Archive for January, 2000
My history with telling people to shut up has not been a good one! I remember saying it my grandmother … I can’t remember what on earth she was saying to annoy me but I, 7 or 8 years old, remember very well the look that crossed her face … but even today I can’t put a name to it, a name to fix the emotion and make it manageable.
I think I gave up telling adults to be quiet after that, even though part of me thought that since they were always telling me to be quiet, to hush up, to sit still, to stop making a noise, then why couldn’t I return the favour. Anyway, prudence won out over my childish principles and I moved on in my acts of silencing to my peers. It’s a great way to handle schoolyard disputes, especially if you are quicker of tongue than you are fleet of foot or strong of limb. And the language of my childhood was full of choice idioms to help you win your carefully reasoned argument. Once I’d mastered “shut up,” there was “shut your cake-hole,” “shut your trap,” “shut your gob,” “put a sock in it,” etc. If the other kid was smaller you could always add a threat, from the humble “shut up or I’ll shut you up” … right up to the elaborate “are you talking to me or chewing a brick ’cause either you’re gonna lose your teeth.”
Now in adult life you haven’t got such an arsenal to play with. Silencing the other is a much more subtle game and the other is more usually friend than foe. But the cold shoulder, the blank gaze, the creative misunderstanding, the un-returned phone call, the calculated insult, the carefully withheld affection—these all work pretty well. But it is a dangerous game. Not just because the other—the lover, the comrade, the friend—is fighting back with the same weapons and you might lose … but, far worse, you might win. I hate to think of the friendships frozen, the loves lessened, the distances nurtured by winning the game of silence. And the nameless and un-nameable look that turns victory into loss. There’s nothing worse than getting what you want only to discover you’ve lost something better. And once you’ve silenced someone you love you might never hear the voice again as it was, as you remember, as your heart desires.
It’s the same with God. Once upon a time God walked in the cool of the afternoon with Adam and Eve. Once upon a time God thundered on Horeb’s heights and laid down a covenant with the impetuous people of Israel. Yet they told God to shut up. “Let us not again hear the voice of Adonai, our God, not see this great fire any more, lest we die.” “You’re suffocating me God … I need my space.” And from then on, in the Bible, God grows ever more silent, speaking to fewer and fewer of the people. Speaking only second hand through prophets, third-hand though scripture scholars, fourth-hand through preachers. And in a way too the world has grown silent—ceasing to shout out the glory of God whether we like it or not—and now only whispering that presence when we strain our hearts to hear. We have shut God up and now we have to strain to hear God’s voice at all. Maybe if we could retrace our steps to that moment at Mt Horeb’s feet and silence our own request for silence—maybe then God would be more apparent, more present. But we’d also have to unlearn the cold-shoulder, the blank gaze, the carefully withheld affection that we have honed to sustain that divine silence.
Maybe. Maybe that would be the whole story if it weren’t for the Incarnation. “In the beginning was the WORD,” says John. And the Jesus we’ve been walking with these last few weeks is a master of words and a master of silence. He emerges quietly out of a silent life to be baptized. He strides into the desert to silence Satan with a word. He walks the water’s edge and summons disciples who drop everything at his word. And here today he stills an unquiet spirit’s howling with another word: “Quiet!” The word in the original is another idiom, one you’d use to silence a yapping dog: “Be muzzled!” “Muzzle it!” And it works. Silence! Silence and amazement and noisily spreading fame.
God has not given up on the human race no matter the human race’s desire to keep God at arms length. The Jesus that strides through the gospel is a mystery but a loud mystery—you can’t shut him up … though he’s very good at shutting up others. He uses the art of silencing with panache.
But there’s a difference worth paying attention to. Back on Horeb and ever since we have asked not to hear the voice of God, the voice of goodness, because we have been afraid to bear the weight of its blessing, afraid it might be too good to be true. Jesus, on the other hand, shuts up only the voice of the raging spirit, the dark voice that echoes inside us each and all, shouting sorrow or whispering despair. And there’s our choice and our challenge: which spirit do we listen to from day to day: the inner words that bless our lives or the interior dialogue of death and decay … The spirits of God drawing us to life and hope and happiness or the condemning spirits speaking gloom, captivity, and confusion. Which do we listen to? And which do we silence?
Or let’s turn it around right now … Right now, out of all the babble that fills your head and mine, what does Jesus really not want to hear? What do we need him to silence inside us? to muzzle for us and shut up? … Because he will if asked …
And in all our heart’s chatter what does Jesus most deeply want to listen to? Of all the things we might say right now what does he want to hear? And if you have a hunch—even a tiny one—of what it might be, well, trust it for a moment and speak to him.
January 30th, 2000
If he comes near me ever again I’ll give that boy Jesus a piece of my mind. Hell! I’ll give him piece of my fist. Trouble-maker! Home-breaker! Arrogant, self-centred, son-of-a-…
—What do you mean, “who do I think I am?”
