Sunday, 28 February 2021

WEAREALLNOWHERE — Ministry of the word from The Campfire Church on Facebook this morning

The English poet John Donne fell seriously ill from typhoid fever in the winter of 1623. We who have been passing through this coronavirus season are perhaps in a better position now to appreciate what it must have been like to live through the waves of disease in the Middle Ages and on through the 17th century, when news of someone’s death was relayed by the tolling of the passing bell from the village church.  Donne came very close to dying that winter, and recorded the impressions that emerged as he passed through his time of illness. One of the poems he wrote, published after his recovery the following year, was this:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 

own were; any man's death diminishes me, 

because I am involved in mankind. 

And therefore never send to know for whom 

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

But of course we belong not only to the human race, we are part of the whole web of creation. The stars tell our story, the moon pulls the tides of our blood, the salt in our tears has the same briny balance as the sea, we depend on the bees for the food in our supermarkets, and without the forests to stabilise the earth there would be no more rain and no more harvests — flood and drought would bring life to an end. We inter-are.

I saw this very vividly this week in two brief moments.

The first of these was that Tony came bounding forth to step into his beautiful white car parked outside our house on the road, to find it covered with a fine layer of orange dust.  This had blown on the winds of the world from the Sahara, and we depend upon it.  Dust from the Sahara brings iron (that was the orange colour) and phosphorus to nourish our depleted earth, fertilising the Amazon over 5000km away from it, bringing vital nutrients to the fields of Southern Europe, the islands of the Mediterranean — and on this particular occasion, also to St Leonards in East Sussex where I live. We inter-are.

The second thing was a tiny snatch of conversation overheard — a young man coming up the steps mounting the steep hillside from the park, saying to his girlfriend: “I care about family. I don’t really care about wildlife.”

I wondered whether to stop and tell him about the dust from the Sahara, about the bees holding the line to keep humanity fed, about the trees who watch over us like angels, slowing the movement of water through the landscape, about how the purring of a cat on his lap helps to heal his bones — but I didn’t. It was not for me to intrude into his conversation. I walked on.

The word ‘universe’ means ‘one turning’— that is to say, it is about elements combined by being folded in with each other, like folding in the flour when you make a cake. The nearest synonym I can find to ‘universe’ is ‘enfolded’; turned into one. What Buddhism calls dependent co-arising — where each one has its own form and being, and yet is a part of the whole; like the ocean waves that each have their own shape and identity, no two exactly alike, yet each one made up entirely of the same sea that conjoins them all, going down to depths unimaginable. We are in God as the wave is in the ocean, and God is in us as the ocean is in the wave; and so we belong to one another, we inter-are.

An aspect of Biblical thinking we tend to lose sight of is that, as we heard in our readings today, the covenant God made after the Great Flood was between God and all creation, not just with humanity; and the healing of the cross and the Christian work of reconciliation are not for humanity alone but for all creation. We inter-are.

The eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment brought a movement away from seeing the beings of other species as ensouled, introducing instead the concepts of mechanistic thinking. So began the long, dismal and continuing era of vivisection and cage farming, the arrogant presumption that sees only humanity as illumined by the possibility of divine indwelling. And of course it was only a short step from there to seeing human being also as an assembly of components — a view that still ramifies into the thinking of our day. I’d put money on it that somewhere in the course of your life you’ve read a medical or biological treatise proposing that “your body is just a like a machine” or “your brain is a computer”. But I hope you know — it isn’t. You are alive.

And this is the thinking that leads to a spare-parts approach to medicine and wilfully ignores — or even despises and belittles — the routes of holistic healing. It’s the thinking that leads to the cruelty of meat plants and unthinkable practices in abattoirs that I won’t even describe to you because they’d keep you awake at night. It’s what leads to the stupidity of Elon Musk thinking we can all eat lab-grown meat and that’ll be just as good for us as meat from animals who have roamed free on the moors. It’s the thinking that has perverted Christian belief away from the awareness of the light of God in all creation, to seeing holiness only in humanity, and mistaking the rest of creation as a collection of insensate items to use as we see fit.

