Archive for September, 2005

Friday Week 26 Year I

Global warming, acid rain, fuel shortage, hurricane and flood and fire. One of the gifts an ecological awareness has given us is a renewed sense of sin. It used to be hard to read a prophet like Baruch without taking it personally and either going into a decline over your own shameful life or going crazy at a religion that uses guilt to get what it wants. Now… well now we are only too aware of what we cannot manage to be fully aware of—the way our very way of life is bought at the expense of each other and of the planet. Every banana we eat takes its toll on the global climate. Every car trip drains our finite fuel. Every extra degree we warm ourselves with finishes off another ailing species. Our chickens are coming home to roost and Baruch is calling us to see which gods we serve and the disasters that have—or will—seize upon us.
I said this was a gift. In the US kids who have been naughty are told that when Santa comes they’ll get a lump of coal. A gift, but not one we want. A sense of ecological sin is not much of a gift if it leaves us stranded, powerless, and frustrated at what we cannot change.
Enter Jesus. At first I thought he was singing from the same sheet as Baruch; worked up at the same inability to see our own sin. But he’s not. He is worked up and at our inability to see—but it’s not blindness to sin that’s the problem. He lambastes Bethsaida and Chorazin because there have been miracles in their midst and no one has seen or celebrated. It is missing the miracle that upsets Jesus. It’s stinting the celebration. And maybe that is the root and reason of all our wrongdoing.
Maybe we need to see and celebrate the miracle more. Of dusk and dawn. Of the turning trees. Of evening primroses. Of polar bears and elephants and soil and frogs. Of arctic wastes and pristine seas. Of all the life that blooms and withers among us, year upon year. Miracles the lot of them! God working, giving, blessing, shocking, gracing, feeding.
Jesus, it seems, blames us only for looking to heaven when our hearts should be planted here with all our sisters and brothers in this blooming, buzzing, chaotic web we call life.
That is my prayer: not to miss the miracle; not to disrespect the loving, living, giving God labouring in it all; not to leave un-celebrated the one who came and comes that life may burgeon and abound.

4 comments September 30th, 2005

Thursday Week 25 Year I

The little vignette from the gospel tells a tale of power and distance. It seems you can’t have one without the other. Herod might have the power to behead inconvenient prophets and the spies to bring him all the rumours buzzing around Jesus like flies but it’s a power that only buys him distance. All he can do is theology. All he can do is talk about him. He puzzles, ‘Who is Jesus? What is he up to?’ What his power cannot get him is the closeness to Jesus that changes people. There’s a gulf. The crowds of powerless who trail after Jesus and hang on his word and his touch—they know more than Herod ever can across the distance of his power.
There’s the same gulf in the Haggai passage too. See them: Haggai the prophet, with High Priest on one side and High Commissioner on the other, having a go at the farmers and wage-earners trying to get on with life as best they can in the face of poor harvests and a ravaged land. The powerful threesome want a temple full of glory—and, as we’ll see tomorrow, full of gold too—to glorify God and I suspect to glorify themselves as well. But the truth is, they can’t build it themselves—they need the man-in-the-street to work without reward—chop the trees, haul the wood, labour like crazy—and build their vanity project for them. And they aren’t above putting the frighteners on to get their way—they blame the people’s poverty and hardship on a grumpy God unhappy at having nowhere to live and ready to make it worse.
It’s clear in Haggai’s head on which side of the gulf God lives and it’s even clearer where Luke finds God in Jesus. Jesus is on the wrong side of the gulf of power. It will destroy him. But in his poverty and vulnerability all distance is gone—between him and his people, between him and his God.
And that’s our invitation too: to join Jesus on the wrong side of power where distance dwindles and God is close enough to touch.

2 comments September 22nd, 2005

Maybe-Not-Intelligent-but-at-Least-Tasteful Design

Here’s a rib-tickler by Paul Rudnick about the problems of Intelligent Design:

Day No. 1:

And the Lord God said, “Let there be light,” and lo, there was light. But then the Lord God said, “Wait, what if I make it a sort of rosy, sunset-at-the-beach, filtered half-light, so that everything else I design will look younger?”

