Archive for May, 2005
Every year when the winds of winter blow we see TV footage of cliffs crumbling and some poor guy’s house falling into the hungry waves. Why do they build there? Every year we see homes ruined when rivers break their banks. Why do people live there? I was in California for a while: there it’s a choice of earthquake, wildfire, or mudslide—why does anyone live there? Every summer we see pictures of parched African lands and drought-starved children. Why does anyone have to live there? There are many answers to these question ranging from poverty to opulence, from history to fate. But the truth is building houses on sand isn’t an uncommon practice.
Let’s take it further: global warming means the floods are going to be getting worse, the storms crazier, the weather harsher, the drought deeper. Our whole civilisation is a house built on sand, on a fault line, in a floodplain, on a cliff top.
So why have we built our lives like this? I guess we like what we have whatever the cost: TV’s and cars and food from around the world. We can’t imagine being as poor as the two-thirds world—and anyway they want to be as rich as us. And how on earth do you rebuild a house elsewhere while you still live in it?
Faced with that—and our entanglement and culpability in it all—what’s the use of appealing to our love of God, showing off our religious credentials, praying more fervently, or polishing our orthodoxy? Will it save us? Will it save the world?
There’s the paradox of justice and of faith: it’s not our worship that saves us—but what we do in the wider world. But once you say that you see the problem: it seems like we have to earn our salvation by the work of our hands. And in this case we don’t even know where to start.
But that’s the strangely happy core of what it means to be at rights with God: not knowing where to start. Nothing we could do would impress God one tiny bit if God wasn’t already impressed and in love with us.
Thinking about my global responsibilities paralyses me because I do not know what I can do. The second reading, as we heard it today, says we all are redeemed by our faith in Christ—and it is easy to reduce that to something we can or can’t do on our own—believe the right things or feel the right way. But a more accurate reading of the Greek says not that we are redeemed by faith in Christ but by the faith of Christ. Not our faith but Christ’s faith. It is Christ’s faith, his loyalty, his belief in us and in the world which redeems us. He is our hope.
The one who builds on rock is the one who listens to Jesus’ words and acts on them. To listen and respond—with the listening coming first. I guess we’ve got a lot of listening to do as a society and also for ourselves: to listen first and see what he is saying; to get to know him; to see what he see; to let him lead and to let ourselves follow. In faith. In hope.
May 29th, 2005
There’s an amazing immediacy about a baby. I was watching my 1 year-old nephew yesterday and every passing feeling gets expressed. Danny likes something he reaches for it, he smiles, his eyes light up. Danny feels bad he pouts, he screams, he sobs. No censorship. Full spontaneity. I’m guessing its an artifact of vulnerability. A baby has no defence but to make its needs and desires known–loudly, clearly, immediately.
In contrast, Becky, his sister, about to hit five, is all misdirection. She is torn between withdrawn sulking because Danny has presents and wild attention-seeking. Where along the line do we learn to be so indirect? So vulnerably invulnerable?
May 27th, 2005
Maybe I just haven’t reached that age yet but I find it hard to get worked up over death. Let me be clear: I don’t want to die and dying scares me silly but as to what happens next … well I’m happy right now to leave that to the goodness of God.
But it’s clearly an issue that exercises street-corner evangelists who want to know if you are saved. They look rather disappointed if you say yes. And it’s an issue that clearly exercised Jesus contemporaries. ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
I guess it depends on what the alternative is. Sheol, as the first reading describes it, is horrible not for its torments but for its drab dullness. Death for the ancient Hebrews was a shadowy place where not much happened—a dry and dusty place where praise and play and all the delights of living—and its pains—could find no home.
But it is not Sheol the Christian faces at death. The story we have been told about death makes it a fork in road with the highway to heaven and the low way leading down to fire and worm and just desserts. But my heart isn’t in that story. Maybe I’m too touched by some modern malaise but I can’t see myself in hell—my imagination fails me.