But we are made of light and healed by light and meant to keep our light shining until the end. The breath of God is in all creation, and when we see the light sparkling on the sea or meet the amber gaze of a fox in the garden at dusk or behold the colours of the dawn or listen to a blackbird singing as night falls or watch the stars one by one begin to shine, we are looking into the eyes of God.

So the work of addressing climate change is not a niche interest separate from our Christian calling — it is the work of reconciliation God has entrusted to us in Christ. It is the work of peace the New Testament envisions.

Our devotion is not just the time we spend sitting down reading the Bible and saying things to God, it is the garden we grow, the food sources we choose, the vote we cast, the economic patterns we support. If it isn’t holistic it isn’t of God, because the purpose of God is shalom. No one is an island entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. We are in God as the wave is in the ocean, and God is in us as the ocean is in the wave. We inter-are.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Outside the Camp - thoughts for Campfire Church 21/02/2021 (Ministry of the word — Grace Garner)

The Old Testament stories sometimes gain a twist in the telling, which can cause Christians to draw lessons from them that are quite different from those understood in Jewish tradition. In looking at this story, I found it very helpful to turn to the Midrash, the collection of Rabbinic teaching that accompanies the Torah.
Moses had taken a Cushite wife. We may take this simply to mean Ethiopian (as Cush was the Hebrew name for Ethiopia), but this overlooks the idiomatic meaning. Cushite referred to anything that stood out so obviously that anyone could see it, in the way that a dark-skinned Ethiopian stood out in a crowd of people with lighter skins. It was a positive term; a Cushite was someone unique and outstanding. Moses had one wife, Zipporah, who was a Midianite. Her exceptional beauty and virtue are what made her stand out among other women, according to the rabbinic teachings. She was a Cushite in the sense that she was an absolute gem, and anyone could see it.
In the previous chapter of Numbers, two young men (Eldad and Medad) are preaching in the camp. According to Jewish texts, Miriam hears Zipporah saying, “Alas for the wives of these men. If they are moved to prophecy, they will separate from their wives the way my husband separated from me.” This doesn’t mean that Moses and Zipporah had divorced, but that they were no longer having any kind of sexual intimacy.
So Miriam goes to challenge Moses on Zipporah’s behalf. It is their separation she objects to, not their marriage. Once we understand this, it makes sense of Miriam and Aaron pointing out that they are also prophets. They prophesy, despite not keeping themselves set apart from other people, and ritually pure. (Although there is no reference to Miriam ever having married or borne children, Aaron was certainly married.) Why, Miriam asks Moses, should being a prophet cause you to abandon your wife in this manner? It’s not fair on her.
The three are then suddenly summoned before God, who explains that Moses is different from other prophets because of the way he might be in the presence of God at any moment. The unspoken part is that he must therefore be ritually pure. God’s immediate presence burns Aaron and Miriam, because they aren’t prepared for this meeting. Miriam is then struck with a skin disease. Our texts label it leprosy. The Hebrew word for a leper derives from a phrase meaning ‘bringing out a bad name’; in other words, a slanderer. So Miriam’s slander has bounced off Moses and stuck to her as a skin condition that leaves her ritually impure. It is Moses’ great humility in prayer that alleviates God’s anger and leads to Miriam’s healing.
I don’t know what you make of this story. As with so many Old Testament stories, I don’t feel that God comes out of it looking very good! In some ways, it leaves me with more questions than answers. But these are ancient stories of an ancient people, with fragments missing or distorted. So I think we must draw from it what we can, and accept a degree of mystery and of difference in thinking between us and the people who first told these stories.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and the lectionary gives the Gospel reading from Mark that we heard from in our call to worship. Jesus encounters God at his baptism, and is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where wild beasts and angels attend him. When I was thinking about this, I thought of the reading we heard a few weeks ago about how Jesus made his sacrifice outside the camp. Paul said, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:13-14) And I thought about the ten lepers Tony talked to us about a couple of weeks back, and the idea of the flow being reversed between Jesus and the lepers; so that, instead of being infected, he purified them.
