First Steps

The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
Proverbs 4:18

Who knows where first steps lead?
We feel our way through death’s vale,
beyond the pale to dark corners,
blind alleys, a way hardly taken,
through dark nights of the soul.
This is the path of the righteous,
the path of Missio Dei,
the path of light to dawn.

You want it darker? I’m ready, my lord

Leonard Cohen, tenant of the Tower of Song, born with the gift of a golden voice wanted it even darker on his last album. Darkness is keenly felt by many, particularly at this time of year when the darkness reinforces experiences of isolation and grief. The fairy lights that bedeck so many houses is an act of defiance against the darkness. Nowadays these artificial lights double up as Halloween and Christmas lights, intended to brighten our winter days and to jolly up the darkness.

But there is a sense in which we need it to be darker. Advent is a season to be rescued from the light-hearted. It is a time of year to get serious about the darkness that is part of our lives in our relationships, in our despair, in our anxiety, in our jealousy. It is a time to get real about the suffering so many endure, the millions forced from their homes, the many who suffer the consequences of economic austerity.

Those for whom this is too serious, those who are afraid of the dark, do us no favours when they say “lighten up”. Their merriment is like the fairy lights which don’t diminish the darkness but only pollute the night sky. We need it darker to realise that we are not all sweetness and light wherever, whatever and whoever we are.

Vincent van Gogh lived through some dark times. He wrote to his brother Theo: “I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless”. Like Leonard, Vincent did dark. And yet, in another letter to Theo, he wrote:

“It is true that I am often in the greatest misery, but still there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things. Believe me that sometimes I laugh heartily because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdity, of which not a hair of my head is guilty — I, who am really no one but a friend of nature, of study, of work, and especially of people.”

In his darkness he saw the most beautiful stars, some of which he painted and gifted to us. (Do see Loving Vincent if you get the chance.)

1280px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

In ancient times the stars were guides to the wise and inspiration to the faithful. These days it’s Cowell-made stars that draw us. Stellar constellations are lost on most of us, mainly because we can no longer see them. The light in which we trust is artificial. We need it darker for a time.

PS You may be interested in Jenny Bridgman’s Advent blog exploring Dark Spaces

Reflecting All The Light We Cannot See

Light
Light
The visible reminder of Invisible Light.
T. S. Eliot

all_the_light_we_cannot_see_doerr_novel

What was intended to be a summer read turned out to be an early winter read – very appropriately because this is a book about light and darkness, perfect for Advent and the darkest time of the year. In All the Light We Cannot See we see the world through the hands of a blind woman, Marie-Laure. As a child she is given a model of her world which helps her to feel her way in spite of all the light she cannot see. In telling her story, Anthony Doerr, is putting a model into our hands to remind us how complex life is and to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail.

Anthony Doerr has spun for us a hopeful story that is full of humanity. Besides the blind girl, there is an orphaned German boy who becomes a radio technician. The setting is the Second World War which so divided and devastated Europe. Their lives don’t cross till later but Doerr skillfully weaves their stories together in brief alternating chapters.

With the rise of populist politics as expressed in the Brexit referendum and elsewhere, it seems that we are again in a dark age (and the book is a startling reminder of the institutions that have grown up in post-war Europe which so far have preserved peace – it would be stupid and careless if this were to be unpicked). There is a lot of darkness as we don’t know where we are heading. There is a lot of light that we cannot see as we turn ourselves inwards.

There is so much light we cannot see – from the past and into the future. But in the hands of a blind girl the author has placed a model which can help us through to the light we cannot see. The model maker is her father – significantly a locksmith. I say significantly because of these lines by poet Malcolm Guite in response to one of the Advent antiphons:

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

Julia McGuinness has also written about this book. She captures the ideas of light within limited spaces which is so much part of this story set in the extremes of human existence.

Part of my work is to support newly ordained clergy. One of the cheesy things I do is write to those who have been recently ordained, just before Christmas. I say something like:

Happy first Christmas to you as a “priest”. I hope you enjoy your first Christmas celebrations. It is a wonderful moment – embracing strangers/visitors. One of the ideas that came to me (when I was struggling to find yet another homily in a busy Christmas season) was a play with the word “manger”. Pronounced the French way it’s about eating. Pronounced the Christmas way it’s where Jesus is born. Do we prepare a manger with the hands we offer for the bread? Is this when Jesus is born? As we place the bread in the hands of others, are we laying Jesus in their manger?

When we take the bread into our hands, into the manger we prepare, we take all the light we cannot see. This is the body of Christ, the light of the world. This is the faith we have as Christians, a faith that in the darkest times there is all the light we cannot see. The light that shines in the darkness, makes a difference as to how we recognise one another, how we see one another, how we see our past, how we see our future – as not so dark as maybe we once thought. This too, like Marie-Laure’s model, is something so small that is placed into our hands, to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail, in places we would never look into because of their depth of darkness.

Besides preparing a manger with our hands, we often put our hands together to pray (like a candle flame), and we often close our eyes (as if a reminder of the darkness). There are all sorts of reasons for these customs – but in our heart of hearts we know that there is all the light that shines in darkness. By praying we witness to the true light that gives light to everyone.

At the end of his magnificent novel, Doerr imagines:

People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie-Laure imagines the electro-magnetic waves travelling into and out of Michael’s (game) machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more criss cross the air than when he lived – maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programmes, of emails, vast networks of fibre and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from transmitters with cellular transmitters in them, commercials … flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m gong to be late and maybe we should get reservations? and ten thousand I miss yours, fifty thousand I love yours, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs’ over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the charred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations.

