Saturday 30 March 2013

Meeting mystery: an Easter sermon

by Kim Fabricius

A few years ago, just before Easter, I went along to a meeting at the university where a leader from a local church spoke on “The Resurrection of Jesus”. His talk was a tour de force. The sceptics’ arguments against the resurrection – that Jesus hadn’t really died, that the disciples stole the body, that it was all either a hoax or a hallucination – these the speaker roundly refuted. And then, comprehensively marshalling the evidence in favour of the resurrection – the witness of the disciples, and especially the women (you wouldn’t invent the testimony of women in first-century Israel); the conversion of the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul; the observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day (not Saturday, the traditional Jewish day of worship); the birth and mission of the church, believers willing to die for their faith – marshalling all this evidence, the speaker claimed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus rose from the dead. Frank Morison, an advertising agent turned lawyer, who wrote a best-selling book called Who Moved the Stone?, with its own comprehensive demonstration of the facticity of the resurrection – Morison himself couldn’t have been more persuasive.

I looked around. The audience was very impressed. “Awesome!” they said, openly or tacitly. But in my heart there was no hallelujah. In fact, I felt curiously deflated. Indeed the evening left me feeling as cold as that mobile stone. But why?

Partly, I suppose – not the speaker’s fault – because I’d heard it all before.

Partly, also, because of the way the speaker narrowed the significance of the resurrection of Jesus to life after death – and then to my life after death – which I take to be a rather egotistical reduction of an event so momentous that it embraces the renewal of all creation. Why care about my butt if the rest of the world is going to hell in a handcart?

Then there was the rather unpleasant way the speaker dismissed those Christians who might disagree with him, including some very eminent theologians – he mentioned a couple – whose depths he couldn’t begin to fathom.

But the main reason why for me the talk fell flat is this. It was as if the speaker had it all sorted out; it was as if the resurrection of Jesus were easy. But it’s not! The resurrection is bloody difficult! I don’t mean (if you like) the “technology” of it, I mean the way the resurrection is existentially disturbing, threatening, explosive. Above all, I left the meeting with no sense of mystery, and therefore with no sense of God, because God is mystery, ultimate, irreducible mystery.

Of course the speaker was, in fact, quite representative, doing what we are all tempted to do – me too – when it comes to God: construct the perfect argument, arrive at a definitive answer, achieve theological clarity and closure – Bingo! To extend the legal metaphor, we push ourselves forward as judge and jury to reach a unanimous verdict on how God makes sense. Alas, in trying to make God manageable, in attempting to master the mystery, we turn God into an idol, a deity under our control; at our worst, a god we co-opt for our own religious agenda.

The resurrection of Jesus, however, puts an end to all such self-serving manipulation of God. For note well: the resurrection of Jesus is fundamentally a message about God. “Jesus is alive!” doesn’t quite capture this significance. “Christ is risen!”, because God raised him, does. The subject of the resurrection is God. Indeed Karl Barth called the resurrection “a paraphrase of the word ‘God’”. The resurrection defines who God is: God is the God who raised Jesus from the dead. And in raising Jesus God identifies himself with Jesus and vindicates the cause that got Jesus killed – championing the poor and the shafted, challenging the rich and the powerful, rejecting the way of violence of good guys and bad guys alike.

Are you following me? Not too closely, I hope! For, again, that is the point – the point missing in that talk: the first followers of Jesus couldn’t follow it either! The Easter narratives – they are not straightforward accounts, they are “the witness of the overwhelmed” (Helmut Thielicke). It is not only futile, it is misconceived to treat them as “evidence”, to deploy them to “demonstrate” that the resurrection is a “matter of fact” which any disinterested observer must concede to be the case, such that those who don’t are either pig-headed or big-headed. For Jesus did not become an object of inspection available to anyone, he revealed himself only to those for whom the question of faith had already been raised – and dashed. It’s not that we don’t have history here, but it’s history not as we know it, Spock: it’s history that upends history as we know it.

