Sunday, 30 December 2012

A lesson for liberal religion from the world of sport – a meditation for the year to come

Daniel Willems dances on the mud
Before I begin I want to say this I think it is important for liberal religion to be able to articulate a theology that keeps a place for some kind of instantaneous breaking in of grace but what I might mean by that will have to wait for another day. Today I want to concentrate on the other end of the theological spectrum, namely, the need for careful, disciplined preparation.

Throughout this Olympic year I've been wondering whether I can say anything useful about the relationship sport has with religion. The first obvious place to look, obvious for me at least, is St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians written sometime around the Easter of 55 AD. In it he famously said:

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

It has long seemed to me St Paul was on to something very important here, namely, that there is a family relationship between religion and sport. But reading St Paul is to someone like me somewhat like listening to the Beach Boys post-Pet Sounds output - though it displays many moments of great genius every album contains within in it some, shall we say, less than great songs. To be sure those less than great songs often contain a wonderful melody or other moment but they never quite fully deliver the up their full promise. So, if I have a concern with Paul's words here it is that, instead of continuing to *look* at the relationship he noticed, St Paul slipped too easily into *thinking* about it and in so doing imposed upon it a rather narrow theory that people engage in religion and sport for simple, single, ultimate goals - in the case of religion a completed personal salvation or, in the case of sport, the winning of a laurel wreath or in our own times a gold medal. We all know that sport and religion are both about much, much more than this - a recognition summed up in the commonly accepted maxim that it's the taking part that counts.

Today I'd like to keep us looking at the relationship St Paul noticed by first of all recounting an everyday sport-related experience I had a couple of weeks ago. I was cycling back along the river from Waterbeach to Cambridge in the pouring rain and the path was, as you might imagine, very muddy at various points along the way. Suddenly, I felt my back wheel beginning to slip from under me. Now, since my early years I have been cycling - I even spent a spell involved in amateur time-trialing - and so, deep within me, is the embodied-knowledge that when you begin to feel your wheel slip on a muddy surface you must keep your speed up and not touch your brakes at all. If you do you *will* come off and take a tumble, but if you don’t, there’s a real chance you’ll stay upright. There's no guarantee of this of course, as my own recent fall reveals, but experience shows how one can turn the odds significantly in our favour.

The key thing to notice is that this embodied knowledge cannot be gained in an abstract, theoretical, once and for all fashion. You may initially hear the basic theory from an experienced cyclist in a once and for all fashion (analogous to, say a good sermon) but you only *get it into your body*, such that it become instinctual, through repeated experience - by skidding, breaking and falling off, skidding, breaking and falling off, skidding, breaking and falling off. One day your wheel will begin to slip and you find that you simply did not touch the breaks and that, lo, you remained upright and safely on your way. The simple fact to observe here is that learning how to do any kind of sport skillfully always requires from a person a long period of disciplined preparation and practice.

So what is the family resemblance with religion? Well, if you speak to any minister of religion they will tell you of the many hours that are spent dealing with some very difficult pastoral situations with many people who have no religious practice or who are not, or who no longer are, connected with any church and who have found themselves in some kind of crisis. One, all too common, reaction of such a person is anger because the minister or the church concerned cannot, in that moment, offer them up some kind of instantly satisfying answer and/or cure. So, when someone comes to me, or this church, as their wheel is slipping it is often too late for me to stop them falling. The best I and my colleagues can do is make their landing as soft as possible and then to help that person back into the saddle and begin a process of getting some kind of disciplined religious practice into their body. But that takes time and hard work - something not liked by all too many people.

Here we can return to the illustration of my wheel slipping in the mud. If you have never spent time embodying a religious practice then when the wheel that is your life starts to slip on the mud - i.e. there is a crisis in your life - most people do the equivalent of jamming on the brakes and there follows, as sure as day follows night, the inevitable unpleasant and painful crash. It may not come upon them instantly and it may never be obviously visible on the surface but the painful tumble will most assuredly occur.

One of the great powers of religion is found in the way it helps us embody practices which help us ride the bicycle that is our life in a skillful way so that, when our wheels slip (as they inevitably will) these practices will have planted deep within us effective responses that give us a fair chance to keep upright and on our way.

The academic Professor Linda Woodhead from Lancaster gave an excellent illustration of this on "Thought for the Day" on Boxing Day. She told the story of an old Jewish man who had lived a continent apart from his sister for many, many years. One day he received the news from his Rabbi that his sister had died. The Rabbi asked him how he felt. The man replied that, since he had had no contact with his sister during that time, he was fine, he didn't really know her or, or so he thought, feel close to her. However, when the Rabbi began to say with the man the traditional Jewish prayers of mourning, prayers which include the rending of garments, the man suddenly began to weep, expressing the deep feelings of affection and grief that he had forgotten he had.

With this release of emotion there also came, of course, the associated opening up of a space in which the man could not only come to terms with his loss but also begin to move on in a healthy, creative and wholesome way. This process was only made possible because the prayers he prayed with the Rabbi were one's which were deeply embodied by both them. The religious practice they shared was what enabled them to embody something that bears a family resemblance to not putting the brakes on when your wheel slips.

