A Gut Reaction – what beautiful stories are

I had to resort to poetry to respond to the video produced by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) of the Beautiful Story. This is a film designed “to encourage and enable evangelicals to engage and contend in discussions about human sexuality”. It left me cold, horrified by the voices that have gone unheard.

Beautiful stories are

well spoken. But with respect, Sirs
your Beautiful Story so well told
is lop-sided, a one-sided story
lacking the beauty of the round.

Your voice sounds beautiful.
It is, as I said, well spoken. But,
big but, there is a violence
to the voices which go unsaid.

Voices of ones you corrected
with your prescriptive text
drown the muffled sounds
from the closets you locked.

From basement cellar, closet
and the chimney stacked chamber
their voices died, but scratched
on the wall, blood red, their words

I loved too. Their words, their voice,
truthful, plaintive, defiant or proud
make the story. There is no beauty
apart from where love is found.
©️David Herbert

I hesitate to give the link to CEEC’s Beautiful Story because it is not as beautiful as it is cracked up to be and because it is not for anyone of a sensitive disposition. The Church of England has published resources for Living Faithfully in Love..

Coin sides and the shape of peacemaking processes

How many sides has a coin? When we toss a coin we call “heads” or “tails” because we assume that a coin just has the two sides. On the toss of a coin we are divided into winners and losers. The winners are able to claim that they won fairly (even though only by chance) and the losers have to suck it up. There are two sides now and both know whether they are on the side with greater chance or lesser chance. The losers’ last chance is to overturn privilege – and the odds are always stacked against them.

The 12 sided thrupenny bit was first minted in 1937

But there aren’t just two sides to a coin. There is another smaller side which nobody calls because it so disproportionately small that the chance of it landing on its edge are virtually zero. But then, who hasn’t spent time standing coins on their edge, and who of us of a certain age hasn’t enjoyed making the old thrupenny bit take its stand on one of its twelve sides (as opposed to its two large sides).

Just imagine twelve sides. That is precisely what our scriptures imagine – with the twelve tribes of the twelve sons of Jacob finding and founding society in the land they were caused to occupy. The early church shared that imagination, counting twelve apostles and replenishing that number when one fell out. The thrupenny bit represents a design to facilitate concelebration, conversation and dialogue – remembering that there are rarely only two sides to any question and that to resolve conflict many sides have to be considered. Sitting round a circular table is to adopt this design. Each person has their point of view, their side, in a facilitative process which intends to iron out the abuses of positional power.

Polyhedron 20 from yellow

Pope Francis, in Fratelli Tutti (2020), suggests the image of the polyhedron as the shape of better things to come. Promoting a “culture of encounter” he writes:

“The image of the polyhedron can represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations. Each of us can learn something from others. No one is useless and no one is expendable. This also means finding ways to include those on the peripheries of life. For they have another way of looking at things; they see aspects of reality that are invisible to the centres of power where weighty decisions are made.”

Fratelli Tutti 2020

Colum McCann underlines how tricky it is to get beyond binary thinking about winners and losers and right and wrong in his novel Apeirogon. The title is a mathematical term for an object of an “observably infinite number of sides” – a shape that reflects that conflict can never be reduced to simple opposed positions. Apeirogon is based on the real life friendship between Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin, two fathers (one Israeli, the other Palestinian) united in their grief for their daughters – both killed in conflict. They both join the Parents Circle Families Forum – a group of people similarly bereaved who unite in their sorrow to press for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Apeirogon: a shape with a countably infinite number of sides. Countably infinite being the simplest form of infinity. Beginning from zero, one can use natural numbers to count on and on and even though the counting will take forever one can still get to any point in the universe in a finite amount of time

from The Apeirogon

And there’s another shape – the circle. The shape of things to come if ever we come to the time of resolution – when there are no sides to join or oppose, when the corners we tend to cling to are rounded off by our encounter with the various truths of any situation. The earth is well rounded as if prepared for peace making.

Touched by an Angel – by Maya Angelou

Angel by Marc Chagall, All Saints Tudeley: another angel helping us see life differently?

Today is Michaelmas – in our Church of England calendar known as Michael and All Angels. One of the best loved poems about angels is by Maya Angelou. That is coincidence that the poet’s name itself is a reminder of angels and their purpose. She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson but later became known as Maya Angelou. Angelou was her married name and Maya came from the nickname used by her older brother as in “mya (my) sister”. Angelou is the Greek for angel or messenger. Maya has its own meaning in the Semitic language of the Amharas; it is a “lens that helps see further”. Isn’t that just what an angel does? Don’t they help us see further than the darkness, the pain, the hatred etc? Don’t they help us feel better? Don’t they help us to see hope, freedom, reconciliation?

