Friday, April 18, 2014

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Why is Good Friday good? I used to wonder as a child. After all, it was the day in which the world did its worst to Jesus. It saddened me, all that blood and brutality. I remember.

As an older child, I put younger-childish ways behind me. With new theological sophistication I grasped that, as the hymn puts it, ‘He died that we might be forgiv’n, He died to make us good’.

Today I’m thinking about Jesus the Good – and how He faced evil on that day long ago. He didn’t resist it violently. He didn’t angrily protest. He didn’t summon heavenly forces to put a stop to this disgrace. He took all that evil threw at Him. He soaked it up. He allowed it to spend itself on Him.

He met evil with forgiveness – “Father, forgive them” – and so it emptied itself into Him and did not return.

Evil died in Jesus the Good.

All of which is very profound. But it becomes sharper when I realise that the evil that poured upon Jesus was not just some abstract metaphysical construct. There was human evil in that mix. Connivance of priests. Bitterness of thieves. Fickleness of crowds. Cowardice of friends. Hostility of kings. Jealousy of foes...

And there was me. Conniving, bitter, fickle, cowardly, hostile, jealous me. Standing right there with conniving, bitter, fickle, cowardly, hostile, jealous you.

And Jesus the Good said “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do.”

The ground at the foot of the cross, as someone has put it, is level. We all stand there evil. We all stand there forgiven. We all stand there with the opportunity that, beyond, there is life – life in which we can be made good.

These words from an ordinary little church in Essex summed up well, in my view, the welcome that Good Jesus extends to us all, though we are evil:

Here we try to practise the generous Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This means you may be mixing with
seekers, searchers,
and those who have been bruised,
those who limp and those who mourn,
orphans and widows,
and those wounded by war,
refugees, asylum seekers,
foreigners of all kinds,
citizens of different colour from yourself,
women bishops (yes, there are a few),
and other bishops too,
leaders who are worn out,
clapped out, burnt out,
lesbian and gay couples – even singles,
the wealthy who are trying to get through the eye of the needle,
and the poor who are struggling to maintain their dignity,
the emotionally deprived and harmed,
people of other faiths,
fundamentalists and liberals,
radicals and traditionalists,
those who have failed to love
and those who are afraid to receive love,
those rejected by ministers and their churches,
those who have broken their promises,
those bowed down with burdens,
those who teeter on the brink of breakdown,
those for whom the grip of alcohol or work,
drugs or sex, gambling or unnamed powers is getting stronger,
and those for whom the grip is loosening,
those struggling with faith and doubt,
and goodness knows how many others...
indeed, anyone who is like those Jesus mixed with.
This is not a private club
but a public space open to all people of goodwill.
And though we are not yet strong and vulnerable enough
to show the unconditional love of God at all times,
we hope we are moving in that direction.

We’re all welcome into God’s forgiveness. He alone can make us good.

Have a good Good Friday.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ and ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (see reviews), ‘The Dispossessed’ is a read that reads you back.

Along with its engaging, intriguing, edgy story, there is Le Guin’s customary thought-provocation. The novel is set in two twin worlds: a verdant world of plenty whose inhabitants freely war with one another, and an arid world of scarcity whose inhabitants agree on a strict unity. The novel is a fascinating meditation on the polarities and paradoxes that spring from this binary setting. What is the difference between unity and uniformity? When freedom brings exploitation and conflict is it a blessing or a curse? Is idealism better than individualism?

I’m reminded (a little) of ‘Animal Farm’ – but in a galaxy far, far away, with an author who doesn't take sides (Le Guin gives us various ‘pig’ candidates, but no-one is unambiguously declared the winner of that dubious honorific).

The questions this novel raises (and refuses to answer entirely) are important to me. Community, sharing, unity, equality – these ideals have shaped my life and those of my closest friends. So what about when community quashes individuality, when nobody owning means nobody caring, when unity becomes uniformity, when equality gets confused with equivalency? Give up and sell out to the consumer dream (=nightmare)? Me genoito!

I will read this again, I am sure of it. And it will read me again.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Iona - a poem


I am a place of pilgrimage
I, a destination
Of flight, rail, road and sea
My undyed yarn unfolds
My white sand, turquoise bay
Green remote and rugged me.

