Archive for 1998
Have you ever trusted a dream enough to act on it when you wake up? I don’t know about you but some of the things I dream about are not fit for the light of day. We do things in dreams we just wouldn’t dream of doing in daylight.
And most of our dreams don’t even make sense. One minute you’re chasing a black dog up a set of never ending stairs and next minute it’s not really a dog but a cow and it’s asking you for the time of day. Or—and this is a typical one for me—I turn up for a Sunday mass and I’m not ready, can’t find my shoes, homily’s not done, can’t make out the words of the gospel.
OK so some dreams do make a sort of sense—they remind us of our anxieties or nudge us not to forget our desires. And, if you are to believe the psychologists, there’s a lot more in there lurking about waiting to be understood.
But there are other kinds of dreams too—dreams that seem to speak with a special voice. There’s a tone to them or a feeling or an image that we wake up trusting. A voice that seems to affirm a decision made long ago. Or an image that prods us into taking that step we’ve been wondering about for a while now. These are the dreams that seem to tell us what we already know but haven’t paid attention to yet.
Ahaz, the king, doesn’t want any of that kind of dream in his life. I mean you can’t go running a country by asking God to keep on showing you what to do. God has better things to do than worry about politics. Better to leave the politics to the politicians and let people do their praying in church where God belongs. Ahaz does not want to be disturbed from his own path.
I guess Joseph didn’t want that either. I guess his ambitions were for an ordinary life, cutting his wood, shaping it. Betrothed to Mary, a good wife in the making, marriage soon, a household blessed by children. But all that had been already ruined by her betrayal, pregnant by someone else. Enough to break your heart when you’d trusted her so, enough to make another man want revenge. Only a word in the right ears and Mary could be stoned to death for breaking her vows. But Joseph isn’t that other man. He just wants to get on along his own path and set Mary aside quietly with no harm done. That’s when the dream tells him what he already knows somewhere in his heart. And from then on, his life is not the one he thought it would be.
Christmas is coming, as always, wrapped in dreams. The dreams of angels for peace on earth and good will among nations. The dreams of families across the globe for healing, and hope, and lasting joy, and enough to eat. At Christmas, those two dreams bump into each other. We do so want peace and hope and healing. But we also don’t want our lives disrupted. We don’t really want God to interfere with us … won’t someone else do?
But this Christmas the bombs are falling, the president is impeached, and God knows what other craziness is disturbing our lives. What are our dreams asking of us in this mess? What do we have to dream so that God can be with us this Christmas? But more importantly what do we have to dream so that God can be with someone else this Christmas? That’s the harder dream to dream. Or perhaps it’s not harder to dream—since God is dreaming it in us already—perhaps it’s just harder to trust.
December 20th, 1998
“It was the best of times and the worst of times…” that’s the way to start a book. “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” isn’t bad either, though my favourite is probably, “A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” From out here in front I could see all the veiled horror that greets those first words of Matthew’s “An account of the genealogy of Jesus…” You can’t even get into a contemplative rosary-like rhythm with those ‘was the father of’s the same way you used to be able to do with the begats. And you stand a better chance of injecting interesting intonation when you read aloud from the telephone directory.
So has Matthew blown it … lost his chance of a stellar opening? And has the church turned here for a dramatic fanfare to begin the countdown to the nativity only to blow a bum note?
Well, slipped into that numbing litany, are enough subversive details to make you sure that Matthew has a clever message to communicate. For a start the list is back to front … or at least the standard genealogy pattern is a list of descendants and not a book of ancestors. Then there’s the unconventional pattern of descent: the line runs through Isaac and not Ishmael the older son; it passes through Judah the fourth of the sons of Jacob. So it’s not an ordinary family tree. The way to David and on to the Son of David follows divine reckoning and not human. Then there’s the four women pointedly inserted into this long list of men. Tamar who is so determined to add a child to this book of generations that she disguises herself to have sex with her father-in-law, Judah. Rahab, once a prostitute in Jericho who collaborates with Israelite spies in the fall of her own city. Ruth, the woman of Moab who leaves her home to go with Naomi wherever she will go. And Bathsheba, taken by King David after he murders her husband, Uriah. Yes, says Matthew, God has gone to some lengths to bring the story to this point. Keeping the plot going by whatever means necessary, even dragging in convenient foreigners when the story line threatens to wander. And what a story! Adventure and horror, sexual intrigue and murder, incest and idolatry. “But,” as Eleanor of Aquitaine says in “The Lion in Winter,” “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
Well here we are close to the climax of that family history. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian deportation, and fourteen from there to Christ. Oh, and how Matthew wants us to notice those three fourteens. Even enough to cut out three or four kings to make the numbers fit. Three fourteens: human genes, human blood, and human destiny entwined in a divine drama.