Examine the Easter narratives. Look at how disjointed, inconsistent, even contradictory they are (a rather obvious fact that the speaker failed to mention). Look at how the writers struggle, tongue-tied, wholly inadequate to the task of articulation, unable to integrate the event into the language of experience. Look, finally, at the first reactions of the witnesses themselves: neither joy, nor relief, nor comprehension, but dread, dumfoundedness, and doubt. Jesus is hardly recognisable, he appears as a stranger, and he remains a resident alien – a mystery – now here, now there – even when the penny finally drops. It’s not “O happy days! It’s just as he said!”, but “Who dat man?!” and “What the hell was that?!” As a character says in a famous story by Flannery O’Connor, “Jesus thrown everything off balance.” As the old spiritual has it, the resurrection, no less than the cross, “causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” If you could feed the data into a human seismograph, you would get an earthquake that goes off the Richter scale. And why?

For one thing, the resurrection of Jesus radically ruptures the natural order of the universe. Everyone dies and dead people stay dead – what is more certain than that? But this provocative Galilean rabbi – he dies alright, but he doesn’t stay dead. Here, in a graveyard in Jerusalem, the world breaks open – and its reordering begins.

For another thing, when, in the iconic film, the Terminator says, “I’ll be back!”, what’s he coming back for? It’s such an ominous promise because he’s returning for payback. Just so in antiquity it was thought that ghosts often appeared to exact revenge, a belief that Shakespeare exploits in Hamlet. And Jesus – of course he’d been stitched up by the Sanhedrin, executed by the Romans, and jeered by the mob, but he’d also been deserted by his disciples. “Jesus is back, no one is safe, lock your doors!” – wouldn’t that be your first reaction? And though they’ll be wrong about Jesus, they’ll be right about themselves: all their weaknesses, failures, sins exposed. The shock of the resurrection is the shock of the unmasking of their stupidity and betrayals. Revealed is a picture that is not pretty: it is humanity’s ugly heart of darkness.

But despite this sordid reality of the human condition – hear the Good News of Easter! – in the face our faithlessness, God remains faithful, his mercy measureless, his grace relentless (God is infinitely resourceful at dealing with ingratitude). And so, after all – but only after all – after being thrown off balance and knocked flat by meeting mystery, we may indeed get up, know the joy of forgiveness, take courage, and – most important of all – Go! Go witness! For that’s the upshot of all encounters with the risen Christ: “Scat! Scoot! Go! Tell! And show what you tell, with your lives, that I’m still here, that I’ll always be here, not un-crucified but risen, still me but more-than-me – me-in-my-church – and so still at it, still revealing to the world what a proper human being and a proper human community look like!”

Enough already! As the King himself said – Elvis I mean!: “A little less conversation, a little more action, please!” So let’s sing, let’s pray, let’s eat. And then: Scram!

Friday 29 March 2013

Jesus, the Easter bunny, and even more

A delightful sweet short video for children about the meaning of Easter, from Worshiphouse Kids:

Sunday 24 March 2013

Letter to a nun

Dear Sister,

First of all, I have to ask you to forgive me for rifling through your things. I didn't mean any disrespect. I'm not (normally) the kind of person who goes around looking through a woman's private belongings. It's just that I happened to be walking past when I saw the boxes. A huddle of boxes along the kerb in front of the house. Big boxes stuffed with books and papers. Up and down the street people had dumped their unwanted things on the kerb – sofas, swing sets, garden furniture, broken suitcases, old children's toys – because it was the allocated day when the council trucks come  and take it all away. 

And there, Sister, were all your boxes. Not broken furniture or toys but books about music, liturgy, the Roman mass, the poetry of Jeremiah. So you see, my curiosity got the better of me. How could I help myself? I'm the sort of person who can't enter a house without staring at the bookshelves; so how could I walk on by without stopping to peer into your boxes? 

