Sunday, 26 April 2020

Travelling Light

In the Easter vigil, the act of worship held to bear witness to the moment of Christ’s rising from the dead, the paschal candle is lit in the darkness, and from it the flame is passed from one worshipper to another, each lighting a candle from their neighbour’s until the whole church is shining.

In John’s gospel, the prologue introduces Jesus as Light coming into a dark world where, though it is not understood and is met with hostility, even so He is “the true Light, which enlightens everyone that comes into the world” (v.9) and “as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the children of God, even to those that believe on his name”.

The prologue to a gospel is the place where the writer sets out his stall as it were – as in the overture of an opera we discover glimpses of the themes and melodies that will unfold more comprehensively as the work progresses.
John’s gospel depicts Jesus as Light moving through the dark world, allowing us to see the way, illuminating the hearts and minds of those who welcome Him.

And John presents Jesus to us as the cosmic Christ, through whom all creation came to be. He describes him as the Only Son. He is referencing a figure of Greek philosophy, the Monad, represented graphically as a dot in the middle of a circle — the first being, who emanates from God, and from whom all life proceeds.

The crucifixion is described in this particular gospel in terms of glory — “Father, the hour has come, glorify your Son” John 17:1 — so that the moment of self-offering in sacrificial death is the great blaze of light, the hour of glory when the work of the cosmic Christ depicted in the prologue is consummated and fulfilled.

Each of the gospel writers is working in a church context, and understanding the context is helpful in perceiving the thrust and slant of the thematic content of that gospel.

John is writing for a church bearing severe persecution at a time when the expected imminent return of the Christ seems dismayingly delayed.
A question (not the only question, but a question) his gospel is answering is an urgent “Where is Jesus?”

Thus John’s gospel in telling the story of Jesus brings out the searching of discipleship.

In each of the gospels, the first words that Jesus speaks as He enters the drama offer a clue to the themes of that particular gospel.  In John’s gospel, Christ’s first words are ‘What are you looking for? . . . Come  .  .  . and see.”  Christ encourages the search, beckons us on further and deeper, calls us to keep looking.

John shows us that the light to our search is Christ Himself, drawing us through the darkness to union with Him, to the state of faith in which we are completely one with Him (see His prayer in John 17) and with the Father.
The task of the gospel writer is not the same as that of a journalist telling the story of a famous man; the gospels are written for discipling the flock of Christ, teaching the household of faith.   John’s gospel is teaching a weary and embattled flock how to find Christ now; where Jesus is to be found.
What he does is to show how the real presence of Christ has transferred from the man Jesus of Nazareth into the body of believers – that is to say the risen Jesus is still really and fully with us, but the locus of encounter is no longer in an individual only, but diffused into the laos – the people of God (what we anglicise as "the laity").

He tells the story of the risen Jesus appearing to the disciples the day Thomas was not with them, “the first day of the week” – and then shows us the same group a week later, this time with Thomas present, encountering for real, for himself, in person, the living presence of Jesus.  This incident helps the believers (then and now) to grasp with powerful immediacy how it is that as the faithful meet together week by week, Christ can be encountered really and immediately in the midst.  The Light of the World known in the hands and feet and smile and touch and laugh of the man Jesus, has now passed into the whole Body of Christ.

There’s an interesting detail that we are inclined to miss in translation, in the story Grace read us from John 20, of Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, running to the tomb on the resurrection morning.  The word see — or rather the past tense, saw, is used three times.

The beloved disciple got to the sepulchre first, and stooped down to look in. John says he saw the linen cloths lying there. Then Peter, coming up behind him, went right in to the sepulchre, and saw the linen cloths that had been used to wrap Jesus’s body and, a little apart from them, the cloth in which his head had been wrapped. Then the beloved disciple followed Peter in, and he saw and believed.

So, three times that word “saw”. The beloved disciple saw the linen cloths . . . Peter also saw the grave cloths . . . the other disciple saw and believed.
One word in English – but three different words in the Greek: “glimpsed . . . examined . . . understood.”
The beloved disciple stooped, looked in, and caught sight of the grave cloths.  Peter went on in and examined the grave cloths and the head cloth lying nearby.  Then the other disciple came in too and he saw! – as in “Ding!” Lightbulb moment!  He got it!

My daughter Alice made two etchings portraying the inner truth that John, with his preoccupation with light, was conveying to us in telling us about this happening.

John is showing us how the Light continues to move and illuminate and transform. 

Look at Alice’s pictures.

Do you see?

In the first one, the light is outside, behind the disciples, and the place they are coming into is dark.  The way they walked with Jesus, behind them now, was illuminated by his presence.  This death has clouded their understanding.  But look at the picture.  Light is waiting for them in the depths of the tomb, like a promise: the grave cloths are SHINING.

