Archive for 2002
It’s here. Whether our advent waiting has grown as heavy as a filling womb or has raced and jittered headlong to a distracted end. Either way it’s here: the close of waiting and the opening of wonder. Because the “it” is a “he”. And, suddenly, we have far less than we wanted and far, far more. We wanted a God to fill our shortfall, to release our captives, to bind up our wounds—how can we not be disappointed: “you give me this? beautiful, yes, delicate, wondrous, yes, but this? ”
Here, on our hands, is a child—fresh with blood and membrane and yelling for his very life. Who wants a God you can touch? Not like this—vulnerable, demanding, hungry, needy.
A baby to change things. He has to be cared for—not now and then when the mood takes but always, constantly, incessantly. God demanding to be held; crying to be fed; needing to be touched—his flesh pressed to our flesh. Our God needs us. Cannot live without us.
So we pick him up. Gently, hesitantly. Cradle his head. Breath held. Gaze. He is warm. Smells … with that scent of new-babies. He weighs fragile and breathing in the crook of an arm. And, though they say they can’t, he looks—violet eyes find you, hold you. Tiny fingers curl; grasp. New life wriggles, rests, turns to you. A heartbeat echoes your own. His hand touches you. A delicate blessing.
There should be firelight. There should be angels. And kings.
Well, he has us. You and me and him. And candlelight. Carols. Hopes. Promises. Dreams. Lullabies. God touches us.
December 24th, 2002
Why here, why now, and why Mary? … I wonder…
Maybe, in part, because God has a liking for the edge of nowhere, with the poor, the barren, and the lowly. Maybe that’s why God dodges the palace, dodges the emperors’ city, dodges the learned and the rich and all the mighty in any way. But of all the poor, of all the hungry, all the empty why Mary? Why this particular young girl? That’s what I wonder …
I wonder if what is special about her is just one simple thing: maybe it’s just that she noticed when Gabriel came calling. You see, I wonder whether there aren’t annunciations everyday, in every place, in every century. I wonder if angels haven’t been introducing themselves since Eve, since Adam. “Hail Sarah!” Nothing! “Hail Beatrice!” Perhaps a glimmer! “Hail Kylie!” Silence. But, “Hail Mary …” Wow, a response! “Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with you”. Mary actually hears. She notices the unnoticeable angel’s voice. …
I wonder whether Gabriel and his ilk aren’t hurrying angel-wise even now, even here, eyes full of messages simple as sunlight. And I wonder whether I’m missing them—whether they pass me by, no more than a queasy plunge in the pit of my stomach, no more than a shiver of significance twisting down my spine, no more than a burden of joy briefly shouldered and just as swiftly shelved.
Are there frustrated angels with us even now, even here, brushing by on feathered feet, breathing benedictions, and aching for imagination to shape their mystery into message and give them voice. For I imagine them mute—mute and barely visible—until a human heart discerns them, fashions them flesh, and offers them speech.
Are they here now, heartfelt and eager and pregnant with possibility? For the one who was born, an age or two ago, of a young Mary’s “yes” they still bear in urgent arms to be born again in you or in me—that same child of God who might change the world. Might change the world, might lift up the lowly, might visit us with peace—if only we, like she, have a vulnerable heart, an imagination full of hope, and the humble courage to consent.
December 21st, 2002
My brother Phil and his wife Jen discovered a couple of weeks ago that she was pregnant and a second child was on the way, a brother or a sister to my beautiful little niece Becky. Great Advent news! Five days later that little life was lost when Jenny miscarried in the night.
What can you make of that? … of that waste? … of that empty finality?
I’m not sure… but this … maybe…
Every act of love is a risk. Every conception is a miracle—a dangerous, dicey, risky miracle. What possesses anyone to take such a risk?! Only love I guess. Love and the hope of life.
And this, too, is how God chooses to enter our world: just a cell or two in a fragile womb. How can God be so bold? How can God be so terrifyingly vulnerable? Only love I guess and the hope of life.
December 19th, 2002
Part of our community Christmas is a gift-exchange … but with a twist. Every one buys something simple, wraps it, and puts the gift under the tree. Then come the day we each draw a number from the hat and the person with number one gets to pick a present and open it. Easy! But then Number Two has a difficult choice: delve under the tree for some unknown gift or rip the Charlotte Church CD out of Number One’s hands. No contest! Number Three has to choose among Charlotte, a shiny yellow tie, or whatever mysteries still lurk under the Tree. Are you following this? … Number Five was kicking herself for days because she took Number Four’s candle and then found the gift she would have opened was a rather nice bottle garden!
Which brings me today’s message—be careful which gift you settle for because there’s something better promised down the pike.
The promise of the ultimate gift is shining in Isaiah: good news for the lowly, healing for the brokenhearted, and liberty for captives. Oh, and for good measure, joy and salvation, integrity and praise.