That's how I came to be there on the path outside your house, stooped over your things, examining the contents of your life, the things you had thrown away. I picked up a book. You had written your name in the front, with the letters "O.P." after your name. So you are a Dominican, I thought, a nun. 

I thumbed through a printed collection of medieval music manuscripts. I opened a pocket-sized edition, very old, of The Imitation of Christ. I picked up a somber-looking volume on theology and music. Nearly every page was underlined and annotated. I noticed one paragraph in particular that had attracted your attention: "What is needed is a new theology of music to provide a sound basis for the use of music in the liturgy today. It would be based on both scripture and tradition and would seek to find its origins in the apostolic Church. It would question why the Old Testament psalm remains the essential Christian song, and it would develop the 'new song' symbolism inherited by Christianity from Judaism and attributed to Christ." Beside that remark about the psalms, you had pencilled a shrewd, skeptical little question mark. 

Sister, I was getting to like you.

I went to another box. Liturgical materials. Prayers. Sheet music. Church bulletins. Notes from various retreats. Scraps of ecclesiastical business printed on folded green paper. The Church, the Bride of Christ, the mystical Body of Christ – it all seems pretty humdrum once you start going through the paperwork, don't you think so, Sister?

Then, deeper in the box, the photographs began. Photographs tied together in neat bundles. On each bundle, a name. A strip of negatives attached. Hundreds of photographs. They were spilling on to the ground. Embarrassed, I stuffed them back in the box, but more fell out the other side. Down there somewhere was a well, a fountain of photographs. I saw children, weddings, old people, a bundle of pictures of the same person across time – the baby, the schoolboy, the university graduate, the young couple with children, the old couple, the old man standing alone. Your collection of lives, all assembled here in one place, here in these cardboard boxes by the side of the road. 

In the next box I found your birthday cards. On top, cards with the number 80 blazoned across the front. Beneath those I saw cards with the number 70. I scooped up an armload of cards and saw, way down near the bottom, an older card with a picture of a faded birthday cake, the number 50 barely visible in faded silver. 

In another box I found your notebooks, your diaries, a thicket of hardbound journals, spiral-bound notebooks, curious handmade paper stitched together in hand-stitched notebooks. Perhaps from India, I thought. I picked one up, a cracked blue notebook, and flicked through the pages, wanting to see your neat blue handwriting but not to intrude on your private thoughts. My eyes caught on one sentence: 

"The door is not closing properly." 

I'm sorry, Sister, I read that part by accident. I didn't mean to read a word. Ashamed, I closed the book. (I hope you got your door fixed.)

Another box, filled with pictures. Curling paper posters that had been pulled down from your walls. The angel Gabriel. The annunciation. Adam and Eve. Some saint I'd never seen before. Cheap reproductions of Renaissance paintings. An icon of the Virgin, gold paint shining even down there in the corner of the box. 

Then under the pictures I found the little boxes. A cigar box with tiny notes and bits of string and plastic clips. A red cardboard box with pens, stamps, key rings, a smooth stone paperweight. A handmade box with candles, a fridge magnet, a tiny cast-iron sculpture. A square wooden box with jewellery, a ring, five brooches, a necklace, another ring, a broken bracelet, an orange stone. A rosary. Other smaller things, broken, inexplicable.

I'd had my suspicions, Sister, but not till I saw the jewellery did I understand what had happened. That some time after your eightieth birthday you must have died. I thought what it would be like to die like that, an old woman, a nun, no children or grandchildren gathered about, no one to reassure you that your years were blessed and that your name will be remembered. When you took vows and entered religious life, did you know it would eventually come to this? Did you see that a life devoted to prayer would have to be a life of obscurity, a life easily packed up in boxes and taken away, vanishing without a trace one afternoon? Will anyone remember you, Sister? 

I put your things back into the boxes. I thought: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us. I thought: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. I thought: God will remember you, Sister. God forgets the names of the powerful but remembers the poor. 

They have raked up the pieces of your life like old leaves, Sister, and piled them on the roadside to be taken away. But it is precious, every last bit of it, and God will forget nothing.

