A long, long Lent

Lone and dreary, faint and weary?

Often sung during Lent (and at weddings?) is the well-loved traditional hymn, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us. Written by James Edmeston (1791-1867), an architect, surveyor and prolific hymn writer – though this is the only hymn penned by him that appears in any of the hymnals I know – it takes a trinitarian form in which the three verses are addressed in turn to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as we pray for their presence and guidance through life.

The second verse, addressed to Jesus, appeals to his humanity which enables him to understand, because he has shared, all our experiences of weakness and temptation:

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go.

The last time I sang this in our parish church, I found that something strange had happened to the 5th line of this verse. Perhaps some bright spark, or possibly committee, felt it sounded a touch too, well, defeated, for the Superhero Saviour that we want to present Jesus as nowadays? So that the verse we sang went:

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
tempted, taunted, yet undaunted,
through the desert thou didst go.

Three little adjectives, in place of Edmeston’s four; yet the third somehow undermines the effect of the first two, by making Jesus’ victory sound easier and more heroic. Am I the only person who thinks this might even reflect a kind of Docetic tendency in modern Christology? The heresy which teaches that Jesus only seemed to be human, over against orthodox teaching which has always been that it was only by being really, truly, fully human in every way, sharing every weakness of the human condition, that Jesus was able to be a Saviour at all?

Anyway. All of this (possibly anorakish?) hymnological rant is really only to serve as an introduction to the account of my long, long, not lone, but certainly dreary, faint and weary Lent. Most often the virtue of Lent is that you choose the disciplines of giving something up, or taking something up, in order to try and grow spiritually. Some new discipline or personal prayer or reading. Some self-denial of abstaining from a pleasure like alcohol or chocolate.

But then, sometimes, life whacks you with the kind of Lent you don’t choose for yourself, like the extended Lent I’ve been having. Weeks of pain from the osteomyelitis bone infection, so that I’ve been virtually housebound and unable to do many of the things I would have liked to do – even just going for a walk, walking to church, going out to the pub or for a meal. A whole pharmacy-full of antibiotics and pain medications and accompanying laxatives. And yes: no alcohol. What I’ve rarely been able to achieve for a whole Lent by choice, I’ve had to do because alcohol is strictly forbidden if you’re taking codeine. And I’m not even sure that this imposed Lent will end with the joyful Resurrection of Easter on April 21. The six-week course of antibiotics, which may in any case need to be extended, doesn’t end until Easter Week. I’ve been hoping the pain would have gone before the antibiotics finished, and I’d be able to come off the codeine and start making up for all the glasses of wine I’ve missed. But we’re over halfway there, and who knows?

And what about the spiritual aspect of all this? My spiritual director or soul-friend is going to be asking, “And what do you think God is saying in all of this? What have you been learning?” These are good questions… But the answer is mostly, I simply don’t know. Perhaps it’s a message about mortality. About the inescapable fact that we are not in control of our lives, our destinies, our health or our future. Perhaps it’s some kind of training in trust, patience, courage, simply accepting whatever bad stuff life throws at us, and getting on with it. Perhaps it’s one of those times you’re supposed to count your blessings, like I did when I was in hospital for a couple of nights and all the other guys in the room were much worse off than I am. Perhaps it’s a preparation for relief, joy, or gratitude when (or possibly, if) it’s all over and I’m better. Perhaps it’s all of these.

But in the mean time, it’s still a long, long Lent. That I’d often rather be doing without.

Learning the Word by heart

Elle Dowd makes a case for progressive Christians to memorize Scripture, in order to argue back to conservatives.

At the Network of Biblical Storytellers International we prefer to call this ‘learning by heart’, because it’s a kind of embodied, whole-body learning, much more than the ‘in the brain’ stuff the word ‘memory’ evokes. But it’s the same thing when it comes to it, and it’s certainly something that all Christians should take seriously, not just the ones who make such big claims to be ‘bible-believing’ (and don’t always seem to know their Bibles that well).

The Satanic Verses 30 Years On

Somewhere on my bookshelves, I used to have a copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Its pages slightly browning, because even though I never read it, it must be over 20 years ago that I bought it, and for some of those years it sat on a window sill in the sun. But had it survived the downsizing, and terrible cull of books, that took place when we moved to Thame?