I’ll tell you who I think I am. You all sit here so calm and so quiet and listen to how my sons were snatched from me and you think it’s so wonderful. Do you think they are heroic getting up at the snap of his fingers and marching off after him? Stupid is what they are! Stupid and heartless and bad sons to me and my wife, Sarah. Children should respect their parents. Listen to them. Take care of them. But not mine. Not James. Not John. Brainwashed by some back-street beggar with wild eyes and a clever tongue. Homeless they are now. And we’ll soon be the same, Sarah and me, the whole fishing business in ruins, the hired men let go, the nets in tatters. I needed them. And they went anyway. Well they are no sons of mine. See! I renounce them! They want to go. Let them!
Hush Zeb! Hush …
He’s right it hasn’t been easy since they went. Went without even a goodbye they did. It’s true. Left the nets a mess. Just looked over at their Dad and then at Jesus and got up and went with him. I saw it all. I was counting fish and I saw it all. But I’ve wondered—over and again—what went on inside them … what could have been so … attractive … compelling … about Jesus for them to just up and follow him like that?
Poor Zebedee will never get over it. He shouted after them, threatened, shook—the way he does—but they didn’t even look back. It hurt him bad—his boys gone over to a cult! Hurt me too—oh God yes … but—don’t tell this to Zebedee—I’ve been watching them when I can, watching Jim and John, and … and … yes, they are a mess, yes they are mixed up with tax-collectors and prostitutes, yes and terrorists and traitors too … but I’ve never seen them more … content, more happy, more … I don’t know! We used to have to drag them to synagogue but here they are talking about God like he was a family friend. They’re not bored any more. I thought there’d be glazed eyes and zombie-talk but they are so alive.
So do I think they betrayed us, Zeb and me? God Yes! Does my heart break every morning when I remember they’ve gone? Yes. But do I understand them? … Yes. And if I had my chance, you know, I think would give my right arm to have what they have, and do what they have done! Yes!
Look, it’s no use trying to explain to them. You understand that. You’ve been there yourself, after all. You’ve seen him too. Heard his voice speak your name the way he did ours. You’ve met Jesus too, the way we did and felt his invitation—hell his summons! And it’s turned you upside down the way it did us, right? How can you explain that?
… Better to be penniless with him than rich and alone, better to be homeless with him than under a roof and alone, better to be friendless with him than loved by everyone and alone.
—What did they tell you? That we are bad kids? out of our minds? selfish? Well maybe we are … but like he says, “the reign of God is at hand.” At hand! That changes everything.
Look, you understand how we got up and left—you’ve done it yourself. You’ve heard the words he held behind your eyes. You know there’s no turning back.
So … if you see them, Mom and Dad, maybe you can explain something to them. That this is the time for change and there are bigger fish to catch.
January 23rd, 2000
Three images, three voices.
Round about the year 270 The story goes that Anthony heard this gospel and did what it said: he sold what he had and gave the money to the poor. So began a trajectory that carried him further and further away from ordinary life, deeper and deeper into the desert, down and down into the solitude of a hermit’s cell.
“Whoever sits in solitude and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, and seeing. Yet against one thing he must constantly battle: his own heart.”
Take God’s word at its word and see where it gets you? Take it literally and you cannot avoid extremism.
1963 The cell isn’t always sought out. The Civil Rights Marches in Birmingham, Alabama, got Martin Luther King thrown into his cell. When a bunch of white pastors of the city condemned him for turning up and causing violence King responded with words smuggled to freedom.
“Isn’t that like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? … The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
Five years later he was dead. Take God’s word at it word and see where it gets you?
2000 Sometimes someone does both: lives half a life in a cell against his will but then returns in freedom. Nelson Mandela at the stroke of the New Millennium on Robben Island kindling a candle and carrying it out of his former cell and handing it over to his nation.
“I have been fortunate to live through most of the century. In some ways we outstreaked the achievements of our ancestors, in other ways we fell short of what we hoped for and what was indeed possible. So we close the century with most people still languishing in poverty, subjected to hunger and disease. [But I know] there are good men and women around the world that will always keep this flame burning.”
What would happen if we took God’s word at its word?
Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers,
against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.
“It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
January 17th, 2000
When Moses, high on Mount Sinai, asks to see God’s glory, God does indeed agree to pass by him and reveal the holy splendour. But there are conditions: First, Moses must hide in a cleft of the rock because God’s presence is so powerful it would roast him; and second, since no one can see God’s face and live, Moses is only going to get to see God’s rear. Yes God’s behind. God’s backside. What Jo Milgrom, Jewish scholar, once called a theo-fanny.
Well even with these precautions you know from Cecil B De Mille the experience turns Moses hair grey and makes it stand on end for the rest of the movie.
No wonder then that the disciples in the boat are terrified when Jesus in turn intends to pass by them walking on stormy waves in the watch of the night. They are terrified. They think they have seen a ghost. Something dead walking. Now, Jesus is all reassurance and calm but Mark wants us to know they all were so afraid because they hadn’t got it about the loaves whatever that means —the miracle of the feeding had passed them by. Maybe? But what’s our excuse?
