Prisons Lined with Cookies

For me, the prayer ‘lead us not into temptation’ means ‘drag me away from comparisons with others’. In that, I am asking God to overpower the algorithm which shapes my Facebook news feed. It’s there that I stalk ‘could have’s and ‘should have’s with an insatiable thirst. At which Facebook and all its advertisers rub their hands with glee. For with every click on a site that tells me about magical weight-loss pills and potions, what clothes I absolutely must wear in order to be free from shame this summer, and low-fat recipes (“only 5 ingredients! And each only £8.99 each!”- seriously what is agave syrup when it’s at home, and no, dates do not taste like caramel and bananas do not taste like pancakes), there will be more where that came from next time I visit. I.e. 30 seconds later. With cookies following me across the internet (somewhat ironic for someone with a history of disordered eating), I reap what I sow. The harvest reeks of needless self-loathing.

The echo-chamber of social media is dangerous for countless reasons. The effects on our political sphere, civil speech, and social cohesion have been torturously obvious and much discussed (c.f. the last 18 months). But when you have a tendency to be your own worst enemy, and to entrench that self click by masochistic click, that echo chamber can become something of a hellish cavern. And there is no way to click the light in.

My Facebook news feed thrives on urgency: sales are always ending, the world is always on the brink of collapse in as many respects as I have ‘friends’. And I must act NOW. Or rather, I must click. For all that I hear about are issues that I feel powerless to act upon, and so my sense of agency is greatest when I am spoken to as a consumer rather than a citizen. The click-despair-repeat cycle goes on until, who knows, I might just cave and buy that agave syrup if only to feel like I fit in with the foodie bloggers whose ‘slice-of-life’s are sickly sweet. I rarely hear about how I could actually help those close to me, what they need and how they feel. Because rather than using our ‘friendship’ as a covenantal commitment that unites us across time, we look more like sandwich boards than people. We are all Jeremiahs, without the promise of hope.

Jeremiah 33:6-9

‘The time will come when I will heal Jerusalem’s wounds and give it prosperity and true peace. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and Israel and rebuild their towns. I will cleanse them of their sins against me and forgive all their sins of rebellion. Then this city will bring me joy, glory, and honor before all the nations of the earth! The people of the world will see all the good I do for my people, and they will tremble with awe at the peace and prosperity I provide for them.’

As I said in the wake of a recent election: any time you wanna take over Jesus.

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Why Christmas is for Babies (and that means us)

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I go into Advent empty. Normally I enjoy taking apart cultural constructions and showing the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, as it were. It turns out the same is true of me. Solid ground and certainties seem to bend in the wind, or disappear entirely. The brazenness of ambition has crumpled. Pretences at autonomy look ridiculous. I overestimated the manipulability of life; I underestimated its rawness.

You can tell as much by the objects of my envy. A long-time melancholic, when I was little, one of my favourite stories in our book of fairytales was The Little Match Girl. She is out on a winter’s night desperately trying to sell matches to no avail, and too afraid to go home empty-handed. To try to keep herself warm, she lights her matches one by one, and in their glow, she sees visions of happy families around a christmas tree, or a dinner table. They’re beautiful delusions, which burn up her source of warmth too quickly, and… it doesn’t end happily. Like her, I hold up a metaphorical candle to other people’s lives.  Faced with images of bejewelled ring fingers, with news of people my age seven rungs up the career ladder, and tales of people more spontaneous than I jetting off to sunnier climes on a moment’s notice, I feel an outsider. Theirs is holy ground I decide. There safety lies. So I look for a star to guide me. They aren’t hard to find- self-proclaimed perfect gifts promise glowing relationships, ‘top christmas hacks’ guarantee total control, and an inundation of Facebook events signpost the way out of loneliness. The sky is positively buzzing with angels, robustly singing their own hallelujahs.

And so I forget that emptiness is a blessed state, that Jesus came for the hollowed-out ones. ‘Inside’ isn’t a sociodemographic space: it’s a touch. We see that in the Gospel of Luke, himself a Gentile outsider among a cast of Jewish writers, when he lists one after the other, how the demoniac living among the tombs was healed, then the bleeding woman, then a young girl brought to life. All ritually unclean; all touched, made whole, and given community again. A fourth-century Latin definition of God- ‘an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere’- reminds me that the Divine treads ground that I am too precious to go near. For alongside this cosmic majesty, the Divine comes to us in ‘the scandal of the particular’ (Walter Brueggemann): He was incarnated at a specific time, in a specific place, read, wore, touched, ate specific things. All the more special because of the utterly unremarkableness of those specifics, and so unlike the PR machine of today’s ‘hallelujahs’. In taking on not only particularity, but babyhood- the epitome of vulnerability- it might be expected that Jesus’ birth would be met with feelings of superiority and pride by those around him. After all, they know how to speak, walk, cook, clean, take care of Him. Yet something made them aware, even wavering Joseph, that this life was not theirs to control- the fathers of Jesus and John the Baptist didn’t even get to choose their son’s names, unheard of in those times- because it was not of their making. Quite the reverse.

When I think of my life, I think of it in terms of schedules and lists, something to be handled and hacked, borne with and managed. But when I hold a baby, the foolishness- the childishness even- of all that strikes me clearly. A baby is a bundle of not-yets, it is all hope. It is life unhindered, unencumbered, free by virtue of its dependency. A newborn knows nothing of societal structures and norms, and yet it lives! And so all those absolute imperatives and urgent necessities that I think life depends on are (in that most momentary of moments, for I am a forgetful one) turned upside down. I have mistaken the baubles for the tree. And I am reminded of how carving up and classifying the world, labelling some parts ‘mine’, some parts ‘inside’, others ‘outside’, drains that life from us, and reduces our recognition of it in others.