It didn’t take long for me to find it, and yes, it had survived, and is still on my list of Books To Read. Some time. (Being able to find it so quickly, incidentally, is an indicator of how few books remain…)

This search happened after I was reminded of Rushdie’s book by the recent BBC2 documentary, The Satanic Verses 30 Years On. In this film, presenter Mobeen Azhar examines the lasting effect Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has had on the Muslim community and how the events of 1989 continue to have an impact today. Those ‘events’ followed the book’s first publication, when Muslims in Britain were scandalized by Rushdie’s fiction, convinced that it was a blasphemous affront to Islam. Huge demonstrations took place in Britain, where the book was notoriously burned in the public square in Bradford, and in other countries, especially Iran and the USA. Ayatollah Khomeini issued the notorious fatwah calling upon faithful Muslims to assassinate Rushdie, and death threats were also made against the book’s publishers and all the individuals who had been involved in its publication. 59 people lost their lives in the most violent demonstrations around the world.

At the time there were laws against blasphemy in England and Wales, but they only protected the Christian religion. For a time there was some discussion, supported by a number of liberals and Christians, about extending the law to protect Islam and other faiths. In the end this did not happen: instead, the blasphemy law was repealed in its entirety in 2008, and may be considered to have been replaced (in part) by legislation against religious and racial hate crimes.

It was nothing but a good thing for the Blasphemy Law to have been repealed. It was ridiculous and out-dated, had hardly ever been used by Christians in the hundreds of years of its existence, and the possibility of it being used by Muslims in a case such as the Rushdie case, simply appalling. It’s also an unfortunate reality of the differences between the world faiths, that there are passages even in the sacred Scriptures that could be construed as blasphemous by the adherents of other religions. Christians ‘blasphemously’ (to Muslims) believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The Quran ‘blasphemously’ (to Christians) asserts that Jesus is not the Son of God, and that he did not die on the cross. This is just the start of the problem…

Mobeen Azhar’s documentary followed up the events of 1989, interviewing some of the men who had been involved in the protests. His conclusion was that, although the protests had given the Muslim community the opportunity to make a protest which was, as much as anything, about the racial intolerance and disadvantage they had suffered, it had also had many negative consequences. In particular, the caricature of the Muslim bogeyman was born, because of the way the tabloid press reported the riots. Azhar’s final comment:

“It ushered in this age of division, with Muslims being seen as the other. But we’re not outsiders. We’re a really important part of British society. But we have to be able to stomach debates about our culture, and actually our religion as well. Even if we find them offensive, we have to be able to do that. And it’s only when we can do that, that the ghost of The Satanic Verses will truly be put to bed.”

That blasphemy is still considered a crime anywhere in the world, in the 21st century, is a scandal. We only have to look at the terrible way it is used in Pakistan and other Islamist countries, where not only Christians and ‘apostates’ from Islam are routinely lynched or murdered, but also Muslim politicians and justice officials who try to protect them. And this in a country which, as a member of the United Nations, is supposed to subscribe to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, with its protection of Freedom of Religion. (Including guarantees of the freedom to choose one’s religion, to hold to any religion or none, and to change one’s religious beliefs without fear of reprisal.)

Are human beings offended by material insulting to the God they believe in? They need to just get over it. Is God offended? I think God is likely to have a good laugh about the presumption of us thinking that God might be. But even if God is offended, I’m pretty sure God knows how to deal with it. Probably by grace, mercy, and love, and (I hope) opening the blasphemer’s eyes to see the foolishness of insulting the Divine.

The Elephant in the Nave

We’ve been worshipping in our current church for nearly 2½ years now, and I must have lost count of the number of times I’ve been aware of the elephant in the nave. The huge Thing that may not be named, that has almost never been named, that (presumably, for some reason) no one dares to name.

The elephant is called Brexit.

