1. Ach, thanks for bringing me here – the fresh breeze off the lake, the fishing boats coming into port, the wee hills of home..,

2.  Capernaum, yes, your place Son of God, but let’s just check. Perhaps you recognise this old fisherman guiding his boat to the shore..

1. Reuben Barezra, of my parents’ generation, a fine man! But….

2. Yes?

1. He died three years ago, in the prime of life. I helped to bury him, so….

2. Indeed, you’re right, we’ve gone back a few years in time. We can’t interfere of course, but we can observe

1. Ah!

2. A cry of pain, Son of God? Perhaps you’ve seen someone else you know….

1. Yes, there is pain, but also sweetness..

2. You’re looking at Rachel, daughter of Isaac the blacksmith, a fiery young woman certainly, and very beautiful, oh and who is this young man who joins her on the lakeside road?

1. (Silence)

2. She smiles at him as he walks beside her, and slips her arm through his…

1. Enough! That’s enough, terrible spirit. Yes, I loved her.

2. “Loved”?

1. No, “love”, in truth, I love her still although she’s married to a good man, and has a child.

2. So why did you reject her?

1. I didn’t reject her. I asked her forgiveness for the way I’d chosen which I couldn’t invite her to share…

2.Why not? Isn’t that the focus of your message, imviting people to follow you, imcluding women.

1. How could I ask people to leave their family lives, if I travelled with my wife?

2. So you deprived yourself and her.

1. Yes, some people make themselves eunuchs for the sake of God’s kingdom.

2.The damage you’ve done to yourself, you’ll do to others…

1. Damage, Spirit?

2. Because you choose to be celibate, you throw a shadow on the body, on sexuality, yes and even on women, which some of your followers will appreciate, and make darker. They will say that in order to be perfect, they must follow your example.

1.Those who know me will know my love of the body, of the joining of flesh, and of my sisters; those who do not know me but speak in my name, speak only for themselves.

2. But if, out of respect for your celibacy, vast numbers of both men and women, leave flesh amd family to live holy lives away from the temptations of the world, you’ll approve their rejection of God’s gifts?

1. It is a damned lie that we must all enjoy all good things at all times. Sometimes our fight for goodness means foregoing enjoyment in order to be free for the battle.

2.But still, Son of God, you long for your Rachel in your heart…and flesh…

1. Yes. I’d be inhuman not to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christ tempted

 

1. It’s the largest city I’ve seen!

2. This is Rome, Son of God, a city which is forever associated with your name.

1. Of course I know about Romans and their Empire….

2. I understand that by the end of your life, you may know more….

1. Why have you brought me here?

2. I’ll show you why, but firstly I have to tell you WHEN I’ve brought you here. We’re in the time of the Emperor Domitianus some sixty years after your untimely death, and we’re about to follow this crowd on one the great Roman roads, the Via Appia.

1. They seem happy, both men and women, often with children…..

2. They’re going to see a spectacle provided by the Emperor for the amusement of citizens, while it is also a terrible warning to the enemies of Rome, as you see, Son of God….. I notice you have gone pale with distress at what you are witnessing……

1. I have already, in my own land, seen a crucifixion or two. But so many men, on so many crosses along the road! And worse, so many people, including children, gawping at this sad evidence of human evil.

2. You may notice near the crosses, small groups of women who are weeping. These are the mothers, wives and sisters of those who are being punished.

1. May God comfort them! But what did these men do, to earn this pain?

2. As you might say, Son of God, they learned to do God’s will on earth.

1. You’re mocking me, my friend. Just give me the facts.

2. In Rome the citizens accept as a respectful custom that at certain altars set up in public spaces they will burn a pinch of incense to the divine Emperor. Everyone does this. It’s no more significant than saying they’re glad to be here. Even enemies of the state, who desire to overthrow it, burn the incense because it hides their purpose. Even some Jews do it, while remaining faithful to God, believing as someone sensibly said, that you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.But your followers refuse to do it.

1. And for that omission, they are condemned to this!

2. No, no, this is merely the end point. Romans are merciful. First they torture them and let them go if they promise to be good citizens. Many of your followers have benefitted from this generosity.But some, determined to do God’s will rather than Caesar’s, have chosen this extremity. Is yours a good legacy, Son of God?

