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?

Will we put our hands together to pray?

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Every morning I, David, pray with Jews,
my brothers, my sisters. Their scripture
fallen into my hands, fills my mind,
names me. I take their prayers,
the longing of their psalms,
I hear their pain, share their dreams,
my amen I join to theirs.

And I regret every morning
I can’t pray with more distant relatives,
my brothers, my sisters, children of Hagar.
A step too far. What are their longings,
what are their dreams?
I pray, that as I pray, they pray,
with me, for me, amen.

 

The photo is by mrehan, found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrehan00/3455167464

Praying simply

A poor life this, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

These are the closing lines of W H Davies’s so simple poem, Leisure.

I bet I’m not the only one to be brought up sharp by this. Could this be a Lenten discipline: to take time?

Mary Oliver’s simple lines in Praying might help us to take time in the everyday – just to wonder and wander in prayer. Prayer doesn’t have to be difficult.

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Photo credit: Vilseskogen

 

Psalms and Their Wretched Authors and Readers

Foxes Book of Martyrs 1851I have been thinking increasingly that the Psalter has fallen into the wrong hands – into my hands, and that, in my hands,  those who Frantz Fanon referred to as The Wretched of the Earth have been betrayed

The psalmists (I’m assuming many, or at least several) describe the wretchedness of their lives. Take the psalm appointed for today (March 31st), Psalm 102 as an example. The psalmist talks about her/his crying and distress. S/he isn’t just downhearted, but is smitten-down-hearted. Her enemies rage at her all day and every day and have ganged up on her to bully her. S/he is alone, hungry and thirsty. This is how s/he pours out the wretchedness of her situation:

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
    let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
    on the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
    answer me speedily on the day when I call.

For my days pass away like smoke,
    and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
    I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
    my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
    like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
    I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
    those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
    and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
11 My days are like an evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.

But this isn’t self-pity: the psalmist is just telling it like it is. There is no room for self-pity because the psalmist knows God and his history. He knows that he turns to the prayer of the destitute, that he hears the sighs of the prisoner. This is an uprising of prayer and outpouring of trust that her enemies will be short-lived while “the children of your servants shall continue, and their descendants shall be established in your sight”.

This is a prayer of the down-hearted and an act of defiance in the face of her enemies. It is but one page of a prayer book that comes from the hands of those who have fallen on hard times and belongs in their hands. I am sorry to have snatched it from them. I hope I don’t take their words from them, and that I might hear their lament and join their Amen.

This is how this prayer (Psalm 102) turns out, from hard pressed people to their God:

12 But you, O Lord, are enthroned for ever;

    your name endures to all generations.
13 You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
    for it is time to favour it;
    the appointed time has come.
14 For your servants hold its stones dear,
    and have pity on its dust.
15 The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
    and all the kings of the earth your glory.
16 For the Lord will build up Zion;
    he will appear in his glory.
17 He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
    and will not despise their prayer.

18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
    so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord:
19 that he looked down from his holy height,
    from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
20 to hear the groans of the prisoners,
    to set free those who were doomed to die;
21 so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion,
    and his praise in Jerusalem,
22 when peoples gather together,
    and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.

23 He has broken my strength in mid-course;
    he has shortened my days.
24 ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘do not take me away
    at the mid-point of my life,
you whose years endure
    throughout all generations.’

25 Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you endure;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
27     but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28 The children of your servants shall live secure;
    their offspring shall be established in your presence

The image is from The Book of Martyrs, John Foxe, 1516-1587, Goodrich, Charles, 1790-1862.

St Brigid of Kildare and other patrons

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A Brigid cross

Today, February 1st, is the day St Brigid of Kildare is honoured and celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion (today because it is the day that she died in 523).There isn’t a great deal known about Brigid and in recent times there has been debate as to whether she existed at all. Some have suggested that the name and characteristics of the goddess Brigid were attached to the saint.

In a way her historicity is immaterial. What matters is what people have made of her life and what her life has come to mean. There are plenty of stories about her charity, her faith, her wisdom and her healing powers – the sort of stories that make a saint. For example, she is credited with founding a school of art, including metalwork and illumination. She is said to have been sold by her parents into slavery. It is easy to understand why she has become patron saint of babies, children with abusive parents and printers. But she is also patron saint for blacksmiths, boatmen, brewers, cattle, chicken farmers, dairy maids, fugitives, mariners, nuns, poets, poor, sailors, scholars, travellers, watermen and Ireland!

It is this reach of her legend which interests me. That long list of those to whom she is “patron” is a list of those who come under her care. They become the people she entertained with God’s blessing in her life, whether her actual life or the life as it has come to be in culture. That long list represents an enormous reach in prayer and practice and is a measure of the extent of God’s embrace.

The honouring and celebration of saints are spread liberally through our calendar. They help to make us a people of thanksgiving, and they help to make us a people of prayer. From what we have made of Brigid our prayers can stretch from children in abusive homes to midwives, from boatmen to brewers, from sailors to scholars, from fugitives to poets. All of them are taken in by God. Normally I wouldn’t give them a second thought and would pass them by. But today, thank Brigid, I think again and remember the reach of God’s love, his particular intentions and his call for us to love like him.

