Palm Sunday

Our first day:  walking down the Mount of Olives, along the trail known as the Palm Sunday road.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Across the valley, Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade, all donkeys and waving palm branches, must have looked something like a carnival.  Unexpected sorts of people hanging out with an unexpected sort of a leader.  Shouts of promise, which could, carrying across to the opposite slope, have sounded like shouts of rebellion. From the steps outside the High Priest’s House, over the Kidron Valley, back towards the Mount of Olives, would probably take a brisk 40 minutes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It’s just enough distance to decide what to do about the coming carnival. Is it threat, or promise?  Is it party, or is it protest?  To shut it down, or to join in?

Pilgrimage

This is the site where an angel spoke
Promising a new age.
A woman said yes,
And dropped to her knees on this ground.
We mark it with mosaic tiles and stained glass
Deep blue, shards of silver.

This is the site where God became man,
Heaven touched earth.
A woman cried and bled,
A baby took breath from this air.
We mark it with a star in the ground,
A room draped with red.

This is the site where blood was shed
A curtain was torn, forgiveness won.
A man cried, bled,
Struggled for breath from this air.
We mark it with gold.
Gold armouring the walls,
Gold dripping from the ceilings.

We stare at the dust and wonder – was it here, was it this dust?

And God, who has put eternity in our hearts,
Grins back, alive.
Don’t cling to me, he says.

This is the site
- where, though? -
This is the site where
New life came,
Although it had been thought death had the final word.
Where
every
single
reason
for hope
Sprang up again.

Where, though?

There is a tomb but it is empty.
There was a barbecue on the beach, but its ash has washed away.
Bread was broken, but the birds of the air have long since pecked up the crumbs.

We emerge from the gilded and draped and painted places and find ourselves
Outside in the carpark, KFC and Nandos alongside the olive wood souvenirs.

And after the plane has touched down,
And back in the places without stars on the floors
New life grins back.

We mark it with our ‘yes’.
We mark it, dropping to our knees.
We mark it with glimpses of hope, touches of kindness,
Shards of light.

 

#breakoutsunday

Two of us arrived at Peckham Rye today with the same verse in our heads:  “this is the day that the Lord has made: we will rejoice and be glad in it”.

Rejoice is one of those holy-sounding words, isn’t it?  For some reason, I find myself associating it with Christmas services.  But hidden within it is the word ‘joy’, and if you dress that word up a little differently, it becomes ‘enjoy’.

This is the day that the Lord has made: we’ll enjoy it.

In it, we’ll encounter his joy.

And, on #breakoutSunday, we did.  Well, let me speak for myself - I did.  The sunshine, despite the cloudy forecasts, the running around – some with the intensity of true competitors, some (ahem) a little more casually, the bacon sandwiches, the delicious range of people there.

Breakout Sunday was about trying some different ways of worshipping and seeing what happened.  There will be some who would say that what we did – prayed, ran around, ate together – was not exactly worship – that’s probably a discussion for another time.  But I know there will be many who sang with their limbs and muscles as they hurled the rugby ball around: “this is your day, Lord, and I’m enjoying it”.  I suspect that others, as they tucked into bacon, ketchup and bread, found their stomachs saying something similar. And for those who don’t habitually come to our church building to do the things we usually call worship with us, I hope the short prayers said were an invitation just to try something similar. A practice of thanksgiving. A declaration – with muscle or stomach, if not (yet) with lips – the Lord, in his generosity, makes days for unearned enjoyment.  And today, we, with open-handed gladness, receive.

governing in prose

I have become, in the course of this election campaign, a person who shouts at the radio.  I might have done so a little bit before now, but in recent months, it’s become quite regular: “oh, shut UP!” – and then switching off.

So I can’t quite agree with Mario Cuomo, the New York mayoral candidate from the eighties, who declared “you campaign in poetry.  you govern in prose”.

But I must admit, I do vote in poetry.

Voting day is fantastic, isn’t it?  Campaigning over, we all head to the primary schools and church halls, and it’s our turn.  South-Africa-election-day-016We give thanks for the Pankhursts, holding hands across the generations with those who’ve made this pencil mark possible.  We make eye contact in the streets with others and we are in solidarity – however we’ve voted, we are voters, voicing,Two-Iraqis-show-their-ink-001 in all our different accents and tones, our choice.  Images of lines of voters across the world, the inked fingers of the voters in Iraq in 2005, the day-long queues in 1994 South Africa.  This privilege, this participation.