“I’m loving that,” said Buddha. “It’s new.”

“You should design a restaurant,” added Allah.

Of course, there are seven days to smile to..

5 comments September 20th, 2005

Friday Week 24 Year I

Following Jesus sounds almost straightforward in Luke’s gospel today. He makes his way around the place, doing his stuff, speaking Good News. And we follow. Physically follow after him. In his steps. Not too much to it.
The author of the letter to Timothy paints an altogether messier portrait of what it means to follow Jesus along with issues of church order and orthodoxy, of hypocrisy and dissent, and of the complex lure and corruption of money and power. How do we follow Jesus through that muddled minefield?
Luke makes it look easy. But then Luke likes to pretend to photographic and flawless simplicity—remember his picture of the first Christian community in Acts. His Jesus is a pretty ordinary guy only marked out by the extraordinary mission given him by the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit could easily come calling on you or me too.
Mark’s Jesus is an unpredictable enigma, Matthew’s wears with gravity the mantle of Moses, and John’s Jesus floats an inch of the ground in a constant vision of heavenly mysteries. But Luke sees him like you or me—just a touch more compassionate, eloquent and attractive.
Luke’s Jesus though has a hidden edge. Underneath his calm and ordinary charm he’s turning church and state upside down. Here today we see the male enclave of discipleship—which the other evangelists take for granted—punctured and pierced by a band of women. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and others who not only followed behind but provided for them all out of their own resources. Resourceful women—there’s a challenge!
Doesn’t the vagrant company of Jesus take on a different, more human, more festive feel when we imagine it in a more assorted glory than TV ever showed it?
Luke’s Jesus is no more a realistic snapshot of its subject than any other—he has his tale to tell, his point to make. A good point for us to hear—about who can be in and who out, who’s up and who’s down.
But beyond all the points to be made I hope there’s a freedom to be found in this array of angles. Everyone who comes to know Jesus comes from a different place and discovers a different person looking out of history and prayer right back at them.
In which case the key question is what story are we telling day to day in our lives about Jesus? Who is he to us? How does he move our hearts? And above all, how has he been a word of good news to our hungry ears?

4 comments September 16th, 2005

Catching My Eye

The morning papers had a few items that made me pause and think:

  • In the Guardian Simon Schama, with his own convoluted eloquence, is comparing the twin tragedies of 9/11 and Katrina.
  • The Independent picks up a frightening possibility that the US may adopt a strategy of nuclear first use against WMD.
  • The Guardian Online Edition pointed me to two sites remembering 9/11:
    • The 9/11 digital archive, funded by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
    • The victims site where each of the 2,996 people killed is remembered on their own tribute page.

September 12th, 2005

Sunday Week 24 Year A

‘He who exacts vengeance will experience the vengeance of the lord’. That’s what the folk wisdom of Ecclesiasticus says. So why can’t I preach a homily underlining that? Let the parable be Jesus threatening us into forgiveness—making an unforgiving heart an unforgivable sin.

Partly it’s because I don’t want a schizophrenic God who can be moved to write off a million pound debt one moment yet the next is sending for the torturers and sounding pleased about it.