It is simply the case that within so many churches rooted in liberal Protestantism we have lost sight of this family relationship with sport and we no longer create fit, liberal bodies which can help us to go on skillfully and meaningfully in what remains a difficult and muddy world.

We have all too often made religion too much a matter of theoretical "right belief" (orthodoxy) and have forgotten about the pressing need for "right practice" (orthopraxy). We rely too much on the intellectual content of the sermon and not enough on the liturgy that supports it and gives it meaningful context and, because of this, we are today profoundly bad at getting our religion into our bodies. As a pastor to a liberal religious community I have to say that this is why so many of us are particularly vulnerable at those muddy moments in our lives when our wheels begin to slip. It is worth remembering that our forebears were not so disabled and that they most certainly were able to embody their radical, liberal faith in the world. Our situation is parlous but, I'm pleased to report, all is not yet lost for, as we heard from our General Assembly's Chief Officer, Derek McAuley (who worshipped with us last week), we are currently out (pun intended) in the world promoting the equalisation of marriage to include couples from the gay community.

Anyway, the repeated liturgy of our morning service with it's repeated opening words, Lord's Prayer, hymns, the prayers for the collection and after the address, the Prayer of Peace and the benediction, are all ways of getting something of the liberal religion of this church into your body. (Here's a link to today's order of service and the various repeated elements it contains.)

In the evening the repetition is even more obvious. Apart from the prayer in the middle and the candles of joy and concern we share with each other, the service, with its twenty-five minute mindfulness meditation in the middle, is exactly the same each week. It is a service explicitly designed to get something - essentially the message contained in St Paul's hymn to love found in 1 Corinthians 13 - deeply into your body. (Here's a link to the evening order of service and also the words for the mindfulness meditation it contains.)

In the prayer book I wrote with John Morgan there is yet another liturgy on offer. However, for those who do not find congenial the form our prayer-book takes I have to hand (and have used myself) half-a-dozen other prayer and meditation practices that I can put your way. (Here's a link to the prayer book. and also to John's other excellent book of daily devotions Awakening the Soul.) 

Lastly my support for Claire Henderson Davis' current project - one explicitly concerned about embodying our religious practice - is yet another example of this. (Here's a link to the poster advertising Claire's event.)

Even though all these practices are necessarily always open for critique and change (that is what this address is for as is the time of conversation which follows it and our Wednesday evening conversations) I hope and am confident that in this coming year we will continue to develop as a liberal church which recognises that the fruits of its religion are simply not available to anyone who does not get that same religion deeply into their body in some way or another.

Consequently, as we are about to start another new year, I would encourage each one of you, if you are not already doing it, to make some kind of New Year resolution to take up a regular, disciplined religious practice. As my colleague and co-author John Morgan wisely reminds us in his own book of daily devotions:

In the end, it won't matter how much you have but how much you have given. It won't matter how much you know, but rather how much you love. And it won't matter how much you profess to believe, but rather how deeply you live the few enduring truths you claim as ultimate. All the rest is discipline. 


In the period of open conversation after the address our minister Emeritus, Frank Walker, reminded us of a relevant story concerning the great nineteenth century Unitarian James Martineau and the Catholic layman Baron Friedrich von Hügel.  Martineau apparently once told von Hügel about a visit he had made to Germany. During that visit he said that he spent some time with the cultured elite in Berlin and thoroughly enjoyed it. Their liberal ways of thinking were, to him, most congenial. Later on during his visit he went to stay in a rural part of Bavaria  There he was not among a cultural elite but common, everyday working folk. Martineau didn't enjoy this as much as his time in Berlin but he did say to von Hügel that when it came to dealing with the major events of life, such as death and dying, the rural Bavarians revealed not only a great resilience but also a deep embodied knowledge about how to proceed whereas those in Berlin were often at a complete loss when faced with the self-same issue.

For those interested in the general subject of embodied religion there is a new book from Cambridge University Press called The Physical Nature of Christian Life - Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church by Warren Brown and Brad Strawn.

A happy New Year to you all.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Has the Messiah Come? - A Christmas Day Sermon

Polish Socinian medallion
Reading: Luke 2:1-32

Right at the beginning of my own call to Christian ministry in the late 1980s I, like everyone who heeds it, I had to answer in some way the question John the Baptist asked two of his own disciples to put to Jesus "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Luke 7:19). John was, of course, referring to the long expected Messiah or the Christ which, in plain English means the chosen and anointed one - a new King of Israel who would bring them salvation, not only of the spirit but also salvation from the imperial power of Rome. The Christian tradition in all its forms, including our Polish Socinian forebears, has always answered “Yes!” to this question and those of you who know me well will know that I always wear around my neck a copy of the medallion the Polish brethren struck by them in the sixteenth century upon the back of which is written in Hebrew their own words of affirmation: (Mashiah melekh ba besgalom wa’ Adam - Adam 'asui hai) which can be translated to mean "The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being."

Today, of course, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, which is to say, Jesus the Messiah, and that means however you personally answer John’s question, whether with a yes, a no, or a don’t know, whether as a metaphor or as some other kind of more tangible, embodied reality, the question is necessarily put before us once again.

It is important to understand that no one else can answer this question for you and, in a liberal church such as this one, no one will ever demand from you a single, fixed and predetermined answer to it. The only thing I feel I have both a duty and a right to insist upon is that, together, we continue seriously to ask the question. I do this because it remains central in our own community's conversation together about what might be the best model to follow as we seek to encourage the creation of a genuine, flourishing, full and abundant life together.