And I thought about Miriam outside the camp, and how the people of God waited for her. When I think about this story in terms of anger and punishment, it feels unfair. Miriam was advocating for Zipporah in a patriarchal system, and what she said to Moses was fair comment, it seems to me. But when I think of this story alongside the story of Jesus in the wilderness, I draw some different things from it. The wilderness, in the Bible, is indeed a place for the unwanted and the unclean; the place where the scapegoat is driven, bearing the sins of the people, the place where the rubbish is burned in Gehenna. But it’s also a place of shriving, a place of encounter with God, and a place to go after seeing the face of God.
Jesus and Miriam were both touched by God and were both driven into the wilderness. Perhaps, for Miriam, like Jesus, this was a place of facing demons. Perhaps it was a place of change, of stripping things away, of preparing for the challenge of a unique role in the service of God. Miriam was a midwife of the faith, a gateway person, like Jesus. She was a prophetess, a teacher and a leader. She had stood alone by the river, watching over the baby Moses, just as God watched over his people in exile; and therefore, Moses and the people of God waited for her.
Perhaps this pandemic time, with its own wilderness spirit, gives us some insight into this situation. A mystery disease strikes, and this ancient people knows that quarantine is important, however painful, to save lives and keep disaster at bay. We are well placed to understand the loneliness that entails, the sense of injustice, the fear and the unknowing. Will Miriam, beloved by the people, return? They can only wait and see if God will answer their prayers.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a shriving time – that is a time of confession and absolution, a spring cleaning of the soul. And it was a shriving time for Miriam. Her encounter with God had marked her on the outside. After seven days, she was readmitted into the camp, healed of this affliction. But I wonder how it marked her on the inside? Had she needed that wilderness time to recover from her meeting with God? Did she make confession? Did she remain unbowed in holding power to account? Did she need time to recover from the wilderness upon her return to the camp?
Jesus came back from the wilderness to his family and friends, and began his ministry. Miriam already had a ministry to return to, teaching Torah to the women, prophesying, and leading the people alongside her brothers. Years later, when she died at Kadesh, the people were without water. The association of these two things leads to the Jewish folk tale about the miraculous well that moved with the people of God, which was attributed to Miriam (as the pillars of cloud and fire were attributed to Aaron, and the manna to Moses). Without Miriam, a source of sustenance and strength dries up. Aaron and Moses are immediately almost overwhelmed by the challenge of providing for the people. Without the courage and passion of Miriam, even these great men of God will not reach the Promised Land.
Standing alone, guarding the infant Moses, and standing alone outside the camp, Miriam was undaunted and undiminished in her determination to see the people of God to safety. So, whatever happened between Miriam and God in the wilderness, it didn’t take away her unique gifts. It didn’t disconnect her from God or from her people. It was a necessary part of her journey with God. As for the people, I think Moses and Aaron’s terror over something bad happening to Miriam, and the willingness of the people (who loved to complain) to wait with her – to wait for her – speaks volumes about what she meant to them. Miriam, with Moses and Aaron, had brought the people out of slavery, and through the wilderness towards the Promised Land.
We, too, are going outside the camp now. We are going with Jesus into the wilderness. We do not need to be afraid, even though we know where this road is heading. Death is not the end – it is a doorway to life, and to the city that is to come.

