Archive for January, 2005
It’s quite a stirring list—all those heroes of faith and all the trials they encountered. Weak people, it says, who were given strength. And such a lot of strength to face all the hardship the reading piles up, line after line. So much so that it’s quite a shock to get to the last sentence—for all their bravery and for all their faith our heroes missed out on the prize. For all their faith they only get their reward in company with you and me, for whom heroism is but a faint hope.
Faith is a strange thing. Heroism too. For my money the poor man among the tombs is a hero of faith.
This is a man who wants to be dead. Cannot bear to be alive. He wanders the tombs, gashing himself with stones. But when Jesus comes along you realise the man isn’t single-minded in his desperation—there is a war within. Part of him runs up to Jesus. Part of him begs to be left alone. Attraction and aversion. Fear and hope. And the hope and the attraction make all the difference.
What makes him a hero isn’t his struggle, isn’t the gory story, isn’t the passionate preaching that follows. What makes him a hero is simply this: at the crucial moment he let his attraction to Jesus surface amidst all the fear.
That’s the heart of faith. And that’s a heroism we can all share. God, we desire beyond desire. But there are all sorts of fears and diversions that rise up in us whenever we seem in danger of getting what we want. A legion of little voices whispering ‘are you sure?’, ‘is this safe?’, or ‘better stay here with these nice familiar tombs—pass the gashing stone, will you’.
Faith is about trusting the attraction we feel however faint. It’s a simple heroism. To trust for a moment the beauty we glimpse, the smile we wonder at, the beat of God’s gentle heart. Only for a moment. A moment is all it takes. This moment.
January 31st, 2005
I’ve caught myself several times in the last few days walking a particular way with these readings. That echo between Isaiah and Matthew has me wondering, wondering about the people who walked in darkness, wondering about the darkness, about the yoke, the bar across the shoulder, the rod of the oppressor. God knows there’s enough of all that about—worldwide, countrywide, church-wide. Darkness on a scale the gospel couldn’t imagine.
I shouldn’t watch the news because I come away depressed at the state we get continue to get ourselves in, redemption or no redemption. I shouldn’t read the Catholic Herald on a Friday because I always come away angry at all the axes being ground: I’m for Paul, I’m for Apollos, I’m for Christ.
I guess if you are looking to the future yourselves you are only too aware of the darkness, of the people walking there, of the magnitude of the tasks before you.
The trouble is that though the darkness is fascinating, these readings are about the light, about Good News not bad. And I’ve had to bring that back to focus over and over. Isaiah and Matthew agree: there is Good News in the most unpromising places at the most unpromising times. Darkness only offers a place for the light to shine. Even in Zebulun and Naphtali.
Today, Jesus is not exactly on the run but he must have been shaken by his cousin’s arrest, shaken enough to head for home. Matthew makes it sound like a change of plans, Jesus backing off from the centre of things down south, going back to Galilee, maybe even backing down. There must have been a sense of defeat in him: just started and already running home.
But Matthew reads Good News even here, a prophecy fulfilled: it isn’t faithful Judah who is first to see the light but the long lost tribes of Israel in half-pagan Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles, way of the sea on the far side of Jordan. That’s where Jesus’ light first shines, where he settles and makes his home. That’s where he calls down the kingdom of God, healing, teaching, casting out evil. That’s where he finds his first followers, the first few to fish with him for human hearts.
We find ourselves, 2000 years on, fishing still and fishing in often unpromising waters. But, after all, fishing in good company.
January 22nd, 2005
‘To suit us’, says the author of Hebrews, ‘to suit us, the ideal high priest would have to be holy, innocent and uncontaminated, beyond the influence of sinners, and raised up above the heavens’. To suit us. … I wonder. I wonder if that’s what I want, who I want. Don’t I want someone a little less uncontaminated, a little less ‘beyond’ and ‘above’, maybe even a little less innocent? To suit me.
Someone in the Vatican has a wicked sense of humour—setting Hebrews alongside Mark like this. For Mark’s Jesus is quite the contrast: sharp edged and edgy, mysterious, cryptic, powerful, driven, provocative. He’s blown by a gale through these opening chapters hardly stopping, always moving, acting without explanation, this vast crowd tumbling along with him. Who on earth is he?
Mark’s says he preaches and teaches but he seems to say not a word beyond ‘repent’, beyond ‘the kingdom is come’. His message is all body-language: he heals, he cures, he forgives, he frees the deranged from their demons. And then he upsets everyone with a look, a calculated gesture of defiance, a pointed question.
Does he suit me? … He intrigues me, definitely. He worries me, certainly. But he does excite me. Fear and attraction both, and sometimes I don’t know which is which. But suit me?—hardly!
Who is he, this Jesus I tumble after? And where are we going? And what will it cost when he says my name? And why do I always want to hear his voice?
Truth? I don’t want Jesus to suit me. I want him to be real. I don’t want my contemplation of him to satisfy me. I want it to surprise and shock me, delight and disturb me. I want him to create me again from my core and I want him to go away and leave me alone. I want him to be as real—no!—I want him to be realer than I am.