And partly it’s because I’m confused. I’m confused by the religious response to Hurricane Katrina. All sorts of media and internet folks have been fighting over who to blame and naturally God has been copping part of that. Some are saying that natural disasters are in fact acts of God—signs, or warnings, or punishments, or calls to conversion. Others are trying to exonerate God or justify God’s goodness in the face of such tragedy. And of course there are those who just point up the contradiction and foolishness of believing in God at all.
But today, on the anniversary of 9/11, I’m struck by how little of that kind of stuff I remember being around four years ago. Everyone was looking for blame, yes, but it quickly polarised into ‘us’ versus ‘them’—having a real flesh and blood enemy let God off the hook easily as we gratified our ache to punish.
Because the thing about God is you can’t really punish him. All we can do is take back our ball and go off in a huff, muttering.
Our readings today are chosen to hammer home an economy of forgiveness but I have a nagging feeling Jesus is trying to subvert just that.
Four years on from 9/11 we have a problem with forgiveness. When you have someone to blame you can let loose all that is worst in yourself—punishment, retribution, righteous anger, holy crusade. And you can reap all sorts of collateral benefits along the way—jobs for the boys; leverage to curtail liberties; political expansionism; neglect of annoying responsibilities. A strategy of blame has achieved all that and more. It has changed the world. But has it been for the better? Are we safer, freer, happier, holier? Have we forgiven? Forgiveness seems so soppy when there are terrorists out there. Forgiveness seems inappropriate, unwise… irresponsible.
And forgiveness would mean change. We’d have to look at where the terror comes from, and why. We’d have to discover our complicity. We couldn’t live the lives we do any longer.
So maybe Ecclesiasticus has the economy of forgiveness down pat: if we can’t forgive—as individuals or nations—we bring down a hell of torture on the world. We bomb Iraq. We fly planes into office buildings. We blow up buses. We shoot civilians.
But the hurricane complicates it for me. Yes, the politicians are getting blamed—and global warming, social injustice, and simple human folly and malice. But a big question has been whether God is to blame. What kind of God do we have? One who punishes, or one who forgives, or one who does a little of both depending on some great balance sheet?
I think that’s the question Jesus poses too. Are we content to imagine God in our own image—a king with accountants and torturers at his disposal? Or will we take the extra step outside the tit-for-tat economy of debt and obligation into a world of grace?
Can God forgive the unforgiving? Of course! But can we forgive God for forgiving us first?

September 11th, 2005

Hurricane Theodicy

Hurricane Katrina, like the Christmas Tsunami, has had us all interpreting and excusing or blaming God in one way or another. I’ve mentioned several opinions in my recent posts but wanted to add a few more.

What strikes me is how little theodicy 9/11 prompted beyond ‘Allah bad, Jesus good’. There we had plenty of blame to allot and pursue and God didn’t appear to need justifying. We’ll be reading plenty in the next day or two comparing these two disasters, one largely ‘natural’ the other all too ‘human’, but there’s something nagging me I can’t quite put a finger on.
I think it’s to do with fear. I think theodicy comes from fear, the fear that God might not be who we thought God was. God might be as bad as our worst nightmares. God might be as ineffectual as we suspect. God might not even be. We set about justifying God’s ways as if God needed protecting. What is being protected in all this convoluted disputation? Only our settled lives. We don’t want to change. We don’t want to see ourselves as bad as we know we could be. And we don’t want to discover how little power we might have to make a difference.
I guess theodicy gives us a relatively harmless way to work all that out for ourselves where only God’s good name is at stake. But when the evil is man-made we get to play out our fears in human loss. We wage wars. We take the battle off our own soil. We curtail freedoms. We kill people. We kill people.
We seem no more able than God to be both powerful and good.

September 11th, 2005

Seeing What Isn’t There

What sex is your brain? That’s the question a BBC programme, Secrets of the Sexes, asked a short while ago. I didn’t see it but a number of people pointed me at an online quiz based on the programme. Not surprisingly, given my profession, I scored quite highly on the skills supposedly belonging to ‘female brains’.
What did surprise me was the part of the test concerned with reading the emotions expressed in a face when all you have to go on is the eyes. I looked at each pair of eyes as they were shown and the four candidates for the hidden emotion and was truly stumped. I didn’t have a clue which to choose. In the end I guessed.
Now I happen to have seen a similar test before and knew its origins in studies of Asperger’s Syndrome and autism so I was feeling quite glum to discover my inability to read faces–especially given my work in spiritual direction. Each pair of eyes that flashed up deepened my sense of ignorance.
The shock was then to discover that I had actually managed an almost perfect score. I got one set wrong. Apparently I can read the emotions in the eyes but I have no conscious access to how I’m doing it. I can’t see or recognise any cues. I don’t even feel a hunch or a sense of intuition. But my wild guesses are spot on. I even went back and did it again in case it was all blind luck.
Very strange. I’ve long been aware of the tacit knowledge my body has and I’ve learned to trust my ‘intuition’ in many situations but this is the first time I’ve found that trusting my ignorance has been so reliable!