Here is Maya Angelou’s poem, Touched by an Angel

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Eve, After – a poem by Danusha Laméris

Did she know
there was more to life
than lions licking the furred
ears of lambs,
fruit trees dropping
their fat bounty,
the years droning on
without argument?

Too much quiet
is never a good sign.
Isn’t there always
something itching
beneath the surface?

But what could she say?
The larder was full
and they were beautiful,
their bodies new
as the day they were made.

Each morning the same
flowers broke through
the rich soil, the birds sang,
again in perfect pitch.

It was only at night,
when they lay together in the dark
that it was almost palpable –
the vague sadness, unnamed.

Foolishness, betrayal,
-call it what you will. What a relief
to feel the weight
fall into her palm. And after,
not to pretend any more
that the terrible calm
was Paradise.

by Danusha Laméris from her book The Moons of August (Autumn House Press, 2014). Reproduced with her permission.

I love Danusha Laméris’s take on “the fall”. We can perhaps sense Eve’s dis-ease as she came to the end of the too perfect day, the moments when the lions licked the ears of the lambs and all that they saw in the mirror was beauty. There was nothing to worry about. Imagine that! You can feel the tension building in their bed as they tossed and turned their temptation. And you can feel the enormous relief of “the fall” when she takes matters into her own hands, when she becomes decision maker even though rule breaker.

And the rest is history. It is life, though it isn’t paradise. Life seems far more interesting than paradise. There are challenges, work to be done, decisions to be made, reconciliations to be won. Maybe it is better to have paradise behind us and before us and enjoy the weight of the fall in our hands in the mean-time.

Troubled Times and Mistaken Identities: sermon notes for Trinity 9

Readings: 1Kings 18:9-18 and Matthew 14:22-33

It is so odd seeing one another in masks isn’t it? It affects our communication because it hides so much of our expression. So much is communicated through the muscles of the lower part of our face. It also makes identification more difficult. I had thought that new guidance would have meant that I would be preaching through a mask this morning – I was thinking how difficult that is going to be.

The idea of masks fit both our readings this morning – because we have two cases of mistaken identity. People thinking that they had seen one thing, but had seen something else altogether.

The first mistaken identity is when the king, Ahab, meets Elijah. Ahab asks Elijah, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”

Elijah replies to tell Ahab how wrong he is. He says to Ahab: “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord.”

So, who is the troubler? Is the troubler Elijah? Or is it the king who is the troubler? Is Elijah right in claiming that the king’s misrule – the lack of good government is the trouble with Israel?

From Elijah’s point of view (the point of view of scripture), it is Ahab and his wife, “that Jezebel” who had caused all the trouble for Israel by forsaking the commandments and by their fanatical religious persecution, rounding up the “troublemakers”, killing off the prophets and the opposition.

In our own troubled times we have similar identity parades – but with a different cast. People are paraded before us as troublemakers and are made our scapegoats. So within living memory, “Jews”, “blacks”, “gypsies”, those who are gay have all been paraded before us as the troublemakers – and final solutions have been devised to kill them off. But they haven’t been the troublemakers (however militant they may have become). They have been the troubled – and their troublers have been their accusers. The accusers, the persecutors, have been the real troublemakers.

Similar processes are at play when people are demeaned in today’s politics as “doomsters and gloomsters”, or “remoaners”. That is how opposition is dismissed in British society these days. That is how troublemakers are dismissed.

There have always been peacemakers who have been mistakenly identified as troublemakers. Nelson Mandela was despised by the media as a troublemaker. So was Mahatma Gandhi. So was Martin Luther King. So is Greta Thunberg by some. They are not troublemakers but instead have resisted the troublemakers.

John Hume died last week. He lived through that chapter of Irish history we refer to as “the Troubles”. For his political opponents he was regarded as part of the trouble. But he turned out to be a hero of those troubled times refusing to be swayed by the troublers. He was very much one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace of the Agreed Ireland.

Martin Kettle, in the Guardian (August 6th) wrote:

He was a political leader who was confronted with a deeply divided society. He was a bridge builder where flag-based identities and community suspicions loomed suffocatingly large. He recognised that building bridges meant talking to, and listening to, the extremes as well as the centre ground. He saw there was no future for a system in which one tradition exercised total power and ignored the excluded. He took the long view about the hard journey that had to be taken. And he never gave up on it.