Results day – I will make no effort to hide my political leanings – threw me back into the prosiest of prose.  The greyness of the weathermatched my gloom and I grumped around, spending far too much time online searching for scraps of comfort.

A while back on this blog, I said that I was reading through thebooks of Kings. I’m ashamed to say that, a few months on, this is still true.  I’m bogged down in a series of ‘King XXX, son of YYY, reigned for ZZ years.  He  did evil in the eyes of the Lord’, followed by ‘King AAA who did some good, but also quite a lot of evil’.   It’s hard work, to be honest.

So, I’ve been meandering.  Taking a bit of a Kings break to focus on the resurrection for a while – yes please.  Leaping forward a little bit for the life and imagination of a New Testament letter or two – go on then.  Turning to the Psalms – the poetry! – I’m in.

Thebooks of Kings, emphatically, are prose.

I’ve been reading them – which has been helping – in the company of Walter Brueggemann who writes theology so beautifully it feels like poetry.  I can’t reduce all he says here to one point, but he’s been showing me that this text which describes political machinations, assassinations, battles, and this formal and ordered sequence of kings, refuses any suggestion that this is all there is.  The manipulation of power, wisely or unwisely, with integrity or iniquity, by a series of kings, is only part of history.  It is a part, and it is an important part.  People live or die, are enslaved or freed, fed or starved because of these processes of power. So they matter.  They need to be described.

This is true of how we arrange power today too.  It matters.  “The text”, Brueggemann says “invites us to a realism about ourselves”, a prose-y, unvarnished, uncomfortable look at the ways we organise ourselves, as a society.

But this sequence of events, this historical prose-y order, is described within and entwined with – Brueggemann shows – two other elements.  First, the Torah.  Which is to say, the way of God – his statement about how humans should relate to one another.  And secondly, the Prophets. Who, through unsettling action, awkward non-compliance, direct statement, and allusive description, offer stark commentary on the history as it works out.  “The prophetic narratives are not so stereotyped or predicatable, but announce surprise, intrusion and disruption.”

So I am reminded that, in the prose after voting day, God is inviting me to see him still at work.  The new government has prose-y work to do, working out ways of organising society which will, still, impact on people’s lives and deaths, enslavement or freedom, satisfaction or hunger.  And God is inviting me not just to look for him, but to be involved, not absenting myself because the sequence of historical events hasn’t gone quite the way I would have chosen, not absenting myself because I prefer the poetry of voting day to the prose of the day after.

His ways – revealed now supremely through his Torah-fulfilling Son, Jesus – continue to intrude into and entwine with our history, and our choice is to be involved with them, or not.  His prophets are still invited to bring those ways to bear on every day, prose-y reality.

 

 

fearfully and wonderfully made

I preached a couple of weeks ago as part of our sermon series on ‘No other gods’, and was asked to think about the body.

The recording didn’t work, for some reason, so here, in case it’s helpful, is a slightly ‘edited for reading’ version of the sermon.  

No other gods:  the body. 

Psalm 139.1-18 and 1 Corinthians 6.19-20.

Imagine being a Christian in first century Corinth.

Let me help you out.

Imagine yourself in a city which is dominated by one particular landmark.  You can see it from anywhere in the city – there it is on a big hill.  In first century Corinth, that one landmark was a magnificent temple – the temple of Aphrodite or Venus.

The hill in the background is where Aphrodite's temple was.  Big, isn't it?
The hill in the background is where Aphrodite’s temple was. Big, isn’t it?

The Goddess of love.  Her temple was served by 1000 temple prostitutes.

If you happened to miss the big temple on top of the hill, there were two others in Corinth, and her image also appeared on coins.

This was a society where sex was very visible and available– the female body in particular very much on show as an object of sex.   There was a Greek verb korinthiazomai – translated “to act the Corinthian” – which meant to commit sexual immorality.

In this society, it was seen as implausible, even unhealthy, to live a life without sex so there was heavy societal pressure for people who were divorced – divorce was common – or widowed to be remarried.

What else?