Surely it would have been possible to mention it at least in the intercessions, when we pray for this country. You wouldn’t have to take sides and pray for a swift and brutal no-deal Brexit, or for no Brexit at all; surely you could pray for ‘a successful outcome to the Brexit negotiations, that would ensure the best and most prosperous outcome for all people in this country, and for Europe’. And people could entwine that neutral form of words with whatever meaning they wanted to attach to it. But no, it has barely had a mention of any kind.

This morning our curate, greatly daring, preached on The Politics of Jesus, from Luke 4.14-21.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

“I’m not talking about party politics,” he says, “I’m not telling you who to vote for.”

And he goes on, “No one gets left out, or left behind, in Jesus’ kind of politics.”

Disingenuous, I call it. If that’s not telling us at least who not to vote for, I don’t know what would be.

Comprehending God

Accompanying today’s Moravian Losung, these words of Paul Gerhardt:

Ich sehe dich mit Freuden an und kann mich nicht satt sehen; und weil ich nun nichts weiter kann, bleib ich anbetend stehen. O daß mein Sinn ein Abgrund wär und meine Seel ein weites Meer, daß ich dich möchte fassen!

Now, that’s what I call a hint of the greatness of God, glimpsed in worship. It kind of knocks a lot of Hillsong offerings off the board.

Playing with God

Last week I spent four days on retreat at Mucknell Abbey. Why does a retired vicar even need a retreat? I hear you ask. Isn’t the whole of his life one long retreat? Well, yes and no. I may be much more the master of my time, than I was when I was a working vicar; but there are still all sorts of ways in which the business of ‘everyday living’ can feel as if it gets in the way of being able to think about God, and spend as much time thinking about God, as you might like. Also, I’ve found myself spending the odd idle moment asking myself, What am I actually supposed to do, now that I’m nothing but some superannuated old priest?

Mucknell Abbey is one of my favourite places to be in the whole world. Just a few miles from Worcester, it’s the home of a community of Anglican Benedictines, men and women, who devote themselves to living and praying according to the Rule set out by St Benedict 1,600 years ago. They used to be at Burford Priory, but when that property became too expensive for them to maintain, they sold it and moved to their new, purpose-built monastery, in 2010. There are 12 members of the community, including two novices, and their number is sometimes augmented by a few ‘alongsiders’: young people who have chosen to share the community’s life for a short period of time. If you want to know more about them, have a look at their excellent website.

The Oratory, Mucknell Abbey

Staying at Mucknell, even for just a few days, is a spiritual tonic. Sharing in the community prayers six times a day (I never managed the seventh, the Service of Readings at 6 a.m. each day), enjoying their simple but ample (mostly vegetarian) meals, and lots of hours to read or think or wander around the grounds up there on their windswept hill.

Perhaps I hoped for some dramatic revelation, a flash of light and the voice of God telling me exactly what I have to do. One always does hope for that. Or maybe not. Instead of that kind of drama, something much better happened. In my thinking alone, and my reading and praying, and the Offices, I began to discern a common theme, which was about God being present, and near. (In fact the Rule of St Benedict has a lot to say about God being present everywhere and anywhere.)

You know how it feels if you’re in the same room as someone you really love and admire but you maybe don’t know very well – perhaps a celebrity or popstar or some other kind of hero – and they look at you, and your heart jumps? It was a bit like that. I got the sense that God was there, and that God looked at me. Not with reproach or blame or anything scary like that – it would be possible I suppose to feel terrified by the thought that God was looking at you. No, this look was with interest, and love.

While I was away, Alison posted a picture of her visit to youngest grandson Jerm. It somehow became a lovely kind of icon for me, that described my week at Mucknell. In this icon, God is represented by Alison, and me by Jerm. We’re involved together, we’re looking at each other, we’re playing together, we’re having fun.

That’s kind of how the spiritual life should be. Hang it all, that’s how life should be, and how St Benedict sets out to regulate it so it can be. Living with God, being with God, sharing God’s deep joy in all things. I’m really hoping to bring that sense home with me and hold on to it as the special revelation that God did indeed give during my retreat.

