High Tide

11 May 2020

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Will I ever see again the tide out
and step on unblemished shore?
Did I think this high tide would mean I might have seen the last of pebbles on the beach?
And find within my soul the capacity to let go?
And bid farewell without a care or sigh?
If I should ever again walk on those smoothed sands
I will dance, and run, and raise my winded face to heaven;
Then look about me at family and friends, and give thanks.
But for now the waves lap at this crumbling wall
and I wonder how long before it is breached,
flooding my diminishing life,
sweeping away all that I’ve known
and all that I have loved and held close.
The water rose swifter than I ever thought possible,
The night has fallen as dark as it has ever done
And for now far off seems the dawn.
And so I wonder if I will have the time
to ever watch the tide go out again.

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Tulips by my 6-year-old friend Cornelia

1 Peter 2.2-10

2 Like new-born infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built[a] into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner,”
8 and
“A stone that makes them stumble,
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
10 Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.    NRSV

Amongst my favourite TV programmes are Sky Arts’ Landscape Artist of the Year and Portrait Artist of the Year. In each episode nine amateur and professional artists produce a work based on what is before them, either a scene of course or, in the case of the portrait competition, a well-known person, actor, TV presenter, sports personality etc. After four hours concentrated effort, a winner is chosen by the three judges. At the end of each programme a time lapse of the winning canvas under production is broadcast, four hours speeded up into 30 seconds. It is fascinating to see how a blank canvas becomes an expression of the artist’s eye, mind and skill.

It is said that Winston Churchill was hosting some friends at his home, Chartwell, when he and a few of them went out into the garden to paint. He noticed one woman not getting underway at all; she was just staring at the new canvas, looking as if she was frightened to start and maybe damage what she might have had in mind for it. So he went over and passed his paintbrush across the canvas, leaving a streak upon it. ‘What did you do that for?’ the woman asked. ‘I have started your painting for you,’ he replied. Sure enough the woman’s artistic block was released and she got underway with the painting.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze claimed that for an artist there is no such thing as a blank canvas, and for a writer there is no such thing as a blank sheet. Each are just waiting for that which is on them to be disclosed. It is not dissimilar to the claim that Michelangelo was asked how he managed to carve David from a block of stone, to which he replied that David was there all along and that it was only his job to reveal him.
Over the past week we have celebrated the anniversary of VE Day. Early next day, after our socially-distanced street party I walked our dog, Dylan, and couldn’t help but feel that there really was something about the morning after the night before. Some of the bunting was hanging loose, and where tables in gardens had hosted laughter and singing there was now silence. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like on the morning after 9th May 1945. The night previously Britons had celebrated like never before, having achieved their greatest victory in our long and precious history. There would have been a lot of thick heads, I fear, and not a few regretting what they had got up to as their emotions got the better of them. They would have also realised that as one battle ended another was to begin. The bomb damaged cities, the worn-out railway network, the broken bodies and minds, all needed repair. So too those whose lives had taken on a different course over the war years: husbands would be returning to wives, each very different to how they had been when they parted. A lot of re-building was required. A whole new beginning had been promised, which is one reason why the Labour Party swept to power in the subsequent General Election, removing Churchill from Number 10 despite his oratorical inspiration in keeping morale high for more than five years in office. The future, the canvas as it were, was blank. It stretched ahead of them, much of their reason for being no longer present.

There is a touch of the morning after the night before about some New Testament writings, not least Peter’s First Letter. There is a sense in which Peter, probably drawing on the expertise of a scribe (Sylvanus?) to record his thoughts, is ensuring that, before he passes from this life, his views are there for posterity; in much the same way that Mark would take down Peter’s reminiscences for a document that would eventually become Mark’s account of the Gospel. The story needed to be told from the perspective of the eyewitnesses, in this case Peter, for future generations to read, and experience, for themselves.

Additionally, this particular passage in Peter’s letter presents the conviction of transformation being possible for the believer. Something wonderful is being created, a work of art, a masterpiece no less. We, the believers are being gathered into a living Temple, an architectural marvel but not of stone, of flesh and blood. And like the artist who faces not a blank canvas but one that is simply waiting for the disclosure of the artwork, so we ourselves are not a blank canvas but the people whom God has always intended us to be.

If Peter and the disciples ever experienced something of the morning after the night before, following the death and resurrection or ascension of Jesus, then they too were staring at a new beginning, a future ahead without Jesus physically at their side. Their own purpose had shifted. Just as those who would survive the Second World War, whose purpose had also shifted; they had faced tyrannical enemy and defeated him, now they were to discover that winning the peace was as challenging as winning the war. So too Peter and his friends, they had walked with Jesus, they had experienced purpose in being his students, but now they were without his bodily presence. But they still had the Psalms and Prophets from which to draw. From them they would find much inspiration. From them they would be able to piece together a fuller meaning into what they had experienced. Such themes and teachings would enable them to make sense of what they were feeling. So, Peter in this passage makes full use of them. His readers, also conversant with these themes would find great meaning within them. The apparent blank page of their own futures were not blank at all, but a future awaiting to be revealed and God in Christ was to be a central part of it.

Today we face an uncertain future. As individuals and as nations we cannot see what lies ahead. This has always been so of course, but perhaps the canvas appears more blank to us than usual. Now is the time to trust that the artist will create something new. Now may be the moment to consider if we may actually be the artist for the context in which we reside.

VE Day

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the bunting is fluttering, we will wonder how different our day could have been. The street parties are cancelled in favour of more subdued events, family get-togethers are not going to happen and we might consider how different it all is to the crowds that swarmed onto the streets that glorious afternoon in May 1945.

They had much to celebrate after 6 years of relentless war. They had given their all in the cause of freedom from tyranny. The atrocities were only just beginning to sink in to the human consciousness. Not everyone was celebrating. Many would reflect on what had been lost, remembering those who would not be coming home and pondering how the cities, economy and lives could be rebuilt from the rubble-strewn streets, worn out factories and broken minds. The war and its aftermath would define European history for the next three-quarters of a century.

Today we are facing a very different crisis. Our warriors are not being flung across the skies and seas to land on distant shores. We are not threatened by an alien force bent on conquest. But we are in danger from a pandemic the like we have not seen for over a century. The economic downturn may turn out to be the worst in three centuries with production being reduced or at a standstill across the globe.

Just as the narrative has been ‘pre-war’ and ‘post war’ for decades, so it is that at some point in the future others may come to describe our times as ‘pre-virus’ and ‘post-virus’. This, then, is our defining moment. How we respond to it will determine its outcome. It may not be military conflict that is being waged, but it is a conflict nonetheless, a conflict between good and evil. The world is on a knife edge. Will we allow the darkness to gain a grip on our world? Or will we draw on the Light of Christ to resist all attempts to deepen prejudice, increase inequality and extend the ecological damage that has been done to our planet?

