Laban and Jacob have their say on the folly of borders and their control

A cairn marking the boundary between Norway and Sweden in a remote area of the Arctic. Photo by Bjorn Christian Torrissen

The UK Government has announced plans to take “full control” of borders unveiling an Australian-style points system to overhaul immigration law and close our borders to unskilled workers and those who can’t speak English. When we talk about taking “full control of our borders” aren’t we just allowing fear and anxiety to take control of our borders? Are we forgetting border controls escalate and will be reciprocated? Have we given any thought to who in the end will wipe our bums?

This is all part of the deceit of government. I have been intrigued by the stories about Jacob and Laban from Genesis 29-31. Jacob is the “leg-puller”, the “supplanter”, the “deceiver”. Laban is the “white man”. Laban means white. The story of Laban and Jacob is a saga of deception – the white man deceiving the deceiver. Was Jacob the outsmarter of the two?) They come to terms with each other by building a witness heap of stones laid by their families as a commitment to peace. It marked the first bilingual place name recorded in the Bible – Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha and Jacob called it Galeed – the translations of “witness heap” in their respective languages.

Galeed, (we would perhaps call it a cairn) stood as a landmarked prayer. It provided a boundary to their hostility, an end to it. Significantly both Jacob and Laban refuse to take control of their new border. Instead they pray: “The Lord watch between you and me”. The Lord is the one they want to control their border and to watch their limits so that they never cross for harm but only cross for peace.

I wonder when we pray, when we put or hands together, whether we are building a cairn – a knuckle-boned physical structure to mark the limits of our hostility and anxiety, to say “beyond this only peace, beyond this only love”. Are our churches also cairn like landscaped prayers – places to confess our hostility, to find better ways to deal with our differences and markers within our communities beyond which we commit to “go in peace”? “This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me.” (Genesis 31:51f)

Borders are worse for our control when our export is fear. The boundaries of our Brexit mindset become brickset – walls built against others deconstructing differences, obstructing relationships, restricting trade and exchange.

Where are we building our witness heaps and our places of commitment? How are we replacing walls with cairns? How do we lament our nationalism?

Small Kindnesses – where holiness dwells

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die” we are saying.
and sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder
and for the driver of the red pick up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only those brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here
have my seat.” “Go ahead – you first.” “I like your hat.”

This is a poem by Danusha Laméris from her first collection, The Moons of August which was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the 2013 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize. Naomi Shihab Nye has also written a remarkable poem on Kindness.

I like the language of kindness, of kith and kin, that in German children are kinder, that kindness is the making of humankind and that humankind should be qualified by kindness. By themselves small kindnesses are rarely remarkable in the sense that they are newsworthy, but they make our days and open the door to the greater kindnesses of friendship and community. Small kindnesses are usually intuitive, born by habits of the heart grown in rich cultures of difference and longing. In one place the bus stop is a silent waiting room of isolation, in another, like Glasgow, it’s a meeting place. Why the difference? What are the differences in the habits of the heart of both places?

Danusha Laméris asks the question, what if these small kindnesses are the true dwelling of the heart? Should we be surprised when everything about the kingdom of god is small? In two tiny parables Jesus explains the kingdom of God. “He said, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ And again he said, ‘to what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:18-20)

So in a simple touch, a smile, a whisper or a word might be folded the holy – just a single seed planted in our lives. There probably isn’t anywhere else for the holy to dwell.

Rags – a poem by Caroline Bird

This poem by young British poet and playwright Caroline Bird has more than a whiff of Pentecost about it. Caroline Bird was born in 1986. Already she has had five collections of poetry published. This poem is from her latest collection In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet, 2017).

Rags

When love comes through
the vents, you press wet rags against
the grill, lest you are smoked out
of your loneliness, you tape egg boxes
to your ears so you can’t hear
the hissing, you swathe yourself
in shame like vinegar
and brown paper. At sundown,
you gather up the rags
and press them to your face
like the dress of a lover, hoping for
a slight effect, the remnants of a rush –
not enough to change your mind – just
enough to pacify the night.

Yes, I’ve done all that. And now I am full of questions.

How do we make the most of love?
How do we make the most of every minute of love?
What do we do about our preoccupations and those things which make us unprepared for love?
How dare we hope for love and remain openminded to recognise love?
How do we avoid leaving it all too late?
How can we let love do her work in us and through us?

Breath – my chosen poem of the month

Breath by Adrian Rice was Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week on Saturday and was Mark Oakley’s #APoemADay on Tuesday. It is stunningly beautiful and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. It is my poem of the month.

What is death
but a letting go
of breath?

One of the last
things he did
was to blow up

the children’s balloons
for the birthday party,
joking and mock cursing

as he struggled
to tie all
those fluttery teats.

Then he flicked them
into the air
for the children

to fight over.
Some of them
survived the party,

and were still there
after the funeral,
in every room of the house,

bobbing around
mockingly
in the last draft.

She thought about
murdering them
with her sharpest knife,

each loud pop
an angry bullet
from her heart.

