Friday, December 28, 2012

Conception, conversion, consummation

Three linked poems by my friend Wilf.

The flame came down encountering the lily
And both were held in awe
Innocence marvelling at purity;
The bearer of the news,
The bearer of the word
Trembling on the edge of the moment
When the seed of God would tip into our world
In the heart of a pure girl’s womb.

When the ‘brave’ braced back bends braver
And the knee knows now to kneel.
The conquered king is caught from his castle
Hauled, galled, called to the hallowed gallows
Head held high. Clawing, gnawing, mauling;
Part lamb, beast and man;
And tears turn fears to trembling trust.
In this chaos of contrition
The seed slips silently in
And all heaven exults.

Still, still, still the newborn earth
And heaven here is hushed
No faintest breath disturbs the air
Through which the nubile figures move.
If divinity can look with awe
Then this, this, this is the moment
For the groom has locked his gaze
Upon his bride.
She whom he has drawn from the beginning
Draws close and ever closer
The first touch,
Time and eternity meet as so many times before
Parts of the one, eternal moment
The first kiss, and then...

Friday, December 14, 2012

The fat and the fire

"Lovely evening tonight" I tweeted. "Friendship, candlelit dinner, baked spiced apples, glowing fire, chocolates, laughs. Oh and I was called fat."

It's true, one of our dear young disciples made this heinous (and sadly increasingly accurate) accusation. And it was funny, though not as funny as the time my then 3-year-old declared: "When I grow up I want to be like Daddy - " (pause for pathos and effect, then - ) "fat!" In fact, though I may be a little more rounded than I was ten years ago, I don't think I yet quite fit the epithet.

Nevertheless, there is something about those long, fire- and candle-lit evenings in winter, in community, that really does feel like living off the fat of the land. Friends and family gathered with nothing much to do except to be. To be friends, to be family, to be...

It seemed a fitting follow-up to my last, rather theoretical, post about Sabbath rest.

C S Lewis, as ever, put it rather well: "Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?"

Thursday, December 13, 2012

To rest is holy

Last Sunday I spoke about the fourth of the Ten Commandments:  ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’ Here’s a summary.

What do we make of the command to rest, to take time out – in this case one day in seven – to stop working?

Some find obedience to this command easier than others. Garfield for instance.

The fact that God has to command rest indicates we can become work-addicted. More on this later. First to explore a couple of ‘whys’ behind the command.

‘Why’ number one. The Exodus version of the commandment says the reason for Sabbath is: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

So why did God rest? Was he tired out? (Theologically problematic given omnipotence.) Had he got ahead of schedule? (Ditto omniscience.) Pop back to heaven? (Ditto omnipresence.) In fact, the reason God ‘rested’ is hinted at in these word: And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

God rested to celebrate, to enjoy creation because it was very good. It was not only of value for what it could do or produce (utility), nor was it meaningless (futility). It was fruitful and abundant, but its meaning was not limited to this. Ultimately it was a work of beauty that both glorified its maker and brought joy to its maker.

Sabbath reminded Israel: creation was made for more than utility (what it can do) and futility (having no meaning).

‘Why’ number 2. The Deuteronomy version of the commandment says: You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty outstretched hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

Sabbath reminded Israel they were no longer slaves. Not only was creation not made for utility or futility, but nor were they. They had been delivered from Pharaoh’s back-breaking brick-making and soul-destroying quotas.

And we should note a further revolutionary fact: the commandment was not only for adult Israelites but for ‘your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you’. Sabbath was egalitarian: for all creation – even animals.

Sabbath points back to creation’s original purpose – joy, celebration and glory – and forward to the day when creation would cast of its slavery to utility and futility.

For, as Paul puts it, creation has been ‘subjected to futility’. As Genesis has it:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

Sin has made work hard, unyielding, relentless. Utility. It has made the human destiny ‘dust’. Futility.

Work, work, work, work, work. Die.

It is a Christian commonplace (though no less glorious for that) that Jesus’ death and resurrection have undone the effects of sin and overcome the fall. He brought old creation to its end – he literally bore the thorns of Genesis on his head as he died, the ‘last Adam’ – and took it to the grave. On the Sabbath he rested.