The in the second picture we see Peter holding up the cloth, mystified.  Alice expresses the moment in the way she shows the cloth partly obscuring the light and partly allowing it to shine through.  Peter is searching for meaning there, but hasn’t quite got it yet.

But in that second picture, look at the other disciple, who has “seen” (understood): he himself is shining now, as he looks back towards the light of the way they have come.  The Light has passed into him, is incorporated with him.

This is the message of John, the promise of Light that can shine within us, “While you have light, believe in the light, that you may be the children of light” (John 12:36); “the true Light, which enlightens every man”.

This is, to me, what underlies my sense of call to travelling light — to pass through the world in simplicity, not weighed down by an accumulation of money, possessions or commitments. I feel a sense of call to be — not in any specific thing I do, but just in who I am — something like a lantern; simple, transparent, one-purposed, upheld for the single purpose of showing the way.

In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world”; and he passed through this world as a moving light, drawing people to follow him into the new and living way. But then Matthew in his gospel says Jesus also told us, “YOU are the light of the world.” 

The light that came to earth in Jesus has illumined every soul willing to receive it. You, too are here to bear the light, to show the way, to bring hope and peace and healing by the light that shines out of you.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Moving from the unreal to the real

I’m thinking about the words Jesus taught us to pray — Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.

Something I’ve learned from working with Bible texts over many years, is to look for the direction they are following.

The Bible is a holy book, a living book, and its wisdom can transform you. But like everything living, it is not static.

In the translation of the Tao by Gia Fu Feng and Jane English, chapter 76 goes like this:

A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.

So, life is characterised by pliability and development; and death is characterised by stasis and rigidity.

Nothing living stays still or remains the same. It breathes. It may change slowly, and it is never lost as it undergoes change — it abides, but it does not stagnate.

The Bible is a living book. We can appreciate this in two particular ways. 

The first is in learning to look not so much at its static moments, as at the direction in which it is travelling.

For instance, in the Old Testament, women are the chattels of men, but in Jesus we see women (like Martha’s sister Mary) accorded the privileges of men, to sit at the feet of the teacher, to be excused meal preparation, to study theology, or to engage with a man in transformative dialogue, like the Syro-Phoenician woman with the demonised daughter to argued with Jesus for his help. 

In the Old Testament we see Gentiles as outside the faith community, beyond the pale; in the redemption won by Jesus we see all Creation reconciled to God, Jew and Gentile made one family. 

There is a progression, a direction of travel. If we make the mistake of taking a snapshot — using a proof text in a moment of stasis and institutionalising that into a rule, such as “women were made to be serve under make headship” —  then we have clutched at what is passing, what is characterised by death, and missed the life waiting for us in the sacred book, which is the direction of travel; where it has come from and where it is going.

The second way we appreciate that the Bible is a living book is by discovering that the sacred Word not limited to a closed canon of texts, but moves onwards and outwards into our lives. We are, we continue, the holy gospel. We are the living word. We realise and actualise the Word of God by stepping into the practice of prophetic life.

And so it is that we pray “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” 

I have heard much discussion about this text — theologians puzzling over where the kingdom is. 

Is it here yet, and if so, why is the world in such a mess? Is it not here yet, and if so, what will usher it in? Most of them settle on the conclusion — sophistry, I suspect — that it is here but not here. Here but not fulfilled. Here but we can’t see it. Whatever that means!

But if the kingdom is alive, then one would not expect it to be here as a framework or as an institution. The minute something is frozen into a framework or ossifies into an institution, it begins to die. Every movement, every wave of revival in the church, weakened and died once it hardened into a denomination or an organisation. 

The prophetic life, the sacred gospel of our lives, is always recognisable by its direction of travel — it follows the flow of grace, it moves on and responds; it is flexible and transformative.

So then we might ask, what is the direction of travel of the flow of grace? Where is it going, that we might follow it and conform our lives to the life of God?

The answer to that is in a beautiful Hindu mantra that goes like this:

“Lead us from the unreal to the Real.

  Lead us from darkness to light.

  Lead us from death to immortality.” — or what Christians would call “eternal life”.

That is the direction of travel our lives will trace if we are moving with the flow of grace, if we are inviting and enacting the coming of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It is a movement from the unreal to the real.

This is particularly important for us at the present time as we are passing through this kairos moment. We are like caterpillars who have entered the chrysalis but not yet emerged as the butterflies we will be. We are in dissolution, in process of losing what we had. Our state now is fluid — what we were is lost. We can be confident that life holds the blueprint of what will be, but our place within that, and how human society will fit into creation going forward, may be something we cannot guess and would not recognise at the moment. Not just unfamiliar — unimagined.