The normal population was swelled by tourists coming to see athletes compete.   At the Isthmian games, an international celebration held every two years nearby, the human body – this time, male – was cheered by crowds of thousands.  A few men competed athletically – and could win enviable celebrity.  And prizes.  Including, notably, a crown of wild celery for the winner.

Yes please, give me a crown of this stuff to celebrate my athleticism.
Yes please, give me a crown of this stuff to celebrate my athleticism.

There was a church in Corinth.  Even learning how to be a church was pretty new for this first century bunch of believers in Jesus – but none-the-less, there they were, trying to work it out.  Paul wrote some letters to them to help them on their way.

In this society, where the body was sometimes idolised and sometimes cheapened, the Corinthian church reacted in one of two directions.  One the one hand, they said – the body is evil.  The mind and the soul can be pure, but they are attached to this unpleasant, unholy thing, the human body.  The body is bad, so its cravings should be denied and should be pummelled into submission –  so – no sex at all, not even in marriage, and radically restrict your food.

Or, on the other hand, the other view was – the body doesn’t matter.  What you believe in your mind and your soul – that’s what it’s all about, so do with your body as you please.  It doesn’t matter what you do with it, it doesn’t affect your inner life, your soul.

To this church, Paul writes…

Do you not know?

Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you – which you have from God

and that you are not your own.

You were bought at a price. 

Therefore glorify God in your body. 

(that’s 1 Corinthians 6.19-20)

 

 Now to the present day.  And we’re clearly going to have to work hard to find the relevance of this situation for ourselves…

__________________________________________________

It’s just as well that we’ve moved on from sexualised images of the female body being available and visible everywhere in our city.  Just as well we’ve moved on from a society in which life without sex is seen as utterly implausible.  Just as well we’ve moved on from a situation where men trained in particular athletic skills – let’s just say 22 men running around a field – are celebrated in front of crowds of thousands and afforded extraordinary celebrity, even god-like status.   How can we even imagine such a society?

Hmmm…

We can hear any of this and think – yes, it’s dreadful, just as well we’re safe from society here in church.  But that’s not what we’re called to do.  Here, instead, are some questions we might come with.

How do we live here?

In this place and time where we receive so many messages about the human body, about our own human bodies – what do we hold onto?

How does a church live as salt – preservative, flavoursome, life-enhancing salt – and light – revealing, making safe space – in such a society?

That’s what we’re going to think about today, with the help of Paul.

And Paul says – your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit .

______________________________________________

What does that mean?

It means it has an architect, and it has a purpose.

Your body – as a temple – is made, built, created.  Someone has been its architect and builder.  The Psalmist says….  you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

When God makes human beings – what are we told about how he’s going about it?    

 God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them. (Genesis 1.27)

God then sees what he’s created in these human bodies and says – it is very good.

And that good creation is made to last.

Paul – as he writes – has had the transformational experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus.  The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of what is promised to all of us who participate in him. We will be raised from the dead, bodily – Paul faces death himself confident, because he’s seen it in Christ.

What this means is that the body will never cease to be important – and that aging, death, disease, disablement, decay, pain do not have the final word for our bodies – resurrection does.  They will be raised transformed and glorified.  Our bodies are the raw material of God’s new creation.

So, our bodies are created – built like a temple – made to last.

And they made for a purpose – to glorify God.

This is the remains of a temple of Apollos in Corinth.

Apollo temple Corinth

Does anyone relate to the gasp when you go into, or even outside, a magnificent building?  Take the Shard – what a beautiful building!  I have a couple of nephews who live in a village in Suffolk, and once when they came to London, they just wanted to touch it – to stand underneath it and look up in awe.

The Shard

Temples are made to glorify.  They can be created to honour all sorts of things.  “Your body is a temple” has been used to advertise gyms, often with a sort of ‘so look after it’ imperative.  It’s a meaningless phrase on its own.

your body is a temple

Back to the Shard – Renzo Piano is its architect– I looked to see if he had a grand vision for the building, what he might have been seeking to glorify with it.  Here is the vision, off the website.

“The vision for the Shard was to create an architecturally striking vertical city, incorporating retail, offices, hotel, apartments, restaurants and a public viewing gallery.”

How incredibly bland!  What a dull vision!

But what about us?  Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Your body is created, designed, modelled, intended as a dwelling-place for the spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity.  Woah.  The same spirit which hovered over the waters at creation, which brought Jesus back from the dead – your body is made to be a temple of that same spirit.