And I want to know him… I want to know him.
January 20th, 2005
These are very earthy readings, very ‘bodied’ readings: Jesus, flesh of our flesh, touching, holding, healing; his flesh lifting up our own. And, the way Hebrews puts it, sharing our same flesh and blood so that his death could take away our death.
This is a God who completely identifies with us, is us, right down to the blood and bones, right down to the DNA and deeper.
James Alison has a powerful essay called ‘Confessions of a Marginaholic’ where he looks at this streak in himself that likes being out on the margin, likes being excluded, likes being thought ill of and is never quite comfortable being comfortable, being admired or liked. He says he could back it all up with scripture—carrying the cross, being little with the little ones, being despised with the despised—but that eventually he discovered something pernicious in it. Let me put it in the form of a question, two questions: do you believe that God loves you … loves you however you are, whatever you have done, whatever your faults? The lucky ones among us will say yes to that immediately and without reservation. The rest of us are still working on it, waiting for that grace, wanting it down deep as our DNA, beyond the ache of our history of sin. But there’s a second question, a question that makes all the difference: you believe God loves you, now do you believe God likes you? …
There’s something about ‘like’ that seems almost prosaic next to ‘love’, almost second-rate. But there’s something about ‘love’ in the Christian context that can be very … distant. As though it were possible to love someone and not like them. And it is. We have been taught the obligation to love our enemies, love the ones we dislike, do them good, wish them no ill, but thank God we don’t have to actually like them. How can we like the people who wrong us? Even if with grace and will we might be able to love them.
James Alison’s hangup, as he describes it, is to project that line of thought into God’s head. ‘Well James’—no lets make it personal—‘Well Rob … hmm … I know your faults, your many faults, but I don’t wish you ill, in fact I love you—just don’t ask me to like you.’
Can God possibly like me, knowing all God knows? Can God like me, enjoy me, delight in me—really be my friend?
Which brings me, at last, to Aelred of Rievaulx. He dared to talk about the way God does like us and we can like God. God not only loves us, God befriends us. God is friendship—and the ground of all our human friendships. ‘Here we are you and I’, he said to a fellow monk, ‘and I hope a third, Christ, is here among us’.
The disinterested, distant kind of love won’t do when we talk of God—God’s love for us must be full of all the affection and delight that the best friendship reveals to us.
Our readings remind me of that. Of a God who throws his lot in with us right down to the roots, plunges right into the heart of the humanity we share. No stiff upper lip. No sense of difficult duty. Just a relish, a wholehearted energy and a delight to be alive, to be human, to love and to like and to lift up the lowly.
January 10th, 2005
To tell you the truth I’ll be glad when Christmastide is over and we can have 12 month’s break from John’s letters. There’s good stuff, I know—God is Love, for example—but every year they strike me as just a touch too cult-ish for my taste: a little sectarian; a lot defensive. Nearly every reading has been obsessed with demarcation: who’s in and who’s out; who belongs and who doesn’t; who’s good and who’s bad. And those are the only choices John offers: you are either children of God or children of Satan.
Yet here we are in Epiphany: celebrating how God is made known to the whole world, whether they are in or out, shepherd or scientist, asylum-seeker or king.
Matthew, in the gospel, is still in Epiphany mood. Jesus shows himself today, begins to preach his message, his good news: ‘repent: the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’. There’s a lot you could say about what that might mean but what struck my eye today is not what but where. Because the where is an epiphany too.
Jesus begins his preaching in the Galilee. Matthew seems unsure whether that’s by choice, or to fulfil the prophecy, or for fear of meeting the same fate as the Baptist, or just to go home. But here he is. Why Galilee?
‘Land of Zebulun! Land of Naphtali! Way of the sea on the far side of the Jordan. Galilee of the Gentiles.’
The Galilee had a reputation. Not quite Jewish enough for the Judeans. Galilee of the Gentiles: too mixed up with foreigners and their trade; haunted by too many memories of pagan rites on hill top and grove; too thick an accent too.
On the other hand, if you were Roman, far too Jewish, proudly and stubbornly Jewish: home of rebellion and banditry; source of an endless stream of insurgents and rabble-rousing messiahs.
This is where Jesus chose to manifest himself, to make his home. In a place neither one thing nor the other. Neither in nor out. Too much a Gentile, too much a Jew and never really either.
That choice tells us a lot about Jesus and a lot about God. An epiphany: God likes to blur the boundaries, to mix things up and see what happens.
We each have our own Galilees in the contested territory of our own hearts. We all live lives straddling identities: parent and child; citizen and churchgoer; scientist and sister, the one who prays and the one who pays the bills. Sometimes we ache for integrity, for singleness of mind, to be just one thing. Sometimes we draw the lines keenly: this bit of me is in and this bit is out; God can bear this bit but hates the rest.
But the action—the epiphany—is always elsewhere, where we are both/and rather than either/or, where Jesus walks around the Galilee of our lives with Good News in his touch.
January 7th, 2005