Archive for 2004
I discovered the other day that one of my all-time favourite stories, the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula LeGuin, had been bought by a TV channel and made into a min-series and in the process butchered beyond redemption. And the thing that most outraged me was that they had muddled up the hero’s name. In Earthsea, of all places, names make all the difference.
If the Earthsea books are about anything they are about the power of names. Earthsea is a place of islands and a place of magic—not Harry-Potter-wand-and-funny-spell magic but serious magic that binds the world in balance—a magic that finds its mastery in names. In Earthsea to know a name is to have power. To know that a stone is tolk in the Old Speech, the tongue of dragons, is to be able to transform it, say into kebbo, a rabbit. So a mage’s art lies in knowing and learning the true names of things, of water and waves, of dragons and men. But not just ocean, not just sea, but this bay and this wave and this drop of spray in my face. Not just tree but beech, and beech in early winter when all the leaves have finally flown free. And not just man but this man, underneath his use name and his nick names, beneath his trade and his kin, who is he really, what is his true name, the name he is called by the creator, the name that raises him from the waters, the name spoken once when all things began.
A true name is guarded and held secret and only given to another—with your whole being—in love or death. But to speak your true name in love is to defeat magic and reveal the essence of who you were made to be.
Were I a girl I would be Pamela Jane. No deep reasons there … just that my mother liked the sound of them. But, instead, I’m Robert Richard—named after my two grandfathers.
As reasons for names go, all that grandfather stuff will do but there are other reasons that don’t get spoken for who I am not. You see, I should have had an older brother. My mother gave birth to a little boy some years before me. And there was no doubt about the what and why of his name. “His name is Alan.” Alan was the name of my mother’s big brother. By all accounts he was a perfect brother and, though my mother never talked much about him, I get the impression she idolised him. But Alan died aged around 19 or so.
So my mother had no doubt about the name of her first boy. Alan. But baby Alan’s birth wasn’t easy … there were complications and Alan was born with cerebral palsy and lived only a few days.
I look back and I wonder how my life has been changed by Alan’s own short life and what it would have been like if he had lived. I was one of those kids that were cared for too much. My parents were determined that I, at least, was going to be safe. So I was stuffed full of vitamins and kept away from germs and plied with cod liver oil … and caught every childhood disease that was going.
And, instead of being the second child, I grew into all the hang-ups eldest children have—well-behaved, over-responsible, high-achieving. So my name is Robert Richard but there is an unheard echo: Alan, Alan. … I wonder what God calls me?
Actually I know. For the last fifteen years or so he’s called me by a name from another of LeGuin’s books, this time in a language called Pravic: ammar, he calls me, ammar—it means, brother, friend, fellow traveller. And that name has made all the difference to me.
December 23rd, 2004
“Do you know what my mummy’s got in her tummy?” That’s what my three-and-a-half year old niece asked me yesterday. Well, I tried, ‘chips’ which Becky was sneaking of her mum’s plate. “NO”. Then we moved onto worms, fish, and other squeal-producing ideas, before she informed me with all the magisterial condescension only someone her age can pull off, “Noooo. It’s a baby!”
So we talked about little brothers and sisters—Molly or Matthew, she’s decided to my brother’s horror—and where the new baby was going to sleep and whether it would be able to run around and which of her toys it would be allowed to touch. But then she let me into another secret. “I’ve got a baby in my tummy too”, she said. “It wriggles”. So we all had a turn feeling her pushed-out tummy. “It wiggles too but it doesn’t kick like Mummy’s baby. It’s nearly ready to come out”, she confided, “but I’ve told it it has to wait until Mummy’s ready”. … Oh, the next five months are going to be interesting! …
We are all Mary: we have life always waiting to be born in us. And, if like Mary, we listen to our better instincts we know that bearing life into the world is not something we can ever do alone. We need companions. We need encouragement. We need the kinship of others willing to go through the same struggle and joy with us. We need the echo in another’s body of what we sense stirring in our own. We need our Elizabeths.
December 21st, 2004
We are chosen
Chosen before the world began
Chosen in Christ
Chosen in Christ to be holy and spotless
Chosen to live through love
Chosen to live in his presence
Chosen from the beginning
Chosen to be for God’s greater glory
Chosen to be the people who would put their hopes in Christ
I think Paul is trying to tell us something.