This is huge.

Now, for a sermon in the series ‘no other gods’ it sounds as though I’m bigging up the body a lot.

Has the body become a god for our culture?

Here’s the thing – if we’re ‘worshipping’ anything as a culture, I don’t believe we are celebrating the good gift from God of the human body.  If anything is worshipped on adverts and billboards – you don’t need me to tell you it’s not really real.  God is not the architect – we are.  I won’t even start on photoshop.  And then there’s plastic surgery.  Between 2008-10 the cosmetic surgery market in the UK grew by 17%.

But more than that.  What we see tends to be one particular body type.  Man or woman, Barbie or GI Joe.  Often one body colour.  One age group.  Representing a tiny minority of the population.

God – by contrast – can’t get enough of variety. From the beginning to the end of the bible where people of every nation, tribe and tongue worship together – it’s repeated  – he makes people DIFFERENT and he loves that.

__________________

34% of adolescent boys and 49% of girls – under 18s – in the UK have been on a diet to change their body shape or to lose weight.  Centre for Appearance Research & Central YMCA 2011

An Ofsted survey of 150,000 children found that by the age of 10 a third of girls cited their bodies as their main source of worry.  Body Image in the Primary School, 2011.

16% of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds have avoided going to school because they felt bad about their appearance and 20% have avoided giving an opinion in public because of it. Beyond Stereotypes, 2006.

In the past 15 years eating disorders have doubled in the UK. Centre for Appearance Research

Our culture is messed up about our bodies.

Have we made an idol of the human body?  Well, I don’t know, but I do know that this unreal image of the perfected human body is – first of all – created by human beings.  Second of all, it is very powerful – it has a really powerful impact on people.  And I know – third of all – that it is based on a lie.

It is our own bodies – these ones – that God made and loves and designs as temples for the Holy Spirit – not some future, imagined, perfected bodies.  Our bodies, today, which, according to Os Guinness “grow tired and wear out, which sweat, bleed and vomit, which grow pot-bellied and run out of breath”.

God loves your body.

It sounds a bit weird when I say it like that, but I am on rock-solid theological ground here, so I’ll say it again – God loves your body.

This might not feel like a big deal to you personally, but if it is affecting half of our girls, a third of our boys – when it’s affecting our society to such a marked degree, then I think we have to think about our call to be salt and light – to have a preservative, flavouring, enlightening effect.

Just think – wouldn’t it be amazing if the church had the effect of reining in some of these percentages?   Fewer eating disorders.  Less bullying.  More young people confident to give their opinions in public.

God made the human body – he made it and loves it in tremendous, beautiful, brilliant variety, he has made the human body to be a temple of the Holy Spirit and to get involved in his good purposes in the world.

____________________________________________________

So what?  How does this affect us, and how do we bring salt and light in to this context, our context.  What does that look like? 

I think it looks like hearing, and saying the bigger, better, truer story about our bodies MORE LOUDLY than the untrue stories around the place.

So the first thing I want to say is that if you have trouble believing this, if this is a struggle for you, or for someone close to you, please do take the opportunity to pray with someone about this.  Some of you may be struggling with ill health of any kind.  Your body may be a difficult subject for you.

Even where we feel complex about our bodies, God  has made them for himself, and he’s made them for eternity where there will be no more suffering, pain, no more tears.  I believe there are lies and bad stories told about our bodies in society – we don’t need to take that lying down.  Let’s be assertive, together, about telling the truth.  Stand alongside someone to pray with them.  Be filled with the Holy Spirit.  That’s what your body is made for.

The second thing: – 1 Corinthians 6. 20:  “You are not your own, you were bought with a price.  Therefore honour God with your bodies.”

Faith – in biblical terms – isn’t an invisible switch in our minds which we turn from ‘I don’t believe in God’ to ‘I do’ – it’s expressed in our bodies.  Let me give this illustration.  Faith in this chair isn’t saying ‘I believe this chair will bear my weight’, it’s about doing this [sitting down].