Do you see how contemporary that exchange between Ahab and Elijah is? “Aren’t you the troublemaker?” “No, you are the troublemaker.”

The Ahabs do not want anyone rocking the boat. They are threatened by them  – not realising it is their monstrous rules which are rocking the boat.

We are living through very troubling times. So many of our landmarks have gone. We can’t touch those we have hold dear. We don’t know what’s going to happen to our jobs. Children don’t know whether they will see their friends in September. Poverty is alarming us. And the World Health Organisation is saying from a global perspective that we haven’t peaked yet. We have never been this way before.

And this brings us to the second case of mistaken identity.

In our gospel reading the disciples are all at sea. All night long the waves have been buffeting their boat. They are all exhausted – so understandably they don’t recognise Jesus when they see him walking towards them. They see him as a ghost, probably as the sea monster, the troublemaker responsible for their troubles and nightmare.

Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth and the disciples realise that when Jesus tells them who he is. He says: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Jesus didn’t refer to himself by his name, Jesus. Instead he said, “It is I” – this is “I AM”, the great I AM – the name by which God chooses to be known to the world.

This is no troublemaker walking on the lake, walking on the water. This is God walking as if a bridge through troubled waters.

This is the one Psalm 89 refers to as the one who rules over the surging sea and who stills the mounting waves. For Job, God alone stretches out the heavens and tramples the waves of the Sea. One commentator, Carol Works, says of this, that “God controls chaos with his toes”. Nobody else does that. And here as they see Jesus walking on the lake they began to see that this must be God – because only God does this.

Chaos is described in terms of “troubled water”. We go through “stormy times”. Nothing is “plain sailing”. We are “all at sea”. How many times do these sort of phrases come to mind in times of trouble? They come from deep in our collective memory – maybe from our birth, or even the waters of the womb.

Jesus calls Peter into troubled water.

“Come” Jesus said to Peter.

“Come” he says to all who would listen to him.

“Step into the water”.

“Get out of your depth”.

“Don’t stay in the shallows”,

“step into the depths, where there is danger, where there is trouble”.

“Join the troubled, don’t be spectators of them.”

“Sail the same waters as the migrants – hear their Sea Prayer (Sea Prayer is a poem by Khaled Hosseini)

“Join Elijah, MLK, Greta Thunberg resisting the evil currents of our culture”

“be prepared to be accused and persecuted as troublemakers”

Those who do are blessed. Jesus said:

 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matthew 5:11)

So Peter, the first disciple, responds to Jesus’ “come”. He steps out but becomes frightened by the storm and begins to sink. He cries out to the lifesaver who catches him (remember that Peter was called to be a “catcher of men”).

Other disciples follow. Into the troubled waters of our chaotic times we are called. We are not called to safety but to danger.

I wonder whether this gives us a different understanding about our baptism. What are the waters of baptism other than that stormy lake, or the waters of chaos over which the Spirit of God hovers at the beginning of creation, and hovers at our second birth in baptism – in our re-creation?

We are called into trouble, not away from trouble. We are called into deep water by the one in whom we have the confidence to save us and catch us.

What makes us shy away is we are short of confidence that we can cope. It feels like drowning. We too are people of little faith. But that is OK. Jesus still calls us. “Come” he says to Peter knowing his little faith. “Come” he says to us. “Come, don’t doubt that together we will tread these troubled waters, together we will build bridges. With you in me and you in me we will calm these troubled waters. Don’t be afraid.”

So Jesus calls us in these troubled times. He calls us to join Elijah, Peter. They are not the troublemakers – the trouble has already been made. He calls us in these troubled times and that becomes our vocation – here and now. The gospel reading was intended to hearten those who found themselves in trouble, to accept God’s call to step out in faith. It is the same for us. Peter was the first disciple – we follow as disciples.

We are not called to walk by on the other side, but to get involved. We may not feel that we are very good in trouble, or dealing with conflict. Maybe it is lack of practice. Maybe we have a lot to learn. Maybe we will get that sinking feeling. But Jesus holds his hand out to us at the same time he calls us “Come” – he does show us the way to walk through troubled times.

If we thought it was going to be plain sailing we have probably mistaken God’s call. And if we remain untroubled we may in fact be part of the trouble – a troublemaker.

Post Sansomite

Reflections using the hashtag cLectio are reflections posted primarily to Twitter with the necessary limitations of that platform. I am copying the posts here as an experiment. The posts are reflections on the Old Testament reading for the day. Today’s reading from Judges 17 is post-Sansom and rather pre-Trump (other populist leaders are readily available).