This feast celebrates the choosing of Mary to mother the child of God. And it poses a puzzle. Mary is chosen yet she is free to choose. Her ‘amen’, her ‘let it be’, has to be a free response. She could just as well have said ‘no thank you’. Why did she say ‘yes’? God must have been taking a risk. Or was God stacking the odds in his favour by arranging for Mary to be born sinless? Who’s choice is the more important: God’s or Mary’s?
Our opening prayer deepens the mystery. How is Mary kept from sin but by the salvation Christ will win only if she says yes? The future reaches back to write the past and make the present possible. It makes my brain ache.
I guess I’m getting hung up on sin and freedom. I think I have swallowed the modern myth that freedom means doing what I want to do—its ultimate expression saying no. And I think I’ve fallen for the lie that being good is dull, that holiness restricts my options, that the forbidden fruit is the juiciest.
So this feast is a celebration of choice: God’s choice and our own. We are chosen and free to choose, freer than ever to choose. Free with a freedom that can say ‘yes’ as well as ‘no’. Free to live through love in his presence. Free to be for the greater glory of God. Free to choose what we most desire.
December 8th, 2004
There are two unanswered questions in today’s gospel and one that isn’t even asked. ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ and ‘Which is easier: to say, “your sins are forgiven you” or to say “Get up and walk”?’
‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ You’d think the answer was obvious but to this day Jewish theology is more nuanced than that. For the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is the duty of every Jew both to seek forgiveness and to offer it and the offering is essential because, in Judaism, even God is bound by the power of guilt. God can forgive wrongs done against Godself but wrongdoing puts a kink into the fabric of cosmic and human relationships that not even God can smooth out. If I have wronged you then you are the only one who can heal the wound by forgiving me. And if you don’t, God can’t. What power we have to warp the universe or make it whole by forgiving or not! So that question, ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’, isn’t just rhetorical—it demands an answer from us.
Particularly with this paralysed man. Jesus seems to take it for granted that illness and sinfulness go hand in hand when his first impulse on seeing the paralytic is to offers to forgive the sin that has resulted in his sickness. Like the blind man in John’s gospel there’s the unasked question: whose sin caused this, whose fault is it? That might sound obscene to our ears but its flip side is the promise of Isaiah’s vision: when God’s justice comes the whole world will be healed: the eyes of the blind and the sands of the desert; the lame shall leap like the deer and the water gush in the wasteland.
Jesus’ seems to take his own power to heal as proof of his power to forgive. But his question, ‘Which is easier?’, is another strange one. The obvious answer is ‘forgiveness’—at least we know how to forgive while we can’t imagine what it would be like to heal. But Jesus seems silently to say the opposite: he heals. And the man gets up, picks up his stretcher and walks home, forgiven, praising God.
That’s meaty stuff to chew on for our advent feasting: sin and sickness, healing and forgiveness, personal and cosmic. But I think the gospel is urging us to chew well. It’s the unasked questions that cripple us; the answers we take for granted that keep the dry-lands barren.
December 6th, 2004
Something is coming. Two voices proclaim the same thing. The voice of a desert herald: Prepare the way, something is coming. The voice of an ancient prophet: A dead stump is sprouting, something is coming.
Two voices, as different as day and night, agree: something is coming. Isaiah soothing his people: things are going to change. Something is coming.
The Baptist raging against his people: you’d better change. Something is coming.
Do you hear the voice? Can you feel the pressure of something coming, something big, something awesome? Have you ever known that? In the dark sleepless hours? Or braced for bad news? Something is coming.
Fools that we are, in Advent we celebrate that feeling, celebrate that something is coming, coming to end our way of life and open a new page in our planet’s story.
John the Baptist sees the end of the old with an awful clarity: the axe is already laid at the rotten roots of the tree.
Isaiah dreams of something new with lyrics running wild: even now the dead stump is putting out shoots, bursting into bud, springing to life.
Either way, something is coming. Hope for it or hide from it, it’s on its way. And it will make a change indeed! Overturn all our futures, burn away all our routines.
John smells the coming harvest fires: the hypocrites, the settled, the fruitless—all ready for the fire, to be burned away like chaff to leave the grain sheer and clear.
Gentle Isaiah’s words console: Justice is coming, justice for the poor, help for the hungry, no harm or hurt in all God’s earth.
But change! Change of a magnitude we cannot grasp! The lion satisfied with straw. The snake without its venom. Predator and prey at peace. Children safe on the streets. War a ridiculous memory.
Something is coming that will change the natural order right down to its roots. Not just a change of human hearts — which would be miracle enough — but a transformation of creation all the way down to its atoms.