Here comes the triumphant crescendo: Eleazar was the father of Mathan. Mathan the father of Jacob. Jacob the father of Joseph and Joseph the father of … No! The last fourteen is only a thirteen. Jacob the father of Joseph who is precisely not the father of Jesus but just the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. Forty one generations of human struggle and expectation all set aside at the last minute. Jesus the messiah is grafted onto the family tree. He may be Son of Abraham but not by blood. All that history is a thing of the past. Instead, something new is about to happen. Something we couldn’t prepare for. Something we couldn’t predict. Something beyond extrapolation. God makes a new start. Wisdom herself, Divine Sophia, is about to be born to make the world over. And that wordless baby will speak the word to give the world a fresh start.
December 17th, 1998
John has never been a patient man. It’s not patience that drives you to take up the prophet’s staff, the hair shirt and the disgusting diet. It’s not patience that drives you out among the desert’s ravines to rave over the coming destruction. It’s not patience that has you mouthing off to all- comers about their hypocrisy and evil. No, there’s a thirst for change, a hunger for ending, a hurry to get it all over with. “Even now the axe is laid at the roots of the tree!” he thunders. “It’s all over. Get ready! Be prepared! Because I, John, have a road to build and when it’s built God will come down on you all like a blaze. He will stride down that highway, winnowing fan in hand, reaping the harvest and destroying the stubble. And as for you Herod, friend of Rome, king of adulterers, living with your own brother’s wife, as for you, beware! Beware the end coming to you.”
Patience? No. But why, when he has done his part, built his highway in the desert, even baptized the one to fulfil the vision, when he’s done all this, why is he in prison waiting? Why is nothing happening? Where is the sound of the axe against the tree, the scent of fire on the wind, where is the uproar of Israel in rebellion and Rome on the run? Where is it?
So John sits there impatient, hope fading, doubt growing. Paces there, uncertain. Was I wrong? About Jesus? Has he let me down? Why is he doing nothing?
Advent turns around in that question. All the waiting, all the patience and all the hope are distilled into that question, a question we have all asked at sometime or another. Have I been wrong to trust Jesus? How can he have let me down like this?
So John asks the most heartbreaking question in the bible and asks it for all of us: “Are you the one … or must we wait for someone else?”
And should you laugh or should you cry over Jesus’ answer? “Tell John what you hear and what you see: the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor hear good news, and, yes John, the ones who manage to believe in me are happy.”
John is deaf and blind. Not just because he’s locked up in a hole somewhere, cut off from events but because he’s locked up in a vision of death and judgement, reaping and ending. Where John wants an end, Jesus is bringing a beginning. John is drunk on the desert’s stark beauty but Jesus wants to make a garden of it, a place for people to live and love, without sorrow, without lament.
So to John who doubts him, Jesus says “look and see … the evidence is here … can’t you see the desert blooming, the sorrow melting, the fear falling away?”
It’s a question without an answer … at least in the text. We hear no more from John. We don’t know whether he dies defeated or not. We don’t know whether he learns to see what Jesus sees. But Matthew, the gospel writer, asks that question of John expecting you and me to answer it. Matthew’s John is the last and greatest prophet of a dead age, an age that Jesus has left behind. Between John and Jesus there stands a great gap. A chasm of understanding. And the bridge across is only through that question: “Can’t you see the desert blooming?”
Well can we? Can we rejoice in the present and still hope for the future? When we are unjustly imprisoned, unfairly impoverished, when we are sick before our time, or even just unaccountably saddened by life … can we still not despair, not give in, not grow bitter … but look for signs of life, and welcome them with joy. Because even in the darkest times God continues to do good.
It’s not just a matter of being an optimist or being a pessimist … as though the world might be either wonderful or awful depending upon how we look at it. It’s about reality. Is God’s kingdom really among us? Or have we hoped in vain? Is Jesus someone we can trust? Or have we been led up the garden path?
We have to ask him this morning: “Are you the one or must we wait for someone else?” Ask him!