Our opening prayer from morning worship at The Campfire Church today (by Grace Garner)

 God, you are alive in the wilderness

And your still, small voice speaks so closely to anyone who will listen.
In our wilderness of uncertainty, loneliness, disease and chaos,
We, like Abraham, find you already here.
In this moment, we build our altar to you,
Marking this space where we encounter you
And declare that God is great
That God is with us
And God is beyond us.
We behold the mystery of you.
Jesus, you walked in the wilderness.
God spoke to you and you came out here alone.
You lived with hunger and emptiness, and difficult choices.
You asked the difficult questions
And came to a point of understanding.
You came back changed, and ready.
When we walk through the wilderness, we face challenges and choices,
And we know we are changing too.
In places we thought no one else had been,
We find your footsteps
And we follow.
Spirit, you carry the wilderness in your heart.
You have loved and nurtured it since the first moments
When you hovered over the face of the water.
You tend the cauldron and you hold the crucible,
And from them you draw nourishment and beauty.
We invite you into our hearts
And make a home for the wilderness within us;
And make the wilderness without us a place of promise,
A place of creative power,
A place of nurturing and love.
We thank you, Gracious God, for the wilderness, as we begin our Lenten journey of making ourselves ready for the time of struggle and renewal that we know is over the horizon. We lift up our prayers and praise to you this morning, in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

THINKABOUT — TELLING THE STORY — from The Campfire Church today (a Eucharist).


Celebrating the Eucharist, which we often call “holy communion”, is about encountering Jesus for ourselves.

It’s about gathering in a circle of which he is part, opening our hearts to him in confession, bringing him our world in intercession, and entering the re-membering of his broken body and spilt blood.

It’s about finding him made whole in the circle of belonging and, by doing so, finding the healing and strength to embody him in our world.

Some of us grew up understanding Eucharist to be a very focused and specific event — a robed priest standing at the altar saying the special prayers, and then ourselves reverently  eating the blessed wafer of bread, sipping from the chalice of holy wine, returning with bowed heads and folded hands to kneel in our pew and wait to be dismissed.

But gradually, we have come to realise, it is so much more than that. What we saw and did in the church service was the ritualised re-enactment of something so huge we could never realistically bring it into focus.

Here is all the brokenness of the world. Here is every child whose only playground is the rubble of bombed buildings in a war zone. Here are the refugees in the biting cold of northern France, watching the flimsy shelter of their tents torn down and their belongings thrown into the mud by the police — the representatives of society. Here is the frightened Covid patient clutching the gloved hand of the anaesthetist who has come to put the respirator tube in. Here is the mother who drowned in the relentless exhaustion of lockdown pressure and suffocated her terribly disabled child. Here is the corrupt politician pocketing public funds. Here is the divorce and the redundancy, the bailiff knocking at the door, the food bank queue. This is the broken bread. This is humanity dismembered, Christ’s arms pulled out of joint by the weight of his body on the cross. This is the spilt blood of life, trickling down from the feet that brought the gospel of peace, held in place by a five inch forged iron nail hammered through them. 

But the miracle we express when we make our Eucharist, is the re-membering of our humanity — Christ’s humanity. We, who have so much to forgive, and so much for which we need to be forgiven, find hope and peace beyond our wildest dreams in the simplicity of bread broken and shared, of wine passed round.

There is a special Greek word — well, isn’t there always, in church? — for the moment of consecration: “epiclesis”. In this moment of blessing, our theologians have taught, the Holy Spirit becomes one with the bread and wine — and so, when we eat and drink, the Holy Spirit comes right inside of us.

May I dare to suggest it is not so one-directional? That maybe, in this re-membering, we are seeing life come to meet life, spirit recognising spirit, parts that always really belonged to one another draw into communion. For what are we anyway, if not clay (which is really star-dust) that lives by the breath of God — Holy Spirit? 

In the Eucharist, not only Christ, but we ourselves are re-membered. We are made whole.

But look, we belong not only to Jesus, and to one another in our familiar circle of fellowship — we also have families and colleagues, we have neighbours and acquaintances and friends. We are joined by a skein of invisible threads to everyone we have heard of, and everyone who has ever heard of us.

In this re-membering, light pulses along the whole web of interconnection. We are not separate. The sacred heart of Christ sends forth his blood into us, to circulate and nourish all humanity.

This small gathering, this home-based make-shift act of communion, this Eucharist, is not for ourselves only but for the healing of the world.

Do this, Jesus said, to re-member Me.