And yet I want to be saved. I feel the need deep in my bones. But saved from what? … I’m not sure … but there’s something in the invitation Jesus gives the rich man that moves me. Leave everything and follow me. You’d think that giving away the good riches of life was one step too soon to Sheol and its gloomy, stripped-down place past praise. But as Jesus hints what we have we lack and what we lose we gain. Somehow there is praise on offer, an open-handed overflowing of praise, in the letting go, the letting loose.
I want to be saved from what I have. I want to well up with praise for no reason at all, but love.
And for me that is impossible. But if Jesus should look at me steadily and if I should see love in his eyes … who knows what might break out in my impoverished heart.
May 23rd, 2005
We ask for peace and forgiveness and we get wind and fire. I lived in California for nine years, in the Bay Area. There’s a wind that blows there in October. It’s a wind that puts the fear of God in you. For a few days the weather heats up, the air wheezes, and this fierce, dry wind whips up the dust and throws it in your face. And the brown hills, tinder-dry after a long rainless summer, begin to crackle and hiss. You see these people standing in the street looking off to the horizon, praying it will not be dark; others will turn their heads as they walk, lifting them at the hint of a whiff of a scent of smoke. For the wind of October fans any spark to full flame and puts fire on the hills which races, driven, eating houses and gardens as it goes. Fifteen years ago only a freak lull in the driving winds saved the city of Berkeley from being burnt down to the ocean’s edge. So everyone waits when the wind changes, sniffing the air. Everyone has buckets of water handy … just in case. The wise have mowed their dusty lawns and swept leaves from their roofs. Everyone waits. The feel of it is eerie—no one wants fire but by god we are all excited—alert, alive, ready to run. It’s a wind of change—feared and loved and wondered at. And it’s what we celebrate today. A wind to blow us all off our feet, turn us like tumbling embers through the avenues of our imagination, and drop us who knows where, doing who knows what. And God doesn’t religious life need that! Doesn’t Church life need that! Doesn’t our world need that! And don’t we fear it and love it and wonder what it might be like? The strangest thing about Pentecost is that wind of change with its fiery tongues. Though it scatters the disciples from their hidden rooms and changes their lives forever, it burns away the one excuse that has separated us since time of myth. These fire-drunk idiots are in the streets undoing the curse of Babel. Babble as they might they cannot be misunderstood. The wind and fire bring a healing, a language, a calling: the peace and forgiveness we have been longing for. And by God we need it: think of all the divisions in us and in our world; the ways we tear apart and are torn; the bitterness; the incomprehension; the fear, the war, the hunger, the oppression. Pentecost seals the fate of the Christian community: we are driven by wind and fire to gather what has been scattered; to understand; to heal; to cross borders and banish barriers. It’s a utopian vision but the people that first Pentecost couldn’t see it; they weren’t praying for it, they didn’t expect it … but when the wind began to blow and the fire followed they were ready to burn. They went up like tinder. Something kindled in them. They burst into flame. And that’s the prayer I can’t quite bring myself to pray today: let me be kindling! Let us be the kingdom’s kindling!
May 17th, 2005
There’s a strange sense of time here: time approaching and time receding. Paul is trekking inevitably to Rome where he will die, and Jesus, beyond death, is promising Peter life … and death—a life spent nourishing and a letting go at its end.
We chose this last part of John, as novices, for our vows. Answering a call we were, and knowing the call both our deepest desire and our reluctant response: somebody else putting a belt around us and taking us where we would rather not go … but going gladly.
John Paul chose it for his requiem—maybe seeking a summation of his life, maybe hungering for the next.
Benedict chose it for his inauguration—maybe making a promise, maybe asking exoneration, maybe praying in hope.
Pentecost is waiting for us … a harvest festival and a new spring … and beyond it … ordinary time.
What is being promised us today before and beyond the ordinary? What can we not foresee that draws us forward? And what is asking to be loosed from our overburdened hands?
May 13th, 2005