But we do know that if we are to choose life, if we are to invoke the kingdom, then we must move from the unreal to the real.

Fear, for instance, is not real. It is the mask of vulnerability, the product of ignorance and unfamiliarity; fear evaporates when wisdom and love and understanding settle into place. 

Anger is not real. It is the mask of grief and sorrow, the response to what we do not understand or find overwhelming. Or it can be simply generated by malnutrition; the useless firing of adrenalin under the influence of sugary processed food. Anger is never only itself, and it evaporates once the angry person is taken care of properly.

Money is not real. All the money in the world, nowadays, is what we call “fiat” money — not a thing in itself, but figures conjured into being in spreadsheets by financial institutions. What we call “money” is the aggregate of the debt we owe one another in the exchange of goods and services; the counters of power, and those are often seized or coerced.

So we are moving away from fear, anger and money, moving from the unreal to the real, as we call the kingdom in by the lived prophecy of our daily reality.

If that’s what we are moving from, then what are we moving to?

It is popular to say, “Love”, but I hope you will forgive me it I set that to one side. I am not always sure what is meant by “Love”, and I find it is a term that can be misused. Think of all those snake-like people who “just wan to tell you something in love” — they use the expression to unload upon you all the bile and resentment and cruelty their souls carry, and to bring you under their power so they can channel their agenda through you. Many things go by the name of love, and I am highly suspicious of some of them.

So here — I offer you humbly — is my sense of what we are moving towards.

Moving from the unreal to the real, we are moving towards kindness, truth and the Earth.

Kindness is the less exalted identical twin of love. Kindness is real. It is the revealer of strength and maturity. It is the sign of the one who has overcome.

Truth is the hallmark of the Holy Spirit. The person whose word can be trusted, who is open and transparent, who does not speak with a forked tongue; the person who can provide a foundation for their assertions, the person you learn you can rely on. 

And as we move from the unreal to the real, we move towards the Earth.

The Earth is alive. In these times of uncertainty, I think it is likely that a vegetable garden, an orchard, a flock of hens, a hive of bees, a spring of water, a reservoir of rainwater, and open fire, a household, will be a better investment than stocks and shares or money on deposit. We must look to what can grow and regenerate — what is alive will sustain us. Part of the sustenance of Earth is relationship: with all creation, with every living thing — the waters, the trees, the rocks and coral reefs, the birds and fish and insects and animals, our fellow human beings. None of this is there to be a resource — the term “human resource” is an abomination. We are kindred, we are family, we are threads in the web of life. God is in a covenant relationship with all living beings for all time. The Earth in every aspect and particle deserves our reverence and our love; because the Earth is holy.

And there is a Latin word humilis — it refers to a quality that is humble and lowly, unassuming, insignificant, not proud. It is related to the word humus — the crumbly, peaty earth that trees create for and from themselves. Humus is Earth. And Adam was made from humus, from Earth. The name Adam is a play on the Hebrew word for Earth. “Adam” means “Earthy” or “Earthling”. 

“Eve”, of course, means “Life”.

Earthy and Life, the stuff of our being, our common ancestry, what we come from, what we are.

So a humble path, a quiet track, a way that follows what is natural, is the direction we tread in finding the flow of of grace, in realising what we were made to be and in realising the reach of Christ, the kingdom of heaven.

I wonder if you might like to join me in this ancient prayer from the Hindu tradition, seeking the way into abundant life.

“Lead us from the unreal to the Real.

Lead us from darkness to light.

Lead us from death to immortality.

Peace, peace, peace unto all.

May there be peace in celestial regions.

May there be peace on Earth.

May the waters be appeasing.

May herbs be wholesome,

and may trees and plants bring peace to all.

May all beneficent beings bring peace to us.

May thy Law propagate peace

all through the world.

May all things be a source of peace to us.

And may thy peace itself, bestow peace on all

and may that peace come to me also. Amen”

Sunday, 19 April 2020

A lockdown faith gathering

On Facebook, I've started a group called The Campfire Church so we can join together for worship during the time of isolation.

I expect you just adore sermons, don't you?

Here's mine from the Campfire Church morning circle today.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Noam Chomsky — wisdom and responsibility

Noam Chomsky is old, doesn't speak especially clearly, and doesn't have the most brilliant sound system in this video. You have to pay attention and stay with it to benefit from what he has to say. 

For those reasons I hesitated to pass it on here — I thought most people wouldn't have the patience to listen to him. But then I came back to it, and decided, yes, I would put it up here; because if even the smallest handful of people take in what he is saying, and takes him seriously, and lives accordingly, then all of us will have that much better a chance of a life characterised by peace and wellbeing.