Something is coming and when it does it will break into our world and change it so utterly we will only recognise it in our dreams, in our strangest middle-of-the-night stirrings when the heart refuses to rest.
Something is coming — that’s the promise and the threat of Advent — and, fools that we are, we celebrate.
We celebrate, but we don’t believe! This Christmas we will celebrate our hurried feasts without ever daring to hope or fear what might have been, what could have been, what we only hope in the dark of night may yet be.
Something is coming. Taking shape. Finding form.
Something is coming — prepare its way.
December 5th, 2004
‘Your endurance will win you your lives’. That hardly seems a cheery prospect—tough it out, head down, carry the cross and bear the pain and it’ll all work out in the end. And that maybe what we have to from time to time in our lives—we all hit rough spots, and maybe we land up there through our faith, for our witness.
The trouble with endurance is that it can be a tough habit to break. We can put up with a lot for so long that we can come to forget any other way of being. We can learn to distrust the world and distrust our own happiness. We can draw back from life, suspicious of God’s goodness to us as too good to be true. As though all we were worth was to endure.
In my family, if you were caught with a long face that’s what you were called—martyr.
‘Your endurance will win you your lives’. The parish I used to work in, half the community was Vietnamese and this feast of their martyrs was incredibly important to them. Some of the families were recently arrived; others had been there for twenty years or more. The bulk of the parish had been boat people, adrift for weeks or months in open boats escaping persecution for their faith. For most it was a second flight, a second exile, having fled from the North to the South before the war and then from Vietnam completely. Some of their stories would give you nightmares. Our people knew about endurance. Oh, they knew about it.
And against all odds, endurance gave them life. This feast every year was extravagant, grateful, graceful, gaudy. Choirs, processions, flowers by the bushel, walkie-talkies and tannoys, folk-dancing and incense, clothes in bright colours, banners too, and a drum the size of two bathtubs. And that was just the mass. The party afterwards had food for a thousand—basil and mint and chillies and the day-long smell of roasting.
Martyrdom is about endurance but only because endurance marks what we hold important—essential. Martyrdom is the witness we give to what we hold dearest. And that witness is given not just—or best—in the dying moments of life … but in the daily joy of its living and the wholeheartedness of its celebrations.
If something’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for. It’s worth the celebration.
November 23rd, 2004
It’s a day of anniversaries—at least two people have reminded me so far today of what happened on November 22nd … whenever.
A year ago England won the Rugby World Cup. Do you remember? I remember uproar in the team room and much rowdy drinking … of strong tea.
This is a harder one: do you know what happened 14 years ago today? Margaret Thatcher resigned. I have just a remembered image of her gaunt getting into a black car … and maybe a sense of relief. That and the kind of sadness you get watching a elderly tiger pacing in a zoo.
If you are old enough you’ll surely remember this day 41 years ago. Dallas, Texas, and the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I remember coming in from school cold and runny-nosed to strange pictures on a little black and white screen and the sense of a great grief I couldn’t understand from all around me, as though the sun had gone in and wasn’t coming out again.
We remember with our hearts. It’s strange but even today listening on the web to witnesses of Kennedy’s assassination I found the same lump in my throat from 41 years ago. The very one.
‘As Jesus looked up he saw rich people putting their offerings into the treasury; then he happened to notice a poverty-stricken widow putting in two small coins’. There’s a memory-image for you! Sharp and short, like a flash going off, freezing the feeling. I wonder what touched the heart to etch this image for the centuries.
What do I feel if I pore over that picture? There’s an edge of that terror and grief and appalling sadness I can always get on a quiet afternoon in St Helens or Widnes—old ladies, alone, and threadbare, whittled away by the passage of years and hopes. I shudder and feel ashamed.
There’s that but more than that in Jesus’ eyes if I read them right, if I get the weight of his words. There’s anger and wonder and defiance too. And yoking them all, an understanding, a fellow-feeling, a recognition. The two of them, whose eyes never meet, sharing something. A determination, a sacrifice, a joy.
November 22nd, 2004
It was, with hindsight, asking for trouble to call it the war to end all wars. It became only the foretaste of a century of slaughter that left 110 million dead in combat, not to number the quiet millions murdered by war’s camp-followers: poverty, plague and famine.
So many dead! ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning we shall remember them’. But memorial is dangerous.