Let me not accuse you of being as screwed up as I am—what’s my excuse? I know that Jesus spends much of my waking hours trying to pass by me—trying to show himself to me—trying to convince me of his love, convince me of his care, convince me even of his need. But I am not impressed. I don’t even have the decency to be afraid most of the time … I have perfected the art of looking the other way. Like Elijah’s copycat theophany in Moses’ cold cave on Sinai, when God tries to pass him by the flame and fire are empty, the earthquake and thunder are empty, all Elijah can hear is the sound of nothing.
It’s a strange resistance in me because, in fact, all my experience of Jesus has been good. He has never scared me … but he has soothed my pain. He has never threatened me but he has held me while I cried. He has never abused me but he has believed in me when no other would.
“We have come to know,” says John, “the love God has for us.” True! But still, lest my hair turn white and stand on end, I flinch, I turn my back and I pass on by.
I think I know why: I think if I saw him face to face, without disguise, I think if I saw those eyes reflecting mine, I think, then, I would fall in love. And God knows where that would lead me!
January 8th, 2000
Time for an informal millennium survey: hands up if you partied the night away; hands up if you celebrated quietly with friends or family; hands up if you met the New Millennium tucked safely in your bed!
To be honest the whole day was a couch potato’s paradise, a channel surfer’s dream. I tuned in early on Friday morning just wanting to check if the lights had been going out all over the world as a new dark age fell upon us. I didn’t believe it would but you’ve got to make sure haven’t you. It could have. The way people were talking the world seemed so fragile—so interconnected and interdependent—with the bubble of technology about ready to burst. But of course it didn’t, it hasn’t.
Instead I found myself captivated by images of celebration from all around the world. The whole round world in on the party and vying to do it best. Even places with no investment in the Christian calendar were in on the act because their computers at any rate were Christian. The TV is Christian, Coca Cola is Christian. Or ticks to the Christian clock.
Epiphany! The whole world celebrating the birth of Christ? Was it? What were we celebrating as the dead of night rolled around the globe? There was so much dazzle, each time zone turning up the tech to make the darkness as bright as can be and show it off to the world. Fireworks. Lasers. Confetti cannons. Crystal balls. All computer-controlled.
The wonders of science made all this possible. Science gave it all the thrill of possible disaster too. One world. One party. One light.
Those three wise men, three kings, magi—they followed their best wisdom, used their best star charts, calculated with their best clocks, applied all the science and came all that way to touch the place where God was being unveiled on earth. And they found a strangely vulnerable God. Not in a palace. Not even in a home. But out in the cold. Companioned by cows. Bedded in straw. God in a woman’s arms, hungry for milk, needing … everything.
Where in the world was God unveiled these last days? Well “everywhere” is surely one answer. Everywhere if you care to look. In the laughter and the dancing, in the quiet toasts and the auld langs ayne, even in the snoring. But three images from that global hullabaloo shed a more focused light.
The first moment of the new millennium in the farthest east. An old man paddling a canoe into pacific darkness with a young boy holding up a burning torch, carrying a light kindled in darkness out for the whole world. An island in the middle of nowhere. A fragile light that could have gone out at any moment. Who knows where it will end up? Epiphany.
The first child of the new millennium. Born in New Zealand as the clock ticked one minute into the year. Not one of the contenders for the Honor, the countless contrived conceptions, hungry for fame, but unnamed, anonymous, and protected by parents from publicity and saved for sponsorship. But sadly not safe from the fragility of all life. He’s not doing well. Hanging on. Just. And he may not make it. And I think that could have been me—I might never have made it into the world—and it could have been Jesus. The magi might have followed their star and found not a babe born to be king but a grieving mother inconsolable by gold, frankincense, and myrrh. God has some stupid ideas. To enter the world in so fragile a form. Not even protected by palaces and power but poor, exposed, and on the run. A light flickering in the darkness. Who knows where it will end up? Epiphany.
Another image. An old man returning to the cell where the prime of his life was wasted. Nelson Mandela on Robben Island lighting a candle and handing it on to his successor. Handing it on to us too. A very fragile light. Held up against bitterness, against regret, against despair. An unwanted light maybe. Not easy to bear. Who knows where it will end up? Epiphany.
Here we are at the beginning of a Jubilee year. These days we are all magi. But we don’t have to “traverse afar” since the whole world now comes to our door and leaves its gifts whether we want them or not. And God is unveiled all around us, as fragile as ever, as vulnerable, and as much in need. God has some stupid ideas. Perhaps the strangest is to involve you and me in all this. To hand us this obscure light and say take it and paddle your canoe out into the dark ocean. Take it and don’t let its life go out. Take it and don’t let it be imprisoned or hidden or snuffed out.
Who knows where it will end up? Epiphany.
January 6th, 2000