As a pastor and preacher the most I can do, as I have said many times before, is to introduce you to a various viewpoints from where I feel able and confident to point to something and, "Look there, that is what I mean by God." All I can then do is trust that your own experience and evidence of those things will, in time, allow to make your own genuine decisions about them.

The viewpoint I want to introduce you to this Christmas morning is one that was of decisive help to me as I struggled to know how to answer my call to ministry. I stumbled across it in the conclusion of Paul Tillich's beautiful, short Christmas sermon called "Has the Messiah Come?" These words finally allowed me to find a way to utter some kind of “Yes!” to John’s question. I offer Tillich's words to you today as a small Christmas  gift.

The presence of the Messiah is a mystery; it cannot be said to everybody, and it cannot be seen by everybody, but only by those like Simeon who are driven by the Spirit. There is something surprising, unexpected about the appearance of salvation, something which contradicts pious opinions and intellectual demands. The mystery of salvation is the mystery of a child. So it was anticipated by Isaiah, by the ecstatic vision of the sibyl and by the poetic vision of Virgil, by the doctrines of mysteries and by the rites of those who celebrated the birth of the new eon. They all felt as did the early Christians, that the event of salvation is the birth of a child. A child is real and not yet real, it is in history and not yet historical. Its nature is visible and invisible, it is here and not yet here. And just this is the character of salvation. Salvation has the nature of a child. As Christendom remembers every year, in the most impressive of its festivals, the child Jesus, so salvation, however visible it may be, remains always also invisible. He who wants a salvation which is only visible cannot see the divine child in the Manger as he cannot see the divinity of the Man on the Cross and the paradoxical way of all divine acting. Salvation is a child and when it grows up it is crucified. Only he who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation. 

It is hard to say this in our days. But it always has been hard and it always will be hard. It was and is and will be a mystery, the mystery of a child. And however deep the world might fall, even into utter self-destruction, as long as there are men they will experience this mystery and say: "Blessed are the eyes which see the things that we see." 

As Tillich saw, for all kinds of reasons, it is hard to say this in our days. We tend to think that this is particularly characteristic of our own times but Tillich wisely reminds us it was always hard to answer. Our difficulties in answering yes may not be those of the first-century but difficulties most surely remain.

But the older I get the more powerfully I am persuaded of the truth proclaimed by Gospel writers and St Paul because I have come to trust their proclamation of such a weak Messiah and such a weak conception of God. As St Paul so movingly (for me anyway) says: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Daily I look about me and see the immense damage being done to our planet, its peoples and its flora and fauna by those who wield immense and, for the most part, wholly unchecked power - in all their wildest dreams Herod nor Piilate couldn’t have dreamed of anything approaching the power available to the individuals and imperialistic corporations who rule 99% of us today. Their hubristic desire for control over human life whether this is played out through financial, political or theological systems or enforced by repressive legislation or at gunpoint simply seems to me to be wrong. I can do nothing but say “No!” to the 1%'s way of proceeding. But when I turn to the Christ-child in the crib I see something shining there that simply seems to me to be right - I look at that small, vulnerable and weak child and I find myself saying, “Yes, that is what I mean by God” and so find myself willing to affirm with my forebears: “Yes, the Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being."

This Christmas day I cannot make you see this salvation yourselves but I can encourage you all to stop, to find a quiet place in which to read or remember the nativity stories once again and then to look, really look, at the child lying in the crib and ask, really ask yourself, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

It's hard to answer yes, we all agree on that - but, thanks to Tillich, we do have a way to proceed. We can take time in our lives to seek out examples of power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin and life under death. I have faith that today I am among a people who are sensitive and spiritually alive enough to see these things and, even if the wait is as long as that experienced by Simeon and Anna (heard about in our reading from Luke), they will one Christmas Day find they can say "Mine eyes have seen thy salvation."

A happy Christmas to you all.


See also:

“The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being.” Time has contracted - a liberal Christian meditation on messianic time 

The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace - First Sunday in Advent   

Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas Eve Communion Service

The Memorial Church by candlelight
At 6.30pm tonight in Cambridge at the Memorial Church we will be celebrating, by candlelight, a service of communion. I'm posting a link to the full order of service below in case anyone out there wishes to look at it before hand or even to use it themselves. The liturgy is entirely composed from from Unitarian and Free Christian sources except for the table prayer at the beginning which comes from the Dutch Remonstrant Church. Over the years I've met a few of their ministers and been very taken by their tradition. Below the link for the Communion service you'll find their current confession from 2006. I like it very much and, at least as far as my own faith is concerned, it is a confession I can say wholeheartedly.

A happy Christmas to you all!


We are aware and we affirm

that we do not find our peace in the certainty of what we confess,
but in wonder of what befalls us and what we are given;

that we do not find our destination in indifference and greed,
but in vigilance and in connection with all that lives;

that our existence is not fulfilled by who we are and what we possess,
but by what is infinitely greater than we can contain.

Guided by this awareness, we believe in God's Spirit
who transcends all that divides people
and inspires them to what is holy and good,
that in singing and in silence,
in prayer and in work,
they worship and serve God.