The photo is by Amanda Slater, showing what is known as a Brigid cross. These crosses are traditionally made on February 1st. They are made from rushes or straw and hang in many kitchens as protection from fire and evil.

PS. I asked John Bleazard, Rector of St Bridget’s West Kirby to contribute to this piece after being moved by what he was telling me about what is happening in his parish and other parishes he knows dedicated to St Bridget, or St Bride. I’m really grateful for this that he writes on how St Brigid’s tradition is kept alive. John writes:

Good to see you remembering Bridget on 1st February, David.

As rector of the 1,000 years-old St Bridget’s Church here in West Kirby, I find myself planning a patronal festival service each year and researching stories about her. Apparently she was once short of drink to offer proper hospitality to some guests, and so prayed over a bath full of dirty washing up water which happily then turned into beer. Hence Bridget becoming known as the patron saint of beer, and why of course, with that knowledge, we just had to organise a weekend beer festival here at St Bridget’s!

In my introductory notes for the patronal service order of service booklet this year, I wrote: “…it is said that Bridget was the keeper of a sacred flame in the church at Kildare that her nuns kept alight for 1,000 years. In the dark days of early February this notion of Bridget keeping an everlasting light has become entwined with that of Jesus being revealed as the light of all the nations at Candlemas, and also with the old Celtic festival of Imbolc that welcomes the return of light and warmth as Winter turns to Spring.

“Bridget is one of only a very few female saints from Celtic times, so her revered place is testimony to her outstanding leadership and holiness. It is said that when she was taking her vows as a nun a ring of fire appeared over her head. In awe of this, Bridget was ordained a bishop by mistake!”

Knowing this history, (or should I say, hagiography or is it legend?) about Bridget as a pioneer of women’s ministry in a man’s world, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the present day St Bridget’s church congregation have signed up as members of Inclusive Church and campaign for full and equal treatment of everyone within the church regardless of sex, sexuality, or other forms of discrimination.

What is more striking is how many other churches dedicated to St Bridget are also involved in the Inclusive Church movement – indeed I’m going to a meeting of Inclusive Churches next Saturday – where? St Bride’s, Liverpool of course!

How exactly does this patronage or influence remain down the centuries? Robert Warren in Healthy Churches Handbook talks about the angel of the church – and how we might better understand decision making processes and the outlooks of churches if we discovered more about the personality and identity of the church’s angel (or patron?) as first described in the letter to the churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. The letters are addressed: “to the angel of the church in…”  Warren quotes from Walter Wink’s book, The Powers That Be, who says that “The angel of the church is the coincidence of what the church is – it’s personality – and what it is called to become – it’s vocation.” We at St Bridget’s need to look back at where we have come from, but also need to look forwards to what we are becoming.

I was very struck by what Revd Dr Peter McGrail of Liverpool Hope University said to us in his Patronal Festival sermon here at our service this year about the potential impact and legacy of St Bridget on how we make decisions in our church. Peter pointed out that Bridget is this ambiguous person with stories of the Christian Abbess of Kildare mingling with the Irish Goddess Briege. He asked: “Where does one stop and the other start?”

Maybe this ambiguous hagiography is one reason why St Bridget’s church was (and is) “…a melting pot of ideas, a liminal, threshold place where human thought and action is extended and broadened.” I would add, too, that maybe the influence of the parish dedication to St Bridget is why a whole range of different views on any given topic are represented among the congregation. If that is the case, then our decision making needs to recognise this diversity.

Peter McGrail concluded his sermon: “The challenge we face is how to engage with issues around … who is the “other” as we follow Jesus who … transgressed humanity’s deepest taboos with regard to the sacred, and who set in motion a radical refusal to be bound by the barriers that humans set against other humans. Perhaps a parish dedicated to St Bridget that in it’s origins straddled boundaries between peoples and traditions might offer some insights?”

What would Jesus do? What would Bridget say? What is St Bridget’s Church here in West Kirby call to be and become under the influence of our patron, Bridget?

John Bleazard, March 2017

 

Where do prayers come from?

Where does the word “pray” come from, and who are the pray-ers?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary prayer comes from the Old French:

praying

According to Hebrew Word Meanings palal has at its root the word “fall”:  “The word palal literally means to “fall down to the ground in the presence of one in authority pleading a cause””.

Kenneth Bailey (in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes) doesn’t quite make the connection between the Greek word for meek and prayer. In discussing the Beatitudes he does point out the word prays (praïs)  as the Greek translation of “meek”. So, is this where the word “pray” comes from? Or, put it another way, do the words of prayer come from the meek, the prays? Are they the pray-ers whose prayers and praise are acceptable to God?