But then there’s John the Baptizer? He was with us last week as harbinger of the final harvest, offering a last chance to maybe be forgiven before the end. He’s here again—complete with apparent identity crisis—knowing only who he isn’t: are you Messiah? NO! are you Elijah? NO! are you the final prophet? NO! Someone else is coming, someone better. … John is the open gift and Jesus is still under the tree.
John is the “almost answer.” In Advent we wait and wait for the answer to all our questions, the fulfilment of all our longings, the satisfaction of all our hopes. The Baptizer is the symbol of all the inadequate answers, the half fulfilments, and the sort-of- satisfactions we settle for because a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand. But the gospel cries out—a voice in the wilderness—“Wait! Wait for the real gift, wait the best gift.” … So what are our “almost answers,” what are we settling for in place of the best gift, what are we making do with in case all that’s left under the Tree is Charlotte Church?
John we know. He’s always around with winnowing fan, and fire, threatening harvest and God’s judgement. We each have our own inner John. But Jesus opens his ministry not with fall but with springtime, not with the scent of bonfires but with stories of seeds, and growth, and new shoots, and green possibilities.
Isn’t that the choice we face? Will we settle for John and his vision of judgement or will we wait for Jesus to unleash life in us and in our world? Can we wait? Can we trust? Can we hope?
December 15th, 2002
Did you notice how over the top Isaiah sounds when he’s trying to raise the expectations of a defeated, disillusioned people? No longer the bread of suffering and the water of distress—instead a world transformed and full of every heart’s desire: water for the thirsty, pasture for the animals, bread to satisfy a hungry soul, light to scatter the deepest darkness. Oh and a God who walks beside you whispering the way.
What do you want?
There’s a great story of how Ambrose became bishop. It’s the middle of the fourth century and Ambrose, then the military governor of Milan, is called out to the church to quell a riot between rival factions fighting over who is to be the next bishop. Not only does he calm the mob with words of soothing eloquence but the crowd grows still and silent—a silence which is broken by the tiny voice of a child piping up “Ambrose for Bishop!” Well, every voice there joins in … and Ambrose, Ambrose runs like hell. He tries to show the people how wrong they are with a dose of martial law, including a spot of impromptu torture, but to no avail—he cannot run from the people’s call and has to submit to be baptized, confirmed and ordained bishop. And a great one he was.
Sometimes we go looking for one thing and get another. Sometimes we get much more than we bargained for.
This is salvation history in a nutshell. God has to stretch the fabric of our desiring hearts to make them big enough to even begin to hold the riches on offer.
December 7th, 2002
Anybody here from Birmingham? Good!
Sometime in my youth there was a children’s program called ‘Inigo Pipkin’ and its highlight was a puppet pig—who’s name escapes me—who every day, in a bad Brummie accent would shove his snout into his grub and cry with gusto ‘I like food’. ‘I like food.’
I, too, like food and unfortunately it shows. I guess that the unnamed pig marks out one dimension of our complex desire for food: a line that runs from compulsive gluttony at one end to the ache of hunger at the other. I guess from time to time we have each experienced both. We know the way desires can feel like hunger—the physical emptiness and need that craves fulfilment or death. And at the other extreme desires turned passionate appetites which gnaw at our hearts beyond any satisfaction or hope of satisfaction. Throw in the dainty desire of the gourmet for the delectable mouthful and you’ve just about mapped out the territory of our longing for food.
And all of that is appealed to in our Advent readings today as metaphor and physical correlate for our desire for God and God’s desire for us, for each of us.
I believe we only desire God at all because God first desires us. I believe our desire for God—hunger, appetite, or enjoyment—is always a sign of God’s greater, deeper, bolder desire for you and me.
Whatever the desire, the work—the fulfilment—is all God’s … the raw material alone is what we bring—the insubstantial loaves and fishes of our desire. All the rest is God’s. God’s its taking up, God’s the blessing, God’s the breaking, and God’s the giving back to share. God; edible in our hands. God enough to waste by basket-loads.
December 4th, 2002
Look around you – no go on look! — all these things you are gazing at now – the time will come when not a single one will be left – all will be destroyed. … Just take another look – what do you see? walls and floors and furniture, people, friends, strangers – precious or not to you but precious to some… Faces, flesh, living, loving, breathing … precious.
All going, all passing, all fragile. We already know that I guess. We know but we don’t feel. We daren’t. Nothing lasts. And we live our lives balanced between denial and zeal.
Denial of time. Denial of death. Denial of the economy of letting go to let live. All around outside the world is letting go—the trees, the grass, even this day is letting go to let life live. Inside here, in warmth and light, you’d never imagine we had a debt to pay to time at all.
The denial’s all too obvious but how could there ever be zeal? How could you ever be eager for ending? Hungry for handing over? Maybe that’s why we find the apocalypse so hard to take. All that sickle sharpening, all that fire and reaping. But the other side of the sickle’s sharpness is the grape, juicy in its vintage, dripping on the vine. The cereal heavy in the field, bowing down with grain. Isn’t there a time for harvest, the rope moment for yielding fruit, for producing the goods? Isn’t there the faintest echo of something zealous when you hear the ‘harvest of the whole vintage of the earth is placed in the huge winepress of God’s anger’?
