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Friday 2 January 2015

The Silent Woman. The weight of every word.

‘I love the child; but she is afraid of me.’ So begins one of Walter Wangerin’s dramatic monologues (in Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, Zondervan, revised edition 2003). It speaks of God thinking through how he might approach the young Mary. She is his chosen but he worries that fear of him might turn that blessing into a curse. He resolves that only through the bearing of a baby can her personality and will be truly honoured. Only in the tenderness and care that is her gift and intention can God be born.

I thought of that story often as I read Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. For much of the novel Lila is pregnant. What this new life to be means for her and her aged preacher husband, John Ames, is a recurrent theme. Like Mary in the Wangerin story, fear haunts Lila. There is about her a profound aloneness that colours every part of her experience. The child is for her the only possible way out of that isolation. Although her marriage is clearly a deeply loving relationship, somehow she and her husband fail again and again to meaningfully connect thoughts and words.

Perhaps their struggle to express themselves to each other finds its origin in their very different understanding of language. Lila thinks hard and long on life but does not have the words to articulate her thoughts. Indeed, for her not speaking is a kind of liberation. Not knowing the right word is her repeated experience. The old man (as she often refers to him) is the opposite. A preacher with long years of practice he is well versed in the art, and the precision of words. A lifetime of study, conversation and prayer has made him, body as much as mind and soul, as he is: ‘His preaching was a sort of pattern of his mind, like the lines of his face.’

Lila has the life experience but cannot articulate it. The Reverend is all articulation and worries that he has underplayed life’s profundities. Again and again, as the story unfolds in a realm apparently unrelated to any particular historical epoch, the questions of meaning, trust and trustworthiness are played out. Eternal verities laid bare in the story of one impoverished, and often silent, woman.

Lila – a novel and a theology.

Friday 28 September 2012

What's in a Picture?

Ruth is one of the books of the Bible that particularly appeals to me. It's a delightful short story - easy to read and with a down-to-earth quality to it that is immediately engaging. It seems to me to be obviously the work of a wise women. Even those who would argue with that must surely admit that Ruth provides a much needed woman's perspective when it comes to biblical voices.

A good choice, therefore, for a Quiet Day about pastoral ministry just before the admission and licensing of new Lay Pastoral Workers in the diocese in which I work. And the days I've spent researching Ruth haven't disappointed. I'll leave readers to judge for themselves whether the sermon created from this study was worth the effort - you can access it here (the Quiet Day addresses are rather more 'off the cuff' so I haven't posted them).
The reason behind this post, however, is the differences I've noticed in the ways a much loved Ruth poster of yester-year has been reproduced. A reputable art print company supplied me with a poster for the use of tomorrow's group. This is the image:
It's a reproduction of Ruth and Naomi, a painting from 1886 by Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1933-1898) in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Except when I compare it to the gallery's own website (see National Art Collection) I realise the image I have has been changed: in particular sunshine appears in the top left, there are many more green plants among the rocks and on the hillside, the colour of the clothing of the lone figure has been changed, the race of the lone figure has been changed, and the head-wear of the taller one of the embracing couple has been changed. I think the changes make the image more immediately one of hope and new beginnings. The third person becomes an unnamed servant carrying her mistress' burden, Orpah is nowhere to be seen, and Ruth and Naomi are pulling apart prior to their walking on towards new life in Bethlehem (symbolised by sunlight). The Calderon original is all together more ambiguous - an ambiguity that did not fit the purpose of the Edwardian poster that adorned the walls of so many Christian homes.

Monday 27 August 2012

On not remembering Apollo 11

The tributes to Neil Armstrong have been remarkable. His self-effacing and courageous character has shone through in what's been said and written. There is something immense compelling in a universally known hero always apparently describing himself as 'a nerdy engineer.'

(C) NASA Apollo 11 mission patch

Prompted by all the news items, I've tried to remember that amazing day in July 1969 when Armstrong stepped on the moon. So many people have recounted how moved they were at the time by the grainy TV pictures. Indeed, not a small number have said how that moment was a personal turning point - an astrophysicist interviewed on the radio gave moving testimony to Armstrong's first step as being her childhood first step towards her career. All the more disconcerting then that I have no recollection from the time of that famous first step.

