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”


Suzan said...

Pen may I have your permission to print your words so I can refer to them often? They resonate deep in my soul. Thank you taking the time and the effort to write this post. Gos bless.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I was so pleased to find this here today! Your description of the Bible being a fluid book, travelling and flowing towards grace explained more, in one brief sitting, than all the conflicting sermons and conversations I have ever had. The Bible had become so contradictory that I often felt quite at a loss. There are bits I like, and bits I most definitely don't like, but what you describe irons out some of those discrepancies. Everything you say makes sense to me, and it feels so right when you describe a little garden, a flock of hens, bees, humility, earth, open fires, and kindness...oh, yes please, kindness. I think then we would have our heaven on earth. Perfect, just perfect.
Deb x

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes Suzan, for sure, glad it helps. x

Hi Deb — yes — like this poem: x