1.I did not invent the Romans

2.But you did invent the stubborn people who oppose them.

1.Perhaps these victims of the state trust me and my teaching but if so, they have freely chosen to do so. I may have introduced them to the Father, but they are acting as his children in their own way and in their own time.If they believe that the honour of God requires this sacrifice, I bow to their courage. If the Romans were half-civilised they would avoid such abominations.

2. But you can’t deny surely that these deluded disciples are following your example in refusing to bow to Roman authority even in the face of torture and death….

1.You forget I am human, unlike you, my friend, and have no knowledge of the course of my own life.I will advocate neither rebellion nor violence against Rome. I will encourage people to work peacefully for God’s rule in the world.

2.And here they are, dying for that advice. The least you can do is to accept responsibilty!

1. That’s because you have a false view of leadership: you think leaders demand obedience from their followers and can claim credit or accept blame for what they do. In fact good leaders present clear example and wise guidance. If their followers do well, the credit is their own. If they take risks, the courage is their own. If they make changes to the leader’s guidance, the responsibility is their own.I followed John the Baptiser, but he is not responsible for any good or ill done by me.

2. To give one’s life for a cause, Son of God, is to make the cause more important than life. You may come to realise just how dangerous that can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christ tempted

 

1. Peace to you, Son of God.

2. And to you, peace, child of heaven.

1. For a long time I’ve been going to and fro upon the earth, but I remember where I belong.

2. I was half-expecting you. After all this time in the desert I was getting bored talking to the rock-badgers.

1. I think I can assure you that I won’t be boring.

2. So welcome, with whatever you bring me. It couldn’t be food could it? That bag on your shoulders? I could break my fast with no dishonour after thirty seven days. To be truthful I’m so hungry I could eat these stones.

1. If you really were the Son of God, surely you could change them into bread.

2. As it is…..

1. We both know you can’t…..

2. So your logic says….?

1. You’re not the Son of God.

2. The logic is good but it only works if your premise is true.

1. You mean …

2. Where is it written that a Son of God must be able to perform tricks with stones? Isn’t that such a trivial notion of closeness to God that you must have known I’d reject it.

1. I thought it probable.

2. So why use it?

1. I thought I should push you to define what on earth you mean by thinking of yourself as God’s child. If it’s not miracles, what is it? Is it worth troubling the world with it?

2. It’s being able to call God, Dad.

1. That may be interesting for you, but why should anyone else be bothered?

2. Can we move a little into the shade of this rock? You’d be right of course if it was merely a matter of personal privilege. But I call him that because I am able to do his will in the world: to speak his truth, to do his justice, to offer his love, to bear his suffering…

1. You alone?

2. No, not at all! If I can, so can anyone, that’s the whole point, that’s how God’s kingdom will come, when his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s how the ruler of this world will be defeated.

1. Oh dear, yes. So there will be a message, there will be followers, there will be a belief that you are the Messiah and even if you fail, they’ll be ready to carry the message to the ends of the earth. Oh dear.

2. What’s this strange sorrow? You’re not known for your compassion.

1. My compassion is my opposition to the half-baked schemes of God, who’s always trying to catch up with the mess he’s made of creation, while congratulating himself on his wisdom. But a Son of God with similar arrogance is an additional burden for me to bear.

2. You have me wrong, my friend. I’ll claim no privilege, demand no power, claim no titles, start no wars, but only convince some men and women that they too are God’s children.

1. Son of God, have you any idea how their message will conquer the world, how much power it will give to those who use it, how much suffering it will bring to those who are abused by it, how much evil will be done in your name?

2. I do not.

1. Then I must educate you. We have a journey to make, together, but you’ll find me good company.

(more to follow)

I left my last blog with an unanswered question about unanswered prayer: what can be said about those who pray for a loved one, or for the cause of justice, and experience no answer – the person dies, the cause fails? I used the example of Jesus himself, praying to be spared torture and death. His prayer is depicted as agonised, but God’s lack of response is made respectable by the Jesus’ submissive words, “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Clearly if submission to God’s will were the whole of faithfulness, asking God for anything would be a waste of time. Instead Jesus represented his own cause with words and tears.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on here.