Of course I have images in my mind of the landing craft ladder and Armstrong stepping from it, of footsteps in the lunar dust, and the stars and stripes waving against a black space and bare lunar landscape, but they are images from oft repeated public display. I have no recollection whatsoever of seeing them for the first time on that fateful day. I suppose I must have seen them then - as a family we watched the television news every day - but I can't remember having done so.

Apparently this makes me something of an oddity. Amongst those old enough to remember 1969, just about every seems to have some memory of the day of the first step on the moon. After all 'What were you doing the day that such and such a famous thing happened?' is a frequent conversational gambit whenever personal memories are talked about.

It's not that I wasn't interested. As a child I was an avid reader of The Children's Newspaper and The Eagle, so science, space and technology were part of my everyday enthusiasms. I was mid-way through secondary school in 1969 and was well aware of the significance of the event - politically as well scientifically. But for some reason a memory of the day itself escapes me.

I know enough of what happened that day to reconstruct it as if it were a memory. Like everyone else I'm familiar with the TV shots of the actual event, and that weekend was the first one of the long school holiday that year. I know what I was likely to have been doing, where I lived at the time, and where and how I was likley to have watched the news report. It would be easy to create 'a memory' of that day, but it would not be a genuine recollection. Interestingly if I did so, I might well come to believe over time that what I had made up was a genuine memory. I can't be absolutely sure of how many of my 'genuine memories' I have actually constructed in just such a way. That one of the really disconcerting things about memory.

I also ask myself why I don't remember anything of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Other days of that decade I remember with great clarity - Winston Churchill's funeral, for example. Is it that something else that was particularly significant was going on in my life at the same time and has obscured my memory of the much talked about moon landing? Maybe that is the case, although I can't actually remember what it might have been. For sure my teenager years were emotionally turbulent - as they are for so many people - so perhaps others things got in the way of my remembering. I just don't know.

My not remembering the Apollo 11 landing illustrates how plastic memory is. Memory is always something we construct and not simply retrieval of pre-existent, pre-formed files. It's a disarming fact that memory making is often as easy as forgetting.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Olympian Preaching

Like so many people I guess I've got a touch of post-Olympic blues. So inspiring and encompassing were the games that I'm now missing them terribly. Of course I couldn't have kept up my level of engagement indefinitely - I was able to have my holidays at the games and every holiday has to end! Having enjoyed the Olympics so much my mind turns to what I as a preacher might take from those high days. I think especially about the competitors themselves:
  • Their commitment was transparent and no onlooker could doubt the personal cost and effort involved. Shouldn't preachers be similarly transparent? Do I look committed to what I'm doing?
  • The long-term planning involved was also witnessed to time and time again. The event might only take minutes but the preparation takes years. Doesn't preaching also involve long-term and tenacious preparation? Is my life obviously dedicated to the preaching event?
  • The training undergone was not only long-term but also carefully devised and executed. We heard stories of many different disciplines, sometimes a long way from the athletes own, being used to develop skills and concentration. Are we preachers sometimes lacking both in focus and breadth in our our own training? And are we determined enough in training for the homiletic task?
  • All embracing determination in performance was also clear in every event. Those who knew they were extremely unlikely to end up in the top three still performed to the highest possible standard. Personal 'bests' were achieved time and time again. How might that attitude be translated to the pulpit? Are we preachers clearly repeatedly trying to better our performance for the good of those with whom we work?
  • Fluency in performance was another impressive aspect of every competitor. Certainly there were mistakes occasionally, but generally we were treated to fluent, graceful, and even beautiful renditions of sporting prowess. What had been learnt and developed in training wasn't laboured in the event, but rather had been seemlessly incorporated into what was done. Likewise congregations need fluent even beautiful performances from their preachers. Are we sometimes too laboured and patronizing in how we present? How do we better engage and encompass people by the fluency of what we do?
  • Enjoyment was also obvious. Who could fail to be impressed by so many competitors who said something like I haven't won but I have competed to the best that I possible can and I'm blessed by it. Are we preachers giving our all in a way that satisfies ourselves?  Are we clearly enjoying the action that God has asked of us?
Olympian preaching is perhaps a metaphor worth pondering. Roll on the Paralympics! 