I hope you don't mind, Sister, but I have salvaged a few of your things and taken them home with me. I took a candle that had burned halfway down and the wax was very beautiful. We will burn it tonight, my wife, my children and I, while we share the evening meal. I took a postcard with a Leunig picture. I took your stone paperweight, no bigger than a thumbnail. Sister, I will give it to my daughter. She will love it for the same reason you did, because it is so small and because it looks like a tiny frog. 

I took one of your books too, a book of poems. The first lines in the book are by Longfellow:

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

God rules the world through wisdom (not power): another note on Origen

When talking about creation, Christians easily slip into the language of power and control. Feminist theologians in particular have been sensitive to the problems with such language, and have pointed out the incoherences of a picture in which God seems to be acting on the same plane as other powers. As though God were one agent competing with all the rest, so that an exercise of divine power would place corresponding limitations on creaturely agency. As though divine "action", in other words, were basically the same sort of thing as human "action" (except stronger). 

The thought of Origen – here as elsewhere – is uncannily prescient in its awareness of the way a language of power can lead to dead-ends in our understanding of God and creation. Origen is rather skeptical about the language of power, omnipotence, and control; as he sees it, the world is subject to God not through power but through Wisdom.

Fundamental to Origen's system is the belief that Wisdom (sophia) is in the beginning with God. She is eternally at God's side, rejoicing in God's presence (Proverbs 8:30-31). Eternally she contemplates the depth of the Father and shines out from the Father. God is light, and Wisdom is that light's brightness. Indeed where it was customary to regard "Word" as the primary title of the Son of God, Origen argues that the Son is called "Word" only in a secondary and derivative sense. "Word" – and other New Testament titles of Christ – describes Wisdom's relation to us once she has turned toward us in the history of redemption. The Son of God is Wisdom eternally and primordially, but subsequently becomes Word for our sake, in order to announce God's Wisdom to us (Commentary on John, 1.289). In relation to God, the Son is Wisdom; in relation to us, he is Word.

Using a classical Platonic metaphor, Origen argues that creation came into being according to an outline present in this divine Wisdom: "For I think that just as a house and a ship are built or devised according to the plans of the architect, the house and the ship having as their beginning the plans and thoughts in the craftsman, so all things have come to be according to the thoughts of what will be, which were prefigured by God in wisdom, 'For he made all things in wisdom' [Psalm 103:24]" (Commentary on John, 1.113). 

The world is a copy of eternal Wisdom. And once the world has come into being in this way, God continues to relate to it through Wisdom. All things are subject to God not because God is stronger (or needs to be stronger) than creatures, but because creatures are drawn from the pattern of God's Wisdom and continue to exist by participating in Wisdom. "The universe is held in subjection by reason and wisdom, and not by force and necessity" (First Principles, 1.2.10).

In an extended illustration, Origen likens Wisdom to an image in a mirror. The Father looks into the mirror and what he sees is the Son. Every time the Father moves, the image moves too in perfect synchronicity. "There is one and the same movement, so to speak, in all they do" (First Principles, 1.2.12). And what the Father sees is not simply the Son as a divine person, but the Son as Wisdom – as the personal, living architecture of creation. The Father contemplates the whole universe in the image of the Son, and each time the Father moves the whole universe (so to speak) moves with him. God rules the world, one might say, by knowing it – by contemplating the world in the mind of the Son/Sophia. Creation exists – at any moment – to the extent that God allows it to "share in the divine wisdom" (Commentary on John, 1.244).

What this demonstrates is that God's relation to the world does not need to be mediated by some additional thing called "power". God does not need to control the world. God looks the world into being. Or we might also say – since what God loves is Wisdom – God loves the world into being. The mode of God's relation to the world is sovereign, loving attention. It is as God looks at God that the architecture of creation shines in God's presence. Wisdom shines; in her all things become bright.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Damnable doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

The resignation of Benedict XVI gives new meaning to the old joke that the best time to think about retirement is before the Boss does.

hans+V:X – the papal password of Benedict XVI.

