WHO AM I?

dietrich_bonhoeffer

TWELVE AROUND TABLE this morning, as of long ago, gathered for burning bush encounter the rabbi said all could and should know. With genius insistence on open hospitality, Jesus gathered people around – thankfully, eucharistically, speaking of God in the midst of them, in-their-flesh, in 'adamah, earthed and in touch, breathing ruach, God-breath, communion, in and through and for and all around them – in and on and of Genesis ground.

There are times, many times, when it seems that God's message for all of us is, as Fr Richard Rohr often reminds us: “Don't get rid of the pain until you have learned its lessons.” Hard though it be for us to grasp, desperately disinclined to undergo it, brokenness heals us into wholeness.

Unfortunately, Fr Richard goes on to reflect, “we have the natural instinct to fix pain, to control it, or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego always insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love, and he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand in liminal space, to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until you move to a deeper level where it all eventually makes sense in the great scheme of God and grace.” (Adapted from The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered)

1-DSCF3127

And, of course, some of us have no other choice available to us than lonely grace and space into which to speak our prayers and our questions. For some, some of the time, as for Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred in 1945, there's no other option available. But the life and witness of this pastor called our attention to the Jesus who calls people to round table, to pray and to stay and to question together – breathing the life of communion: a higher, lower, deeper, broader, wider dispensation, the kingdom of heaven.

WHO AM I? – Bonhoeffer asked … Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

Annunciation2014

WHO AM I? They often tell me I stepped from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a Squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me I used to speak to my warders freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me I bore the days of misfortune equally, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself? Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Church remembers Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pastor & Martyr on 9th April

 

WHAT’S GOOD NEWS?

I’M OFF TO A DAY CONFERENCE on “Catholic Evangelism” tomorrow. I’m not wholly sure whether it’s going to be about Catholic Evangelism (capital C, capital E) or catholic evangelism (small c, small e), and I’m rather hoping for the latter … hoping, that is to say, for a catholic evangelism that really is about good news (evangelism) universally applied (catholic), ie, for everybody – no matter their “faith tradition” or lack thereof – everywhere.

I’ve spent a very great deal of my life passionately pondering what exactly constitutes good news, and in particular why having some sort of acknowledged relationship to / with the Source of our lives might matter – to individuals, to communities, to nations, to our world, to the whole created order – some of these whole and healthy, some desperately broken, hurting, and in need of that Divine touch that brings healing. And I’m consistently finding that old definitions of what it means to be Catholic, or Protestant, or Christian, or shades in between all of these, don’t fit all sizes any more, if they ever did.

Christ everywhere …

What constitutes Good News in a ‘catholic’, pluralistic world? Where is an / our anointed Christ to be found? (as I’m sure such a Christ is indeed to be found, anywhere in the world, and across the world’s faith traditions). And the questions are so important to me because as a Christian priest, seeking always to live and learn – to be a disciple – after the pattern of Jesus of Nazareth, I have observed that some kinds of Catholic, some kinds of Protestant, and some kinds of “Christian” plainly do not represent very good news for many people at all. So catholic evangelism must be something quite different, something much more open, something prepared always to be held to account as to the reach of what it purports to be good news. Catholic evangelism will not, I think, be too prescriptive.

Feast of life for all

Catholic evangelism will offer the “feast of life” to people in the “highways and byways” won’t it? Catholic evangelists, personal and corporate, will have dismantled their drawbridges. Catholic evangelism will be less concerned (although not wholly unconcerned) with the Faith of our Fathers and hugely more concerned with Faith Being Received Today. When I’ve asked adults over the past thirty years whether they’d like to come to confirmation classes, so that they can be presented to the bishop, confirmed, and thereafter receive Holy Communion many have politely declined. When I’ve offered the Sacrament of Holy Communion “no questions asked” it has been the case, more frequently than I can count, that the recipient has ended up doing the asking, seeking to confirm a present and acknowledged reality – satisfied hunger – in their lives.

Let’s explore!

And I remember that Jesus was ever ready to go the extra mile for children, too. “Do not try to stop them for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these”. Catholic evangelists will work hard at becoming more, well … catholic – so that they’re more plainly seen to be, well … “Christian” or “Anointed”. Catholic evangelists will be interested in marginalised multi-tasking-capable women, tax collectors, prodigal sons, unimaginative but very opinionated men, quieter and more imaginative men, too, and in lost sheep. Catholic evangelism won’t chastise the lost sheep for having left the fold in order to “explore”, still less tell the poor creature that God forbids it. Instead truly catholic evangelists (like Jesus of Nazareth) will make the fold larger so that there’s the space for MORE sheep to engage in the business of exploration, to engage, that is to say, in their God-given Life!

