The other day, challenged by a friend, I looked through a file of prayers and hymns which I had written years back and forgotten to throw out. Amongst much dross, I found a few items that said things I still wanted to say, and that were therefore worth revising.

One of the repeated experiences of my minstries has been the way people treasure the presence of Jesus in their darkest, weakest, most doubtful and most sinful times. This seems to me a treasure specific to faith in Jesus who left a record of his friendship with sick people and sinners and never pretended he could face suffering with a smile. The hymn which I revised and presented here arose from these experiences.

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Christ as man of sorrows: Dürer

LORD OF THE SICK AND BROKEN (Tune Moville, CH4: 450)

Lord of the sick and broken
Who shared disabling pain,
Your suffering has spoken:
No cross is borne in vain.
For every wasted body
And every tossed and scattered self
Is planted in your Passion
And harvested for health.

Lord of the dead and dying
Who prayed that you might live
You show us by your crying
What God’s love cannot give.
But those who on their journey
In faith and fear walk into night
Are partnered by your passing
And lifted into light.

Lord of the poor and powerless
Who loved the little ones,
You still defy the sourness
Of arrogance and guns.
And all who trust the Servant
Whose wealth was poured put for the least
Are paradised through patience
And share the Father’s feast.

Lord of the strong and the evil
Who loved in spite of hate,
You struggled with the Devil
And plundered his estate.
So even Satan’s legions
May hide their steel within your side
And pierced by your perfection
Desire what they denied.

Lord of the daft disciples
Who found his friends untrue
Forgive our weak denials
Of comradeship with you.
May all whose trust has faltered
And let your life be sacrificed
Be repossessed by pardon
And recognise the Christ.

If anyone reading this wants to use it for public worship, please do so, simply noting its authorship.l

 

 

 

 

José Saramago who died a few years back, was one of the great modern masters of the parable. Both parables and allegories are stories designed to be recognised as fictional pointers to some greater story, such as the story of a whole society, or the story of God; but whereas an allegory provides a very complete mapping of the greater story – think of Pilgrim’s Progress or Animal Farm- a parable only connects with its counterpart as whole story to whole story – think of the Prodigal Son, where Jesus sugggests only the most general likeness to the story of God and humanity (God and the father in the story are both embarrassingly fond of children who mess up). The details of the parable do not need to map on to the details of the bigger story, so Jesus can have fun with a broke Jewish boy surviving by feeding pigs. This freedom to invent novelistic detail does not detract from the parable’s function of making at least one bold point about the greater story.

Most of Saramago’s novels are parables although they are much longer than any told by Jesus. He uses the freedom of this form to create characters that arouse and retain  his readers’ sympathy, and plots which are complex enough to keep them turning the pages, while suggesting by means of his narrator’s ironic voice, that they should recognise similarities with the story of their own lives in society; for he is above all a social critic, exposing the follies and brutalities of capitalist society.

Take for example “Blindness” his most famous and probably most violent story, which starts off from the absurd premise that everyone in a given society goes blind successively, except one woman. Almost immediately, blind citizens are herded into concentration camps by those who have not yet gone blind. Once all but one are blind, the stronger prey on the weaker as they have learned to do. Those who cannot defend themselves, especially women, are treated with sickening cruelty. The single person with sight finds that her only “benefit” is being able to see what’s happening, as she continues to be in a minority of, well, one. Eventually some victims begin to show solidarity with each other,  and to think of opposition.  Through equally violent actions, rebellion takes place, after which people begin to regain their sight. It is a parable about the blindness of capitalist societies to humanity and justice, and about the necessity of rebellion.

An equally dissident partner parable called “Seeing” explores the chaos which results from all election papers in a General Election being returned blank. It does not present an optimistic picture of democracy.

730A0581-21FF-4D79-9517-12DF5517130DI have just finished reading his final parable, called The Cave, which of course rests on the famous parable by Plato, according to which prisoners bound in a cave, and unable to turn their heads, can see, on the cave wall, shadows cast by puppet showmen, lit by the flames of a fire, which they accept as reality. Someone escapes amd returns to tell the others that what they think is reality is only shadows, and that real life requires them to throw off their bonds and go up to the real world. His fellow prisoners treat him as an idiot, and it is said, would kill him if they could. In this way Plato describes the plight of most of humanity, who cannot rise to the philosophic vision of goodness, and mistake deceptive shadows for reality.