December 13th, 1998
Maltravers Herald Extraordinary, Portcullis Pursuivant, Silver Stick in Waiting. No they’re not race horses. Just good signs of Advent.
According to this morning’s papers the Clinton case continues to ooze on, tangled in its trails of weaselly rhetoric; Germany continues to agonise over the Holocaust and the place of memory and shame in its present; and, judging by the added weight of the New York Times magazine, we continue to be bedazzled by ads for things we can’t afford, couldn’t use, and have nowhere to put.
Aaah … A long year closes and another begins, tipping over the insubstantial borderline from undigested turkey into the undignified downhill dash to Christmas. At the supermarket all the potted mums have been magicked into poinsettias. There are twitching strings of white lights everywhere … and we remember it was just like this last year. And just like this someone in church was asking us to hope and wait and wonder our way through Advent. And we did. We hoped. We waited. We wondered. And here we are to do it all again … round and round, year after year.
Our year with its rhythms, secular and sacred, can lull us to sleep. Nothing new. Nothing new. Nothing new. …Is this our Advent?
We were eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage, buying and selling, planting and building, and we knew nothing about it until the flood came and swept us all away.
Two of us were sitting at mass: one was taken and the other left. Two of us were on the way to Safeway: one was taken and the other left. Two of us were watching The X Files: one was taken and the other left. Two of us were fretting over unpaid bills: one was taken and the other left.
There’s an Advent message: Stay awake! Because time is short, is running out, has almost gone. The smell of the storm is on our lips; the flood is around our feet, the fire is in our hair. Wake up! Time is not a ticking clock but a ticking bomb.
Not a nice message at all. More than a hint of a slap across the face in it. Just a little too like the alarm clock going off too soon when we were slap in the centre of a nice dream. “Oh leave me alone … let me sleep.” Well the Advent clock has no snooze button. And tomorrow will be too late. Advent isn’t the beginning of a new cycle, a new year, … once more round the clock. Advent is the interruption of time. A break with the past and a new hope for the future.
It’s a little thing but Maltravers Herald Extraordinary and friends have gone for good. The British House of Lords will never be the same again. And I for one won’t be crying. … Anything you’d like to get rid of this Advent? Anything you’d like to see changed? A break with the past? A hope for the future?
Isaiah has a vision of time broken open and God at last doing something, fulfilling the divine promise. The promise of peace. Complete peace. No more war, no more preparation for war, no more weapons of war. Swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, bombs into plant pots. But how many of us believe that promise? I mean really believe it? Believe it might happen in our time. Believe not just with our heads but with our bones and blood. Believe that history might not repeat itself, again. Believe that we might see something new under the sun?
I don’t. I expect business as usual. The intricate profits of arms sales, the delicate negotiations of terror, the bitter thrill of win or lose. That’s what I expect. And, because my heart beats with too regular a rhythm it has no place for real peace. I suspect real peace has no chance. I suspect God has no chance. Unless my heart can be broken … open. Can stop beating its idle rhythm and wake to a daring dream, God’s dream. But I don’t want to risk the hope. I don’t want to trust the dream. Because if I did who knows what I might find myself doing, today, now, this Advent.
We’ve probably all made a mistake by coming here this morning … because by being here we have committed ourselves to Advent. To ridiculous waking dreams. To interrupted rhythms. By being here we are saying yes to something, something still whispered but something growing louder all the time. We are speaking that yes in our hearts even now. We will say Amen to it when we let our hunger bring us to the table. And in a moment we’ll proclaim it out loud as we pledge our Advent faith and renew our baptismal promises.
Because this morning we do a very Advent thing: We welcome a child. ________________ joins us this morning as God’s gift to us. He’s a sign of something new, something beginning. Will _________ know peace in his time? That’s up to us. Will he grow up to change the world? That’s up to us. In baptism he becomes a new creation. May we be made new as well.
November 29th, 1998
Pardon the distance — but I thought that given the subject matter this morning it was safer. I’ve been slapped across the face only once in my life and that was at the end of a conversation —I should probably say an argument — that I started by saying “You can’t be a real Christian unless you understand royalty.” It was a while ago, and I was being naïve and cantankerous, and I certainly deserved the surprise ending, but I think I still believe what I said.
