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All Hallows

31 October – All Hallows Eve – and it’s an in between kind of time.

In between because late autumn the year turns, the clocks tick back, and we resign ourselves to the temporary dying of nature as the leaves swirl down the streets towards winter and the end of another year.

In between the liturgical marking of Harvest and Advent, we sit in the season of remembering: All Saints, All Souls and the red of Remembrance. Christian faith has so much to say about the living and the dead, and about the saints – both the common or garden church attender – and there are thousands of remarkable ordinary saints – and those who are more famous, like John the Evangelist and Stephen the martyr.

Having invented All Hallows ourselves, Christians have lost ground to the secularists when it comes to contemporary celebrations of Hallowe’en. These lie somewhere in between much orange plastic, false white cobwebs and E number overload at one end, and full on cinematic horror at the other: “As our real world becomes ever more terrifying, filmmakers have stepped up their game to use horror as a way to analyse the nightmare of our off-screen lives”, Esquire magazine reminds us.

 

Thus we use the encroaching darkness of the days to indulge our fascination with unthinkable things…
As to Christians and contemporary practices of Hallowe’en, in my experience Christian parents in villages end up reasonably happy for their children to embrace the harmless fun that is parentally supervised trick or treating with optional home made ghost costumes – after all there are only about 6 streets and most people know each other.

 

Meanwhile Christians in large evangelical churches will be throwing a light party, or, even better, a Superhero party. Which is obviously loads of fun, but I’m not sure it exactly helps anyone to explore the darker side of our humanity, which will inevitably catch us up if we’re unaware. But perhaps that can wait till childhood has been left behind.

 

When we had a churchyard at the end of our garden, I used to imagine conducting an evening churchyard Hallowe’en tour, complete with tea lights and hymns. There is something in us that is both fascinated and repelled by the idea of the realm of the dead, and I think there would have been takers – a kind of ‘Take Back Control’ of Hallowe’en. But I never quite pulled it off.

Nationally the UK is paused between the rising and falling of two political visions, balanced like weights on a scale: Remain or Leave; collaborate or Take Back Control. We were due to leave the EU today. As we wade further into the drawn out future of Brexit, what might die, what might be reborn?

 

Personally speaking, being in between can provide valuable space in which to discover something new about yourself. In between jobs, in between life stages, in between letting something or someone go and embracing something or someone… The in between is a spiritual opportunity, a chance to grow, if we don’t lose our nerve.

The in between is a liminal place, a place where we are (if we can only notice it) lovingly held. Between summer and winter; between the past and the future; between the devil and the deep blue Conservative sea.

We hold our collective breath and wait.

Meanwhile, Happy In-Between-All-Hallows-Eve.

 

Andrew Gadd

Ask, Seek, Knock

Matthew 7:7-12

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

B there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

A “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

I have ‘history’ with this text!

Given the history with my son being so unwell and so many other painful experiences with other friends in and out of hospital, a relentless unfolding of disappointment and tragedy. I often thought of this text..

Something especially about fathers and sons (in earlier translations).

And I found myself angered. The anger combined with frustration and disappointment and led to a prolonged departure from Christian faith.

And let’s be honest, who of us hasn’t come up against a wall with this one.

Jesus seems to be promising something which clearly he doesn’t deliver on…

All of us will have known disasters and unanswered prayers. We live in a world steeped in suffering. The words could almost seem to mock the sufferings of others.

Why say this?.. what are we meant to say….how do we respond?

Well one way is to try to conform experience into the mold of dogma… So this means something – I just need to obey, be patient maybe, or conform my asking to the kind of things God wants me to ask for…

Hmm.. I’m not convinced this is sust…

The alternative, (maybe?), is to conform dogma to experience; to say that my experience doesn’t confirm therefore something in what I believe had to change.. I cannot belief against experience..

Now this is a more fruitful – and risky – area to think – I suggest.. and suddenly liberates the bible from the tyranny we project on to it, and the same tyranny on God.

It’s worth thinking here about how Jesus spoke, and what he expected his listeners to do with his teachings…

We can remind ourselves of this; a simple contrast between Greek and Hebrew thinking and teaching.

Greek thinking was led from the front, it was about finding meaning in text, in idea, about finding a truth.. that once revealed everyone would say, ‘oh yes – that’s the truth – we all see it clearly!”