We believe in Jesus, a Spirit-filled human,
the face of God, seeing us and disturbing us.
He loved humanity and was crucified
but he lives, beyond his own and our death.
He is our holy example of wisdom and courage
and he brings God's eternal love close to us.

We believe in God, the Eternal,
who is love unfathomed, the ground of being,
who shows us the way of freedom and justice
and beckons us to a future of peace.

We believe that 
weak and fallible though we are,
we are called to be church,
connected to Christ and all who believe,
in the sign of hope.

For we believe in the future of God and the world,
in a divine patience that gives time
to live and to die and to rise,
in the kingdom that is and will come,
where God will be for eternity: all in all.

To God be the glory and honour
in time and eternity.


Sunday, 23 December 2012

A preserving jar and the Christ-child - a meditation on the "new creation" for which we prepare and await during Advent

A Dominion preserving jar

The substance of this address came about because of one of the great pleasures and privileges of being a minister in Cambridge, namely, the opportunity it provides to engage in long term conversations with many people working at the top of their professions in the arts, the humanities and in the natural sciences.

One such conversation in recent weeks (and continued only yesterday) was had with an eminent British scientist who, throughout his life, has maintained a strong yet intelligent, gentle, flexible and always evolving Christian faith. Since he knows that I have a particular interest in what is called the reception history of the Bible we talked at some length about how the creation stories had been received and interpreted by our Western European culture.

Naturally, for both of us any contemporary reception that understands these stories as literally true, descriptive accounts of the creation is ruled out of court and so he asked me how as a theologian and minister of religion I dealt with this. I said I always tried to make a distinction between the terms "universe" and "world"; I try to use the word "universe" to refer to all the actual material things around us that are explored so well by the natural sciences and I try to use the word "world" only to refer to human domains of meaning. So in common parlance we talk about the worlds of religions and science, as well as the those of politics, finance, jazz, literature, art, film sport and many others.

In short I said that I regarded (or received) the Biblical creation stories as certainly being about the creation, but that this was the creation not of the natural "universe" but, instead, of a human "world." For me these stories mark the creation of an important domain of human meaning in which began an unfolding, creative conversation about what it is to be a human being that continues right up to this very moment. It is, of course, not the only domain of meaning in play for our culture - it never has been - but it is, without doubt, one that came to lie at the very heart of our culture's ongoing conversation about who we are and what life, the universe and everything means.

I like this interpretation because, as we all know, genuine conversations unfold in often unexpected directions and during the course of the best of them wholly new ways of talking about and looking at both the universe and the world can suddenly and unexpectedly show up. When this occurs the conversation doesn’t stop but continues with a wholly new quality, feel and focus about it. We can say, and I do say, that in those moments a "new creation" has occurred. Very occasionally the "new creation" is so powerful that it begins to spread beyond the initial conversation partners into the wider culture and it becomes known to us as a paradigm shift. When a paradigm shift occurs the natural "universe" doesn't change but the way we interpret the universe and understand the meaning of our place in it, most certainly does. In other words a new "world" is created. My scientist friend and I agreed, by the way, that scientific experiments can be understood as being a kind of conversation between ourselves and the universe.

In the world of the natural sciences the two most famous paradigm shifts known to most people are those which moved us from a Ptolemaic cosmology to a Copernican one and  from the world view of Newtonian physics to the Einsteinian Relativistic world view.

In the world of religion perhaps the key new conversation, “new creation” or paradigm shift that concerns us - especially at this time of year - is that visible in the gospels and the epistles of the NT. Before them the self-understanding of what it was to be a human-being had been centred on the powerful but fickle heroes and gods of ancient myth - whether Greek, Roman or, of course, our own Germanic and Scandinavian models it matters not. But Christianity brought with it a wholly different focus centred on a person who was not only in themselves weak and powerless and not at all like all previously expected Kings or Messiahs, but someone whose victory in the world was to the heroic mindset shockingly seen in both a pauper’s birth and a criminal’s death on a cross. A strange conception of God and humanity indeed, so strange in fact that St Paul explicitly called it a "new creation" in the two striking verses we explored at the beginning of Advent:

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Galatians 6:15)

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

But to engage in the kind of conversation that has the potential to bring about another “new creation” or paradigm shift we, the participants involved, have to have undertaken a lot of preparatory work - we have to be fluent and thoughtfully creative in the highways and byways of the old conversation, creation or paradigm and both conversation partners need to know well the current domains of meaning they inhabit if they are going to help a new one to show up.

This, by the way, is why we should be exceptionally wary of those in our own time who think that the next step, the "new creation", paradigm or new subject in our conversation in our religious or cultural life will just show up out of nothing and that for this to occur we must abandon or even throw away and destroy our culture’s old stories. We forget at our peril that Jesus' reminder that "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Matthew 13:52).

Let me now, with the help of Wallace Stevens’ jar, briefly show you how the old world gifts us the new and I’ll then tie this back to the Christmas story. Please note that throughout what follows I only use the word "world" and not "universe."