But how do you speak about Christ the King in a nation founded on a bloody revolt against royalty and the power of kings? God help us, it’s hard enough to do it in England where we know monarchy only too well! Did any of you see the interview with Princess Diana the other night? A show of hands? When it was shown in England last week the national electricity companies had to be ready for the enormous surge in demand when, at the end of the interview, half the nation got up and switched on their electric tea-kettles to make tea.
But you can bet it wasn’t reverence for royalty that drew the audience but more likely a taste for scandal and a chance to gawk at the downfall of the mighty.
England or America, there or here, kings and queens seem outmoded, elitist, and faintly ridiculous. So, what do we do with a feast like this? When the writers of scripture choose to talk about God as King what are they trying to convey, what are they grasping after?
Partly it’s about power: the safety of knowing that someone almighty is in control to defend you.
Partly it’s about majesty and awe: recognising and submitting to a glory way beyond your own.
And partly its about kinship: having the “bone of your bone, the flesh of your flesh,” to care for you and keep you.
But of course all these things — power, majesty, and kinship — have been used instead, all down the ages, to oppress, to pacify, and to patronise.
And then it becomes convenient to justify the pattern of power here on earth by looking to the heavens and finding the same system there. Human beings have always projected into heaven the form of government they believe in here on earth — good or bad. And whether the pattern we project is monarchy, or democracy, or something else, it remains an agreeable illusion in place of reality — which prompts a deep question: what, in reality, are the politics of paradise? If heaven isn’t a royal court, what is it? A House of Representatives?
Our forebears in faith saw, in the regal image of divine government, a God who was intimately, and positively, involved with daily life, a God whose rule extended directly to the poorest in the land. They saw a God they were related to, a God they could be in awe of, a God who made a difference in their world.
What do we see when we turn to heaven with our model of government?
If we view government as being basically about keeping in check the nastier inclinations of humanity, what will we see in heaven?
If we regard government as being best when it interferes least, what will we see in heaven?
If we believe government provides the boundaries of law, inside which we are left alone to do what we like, what will we see in heaven?
Do we want to be related to God the same way we are to our government? Paying taxes and protecting our freedom? Its a problem! But what’s the alternative?
If we refuse to project our politics into heaven, how else will we relate to God? Typically, for us, it’s through freely chosen friendship. We let God be our friend. God is my friend and God is your friend, and yours. Never before in the history of humanity has God had so many friends, yet never before have so many people been poor and hungry and neglected!
Friendship doesn’t feed the children!
What’s going on in Washington with the budget and the welfare bill is precisely important here:
What is at stake is more than you or me — at stake is the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom of heaven if we don’t believe in kings? What is God’s government meant to be here on earth — here in the United States?
Listen again to the language of Luke’s gospel as the people jeer at Jesus. “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” “Aren’t you the Messiah, then save yourself and us.” Save, save, save. Kingship and the power to save go together. Government has to be about more than leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Government has to about salvation. Yet here is the supposed King unable to save himself. Here is the governor fallen victim to the power of government. In his day, he was crushed by that power. In our day, he would more likely fall through the cracks and die ignored in an alley somewhere.
The good thief, as we call him, seems to understand some of that paradox: he both recognises the innocence of Jesus and acknowledges his kingship. He asks that Jesus remember him when he comes into his power. And Jesus’ response should shock us: today you will be with me in paradise. Jesus is already in his power. He already has the power to save. Even strung out on a criminal cross, he governs. Even here is the kingdom and the reign of God.
If we are looking for the politics of paradise — and I can think of nothing we need more urgently — then only here will we find a clue.
November 22nd, 1998
They were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on that day it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed all of them—it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.
Whew! Don’t you wish we could skip these bits and just get on to the nicer parts of Advent? We don’t need this end-of-the-world nonsense. What was Jesus thinking? It isn’t the way to make a good impression. … But he does it … every year … tries to scare the life into us.
There will be two sitting at mass: one will be taken and the other left.
There will be two on the way to Costco: one will be taken and the other left.
Two watching X Files: one will be taken and the other left.
Two fretting over a mid-term: one will be taken and the other left.
The day of the Son of Man brings disaster into our domesticity. Our busy little lives are ended. There’s no turning back for belongings—cos nothing belongs to us anymore. There’s no going home—cos home is gone.
When the smell of the storm is on our lips, when the flood is around our feet, when the fire is in our hair, it’s too late to worry about what used to be. When the end breaks in it ruins everything …
So are our lives until then emptied of importance? Should we stop our buying and selling, our cooking and writing, our teaching and praying? They’re only going to be ruined in the end.
