Christianity

wild, free and not very safe

‘The future is given to those who are experienced in groaning. The future is denied to those who have been cynical and calloused and self-deceiving enough to rejoice in the present ordering and are unable to grieve about the ruin toward which the royal community is headed.’

Walter Brueggemann The Prophetic Imagination

 

I should have known from Kelley Nikondeha’s challenging and profoundly thoughtful blog that joining her reading group would be something that shook me up.

But I just wasn’t prepared to be affected as deeply as I have been by this month’s read: The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.

I have been a Christian for more than twenty years but by the end of chapter two I felt like the disciples who, when they caught a glimpse of the radical reversal that Jesus had brought into the world, cried out: ‘But who then can be saved?’

With ruthless clarity, Brueggemann lays bare the hypocrisy, the smugness and the numbness of our dominant culture. And here’s the thing: for me he also laid bare my own complicity in that culture.

Brueggemann gives us a portrait of a God who is wild and free, who stands opposed to the dominant powers, which need us to be numb consumers if they are to continue to control us.

As much as I hate the consumer culture, a wild and free God scares me if I’m honest. I like order; I like to know where the limits are; I like to keep things well contained.

What’s more, as a white middle class woman in the rich west I have a pretty strong interest in things continuing as they are. As crazy as it seems, I hadn’t understood that before, not like I do now.

In reading Brueggemann I saw there is a choice to be made. People like me who are comfortable and powerful can cling stubbornly to the status quo, even as we claim to want it to change. We can keep ourselves at one remove from the real suffering there is in the world. We are so affluent and so satiated that we can, literally, eat our way around pain.

But this choice comes at a terrible price. It’s the price of being only half alive. It’s the price of dulling our emotions, narrowing our vision and drastically limiting our entire conception of what it means to be a human being.

It means settling for optimism instead of finding real hope; being content with superficial relationships instead of finding true community; worshipping a tame and benign deity instead of daring to engage with a wild God of furious love.

As I wrote this post I realised I had heard a version of this message about the need to choose hundreds of times. It usually goes something like this: you are a sinner and you need a saviour.

But I have only ever heard it communicated in such a privatised, individualistic way that it never sank deep inside me as it did this month while reading Brueggemann.

And very often I have heard it communicated from inside an institution that – like me – appears to have a lot more in common with the static, controlling, dominant culture than it does with what Brueggemann describes as an ‘alternative community’ – one that makes room for the freedom of God ‘to surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion’.

Brueggemann is clear that for people like me the alternative to the status quo is not easy. For him there is no real hope until we have faced the desperation of the world.  There is no new life until we have understood that the culture that brings us so many goodies and eases our path though life is nothing less than a culture of death. It is not possible to face these things without entering into grief.

And yet, and yet – beyond the grief there is true hope, the promise of a completely different future, a future characterised by amazement and joy, expressed in dancing and new songs, free from the weary hopelessness that characterises so much of human life.

I found Brueggemann’s writing about hope to be the most difficult part of this book and I need to return to it. But what I did understand is this: that it is rooted in the reality of a God who is making all things radically new and who wants to include everyone in that newness, no matter how complicit they have been in the cynicism and injustice of the dominant culture.

It’s the hope that rings out through the songs of the Bible, defiant songs that tell of God lifting up the humble, bringing down rulers from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things.

It’s wild and it’s scary and it doesn’t always look like good news to those of us who are rich and powerful.

But I want it.

 

 

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the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.

Blackwells

This was a bookshop.

Williamsons

This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)

Cream

This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.

a letter to my daughter as she returns from Madagascar

I am so excited to think that you will be here in just a few hours. It was lovely to hear your voice on the phone from Heathrow – every word distinct, unlike those couple of Skype calls we tried when you were deep in the bush. I can’t wait to hold you and hug you, to see your face-splitting smile that I have missed so much, to admire your tan and perhaps your exotic insect bites too and to listen to the words that I know will come tumbling out of your mouth all afternoon.

For now, though, the house is quiet, your sister still asleep upstairs, your brother getting ready for school and your dad, you will be pleased to hear, out training for that marathon you hope to run together. I want to savour this moment of anticipation, this sense of everything suspended in stillness before we burst into a weekend of chatter and laughter, before we do the bittersweet work of rearranging ourselves as family when your sister leaves for university tomorrow and you settle back in your own bedroom. A real bed! After all those weeks of a tent floor!