Some say Benedict XVI was a disappointment to the women’s movement. I’m not so sure. I mean look at the swanky scarlet shoes – by Stefanelli. The man was a curial Carrie Bradshaw.

I understand the papal conclave sought permission to use the theme song of Two and a Half Men to jazz up the Ceremony of the White Smoke.

What is the difference between a president stacking the Supreme Court with ideological ringers and a pope packing the College of Cardinals with theological clones? Oh, I know – American exceptionalism – the Holy Spirit.

“That the Church dares – in a world nauseous with false egalitarianism – to declare things too holy to be dressed in anything but a finery I cannot afford, a secrecy I cannot know, and a reverence I can only hope to attain – all this convinces me that she alone is the throne of Eternity on earth.” Bad Catholic on the papal conclave. “There are three forces, the only three forces that are able to conquer and hold captive forever the consciences of these weak rebels for their own happiness – theses forces are: miracle, mystery, and authority.” —The Grand Inquisitor to Jesus.

How does one account for the election of an outsider Argentine pope? According to the message which the Lord gave Diego, son of “Chitoro”, in the sixth month of 1986, when Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín was on the throne: un poco con la mano de Dios.”

“Francis, go and repair my house which is falling into ruins.” The new pope begins to get up to speed on his reading:

Suggested film-title for the narrative of the November 2012 General Synod of the Church of England: Dead Church Kneeling. Without a Bishop Prejean.

Augustinianly speaking, the difference between a cathedral and a prison fellowship is the difference between a courtesan and a hooker: it is solely one of opulence and style. 

You know that faith-shaped hole that some say is in each of us? Judging from their input, amiable atheists like Alain de Botton evidently think it is located between what Forrest Gump calls the but-tocks.

I’ve been reading some of Al Mohler’s stuff online. Sorry about the pun, but the words “root canal” come to mind. And shouldn’t that be El Mohler?

Beatrice Marovich suggests, quite brilliantly, that we should judge a book by its cover. I would add another criterion of judgement: blurbists (NB: not blurbs but blurbists – the names alone suffice). For films too. So with testimonies by Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, and endorsements from Glenn Beck and the Dove Foundation, I can say, enthusiastically, that the History Channel’s The Bible is brilliant, awesome, a celluloid miracle. Which, coming from this blogger-blurbist, should be the kiss of death.

Paul “persecuted” Christians. We can be more specific. Paul was a bounty hunter (whose payment was treasure in heaven). More, he terrorised the church – which makes him a terrorist, doesn’t it?

Scholars have spilt a lot of ink puzzling over Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”. A modern translation might help us tease out an answer: Paul’s “pain in the ass”. Then – context, context, context: a letter to those faultless Corinthians – the answer becomes obvious: the church itself! Grace sufficient and power made perfect in weakness indeed. 

Berry, Wendell – 
E-reader, Kindle – 
They don’t go together somehow. 
Unless he can use it to plough.

Some recent studies suggest that Facebook and Twitter are as addictive as alcohol and cocaine. With, however, none of the benefits.

Piscine culinary proverb: to sear the cod is the beginning of wisdom.

Synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a part represents the whole – as in (the example I always use) “Get your ass over here!”

Sermons are like apples. They come in sharp and sweet, crisp and soft, dry and juicy, and they ripen at different times of the year. And no one likes the core.

Parents, don’t try to teach your kids right from wrong. Rather show them how to detect bullshit and recognise beauty – i.e., show them what is real; oh, and bums – how funny they are, especially the squishy ones.