Believers talk about the presence of God, but of course they do not mean that God is available like some kind of supernatural gloop. Better theologies say he/ she is present as person to person. But how is this divine other experienced? Again not as a a divine spook, but rather without material presence. The usual way of describing this is to use the word spiritual. But where does a spiritual presence happen? Surely in the mind, or better, the imagination, of the believer. We imagine God. That does not mean that God is unreal, just that we contribute, through what we have learned, to the image of God that we recognise when we speak of God’s presence.

When we pray, ths imagined image is very important. For example, is the presence male or female or somehow both or neither? That will depend on what we have learned about God from our sources and our religious community. When we say our prayer was unanswered, we mean first of all that what we asked for did not happen. But secondly we may mean that we did not even experience a negative response, some sense of God saying “no.” There are people who have reported to me their sense of God’s refusal of their petition, sometimes accompanied by comfort and  encouragement to wait. In most cases, these refusals were seen as espressions of God’s love.

It may well be the case that some experiences of God’s silence come from an inadequate imagination of God which cannot see “no” as a possible answer. If so, richer learning may help the believer to a richer prayer life. Biblical and other resources can help people see prayer as a more varied drama than they had previously imagined. (Caution: the training of the imagination for prayer is not a confession that “it’s only a pious game.” God uses our imagination as well as our other mental processes.)

But there are occasions where experience of the silence of God is final. The ears of our best imagination can detect nothing. We may like Jesus, feel that God has abandoned us in the time of our greatest need. Like most of humanity we are left to face whatever suffering comes with whatever resources we can muster.

At such a time I would encourage people to imagine that God has fallen silent a)because there nothing that God, who never intervenes by force in the world, can do about the suffering; b) out of respect for the human person who is suffering; c) because there is no suffering which is not also suffered by God. This may not be at all comforting to the suffering person, but it may give courage to bear what even God cannot change.

Did I just write “God CANNOT change”?

I mean God cannot change it without ceasing to be the God he/she is, one who gives total freedom to creation, from particles to human beings, to develop towards perfection. Whatever mistakes are made, whatever evils are committed, God will not impose his/her will, but will only work by persuasion. To do otherwise would be foreign to God’s nature. If climate change leads towards the extinction of life on earth, God will not intervene to stop it.

So when we bear the destructiveness of nature or the malice of humanity, we share the pain of God as God shares ours, in the partnership of suffering love, of which the brutal death of Jesus is the historical sign. If in faith we can imagine this, then in spite of God’s silence, we can still pray and maintain that partnership, even saying to God as the poet Paul Celan did in the name of persecuted Jews, “Pray to us, Lord, we are here.” The weakness of God makes this strange equality possible.

Paul says that those who share the labour pains of God in Christ will also share the glorious freedom of the children of God. In the world of time, this is promised in the future, but those who move out of time, dying as partners of the suffering God, may experience this victory “now.” This of course is still a product of my imagination schooled by the church and its bible. But if my imagination of this victory is mistaken, then I would regard the whole of my faith as nonsense. So beyond all other prayers I pray for this victory, for the creation and for myself, trusting that neither I nor the Bible are mistaken, and that the One whose suffering I have shared will let me share his/her splendour.

Maybe this is not what has been traditionally taught about prayer, nor does it meet the requirements of fervent souls whose hands are ever in the air, but it is all the better for that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lectionary, a prescribed list of Bible readings for every day of a three year period, used by many Christian denominations, tells me that this coming Sunday I should provide some kind of meditation on the story of Hannah from the first book of Samuel in the Bible. Samuel was a prophet and leader of Israel during the reign of  its first king, Saul, and Hannah was his mother.

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The story of his birth goes like this. Hannah was one of the wives of Elkanah, who loved her in spite of the fact that she remained childless while his other wife had many children. At times Hannah was mocked by the other, making her bitter and determined that she would conceive. She went to the sanctuary and prayed that Yahweh God would give her a child. In fact she promised that if she gave birth to a son she would dedicate him to God, that is to the work of the sanctuary. The presiding Priest Eli seeing her mouth moving with no sound, accused her of being drunk, but when she responded with her story, blessed her and her prayer. She went home, lay with her husband and conceived, giving birth to a son whom she named, Shemuel, or Samuel in English, which she thought was connected with the verb “Sha’al” to ask, as she said, “I asked him from the Lord.”