Here in the quiet, I am thinking about another young woman, the same age as you, who moved fleetingly and unseen across my path yesterday. I was in a community centre not far from here, doing some of that work I get sometimes to assess students in their spoken English. As usual the simplest questions elicited the most heart rending answers. ‘How are you today?’ I asked a woman a little older than me, smiling brightly in the hope of putting her at her ease for the test. ‘Not too good,’ she replied. ‘Yesterday my brother died in Syria.’

I asked another woman where she came from, thinking I might see whether she could spell the name of her country. ‘The refugee camp in Ethiopia,’ she replied. I forgot about the spelling question. Later I asked her about her family and she told me of her four children. She lives with them in a small flat near here; one of them is a young woman aged twenty-one, like you.

I keep wondering about the differences between our experiences as mothers. I have worried about how many sweets you might eat but never about whether you would have enough food. I have been anxious about your safety when you have been out late at night and breathed in deep relief when I heard you come in; to my shame I have never even imagined what it would be like to decide that our own home was too dangerous a place to be.

I do not know what that refugee woman’s hopes for her daughter are and I wouldn’t presume to guess them. I would love to know, though, what makes her heart swell with pride as a mother – because we do all have those moments, you know!

Let me tell you about one of my proudest moments as your mum. It was when I read the email you sent me from Antananarivo and poured out the many ways that your heart had been changed through meeting development workers and joining them in the work of repairing schools and planting trees. It was when you told me that the vision of justice that is set out in Isaiah 61had taken root deep within you; that the words about binding up the broken-hearted, setting captives free and restoring devastated places had become the words that would shape the rest of your life.

I salute you, Miriam, for your courage and your fierce sense of justice. I pray that as you settle back into this privileged life we have here, you will discover the next steps on your journey. I know you will remember all the young women round the world who are your contemporaries and lead such different lives, whether they are refugees down the road from us or maybe young mothers in Madagascar whose babies stand a forty percent chance of dying before they are five.

I pray that you won’t be overwhelmed by the extent of the evil that you see around you but that you will be able to take up your place in the fight for justice with joy and humility. I delight in the knowledge that you will not be alone: from what I can gather reading the blogs that I do, it seems that all across the world young people are joining together to say ‘enough’ and to give their lives to building a more equal world.

There’s a photo one of your friends put on Facebook that made us laugh because it looks as though you are flying.

Fly into your future, Miriam – be bold and be you!

But first sit down long enough to eat the raspberry pavlova I made you.

jam for Ash Wednesday

The internet has been positively buzzing this week with suggestions for marking Lent. From pledging to wear only six items of clothing for the duration, through undertaking a good old-fashioned fast, to spending time outside in bare feet, it seems there is no shortage of creative ideas for anyone who wants to live more thoughtfully in the run-up to Easter.

The challenge for me has been finding something that will work as I enter a season of great busyness, with work intensifying just as my university studies also gather speed towards a couple of big assignments. Give up chocolate? Er, not very likely! Instead I’ve been looking for a way of marking Lent that ensures that the relentless pressure to meet deadlines does not crowd out everything else that is important. This is not just about dealing with stress – although that comes into it – but about something far more fundamental. The Welsh poet and priest RS Thomas describes it beautifully.

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

RS Thomas

This is about seeing the difference between what can never last and what is of eternal significance; between a flame in a tinder-dry bush that will burn itself out in seconds, and a sacred fire that encompasses the very presence of God (Exodus 3: 1-6).

Phew! How do we learn to do this? How do we develop ways of living that enable us to accomplish all the very many things that are put before us each day while simultaneously being alert to the times and places where God is breaking into the ordinary?  I suspect this is a lifetime’s work, but two things I have found helpful are:

  • Regularly set aside time to be still before God (I find this a real challenge)
  • Never rush

For Lent I plan to add a third, less obvious discipline. Last year, my daughter set me the challenge of taking a photograph every day. In the end I failed, although I did manage to keep it up for more than 200 of the 365 days. I learnt a lot from doing it. I learnt that when you are always looking out for pictures, you see everything in a new way. That even when you have ‘done’ the picture for the day, you carry on looking more attentively at the world around you.

So I plan to take a photograph for each of the 40 days of Lent as one small way of ensuring that I do not become consumed by the insistent urgency of work and study. I am not saying that I expect to find my own burning bush in a photograph – although I suppose anything is possible! What I am hopeful of is that the discipline of framing just one moment out of every day will help me develop an attitude of attentiveness, so that maybe, just maybe, I will be more prepared to turn aside for a miracle.