Ah, but maybe the rumour of ruin might give our lives in the meantime a different and holy unease. Because there’ve been some things we’ve been putting off. There’ve been some decisions we’ve been keeping on a back burner. There’ve been phone calls not made, apologies not attempted, words of love unspoken, heroism delayed, hope unheeded, yearning suppressed. There’ve been far too many things we’ve been getting round to … some time soon.
Well maybe if the time were short, if we could already smell the sulphur, well maybe we’d do what we really want to do, what we’ve been wondering about for ages. Maybe …And maybe Jesus would like that.
November 13th, 1998
The following excerpts are taken from the pamphlet “The Eden Virus” written by Adam Child-Of-God five years ago in 2022.
No one imagined, when the so-called millennium swine flu began its spread around the globe in late 1999, that its impact would be as great as it was. Indeed experts paid scant attention to the uncommonly mild flu strain except to note how contagious it seemed to be. In fact, by May of the year 2000 just about every human being on the planet had been infected; many unawares. Even among the elderly and weak few deaths were recorded: a most un-momentous epidemic for the turn of the millennium.
Only as the months passed did the hidden effects of the virus become apparent as it grew clear that death rates were plummeting world-wide. In the developed countries, the only deaths recorded after August 2000 were through violence or accident. The pattern was global: no one was dying from what had before been “natural causes.” But whereas, in the Northern nations violence surfaced from the sea of other factors, in the South it was poverty and starvation which took their toll along with earthquake and hurricane and flood. The “Eden Virus,” as the press called it, promised eternal life but offered no relief from poverty.
The second effect of the virus was even slower to be seen: sterility. The mortality rate may have fallen enormously but the birth rate was down to zero. Absolutely no births were registered worldwide after the turn of 2001. Not a single child has been born since.
These simple facts, so familiar now, sent the old world into shock and the new millennium opened with the terrors of the Great Tribulation which still ache in our hearts. It is that ache, my children, which makes us, the undeserving remnant, ask again the Great Questions. The Eden Virus has made it clear that all we once did and once knew was shot through with the certainty of death and birth. All our customs have had to change. And all our values. So we have to ask and ask again.
- Now that each life is irreplaceable we ask: what is the measure of its worth?
- We no longer marry or are taken in marriage but we still ask: how can love live for ever?
- The poor are still with us so we ask: how can we let death starve our kin?
- Facing an endless span of years we ask: why do we keep on living? what is the meaning of our everlasting life?
- We have found rest from the race against time so we ask: what are we to do now with our time, our talent, and our treasure?
Children of God, these are among the Great Questions of Eden. Ask them and ask again.
November 8th, 1998
I don’t know what it’s like in the Philippines but back in Britain when it comes to election time you just have the one choice to make—who do I want to represent me in the parliament? And I find that hard enough! How do you get on here? Where everybody seems to be elected … senators, governors, judges, police officials, school boards, … and everything has to be decided by vote … “yes on 5” or “no on E.”
How do you take it all in? I mean, faced with all those choices on Election Day, how do you remember what you want to vote for? Or how do you even make up your mind in the first place? Some of the stuff seems so technical and some of the flyers that come round to help you choose seem to contradict each other. And that’s not considering the TV ads. Davis and Lundgren trying to out do each other in sleaze and innuendo and downright lies. They can’t both be telling the truth. They’re probably both telling lies. One of them will be elected, lies and all. It frightens me.
It frightens me especially that here, like nowhere else in the world, each person has so much power and so much responsibility, that it’s almost impossible to use it carefully and properly. On so many issues it’s going to come down to money—which side spends most; hires the most devious campaign manager; shells out for the best ads; slings the most effective mud. Who can blame people for not voting? It’s only a cynical lottery anyway. And what does it matter who I vote for because once they’re in power they’ll do whatever they want anyway. Who can blame people for not voting?
I think God can. And does.
Today, All Saints day, we find ourselves calling on all those holy men and women through the ages who have chosen well. We celebrate them because of their good choices. Sometimes big choices, heroic choices, that won them martyrdom. Sometimes little daily choices that shaped their lives into a pattern that Jesus might have lived if he were in their shoes. But all of them choices they made from listening to God moving in their hearts.