What is to become of this country
if the governing principle is
we don’t want to be rule takers
but rule makers and breakers,
if the leaders are unruly
and people are left to please themselves
and if the priests are also domesticated?
It sounds so careless. #Judges17 #cLectio

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath –
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise the world your love –
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we shall all live.

Lynn wrote this on March 11th in the early days of the pandemic. It immediately made an impact, going viral on social media. I am grateful for the suggestion that this is a special time and I am sure that a lot of us have experienced it as that.

Mind you, it has been easy for us. We have a house and garden. We have a nice daily walk in woodland, we are not home schooling children. We are not worried about unemployment. There are just two of us and we have enjoyed each other’s company. Not everyone is so lucky.

In these special times we have discovered who counts to us. It is those who are on the front line – those we clap every Thursday evening – those who at other times we have taken for granted and whose gifts we have devalued. This is a sacred time. This is a scared time we live through with compassion.

You can read more of Lynn’s poetry, and purchase her book, Bread and Other Miracles, at lynnungar.com. The poem is reproduced here with Lynn’s permission. Thank you Lynn.

A priestly kingdom – inspired and created by Exodus

“See what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings.
You shall be for me a priestly kingdom.” (from Exodus 19).

A “kingdom” is a proper collective noun for priests. God’s call of priests is for the whole people, the whole nation – for the many, not just the few. It is for all those who have been borne on eagles’ wings through the harshest circumstances imaginable – in the case of these people hearing God’s call in Exodus, it is people who have suffered slavery and all kinds of oppression. There are no priests who don’t belong to the kingdom, and outside of the kingdom there is no call for priests.

This priestly kingdom is more than the “priesthood of all believers” – this is a priesthood of all those who have been liberated. Their liberation defines their identity and identifies their function of being a blessing for the whole world, for all the nations. (It defines “blessing” as nothing less than liberative, nothing less than redemptive even from the worst evil imaginable.)

How have we got our understanding of priesthood so spectacularly wrong? In common parlance priests are those who are ordained. Peter writes to those who were “nobodies” – “aliens and strangers in the world”: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his own marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9).

The Ordination Service takes up the call: “God calls his people to follow Christ and forms us into a royal priesthood”. This is the vocation of the whole church, not just a few of its members, “to declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light”. The liturgy of the Ordination of Priests continues: “To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries” – ordained priests being among them.

What distinguishes those who are ordained priests is that they can be trusted with the power of ordering the life of this kingdom, co-ordinating its energy for the purposes of peace, making its wonder ordinary in the community’s DNA. The discernment and formation processes are supposed to see to that. The charge they accept is to do those things which serve this royal priesthood, the whole people of God, borne on eagles’ wings through times of trial and trouble in order that this kingdom of priests will be blessing for the whole world.

For that they will share with their Bishop as messengers and stewards, watching for the signs of God’s new creation. They will teach and encourage. They will guide people through temptation and confusion and they will declare in Christ’s name the forgiveness of sins.

With all God’s people they will baptise new disciples, preach faithfully in and out of season. They will preside at the Lord’s table and lead the kingdom of priests in worship. They will bless people in God’s name. They will resist evil, supporting the weak, defending the poor and interceding for those in need.

These things and others they are trusted to take on in order to serve the work of the kingdom of priests (aka “church” and “Israel”) – always for the purposes of the kingdom of priests: for the blessing and praise of all of God’s creation.

Remember Christina Rosetti

Christina Rossetti 2
Portrait of Christina Rosetti by her
brother Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1866)

We celebrate the life of Christina Rosetti on April 27th every year. This is the anniversary of her first recorded verses (1842) – addressed to her mother. There is a neat conjunction with this celebration and the reading appointed for Morning Prayer – the birth narrative with which Luke begins his gospel.

Christina was the youngest of four children in a very gifted family. She is considered to be one of the finest Victorian poets. One of her poems is treasured by Christians and sung to celebrate Christmas.

The opportunity to give thanks for Christina, and is also opportunity to marvel that a “splash of words” (h/t Mark Oakley and Louis MacNiece) are able to breathe meaning into life and marvel at the one Word which breathed life into meaning. Here is the poem we sing:

In the bleak midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Two poems for which she is particularly remembered for are Goblin Market and Remember.

Remember

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the distant land:
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me: you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve;
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rosetti’s work is in the public domain, as is the work of her brother, Dante Gabriel Rosetti.