September 10th, 2005


Jeff over at Preaching Peace is saying some important things about New Orleans and what is revealed ‘in the poisoned mirror of the waters covering the city’.

‘We are complicitous. We elected people because they promised to keep our taxes low. They kept our taxes low at the expense of the levees. We elected people who promised to keep America safe, forgetting that the greatest single threat to American life in the history of the country would come from the heavens, not from Al Qua’eda. We spent billions in the Middle East when 250 million could have saved New Orleans.

‘But it goes well beyond this, our complicity. We are complicitous because we are not surrendered to God and to one another. We are complicitous because the very things we complain about in “them” are just as present in “us” and we won’t acknowledge it. If blame were of the Gospel (which it most assuredly is not) then we would all have our share, if not because of what we have done, then surely because of the things we could have done and did not.’

He’s talking about Hurricane Katrina as a sign, a call to conversion, but not ‘their’ conversion–ours:

‘We can turn, and seek a whole new way of being in the world, a way patterned after that of Jesus, who stills storm and wave, but does not destroy them, who casts out demons, but grants them a place to go, who heals with a touch, not a knife.’

3 comments September 6th, 2005

Sunday Week 23 Year A

New Orleans has haunted me this week. Watching what happens when the wind and the waves take our presumption of civilization and slap us in the face with it. Some commentators have agonized over such an act of God. A few bigots have taken that phrase literally and gloated of God punishing New Orleans. I don’t believe in such a God but I do see what has happened as a revelation. And what has been revealed are the fault lines that divide us from one another and the fragility of the pact that holds us together.
Here’s one fault line. When the waters drowned New Orleans the ones who suffered where the ones who hadn’t been able to get away to high ground: they didn’t have a car, they didn’t have the money, they were too sick. The poor are always the ones to suffer. In New Orleans they happen to be overwhelmingly black.
Here’s another fault line. It’s about choices. Why were the authorities so unprepared? Why was so little done to shore up the flood walls? One reason is that funding had been withdrawn to finance the war in Iraq. Why was there no-one to keep order in the aftermath? Maybe because a third of the state’s National Guard had been sent to Iraq.
Who knows? That might all be wrong. And the last thing we need is another scapegoat. But choices have been made. What are the choices, for example, that mean being black in New Orleans is to be poor?
And what’s this mass of politics doing a homily?
The word ‘religion’ has a confusing origin which scholars fight over but a best guess is that it has a meaning to do with binding, linking, connecting. Religion is about binding, binding and loosing. It is about the choices we make to build the bonds between us—or to gloss over their dissolution.
Ezekiel makes us each responsible for the salvation of all. Paul distils all the commandments to the single debt of love for each other. And Jesus gives his exhaustive account of how to love through conflict. Be reconciled he says. Do all you can to be reconciled. It’s easy to look at that last stage—the kicking out—as though it were the goal but what he wants is for things to never get that far. He wants us to be reconciled long before that.
But there is something to the kicking out. Whether our differences are irreconcilable or not they are always real. Too often our relationships rot because we never acknowledge the conflicts in the hope they will go away. And what Hurricane Katrina has done is expose the rottenness of a way of life that lets poverty persist for the sake of other ends. The violence and looting that emerged this week when the lights went out is a mirror image of the violent injustice that accepts the poverty of a minority so the majority may prosper. And that is a religious matter. It’s about what binds us together and what keeps us apart. It’s about what and who we are willing to sacrifice to keep the appearance of peace.
Jesus made his choices too. He chose to expose the rottenness of his own society and religion. He chose to be with the victims of violence rather than the violators. And, when push came to shove, he chose to be sacrificed rather than live the lie of sacrificial violence. And maybe, if we understood that choice of his we would find the freedom to love too.

What has kept me riveted this week, watching the mass of black faces in squalor and in despair, has been this: ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’. I know where God has been this week.

2 comments September 4th, 2005

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