It is my firm conviction that we are at a turning point in human history. Just a few months ago we could not have imagined what we are now experiencing. But we have shown great resilience; we have shown willingness to partner others; we have shown that we can, and will, create a better world.

Covid-19 may be a great threat to us, as individuals and collectively as nations, but it can be overcome. Just as those who went before us faced a daunting foe and triumphed, so will we. By working together, finding inner resources, building on all that is good, we will succeed.

Psalms-Chapter-22-25

Original 1611 King James Version

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long. NRSV

I can recall my grandfathers singing just one hymn each: my maternal Grandad Ted singing his favourite ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ at the Blackfords Working Men’s Club in Cannock, when I was probably about 5 or 6. I can recall my Grandad Norman at the kitchen sink singing ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ to Crimond of course when I was a teenager. He was not doing the washing up, nor was he downing a pint of beer as my Grandad Ted had been doing a decade earlier, but pouring himself a large glass of cool water from the tap on a hot summer’s day. There are not many things I can recall of their respective funerals, but I do remember at my Grandad Ted’s the combination of grief and memorised joy as we sang ‘The Old Rugged Cross’. Then also the deep sadness that at my Grandad Norman’s funeral of saying, not singing, Psalm 23; it didn’t seem right somehow, it just didn’t do justice to my memory of him.

Many of us have long associated the 23rd Psalm with death and funerals. And although I have sung it to Crimond at the crem. on more occasions than I could even estimate, I still associate it with my Grandad, alive and relatively well, having just spent time with him in his woodworking shed at the bottom of his garden.

The tune Crimond was composed only a little over a century ago [i]. It grew in real popularity after it was used in Westminster Abbey at Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947, and then the following year at St Paul’s Cathedral a year later at the silver wedding anniversary of her parents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The first hymnal to print the tune to the words was the School Hymn Book of the Methodist Church two years later in 1950.

Despite its use on such celebratory occasions, the hymn and accompanying tune became a firm favourite at funeral services. This only added to the growing view that Psalm 23 was for a time of darkness and distress.

Personally, I don’t believe that Psalm 23 is about dying, I believe it to be about living. And it is this understanding that I want to explore now.  It is my opinion that Stuart Townend has done Psalm 23 a great favour in rescuing it from the sorrow and sadness to which it has become associated. The tune set for his version is uplifting and is a good reminder of the Psalmist’s original intention – to celebrate the goodness and provision of God, come what may.

There seems little doubt that Psalm 23 is the most familiar and perhaps most popular of all the Psalms. It is also probably one of, if not the most familiar of all the passages of the Jewish and Christian Bibles. So acquainted are we with its verses that to amend any wording or phraseology is almost heresy. Like the Lord’s Prayer for Christians, many were a little disconcerted when it was first read in a modern translation, preferring it to be recited in its traditional form, the language of King James. Which is why I have included the original 1611 version at the top of this essay.

Over the years many have redrafted it for different contexts, Psalm 23 for nurses, Psalm 23 for farmers, schoolteachers, the stressed, etc. Even I had an attempt at doing so, rewriting it from the perspective of someone coming through depression thanks to finding Divine Hope within [ii].

Whichever way the Psalm speaks to us and in whatever milieu, we should not overlook the fact that it is about God’s provision in the here and now.

In a sermon on Psalm 23, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that we can testify to God’s provision from evidence of his past deeds. We know that we will be granted sustenance and peacefulness because this has been so before and there is no reason to doubt it should not be so again. Without God we would experience a greater hunger than even physical, without God we might be swept away in rushing waters, and without God we would lose our moral compass.
Listen to what Brueggemann has to say:

There, on the journey, we are comforted by God’s protective rod and staff, instruments of guidance. We are not on our own, but guided, guided by God’s presence and God’s Torah, safe from all that would rob us of life.

There on the journey, we thought there were no resources, but in the very presence of need, fear, and hunger, God sets a table of generous food. It is like coming around the corner of deep threat and there in the middle of the road a lavish table of marvellous food, water from the rock, bread from heaven.

There on the journey, where we thought there was only scarcity, the God of generosity pours out precious oil on our heads, into our cup. Our lives brim over because of God’s inexplicable generosity, just where we thought God had no gifts to give.

The journey, with the power and the purpose of God, changes the circumstances in which we live. Wilderness becomes home, isolation becomes companionship, scarcity becomes generosity. That is how the life of faith is. It is, to be sure, very different from the life where Yahweh is not at its core. [iii]

That is in itself a re-working of this much-loved Psalm, from the great mind of someone whose academic expertise is to interpret and expand upon the original.

Where the sentiment of this Psalm resonates with us today may be manifold. Panic buying at the beginning of this crisis was of little help in facing the reality of what lay ahead; material wealth can only take us so far. Once the larder is full, what next? Illness may be still before us and death at some point remains certain. God’s provision is altogether different to what many have come to think of as security.

What has been especially shocking for some these past weeks has been the fact that death has cast its shadow over us all. For those who have been enduring terminal illness or have been brought up sharp by serious illness in the past, the shadow has been noticeable all along. The rest of us may have been putting the thought of our mortality to the back of our minds for decades, believing death to be a long time into the future. But we now know that nt one of us is immune to the possibility of contracting this deadly disease. But as I said earlier, this Psalm isn’t about dying, it is about living. This isn’t about how we die, it is about how we choose to live in the face of adversity and mortality.
A decade ago I read ‘The Coming of the Body’ by columnist Hervé Juvin [iv]. In it he argues that developments in science and medicine are redefining what it means to be human. One of those developments is to work towards ever increasing longevity. Indeed, argues Juvin, there may come day when the ultra-wealthy might live forever thanks to the creation of artificial body parts. This argument would be further advanced by Yuval Noah Harari in his 2015 best-selling book Homo Deus [v]. Harari saw the complete replacement of God, in the minds of many, by immortal humans thanks to medical progress.

War is obsolete, the book goes; we are more likely to commit suicide than be killed in conflict; famine is disappearing as we are more at risk of obesity than starvation; death is just another technical problem.

Five years on and Harari writes in a newspaper supplement that even though coronavirus has made us very much aware of our collective vulnerability to a hidden enemy, there will still be a drive towards extending life to the point of living for decades longer than we do even now. He correctly notes that whilst the sensible believer would no longer see a pandemic as God’s punishment, say for homosexuality, there are many who view it as an error on the part of humankind; in their minds someone has to be held to account for the inexplicable: Trump blames China, journalists blame politicians. We should be very careful to where we attach responsibility, in every major crisis in human history scapegoating has led to very dark responses. Certainly much could have been done to prevent the spread, and much may still be done to limit the seemingly relentless impact, which is why we have to remain vigilant. But there are some things that cannot be properly explained away, and we could waste much time in seeking to do so. Whereas I would not advocate a laissez faire attitude to any ailment, I would still uphold the principle of not relying solely on our own strength and ingenuity but on the provision of God at a time such as this, or, indeed, at any time.