And ‘on the first day of the week’ (as it carefully points out in all four gospels) creation began again. That is Jesus was raised imperishable. If old creation began with the heaven and the earth and finished with a ruling man, new creation began with a ruling man and will finish with a new heaven and earth.

And in the meantime? After all, looking around the world today there’s plenty of evidence of utility and futility – but what of new creation?

In the meantime, there’s work to be done. ‘God and make disciples’ says Jesus, echoing the ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ of Genesis. And he doesn’t just mean converts. He means spread new life. Baptise people into new creation. Make new people (including yourself). And live like he commanded.

Which includes Sabbath.

The New Testament is ambivalent about actually having a one-day-a-week Sabbath. Paul ranges from tolerance to trenchant prohibition.

The latter almost certainly had its roots in Jesus’ own strong condemnation of a Jewish Sabbath-keeping which had become so divorced from its raison d’ĂȘtre that it enslaved people rather than freeing them. (To love God is to love people. Put another way: obedience to God will always emerge as love for people – otherwise we haven’t understood what God is commanding us.)

Sabbath for new creation people is not a day off a week (though if it works for you, feel free).

Sabbath is a way of life. As the letter to the Hebrews says: There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God... Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.

Sabbath is an end to futile labour. Our work in the Lord is not in vain. It’s an end to seeing people as worth only what they produce. All are valued. It’s an end to stressy striving. It’s an end to manic measuring.

It means hard work, but it also means valuing play. It means tears, but joy follows after. It means human beings, not human doings. It means saying no to drivenness, but yes to servanthood. It means sprinkling some Calvinism in our Arminianism. It means work is good, but rest is ‘holy’.

It means, for some, and in order to obey the Lord of the Sabbath – being a little more like Garfield.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Have yourself a very little Christmas

A few years ago I wrote a little rant about consumerism at Christmas. To my great amusement the first comment on the post was spam advertising Christmas hampers. The irony. Added grist to my mill, needless to say.

Right, so let's get this straight: I love friendship, being together, family, fun and games, warmth and generosity. If that's how you celebrate the season, I'm with you (and I venture to say that God - not the killjoy we sometimes present him as - would agree).

But this poem - written some years ago, but updated today - is to say again that as a follower of Jesus, I can't, I simply can't, commerorate his birth by abandoning everything he stood for, everything he said.

So the poem, a plea to abandon consumerism precisely because it's Christmas, is called 'Have yourself a very little Christmas' It's an anti-advert. Works best read out loud - but you may just have to imagine that.

Have yourself a very little Christmas: an anti-advert

You’ll all have seen that jolly chap
dressed all in red and furry white
with pressies stuffed into his sack
and reindeer trained for turbo flight
– but did you know that Santa’s suit
was first designed by Coca Cola
in 1931 to loot
the world? A big fat dollar
for corporate fat cats to get fatter?
Last year eleven billion pounds
were borrowed to fund the Xmas platter
of the rich – and if that sounds
not filthy enough then you may need
to consider that eleven billion notes
is enough, by far, for a year, to feed
fifty million of the poorest poor…
Please: kick sick consumerism out the door.

See, Jesus is not some stained glass sissy
looking woefully down from Cathedral windows:
he’s angry; he’s fuming against hypocrisy,
yelling “Woe to the rich” to the pious offenders
who tithe full of pride and let justice go hang
– and “Blessed are the poor”, “Forsake all and follow”:
get out of the rat race, so shallow and hollow:

Come out of the inn: no room for me there
far from chestnut roasting firelight,
my squalling fogs bleak midwinter air,
and gold quickly sold funds a refugee flight.
From wood of the trough to wood of the cross
from roadside birth to borrowed tomb
from curse of king to mother’s sore loss
I never asked the world for room.

Slam the door; make sure you lock it;
follow the leader means do what I say – like
not running in circles to line every pocket;
like: give it all up; like: give it away.

Like what you're hearing? Like what you've heard?
Wanna be in my gang now you know about my birth?
Like what you're hearing? Like what you've heard?
Would you own all creation
and inherit the earth?