And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the encore of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

I am imagining it. I am imagining the map Doerr has drawn of some of the light we cannot see. 

I can’t wait to read this again.

A resolution: notes for a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas

Notes for a sermon for January 5th 2014 at St Alban’s, OffertonJohn 1:1-18

Note: this is the first time some of the congregation will have seen each other this new year.
Ask about resolutions made? (And broken) Find some out.
And ask for people to pray for each other that they might keep their resolve.

Mine is to “notice more” and to “welcome each day”.

It’s never too late to make a resolution.
We don’t reserve resolutions for New Year’s Eve do we?
Making resolutions is an everyday activity. Each year has its critical moments during which we make resolutions. (And we should be helping each other to keep those resolutions for as long as they need to be kept).

I have been wondering what a congregational resolution might look like.

Many of our resolutions are money oriented aren’t they, like “making ends meet”. I am sure that many of you make such resolutions, and I am sure that many of your PCC resolutions are along those lines. You might also have resolutions in place regarding your GAP goals. And you need to help each other to keep those resolutions.

I am wondering whether we would like to make a fresh resolution in the light of this morning’s gospel. The resolution is “let’s see”. Can I explain?

John’s gospel begins in a way that none of the others do.

John doesn’t introduce the themes of his gospel with reference to the nativity of Jesus. Instead, John sets the scene (no pun) by referring to darkness and light.
His point is that the world and our times are overwhelmed in darkness and that Jesus is the light that shines in that darkness.
The light helps us to see even when we are living through dark times.
That’s how John sets the scene for his gospel.
The darkness is so dark that some can’t even see the darkness.
God causes his light to shine in that darkness. That’s the good news.

Having introduced that theme John then goes on to provide examples of specific instances when the light did shine in the darkness, when people saw and realised, when the penny dropped.

That’s why I suggest that a good resolution for you as a congregation is “LET’S SEE” – and I hope that you will pray for one another that you may keep that resolution and that you may help one another to see.

John’s gospel is littered with invitations to come and see.

He said to two of John the Baptist’s disciples, “Come and see”.
You can almost hear them talking to one another, “shall we?”, “shalln’t we?” finally resolving “yes, let’s see.” (1:39)

Philip found Nathanael and urged him to “come and see”.
“Come and see what we have found”. He had found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth”. (1:46)

And then there was the woman Jesus met at the well at Samaria. She went to the city and called out “come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” And they left the city with the resolution to go and see. (4:29)

The disciples that Jesus loves (the beloved disciples), according to John, are the ones who accept the invitation – the ones who come to see him as the light, the resurrection and the life.

Our gospel for this morning mentions “seeing”, or, “not seeing” – because of the darkness.

 The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have beheld/seen his glory. (1:14)

 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (1:18)

 No one had seen God. But Jesus has made him known. We can see God in and through Jesus because he is the very image of God – he is the spit of his father. In Jesus we have the opportunity to see God.

Do you fancy making a resolution this morning to go alongside those others you have made in your lives?
Do you want to see?
In dark times in your relationships, in dark times in your work, in dark times in your families, in dark times in your faith, in dark times as a congregation, in dark times in your health, do you want to see?
At times when you feel trapped, do you want to see a way forward?

We try to cover our darkness don’t we?
We make up a face that hides the cracks.
We give the impression that we know where we’re going.
We smile and present a brave face to the world.
We hide our dark thoughts.
We pretend we are all sunshine and light.

But this does not help us to SEE. We hide our darkness by using artificial light.

If we hide our darkness, if we pretend everything is hunky-dory we are not going to see the true light which God causes to shine among us, through Jesus, through his saints and through one another.
(If we think everything is hunky-dory, we see nothing. We are blind fools).
We have to be honest about our dark times and our dark thoughts.

A lady I know, Jan Richardson, has recently lost her husband.
He died after what should have been fairly routine surgery at the beginning of December.
She is an artist who keeps a blog called the Painted Prayerbook.
Most weeks she produces an image to accompany the Sunday readings and writes a blessing which she posts on her blog.

I’m going to read her latest blessing, written for Epiphany, written in the light (or, rather, the darkness) of her husband’s death, and written in the light of herself being blessed through those who shared their darkness “by entering into days of waiting and nights of long vigil.” It begins with the words that reflect that darkness. “This blessing hardly knows what to say …” It is called:

This Brightness That You Bear
A Blessing for My Family

This blessing
hardly knows what to say,
speechless as it is
not simply
from grief
but from the gratitude
that has come with it—

the thankfulness that sits
among the sorrow
and can barely begin
to tell you
what it means
not to be alone.

This blessing
knows the distances
you crossed
in person
in prayer
to enter into
days of waiting,
nights of long vigil.

It knows the paths
you traveled
to be here
in the dark.

Even in the shadows
this blessing
sees more than it can say
and has simply
come to show you
the light
that you have given

not to return it
to you
not to reflect it
back to you
but only to ask you
to open your eyes
and see
the grace of it,
the gift that shinesin this brightness
that you bear.

Let’s see.

Is that a resolution you want to make in the light of John’s gospel and in the light of Jesus?
Is that something you want to help others do?
Is that something you want to resolve to do as a church and congregation?
Is this a blessing you want to bear in your lives for those who share the darkness with us?

Shall we help one another to see? Is that a resolution worth keeping?