The present crisis is calling us to act and to think differently. Psalm 23 is a challenge to the consumerist society of recent decades. It is a song of resistance against what has been the prevailing mood for so long. It is an ancient, yet up to the minute, reminder that we are better off with God than without.

I will conclude with Walter Brueggemann again:

There is nothing soft or sweet or easy or sentimental here (ie about this Psalm). This is the voice of reorganised, refocused, reorientated life. Such a refocus means to see differently, to trust differently, and to obey differently. [vi]

If this pandemic has taught us anything, then it is just this: to be open to the possibility of doing things differently in a more refocused way, reoriented to God as Shepherd, or as I might prefer God as Source of all good.

 

[i] It is believed that the tune was written at the beginning of the 20th century by Jessie Seymour, daughter of the Minister of Crimond, near Peterhead in Grampian.

[ii] Hope is my companion
when all else has been lost to me.
Hope urges me to rest and reflect in a place of possibilities,
so that re-creation and renewal are mine.
Hope is my guide when I am confused.
Even when the darkest of nights seems never ending
I find that I am embraced, comforted and consoled.
Despair may threaten to overwhelm me.
But Hope lingers and anxiety is quelled,
allowing the seeds of joy to be sown.
No matter what may come my way,
assaults of the ignorant,
abuse from the misguided,
silence from those who should stand by me,
I will not be overcome again.
revbrucethompson.wordpress.com and A Testament of Hope, Church in the Market Place, 2011

[iii]Walter Brueggemann, The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, Fortress Press 1996
[iv] Hervé Juvin, The Coming of the Body, Verso 2010.

[v] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harvill Seeker, 2015
[v] The Guardian Review, Issue No. 119, Saturday 25 April 2020
[vi] Brueggemann ibid

 

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

In September 1943 farmers, next to the rail track near Glimmen in the north east Netherlands, found a stamped addressed card which they put in the post. The recipient was a friend of Etty Hillesum, whose diaries and letters under the Nazi occupation are, for me, amongst the most inspiring of any literature from the Shoah. Etty had thrown the card from the wagon as she left Westerbork, the transit camp on a transport to Auschwitz.

Christine,
Opening the Bible at random I find this: “The Lord is my high tower.” I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa (her brother) are a few cars away. In the end the departure came without warning. On sudden special orders from the Hague. We left the camp singing., Father and Mother firmly and calmly, Mischa too. We shall be travelling for three days. Thank you for all your kindness and care. Friends left behind will still be writing to Amsterdam’; perhaps you will hear something from them. Or from my last letter from camp.
Good-bye for now from the four of us.
Etty [i]

On this Shabbat following Yom Hashoah, I thought it appropriate to read something from that darkest of episodes in human history. The extract I have chosen, and I could have chosen many of course, not only depicts something of the deprivation, but also the resilience and unshakeable hope of the writer.

We left the camp singing.

Like the psalmist, thousands were falling all around her, but Etty’s faith remained strong. It was a faith that had only begun to come to fruition after Etty had commenced her first diary entry just two and a half years earlier.

Sunday 9 March 1941
Here goes then. This is a painful well-nigh insuperable step for me: yielding up so much that has been suppressed to a blank sheet of lined paper. [ii]

Over the coming months Etty would be transformed from an anxious, fearful wreck to a robust character and, in my opinion, with insights into the human condition almost second to none. Her eight exercise books chart that journey, with page after page of a developing spiritual awakening. When I asked to see them in the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, the curator said that even if I could read Dutch I would have difficulty deciphering them, so closely written were the entries with little undulation of script.

It had been this line that first drew me into the life and work of this extraordinary woman:

We left the camp singing.

I was to later discover that this astonishing claim was backed up by an eye witness who had observed Etty’s departure from the camp:

Talking gaily, smiling, a kind word to everyone she met on the way, full of sparkling good humour, perhaps just a touch of sadness. [iii]

Many years ago now, just as I was beginning to reflect on what it might be to live and act as a child of God, I came across the well-known poem said to have been found on a cellar wall in Cologne where Jews had hidden during the war:

I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love,
even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God,
even when he is silent. [iv]

Both Etty and the unknown graffiti writer espouse an unshakable faith in something beyond their immediate predicament. Despite the seemingly intolerable conditions each of them faced, they were able to draw from a well that never runs dry. The Psalmist is explicit in this regard:

9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

There is clearly much in the Judeo Christian traditions that give us hope even in the most despairing of situations. The example of those who bore witness before us acts as a testimony to this. Those who faced plague and pogrom, oppression and potential martyrdom often left us with a rich legacy of insight.

Today we are facing the greatest crisis since the Second World War. The uncertainty adds to the anxiety. Few of us will have got this far without knowing someone who has contracted or even died from Covid-19. Therefore, it would be wholly understandable for our faith to be shaken to the core. Indeed, it would be surprising if it were not.
What Etty and the graffiti writer were portraying was not indifference to emotion and angst, far from it, Etty was deeply sad beneath the demeanour she exhibited. Her diary entries are filled with the epic struggle she was engaged in; again, for the graffiti writer the sun wasn’t shining, love could not be felt and God was silent. The sense of isolation and abandonment couldn’t have been more real for them and the millions of those about them. These are not people who are blocking out the existential crisis they are facing. These are people who know what the score is; they see it, like the Psalmist, all around them, to their right and to their left. They are facing death, and, after much suffering, a likely vile one at that. Yet, resembling the Psalmist, they leave us with a glimpse of something eternal, a perpetual hope that remains strong throughout that which could so easily crush us in unending despair.

What I have found in these weeks of lockdown is a renewed sense of community developing. Ironic really that when so many have been forced to not travel to a place of work unless they are key workers and when the rest of us have been ordered to stay at home, that a new solidarity has appeared. We really are in it altogether. We cannot escape. We can do all we can to avoid contracting the virus, but deep down we nearly all know that fate will probably decide whether we catch it or not. This has not only reminded us of our mortality, we have also come to realise that our health and life could be taken from us far sooner than we had ever imagined. On a collective scale we have known nothing like this in our lifetime.

It is in such a state of affairs that we might begin to see one another in a wholly new way, that each of us is indeed vulnerable, that every single human being is prone to attack and our loved ones could so easily be taken from us at any moment. We are vulnerable, but we remain utterly valuable.

One thing that Etty reinforced for me, through her writings, is the need to look upon the world as transitory, that the time we have is so limited, that it passes swiftly and it will soon be gone forever. As a consequence of this insight, Etty lived in the moment and sought to make that moment count, even to the point of wanting, as a childless woman, to accompany otherwise unaccompanied children into the gas chamber.

