“A formerly homeless theatre workshop participant searches out the right characters for his tableau; he scans the group, and points to me. He places me in the scene; he lifts my arms and shapes my hand into a dismissive wave; he adjusts my hips and torso; he sculpts my face with his fingers, gently, until I am scowling scornfully. He crouches low, cowering in front of where I stand, and we hold this image. I hold this stance, I become this character.
I feel in my body how he sees people like me, I feel in my body that I am this character. My arms begin to ache; I try to look for cracks in the mould to overwrite this position of scorn, but I am frozen in character before the group. I am implicated.”
Imagine that. Imagine being so contorted in the eyes of a brother or a sister – someone who is homeless. Imagine what we look like as we step aside, as we look the other way, as we pretend to search our pockets for “no change”. Imagine what we sound like with our feeble excuses and dismissive words. Imagine the ugliness of ignorance and arrogance. Imagine the ugliness of being too busy.
Imagine the hands sculpting our face into scowling impatience and our imposing presence towering over the cowering and crouching.
Then imagine those rough hands at our face again – this time taking our cheek for a kiss, and a “thank you, friend”. What change would there have been in our face, posture and behaviour?
Goblin Market is a remarkable poem by Christina Rossetti. I love this video version because of its pace, images and soundtrack. The words are here. Christina Rossetti was a volunteer worker for over ten years at a refuge for former prostitutes (St Mary Magdalene “house of charity” in Highgate, London), and this experience pulses through the poem.
Rossetti is also well known for writing the words of the Christmas carol, In the bleak Midwinter, (here sung by Alison Crowe). The carol ends with the question “what can I give him, poor as I am?” This is a profound and everyday question. What can we give when we think we have nothing to give? Gift shops have ideas with price tags for those not so poor. Their buyers may wonder what they can get away with. The receivers of such gifts may pass them on to others as something unwanted. What they wanted was something of themselves. Something that comes from the heart: something that is wholehearted.
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 play my part; Yet what I can, I give him: give my heart.
For posing the question and for her wholehearted responses – we give thanks today, a feast day for Christina Rossetti.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,They fell with their faces to the foe.We will remember them. Also it is the day we celebrate St Martin of Tours – patron saint of France. Martin was a soldier who changed sides. He was a Roman soldier who became a “soldier of Christ” whereupon he declared, “I cannot fight”.Martin is famous for having halved his cloak to share it with a beggar. The cloak became an important relic which was specially cared by a priest in its reliquary. Wikipedia tells us that this priest was called “acappellanu” and “ultimately all priests who served the military were called cappellani. The French translation is chapelains, from which the English word chaplain is derived.”
St Martin and the Beggar by El Greco
This gives a fascinating insight into Christian ministry with “chaplaincy” grounded in this act of love – the sharing of the cloak. There is a further twist to the story in that Martin discovered his cloak restored when he woke one morning. Love defies the accountant and moves us into a world of magic and mystery. How can one cloak become one and a half cloaks, or even two cloaks? (Because I bet it wasn’t only Martin who was so blessed). Jesus defies accountancy logic when he declares that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life me will find it” (Matt 16:25). This mystery means that those who are determined to give of themselves don’t need to count the cost.
Those who give their life for their friends have a love which is supreme. There is no greater love than this – and there is no waste in such love. Simon Marsh has a wonderful story on his blog about the war veteran being greeted by a grandchild from one of the villages he helped to liberate. Such stories highlight the life-giving commitment of people who share Martin’s vocation as soldiers and chaplains. But Martin’s declaration sounds a warning at a time when we tend to avoid the hard questions of war – when life is wasted and brutalised. “I am a soldier of Christ. I will not fight.”
>I have just started reading a book called “The Art of Possibility” – which talks about us living in the “realms of possibility” as opposed to living at “Measurement central” governed by “survival thinking”. The authors, Zander and Zander write:
“In the realm of possibility we gain our knowledge by invention. We decide that the essence of a child is joy, and joy she is. Our small company attracts the label, “The Can-Do Company” … We speak with the awareness that language creates categories of meaning that open up new worlds to explore. Life appears as variety, pattern, and shimmering movement, inviting us in every moment to engage. The pie is enormous, and if you take a slice, the pie is whole again…
The action in a universe of possibility may be characterised as generative, or giving, in all senses of that world – producing new life, creating new ideas, consciously endowing with meaning, contributing, yielding to the power of contexts. The relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves. Emotions that are often relegated to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion and compassion.”