I placed a jar in Tennessee, 
And round it was, upon a hill. 
It made the slovenly wilderness 
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it, 
And sprawled around, no longer wild. 
The jar was round upon the ground 
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where. 
The jar was gray and bare. 
It did not give of bird or bush, 
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Stevens knew that no new creation or new world of meaning comes out of nothing, ex nihilo. A new world comes about when something which is currently in our world but which is, at present, peripheral and insignificant is brought to the centre of our collective attention so that a new world can be gathered by it. It has to be something already in our world and recognisable to us because if that were not the case we wouldn’t be able to see it in the first place and it could have no impact upon us.

Stevens picks as his object a preserving jar - a Dominion jar (and as you will see an important pun is made possible thanks to this name) or, as we would call it here in the UK, a Kilner jar. It’s an instantly recognisable thing and for all its usefulness to us it can hardly be said to be of central, illuminating importance to our culture; it’s very peripheral. Now look at what Stevens does. He brings the jar from the edge of the present world and places it, surprisingly, shockingly even, right in the middle such that it demands our attention. The poem shows how in this act the jar now gathers around it things from the old world in a way such that a new world of meaning shows up - as Stevens says the previously slovenly wilderness is no longer wild and this once peripheral jar now takes dominion everywhere. Importantly, although it is still recognisable to us as something everyday as a jar, as a creator of a new world it takes on a god-like character and can no longer be thought of as quite like anything else in Tennessee - which is to say our world.

It is important to see that the gospel writers’ placing of the Christ-child in the manger and at the centre of our world functioned in very much the same way as did Stevens’ placing of a jar on a hill in Tennessee - year after year we gather together in familes and church communites around the crib. (Click here to see a painting called The Nativity at Night from about 1490 painted by Geertgen tot Sint Jans which encourages the viewer to gather around the crib with the other characters in the Christmas story) It is also vitally important to understand that the point of the Christmas story and Stevens poem may not be precisely either the Christ-child or the jar themselves rather it is that they both help us see something of the work that needs to be done by every generation as it seeks to create a new and better world.

I agree wholeheartedly with the twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich who said that “If [he] were asked to sum up the Christian message for our time in two words, [he] would say with Paul: It is the message of a "New Creation" (in his sermon called "New Being"). But truly to proclaim this message of hope we need actively to be looking at and engaged with the things our old world currently considers peripheral and marginal and, in conversation together, to allow this "new creation" to come to pass for us in a way relevant to our own times.

When, in two day’s time we awake to greet the Christ-child and gather again around his crib in story, prayer and song all these things must, I think, be borne in mind. We need to see that the new-born baby in the crib is a placeholder for that god-like divine thing which we do not yet recognise but for which we are preparing and waiting for through our hopeful, creative and knowledgeable conversation with each other.

If we do not lose hope and we keep talking with each other then the right Word we are seeking will be made flesh and will bring with it a new creation and a whole new way of being in the world.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A winter ride to Fleam Dyke on the Dursley Pedersen

I took a spin out of Cambridge today to Fleam Dyke on the Dursley Pedersen. Fleam Dyke is an Anglo-Saxon defensive earthwork although it seems to have been built on much earlier foundations. Even though when one is standing on the Bronze-Age barrow Mutlow Hill you can hear the very modern traffic on the A14 somehow one is transported back to an earlier time.

Here for your enjoyment are just a few photos from the ride.

Fleam Dyke looking south-east
Fleam Dyke looking south-east across the old railway cutting
Mutlow Hill
View from Mutlow Hill
The Dursley Pedersen at Mutlow Hill
Fleam Dyke looking north-west from Mutlow Hill
Wadlow Wind Farm from Fleam Dyke
Dead Tree on Fleam Dyke
Rose hips on Fleam Dyke
Bridge on Fulbourn Fen 
Slip road off the A14 from Fleam Dyke

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Annunciation, a royal pregnancy and the death of a nurse


Luke 1:26 - 56 & Luke 2:1 -20: I didn't read these texts in the service - I only pointed to them - because I wanted people to see that behind Luke's many beautiful words there are in fact only intense, private and creative moments and places about which we can only imagine - as Luke (and the tradition) clearly has.

Mary’s Poem by Kathleen Wakefield

When she heard infinity
whispered in her ear, did the flashing
scissors in her fingers fall
to the wooden floor and the spool unravel,
the spider's sly cradle
tremble with love? Imagine

How the dry fields leaned
toward the news and she heard, for a moment,
the households of crickets –
When she answered, all things shifted, the moon
in its river of milk.

And when she wanted to pluck
her heart from her breast, did she remember
a commotion of wings, or the stirring
of dust?


Few of us can have escaped the torrent of news this week about the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy. However, as an ardent avoider of all things Royal, until Friday my strategies had been pretty successful and, at least in terms of its impact the story was having upon my general existence, it had been pretty negligible. However, the news of Mrs Jacintha Saldanha's suicide (she was the nurse who put through a prank call from two Australian DJs claiming to be the Queen and the Prince of Wales) went straight through all my psychological defenses. On hearing the news I really did feel a blow land physically upon my being and it caused me to say out loud, although I was quite alone, "Oh no". I'm sure since hearing the news all of our hearts have gone out, not only to Mrs Saldanha herself but to her family, friends and colleagues and also to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

One might say many things about this event, an event which many public commentators have almost unanimously been calling "tragic" but, today, initially I would like to gather my thoughts around this word. The word is increasingly being used by our culture in a very loose way to refer to any kind of story with a sad ending and, if that is the definition of tragedy then Mrs Saldanha's story is clearly one. But most of you will be aware that this is not the classical definition of tragedy. Here's Aristotle's own definition from his Poetics:

A tragedy . . . is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. Here by 'language with pleasurable accessories' I mean that with rhythm and harmony or song superadded; and by 'the kinds separately' I mean some portions are worked out with verse only, and others in turn with song (Poetics VI, trans. Ingram Bywater). 