Saramago’s story involves a potter who works in a desolate rural region near The  Centre, a huge industrial/ commercial/ social complex which offers accomodation, work and leisure to its inhabitants, while controlling most aspects of their lives, and isolating them from nature, even to the extent of providing artificial nature parks within the complex. The potter, who has been dependent on the Centre which buys his crockery, is told that his produce is not needed any more.  He tries along with his daughter to diversify into art, by  making figurines, but finds that Centre dwelllers have no interest in them. He and his daughter, who is pregnant, prepare to move into the Centre with his son-in-law  who is a security guard there and has been allocated a flat. This involves leaving behind a rescued dog which they have befriended, with a widow woman nearby, for whom the widowed potter has an affection. One night the potter investigates a very secret archeological dig underneath the Centre and comes upon a cave where dead human beings, bound head and foot are placed in front of a wall. Behind them is a walkway, and behind it, the marks of a fire. When he asks himself who they are, he answers, “they are us.” He decides to leave, and returns to his pottery, his dog and it turns out, the widow who loves him. Shortly they are joined by his daughter and son-in-law who do not want their child born in the Centre. Together they pack their stuff on the potter’s aged van, and set off into the unknown.

The Centre is not shown as exercising any brutality. It provides wisely, “like God” someone says, for its inhabitants, while excluding anything natural or anybody who might have an independent mind. People are not forced to live there, but choose to do so, because it is the future. The characters of the potter, his daughter and son-in-law and the dog,  are quietly but tellingly developed, so that the readers can imagine themselves in their shoes. Equally quietly but firmly Saramago makes his point: this modern, capitalist paradise is Plato’s Cave, where willing prisoners are sheltered from reality, including the reality of their own exploitation,  and give up any desire to face it. The only hope for humanity lies with those who are unwilling.

The parable does not argue, anymore than Jesus argued with the lawyer who wanted him to define the meaning of “neighbour”. Saramago’s parable is longer than the “Good Samaritan” or “Plato’s Cave” but should not be embarrassed by their company.

 

As the year dips into late autumn, as the leaves fall and the early frosts nip the ungathered apples still on the tree, my mind, like that of a large proportion of my fellow citizens, turns towards the next holiday with its promise of warmth, leisure and self-indulgence. Brochures are scanned, websites inspected, and we know that even if the search is unsuccessful or simply premature because we haven’t begun to set aside the necessary moola, the act of looking is itself therapeutic: our dreams of other times and places help us deal with this time and this place. If I can imagine myself climbing through vineyards on a Spanish hillside, I can cope with Dundee on a wet Sunday.

I wonder if the thought of heaven plays a similar role in the lives of believers? Burdened with our own wrongs and those of the world at large, do we take comfort in the thought that one day we shall be elsewhere? Yes, the comfort may be diminished by the fact that we have to die first, but when we are sore and weary that may not bother us overmuch. When the earthly city is oppressive, the city of God is ever more inviting.

Indeed, it seems relevant to enquire whether heaven may not have been invented by human beings precisely for this comfort. Of course, even if we reject that specific reasoning, we have to accept, that like all religious concepts, including gods, heaven has been invented by human beings.  I mean that even if religious concepts point towards something real, they have in sober truth been invented by us: our human concerns and prejudices are all over our creations.

In the case of the Christian heaven, much of it was invented by the early and medieval churches, incorporating the Jewish inheritance of Jesus and the Pharisees (who were unique amongst Jewish believers in developing the idea of heaven) together with a pre- modern cosmology according to which heaven is above the earth and hell below. Clearly the resurrection of Jesus had a huge influence on the making of heaven, but the belief in heaven as the rescue of mortal life predates Jesus and his disciples.

In spite of modern cosmology, the popular imagination still holds on to the “Man Upstairs” and the picture of the dear departed “looking down” on the grieving family. But there is often no serious belief in the after-life or in the soul’s meeting with its maker: the scenario is pure kitsch, a lighthearted drama that evades the issue of mortality. This heaven is a shallow vision, like a week in Ibiza, that helps people endure what Shakepeare called, “the whips and  scorns of time.”

The serious believer will rightly protest that I am describing a parody of the Christian hope that trusts in God’s grace in Jesus to forgive our sins and save us from death, so that we may glorify God forever. But did serious believers not invent this serious theology in order to depict a serious salvation? It’s notable that although Jesus himself believed in resurrection, his language about the kingdom of heaven refers not to an extra- terrestrial realm but rather to the rule of God on earth. He appears, like some of his contemporaries, to have believed in a “world to come” which was a transformation of earth rather than a separate dimension. The “heaven” of Church doctrine, certainly, emerges from Christian reflection on the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather than from his teaching.