It is what we do with our lot that will determine our effectiveness as witnesses to God’s love for the world and its people. It is how we respond to what comes our way. For some the surety of God’s presence and blessing even in the most challenging of moments can come in a flash, what my former college principal described as the ‘doyng experience’, in more recognisable terms: when it hits you right between the eyes, or the penny drops. For many, however, it is a lifetime struggle; but it’s a struggle that is worth more than gold or silver.

Carlo Carretto was a school teacher who upset Mussolini’s regime with his views. Believing him to be a communist, when actually Carretto was a faithful Catholic, the authorities sent him into exile. After the war he joined Catholic Action, a youth organisation. He became a much-loved speaker at their events, influencing thousands of young Catholics. At the height of his popularity he shocked many by giving it all up to follow his dream of becoming a chaplain to mountaineers in the Italian Alps. He joined a religious order so that he might begin his spiritual preparation for his new role. He was sent for a while to the order’s community in the Sahara where they lived and worked alongside the nomadic Muslim Tuareg tribe. It was there that he had an accident and developed an infection in one of his legs. An injection was administered to relieve him of the pain. But it all went wrong and he permanently lost much of the use of the leg. His dream of becoming a chaplain to the mountaineers in his homeland was completely shattered. Carretto’s faith journey could so easily have ended there. But it didn’t. He took on this new challenge by staying in the Sahara and befriending the Tuareg. His journals and his letters home have become 20th century spiritual classics. In Sought and Found he wrote this:

When I was a boy I looked for God by directing my gaze toward the light coming from on high.
As a lad I looked for God in my brothers and sisters around me.
When I grew up I sought God in the desert tracks.
Now I have come to the end of the road, I have only to close my eyes and there God is, within me.
If I see light I see God in the light, and if I see darkness I feel God in the darkness. But always within me.
I no longer even feel the need to search for God, or to kneel down to pray, or to think or speak in order to communicate with God.
I only need to think of my human state – and there, in faith, I see God in the midst. [v]

In the introduction to a volume on Carretto’s writings Robert Ellsberg suggested that the most important lesson Carretto learned from his time in the Sahara was that
‘nothing was to be gained from the search for God in the desert if it did not make it easier to find God in the midst of one’s fellow human beings.’ [vi]

I am told that when the tanks poured into Tiananmen Square in the summer of ’89, and the shooting began, one of the student leaders took hold of a microphone and addressed the frightened crowd fearful of losing their lives and all that they had campaigned for. The student leader recounted an ancient Chinese parable. It was the story of a colony of ants that lived atop a hill. Its enemies below wanted to destroy the colony; so they set fire to the forest that surrounded the hill. Realising that the flames would climb up the hill and consume them the ants decided to form themselves into a ball and roll down the hill through the flames to safety. They knew that those on the outside of the ball were certain to perish, but their sacrifice would allow those on the inside to survive and continue the community.

Our sacrifices today, the manner in which we deal with our own predicament can have a transformative affect into the future, if not for us, then for those upon whom we impact.
I want, therefore, to conclude with two poems. Firstly, by William Blake, and is not too dissimilar to our graffiti writer in sentiment:

I sought my soul and my soul I could not see.
I sought my God and my God eluded me.
I sought my neighbour and found all three. 

And finally a poem by John of the Cross, 16th century Carmelite Friar. In this poem, as in so much of his writing, John recognises that transformation can occur, maybe especially so, in the darkest of moments:

That eternal spring lies hidden,
How well I know its hiding place,
Even when it is night.

In the dark night of this life
How well I know in faith the sacred spring,
Even when it is night.

I do not know its source, for it has none,
But I know that every source comes from it.
Even when it is night. [vii]

And finally, a song I first heard sung by Pete Seeger:

My life flows on in endless song
Above Earth’s lamentation
I hear the real, though far off hymn
That hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

What through the tempest loudly roars
I hear the truth, it liveth
What through the darkness round me close
Songs in the night it giveth
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging
Since love is lord of Heaven and Earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear
And hear their death-knell ringing
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing? [viii]

If Etty Hillessum could leave the camp singing, then I pray that we can find it within ourselves to sing. Because even though these days be long and the nights are dark, a new dawn will come; of this I am certain, for faith and experience tells us it will be so.

 

[i] The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillessum, 1941-1943. Erdmans 2002, p658
[ii] Ibid p4
[iii] Woodhouse, Patrick, Etty Hillessum, a Life Transformed. Continuum 2009, p130
[iv] Anon.
[v] Ed. Robert Ellsberg. Carlo Carretto, Selected Writings. Orbis Books, 1994, p61.
[vi] Ibid p xi
[vii] Soelle, Dorothee, The Silent Cry, Mysticism and Resistance. Augsburg Press 2001, p143
[viii] Rev. Robert Lowry and Robert I. Hugh

 

A little exercise!

You will need a pen/pencil and paper. Or, if you prefer, you can use your computer.

Read Isaiah 65.17-25 slowly. (I have included it at the foot of this post.)

Now think not of Jerusalem, but of your own context.

Imagine what it would be like for Lincolnshire, the UK, or your town or village to be re-created. Choose just one location. How would it look? What would be banished from it? What would be good to achieve? What would it be like to live there, in this newly re-imagined community?

Now go through the passage again and re-write it verse by verse but re-write it with your chosen location in mind. Change ‘Jerusalem’ to Lincolnshire, the UK, or wherever. Some verses will hardly change, but others will. You might wish to consider the NHS workers, other key workers, the farming community, schools, the locked down, the nursing homes, whoever. What would you like to see change for the better? Is this the new world God wants to build in partnership with us.

Every blessing in your faithful dreaming of a better time and world.

Isaiah 65:17-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labour in vain,
or bear children for calamity;[a]
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
Footnotes:
[a] Isaiah 65:23 Or sudden terror

 

1 Peter 1
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Over the last century there has been much debate on where God might be, if at all, in the violence that has erupted around our world: the trenches of the First World War, the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Cambodia, 9/11 and so on. The New Atheists, Dawkins et al, have claimed that if there was a God, these events would not have happened, therefore the assumption is that God can’t exist. In his riposte, Alistair McGrath [1] said that if there is no God, as the New Atheists suggest, then God cannot be blamed because something that does not exist cannot be liable for anything. Thus, the logical conclusion is that all of these events must surely be as a consequence of human failure. So, the New Atheists, whom I prefer to more accurately name as the antitheists, can’t have it both ways.