‘It is our bodies’, Os Guinness says, ‘which are instruments either for evil or for good. It is our bodies that Paul urges us to present to God as a living sacrifice. Obedience or disobedience are expressed in our bodies or they are expressed nowhere. Obedience for the Christian is a body activity.’  So faith is expressed in actions of generosity, sacrificial, courageous love, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If I talk about self-control, it sounds like I might be making that Corinthian error of saying the body is bad and it should be denied – but that’s not the image here.  It’s that your body is valuable – but weak.   Our bodies are created by God (built like a temple), but they are not God.  Having this right view of our bodies helps us put their cravings in the right place, to order them.  God is God, I am not.  He made me, I didn’t make him.

Looking back a little in this chapter.  Paul writes this“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.”

I will not be mastered by anything. 

So, part of honouring God with our bodies is declaring that nothing else – nothing other than God – need be our slave master.  John Piper says – “In other words, not only let your actions be guided by the law of love, but also let them be guided by the law of liberty. Don’t ask, “Am I permitted to do this as a Christian?” Instead ask, “Am I a slave to this act? Is this food or drink or sex or hobby or work becoming my master instead of my servant?”

Our bodies might have longings for food or drink or sex or hobbies or work.  Those things are not bad in themselves, but our created, good but weak bodies can disorder our longings, can put these longings higher than they should be.  But we don’t have to be slaves to those.  There is a god other than our bodies,and that God promises to deny us nothing good.  He promises to fill us with his Holy Spirit to guide us in moments of temptation.  Maybe this is one of those verses to learn for moments when we need them – “I will not be mastered by anything”.

Moments of self control might be about NOT buying into these idealised images. NOT commenting on a person’s body – a celebrity in a magazine or a person on the street, or our own.  Out of love for others, for our children – self-control in how we speak.

Be the guy to NOT comment.  To say – come on, guys – enough now.  Be the woman who hears a conversation and thinks – you know, I’m not going to join in with that.

And also, I just want to give a shout out for celibacy, which doesn’t get a tremendously positive press in this culture – even in today’s Christian culture, which is odd given that we follow Jesus who never married.  Going back to our early picture of Corinth, the city where it was felt to be ludicrous to go without having sex…  any parallels here…?

This leads me onto my third action – if it is true that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, that is also true of the person next to you.   How can we help one another to live fully, honouring God, especially when our bodies have so many different issues at different stages of our lives?

How can we enable – for example – people to live a rich, full life, with intimate and generous friendships, with companionship, with support and security, if they are – by choice or by circumstance -celibate?  This – my friends – is for all of us here to own as a question, whatever our life circumstance.

How can we live generously, hospitably, in community with one another?

Another example – how can we enable other people to know community, friendship, fullness of life– if their bodies are unwell, if they are housebound, if they find it difficult to get around?  How can we care for those whose bodies aren’t doing too well at the moment, for any reason?   How can we help hungry bodies to be filled?  Lonely bodies to be hugged?  Unwell bodies to be cared for?    Expressing our faith bodily means getting involved with others, enabling them to live fully too.

Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

You have an architect who lovingly made you.  You have a purpose, a glorious purpose, for which he created you.

The person next to you, the celebrity in the magazine, the person who is struggling with mobility – that is also true of them.  This is the truth about our bodies.  And we express it in our bodies.

To end, let’s claim back the truth about our bodies.  Let’s say this together.

Psalm 139

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

spring

Whisper it… I think spring is here.

The crocuses in the church garden began to hint at it a while ago – but they were too modest, too diffident.  The daffodils got involved – but they bloom so effortlessly it hardly seems an achievement when they begin to trumpet.  I went for a run just before sunset, along the Surrey Canal Path, around Burgess Park.  Trees have been planted along there especially for their fruit, and their blossom-flirtation with the bees is just beginning.  But even with their scent, they didn’t qualify for my spring-test.

I think it must be something about the combination of them all, and the lightness of the skies (so many people still out and about enjoying it) that confirms it.

I walk past the church garden pretty much every day.  In this season, it couldn’t make me happier if it tried.  And it doesn’t.  It just sits there, casually throwing out paintbox yellows and blues and purples against browns and greens, just being itself.

The garden been opened up for just less than a year, so this is its first spring.  Arthur is one of a team who have given it this new life.  And I wonder if what Arthur and others are doing, when they come to plant the bulbs, clear the weeds, mow the lawn, rake the rubbish, is a kind of living Psalm 148.

It’s a song which needs a kind of Brian Blessed of a voice – a human being issuing cosmic commands.  To creation, the human voice says – praise him!  To skies and mountains, animals and birds – praise him who made you!

