Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Of mountains and seas

From the Lectionary readings for Morning Prayer today:

“Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgements are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.”
Psalm 36:5, 6

‘Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”’
Mark 11:22, 23

Jesus’ words are spoken in the context of his having passed judgement on the fig tree (one of many symbols of the people of Israel) for not having borne up fruit to him, and on the temple for having robbed the (gentile) nations of the courtyard provided for them as a house of prayer.

The sea, then, as in Psalm 36, represents God’s judgement, which is as great and mysterious as the deep. Nonetheless, that judgement is not necessarily the final word. Jesus tells his disciples that they can ask God to move the mountain of his righteousness—the sure and enduring image of relationship as it was intended to be—into the sea, or place (or act) of judgement.

Jesus clears the temple not to destroy the temple but to restore the Court of the Gentiles to its rightful purpose. (Though the withered fig tree warns us that one day it will be too late.)

Where do we see evidence of God’s judgement on our churches and on our society? Jesus’ instruction is that we take up God’s righteousness and throw it into those places: that these are the very opportunities for restored relationship with God and neighbour.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

On gender

Genesis 1-3 is a foundational text for Jews and Christians. It acknowledges one thing that women can do that men can’t—childbirth (but see below)—but nothing that men can do that women can’t.

In Genesis 1, human beings, explicitly male and female, are to ‘rule over’ the earth: no division of roles in bringing potential to its fullness.

Genesis 2 envisages companionship—implying mutuality, and presence to one another. Woman is described as relating to man as a ‘suitable’ or ‘corresponding’ (again, mutuality) ‘helper’ (no hierarchy to helping, or working alongside, one another) or ‘warrior’ (traditionally perceived as a male role, but not here, or at least not solely; the term is later also used of God, in whose image male and female are made).

In Genesis 3, things go pear-shaped. There are consequences to this. These are addressed to the man and to the woman, but they are not mutually exclusive; rather, each consequence address each sex. The consequence addressed to the man is that the work he does with the woman will become harder. The consequence addressed to the woman is that (without God as midwife) the work she does that the man can’t do (but he can help, as I did at the birth of all 3 of our children) will become more painful; also that their relationship will be(come) complicated. The response of the man to the desire of the woman to not be left alone in the work of bringing forth a child will be to ‘rule over’ her, which implies both the working to bring potential to fullness (as per Genesis 1) but also (now) a relating to co-regent as subject. It will get messy...

This ancient poetical text is an inspired observation of the relationship between men and women. It recognises difference, and sameness—and a minefield! It does not support exclusively ‘masculine roles’ and ‘feminine roles,’ or affirm gender-stereotyped outlooks such as ‘boys are more physical’ and ‘girls are emotionally aware.’ Indeed, it opposes such views.


Thursday, September 07, 2017

Jeez knees

The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today are Colossians 1:9-14 and Luke 5:1-11.

Sometimes it is hard to be a follower of Jesus. That is why Paul’s daily prayer for the believers in Colossae—a community he had heard of from a friend of his, who happened to have started it—was: ‘May you be made strong in the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.’

They weren’t facing persecution, as the early Christians did from time to time, and many Christians around the world do today. It’s just hard, sometimes, being a follower of Jesus.

Paul’s sometime travel-companion Luke records the time when Jesus orchestrated a miraculous catch of fish, just to mess with the head of Simon Peter, a fisherman, who had worked a full night-shift and had nothing to show for it. Sometimes following Jesus is hard.

There’s this incredible moment when, the boat beginning to sink under a tsunami of sardines, Simon Peter ‘fell down at Jesus’ knees…’

Now, there are several occasions in the Gospels where it is recorded that someone fell down at Jesus’ feet, pleading him to help someone in serious danger, or thanking him for having done something wonderful for them, or even in overwhelming joy and adoration. It seems to be the kind of thing people do when Jesus shows up.

But in this episode, Simon Peter didn’t fall down at Jesus’ feet. Uniquely, he fell down at Jesus’ knees.

Why? Because Jesus is not stood before him. The implication of Simon Peter falling down at Jesus’ knees is that Jesus is on his knees.

Picture the scene: Jesus and Simon Peter are both on their knees, scooping up armfuls of slippery fish, trying to bail the boat out before it sinks, and in a moment in which time stands still their eyes meet. I can only imagine that the look of sheer terror on Simon Peter’s face is matched by Jesus’ most goofy expression: isn’t this amazing?!