However, for those who believe that God not only exists but is an all-powerful and, at the same time, all-loving God, the dilemma remains: how can such evil exist in our world?
It is customary to suggest that because of free will God allows humans to do as they please the violence that is wreaked across the planet is not God’s fault but humanity’s. Yes, but try telling that to the faithful soul experiencing acute suffering at the hands of a tyrannical regime, or the millions who have suffered as a consequence of natural catastrophe. Covid-19 has reminded us of an old dilemma. We can’t quite blame a dictator for a pandemic in the same way that we can for a gulag or genocide. Some have tried, of course; President Trump continues to hold China responsible, including drawing on a conspiracy theory that the virus broke out of a lab there; however, there may be some evidence to suggest that the outbreak began in a market of Wuhan. Was it human irresponsibility, foolishness or cruelty toward our fellow creatures that led to this crisis? We may never know. What we do know is that for many of us in the wealthier nations, so often shielded from catastrophe on this scale, this is a crisis we had only thought possible in a work of science fiction or a disaster movie. Suddenly we are having to revisit our understandings of theodicy: why does God permit incidents of evil to occur? It’s a question that has troubled theologians, philosophers, victims of crime and patients on a cancer ward. It may be that a satisfactory answer is yet to be formulated, but it’s not for want of trying.

One thing is for sure: few of us, if any, look forward to suffering. We would much prefer to live without affliction. Surely that is only natural. Anyone who thinks otherwise is judged by most to be odd, to say the least. And as for allowing evil to go unchecked, causing immense suffering on those we love, or upon the neighbours we ought to love, is viewed as irresponsible or even cowardice; this is why I cannot claim to be a pacifist. Resistance to evil is an act of principal. When it comes at great cost, such as risking one’s own life in challenging an oppressive system, it may be one of the most noble of all acts. Didn’t Jesus speak of no greater love than laying down one’s life for one’s friends? [2]

In his extraordinary writings brought together under the title The Imitation of Christ, the German/Dutch cleric Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) suggested that there are many who love the kingdom but few who love the cross [3]. He also advocated that if we were to seek avoidance of a particular form of suffering, another grief would come our way. In his view, suffering in this earthly life cannot be side-stepped:

The whole of Christ’s life was martyrdom and cross: and do you seek your own joy and rest? You are all at sea if anything else you seek but to suffer affliction; for your whole mortal life is filled with woes and circumscribed with crosses. And the loftier your spiritual progress, the heavier crosses often you will find; for love serves to deepen the pain of exile [4].

À Kempis concludes this particular section, Of the Royal Way of the Holy Cross with an unequivocal statement:

That through many afflictions we must enter the kingdom of God [5].

For decades we have spent much effort trying to avoid suffering. At both an international and a personal level, we have preferred compromise to conflict, even when things seem to be so wrong from the outset. In so doing, injustice, harassment, abuse and evil itself has, on occasion, gone unchecked and increased. Again we have overlooked the ‘militant’ Jesus who came to bring not only peace but also a sword [6]. We have also spent much money and time seeking healthier lives that sought to put off the ageing process in the vain hope that we can somehow fantasise about being immortal. As a consequence, when illness strikes some of us have seen it as a failure on our part: maybe we didn’t do enough exercise, and that may be so; maybe we had the wrong diet, that may also be correct; maybe we inflicted something upon ourselves that was always going to do us harm in the long run, that may equally be true; even in what may have been a freak accident we might even suggest that we should have not gone out that day or perhaps have taken a different route. We blame ourselves when so much of living and dying is outside our control. In many minds, the deaths of President Kennedy and Diana, Princess of Wales, could not possibly have occurred as the official versions would have us believe: a lone, mad gunman, and a drunk driver respectively; so we invent conspiracy theories. The fact is that the expletive happens. Therefore, we cannot always be accountable when suffering comes our way. This should not deter us from trying to maintain as healthy a lifestyle as possible or to dispense with the safety net when we go bungee jumping, but it is to recognise reality: we are limited, we are vulnerable, we are mortal.

The protection to which Peter refers in his letter, [7] and quoted above, is neither an insurance against accident, fire and theft, nor a life assurance policy, but it is something that cannot be bought online or from shops once they are open again. The protection on offer is a sure knowledge, a confident belief, more accurately a resilient faith, that when disaster strikes, there is always something else. Light at the end of the tunnel is too weak a term. That something else is, not it will be. This form of protection can be realised then in the here and now. This is God’s sovereign rule to which Jesus referred so frequently. It is not some far off utopia, but an experience closer than many can imagine or want to acknowledge; it is within, ready to be disclosed. Once acknowledged, it is unquenchable and to use Peter’s terms: imperishable, undefiled, and unfading .

In his moving meditation Friday Afternoon [8]  J. Neville Ward reflected on seven aspects of the Cross, under the chapter Hoping, he wrote:

If the question is raised as to what Christian hope is hoping for, the answer is that the Christian in distress accepts his desolation as what it is, the rending of the self in humiliation and in the loss of the world of happiness, but also as destined to be absorbed and changed into growth and sustenance of personal life. The destructive event and the broken heart can be considered the wretched bread set before me by life or myself (in my madness or mistake) or even the devil. The central sacrament of life is that transubstantiation by which what the devil puts on the table becomes the Lord’s body, and then substance of our mortal body, the hope of glory. [9]

In other words, and to draw on the examples provided by Peter, that which was perishable has become imperishable through the sacrament of life; that which was defiled has become undefiled and that which would fade can no longer fade. So despite the ageing process and potential memory loss, despite the suffering that seems, and may well be, endless, there is more, so much more, to discern, discover and disclose. It is what can be termed a paradigm shift, that which was of influence has now been replaced by another; we have moved from a place where darkness had taken hold to a place of light, where unflinching hope and unfathomable joy have overtaken what had seemed to be the deep despair and overriding sorrow of our experience.

At the beginning of his chapter on Hoping, Ward refers to one of Saul Bellow’s novels; a character in the book describes suffering is ‘a form of gratitude to experience or an opportunity to experience evil and change it into good.’ But, this requires talent. ‘You have to have the power to employ pain, to repent, to be illuminated; you must have the opportunity and even the time.’ [10]

It is no accident or coincidence, to my mind, that many of the great saints have experienced much despair and dilemma, sorrow and pain. This is so from the apostles, through Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), co-founder of the Jesuit movement, who experienced a spiritual conversion while undergoing horrendous surgery on a leg shattered by a cannonball, to those 20th century martyrs who all battled both great earthly powers and often their own temptations and shortcomings. From these saints and their experience I draw much hope. In addition, through my own personal experience of loss, I have come to find fresh insight. Additionally, my own bouts of despair have led me to an unshakeable faith in there being more than I can at that moment feel.