Isn’t there anything coming to ripeness in you right now? Isn’t there anything ready for the picking? Is there nothing that another week, another day, another hour will take past its best and render rotten, overripe and beyond all use?
And isn’t this the time of year to ask those questions? Before the passing year dies; while the possibility of the next lies still unborn.
What’s ready? What’s ripe? What must be used now … or never used at all?
November 26th, 2002
There’s a rather cynical theological adage that goes, “Jesus preached the kingdom of God but what we got was the Church”. There’s a touch of that when you compare the two readings today.
Paul wants unity above all else and paid for in the currency of humility and self-effacement. He has a community to look after—a community he wants to last—I guess he’s seen the fragmentation that hostility brings even when the hostility grows out a concern for truth.
But Jesus seems unconcerned with oiling the wheels of community. His domestic directions come as a jolt: forget the bonds of friendship, of family, forget the familiar give and take of social life. Instead, eat with the poor, feast with the broken, make merry with the poverty-stricken.
It’s not that Paul and Jesus are contradictory precisely—I’m sure we could reconcile them if we tried hard enough—but the concern behind the words seem to come from different worlds. And they are both legitimate concerns. Keep the unity of the body, says Paul, by a self-effacement that imitates Christ’s own … but Jesus’ own self-emptying has a radical edge to it that is more than a little challenging.
So how do we handle this divergence? Do we take our pick from the spiritual supermarket—Jesus or Paul? Or do we follow our mood of the moment? Do we denounce Paul for giving into the compromising demands of maintenance? Do we set aside Jesus as short-sighted and unrealistic?
How do we live in the world as a Christian community? Where is our focus? Outward or inward? When I put it that way I can see the question has to be a false one. Somehow we have to be both.
Our church could do with a healthy dose of both Paul and Jesus. It could do with a mammoth dollop of humility—though that would upset the Catholic Herald—and an overdose of radical, challenging, upside-down-ness.
I guess the same applies to the Jesuits or Loreto or Loyola Hall. I guess the same applies to me and to you.
November 4th, 2002
Both those readings make my skin crawl a little—Paul with his comfortable hierarchies and Luke with his tough message to try, try, and try again to enter the kingdom even though you’ll likely as not fail.
Like I said they both upset me. I don’t believe anyone has a fixed station in life they have to put up with. And I don’t believe God closes the door on anyone who asks entry.
But, truth be told, my discomfort comes in part because both those positions—however much I protest—hold a disturbing attraction for me. If the world were static and the place we were born to were fixed I wouldn’t have to bother my head about justice, about fair pay, about women’s ordination, about gay adoption. I could let it all be. But we’ve seen the world change, witnessed it, and what we know that Paul never could have grasped is that the whole order of things is up for grabs—we decide it even as it decides us.
Same with God the doorkeeper. Part of me would be very happy knowing that God has standards—high standards too—it’s the part of me that would look down on any club that would have me as a member. They say the angels fell over that. That when God let them in on the plan to take flesh and become human they couldn’t bear the thought, couldn’t stand to see God so embarrassed, couldn’t stomach God turning the natural order so far upside down. Better to reign in hell than rub shoulders with animals on two legs. … I guess I want standards too. I guess I find it hard to believe that I don’t have to try and try and likely fail. I guess I’d rather fail than lay down the burden and let myself be loved. Because I guess it does come down to love and loving and being loved.
Isn’t it sad? All the running we do, all the hiding, all the reaching after emptiness—when we could be resting in the great wide open arms of love.
October 30th, 2002
Signs are funny things, rarely straightforward, often misread. Road signs we can manage: once you’ve learned the code you’ve only yourself to blame if you get them wrong. “Well, officer, I thought that meant I had to go over 30 miles an hour.” But try reading the human signs in a relationship and you know how much comes down to interpretation and how much space there is for getting it wrong.
Jesus seems to reckon that reading the spiritual signs of the kingdom is as easy as reading the natural signs of the weather. “Red sky at night: shepherd’s delight,” we say. But when was the last time that was right? … Maybe he’s got it spot on: maybe the signs of the times are exactly as fallible as our weather forecasting.
But I don’t believe so … there’s a middle way, and it’s a way you discover and develop on retreat. What is our prayer but a web of signs? We read the signs of words in scripture, we interpret the signs of our lives, we fashion a house of signs in our imagination and walk there with Jesus, talk to him, bear his touch. The weaving of that web is an experience of God, or at least it might be, it could be, but don’t we find ourselves always pulled in different directions, with different interpretations fighting for our hearts? “God loves me” on one hand and “I am worthless” on the other. Peace and light and life versus turmoil, darkness, misery. Which verdict are we to believe? The signs of our life can be read in two very different ways and sometimes—especially on retreat—we struggle to sort them out. But ultimately the key to all signs, the touchstone of discernment, is this: God is a God of peace and light and life. Of goodness and blessing, of hope and ease. A God of love. And we are made in God’s image and likeness. Signs.
October 25th, 2002