You don’t need to be afraid, Simon. I’m right here with you, on our knees. I always will be.

And that is where we find Jesus, too. On his knees alongside us.

Putting in the heavy lifting.

Lightening our load.

Filling us with joy.


Monday, September 04, 2017

Dead man running

Look for me at 9.00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and the chances are you’ll find me at parkrun. Here’s an insight into my internal thought process, what with me being an introvert, and all:

I. Am. Going. To. Die.

That’s it. On repeat.

The fact that I have yet to die while taking part has no bearing on this.

Likewise, neither does the fact that it is statistically highly unlikely that I will die out on the course.

Because the thought isn’t, This is going to kill me. The thought is:

I. Am. Going. To. Die.

And I am. And so are you.

Interestingly, the thought doesn’t seem to be connected to fitness, or even to running per se. I try to go out for a run, of comparable length or longer, twice during the week, and on those runs I find myself composing a sermon (I am a vicar) or working through a list of people I am praying for, or even thinking how good it is to be alive, and at some point I find that I have forgotten that my body is running at all.

But this never happens on a Saturday morning. On a Saturday morning, the sole thought, repeating like a mantra, is that I. Am. Going. To. Die.

You might think that morbid. You might think that I might run better times if I had more positive thoughts playing in my head. I think of it as a gift.

The fact is that I am mortal, and I am going to die.* However much we try to ignore it.

Those 25 minutes, give or take, on Saturday mornings put the whole of the rest of my week in focus. Which is a great trade-off.

Given that I am going to die, what does not matter? What do I need to do less, put down, or hand on?

And what really matters? What do I need to prioritise and guard the time for?


*Even if I believe that God loves me so much that he will give my life back to me.


Hearts and giraffes

When you walk to work with a heavy heart

not for any particular reason, just that some days your heart is heavy

and as you walk, you have a conversation with Jesus about how you are feeling

and (not only does he point out a giraffe in the bushes by the side of the path, putting a smile on your lips, but also)

 


then you have a meeting with someone you have never met before, and you end up talking for a couple of hours, and he asks if he can pray with you, and

though you did not ask him to pray about this

that stranger-become-new-friend prays specifically for your heavy heart, asking God to mend it in due time.


That.


Saturday, September 02, 2017

Questions

I’m always struck by how many people feel the need to begin a conversation with me, or other clergy, with the words, “I’m not religious, but...”

Of course, they almost always are religious, at least in the sense that a significant part of their construction of meaning to life is found in something bigger than themselves, engaged with in community with others, according to highly prescribed rituals. Being committed to parkrun or being a season ticket holder at the Stadium of Light would be two obvious examples.*

So when they say, “I’m not religious, but...” perhaps what they are really saying is, “I would not have imagined myself to be having a conversation with a priest, but...seeing as you are here, I have a question I've been meaning to ask.”

The fun is in the number of places you can put yourself, to be asked. And in the diversity of questions, which really do range from the sublime to the ridiculous.


*Moreover, I’d want to suggest that human beings are, by nature, not only religious but also worshippers. I would describe worship as the pursuit of glory, in hope of participating in that glory, and my interest is in making connections between the universal religious- and worship-impulse, and the distinctive person of Jesus.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Navigation skills

Some thoughts on GCSE results day:

[1] Despite pressure on schools to the contrary, this is not a competition. Despite the turmoil government has created for teachers to work in, GCSEs ought to be a way of guaranteeing a certain breadth of education, and part of a discernment process enabling our children to discover what they want to pursue further. So firstly, a heart-felt thank you to all teachers who do their best to achieve this despite everything.

[2] Children excel at different things. For some of our children, today will not be a day of celebration: they will have other days, to be celebrated, which we must not fail to mark. But for some of our children, academic study is their opportunity to shine. If that is your child, celebrate them, and with them, today. If it is your friend’s child, rejoice with those who rejoice.

[3] As already stated, GCSEs are part of a discernment process, of vocational discovery. Rather than downplay this day, or over-emphasise all the other aspects of our children that GCSEs do not help determine—such as character traits which matter regardless of what you do in life—we need to see this as an opportunity to engage in that process.


