Archive for October, 2004
Interpreting the signs is always a difficult thing. How do we interpret the differences between us, between ourselves here or, on a larger stage, between nations, races, religions? Because different we are, often strangely so, sometimes monstrously.
Paul, in the face of difference, is pleading for unity—for charity, selflessness, gentleness and patience. Differences, in his opinion, have to be borne with for the sake of the unity of the Body: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God who is father of all, over all, through all and within all.
The appeal to unity has a certain stirring beauty about it. Classically, unity is the hallmark of beauty; simplicity, harmony, unity of form. But too much unity and you have uniformity. And, where the things being unified are you and I, uniformity can become control. So why must there only be one? Why can’t there be two honest opinions? Three noble truths? Four ways of living life fully and justly?
Look at the fallout of 9/11 to see what can be done politically in the name of unity and the fear of difference.
But unity has never been the only trademark of beauty. Alongside unity there has always been colour. Look at the trees this week! They find new beauty at this time of year because they go wild with colour: they weren’t a uniform green before, but right now they are every shade of brown and gold, russet and rose.
Colour and pattern and difference. “Glory be to God for dappled things!” says Hopkins. “He Fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: praise Him!” Look at the rich, strange, dappled world and you see a God in love with colour and with differences. And, Hopkins says, in every beautiful difference God makes Godself known. That’s the way we can interpret the difference between us: as signs of God at work, making beauty be.
There’s the challenge for us as political animals: will we trust difference and make it be the beautiful thing it might be, even though it take effort and ingenuity and above all love?
I think that the political challenge is also our personal hope. Judged by the standards of unity and form our lives often seem a complete mess. We lack integrity. We know our own failings. Bits stick out. Wholeness eludes us. But … look at the colours! Look at what God has to work with! In God’s creative eye all that mess is pigment on the palette—potential, possibility, hope. And the bits that in our own eyes don’t fit are just the kind of challenge God likes, just the kind of challenge that can make a good work great.
Glory be to God, we are works of art, we are works in progress and God alone knows how beautifully we will work out.
October 22nd, 2004
‘May God enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see how infinitely great is the power that he has exercised for us.’
There are angels in both readings today. They are being used in each to underline a point, to make clear the gravity of a situation, to guarantee a truth: in the gospel to give weight to the declaration or disavowal of mortals. What we speak before each other the Son speaks before God’s angels. They stand as binding witnesses. What they see they do.
And in Paul, how great is that power exercised for us? It is the same power which raised Jesus from the dead, the same power that set him above angels—above sovereignties and authorities, above powers and dominations. That’s how big Jesus has become and therein lies the hope his call holds for us.
Sadly, angels don’t impress us much these days—however popular they’ve become. Jesus is more powerful than angels—big deal! The kinship Jesus claims for us is witnessed before God’s very angels—yawn!
What would impress us? What would weigh profoundly enough?
This is where I need to get cosmic. Think of the weight of a thousand stars. Think of the suns light, the ocean’s volume, the eagle’s flight. Think of how many beetles there are or grains of dust. Think of a black holes pull, of an atom’s hidden core, of tangled strand of flu virus. Think of a green leaf’s pumping heart. Think of a baby’s toes or the law that brings age upon us all. Think of all creation in its richness and strangeness, its power and vastness and wonder. Think of all that has been and is yet to be.
Then think: all that stands in witness as Jesus speaks your name in love.
October 15th, 2004
‘Clean’ and ‘unclean’ don’t really mean that much to us nowadays. But for Jesus and his contemporaries they gave life shape and structure. We still have some sense of it in the ickiness of dirt above and beyond hygiene and appearance but the Hebrew idea went beyond that. It’s like the world was full of high-voltage things you daren’t touch. At best you’d get a nasty shock at worst you’d die. And that’s what the big signs are for, all the black-and-yellow-stripy tape—to make it clear what will blow your socks off. That’s what the Law was for—to lay out in precise detail what would hurt and what would not. What’s kosher and what is not.
Touch a corpse, for example, and you become unclean. You can’t be with other people for risk of spreading the impurity. You can’t take part in any public religious ritual. You are an outsider until you follow the ritual to get clean again: wash, wait till night fall, whatever.
But what the proverbial problem was the unmarked tomb—the source of contamination you didn’t know about. You could walk on it and not know. Never know. Never know that despite appearances you too were now an unmarked tomb. That was the fear people had when AIDS appeared; it’s why we fear radiation—because we can’t see the damage done.
It is no wonder Jesus made enemies when he called the Pharisees unmarked tombs. He is telling the ones who were most religious about upholding the system of holiness, most careful about the rules; he’s telling them they are the worst thing their system can imagine. They themselves are what smash the system apart.
There’s a word there too for you and me. What do the Pharisees overlook? According to Jesus they overlook justice and the love of God.
It isn’t hard to hear God being drafted in to justify any sort of holy system, any hard-line agenda, you just need to open the paper. It happens in the Whitehouse. It happens in the Middle East. It happens in our Churches. But the system never matters more than simple justice and the love of God. Whenever it seems that God has to be protected from bad people you know that something has gone badly wrong.
But we do it ourselves too. It’s good to remember at the end of retreat that God doesn’t need our protection. God isn’t afraid. There are any number of things we can see inside us we worry could mess up our relationship with God. We all have our worries and our what ifs. We know our own hearts. But all that isn’t God. The one thing we can rely on is God and God’s love. God isn’t afraid of you and me. God has a way of sidestepping our systems, of skirting even our holiness and surprising us with new things, new life, new hope, new love. God is more devoted to our life than we could ever be.
October 13th, 2004
Paul is at his most pungent today: ‘are you stark raving mad’, he asks the Galatians. Why would you settle for the Law when you have the Spirit? What did the rulebook ever do for you but weigh like a burden on your back?
That question echoes through the centuries. It found a focus at the reformation. It continues to trouble our communities even today. Law and Spirit. Faith and Works. Rules and Freedom.
It seems we have to be continually choosing freedom, faith, and Spirit because the burden of Law is paradoxically attractive to us. Some part of us—stark raving mad it must be—keeps picking up the harness, putting back the yoke, shouldering the load.
For some strange reason we can never maintain our belief in a generous, abundant, blessing God for long. We start to wonder if that apparent generosity might not have to be earned, that abundant blessing only given if… if we are good enough, if we follow the rules, if we are nice people, if we pray enough, if our faith is strong enough … you name it—we all have our ifs.
We prefer the God who has to be pestered, to the God who loves to give.
So I say to you: ask, seek, knock; be confident, for our God loves to give, loves to be found, loves to open his heart to us.
October 7th, 2004