the complex, wonderful beauty that is a human being – every human being – made in the image of God and deeply loved, for all its flaws.

It is a film about aging, all the more poignant because the lead actor, Richard Farnsworth in his final (and Oscar-nominated) film role, was living with terminal cancer at the time (the following year, he took his own life before the cancer took it from him).

It is a film, from a time that is perhaps now past, or passing, for our times. Before it is too late.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Life is bitter-sweet.

That is why, in the midst of Christmas – the twelve-day-long celebration of God coming to be with us – we raise our glasses to remember Stephen (26th Dec), stoned to death by a mob who felt their world threatened by his beliefs concerning Jesus;

and John (27th Dec), exiled to a Roman prison camp, his mind un-hinged enough to see the world more clearly than most ever do;

and the Holy Innocents (27th or 28th or 29th Dec), children murdered on the orders of a ruthless king who brooked no possible rivals.

We don’t wait until Christmas is over. We do not compartmentalise joy and sadness, celebration and anguish; because life does not compartmentalise these things. But neither do they cancel one another out. Instead, they add depth to one another.

Life is bitter-sweet. Savour it this Christmas.

Holy Innocents

Depending on where in the world you live, yesterday, today, or tomorrow is the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the day we remember the infant boys of Bethlehem killed on the orders of Herod the Great.

Luke brings together the testimony of Mary’s relatives, Joseph’s family, and the shepherds to demonstrate that the people of Bethlehem, who were fiercely proud of their historical connection to King David, embraced Jesus’ family. Matthew tells us the price they paid when that family came to Herod’s attention, and the entire town refused to bring forward any information as to their flight to Egypt.

This is the story of a community of resistance. Some doubt its historicity, consider it propaganda. But it is reliably historical – and, indeed, has been so, repeated many times over.

On these of all days, we remember before God all children caught up in conflict, and cry, how long, O Lord?

Saturday, December 24, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Celebrate

(The Christmas Eve ‘Christingle’ at Sunderland Minster.)

Friday, December 23, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Live

#lifeinallitsfullness #celebrate

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Animate

The accompanying reflection, by Br. Mark Brown, read:

“The Spirit of God animates us, but it all happens in the flesh: every deed of kindness, every act of generosity, every word of encouragement happens in the flesh. Every embodiment of Christ’s grace or truth or love happens in the flesh – or it doesn’t happen.”