Marx memorably wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Events in the UK suggest that this observation now needs revision, as we experience a non-identical repetition of the neo-liberal policies of Margaret Thatcher. The “facts” remain tragic, perhaps more tragic than the original: (a) because in the aftermath of the greed-fuelled 2008 financial crisis, the contemporary Tory “there is no alternative” austerity mantra constitutes both an amnesty to the malefactors of the market as well as a punitive burden on its victims; (b) because there is no principled political alternative, as the coalition-partner Liberal Democrats are hopelessly compromised, while Labour remains ideologically contaminated and clueless; and (c) because I suspect that the Church of England under Justin Welby will not provide the kind of prophetic, not just letter-to-the-editor witness exercised under Robert Runcie and proclaimed in Faith in the City (1985). Marx, though, was right about the farce – which, however, you will find not in the “facts” but in the vaudevillian “personages” of the oligarchy.

The Bible remains a best-seller – despite the Sermon on the Mount. Or perhaps because of it – ear candy. 

Whatever the linguistic, grammatical, textual, and exegetical analyses, if in key Pauline passages pistis christou isn’t a subjective genitive, we’re all fucked. Karl Barth in Romans taught me that, and it’s been personally confirmed on every one of my nearly 13,000 days as an ever-falling follower of the Fast One.

Whenever shit happens, I think, “Where isn’t God in all this?”

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Heaven is a classroom: Origen's pedagogical theology

Of all the things I like about Origen, what I like best is that he is a teacher

We have the testimony of Eusebius that Origen was a distinctive and charismatic teacher. Eager students flocked to him. He taught them the whole sweep of Greek intellectual culture, allowing them to explore everything and anything. Nothing was off limits. "We took our fill of everything and enjoyed the good things of the soul", writes one student. By stages Origen would lead them through Greek philosophy, geometry, arithmetic, literature – until finally they came to the pinnacle of all learning, the interpretation of scripture. 

Origen's students loved him. He was called "philosophy's guide", a "divine man". Numbered among his pupils were not only bishops and scholars but also ascetics, saints, martyrs. 

In an infamous passage, Eusebius relates that Origen castrated himself in order to secure the trust of his female pupils and to ensure that his relationship with them was not misunderstood by others. The castration story (generally presumed to be apocryphal: let us hope so) would be shocking enough as a tale of heroic asceticism. But actually the point of the story, as Eusebius tells it, is not ascetic triumph over the body but simply a teacher's total commitment to pedagogy, to teaching and learning at any cost. Origen wants his female pupils to trust him implicitly; he is unwilling to let any obstacle get in the way.

To read Origen today is to follow the mind of a great teacher, boundless in curiosity, alert to difficulties, always on the lookout for opportunities to learn something new, always ready with an apt illustration to ease the burden of heavy concepts. Whatever he happens to be thinking about, you find him thinking like a teacher. His approach to exegesis, theology, prayer, the spiritual life – it is pedagogical through and through. And some of his most charming eccentricities come from his teacherly habit of mind.

If you take a group of people and ask them what they find most striking about the Gospel accounts of Jesus, I expect they'll mention his miracles, his supernatural powers, his return from death, perhaps his uncommon attentiveness and human warmth. But what amazes Origen most of all is Jesus' accomplishment as a teacher. Origen is stunned that Jesus could teach so well, and could fill the world with his teaching, in an educational career that lasted little more than a year. Good teaching requires constant improvement and growth; it takes years of practice to make a great teacher. How could anyone have been so good a teacher – the best teacher who ever lived – in just one year? Jesus is a pedagogical miracle: that's how Origen sees it.

And then there's heaven. If I ask you what heaven will be like, you'll perhaps mention light or harmony or happiness or feasting or some sort of über-erotic fulfillment. But when Origen tries to imagine the life of eternal blessedness, all he can think of is an everlasting classroom. We will sit down at heavenly desks in heavenly lecture rooms and Someone will lecture to us. In this manner our minds will be constantly enlarged, our hearts purified, as we spend eternal ages penetrating more and more deeply into the mysteries of divine Wisdom. To live eternally is to grow eternally: and you grow by learning. So, Origen reassures us warmly, heaven will be one long never-ending education.