Should it therefore be dismissed as a wish- fullfilment that keeps believers walking purposefully on the pilgrimage of life, while preventing them from enjoying the goodness of earthly existence with a whole heart? Intelligent atheists like Bertrand Russell criticise faith as evading both the sorrows and the joys of  life, by not understanding how even our dearest joys are based on our mortality. The great American poet, Wallace Stevens in his poem, “Sunday Morning” ridicules the notion of a realm that has no death:

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
He depicts the conventional heaven as illogical and insipid, while asserting that death is the mother of beauty: the loveliness of a rose or a person arises from our perception that it will not last, nor will we. The beauty of our mothers is that their characterful lives go from us into the realm of death.
I happen to agree with what Stevens says, namely that death is a great and devastating reality which structures all that we think and feel and do. Death is not an enemy to those who have failed to cherish life in themselves and others. In a sense they have always been allies of death. But for those who have truly lived and shared their lives with others, death is an enemy. Robert Graves got it right in a fine poem:
We looked and loved; and therewithal instantly
Death became terrible to you and me
The insult of death is felt most keenly by those who lived most fully:
Wild men, who caught and sang the sun in flight
and learned too late they grieved it on its way,
because their words had forked no lightning, they
do not go gentle into that good night.
Dylan Thomas disagrees with those, like Stevens, who accept death stoically, as just the human condition. Beauty may depend on mortality but we don’t need to like this arrangement. Even as an atheist Thomas protests the finality of death:
Though they be mad and dead as nails
heads of the characters hammer through daisies,
break in the sun till the sun breaks down;
and death shall have no dominion.
The New Testament shares some of these attitudes to death:
1.Death is not neglegible; rather it is the real dissolution of human life.
2.It is seen as a destructive “power” IN human life, as for example, in disease and violence.
3.It is nevertheless defeated by Jesus’ faithfulness unto death to God and humanity, and God’s faithfulness to Jesus in death, by which he is made alive with the living God.
You may ask how point 1 relates to point 3. If God offers resurrection, how can death still be seen as a real dissolution of life?
The answer is that particularly for those who live in this world in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and know even in their sorrows how splendid life can be, death remains a bitter ending.  Nothing of their human selves survives death, as life beyond death is a new life with God, an unimaginable transformation, which leaves even the dearest of their relationships behind. Jesus taught that there was no marriage in heaven as “they will be like angels.” Death therefore continues to be a a dark conclusion, even when it is believed to be the portal of eternity. Any evasion of the finality of death is not a Christian attitude.
In fact it is only those who trust in the promise of resurrection and live in its truth, who see clearly the human acceptance of the power of death and resolve to fight against it. Rather than heaven diminishing their outrage at worldly evils, it calls them to battle against everything that denies the dignity of the human children of God.
For me the vision of heaven remains an encouragement to believe that God’s will can  be done here as well as there; and to do it as well as I can; to hope for those who suffer here that if, as Jesus said, they endure to the end, they will be saved; and that the earthly beauty of which death is the mother, although very dear to me, is only a foretaste of a greater beauty to come. The wild visions of the book of Revelation and the eloquent riffs of Paul and the book of Hebrews are not tourist brochures for the afterlife, but the excitable reports of those whose faith has pushed them to peek through the chinks opened up by Jesus in the walls of death.
Now that villa in Spain…

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Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.;
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Teacher.

Thich Hat Hanh is the Teacher of the Plum Village Community in France, although I first heard of him when he came to the USA from his native Vietnam to speak against war. He is a man of profund courage and wisdom. In his poem above he wipes out the distinctions we so easily make between ourselves and others, insisting that true being is what he calls “interbeing” in which we recognise our unity with the universe: we are not all the same, as if our particular being did not matter, but in our innumerable differences we are one community. I would want to add that in my faith, this encompassing unity is God in whom, as St Paul said, we live and move and have our being. Whenever we realise our shared life, we realise God: in friendship, in partnership, in churches, in neighbourhood, in charity, in the fight for justice and peace in the world. When we do so we add to the names by which we call ourselves.

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MSF in action

Of course we would all like to be called only by nice names: few of us want to be called Donald Trump, but when we remember our own denials of truth and our outbursts of rage, we may find it difficult to refuse that name. One of the categories of names I most want to refuse, are those of my fallen idols. Once I was delighted by the slightest connection with them, now, since they have displayed their feet of clay, I want nothing to do with them. This is especially true of Aung San Ssu Kyi, whom I revered in her long battle with the military junta of Myanmar for a measure of freedom and democracy. Her calm courage was an inspiring example. Now, however, she has chosen to ignore the evidence against her nation’s army, of a genocidal attack on Rohingya people, who live on Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh. She has refused to admit any wrongdoing and parroted  descredited myths about the Rohingyas being foreign settlers. I would be happy to identify with the Rohingyas but surely not now with Aung San Ssu Kyi?

Well, when I think of her blindness to an uncomfortable truth, I can remember my own similar blindness in the past. When I think of her failure of courage in this instance, I can remember my many such failures over the years. When I recognise that she is dodging responsibility for an atrocity, I can remember my own shiftiness when faced with the hurts I had caused. So, maybe, even if it gives me no joy, I have to admit that Aung San Ssu Kyi is a fitting enough name for me.