There are many things I might also say about this definition of tragedy but, today, I want to focus on just one, namely, that it "effects catharsis."

The word means "purging" and it brings with it, very appropriately today, medical resonances. In the context of an Aristotelian tragedy the emotions of pity and fear (though there are, of course, other emotions involved) are aroused in order to purge something, or an excess, of them so that we might achieve in ourselves a healthy balance of pity and fear. In short a classical tragedy was designed, in part, to help it's audience prepare to live together a more confident, more self- and world-aware life.

(For a good introduction to Tragedy follow this link to some Oxford University podcasts on the subject.) 

One possible result of this was expressed pithily by the British playwright Howard Barker who said you should "emerge from tragedy equipped against lies." Barker is referring, of course, not only to the lies of others but also the lies we are prepared to tell ourselves. Barker finishes this thought by adding that, "after the musical, you're anybody's fool" (Barker, Howard: Arguments for a Theatre, London, John Calder, 1989).

Barker's thought makes me ask whether our culture's popular media as a whole is concerned to do anything more than merely entertain us? For the most part I don't think it is and this is why, unless, Mrs Saldanha's suicide is made part of a true tragedy - i.e. we tell her story in such a way that it brings with it a proper catharsis - then we will most surely have betrayed a person who, as a nurse and mother, clearly dedicated her life to the healing and well-being of others. If we do not make an attempt to do this then we will only be contributing thoughtlessly to the media's creation of the popular entertainment that is "The Expected Royal Heir" - an entertainment which, if we continue to buy into it, will make us, perhaps even already *has* made us "anybody's fools."

But I cannot offer you this as a stand alone tragedy today. To write such a piece requires from any author (and the culture in which they live) considerable time and a very deep reflection upon the story and its characters. However, I am, and we are, fortunate that the season of Advent offers us access to something important which can help us think through Mrs Saldanha's death in a such that there arises before us the possibility of a catharsis that might help, not only redeem and restore to Mrs Saldanha's life and death worth and dignity, but also to begin to restore those same things to our own culture. At the very least, I hope that what we see will better equip us against what seems to me to be a serious lie propounded endlessly by our present-day culture. What this lie is we'll come to in a moment. But to get there we'll go firstly to the Advent and Nativity stories.

I think it is vital to notice that these, some of our culture's most important foundational stories, are characterised by a profound silence and privacy.

To be sure Luke begins his story with a dialogue he claims took place between Mary and the angel Gabriel but it is clearly an imagined one for there is obviously no one else present. Behind the flurry of Luke's words we need to be absolutely clear that there is really only a private silence into which we, like Luke, must imaginatively place ourselves. I particularly value the poet Kathleen Wakefield's attempt at this because she is careful not to distort this private silence - in fact I think her images only serve to heighten our sense of how Mary recognised that something was going on - so she gives us not facts and explanations but simply the falling flashing scissors and spool, a trembling spider's web, the gentle leaning in of a ready to harvest field and the quiet sound of crickets. These images don't attempt to give us any facts or explanation (which Luke most certainly tries to give us) but instead serve to pull us more deeply into that mysterious, expectant, private silence in which even the ordinary everyday things that surround us can speak to us silently of the joyful news of the coming of a wholly new world of creative meanings and possibilities.

After the visit of the angel recall, too, that Luke tells us that Mary goes to her relative Elizabeth, whom the angel has also made pregnant, and that the two of them stay together for three months. That's a long stay and we might expect many words about what transpired between them. Once more Luke succumbs to the temptation to give us some facts and explanations but, again, it is clear that behind them all there is really only a silence which he (and the tradition) has had to enter imaginatively and not actually.

This underlying silence continues to the very end of the Advent and Nativity narratives when Luke concludes by saying that Mary, in her own heart, ponders all the things that have happened to her. Here at last, Luke doesn't fill the silence and he (and the tradition), thankfully, resists trying to tell us anything about Mary's thoughts. Neither does Kathleen Wakefield. Instead, it seems that she transports us to a much later time as Mary is looking at her son dying on the cross. Wakefield imagines Mary, as her very heart seems to be being plucked from her breast, whether even the visitation of such a mighty and powerful thing as the angel Gabriel was anything more than a commotion of wings and the stirring of dust. Again we get a sense of how quiet and allusive were those places and times connected with Mary's Annunciation (pregnancy).

For me, all this helps reveals the lie of which I spoke earlier. Our culture has increasingly come to think that our shared public stories are at their best when they are vicariously centred upon, and noisily filled with, action and as many "facts" and photos as possible. Whether these are discovered via prank telephone calls made by DJs, illustrated through the thick end of a telephoto lens wielded by the paparazzi, or through someone leaking confidential information, it matters not.