Instead, in the quietness
that followed her
children’s sleep,

she patiently gathered
them all up,
slowly undoing

each raggedy nipple,
and, one by one, she took his
last breath into her mouth.

What is life
but a drawing in
of breath?

These short lines breathe love, speaking of life (teats, nipples and birthdays) and death, love and grief. I worry that the balloons took his last breath, and took a father away from his children and their mother. Did he die in that moment when there should have been celebration and fun? I’m pleased that the balloons remained for the funeral, and that they were there to be murdered with her sharpest knife (who might have been murdered otherwise?) and thankfully reprieved to become new life and consolation.

This is a drama well chosen for Easter. The rooms seem many, as in “my Father’s house” and there is a breath of Johannine Pentecost (and being born again) from the balloons’ nipples.  There is comedy in the tragedy. “One of the last things he did was to blow up.” And how simple the answers to the questions that open and close the poem. “What is life?” What is life but a letting go of breath? What is life but a drawing in of breath?

Kintsugi, the art of scars and the value of repair

kintsugi2Things break. We break things. We break. But what do we do with the pieces?

When I have broken things I have sometimes pretended it’s never happened (playing the innocent) or I have hidden the evidence. When I’ve broken I have pretended it’s never happened, or I have hidden the shame. This is shocking dishonesty.

The prophet Jeremiah knew a thing or two about brokenness and shame. The broken thing he had his eye on was the nation itself. He came to see hope in brokenness – not shame – by studying the work of a potter. The potter was making a vessel of clay and it was spoiled in the making. Instead the potter reworked it into another vessel “as seemed good to him”. He heard God say, “can I not do as this potter has done?”

There is another school of pottery which makes something of broken pieces. This is Kintsugi. Kintsugi is known as “golden joinery” because of the method of using gold dust to mend the broken pieces. The repairs themselves become the work of art. While we might be tempted to use superglue to mend a broken ornament and then turn the damage to the wall, Kintsugi works in a different way. The repair is brazen and flaunted. The breakage gives the object a story and the object becomes more valuable than it ever was before.

The Japanese art of Kintsugi has given rise to a philosophy and metaphor for life. Also known as the “art of scars” it signals a way for us to value what is broken in our lives and to celebrate what has re-paired us.

We can look at the broken pieces of our society. Those broken pieces all have labels to identify one piece from another, and we continue to break into new pieces. We’ve got new labels, more broken pieces with Leavers/Remainers. They go along with more worn labels such as Workers/Shirkers, Gay/Straight, Black/White, North/South, Red/Blue etc etc. I like the suggestion that prayer is like the gold dust of Kintsugi – when we pray we seek to make a-mends and pray for repair and reconciliation. The putting together of the pieces is the answer to that prayer.

Kintsugi is one art of scars. Writing this as we come into Holy Week I am conscious that Christianity too is the art of scars – though crimson rather than gold. Brokenness is taken with utmost seriousness. All the repair work and the reconciliations stand proud as witnesses. Repaired brokenness makes us more precious and valuable than ever.

PS. Here’s more about the spirituality of mending by Laura Everett

PPS. #Visiblemending is trending on Twitter

PPPS. Mending is seen as practice for “tikkun olam” – for the “mending of the world”

A Pearl from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statue is one of ten to modern martyrs, unveiled in July 1998, which stand above the west entrance to Westminster Abbey. The sculptor was Tim Crawley.

On this day, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred – aged 39. His life, teaching and death are constant reminders of the cost of discipleship and the need for political engagement. Here is one of his pearls:

God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof.

Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it.

Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in.

He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas

Sunflowers weeping

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The sunflowers weep. Anselm Kiefer has done several paintings of sunflowers. He was born in 1945 in Germany, two months before the end of the war. It is hard to imagine the state of mind of the German nation at that time – on the edge of a shameful defeat, confronting the horrors of their totalitarian regime and, of course, the Holocaust. How does a society ever recover from sinking that abysmally low?

Anselm Kiefer has been determined to confront  his culture’s dark past. Here, the sunflower weeps. The sunflower looks so different in Kiefer’s work to the glory of its portrayal by Van Gogh. In Kiefer’s work, the sunflower stands for the national shame. Once proud and tall, the sunflower hangs its head in shame and disgrace – and weeps.

We can see the tears falling – they are the sunflowers going to seed. The seed is watering the earth for a new cycle of life – for a better season.

I was hoping to use this picture in a sermon – (particularly appropriate for Holocaust Memorial Day). I asked myself, “is Kiefer a Christian?”. Then I thought, “what is the point of that question?”, and “what an ugly question to be asking”. In that question there is a “as opposed to what?” – as in “if he is not a Christian then what is he?”. It becomes “Is he a Christian – (as opposed to a Jew)?” See what I mean. It’s an ugly question, particularly on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Kiefer is an artist in the business of lament and hope. There are plenty of others – largely inspired by the Jewish artists and prophets of the Hebrew scriptures.