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Mind you, if I’m happy to be called Rohyngya, I’m even happier to be called Médicins Sans Frontieres/ Doctors Without Borders, who have been providing skilled medical attention for the Rohyngya refugess in Bangladesh. As always, many of their staff are locals whom they have trained and paid; as always they have remained impartial while bearing truthful witness to the facts of what they are dealing with. They refuse government and multinational company funding because they want to intervene as they see fit and not at the behest of others. They are efficient, modern, well- equipped, multi-national  and brave. If we need boots on the ground in areas of conflict, theirs are the most effective. Through them I can make my identity with Rohingya victims more than a prayer. Although they don’t know my name, they do know the reality of the care given in my name and the names of millions of others.

The Hebrew people saw the name of God as holy and therefore not to be spoken. Even today many of them refer to God simply as Hashem, the name. The ten commandments and numerous other passages warn people against dishonouring the name of God by word or action. If we want to honour the name of God whose shared life unites us all, we could do worse than follow the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh by recognising with sorrow our identity with wrongdoers while activating our identity with those who do good.

 

The notion of transfiguration may suggest something seen in an enhanced mode, as in many of the techniques offered by apps for photography, whereby a photo of my aged self can be transfigured to portray me in the prime of life. But the  transfiguration which most interests me is that by which something or someone is seen as they really are.

Broughty Ferry is a prosperous suburb of Dundee, which seems wonderfully separate from the problems of the city, although its increasing use by wealthier young people as a weekend playground has reminded me of the famous couplet by Hilaire Belloc:

Like many of the upper class

he liked the sound of broken glass.

Its housing is a mixture of Victorian fantasy by Jute barons, solid respectability by successful professionals, seaside terraces by B and B landladies, modern retirement flats by the douce elderly, and also this:

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A cluster of older houses connected with the original fishing village and ferry port, expressing decency, usefulness and a modest elegance. In this morning’s autumn sunshine and from this viewpoint, the suburb was transfigured into its true self.

I have seen this happen to people. I remember at university a lecturer in Old Testament who was a little bent and wasted in his middle years, and not too rivetting as a lecturer, but when he turned out for the college football team with students twenty years younger than himself, he was transformed into a version of Stanley Matthews with a magical dribbling ability and a devastating left foot shot. In fact his guile at football was matched with a guileful interpretation of the Bible which led to his masterwork on the book of Proverbs.

Marilyn Munroe was subjected to many transformations as an actress, but her husband, the writer Arthur Miller, noted particularly the change that came over her when she was in the company of vulnerable or troubled people: then she was at home, in sympathy and entirely herself. That transfiguration revealed her character.

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Always, of course, the change is not just a special state of the person or object which is seen, but also the readiness of the viewer to see with open eyes. If I had been in a dull mood this morning I would not have seen Broughty Ferry transformed. If Arthur Miller had been self-absorbed, he would never have seen the real Marilyn.

In the story of David and Goliath in the Bible, the boy David is just a daft boy until his stone knocks the giant to the ground. Then we see that of course he is already a cunning and dangerous warrior, who is happy to cut his opponents head off. The story reveals that a clanking berserker is no match for an intelligent youth who can kill at a distance. Goliath never had a chance. David is transfigured in action.

All this perhaps helps the intrpretation of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.

The Transfiguration Mark 9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no oneb]”>[b] on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,c]”>[c] one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;d]”>[d]listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

This passage is not factual history. For example how did the disciples know that the figures appearing with Jesus were Moses and Elijah? (a primary schoolboy once answered this question perfectly, “They had their names on their shirts like Messi”) But it conforms to my model of transfiguration:

1 Jesus is changed – into himself! What shines is his own nature.

2 The disciples’ understanding is first of all that Jesus belongs with the greatest heroes of their faith, and is even greater.

3 Secondly they understand that Jesus is confirmed by God as his child.

4 At the end of the revelation what they see is simply Jesus as he truly is.

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In Mark’s Gospel the readers realise that what happens when people encounter Jesus    with trust is that they are transfigured and become their true selves even as they become like Jesus. To be like Jesus is not to lose your identity in his, but to find it in his. St Paul expressed this clearly in his letter to the Corinthians:

“Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face seeing the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit.”

When people are united with Jesus, they shine with the glory which comes from him, but they are truly themselves, with unveiled faces. The Spirit of which St. Paul speaks is the “interbeing”, the realm in which there are no barriers between person and person, or between a person and God. Living beings  become translucent to each other and to their maker. Their transfiguration into shared life is also their deepest identity.