Hebrew thinking was almost opposite.. the rabbinic tradition (Jesus) was about dialogue and discussion.. people studying religious texts were expected to come with questions and arguments. Everyone was supposed to enter a fray of discussion, dialogue, even argument.. and ‘the truth’ existed somewhere in the middle of that – not settled, but literally residing in the wrestling.

And Jesus was coming from the Hebrew tradition. So maybe.. maybe.. what he was doing was asking a question of his listeners.. Posing a problem, leaving a riddle, a conundrum.

And remember too that in the Hebrew tradition prayers are often for blessings and thanksgiving; blessings upon food, or for a good crop, or for a new child. Prayer as petition is not so prevalent.

So I have no clear answer for this text.. all I can say is that it still frustrates me… but that’s ok, I hope it frustrates you too!

We are not called upon to slavishly follow the words of the bible, or to take them at face value.. faith is not about accepting the things we are told… it is about a living relationship of trust, doubt and hope.. it is like Jacob wrestling the Angel, it is about engaging your thoughts, asking questions .. this church (especially in café is really good at this!).

And to take that to its final conclusion .. to say “sorry I do not believe this” shows – to my mind at least – as much faith as to say “yes I do.”

To doubt then; to question, to seek, to ask, to knock… is the realistic and human process which will enable the door to a realistic faithful life to be opened.

GS Collins March 2019
Painting by Andrew Gadd, (b.1968)
www.andrewgaddart.com

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Cafe Communion – Epiphany 2019

Cafe Communion – Epiphany 2019

Journey of the Magi

TS Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

 

This time of year feels like a frantic liturgical race!

Jesus was only born a few days ago, and in a matter of weeks our liturgy takes us from baby, to precocious child, to (todays reading) a fledgling prophet in the temple!

I personally cannot handle that speed.. I prefer to stop and wonder for a little longer.. To linger and question.

For this week, I’m still basking in the glow of epiphany.. the first ‘revealing of a deeper meaning’. The visit of the Magi from the east.. not three.. probably not too wise either! maybe many, men, women, maybe like a band of migrants?

I want to dwell for a moment and take us away from the picture books, from the sweet images of star and camels,  crowns and gifts.

Instead I want to pause on the political nature of this story. The magi see a sign, a star, an invitation.

The air thick with magic and wonder… they leave behind comfort, security, they journey to an unknown destination – but they journey in hope.

And they encounter Herod… very powerful, and very insecure… a highly volatile megolamaniac.

They don’t do ‘wise’ very well – as they walk into a royal palace of an insecure and power hungry king and ask “where is the newborn king?”!

But then they find the child.. whatever they expected, whatever they anticipated, we cannot know – but was it this young child, toddler even?

What did they understand in this image?

We can only speculate…

But in this vision they change. Despite Herod’s insistence – they do not return. They see something dangerous and vulnerable.

They recognise that this is the time to disobey the powers of the nation.. there is something in the vision they have beheld, that compels them to effectively break the law.

They resist the powers of control, envy, greed and violence. They take another route home. They disobey…

I wonder .. as our times seem to become further and further vulnerable, what might we see in the nativity scene that could compel us to such insurrection?

Can the very nature of love, the gift of love so move us to resist the powers of violence, greed and power in our time? How far do we dare go to resist for Love? What are the smallest acts which breed such insurrection?

OF course, the politics doesn’t end there.. What happens next is nothing other than horror.. The justification of so many tyrants; ‘collateral damage, the loss of a few innocent lives in order to maintain ‘security’ to maintain the equilibrium of power, to resist that which threatens ‘our way of life’?

How many times have we heard such words – devoid of imagination, compassion or humanity. Entire systems designed to destroy the force of love and life.

It is this vision which we have hear d of in todays gospel… a gospel, which like the angel, can give us that helping hand, that secret inspiration, that call ‘to go another way’. This gospel tells us that Jesus has come to set the prisoner free. An act of imagination, emancipation, resistance and hope!

So… let us love the magi.. and their impossible, improbable story.. But let us hear the stark, harsh reality in their story too; as TS Eliot reminds us.. they travelled, they wearied, they persisted, and what they found prepared them for both life … and a new death.

Nothing would ever be the same again!!