People and things increasingly have price tags. They are entered on balance sheets and they are counted in and counted out. (Horrible thing the Government, when they talk about the “head count” being affected by the promised cuts (aka redundancy)). The accountants can’t get their hands on what happens between people. The generation of ideas and life defies logic. We are in the world of mystery rather than accountancy when we focus on the relationship between people and environments. It is sheer magic the way the pie becomes whole again.
>What can I give him, poor as I am? This is the question at the heart of giving. And as we are crunched by the recession this becomes an ever more pressing question, particularly for a middle class which has come to treasure money so highly. It really dismays me when we hear in our churches about giving – and it is always centred on money (or so it seems). What can I give him, poor as I am?
Christina Rossetti discusses this in her poem “In the bleak midwinter“. For her money doesn’t enter into it – and in this recession all of us are questioning the worth of what money will buy (particulalry those of us on their third skip in the process of moving house). Take money out of the equation and what can we give? Those unable to buy off their giving with money perhaps know the answer best. They operate in an economy of gifts aware they can give “their heart”, that they can pay attention, that they can give themselves, that they can for-give, that they can give thanks.
And my own thanksgiving – a woman working on the platform at Crewe Station who was amazingly kind, patient, hospitable and gentle with my mother in helping her find the right train – someone bearing the fruits of the Spirit. British Rail won’t have been paying her for that but some gifts money cannot buy.
Miroslav Volf (in Free of Charge p116)describes the work of the Holy Spirit in terms of gifts. “The Spirit is the gift that gives spiritual gifts”. He writes; “the Spirit opens the doors of our hearts for Christ’s indwelling …. by the power of the Spirit we make ourselves available for Christ to be born in us … The Spirit is the gift that gives Christ”. “Think of the Spirit as the arms of our hearts that embrace Christ and as the open doors of our energies and skills that welcome Christ in.”
In the story Matryona’s House an old woman “never tried to acquire things for herself. She wouldn’t struggle to buy things which would mean more to her than life itself. All her life she never tried to dress smartly in the kind of clothes which embellish cripples and disguise evildoers.” As the story unfolds she is misunderstood and abandoned, even by her husband. Six of her children die but she carries on giving.
“We all lived beside her”, Solzhenitsyn put in mouth of one of her fellow villagers, “and never understood that she was the righteous one without whom, according to the proverb, no village can stand. Nor any city. Nor our whole land.”
Volf comments a gift is an “event between people. Gifts serve “to create, nourish or re-create” social bonds.
I don’t think I am a good giver. According to Volf “ungracious and reluctant givers inspect the causes of a need and dole out the benefits in proportion to its legitimacy.” He refers to Nathan the Wise , a play by Lessing written in 1779, in which Sultan Saladin enlists a beggar to be his treasurer. The Sultan wanted to end begging by ensuring that beggars could afford not to beg. He wanted a beggar as his treasurer “because only a beggar knows how to give to beggars appropriately”. Of his previous treasurer Saladin said:”He gave so ungraciously when he gave; first inquired so vehemently into the situation of the receiver; never satisfied that he wa slacking, also wanted to know the cause of the lack, in order to measure the cause stingily against the offering.”
I wonder whether Christian teaching about giving has helped. Most sermons seem to be about persuading worshippers to hand over their cash to keep the show on the road. On the drain/radiator test, this sounds more like a drain and a far cry from God giving life to the world. (radiator!)
> Miroslav Volf in Free of Charge (subtitled “Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace” expands on the theme of God the Giver who continues to give in a world inclining towards “gracelessness”. He speaks of faith:
Faith is not something we give to God. In that case, faith would be a work, and a silly kind of work because it would be work we do even though it deosn’t benefit anyone. But exactly the opposite is true. To have faith in God is to be “without works” before God (Romans 4:5). Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill…. In contrast good works offered to God dishonour God; they tell a lie about God and our relation to the divine Giver, and they take away God’s due.
I remember David Lunn, on hearing of his appointment to be Bishop of Sheffield speaking of his surprise because he felt “he didn’t believe enough”. Who hasn’t thought that?
The faith that expresses itself with hands outstretched trustung God’s gifts is something of the heart. When I say something like “I’m not sure what I believe” part of that is to do with my head and perhaps is saying “there are loads of things I don’t understand”.
Being empty handed before God suddenly makes that not matter. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there is nothing more we can say which will make him love us less. All we can give to God is delight or pain.
Rowan Williams likened the giving of God to the Niagara Falls. Love cascades to us – that’t the empty hands bit – but it’s only living water if we release the gifts to others. If we don’t the water stagnates and becomes poisonous.