The Sound of Silence

One of the biggest growth areas in our parish (liberal Catholic with blurry edges – a bit like my paintings!) – has been a call to shared and silent meditation in the parish church – arriving and departing in companionable silence. No coffee or handing out electoral roll forms afterwards. And numbers in excess of many a church’s entire Sunday congregation have responded to a call – we believe a Divine call – to dwell for a space, together in the “house for the Church”, to wait upon the Word that touches life in silence. (The Word – not words. There’s not “even” a Bible reading). It’s life-changing, say many participants. It’s the only occasion in my month when I’m really and deeply aware of the heartbeat of God, the pulse of life, say others. This silence, this “that’s not very Catholic” but absolutely catholic encounter is breathing into our common life new elements of what it means to bear good news in our lives today, what it means, first and foremost to BE the Body of Christ now on earth, what it means to be religious in the original sense of the word (religare) – reconnected, re-membered. Restored to what we’ve forgotten.

Old assumptions yield

So whether tomorrow proves to be slanted more to Catholic Evangelism, or to catholic evangelism, I hope we’ll be asking the same question – What is Good News? – at least sometimes. Because, remembering Louis MacNeice’s Mutations again:

… old assumptions yield to new sensations.
The Stranger in the Wings is waiting for his cue.
The fuse is always laid to some annunciation …

TINY BOAT LARGE LAKE

MORE EASTERTIDE encounter today – on a sun-blessed Ullswater where, whatever the season, in time or timelessness, I am a tiny boat in the company of a large and beautiful lake … ashore, or afloat, going or staying, lying down, sitting or standing just out of sight, warm or cold or dark or light or shadow or bright? Funny: here the questions don’t occur. I’m not conscious (except in the recesses of my memory) even of being a boat. This encounter, it would be better to say after all, is simply joy in the company of a large and beautiful lake. And all is well here. All is well.

A TENDER RECOGNITION

Mary stayed outside near the tomb, weeping. Then, still weeping, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet. They said, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away’ she replied ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ As she said this she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not recognise him. Jesus said, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.’ Jesus said, ‘Mary!’ She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni!’ – which means Master. Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go and find the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her. John 20.11-18

THE MARY MAGDALENE of my own imagination doesn’t look at all like some of those depressing religious pictures. Not a haloed saint, not miserably gazing upon a skull set down in the middle of her dressing table, not wanton, bare-breasted, or mournfully reflecting upon her dreadfulness and that of others “of her kind”. No, my Mary Magdalene, first apostle, is an ordinarily beautiful, fully alive, self-aware, tactile, tender, practical, imaginative and lovely young woman. Human and humane. Someone possessed of an extraordinary ability to empathise, a bit of a loner perhaps, someone who “gets it” when Jesus speaks, someone who, just because she’s lovely – inside and out – is great to be around. And Jesus loves her.

I don’t know who made the gorgeous image above – (I’d love to know – and would gladly credit it) – but here’s the girl in my heart, using her own imagination to tell Jesus that she understands more than perhaps even he thinks she does; that she loves him; that loving him heals her and makes her whole; that her love might bring something of healing to him.

Here’s the Mary I imagine went on from this Prologue – this genesis, this in-the-flesh close-breathing, this out-of-the-ordinary, tearful, beyond-the-Law touching of the Word-before-time, this “costly” anointing, this first moment of tender intimacy, and wholly mutual acceptance – to have a thousand little conversations with Jesus, long before the ultimate events of what we’ve come to call Holy Week (“it’s no wonder they call you the Master, love. None of us have ever met or dreamed about someone quite like you”). A thousand little conversations about what was to be in the future, their future, everybody’s future (the future of R S Thomas’ “mirrors in which the blind look at themselves and Love looks at them back”) – after the “return” to “my father and your father”, to Where we came from.

Mary, imagine …, Mary, turn around …, Mary, can you feel it? …, Mary, the colours …, Mary, the joy of it …

Yes, I can imagine. I want to imagine. We all do. But if you died first, Jesus, God knows what I’ll do. You must be careful. We need you. Don’t strain so. O God. I know you’ll have to go. And I shall want you to, of course. Yes, we’ve talked about it often enough. But will you really come back to me? From the inside out? Jesus, I believe. Help me when my heart breaks. Help me in my unbelief …

Mary, Mary, Mary. I will. I will. I truly believe we’ll find each other on the inside …

If fully human Jesus was Everyman then Mary of Magdala is Everywoman. To prostitute her memory is wicked calumny – (how many unseeing men, half-dead, dull-in-heart-and-mind-and-head, have done that through the centuries?) – calumny of a kind that has led, and still leads, to immeasurable sickness of head and heart and soul and mind and body. Masculine and feminine, each needs the other. ( Both traits found in both women and in men, heterosexual or homosexual – it’s an “other” that’s the key requirement here). Thank God that the crisis wrought by precisely that sickness, and agonisingly recognised as the “hole in the heart” not just of the Church but of humankind generally today, can hardly help now but to point humankind everywhere on earth towards the light of a “more excellent”, a wholly more natural, and healthier, God-given way.

Human relationships, as much as for any of the ways we relate to the Divine, are not to be patronising, patriarchal, law-bound, or shame-laden. Human relationships will thrive, and the reign of God come to be felt among us, when they instinctively include, and resist exclusion. Love is not to be imprisoned or entombed. And, post-crisis, then and now, a wider-reaching Love is here to stay. Though patience is still required, though sin and death appear yet, in places, still to prevail, a new way of loving is here to stay. A new Way, a new Truth, a new Life.