I must close with Ward:

Christian understanding of life provides many considerations that make the experience of disaster more manageable, but the way in which ‘we are saved by faith’ is not primarily a matter of what faith does for us at the time the blow falls. It concerns the imaginative openness to life and the patient willingness to look for God’s hidden presence which faith has involved in cultivating over the years in one experience after another of loss, of life’s tendency to close in and reduce. [11]

[1]McGrath, Why God Won’t Go Away, Engaging with the New Atheism, SPCK 2011
[2] John 15.13
[3] À Kempis, Thomas, The Imitation of Christ, tr. by Robert Dudley, Anthony Clarke, 1980, p47
[4] Ibid. p50
[5] Ibid. p52
[6] Luke 12.49-53
[7] 1 Peter 1.4
[8] J. Neville Ward, Friday Afternoon, Epworth, 1976
[9] Ibid. p43
[10] Bellow, Saul, Hertzog, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1965, p317
[11] Ward, ibid. p43

An Easter Sermon

12 April 2020

Launde Joy

Launde Joy, © BT April 2020

 

Mark 16 (NRSV)

9 Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
12 After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.

Yesterday I saw something that I hadn’t seen for quite a while: a hopscotch chalked onto the pavement. Alongside it were a space rocket and the inevitable rainbow. There are many downsides to lockdown but one of the upsides is children playing safely in the street again. Having smiled at the artwork and those who had been introduced to street games, perhaps for the first time, I suddenly began to notice how the cherry trees were now in full blossom. One recognition led to another.

Many years ago I read a novel that began ‘he was neither young enough nor old enough to notice the dew on the grass’. I have long forgotten the novel’s title but not the sentence. It has been a constant reminder of how, when we are young, we notice things because they are so fresh and new. We eventually grow accustomed to them, of course, and thereafter we fail to notice them as once we did. But the sentence also reminds me that, as our time on earth seems to be drawing to its inevitable close, we begin to see them afresh, once again we recognise the miraculous nature of life.

Our passage of scripture this morning is not one readily chosen for public worship. As leaders of worship we have tended to favour the visit of Mary Magdalene or of Mary and the other women to the garden. There are a number of reasons why I have chosen this often overlooked account. It is of the disciples in the moments after the astonishing news reaches them.

Firstly, because whilst the encounter with the Risen Lord still draws us in, understandably so, for some its initial mystery may have worn off a little. We have heard it many times. It is one of the most painted scenes from the Bible in Western art. We know the words and we can picture the scene well.

There are further and more significant reasons why I have elected to focus on this particular addition to Mark’s account of the Gospel: I see no reason why it should be relegated to a lesser place than the other records in the canon. And I have also chosen it because it has much to say about both the honesty of the disciples and, especially, our predicament today.

By drawing together the various accounts we could deduce that when Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane one young follower fled naked, he is often thought to be the compiler of Marks’s account; Peter and another disciple, considered by some to be the source of John’s account, managed to get into the courtyard of Caiaphas; the others who had been with him may have fled over the Mount of Olives to Bethany, the home of Lazarus; meanwhile, the women may have still be in the Upper Room on Mount Zion, not far from Golgotha; they were then joined, after dawn, by Peter and the other disciple, hence their ability to be at the cross and the garden tomb on the Sunday morning.

The passage we have selected to consider tells us of the grief in the Jerusalem safe house; it tells us of the disciples’ disbelief in the claim that the one they had seen arrested and executed was alive; then it tells of Jesus appearing to two of them whilst walking in the country, and still the others could not find it within themselves to believe the reports. It took Jesus himself to convince them by drawing alongside them at a meal.

This particular passage has not been much valued since scholars discovered that early compilations of Mark’s account did not include it. It was, they suggest, added after Luke and Matthew had drawn from Mark for their own accounts. It may have been added as late as the early second century. But that is only to be expected of documents that were in development for decades after the incidents they seek to record. And this addition is probably no later than John’s account. Indeed, the passage may well have been taken from a much earlier source than some of those from which the evangelists drew. What convinces me is the disbelief of the disciples. Whilst the passage may have been added later, it is I believe from an early source. This is because by the time even Matthew’s account was compiled the disbelief of disciples was being toned down somewhat as the early church began to hold them in great esteem.

Either way, it has something to say to us today; it may help shed light on the situation in which we find ourselves. Especially as it is so honest about the reaction of the disciples.
What I think is so apposite for us about this passage is that many of the disciples were in a form of lockdown. The majority of the disciples were not free to check for themselves what was being claimed by those who had visited the empty tomb or who had encountered the Risen Lord. These disciples were constrained by circumstance.
In our initial shock at the seriousness of the present crisis there was probably an element of denial, of disbelief; this could not be happening, this cannot be real. As the weeks have passed we have begun to more fully apprehend the gravity of our predicament. I don’t need to spell this out for us. We may have come to appreciate the hope others have when ours seems to be diminishing a little.

Someone who has lost a loved one from the virus said to me on the phone that they can’t find the words to pray any more. It has been on occasions such as this that I have had to say that there are moments in life when we have to put our praying to one side and instead rely on the prayers of others. Prayers will sustain us in our faith, whether they are our own, or are the prayers of others. And even in our inability to believe when a crisis hits, be it the present one or any other along life’s journey, the collective faith of the Church to which we belong is such that we are saved from our predicament; it may not feel that way at times, but we are. This is where faith and belief differ. This is why faith is not certainty but trust and hope.

Even in the four walls of our inaccessible and inescapable home there is a freedom unbound.
Even in the mind so trapped by tragedy there is a freedom unbound.
Even in the tomb closed by weighty stone and death itself there is freedom unbound.
As once we did when we first heard the Good News of that first Easter morning:
let the alleluias of our hearts rest and rejoice.
Let the alleluias of our hearts respond to the dawn chorus, to the promise of new life in the trees’ blossom and to the hope we have in Jesus, risen from the dead.
Once our hearts respond with alleluias so too will our tongues and all that is within us. Amen

Wragg

Arthur Wragg, Song of Songs, (Selwyn & Blount, 1952)

It is no accident that in mythology the hero often confronts the demon during the night. For the ancient mind, the longer shadows of night brought with them additional fears; it was at night that the wild beast might attack; it was just before daybreak that our hero might be at the lowest point of exhaustion and therefore at his most vulnerable. Again, in folklore, the encounter often occurs on a bridge or at a ford, where the hero is to pass from one place to another. Nor is it coincidence that the demon loses its power at daybreak: with the rising of the sun, the hero again has clarity of vision and things are back into perspective.

For anyone who has had their mind troubled by fear, anxiety, grief or bereavement, the night can be the time when the horrors become amplified. This was known by Job:

Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
when deep sleep falls on mortals,
dread came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face;
the hair of my flesh bristled. (i)

But knowing that dawn will come fills us with hope:

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning. (ii)

When Jesus prayed in the garden between his last meal with his disciples and his arrest by the authorities, he found himself alone. This was partly of his own choosing, having invited only Peter, James and John to go with him and then leaving even them before engaging in prayer. On his return he found them asleep. He is recorded by the author of Mark’s account of the Gospel as being agitated, distressed and deeply grieved (iii). I find some resonance in the experience of Jesus in the garden with that of Jacob at the Jabbok (iv). Wrestling with destiny, with vocation, with the future so dependent upon it. It is certainly no coincidence that Jesus is grappling with what is ahead of him in the shadow of the Temple’s walls; it was here, after all, that the Holy of Holies was constructed over the site where Abraham considered sacrificing his son Isaac, father of Jacob.