Throw away your spurious monographs on "Eastern" and "Western" views of personhood; forget all those trite textbook distinctions between "Greek" and "Latin" doctrines of the Trinity. If you want to know the real substantive difference between the Greek and Latin theological traditions, here it is: St Augustine thinks of school as one of the most lamentable effects of the fall – school as hell on earth – whereas Origen thinks heaven will be school writ large. Now there's a division worth arguing about.

Even the most controversial part of Origen's theology – his universalism – is really just another byproduct of his pedagogical mindset. When Origen suggests that all the wicked, including the fallen angels, will eventually be saved and reconciled to God, it's not because he has a soft view of divine justice, or because he failed to notice all those biblical texts about fire and judgment. It's just that he can't believe anyone could suffer all those fiery torments without eventually learning something from the experience. Sure, you might start off in hell; but eventually that's got to teach you something – right? And so by learning you'll be purified, until eventually you make it up to heaven – that is, to the heavenly classroom where the "process of instruction and rational training" begins (First Principles, 2.3.1).

"A process of instruction and rational training": if that sounds dull to you it is only because you don't love learning the way Origen loves it. When our author wrote those words his body quivered with excitement. 

Origen knew scripture and the mysteries of the faith better than anyone. Yet he knew that all the learning of this life is only preparation for the life to come. Even the profoundest scholars are like children learning the alphabet; but one day we shall step through the doorway, and in that big bright classroom in the sky we will finally learn to read.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Letter to a pastor with cancer

My dear brother in Christ,

Tonight at church you told us you have cancer. We had gathered as we always do. To make time for God's eternity. To hear and say the great earth-shaking things. We sang the psalms and from our lips the mighty words rolled down like rivers, gushing up from ancient wells. One of us got up to read the parable of the prodigal. Our hearts were broken when he left his father's house, our hearts were glad when he turned his face towards home, our hearts were nearly bursting when his father ran to meet him, and when, to our amazement, he told the other son, We had to celebrate. We listened, we prayed. We brought gifts and silence; we brought our hearts and lives. We invoked the holy name of God. We tasted powers of the age to come.

But it was only after all this that you stood behind the great big open book and told us, quite calmly, that you have cancer. That it is aggressive. That the prognosis is not good. That your family is in shock. That your home is haunted by grief and questions. 

You told us you didn't want the cancer, you wished you didn't have it, but you are looking for the way of Christ in this. You told us this would be your new path of discipleship, a new form of following. You reminded us of the command repeated more than any other in our scriptures: Do not be afraid.

Some were weeping; I heard them. Your wife was crying too. You asked the congregation if you could lay your ministry aside a while to follow Christ down this new path. You asked (as if you needed it) our permission. You told us you would pray for us. You named the name of Jesus (a name you love), a strong name (as you have always loved to call it). 

When you spoke to me you said you wished you were high up at that friend's cabin, up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. You would rest yourself under a tree nine hundred years old, covered by its shade under the sacred silence. You said there is a place up there you love to walk, where if you leave the trail your footprints would be there a hundred years and in all that time no one would ever see them. 

You told me: Soon I will need prayers. Soon I will need that cabin in the mountains, the place my wife loves best. Soon I will need some serious margaritas.

Standing in the gathered congregation, you told us: In all this I hear Christ calling. You told us: I do not want this, but I want to know Christ and to follow where he leads. 

I thought: pastor. 

I thought: friend. 

I thought: O my brother. 

Pastor, brother, friend – I will pray for you. Each Friday I will go hungry, and hollow out my spirit so that the prayers come out clear and right. And just in case God will not hear me, I'll ask my children to pray too (for children cannot pray wrong, they don't know how to do it any way but right). 

You stood behind the Bible and addressed us with the Christ-light burning in your eyes. You raised your hands and voice in blessing and sent us out to follow in Christ's way. We sang the last song. I thought: another week, and then another, and then the Great Joy will be upon us. We will celebrate the Easter feast and sing the songs of death's defeat.

