Archive for December, 2004

December 23rd

Names matter.
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.

3 comments December 23rd, 2004

Sunday Week 4 of Advent

“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

Immaculate Conception

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.

1 comment December 8th, 2004

Monday Week 2 of Advent

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.

1 comment December 6th, 2004

Sunday Week 2 of Advent

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


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