As I noted last week courtesy of Tim Ingold, our culture has become dangerously reliant upon on "the unexpected to assure itself that events are taking place and that history is being made." We are now prone to believe that if nothing obvious is happening, nothing is happening. In consequence our culture puts more and more pressure upon people like the two DJs and the paparazzi to make news by pushing themselves endlessly into every quiet, private nook and cranny to see everything, to report everything.

(It's worth noting here in connection with Aristotle's definition of tragedy above - although I didn't in the actual address - that these are stories which are just "recited" to us on various rolling news-channels, radio stations and web-newspapers. However, the Advent - and Christmas - stories are one which we know in a much more dynamic, "dramatic" way as we tell them to each other in our nativity plays, liturgies, poems, hymns, songs and music.)

This need to make the news means, in turn, that we seem rapidly to be loosing an understanding that at the heart of any healthy culture there must be many quite, private and silent places where new things are given the space and time to be conceived, to grow in the warmth and dark, to be born and then for all these things to be pondered in our hearts on quietly and unobserved. Only after all this are these new things and visions brought out into the world to be used and enacted.

As a nurse connected with a maternity unit and also as a mother herself it seems reasonable to suggest on the basis of what we have already heard from the hospital authorities that Mrs Saldanha saw that she had been unwittingly forced to play a part in allowing the destruction of just such a private, creative and silent place. Not only that, of course, but she did it in a context that meant it became very, very public. The weight of this realisation - perhaps coupled with other things about her situation that we do not know (nor need to know) - proved for her to be fatal.

However, it is not enough simply to say that this is a tragedy for it to be a true tragedy. Unless we begin properly to consider changing our ways by Mrs Saldanha's shocking suicide then her death will most certainly have been in vain. If, however, it is taken seriously by us and it begins to functions for our culture as a cathartic purgation of an obsession with endless facts and activity (and mere vicarious "entertainment") and returns us to a sense of the absolute necessity for our society to be centred on private, silent places of becoming, then her death can become part of a proper tragedy and Mrs Saldanha will not have died in vain.

It is only into these kinds of places that the real news, the real good-news (gospel) is conceived, born and nurtured - namely, a new creation, a new way of being that will enable us all to dwell together in genuine peace and goodwill.

May she rest in peace.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Practising our surfing skills for Christmas - An Advent meditation

From an essay entitled "The Republic of Heaven" by Philip Pullman:

We need a myth, we need a story, because it's no good persuading people to commit themselves to an idea on the grounds that it's reasonable. How much effect would the Bible have had for generations and generations if it had just been a collection of laws and genealogies? What seized the mind and captured the heart were the stories it contains.

Galatians 6:15
For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!

2 Corinthians 5:17
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

From Paul Tillich's sermon "New Being"
If I were asked to sum up the Christian message for our time in two words, I would say with Paul: It is the message of a "New Creation." We have read something of the New Creation in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Let me repeat one of his sentences in the words of an exact translation: If anyone is in union with Christ he is a new being: the old state of things has passed away; there is a new state of things. Christianity is the message of the New Creation, the New Being, the New Reality which has appeared with the appearance of Jesus who for this reason, and just for this reason, is called the Christ, the Messiah, the selected and anointed one is He who brings the new state of things. 

We all live in the old state of things, and the question asked of us by our text is whether we also participate in the new state of things. We belong to the Old Creation, and the demand made upon us by Christianity is that we also participate in the New Creation. We have known ourselves in our old being, and we shall ask ourselves in this hour whether we also have experienced something of the New Being in ourselves. 


This morning we enter again into the season of Advent, a time of what should be alert and expectant preparation for a “new creation”, that astonishing moment when a new way of being suddenly breaks into our world. Paul Tillich, as you heard, thought this “new creation” was the Christian message for our times.

But many things in our own age hinders us from entering into this alert and expectant state let alone actually going on to experience ourselves this new creation.

Today, our secular culture tends to view the Advent and Christmas stories, if and when they are viewed at all, as at best picturesque and somewhat old-fashioned tales or, at worst, superstitious and unhealthy fairy stories that really could (should?) be edited out of our cultural memory and replaced with something more reasoned and so more plausible and useful.

Part of the reason this has occurred is because of an important cultural situation that we should take time to notice. With the development of the natural sciences and the associated widespread loss of belief in the reality of another separate, transcendent, divine world - a loss of belief I certainly share in - there slowly developed the idea that we lived in what has often been described as a "closed world." That is to say that, since the natural universe is everything there is, nothing meaningfully can be said to be "outside", or can be said to "transcend", it. More colloquially we may say that our culture has come to feel that there is no such thing as "heaven and earth" there is only "earth".

This, in turn, has encouraged the development of the idea that a "theory of everything" can be worked out by us which would not only fully explain and link together all known physical phenomena but could also predict the outcome of any experiment that, in principle, we might carry out.

It should be obvious that such a cultural background threatens to, and has generally succeeded in, rendering powerless and meaningless any myth or story which seems to be speaking of something new breaking *into* our world from the *outside* - as do, of course, the stories of Advent and Christmas.

