Archive for November, 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
I’m suffering from deja vu all over again. The last time I preached on All Saints Day was a Sunday exactly four years ago but half a world away in Oakland, California. Then, like now, it was just a couple of days before a presidential election. A couple of wars later, the decisions placed before the people of that parish seem even weightier than they did at the time—those choices have changed the world for all of us. And who knows what next Tuesday’s choosing will bring?
What is sanctity but a habit of making good choices? Today, All Saints day, we find ourselves calling on all those holy women and men through the ages who have chosen well. Sometimes the choices were big, heroic ones 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. The astonishing thing is that so few of the saints we honour 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. We have so few examples. Our saints have taught us how to be holy in our private lives; they have shown us about charity, heroism, honour, piety, virtue, forgiveness, even resistance. They have shown us how to die and how to live … but they have not shown us how to vote. We desperately need to have living examples of ordinary, political holiness. Not just theories—God knows we have theories—but witnesses; lives given, choices written in flesh and tested in blood.
The American scene gives us a Polaroid picture of the problems you get when religion and politics mix. Lots of heat but very little light. Is that where saints are being made? Or sinners?
But what about the rest of us, in our own political scene, wherever we find it, how do we do that? Make holy political choices with so few saints to guide us. Not just at voting time but every day.
The Church offers us the Beatitudes to help us think about our choices. A simple question: where is Jesus’ heart? And a striking answer: 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 ones who risk peace beyond the ease of anger.
Taking Jesus at his impractical word would surely challenge our political system to the core. And maybe make some saints along the way.
November 1st, 2004