The meek, the prays, are, according to Jesus, the poor and humble, the little ones, and they will inherit the earth. The pray-ers will be answered. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” (Matthew 5:5)

The term meek comes from one of the psalms (Psalm 37:11) where it shows its meaning as “slow to anger” and “gentle with others”. For Aristotle, virtue lies between two extremes. In his Nicomachean Ethics, according to Bailey, “The one who is truly prays (meek) is the one who becomes angry on the right grounds against the right person at the right moment and for the right length of time”.

Is that what prayers do? Is that what prayers are? Is that how prayers are? Is that where prayers come from?

The photo is by Steve Evans: Ethiopia, Innocent Prayers of a Young Child

Intercession

Praying Hands
Thank you C Jill Reed for this photo of Praying Hands: a 30 ton 60 ft tall bronze statue at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The praying hands are just so huge that they make our own hands puny in comparison. Surely these are the hands of Christ, through whom our prayers are heard and minded by God.  He is the great High Priest whose love blesses the universe.

All Christians are called to be intercessors with responsibilities to pray for our enemies as well as our friends.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the importance of intercessory prayer in Life Together:

A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed.

I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they case me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner. That is a blessed discovery for the Christian who is beginning to offer intercessory prayer for others.

As far as we are concerned, there is no dislike, no personal tension, no disunity or strife that cannot be overcome by intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day.

The Church’s Lectionary prompts us to read two passages which talk about table manners. The passage from Hebrews (13:1-8) reminds us to entertain strangers (“for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”) and to remember those in prison (“as though you were in prison with them”). The Gospel passage (Luke 14:7-14) Jesus turns the tables on our normal manners by telling us to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” when giving a banquet, rather than friends, family and people who do us good.

These are extraordinary and good table manners. What we are supposed to do at our tables we are also supposed to do in our prayers. In our prayers we are entertaining people in our hearts and minds. And we have to stretch our minds and hearts so that we pray for those who are at the margins of our consciousness – we prepare a place for the stranger, the poor, the prisoner.

In praying for them we bring them centre stage in an act of remembrance, as if we were in prison with them. We pray for those for whom life has gone wrong, for those who don’t know what peace is, or family is. We pray for the unlovely and the lost as if we are unlovely and lost with them. This is a sympathetic (or empathic) position, but it is not about identification, because, as Oswald Chambers reminds us, intercession also puts us in God’s place. He writes: “People describe intercession by saying, “It is putting yourself in someone else’s place.” That is not true! Intercession is putting yourself in God’s place; it is having his mind and his perspective.”

These are deeply healing processes. When we pray for others we are at the very least remedying neglect and overcoming fears and divisions. And we are, at the very most, putting ourselves “in God’s place” of overcoming evil with far better table manners and prayer.

Serious houses on serious earth

locked away
I am not one for visiting churches, but I do love to see a church that is open, rather than closed. There are various reasons why churches are closed (and communities deprived of what should be public spaces). Some are afraid of the security risks (even though, according to the Open Churches Trust churches that are open have a lower risk). Sometimes the gatekeepers are forbidding in their attitudes so people feel they have to be qualified to enter – the “good enough” test. At other times people have been priced out. I am delighted to see that the price barrier at Chester Cathedral has been dropped, and that the Cathedral is now open and free to enter.

In his book, Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of faith and doubt, Richard Holloway speaks of his love of Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh, particularly when it was empty. Old St Paul’s is a church that is kept open so that people can drift in. Holloway has this to say:

Churches that stay open unclose themselves to the sorrows of humanity and alchemise them into consolation. And not a cheap consolation. Just as artists reconcile us to our ills by the way they notice and record them, so open churches console us by the way they accept the unreconciled aspects of our natures.

They are a haven for the homeless woman whose destitution is obvious, muttering to herself over there in the back pew; but they also accept the moral destitution of the confident man sitting in the dark chapel, gazing at the white star of the sanctuary lamp, heavy with the knowledge of the compulsions that have dominated his life and refuse to leave him.

There is no reproach. Churches do not speak; they listen. Clergy speak, unstoppably. They are ‘randy’ to change, challenge or shame people into successful living. Church buildings that stay open to all know better. They understand helplessness and the weariness of failure, and have for centuries absorbed them into the mercy of their silence. This is grace.

I like the story told by Jesus from the open “church”. It is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector and their respective prayers in Luke 18:9-14. You’d expect the Pharisee to be “there”. He is the religious one, who spends his life “there” saying his prayers and paying his tithes. He would be an approved key-holder. It’s the other one, the “tax collector” who has stolen in because the place is open. His prayer is the prayer of the people, including the prayer of the destitute woman and morally destitute high achiever referred to by Holloway. The qualification for being a tax collector was to have money for bribes, and the willingness to bribe. These were the people prepared to do the dirty deeds of the day. The building hears his confession and the cornerstone reorders his life.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.
Chester Cathedral, Chester
This photo, of Chester Cathedral, is by Xavier de Jauréguiberry.
The photo, “locked away” is by Kicki.

The title of this post is taken from the poem Church Going by Philip Larkin.