The astonishing thing is that so few of the saints we Honor today ever had the freedom and responsibility that we do: the chance to vote. And that’s a problem for us because we don’t yet know how to be holy people and political people at the same time because we have no examples. Our saints have taught us how to be holy in our private lives, they have shown us about charity, heroism, Honor, piety, virtue, forgiveness, resistance. They have shown us how to die and how to live … but they have not shown us how to vote.
And that’s not because it doesn’t matter to God … just that this is the first time the chance has come up. So, come Tuesday, it’s not just this proposition or that politician at stake but our own holiness. Are we saints in the making, are we children of God, growing to be more and more like God … or not. Big choice. Big responsibility.
But how do we decide? I don’t think we’ll know for sure until we have a bunch of new saints who were good voters, good politically holy people. And that’ll have to wait. But in the meantime what can we do to choose as Jesus would choose. Number one, in my opinion, is to drop the slogans: the politicians brag about being pro-choice or pro-life depending upon who they think they are talking to. And they lie too. So counting issues like that is a mess. I think we have to do a great and very presumptuous thing … step into Jesus’ shoes, see the thing his way, and vote the way he would vote.
How to do that? There’s probably no better way than trying to get into the skin of the man who spoke the words we heard this morning: all those ‘blessed’s. Where is Jesus’ heart? With those whose spirit is broken, those who have lost what they loved, those without a voice, those who yearn for the bread of justice. On the side of mercy not punishment, at home with passion not comfort, with the one’s who risk peace beyond the safe confines of violence.
But how does that fill out the ballot? Who knows? There’s no way to predict what you’ll see through his eyes if you ask to. Or what you’ll feel if you ask to feel with his heart. But who knows what might happen if you tried it. To you, to this city, to this state. If we all let Jesus vote through us.
November 1st, 1998
It’s been the placards that have haunted me these last few days—even more than the awful image of a young man beaten, his skull smashed in, tied to a fence post, mistaken for a scarecrow—the placards at the funeral of Matthew Shepard. Placards carried by a bunch of demonstrators from a local church. “God hates fags.” Another, “Matthew was wicked.”
That’s one way to respond to evil and violence and hatred: join in—better yet—get God to join in too. Hold up your proud heads and your eloquent hands and get one last blow in before the body is taken from you. One of those holy protesters spoke up to the press, “I’m here to spread some truth in this orgy of lies.” The same kind of truth, the same true kindness, offered in recent Christian TV shows and newspaper ads. “God hates fags, so let us cure you of your wickedness and remake you in our own image.”
How do you deal with that? How do you respond? At the funeral the mourners stood in front of the placards and blocked the view with umbrellas and drowned the slogans with “Amazing Grace.” A dignified and graceful response to hate—but really only a makeshift, masking the reality rather than dealing with it.
The reality was inside: a young man, quiet, gentle by all accounts, and dead before his time. How do you make sense of that? Every one was trying to make sense of it. Maybe, they said, maybe Matthew’s death will bring some good, melt some hearts, allow some change. The young guy who found Matthew wondered why he found him alive if all he did was die anyway. Others were just saying it’s God’s will, echoing unthinkingly the placards outside. And one of the eulogies made the connection between the body trussed to the wooden post and the ancient body of Jesus nailed to the wood of the cross. But it’s too easy to invoke the figure on the cross, too easy to defuse the anger and the hurt and the betrayal, too easy to let God off the hook. Because who’s to say the placards aren’t right? And if they’re not then why did God let this happen? Or any of the other things that routinely shake our faith: the senseless deaths, the untimely illnesses, the erasure of beauty, the pointless cruelties. Maybe there’s no sense to be made of it all. Maybe all we can do is complain that it should not be so. So choose your own complaint but do complain. Because it’s too easy to let God off the hook, too easy because when we do we let ourselves off the hook too. When we excuse God’s bad behaviour we excuse our own. When we justify God’s indifference or tardiness or neglect we justify our own indifference, tardiness and neglect. But why do we try and protect God this way? Isn’t God big enough to hear our complaints? Can’t God bear the burden of reality? Or are we just afraid of making God angry and finding ourselves on the receiving end?
“When the Son of man comes will he find any faith on the earth?” That’s what St. Luke wonders. Or will we have stopped complaining, stopped caring? The parable of the widow isn’t about nagging God until you get what you want. It isn’t even about nagging God until you get what you need. It is about nagging each other and letting ourselves be nagged by what should not be. Not being silent. Not forgetting. Not tolerating evil meekly. Not letting anyone off the hook.