Friday 22 June 2012


'Say one for me, Vicar, will ya?' That often repeated shout from the local milkman as I walked to church each morning to pray the morning office was a great ecnouragement. Looking back I wish I'd told him so. Similar encouragement came also from the small band of people who at different times joined me in the saying of those prayers. Add to that those who asked for prayer or others who commented on the reassurance they drew from hearing the church bell, and the saying of the office was far from a solitary affair. The theological point that prayer is always a 'joining-in' rather than an isolated action, was made real in those things.
Is there any way that such encouragment can be emulated in the rythmns and demands of a so called sector post. I've been toying with what social media may offer here. I've been tweeting a thought from one of the portions of the daily continuous reading of scripture in the hope of prompting some others. Nothing grandly theological - just something to help me think on the passage during the day, as well as being something to slow down my solitary saying of the office. I've called it cLectio - a little thought from the lectio continua of the day. At the moment the Church of England lectionary points me to Judges. Any chance we might cLectio together? Tweet @theosoc.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Bible illiteracy

The Bible has dropped out of common cultural currency. Even principle biblical characters and stories are no longer widely known.  So runs the argument about biblical literacy, and its wrong says Dr Katie Edwards. In fact, says Edwards, biblical motifs are everwhere in advertising. Indeed biblical images are particularly prominent in adverts directed at younger people which suggests that their designers believe such images readily connect with the young. Far from being biblically illiterate the 'old, old story' still has an impact on the young. Those who bemoan the silencing of the Bible in contemporary culture have got it wrong, according to Edwards. The cultural pessmists have got it wrong because they are looking in the wrong places and don't give sufficient regard or value to popular culture. The biblical illiteracy argument is one produced out of a certain cultural elitism that doesn't take anything 'pop' seriously.

Dr Edwards made her  case strongly at a presentation at the College of Preachers national conference on 18 June. A quick Google search seems to support her contention that biblical images are everythere in adverts. This one came up with just a couple of clicks. Adam and Eve, Mary, Jesus, and other references do abound. And yes, they often do seem to be directed towards people of 30 and under, so someone somewhere knows that they connect. Certainly it is too easy to dismiss the power of some biblical motifs, and the church is reticent about putting those motifs 'out there' in ways that readily connect. Respectful hesitance is perhaps a a screen for cultural elitism. I'm not sure, however, that the prevalence of a relatively few biblical motifs, however frequently repeated, necessarily overturns the observation that the cultural memory of the Bible is fading fast in contemporary Western society. I need to know more and look forward to learning more of Dr Edwards' analysis. What a great event the College of Preachers conference is.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Engaging the Powers.

Four quotations:

Intercession is spiritual defiance of what is, in the name of what God has promised.  Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current contradictory forces.  It infuses the air of a time yet to be into the suffocationg atmosphere of the present.

History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.  This is not simply a religious statement.  It is as true of the communists or capitalists or anarchists as it is of Christians.  The future belongs to whoever can envision in the manifold of its potentials a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitable.

All this about our role as intercessors in creating history is arrogant bravado unless we recognize that it is God rather than ourselves who initiates prayer, and that it is God's power, not ours, that answers to the world's needs.  We are always preceded in intercession.  God is always already praying within us.  When we turn to pray, it is already the second step of prayer.

Prayer in the face of the Powers is a spiritual war of attrition.  ...  In a field of such titanic forces, it makes no sense to cling to small hopes.  We are emboldened to ask for something bigger.  The same faith that looks clear-eyed at the immensity of the forces arrayed against God is the faith that affirms God's miracle-working power.  Trust in miracles is, in fact, the only rational stance in a world that is infinitely responsive to God's incessant lures.  We are commissioned to pray for miracles because nothing less is sufficient.  We pray to God, not because we understand these mysteries, but because we have learned from our tradition and from experience that God, indeed is sufficient for us, whatever the Powers may do.

All come from the Biblical scholar Walter Wink's amazing book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Fortress Press, 1992). Wink died earlier this month, aged 76, after a long struggle with dementia.  In his American homeland he was a controversial figure - loved by many and loathed by others.  To me he was the person who first made me understand the political necessity of intercessory prayer. From him I learnt that prayer is a calling into being of an order of existence that refuses to allow evil and hurt to have a determining power over humanity. He inspired me pray as one who refuses authority to the powers of harm and despair, and to look to God's victory in all things - even when it's impossible to see it. He taught me to pray for a peaceful alternative, even when I can't voice what that alternative is. I thank God for Walter Wink's inspiration.  May he rest in that godly peace for which he taught us to long with prayerful passion.