What I want to say

What I’ve prepared to say at the Eight O’Clock Holy Communion this coming Sunday (the Tenth Sunday after Trinity). As usual, preaching to myself before I preach to the congregation:

And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. (Luke 19.41-42)

It’s probably the year 30 AD. In Luke’s account, Jesus is approaching the holy city for what will be his last Passover. He has foreseen his death and knows that now it draws near. Yet it’s not himself, but Jerusalem, the City, the people, his fellow-Jews, that he weeps for. Why? Because they do not know the things that belong unto their peace.

All they knew was that they were oppressed, under the Roman occupation, part of an Empire they hated and despised, governed by Gentiles whom they regarded as unclean, outside of God’s covenant and therefore hated by God. They expected and longed for a Messiah who would be a king, a man of war, a conqueror to drive out the Romans, set them free, establish a glorious new godly kingdom.

And this would be disaster for them. It would lead to uprisings, rebellions, eventually to the Jewish War of 66-73 AD which would result in total defeat. Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Temple destroyed, never again to be rebuilt.

If only they had known the things that belonged to their peace! If only they had believed Jesus and embraced his teaching about the true kingdom, the kingdom of God and what it means. (See the Sermon on the Mount, and the Gospels passim.)

But when I consider the world today, I seem to hear exactly the same words: If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.

Jesus is still weeping over a world that turns away from blessing – the blessing that comes from seeking God and living by his will – and instead embraces the untruth and the lies that can only lead to disaster.

I think only of our own country. I don’t want to talk about Brexit: whatever views I have about it, some of you will agree with me, and probably just as many will disagree strongly. None of us really knows what will happen next year, to us or the EU, and the problem seems to be that all of us believe only the facts and forecasts we want to believe…

But I already hate what has happened to this country in the last few years: that we have become so divided, not only about this issue, but about so many others as well. Not just divided, but hatefully divided. Instead of being able to have a calm, sensible, rational debate about things, with people who hold different views – trying to listen to one another, to discover the facts and what is true and right, and then discern together the best course of action, all we have now is not debate at all. It’s become almost usual to curse, accuse, hate and vilify people who hold different views. Not only to suspect them of the worst possible motives, but to publicly accuse them of being traitors or worse. Social media has a lot to answer for in this respect, of course, because people feel able to say all kinds of things on the Internet that they would hardly dream of saying out loud in public, or to a person’s face. (Though sadly, saying it in the safety of the Internet makes them bold enough to do just that.) But it’s not just social media! The headlines of supposedly responsible newspapers, and the tone of their editorials, so often seem to want to stir up violent attitudes and reactions, suspicion, mistrust, hatred of ‘enemies’.

What happened to our country? Where did it go? What happened to British values of tolerance, openness, welcome, hospitality, freedom to hold different points of view, and express them without fear, without being accused of being somehow criminal or evil, without being threatened with violence or death?

These are horrible times to live in, perhaps even dangerous times. (And let me quickly say we are all infected, none of us is immune: don’t we all find ourselves beginning to hate people on the other side of these current issues?)

So what are we, as Christians, to do? Join in with the haters, those who want to make and to crush enemies? Run away and hide our heads in the sand, and pretend that all is well?

I believe that we have a different and special calling, which may be the only thing that holds out any hope of healing. Let us, at least, be people who know the things that belong unto our peace.

Because we are Christians, we are people of Resurrection. We believe in life from the dead; we believe in hope even when others think all hope has gone. We are people of reconciliation, because Jesus died on the cross to reconcile the whole world, all people, to God.

So we must

  • Believe: in all that Gospel we claim to believe.
  • Pray: for our country; but especially love and pray for our ‘enemies’, because that’s what Jesus told us to do.
  • Seek God’s kingdom above all us, because it alone, rather than any of the kingdoms of this world, is the kingdom in which our true citizenship is found.

Above all, not give in to what the World wants to do to us: namely, to make us afraid, make us hate, make us give up hope.

Let’s stand tall and say: No, I won’t give in to that. I will not become what you want me to be.

Prayer, in the words of Psalm 46:

GOD is our hope and strength : a very present  help in trouble.

2 Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved : and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

3 Though the waters thereof rage and swell : and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.

10 Be still then, and know that I am God : I will be exalted among the heathen, and I will be exalted in the earth.

11 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.