Subsequently, she takes the weaned child and offers him to the Priest for the service of God. The story also gives her a song of thanksgiving to God which emphasises that God has no respect for human status and often raises up the downtrodden and despised. It was used by the Gospel writer, Luke, as a model for Mary’s song, the Magnificat.

What has this story to say about prayer?

It looks as though Hannah’s prayer is a success. God pays attention to the childless and humiliated wife by giving her the child who is destined to be a leader of Israel. She has gone public with her humiliation by going to the sanctuary to confront God  with it. She does not shout aloud, but she prays in the “presence” and tells the Priest what she is doing, so that he adds his weight to her petition.

But she has of course altered her own desire for a child to include her vow that he will be dedicated to God. The reader is meant to feel the weight of this vow and to imagine the wrench of giving over her toddler into the care of the sanctuary. She does not know in advance that the child will be a great leader and that she will be honoured as his mother. She simply offers back to God the child whom God has given to her.

So, good result? Prayer works, especially if what we want can include some kind of bonus for God? But if we believe that God intervenes in worldly events then we might also say that God intervened to make her childless, SO that she would pray to him/ her, and humiliated SO that she might promise her child to the sanctuary, BECAUSE from the start God had destined the child of Elkanah and Hannah to be his/her servant. Behind the dreams and desires of human beings is the dream by which God channels his/her goodness into the world. Something like this view of the overarching imagination of God may have been in the mind of the author of the books of Samuel, who was one of the greatest storytellers ever.

But can I share his sense of God, and in particular should I encourage people with urgent concerns to pray as Hannah did, in the expectation of a positive outcome? Indeed should I myself pray expecting a positive answer, and if I don’t have that expectation, why should I pray at all? The playwrite John Osborne once compared the God of prayers to a hoover “that not only doesn’t beat as it sweeps as it cleans, but actually blows the bloody dust all over the house.” In my work as a clergyman I have known so many situations where people prayed in faith and agony for some good to happen, and it did not. It did not happen. One can say, God has his better purpose. One can ask why mere humans should expect God to arange the universe to suit them. But the truth is it did not happen. It did not happen and the child died. It did not happen and dementia got worse. It did not happen and he did not come back alive from Iraq. It did not happen and they were in Japan when the Tsunami arrived. The good did not happen, but the bad thing did.

And of course, if people have been told to pray, then when it doesn’t work, they sometimes blame themselves. If they had lived better, or had more faith, it would surely have worked. To the shame of the church, sometimes its representatives have defended God by blaming humanity.

An omnipotent God who controls worldly events, sometimes intervening in response to prayer and sometimes refusing to do so, is a powerful but not very likeable invention. Hannah might ultimately disown a God who made her childless so that she would promise her child to his service, just as I would disown a God who allowed Jean Andrew’s girl to die of cancer, but found a parking space for the Baptist minister because he prayed.

I believe in a God in whom we live and move and have our being, who never intervenes, even when Jesus prays for his life to be spared. My invention is of a God who clears a space within the divine being for creation, which continuously takes place through the divine energies, just as a foetus in the womb grows through the energy of the mother. All of creation is continually nourished by God’s creative wisdom. But human beings are given a choice whether to recognise themselves as God’s children, consciously accepting God’s wisdom, or not. When human beings decide to be God’s children, divine goodness flows into the world through them.

When we express our profound desires in prayer to God, we first of all test our wisdom against God’s, our version of what is good against what we know of God’s goodness. This is what Hannah does: she expresses to God the bitterness of her heart. She who has been created by the God of life to bear life has been left barren. He has humiliated and disregarded her. Her prayer has no false piety, but she speaks with passsionate honesty before God. Somewhere in her prayer she meets the divine wisdom, which gives life to all things; and mysteriously her own womanly creativity aligns itself with God’s and she no longer demands but offers herself as God’s partner in goodness, and her child as God’s servant. By expressing her passion to God, she has opened herself to the passion of God.