Noam Chomsky is a man of great wisdom and responsibility, and is more worth hearing than most political leaders alive today.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Lockdown and habit

What we in the UK call Lockdown is what US folk are calling Shelter-in-place — a prettier term, in my opinion.

It is an interesting and revealing, many-faceted experience.

Not immediately, but after a while, noticing myself following new grooves unrelated to anything imposed on me by circumstances, I woke up to the reality that this is a first-class opportunity to establish a new habit. Or habits.

Under normal (or perhaps one should say "former" or "previous") circumstances, I find an obstacle to establishing new habits is the distraction of other things to think about.

Say, for example, I want to establish the habit of walking down to the spring to fetch water as soon as one of the big bottles is empty, rather than waiting for all six bottles to be empty, then making a trip to the spring in the car. I can do that; of course I can — but I don't. The reason I don't is because there are so many other things to occupy my mind; obligations and stressors and worries and commitments that fill up my mental bandwidth, such that walking down to the spring becomes one more darned thing to think about, and I don't go and don't go — and suddenly all six bottles are empty and a car trip looks essential, when it wasn't in the first place.

During lockdown we are allowed one walk a day for exercise. So, once a bottle is empty, we walk down to the spring and fill it up. To make it an extensive enough walk for exercise, we go the long way round by the brook and through the park. Simple.

Those who have investigated into the matter have discovered it takes anything from 18 to 254 days to establish a new habit, but the average time it takes people is 66 days — so, just over 2 months.

I am finding, in this lockdown, the lack of things competing for my attention is allowing me to focus properly on evaluating what I want to prioritise, and then I have this golden opportunity to begin laying down the tracks for a new habit. 

Habit energy is one of the strongest forces in our lives. It is what creates the phenomenon of the path of least resistance — the way we have always walked will be that. A habit is extremely hard to break. 

I cannot think of a time in my life that has offered a more shining opportunity than this for establishing new habits. This jewel of lockdown is surely one of the arcana secretorum Isaiah mentioned. 

Friday, 3 April 2020

How's it going?

Some of you will be grooving along steady and peaceful, integrating the turbulence into your practice with serenity and calm.

In case you're not, or in case you later come a cropper (you know that expression, right?) I thought this graphic might be helpful.

Peace to your day, chums. May something nice happen to you today. xx

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Spy in the wild

Trigger warning — this post contains reference to specifics of cruelty to animals by human beings.

Here in our cave, or nest, or whatever it is, we've been curled on our perches watching Spy in the Wild. Do you know that programme? Its numerous episodes track the observations of cameras hidden in animatronic creatures modelled on wild animals and placed among them to record their lives.

Among other animals and birds and reptiles, today we were watching the unfolding of life among rockhopper penguins. We saw their almost unbelievable landing from waves breaking onto the rock formations of their island shore, then their astonishing ascent up the cliffs to their mates and chicks awaiting. So arduous, so perilous, a climb interrupted by tumbling falls down metres of unforgiving rocks — only to pick themselves up and begin climbing.

As we snacked on chocolate and drank tea and watched these plucky and determined birds on the television, I marvelled at how kindly and gently Life treats (some) human beings. Not all, of course. There are some penned in cages on the Mexican border. There are some held in concentration camps in China; thousands marooned hundreds of miles from home, shut out by lockdown on the streets of Indian cities with nothing to eat and nowhere to go. There are homeless people in Los Angeles, offered only rectangles painted on a car park surface to live in; marginalised Roma in Italy pushed out from a fair chance at belonging or inclusion — all over the world, human beings shunned and trapped and rejected and tortured by their fellow humans. We are a violent and cruel species.

I look at the clever and greedy eyes of politicians, the dead gaze of media moguls, the cunning of opportunistic preachers, the horrible calm of ideological leaders who have learned how to milk their spiritual prey. I look at the terrible patience and resignation in the eyes of beaten women, abandoned children.  

I watch a video of men in Canada, filmed in a pig farm, free to vent their incomprehensible spite and cruelty on defenceless piglets, batting them through the air with spades, chopping off their noses, slamming their bodies down until they convulse in agony on the concrete floor, while the mothers watch from metal cages too small even to let them turn around.

And here am I, who know these things, and wonder how to live with the knowledge, how to be alive in the human race shut in its homes in fear of a prowling virus, prey also to the insidious feeding of bankers and billionaires, sucking out the last juices from a tanking economy.

"What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?
And the Son of Man, that Thou visitest him?"

And even yet, the immense kindness of divine love comes back again and again to the corrupt and dissolute children of rejected love, asking us over and again if we will not have compassion now, if we will not try what love can do.

Perhaps, in these days, so far as within us lies, it's time we learned.