Tonight I saw death's shadow and was not afraid. The light I saw in your eyes was Easter light, my brother, and to the God of Easter morning I will pray. 

Yours, &c.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Dorty doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

The fool says in his heart that there is no God. But one who says in his heart that there is may also be a fool – and a hypocrite to boot. 

Calvin was a Cancer, Arminius was a Libra. It was never going to work out.

The turban often features in negative portrayals of Muslims. Interestingly (according to the OED), from the Persian dulband, via the Turkish tülbent, we get the English word tulip. Interestingly, because TULIP often features in the negative portrayal of Calvinists. Or rather some Calvinists; for example, Westminster Confession Calvinists. The difference is that the latter negative portrayal may be accurate.

Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not a single square inch of creation concerning which Christ does not say, ‘Mine!’” Which rather makes Jesus sound like a spoiled child clutching his ball on a playground. I think what Christ says is more like, “Mia casa, tua casa.”

In an earlier doodling I suggested that a Pelagian is an Augustinian is who has never grown up. I should add that there are also Augustinians who have never grown up – precisely because they think they have. And then there are Barthians and Williamses …

The difference between a Barth and a Piper is that the former glorifies God, the latter deifies Glory.

Barth famously suggested that we should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. There are, however, exceptions. For example, from preachers who occupy the pulpit with the AV and the Daily Mail you will hear sermons that manage to combine the unctuous and the odious.

I remember, as a convert, being YRR. Hell, I’m now ORR. But young or old, it is unseemly for the Reformed to be, in spirit, trop sérieux et grincheux

I think that the traditional furniture of Judgement is all wrong: I see God sitting in a rocking chair, not on a throne. How can you cwtch up to Tad on a throne?

On Matthew 3:11: John came with water to rid us of our sins; Jesus comes with fire to rid us of our virtues.

True Christian virtues may be described as “hobbits of the heart”.

We know the sanctity of a saint when we see one. If, stupidly, a church insists on sainthood being verified and ratified, surely it should not be by the dubious searching for and demonstration of a couple of miracles, but by the candid concession of shadows, weaknesses, sins.

In salvation-history there are pauses, breaks, excursuses, digressions – synaptic, dramatic, provocative, quirky – a succession of dashes, the holiest of punctuation marks, immortally enshrined in the poetry of St. Emily of Amherst –

God’s answer to prayer is: “Pray.”

“Please, Sir” / “Yes, Ma’am”: Gethsemane in inclusive language.

How Facebook Has Brought Me Closer to God; Tweety Bird: Microblogging with the Holy Spirit; and Social Networking: the New Reformation. Available soon from Screwtape Publishing House, in Christian bookshops near you.

It should hardly be surprising that the aggressive and violent make the best pacifists. After all, the sensual and passionate make the best monks.

Friends, on those extremely rare occasions when I poke the bear of the United States, remember that I am as American as Limbaugh, lynching, and lethal injection. And Lebowski, Little Big Horn, and left field.

Take ordinary Patriotism. Stew in a marinade of exceptionalism. Add ignorance, amnesia, fear, and lies. Stir vigorously. Grill under the intense heat of a national anthem, with its themes of battle and victory, written by a resentful ex-pacifist POW. Garnish with God. Voilà: Hatriotism. 

The Star-Spangled Banner is unsingable. It is also very hard to sing.

So the AFA is outraged by SNL’s trailer of Djesus Uncrossed. AFA, I share your pain and ire. With the NRA as a co-litigant, I’d sue for infringement of copyright.

Going to church to learn how to be a Christian can be like going to demolition derby to learn how to drive.

In the old Danish fairy tale, a child declares that an emperor has no clothes. In the contemporary British version, a writer suggests that a duchess has far, far too many. Both are statements of the bleedin’ obvious about royalty as spectacle and illusion – and both are denied by people mesmerised by the propaganda of its media sycophants.

No man is an island, but one island is a Man. Two, if you live in Wales: Barry (see Gavin and Stacey).

Burial or cremation? WWJD?


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