This agitated, distressed and grieving Jesus is a ‘very human Jesus’ in pronounced contrast to the ‘highly elevated Jesus’ of John’s account. It is this Jesus that comforts me in the night time of my fear. It is this Jesus who consoles me when my aloneness threatens to get the better of me. It is this Jesus who accompanies me in the long hours before light again dispels the dark.

The image that accompanies this reflection is by Arthur Wragg (1903-76), one of my favourite illustrators. It is taken from his collection The Song of Songs (v). This particular image refers to the verse ‘By night I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.’  (vi) Despite being adrift at sea, the castaway is making the most of the situation and even creating music. She has found her solace in the midst of endless space and unimaginable horror.

Towards the end of last year Paul Lynch’s third novel, Beyond the Sea, (vii) gripped me from beginning to end. It is the story of two fishermen, Bolivar and Hector, who set sail from their South American village knowing that a storm was on the horizon. The storm turns out to be the worst in living memory. Spoiler alert – do not read the next two paragraphs if you want to read the book for yourself!

On realising the seriousness of their situation, the minds of Bolivar and Hector go back to their past. They also imagine what those they left behind would now be up to. After the storm has eased, they find themselves lost and adrift in the vastness of the ocean. As the days turn into weeks, with little or no hope of being rescued, the tension between them increases; their moods swing; anger and hatred take over. Eventually Hector dies and Bolivar, after all that had passed between them, including such deep hostility, finds it difficult to let the body go. He is all alone at sea. He encounters a silence like none he has experienced before.

He feels as though the great silence has entered the body, is running through the blood, quietening the heart’s longings.
He listens to the silence and it meets him as feeling
He wonders if the same silence he can feel within is the same silence of the deep. The silence within the silence. The silence behind all things. He does not know what this means. His mind begins to rest in the feeling of the thought until it cannot be reached.
He becomes aware that he has not heard this silence before.
He can see now how he has been afraid of this silence all his life without knowing it. And now that he can feel it he is no longer afraid. He tries to put form upon the silence. He tries to think of it as sound but it cannot be heard. He tries to think of it as colour. Gradually his mind rests upon the feeling of what silence might mean.
The silence of the past.
The silence of the future.
The silence of the Dead.
The silence of those not yet born.
This silent waiting within all living things.
Night will fall upon your journey.
He can see this now and is no longer afraid.
What this silence tells him.
That silence is a form of forgiveness. (viii)

It was in fervent prayer, alone in the garden, that Jesus found the answer to his questions. It was in the silence of God that he heard God’s voice. It is in our wrestling with dilemma, danger, apprehension and fear that we, like Jacob, find that God wrestles with us.

In the foreword to his 1939 collection of woodcuts to illustrate the last Seven Words of Jesus (ix), Wragg, writing at a moment of great crisis, captures the zeitgeist:

I believe our own time is a special one, that this moment is one that matters above all those that have passed these last two thousand years. I know every generation has been convinced of its own importance and that past trouble is never as painful as the agony of the moment. Nevertheless, I am convinced that in our case it is true, for the momentum of events is quickly culminating in a climax in which man (sic) will either be a failure or experience the greatest inspiration of his long and baffled experience.
If the crucifixion had happened last year and had impressed itself on the public conscience as quickly as modern news-vending would make possible, is it likely that we should ignore it’s lesson and continue as before? Should we still be longing for the best and preparing for the worst? I do not believe it… (x)

…we are all in that state of mind which is summed up in ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ and are not yet free to express the glorious optimism of ‘Father into thy hands –’.
I believe, I am almost certain, that such a moment will come, however disguised and ‘practical’, or however little to do with the crucifixion it may seem to have when it does and that though we may thirst and cry out now we shall yet find in the cross, the true realest way. (xi)

It is this belief I carry with me to bed at night; that should I wake and find my thoughts turning to the darkness of our time, the fears of the many, the anxiety of those whose loved ones are on the front line caring for the sick and dying, or indeed my own mortality and the possibility that I will never accomplish all that I could have done, I can turn to the one who also struggled with his circumstance. In him I find that I am never truly alone, neither at sea nor in the room in which the light is yet to penetrate.

If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (xii)

i. Job 4.13f (NRSV)
ii. Psalm 30.5 (NRSV)
iii. Mark 14.33f (NRSV)
iv. Genesis 32.22-33 (NRSV)
v. Wragg, Arthur. The Song of Songs (Selwyn & Blount, 1952)
vi. Song of Solomon 3.1 (KJV)
vii. Lynch, Paul. Beyond the Sea (One World, 2019)
viii. Ibid p173
ix. Wragg, Arthur. Seven Words (William Heinemann 1939)
x. Ibid p17
xi. Ibid p20
xii. Psalm 139.9-12 (NRSV)

 

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Luke 19 NRSV

I love the word juxtaposition. I know it might appear silly to say that I like both to hear it spoken out loud and the sight of it in a book or on a screen. But I do; I can’t get away from it. Perhaps it is a subconscious reminder of when I first came across it, the details of that moment now long forgotten. Maybe I never remembered the moment; maybe the context wasn’t that important at the time but perhaps my first encounter with the term somehow fascinated me. On the other hand, maybe the occasion was significant and remains deep in the psyche; so that whenever the term is now used my mind gets intrigued. It’s sound. It’s spelling. Perhaps I had to search for its meaning. Perhaps it has taken a long time for its full meaning to become truly meaningful for me. By this I mean that what it describes is itself an impact that has the potential to teach us something highly significant for the understanding of the human condition. Juxtaposition is the adjective of the verb juxtapose. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the definition of juxtapose is to place or deal with close together for contrasting effect. As an example the OED writes ‘black and white photos were starkly juxtaposed with colour images.’ Well, we you can’t get more of a contrast than that.

There is a wonderful example of a juxtaposition in the Gospel according to Luke. Only Luke’s account has Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem as the exuberant crowd chant all about him. In a sense only Luke offers us the full colour, the other evangelists present merely a black and white image; for they only write of triumph, while with Luke there is already the hint of tragedy. Many prefer to interpret that Jesus weeps over the tragedy to come but what if the tragedy is present in the triumph of that very day?

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

Scholars are able to tell us that what many think as prophetic detail is more likely to be the Early Church reflecting on the Fall of Jerusalem after its destruction at the hands of Vespasian’s forces in 70 CE. Interestingly it was also Passover, no less, that Vespasian allowed pilgrims to enter the city. Once inside the walls, he refused to let them out again; thus depleting the food supply. Within a few months the city’s defenders had been weakened and were ripe for attack. Whether the detail of what Jesus is recorded as saying is accurate or not, we can’t get away from the fact that Jesus most certainly had mixed emotions as he entered the city that day.