To daffodils and crocuses – praise him with your colour!  To blossom – praise him with your scent!  To the lawn – let me free you from rubbish so you can praise him with your greenness and the way you move with the breeze.

On the one hand – how dare we?  What gives us the right to coax, or free, or ignite praise from the rest of creation?

On the other – if not us, then who?  And if not praise, then what?  By which I mean – if we work with creation at all, is it for praise of our creator, or is it for satisfaction of us alone?

In some of my favourite words of all time, Peter – clumsy, impetuous Peter – names the people of God as priests.  All of them.  A priest gathers, encourages, opens up praise to God.  A bit like a gardener? A bit like Psalm 148?

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Jesus and his very short sermon

As preached, in part, at Rye Lane last week.

I’ve signed up to run a half-marathon.  This is madness.  It’s three times longer than I’ve ever run before.  It is unnatural, it strikes me, to run that far.

Thankfully, I have 3 months to prepare.  I have downloaded a training programme from the internet and pencilled it into my diary – “3 miles low intensity”, “30 mins cross training”, and the sly increases of a long run increasing by a mile a week. Ha. As though they think I don’t notice.

This awful training schedule has a point to it.  It is (I fondly believe) purposeful.

If I got to the end of the three months and then shrugged my shoulders and said – oh well, I’m not going to bother running the actual race – I would have missed the point, somewhat.  The training is for a purpose.

I’ve been thinking about this a little bit as we’ve just entered Lent.   We can give up things, or take up things for Lent, and those are good decisions –we follow Jesus into the wilderness and fast, and that is a good thing.  But if we  are following Jesus into the wilderness, we follow him for a purpose.   Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days to fast in order to PREPARE for something.

After wrestling temptations, he is filled “with the power of the Spirit”.  He heads to a synagogue and stands up to read.  Taking one of the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah, he reads barely over one verse.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Not much of a reading today, think some of the crowd.

And then he preaches the most electrifying eight word sermon ever heard.

“Today 
this scripture 
is fulfilled 
in your hearing.”

Goosebumps rise around the synagogue.  A weighty silence follows.

Jesus’ preparation is for a purpose, something incredible.  A world-changing, good-news-bringing, freedom-proclaiming, sight-bringing, oppression-destroying ministry.

If we follow Jesus into the wilderness, we don’t just follow him for the preparation part – we follow him for the purpose part as well.  A share in his purpose.

I’ve only just noticed that even in eight words, Jesus manages to include in his sermon something which sounds a little bit like an invitation and a little bit like a challenge. “In your hearing”, he says.  No abstraction here.  No thinking “Oh yes, that’s jolly good, glad to hear about that fulfilment happening.  Somewhere else.”

Instead:  “you’re in on it”, Jesus says.  Your choice to decide what to do with that – but no doubting the fact that you were here to hear this.  Today.  In your hearing.

How to prepare for a share in this joyful, epic, freedom-bringing life?

That is a question forty days can only start to answer.

Forty days

Forty days, Lord?  FORTY?

This brilliant set of images conveys something of what a forty day solitary fast might feel like.  The moments of delight, and sharp pangs, punctuating a long, gruelling, lonely, often boring, always bleak struggle.

FORTY days?

Before the bible’s most understated verse:  ‘He ate nothing during those [forty] days, and at the end of them he was hungry.’ (Luke 4.2)

Apparently 40 days is roughly the length of time it takes to establish a habit.  Or unestablish one.  So it’s forty days of CHOOSING to do a thing, forcing body and spirit to catch up with mind, or mind to catch up with body, or however it works.  Emphatically, it is not what comes naturally. Forty days of hunger does not come naturally.

A habit of unselfishness.  How does that start?  With daily choices for generosity?  Or of thankfulness.  Daily lists?

I don’t know – but maybe some sort of physical fast, physical act, physical choice helps make the struggle real outside of just my brain.  Helps force sinews which bend naturally towards self instead reach towards others, towards God.  Honestly, life as a single person trains those instincts towards myself       e.v.e.r.y.    s.i.n.g.l.e.   .d.a.y.    I relate so much to the sense of battle against this. And to its frequent failure.

I am not naturally formed for wisdom – but forty days of attempting choices for wisdom can at least start to shape me that way.  Suddenly 40 days doesn’t seem nearly enough.