 

Gary

Marvel-Superheroes

Not the Superhero we Imagine.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among[b] you.”
22 Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. 24 For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 25 But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Luke 17:20-25

This week we heard of the sad loss of Stan Lee, the creator of the Marvel Comics and The Marvel Universe.
Stan Lee is a unique figure in the comic book, a legend really.. who helped revive a flagging comic book industry in the 1960s into a strong and culturally significant force through the last 40/50 years.. His comic book heroes, Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Spider Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-men etc, etc, etc  enliven the minds and imaginations of children, youth and adults alike… and the growing film franchises only continue that powerful unleashing of imagination and wonder….

But there is more to Stan Lee’s superheroes than spandex suits and ‘Wahm, Kapow and Klunk!’…
they are flawed.. all of them.

In fact it is now widely recognised that the very thing that made Stan Lee’s characters so convincing and awe-inspiring was the subtle depiction of their broken lives… Stan Lee’s characters had as many problems as they had powers; they argued with each other, had fallouts, had ego-issues, were often scared, reluctant, and .. like us were very human. It was the humanisation of these superheroes which made them far more appealing… that turned comic-books into art!

His most famous character of all, Spider Man, (true identity – Peter Parker) would regularly save New York city from ghastly and destructive foes. Yet Peter Parker was scared to ask Mary-Jane on a date, and struggled to balance work and school, and to fix his acne! Spiderman was very human.

Stan Lee was also keen to explore difference within his stories; he opposed bigotry and racism.. showed the damage that comes from excluding others who are different. The X-men are all ‘mutants’ whose fight is as much against prejudice and fear, as it is with nefarious forces.

Which brings me to Jesus …

The Marvel Superheroes show us a world where people could achieve great things, but often with and in spite of their flaws and inconsistencies. They open the possibility of wonder and awe found within the present day and the humdrum. Where dreams dance with depression.

Jesus seems to be point the same way too..’don’t be looking out there.. don’t be looking for the next big thing, the next revival.. it’s not there’. This kingdom, will turn your lives upside down, will transform the entire world .. but you cannot define it, or hold it. It’s not about a superero rising above this life; it is found within it.. within you.’ God is not outside but inside our very human lives.. stirring, inspiring, cajoling and comforting.

The kingdom – and the God – Jesus is speaking of is far more elusive, and cannot be pinned down to doctrine, tradition; we too cannot say ‘look there it is…!’
This God defies all we expect of her … and yet surprises us with the possible in impossibility, with silence and thought and art and friendship, and in the ‘suffering and rejection’ which must come..

The God Jesus speaks of – the God he reveals – excites the wonder in the everyday; the good and the bad, the mess and the magic.. This God turns up in unexpected places – walks beside us… within us.. knows us flaws and all.. and still calls us Super.

GS Collins. Cafe Eucharist. Nov 18

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Staying Afloat

During the Soviet era in Russia many churches were put to alternative uses.  One that particularly stood out for me was a church that was converted into a swimming pool.  The dim lighting, the pictures of saints on the walls, the deep blue of a ceiling painted with stars, all contributed to an atmospheric swim.  The water in the pool was pleasantly warm.  Those swimming there commented on how rested and refreshed they felt after leaving.  Although I would not be pressing for our churches to become swimming pools (and that church in Russia has now been restored to its original use) I think that the image of the church as swimming pool is surprisingly apt.  At its best it’s a place where we can let go of some of our protective layers and take delight in allowing God’s love to bear our weight, just as water does when we swim.  Peace can seep into our hearts and minds, melting our worries and putting us in touch with a bigger picture where not everything depends on us.

Floating in God’s love requires practice in letting go.  We don’t necessarily trust the water to bear our weight.  We have to test it.  Someone may have to help us.  In the same way the church can encourage us to try out God’s love and to practise trusting in him as someone who loves us.  Our songs and prayers, our receiving bread and wine all encourage this.  They can lead us to experiment with bringing our whole selves to God, warts and all, trusting that he welcomes us as we are.

We can join with one of the saints, who addressed God as follows; ‘Dear Lord, you are a deep sea, into which the deeper I enter, the more I find, and the more I find, the more I seek…my soul delights in you, Eternal Trinity, Sea of Peace’.  Catherine of Siena

May we, like St Catherine, discover that ocean of God’s love and learn to revel in it.

 

Christine Bainbridge