Today’s photograph is from Todmorden, where sheets of rain were sweeping through the valley all day. So I was all the more cheered by the lady who gave me some freshly made raspberry jam. I know Ash Wednesday isn’t usually celebrated with pots of jam but this, for me, was one of the most touching moments of my day: a stranger, who was already freely giving me her time, also thinking of extending this lovely gift.

why pray when you can worry?

The Christian writer and doctor John White has an alarming story about the early days of his medical career. Within just a year of completing his training, he was frequently put in charge of all the night time emergency surgery in a large city hospital (wisely, he does not tell us which one). During the day, he was often given his own operating list. He goes on:

Understandably, sometimes things went wrong – seriously wrong. In the operating room, a wave of panic would sometimes rise in me as with horror I would see that the operation was getting in a deeper and deeper mess.*

White eventually went on to become a psychiatrist. You might assume that he withdrew from surgery because of a string of disasters on the operating table, but that was not the case.  In fact his patients seem to have survived despite his inexperience, thanks to a valuable lesson he learnt about thinking under pressure.

During these white-knuckle sessions in theatre, White discovered that his brain’s first reaction was to freeze. His movements became pointless and repetitive. He would look desperately at his assisting team, but all eyes just stared back at him: he was the guy in charge. All he could do at that point was to force himself to think carefully and deliberately. ‘Now take it easy,’ he would say to himself. ‘What’s my immediate aim? What should I do first?’

Slowly, with a sense of growing confidence and relief, I found my way through the difficulties, successfully completing what could have been a tragically botched operation. My mind had been freed to accept new ideas, to remember old principles and to force myself to rely on them and go ahead.

The most interesting thing for me about this story (apart from the reassuring fact that fatalities were averted) is what happened to White’s prayers when panic took over.  White describes them as becoming like ‘muttered incantations’. ‘Oh Lord, help! Lord, don’t let it go wrong! Lord, don’t let it get in a mess! Don’t let her die!’

I have never had the type of life-and-death responsibility that faces a surgeon, thank goodness, but I do recognise this kind of ‘incantation’. It is what I do when I sense life is getting out of control. I have come to see it as one of the early signs that my mental health is at risk. ‘Oh Lord, help! Oh Lord, stop me from getting so tired that I bite everyone’s head off! Oh Lord, don’t let me get depressed again!’

As White wisely points out, this is not prayer. This is not communicating with God; it is ‘expressing panic in parrot talk’. Saints through the ages have taught us that prayer leads to peace and freedom from our anxieties. Unfortunately, if we do not recognise the difference between panicky parrot talk and really communicating with a God we trust, things will actually get worse, not better. ‘Why don’t I feel any peace? Why am I even more worried now than I was an hour ago? Oh God I am such a terrible Christian!’

As part of my recovery from the mental distress that used to plague me with horrible regularity, I have discovered that sometimes before I pray I need to spend some time in careful, logical thought. Or as White puts it, sometimes before we talk to God, we have to talk to ourselves. ‘What really is the problem here? What solution do I want to see? What can I do about it? What do I need God to do about it?’

There are several situations that are causing me a bit of anxiety at the moment. Snowed in and unable to get to church this morning, it has been good to spend time thinking slowly about what needs to happen with each of them, and only then to bring them to God in prayer.  This makes my relationship with God feel much more real. I have a sense that together we will be able to work out a creative solution. Of course things may still not resolve themselves in the way I would like, but I am not panicking; my anxiety levels have dropped, and I have a genuine hope for each situation.

Finally, I couldn’t blog today without posting a snow picture. I spent two hours out walking with a camera today, but the photograph I like best was waiting for me back in the front garden.

*All quotations from John White’s book Parents in Pain. (Now out of print but available here.)

sixteen

Today I bring you another Advent sonnet from Malcolm Guite. The title O Oriens translates as ‘O Dayspring’ and the line from Dante means ‘I saw light in the form of a river’. Malcolm writes movingly about the background to this sonnet on his blog here.

View across the Mawddach estuary, Snowdonia. Picture by Benjamin Dobson

O Oriens

E vidi lume in forme de riviera Paradiso XXX; 61

First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced

The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.

Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.

Malcolm Guite

Cowbar Nab, north Yorkshire. Picture by Julian Dobson

fifteen

Chill out my friends, there’s no need for trepidation / Got a message for the world and it’s elation information.*

Just loved this interpretation of the Nativity story from the vicar of a church in Devon.

 

* More usually translated: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’ (Luke 2: 10)