My view is that there is too much focus on the triumph and too little on the tragedy. For sure, preachers have for generations made claim that the very same people who cried out Hosanna would within days call out for Barabbas to be released and not Jesus. The historical evidence for this custom is scant, if it exists at all. But that is the tradition received from the Early Church. Nevertheless, the joy of the crowd must for Jesus have been tinged by the reality. Anyone anywhere near as wise as Jesus would have been aware of the dangers of such a gathering. And more than that, there would be the awareness of not all being well in the city itself. There was brutal force keeping law and order; there was poverty and disease as well as uncertainty and fear. Life was brief, pain without much relief.

This juxtaposition, a crowd ecstatic at possibility and the perceptive tears of the watchful Jesus, is stark. It would be easier to bear if we were to focus on only one, as so many have done and still do to this day. But the writer, who compiled what we have come to know as Luke’s account, knew what they were doing. The juxtaposition is important to them.

How close tears of joy are to tears of sorrow. I have known people weep uncontrollably with joy. I have known people laugh in the face of great adversity. The line between the two is very fine and the balance between joy and sorrow delicate; it is so easy to tip from one to the other, especially for the one who sees in colour and not black and white.

When we come out onto our doorsteps or open our bedroom windows on a Thursday night to cheer our wonderful key workers, especially those in the NHS, there is both an expression of joy and sorrow is there not? We want to make a noise to celebrate what some are doing on our behalf. We want to express our appreciation for the commitment that is leading to great sacrifices on their part. There may even be a part of us that just wants to feel as if we belong to something or to connect when we are in danger of becoming isolated. Maybe we want to do our bit when it seems as though remaining at home is inconsequential, wrong though such an assumption is. But underneath that 8 pm collective act is a lurking fear of encroaching darkness. The seriousness of the situation should not escape us. Rarely has staying apart been as necessary as it is today. Coming physically together could have drastic ramifications for those we encounter, even briefly. So, the juxtaposition of that Thursday night action is profound.

As well as joy and sorrow being closely linked, so too are light and dark, life and death. I think it was Martin Luther King who suggested that the brightness of stars can only be seen at their best on the darkest of nights. And certainly life is something that is most treasured by those who have grown mindful of its brevity.

In my final year at theological college I spent a good deal of time reading books by some of the Latin American liberation and European political theologians who shared much in common, not least how to believe in a post Holocaust and post Hiroshima world. For them the immediate had become important. Salvation had to be experienced in the present, in the favelas of Brazil and the nuclear threatened cities of Europe. Salvation was not something after death, it was to be experienced in the here and now. Hence their focus on social justice, resistance to the worldly powers and liberation from oppression. This was perhaps closer to the teaching of Jesus than the Church, in its imperialistic prowess and consorting with capitalism, had come to exhort. Certainly in its original context, in the Hebrew Bible, salvation was improvement of circumstances, it was justice and harmony. One passage that has remained with me all these years is taken from one of my favourite theologians of the time Dorothee Sölle (sometimes written Soelle). Born in 1929 in the city of Cologne, Sölle would grow up in a place during harrowing times. Her work is understandably influenced by such trauma. As the German economic miracle brought rapid change to society, and as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear conflagration, her question was centred on where God was in the midst of a society where ‘success is the highest virtue and wealth its servant.’ (i)  The passage that helped to open my mind and heart to the reality of my condition is from her book The Inward Road and the Way Back:

Learning to die means no longer to hate or be burdened with fear. To learn to die means to be caught up in a great chorus that affirms life; that is what faith is. The more we learn to live in freedom from fear the more we learn to die in freedom from fear. The more we are united to that love with which we know ourselves to be at one, the more immortal we are. As Christians we know that death always lies behind us; it is love that lies ahead. (ii)

This juxtaposition is the great lesson for those of us who are becoming by each day more aware of our mortality. The present crisis has driven this predicament home like perhaps no other on such a collective scale, for a very long time. We as a society are undergoing a sea change in our thinking which will affect how we behave towards one another and our planet for years, decades, even, to come.

When Luke writes that Jesus wept at the sight of Jerusalem stretched out before him he has him weeping for the fragility of the city and its people. This we can deduct from the evidence we have of the dealings Jesus had with those about him over the course of his ministry: Jairus, the Centurion, the Woman at the Well, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, the Magdalene, the children, the hungry, the enquiring. This is especially so of Luke’s account of the Gospel which is more focused than any of the others on the vulnerable members of society, the marginalised and outsiders. Having said that, Luke is the only one to include members of the highest in society as part of the band of followers, Joanna and Susanna, plus others who bankrolled the Galilean mission . (iii) An interesting juxtaposition in itself. But here Luke has Jesus weeping over the city:

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

If only. Becoming aware of our predicament is just the first step to that peace which will sustain us in the days and months to come. It will open our eyes to new possibilities. Freedom, even in the constraints of the impositions of a lockdown, is not only possible but present in the lives of those who find in God one who doesn’t want praise and triumph alone, but the lament and sorrow of tragedy too.

After so long, so long
in my tight prison,
with my familiar shackles
heavy on head and heart;
after so long, so long,
suddenly I see the bars
with the eyes God gave me,
touch the chains
with the hand God made me,
and suddenly, suddenly
(oh, but my heart flies out of the dream
like a singing bird!),
suddenly I am free. (iv)

It is becoming more likely that the present crisis will go on longer than many had initially hoped or even expected. How we cope with this changed world is going to be a challenge. At times we will seem to be on a pendulum of emotions. Frustration at not being able to do the things we once did, coupled with moments of enlightenment that lift our spirits, is going to test us to the limits. When the crowd is singing and blowing whistles at 8pm on Thursday night, we may be weeping for our loss and the loss of loved ones. When we read with great sadness of those who have made great sacrifices to care for the sick, we may find our thoughts wander to more positive things that are happening in our world, not least the healing of our natural environment. The mood swings will come fast and furious at times. We may not know whether we are coming or going. Laughter and tears are closely aligned.

As a Methodist I am drawn more and more to the wonderful Covenant Prayer of John Wesley. It has sustained me in the past. It has guided me in times of dilemma. It has explained my predicament. It has helped me to renew my commitment. Through juxtaposition it reminds me of the reality of discipleship in all its colour, that a rainbow can only be seen in a stormy sky.

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen. (v)

 

(i) Ed. Dianne L. Oliver, Dorothee Sölle, Essential Writings, Orbis 2006, p 14
(ii) Dorothee Sölle, The Inward Road and the Way Back: Wipf & Stock 2003
(iii) Luke 8.1-3
(iv) Virginia Thesiger, The Healing, quoted in Elizabeth Basset, Love is My Meaning, DLT 1973 p143
(v) The Methodist Church Purposes