Holy fear

The epistle set for Holy Communion today is Acts 5:12-16, which reads:

‘Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.’

The early church was meeting every day in the temple, in the part of the temple where Jesus—along with other preachers—had been in the habit of teaching. Among the crowds of pilgrims, many found themselves drawn to them, but afraid to come too close. This is not surprising: God’s presence is deeply attractive to humans created to be in relationship with God; but also—rightly—a cause of fear: God is, after all, the Creator and Lord of the universe. This tension appears to have been overcome by the recognition that in God’s presence, healing and freedom is to be found: they came, bringing the sick and tormented.

As I read this familiar account, I find myself thinking of the Minster. Here is a place to which people come, every day throughout the week, to approach God, while choosing to remain at a distance from the gathered congregation. They slip in and out, not brave enough to join us in public worship (and while there may be many reasons why people don’t come then, in conversation holy fear is a recurring theme—one which might challenge us in our over-familiarity). And they come carrying their sick and tormented to God in hope of a miracle: carrying them, not physically and literally, but symbolically in the lighting of a candle, the writing and pinning-up of a prayer. Physical healing, emotional freedom, the restoration of broken relationships, and concern for the deceased account for the overwhelming majority of prayers and prayer-requests written and left.

People in Sunderland recognise that God is, somehow, present in our midst, and their response is to ask God to heal their sick and bring freedom to their tormented through our prayers.

Yet they still stand off, at a safe distance.

And I rejoice at the ways in which our experience reflects that of the earliest church. But I long for more, long to see people bringing their sick, long to see healing—not just the hope of healing—happen, long to see more men and women added to our number, joining with us.

If we are to see such a step-change, it will happen when we start to take daily gathered corporate prayer and worship more seriously.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Bread

My daughter has been out and bought sliced white bread for lunch, and as I eat it I am transported back in time to bread-and-butter teas at my Granny’s table. And from there to the vegetables she cooked for lunch, starting as soon as breakfast had been cleared away; and to my Grandpa’s vegetable patch, from where they had come; it was a substantial patch, though there came a time when each summer when we visited we would find it smaller, the lawn larger, than the year before...

And walking into the village with a wicker basket to shop. The butcher, who was also a volunteer fireman, called away at any moment by a light that flashed on the wall behind the counter.

And the ancient blacksmith (the village, in the South Downs, served race-horse stables) with his gnarled hands, like claws.

And I am undone.

All by a slice of bread.

The world is a wonderful gift.


Silence

This week the POTUS (Petulant Over-sized Toddler of the United States) threatened to visit the earth with greater fire and fury than Little Boy.

The Old Testament reading this Sunday (1 Kings 19:9-18) tells of Elijah, feeling sulky and put-upon, discovering that God is not to be found in mountain-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, but in the sheer silence that follows.

In the aftermath.

Relevant, much?

Praying for those who find themselves in the aftermaths. May they find themselves standing before the God of the new beginning.


Trust and obey

The Gospel reading this Sunday is Matthew 14:22-33. The well-known account (actually, I’d say more famous than known well) of Peter walking on the water.

Notice that Jesus does not instruct Peter to get out of the boat.

In fact, Jesus explicitly instructs Peter and the other disciples to get into the boat and [in the boat] go ahead of him to the other side of the lake.

When Jesus says, ‘Come’ [to me on the water] it is a concession to Peter’s doubt that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he told the disciples to get into the boat.

And when Jesus calls the disciples ‘You of little faith’ he isn't saying ‘You don’t have enough faith.’ In Jesus’ picture-language ‘little’ is consistently a positive thing (the one exception I can think of is love; but then, love is also exceptional in being the one debt we are to remain in). If anything, he is surprised that they, possessing ‘little faith’ should doubt, because it is the ‘little’ who see God and who depend on God and not on their own strength.

Little faith is defined by trust and obedience. Which, it turns out, is also ‘great faith,’ in one encounter with a Gentile woman (by the way, the opposite of little faith is not great faith, but absence of faith).

Peter needs to be reminded that he is called to exercise little faith, in the boat with the other disciples. And to leave being Lord to Jesus.

My own take-away from this is this: to re-focus on my calling (which is always found and expressed within the context of community) and to seek not to be distracted by (or into) the (complementary) calling of others.

To be fair on Peter, that is harder than you might think.