Now she can go back home with a smile to lie with her husband and conceive. Yes, like many Bible stories, it makes good sense even to readers who have no faith in God. Surely her anxiety and shame about not conceiving are psychological and physiological barriers to conception, and once she has got them out of her heart before God, she is ready to conceive.

The author of Samuel would not have expressed his theology as I have. His way was to work through a succession of subtle stories, involving passionate and sometimes ruthless human beings, to express his profound sense of the involvement of God with his people, God’s desire that they should share divine goodness. These are not simple stories, but had been told and retold by his people over years, gathering new insights, and incorporating new truths. Clumsy, doctrinal interpretations of his work have turned them into mere historical accounts or moral lessons, sapping their energy and hiding their humour.

We can begin to recapture his vision by seeing Hannah as she is: a feisty, angry and passionate woman who tells her soul’s truth to God, and finds herself seduced by God’s desire, to give life to her people through her child.

Yes, yes, you may say, prayer is OK when it does what it did for Hannah, but about Jesus and Jean Andrews? That requires another blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love poetry, but find that the public poems associated with Armistice Day, are the sort that cause the hearers no trouble, leaving them with a vague sense of heroism and sacrifice, rather than anything that might give awkward glimpses of the reality of war. The poets of the 2nd World War are less celebrated than those of the 1st War, perhaps because their response to its horrors is less horrified and more experienced than their predecessors’. There is nothing in their works like the astonished anger of Wilfrid Owen but sometimes their laconic acceptance of the nature of war is itself their most powerful protest against it.

 

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A dead German soldier beside his bicycle

Here is a poem by Keith Douglas who fought in the North African desert battles and was killed in Normandy.

“Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.”

This poem is from the desert where, as in the case of the first Iraq war, the remains of arms and men are preserved long after in the hot dry air. The poet pays attention to an enemy, without prejudice or sentimentality. He was a killer who had tried to kill the poet, but failed and persished.

The real emotion of the poem is conjured by the picture of the dead man’s girlfriend, stuck in the gunpit, with her message, “Steffi, Vegissmeinnicht.” Steffi ForgetmeNot. Well now he has forgotten her, as his decaying corpse is mocked by the pristine state of his weapons. His humanity is recognised by the stroke of genius in which the poet imagines how his girl would feel if she saw him now:

“how on his skin the swart flies move

The dust upon the paper eye

and the burst stomach like a cave.”

The insult to his body along with the thought of his girl, move the reader to grief and recognition of what war does.

The final verse sums up by stating that this man was both a lover and a killer, a life-giver and a death-giver, and that in this case, death has wiped out life and loving. This dead foreigner is given his dignity by the poet, but only as part of a sad acceptance that war puts in question the dignity of all its participants. It is not a loud and angry poem, nor does it preach a message, but once you read it you know that remembrance has to be more than poppies.

Wilfrid Owen began the war as a modestly privileged, educated, sensitive young man with a genius for words. The experience of war, and perhaps especially of his recuperation in Craiglochart Hospital in the company of the poet Siegfried Sassoon, led him to dissmiss all the windy glorification of war in favour of representing the the fate of real soldiers, the ones he commanded as an officer. As he said himself, “My subject is war and the pity of war….”

Sassoon, a more worldly man than Owen, wrote some of the most incisive criticism of the massacres of the first world war:

“Good morning, Good morning, the general said

as we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of them dead

and we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

He’s a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack

as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack:

but he did for them both with his plan of attack.”

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Wilfrid Owen

Owen took his time to absorb the sufferings of his men, and his greatest poems are celebrations of their human greatness, a greatness blighted by their deaths and travestied by official acts of mourning.

”What passing bells for those who die as cattle?”

is his question placed at the beginning of one of his best-known poems. The poem focuses on the normal ceremonies of burial and grieving, contrasting them with the actualities of his comrades’ deaths: “No mockeries for them from prayers or bells.” But then marvellously he hints that the real mourning, which includes the earth itself, is greater than the conventions:

“What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes

shall shine the holy glimmer of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

their flowers the tenderness of silent minds;

and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.”

 

We keep faith with Owen and his soldiers when we remember the dead with truth and sorrow, and perhaps with something of his anger.