‘Not a stone will be left on a stone’, says Jesus. Luke, who pens these words, is writing after, not before, the Temple’s destruction; an event in its time as shocking as 9/11 has been in ours. Is Luke’s prophetic hindsight an act of memory or of forgetting? Because here’s the puzzle: when you recall the loss of what you have loved what is it you call back to life: the love or the loss, the life or the death?
It is a strange and urgent and dreadful thing to remember stone with stones. Whether it is sacred places or human lives we’ve lost we build monuments. We pile up stones as if to rebuild what has been destroyed. The first cenotaph was hastily built from wood and plaster and human need. Now, in solid stone, it will not let us forget the dead. The first memorial poppies were living petals brought to surprising life among the fallen. Now they are coloured paper.
Truth to tell, the dead do not live on in our memories. They are dead and we know we need to live so we let them go. We let them go but we do remember. But do we remember them or their leaving of us?
Not a stone will be left on a stone. This century began with the tumbling of the twin towers. Smoke and ash and falling stones. People falling like stones from burning windows. What is their memorial?
Terrorism is all about memorial; about remembering and forgetting. The terrorist wants us to forget what we believe and hold sacred: life and liberty; peace, justice, and compassion; trust and community. To let fear turn a living faith into a dead monument. Have they succeeded? How have love and hope and faith fared in these last years? What have we forgotten by waging war to win peace? Do we remember where our only security lies?
The gospel is very practical about living in a time of terror. Jesus forbids both naiveté (“Take care not to be deceived”) and despair (“Do not be terrified”). He commands improvisation (“You are not to prepare your defence”), trust (“I myself shall give you an eloquence and a wisdom”) and stubborn hope (“Your endurance will win you your lives”).
I like that: stubborn hope in the face of fear. If there are stones to be laid, let them be building the kingdom of God.
November 14th, 2004
I must admit to feeling let down whenever we come round to read Titus. It feels so buttoned-up, so institutional, so dull. Whatever else you might say for the Paul in the missionary letters you can’t call him dull. He can be enthusiastic, argumentative, quarrelsome, bold, stubborn, brilliant, eloquent, touching, controversial but not dull.
So much so that most scholars reckon that Titus and the two letters to Timothy are the works of others taking upon themselves the authority of Paul to write about concerns that Paul could scarcely imagine. Or maybe he was just getting old!
The problem is this: what do you do when the apostles are dead and gone? How do you keep going? How do you stay faithful? –and to what?
The religion we belong to started out as a movement within Judaism, became marginalised as a Jewish sect, transformed into any number of separate gatherings or churches apart from Judaism, before ending up as a religion in its own right. And Titus is written in the middle of all that changing.
So how do we stay true to our heritage? How do we remain faithful to the breaking of the bread? How do we incarnate here today the spirit of him who gave us birth?
The Titus and co. give us one answer: put good, reliable people in charge. And you can hardly argue with that. Jesus didn’t but—hey!—sometimes you have to be realistic. Count his disciples: insurgent, hothead, collaborator, dreamer … betrayer: they might be good enough for Jesus but we have churches to look after…
Putting good people in charge is never enough to preserve the charism we have inherited. For a start it ignores the institutional drive to stagnation and bureaucracy and defensive self-preservation. But more crucially, it betrays a founder whose driving principle wasn’t preservation but preaching, not keeping safe but provoking a response, not lifting up but being let down. The cross is not a sensible way to build a church. Thank God Jesus had far less sense than the letter to Titus.
November 8th, 2004
The word is already in our mouths and in our hearts—our mouths and hearts.
Our mouths are full of words—we taste them bitter or sweet; we watch them find their target; we hear them echo in silence; we squander them in the rush and bluster of lives tumbling downriver.
Our mouths reveal our hearts, betray us with every breath. We trample the world with the word of our mouths. With them we utter the praise of our hearts. With our mouths we express the depth of our hopes or we evade with a casual lie. Words are so easy to us—and so hard. So cheap. So dear.
Why can’t the word come to our ears? Why can’t we receive it, hear it, weigh it, store it away. Turn from it or take it up. Why can’t it come to us unbidden? Why can’t it intrude upon us, demanding, imperative, hungry to be heard? Why must we find the word in our mouth? Why must it be one of our own, friend and brother to all we have ever uttered?
It is our own word that finds us, that burrows down, finds our heart and undoes it. Familiar. Strange. Blessed and broken. The word already in our mouths and already in our hearts. We have only to carry it to completion.
November 5th, 2004