Because that’s what the gospel says: whatever it may look like, however much it may seem impossible, God is on the side of Matthew Shepard. Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. and the mown down dead of Northern Ireland and Bosnia. On the side of battered women, hungry children, desperate migrants, homeless beggars, the ruined earth. And let me tell you, God is pissed! God is not happy! God’s list of complaints is mighty long.
So when the placards go up and the voices of hate are raised what do we have to lift up in response? Something more than masking umbrellas? When the bodies are tied to the fence posts, or beaten in back alleys, or crushed into closets—where are we? Are we going to raise the roof in protest? Or will we stay silent? Because if we fail to complain we fail our faith and we miss another chance to know God. Because if we are not in God’s face about this then God will be in ours. And God loves fags.
October 18th, 1998
Sometimes we have to go a long way from home to meet the God who has been with us since the beginning.
I remember, six years ago, dreading the thought of leaving England to come here to America. I remember looking to the west and seeing only darkness, thinking, “There’s no one there I know, not a person within 10,000 miles.” And though that was quite true, I was surprised from the beginning of being here how much it felt like home, more like home than home did. But you know what surprised more than anything was that God was already here when I arrived. And not just floating around vaguely but solidly in one specific place. I would be walking around the Campus in Berkeley just marvelling at being here and I would feel this warm breeze that would get my attention and it would feel like nothing so much as being breathed upon. Breathed upon by God. God was breathing on me out of these green bushes, round the corners of paths, crossing over bridges. I’d feel this warm breath and I’d stop and feel blessed. I’d feel welcomed. And I’d feel in the right place. And it has been the right place.
Sometimes we have to go a long way from home to meet the God who has loved us since the beginning. Two years ago I took a couple of friends around some of the holy places of my country. One was Rievaulx, a beautiful ruined Cistercian Abbey, built in the twelfth century and demolished in the sixteenth. It’s quiet there and green and the stones, in the sun, glow golden. One of my friends sat down in the shade on one of those stones … and sat and sat … He said it was as if the stone had roots that went down to the middle of the earth and he could feel the slow ages of prayer that it had overheard. A peace grew up from the earth and drew him deep down to his own roots, to a place where he could tell truth from lies, and doubt from desire. A place with no plastic—only stone and a faithful God he could trust.
My other friend wandered around absorbed in his thoughts until his daydreams seemed to come alive wondering about the monks who had once been in this place. He found himself imagining talking to one of them about what his life was like and found his own yearning for companionship answered in him. That imagined monk goes with him still, whispering God’s trust in him.
Myself I met Aelred, 8 centuries ago the abbot of the place, and I left a part of me there in his care, for his healing. On holy ground.
Sometimes we have to go a long way from home to meet the God who has been beside us from the beginning. But when we meet him we never want to let him go. Like Naaman in the bible we want to take home a whole pile of dirt so we have our own holy ground to pray on. My two friends took home souvenirs: posters, books, but above all stone and earth—the physical substance of the place. And they took home a real experience of God.
Do you know what I mean? Has that ever happened to you? Has God ever surprised you by turning up unexpectedly? I believe we all have some story to tell. And so often our stories involve being in a strange place, of being foreigners in a foreign land, because so often we get so used to where we live that we don’t see its strangeness and so used to God’s presence that we no longer notice. But when we are away from home maybe God gets a chance to sneak up on us unawares.
If we’ve gotten this far, if we have our own stories to tell of unexpected, holy places, we’ve gotten about as far as those ten lepers cured by Jesus. All ten are deeply blessed. Presumably they all jumped for joy at what happened. Probably they all told the story for the rest of their lives. But what marks out the one guy who came back to Jesus is just that—he came back to the place where it all happened and he didn’t let it the story be finished. He wanted the story to continue.
I doubt it’s a coincidence that he was a foreigner—even among outcasts—but by going back he ceased to be a stranger. He saw Jesus face to face. He stopped being part of a crowd and became a person. But Jesus too stopped being a name he’d heard about and became a person. Someone with a face and a voice and a smell.
That’s our invitation always. To meet the God who is always with us wherever he turns up. And to keep on coming back to that place until we know his face and know his voice and know his smell.
October 11th, 1998