I am an edge in existence
I, a peregrination
Of flight, fall, chance and prayer
My crossroad cross points - where?
High above my jewels and pearls
Castled clouds and sea-spray air.

I am a tear on heaven's veil
I, a transfiguration
Of boot, bog, dust and track
My winding path unwinds.
Shy thin place, end of my world.
Go further, fall, go back?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

That's just sad!

Are you a sad individual?

If, like me, you’re something of a sufferer from “S.A.D.” (Seasonal Affective Disorder)* you may be disinclined to like the winter. Dark, deathly, dreary, depressing: who needs it? If it wasn’t for the consolation of firelight, I’d hibernate. Like Wordsworth, I, too, am inclined to be moved to poesy by the sight of spring’s daffodils. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can congratulate yourself on being not at all “S.A.D.” Or possibly on having no soul. You decide.)

But recently I’ve been thinking about seasons differently.

Seasons are part of God’s ordering of creation. “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease”. Autumn and winter with their dying and death give creation rest, and are as important, in their way, as spring and summer with their new life and growth. Nature’s phases – sowing, growing, reaping, rest – are all part of the circle of life.

I’m sounding more like a Disney song than I’m entirely comfortable with. I’ll move swiftly on.

There are “seasons” in our lives – in particular, in our shared life together as a church. (God who orders creation also orders his church which – staggering, humbling and downright baffling though this is to contemplate – is, in fact, the advance installation of new creation.)

But here’s the rub. God takes us through seasons, and they’re all good. But some seasons are dark. Some seasons are times of necessary, healthy death. Healthy death – does that sound odd? Oxymoronic?

In winter, growth stops, things die: this is not wrong – it is winter.

In our lives and our life together, we need to come to terms with winter, come to terms with letting go of things. As it says in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (think Nietzsche but in the bible): “There’s a time to die, to mourn, to weep” – “for everything there is a season”.

I must come to terms with “dying” phases and honour them as I more easily do with “growing” phases. This last year has seen the dying of a community I lived for. It has seen the loss or partial loss of some key relationships (not through death so much as through change). It has seen vision freeze over and idealism lie fallow. Can I see even these things as God at work?

Christians a great deal more spiritual than me have recognised spiritual seasons across the centuries. I’m in catch up. Brother Lawrence (him of ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’) was converted by seeing the difference between a tree in winter and the same tree in summer. St John of the Cross described “winters” of the soul that he famously called “the dark night of the soul”. These times of darkness, dryness, confusion, even lostness, were not, John of the Cross insisted, because of sin. They were part of God’s work in the soul. There was purpose in the pain – like an operation that heals us.

Spiritual life, it seems, is not just about what we see as “success”: growth, life, increase, achievement, winning the jackpot. It is also about dying, letting go, decreasing, ceasing. As possibly one of the most spiritual Christians of all time said: “I carry in me the dying of Jesus”.

Which brings us to Jesus. (Oh, him!)

Jesus knew about “winter”. Even in the three-year-long summer concert tour (theologically known as his “ministry”), he had his share of failure.

Followers dumped him (John 6); his own family thought he was a sandwich short of feeding the five thousand (Mark 3); his money man had his hand in the common purse and sold him for a handful of change (should have seen that one coming Jesus – oh, you did?) (Matthew 26, John 12); his closest friend denied knowing him (Luke 22).

And it all led to a bloody, brutal, humiliating death on a Roman cross.

Now, of course, we know that the cross was Jesus’ greatest work; his glory indeed (John 12) – the redemption of the world – but at the time it seemed like, and in a sense actually was, a catastrophic failure.

Winter. Spring came three days later.

It was said of the men of Issachar that they “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”.

It helps to know what time it is. Then we know what to do - or not to do. Winter blesses us with death, with cold, with stillness, with rest, with bright clarity. When spring comes, may I be ready.

In closing, I will corrupt a famous prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the winter I cannot change,
Fresh courage when spring comes again,
And wisdom to know the difference.

* To avoid flippancy regarding S.A.D., I should say that for some this type of seasonally-induced depression is a serious illness. Those who suffer from it in this way deserve our seriousness, our compassion and our prayers.