Mr Vernon Dursley to Harry Potter about a certain (Wise old? Dove-like?) owl:

‘If you can’t control that owl, it’ll have to go!’
Harry tried, yet again, to explain.
‘She’s bored,’ he said. ‘She’s used to flying around outside. If I could just let her out at night …’
‘Do I look stupid?’ snarled Uncle Vernon, a bit of fried egg dangling from his bushy moustache. ‘I know what’ll happen if that owl’s let out.’
He exchanged dark looks with his wife, Petunia.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J K Rowling

On Resurrection Day, “when it dawns on us”, in Mary and in Jesus, Wisdom is encountered entre deux. Wisdom’s used to flying around outside, she’s done so since the genesis of things, and before that, too; she carries messages home – for the inside, the God-side. Yes, there’s real intimacy here, a communicating communion sort of a business. But an early lesson in wisdom for all humankind is “do not cling”. Let him, let her, fly. Let the Spirit blow where She listeth. Something’s dawning. Look at the sky.

Ascension – returning – to the fullness of God lies yet ahead, though this very Resurrection morning it is an energising Hope. A hope that will ultimately change the course of the history of worlds. For there will be a returning, a tender returning, a deeply intimate, glorious, colourful, joyful, prayerful, fulsome returning for Everyone to the One who is both “my father and your father”. Don’t cling today beautiful Mary. But, believe me, lovely, knowing, wise and giving Mary, the day will dawn when we may cling, and we may laugh, and we may talk and pray and sing “We’re an Easter people! All of us! And alleluia is our song”.

And on that day I believe Jesus will be heard greeting his Mary of Madgdala as Rabbuni. Teacher. Master … She’s beautiful. Just like this painting. An ordinary, beautiful girl. Just sometimes a little bit wild. And she gets it, perhaps she is, Wisdom.

Jan Richardson and her husband Garrison Coles have made the
exquisitely beautiful The Hours of Mary Magdalene. Enjoy it here

 

GOOD FRIDAY TULIP

slides here

HOW WE NEED to keep our eyes open, patiently, to watch an unfolding – a very Good-Friday-like activity. Storm and tempest wreaked havoc one day. Some were trampled. Felled. As though unnoticed. Forgotten. Flowers. And persons. So we need to keep our eyes open, patiently.

Wind blew where it willed. I’m grateful that we noticed – enough, anyway, to bring this one into shelter and a bit of mollycoddling support for brokenness. It’s late on Good Friday now. And to think, we could so easily have missed her, even trampled on her. Good Friday’s tulip. Opening …

slides here

SOMETHING CREATIVE

WILLIAM CLEARY, whose written prayers give such beautiful clarity to the thoughts that surface in my own soul, says:

We know, Spirit Mystery, that something creative is happening in our lives all the time, something good going forward despite all we worry about …

He goes on to acknowledge that sometimes “worst fears” do come true, but speaks too of the “vast resources of artistry and invention” that turn our faces towards “some ultimate splendour”.

I think that the lady in the photo above is substantially more supple than I am these days, but with these thoughts in mind, and notwithstanding Bramhall’s rather greyer sky, today I shall try to remember that “something creative is happening” and – armed with all the colours of life’s rainbow – shall try to “fly”.

IMAGINING

IMAGINING. I think that’s one of our chief works as humans. It’s how we co-create with the Source of all life. And imagining is what I’ve been doing all day. First in a fairly routine sort of early morning meeting, later in a scintillating encounter between an artist, Stephen Raw, an architect, John Prichard, two churchwardens, Ralph Luxon and Sue Taylor, and a photographing priest who thought he was in photographic heaven, moi …

I took many dozens of photos. Mindful of my manners though I will check with the artist before sharing too many more than the one above. This is a little trio of beautiful articles in a Stephen shaped cave. Not the work of the artist, but absolutely the work of the artist, if you know what I mean? Stephen’s studio feels like a coloured X-ray of his heart and soul and mind and body; a statement of faith and an act of imagination and creation. We came away energised at some profound level. We’d been standing on holy ground. I shall hope to stand there again. And there was good coffee! And cookies.

~

Later in the day I imagined a lovely local man being now in the nearer presence of God. I was deeply moved by his wife Sheila’s beautiful reading of Psalm 121 during a memorial service at nearby All Saints’ where Harry had been the organist until his sudden and unexpected death. The music, sung, played and listened to, together with Fr David’s quite simply superb shepherding of the service, and a fine address, made for one of the very finest funeral thanksgivings I’ve ever experienced. I’m deeply grateful for that and know that Harry’s family must surely be yet more thankful. Harry was an artist in his own distinctive and giving way. Perhaps all of us, in early morning meetings, artist’s studio, thanksgiving service in Church, or wheresoever we may be, are, each and every one of us, artists in our own distinctive ways.

How did  God bring about such an extraordinary work, I wonder? And I only come near being able to approach an answer when I make time in my life to imagine ….

Update: with Stephen Raw’s kind permission: my photos are here