When we say the world is "closed" an image that quickly occurs to many, if not most, people is of being inside some kind of hermetically sealed totality. In it's simplest form it's felt as like being on the inside of a gigantic football that has no outside! You might want to nuance that thought by making some appeal to complex non-euclidean geometries in which space-time folds back in on itself in decidedly non-football like ways, but the psychological point I'm trying to make remains, namely, that there is no outside realm from which something new can break into our world. This can feel - and often does to many people - like being trapped and imprisoned in a wholly predetermined world of things and events. This feeling was perhaps no better expressed than by old Koheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes (1:9-10):

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'? It has been already, in the ages before us."

But is this necessarily how the world shows up to us and does this viewpoint adequately speak about our way of being in it? I don't think it does.

In an essay entitled "Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought" (Ethnos, Vol. 71:1, March 2006 pp. 9-20) the British anthropologist Tim Ingold says something helpful when he makes a distinction between "surprise" and "astonishment." Here is how he presents surprise:

"Surprise . . . exists only for those who have forgotten how to be astonished at the birth of the world, who have grown so accustomed to control and predictability that they depend on the unexpected to assure them that events are taking place and that history is being made."

Ingold then goes on to say:

"By contrast, those who are truly open to the world, though perpetually astonished, are never surprised. If this attitude of unsurprised astonishment leaves them vulnerable, it is also a source of strength, resilience and wisdom. For rather than waiting for the unexpected to occur, and being caught out in consequence, it allows them at every moment to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity."

To Ingold's mind this latter group of people are best described as those who "ride the crest of the world's continued birth" (Ingold p. 19) and it's from this thought that, today, I derive the image of surfing - surfers are people who quite literally do this.

Before we go on, let's go to one of my favourite teaching aids, Wittgenstein's duck/rabbit picture. What this illustration helps us see is that, without the facts of the world changing, one way of looking at those facts (in this case a squiggly line and dot) will show them up as being a duck. However, another way of looking at those same facts shows them up as a rabbit. It is not that one of them is more or less true to the unchanging facts of the world than the other, it is simply to see and say that the same world can show up to us under very different aspects. It is also vital to see that when you could only see a duck you could have no preconceived idea that a rabbit would suddenly show up and, of course, vice versa. (It’s worth taking some time to decide whether you are surprised or astonished by this . . .)

Now, in the case of the duck/rabbit picture seeing a change from duck to rabbit is, perhaps, not going to make a significant change to your life (though seeing that this aspect change could occur was a very important moment for me). However, it's going to make a great deal of difference to how you feel and act if the basic idea that there is no other, transcendent world is experienced by you as being trapped inside a fixed, football-like world or creatively and joyously riding the crest of the world's continued birth.

To the latter kind of person, insofar as they have learnt how "to respond to the flux of the world with care, judgment and sensitivity", something new is always promising to show up to them and they are consequently never surprised, only astonished, when something new and hitherto unimagined does, in fact, suddenly show up. And here we can begin to move back to the Advent and Christmas theme. But we’ll get there via the surfer.

It's not quite right to say that a new, astonishing experience of riding a wave simply breaks *into* the world from *outside* because the surfer, in their actual act of being in the world on their surfboard atop a wave is both the *place* where a new creation astonishingly breaks in and also, as themselves along with the wave, they are an integral *part* of that new creation. I think Brian Wilson naively and beautifully catches something of this in many of his songs and, in "Surfer Girl", it's visible in the line "We could ride the surf together / While our love would grow". It seems to me that Wilson senses that riding a wave together with his girl is both the *place* where their new love astonishingly breaks "in" to the world and also that he, his girl and the wave are simultaneously integral *aspects* of this new and growing love - their new creation together.

Now the seasons of Advent and Christmas are also, surely, very much concerned with the "breaking in" to our world of such a new creation, a new love that astonishingly shows up the world to us in a completely new way such that what we see at the crib-side really feels, can really be said to be, a new creation. Standing by the manger a world of facts which once looked like a duck now looks wholly unexpectedly like a rabbit - or to locate it in imagery this season - the world which looked old, tired and hopeless is suddenly lit up by the light of the Christ-child in such a way that the world is now new, energised and hopeful.

But for the Advent story, if it is to turn into the Christmas story with its moment of astonishing New Creation, must, itself, be surfed by us rather like a wave.

Waves come into the shore endlessly, again and again and one might be tempted to follow Koheleth and say of it "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." But the true surfer knows something different - they know you have to get on the wave together if you are to learn to ride the crest of the world's continued birth.

Advent comes in again and again each year and it is tempting also to say of it "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." But the true surfer of these stories and myths, like Philip Pullman, knows something different. They know you have to inhabit the story together if you are to learn to ride the crest of the world's continued birth.

I feel fairly certain that Pullman would agree with me that, although for many of us today there is no other world, there is *another* world, it is *this* world seen differently. Surfers know this intimately and so, too, do all those who know how to ride the crest of a story's telling.

Only those who are willing creatively to enter the surf or the world of these stories will know directly the astonishing "breaking in" of a new creation that in Wilson's song is symbolised in the growing love between him and his surfer girl and, on Christmas Day, in the story of new creation that has broken into the world in the form of the Christ-child in his manger. They only know it because they are at the right place and, together with all that is happening, they are themselves part of the new creation.

So, today, I invite you to mount your seasonal surfboards (the Advent stories) and for us to catch a wave together. You’ll be astonished if you do.