Belatedly, for Epiphany

One calendar tells me that this week began with ‘Blue Monday’, the ‘most depressing day’ of the year, according to the alignment of the constellations of seasonal debt, failed new year resolutions and grey, freezing weather.

Another calendar making its presence known is counting down the weeks to the election in the spring, each week a new window opening onto another source of (it seems already) unnecessarily snarky debate.

I am told by the calendar of the Church of England that we hold on to  another season, Epiphany, for nearly two more weeks.

Epiphany.  “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something

In this time, with its headlines shrieking and its columnists (and yes, its bloggers) ruminating, I want perception and insight more than ever.  So I’m holding onto Epiphany for as long as I can.

But it comes with a kicker.  Insight is followed by transformation.

The magi followed a star – followed a hunch that this was going to be worth the journey – and found a baby, in whom they perceived the essential meaning of – well, everything.  The reality of the enormity of God’s love.

But then came another revelation.  A dream.  A dream of terror unleashed, of the cruelty of jealous rulers and the vulnerability of infants.

And they went back another way.

Insight, followed by a change of direction.

I long for insight.  That feels like an easy – a romantic, a poetic – longing to own up to.  Like the statue of the thinker, pondering eternally, brow furrowed enigmatically, chin resting, picturesque, on hand.  Frozen in bronze.

the-thinker

Changes of direction come less easily, though.  They’re more difficult to style out.  The justification and bluster, the embarrassment, could seem too much trouble –  maybe I’ll just push on in the same direction.

This Epiphany, give me not just insight, Lord, not just perspective, but courage, where I need it, to walk back another way.

the point of pomegranates

Bear with me.

I’m reading through the books of Kings at the moment and a few weeks ago bumped into Hiram the Bronzeworker.  He sounds excellent.  If I were King Solomon, I’d definitely have employed him too – the sort of eminently trustworthy and gifted person you’d commission to make pillars and columns to build a sturdy and reliable temple.

The writer describes immense and sturdy bronze structures – the impression is one of magnificence and solidity.  Hiram knows what he’s doing. And then I ran into this verse  (1 Kings 7. 18, if you’re following):

He made pomegranates in two rows encircling each network to decorate the capitals on top of the pillars. He did the same for each capital. 

Wait, I’m sorry – pomegranates?

Don’t get me wrong – I love a pomegranate, and I gather their vitamin content (vitamins B, C and K, in case you need a top-up) is one of the highest around.   But in the building of a temple, they seem a bit – I don’t know – surplus to requirements.  They don’t exactly hold up the drapes, or even, especially, speak of God’s grandeur.

Now, I’ve read no commentary about this, and you may now be jumping up and down to tell me about the theological significance of the pomegranate in the reign of King Solomon.  Fine.  Different voices multiply, not subtract, from the riches of this story.

What I love to imagine is this.

Hiram the Bronzeworker, epically competent, heroically reliable in pillar- and column-making as he was, just really liked making bronze pomegranates.  Sure, he’d make a pillar or a column or a chain as reliable as any you’d see.  But he loved sitting down with a spare bit of bronze and knocking out a pomegranate from time to time.  And – if he was really honest – he thought he was pretty good at it too.

So amidst this weighty work in the temple, he found time – knew he should – to do the thing which was life-giving, extra, fun.  The point of a bronze pomegranate?  There is no point.  Not really.  But Hiram made really good ones, and he liked it, and so, absolutely yes, they should go in the temple of the Lord.*

I hesitate to write this, for obvious reasons, but what are your bronze pomegranates?

I’ve made a resolution to try and write more this year. I like writing.  It’s life-giving for me, and even if I’m not claiming Hiram’s skill with bronze, it’s something I’d like to own and practice and grow in.

I have written.  I am writing.  I will write.

Finding time for this can sometimes feel self-indulgent when there are pillars to be built.  But the temple of the Lord – and our lives, our time, our days – should have pomegranates as well as pillars.

* Notwithstanding any of the above, I was quite amused by the list (Soloman’s invoice?)  at the end of this building report:

  • - two pillars
  • - two bowls
  • - two lattice-works
  • - four hundred pomegranates

Hiram, being a human being, may, even with his superlative pomegranate-making abilities, gone a little too far.