But though all babies are bundles of potentials, it is a trembling, limited hope they they carry- circumscribed by their humanness, their mortality, and the pressures that will soon bear down upon them. We hope things for them– that they might be loved and free, but they cannot make us hope for the world. This Christmas baby is different. He is our hope, He comes to make possible our not-yets and should-have-beens, and He is constrained- by a womb, by a body, by a cross- that we might be free.

A new start, a cornerstone, a guiding light. All wrapped into one and laid in a manger.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

Matthew 5:3-5

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Remember Remember (Sectarian Violence and Triumphalist Uses of Torture)

ad_119747640Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.

 

‘Gunpowder, treason and plot’…. Or ‘hey kids, Halloween doesn’t have the monopoly on subversion and sensationalism’. Who needs Wicca when you can have civic religion…

It’s easy to look forward to the sparklers, the toasted marshmallows, the smell of woodsmoke and the cosy feeling of mittens and scarves, and forget why we are all gathering to essentially burn money metres above our heads (known as ‘fireworks’ to the less cynical).

Of course the to-do is in a worthy cause: the capture, torture and execution of a terrorist/ freedom-fighter over 410 years ago. And not just any terrorist/ freedom-fighter… but a Catholic one. And so what the to-do is really about, the reason any collective remembers something for over four centuries, is because the moment when Guy Fawkes signed his confession, Protestants the land over knew they were in the right. God- whose actions and preferences are as easily readable as if we had His Amazon wishlist and Netflix history- was on our side.

Of course, He was happy to overlook the use of violence and state-administered murder, because when Jesus commanded that we ‘love our enemies’, He was clearly underestimating how very, very bad our enemies were, and how very much we could be trusted with judging others.

And so the day became cemented in the early modern Church calendar- a reason to bring out your ‘God loves Protestants and hates all the people we hate’ sermon, and blame Catholics for every disaster befalling the world. (Because, again, the mind of God is like an easily followable Twitter stream, and any good theology starts with convenience not humility).

  • Side note: I personally am glad of the Reformation, but I am more glad of the fact that God loved Martin Luther, and Guy Fawkes and Pope Leo X with the same eternal passion.

Of course, God was in the torture chamber as an old hand all those centuries ago. Not egging on the man holding the thumbscrews, Himself with a penchant for arbitrary acts of destruction. But as a fellow victim of violence wrought by an insecure (and hence overly aggressive) state, as one who knew the pain of iron and malice driven into his palm.

And while we engage in our millennia-old war on fear (since rebranded the war on terror, because everything needs updating since the internet) which, in this case, involves re-enacting the death of one long dead for all the catharsis that could bring, God must be baffled. For He thought He had handled that one on our behalf. So why do we keep scrabbling about with death-threats and scapegoats. Human rage never could bring an end to fear- not in the form of the Stuarts’ rack, nor in any other weaponry before or since.

The only thing that could quench it was ego-less, self-sacrificial love, that cared little for being seen to be right, and infinitely for righting others’ wrongs.

That sort of forgiveness seems to be a perfectly good reason why the 5th of November can ‘be forgot’. And of course, bad grammar is another.

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Sorry Seems to be the Rarest Word

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘take back control’ slogan used by the EU Leave campaign, and how it resonated with a power that Remain’s economic arguments perhaps never could. It seems to echo Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election promise to “get government off our backs”. In his Election Eve address, he articulated sentiments which the Leave Campaign would also speak into 36 years later : “many Americans today, just as they did 200 years ago, feel burdened, stifled and sometimes even oppressed by government that has grown too large, too bureaucratic, too wasteful, too unresponsive, too uncaring about people and their problems”.

Personally, I don’t think the cause of the prevalent feelings of powerlessness is the E.U., just as I don’t think it was caused in the 1980s by social welfare/ security systems in Britain or the U.S.A.  I think this quotation by Paul Verhaeghe- otherwise highly critical of religion- really hits the nail on the head:

“Until recently, the West possessed a tradition of authority symbolically vested in individuals (‘Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother’). Representatives of authority were themselves subject to the system, and could also be held accountable. These days, we live in a world where power is anonymous and cannot be localised, and therefore no longer exercises any moral authority. Much more importantly, it can also no longer be called to account.”

Being able to wag a finger only at a brand that can never hear or see. rather than put a person through the justice system, leaves me at least with directionless resentment. Sometimes we long to see repercussions rather than have reports of fraud, corruption or abuse of power lose their shock factor for being lost among piles of other headlines and Buzzfeed trivia.

Nigel Farage, for instance, refused to apologise for the ‘Breaking Point’ poster, saying he couldn’t “apologise for the truth”. The picture was in fact of migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border, not the Channel- true, perhaps, but irrelevant and misleading. Later, he refused to apologise for claiming that the £350 million we would otherwise send to the EU would be used for the NHS instead if we voted Brexit. He said it was “one of the mistakes the Leave campaign made”, rather than admitting responsibility himself. Similarly, Boris Johnson said he would not apologise for a “rich thesaurus” of insults levelled at foreign leaders, despite now being Foreign Minister. It would, he said, “take too long”. And a book has recently been published called Too Big: The Mega-Banks Are Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Jail, and Too Big to Manage, suggesting that because of their vital role in our economy, corporate crime (including ‘HSBC’s global money laundering operations for tyrants and drug lords’) go insufficiently punished.

It’s common to read that someone ‘distanced themselves’ from a previous wrongdoing. Who needs ‘I’m sorry’ when you can just shrug your shoulders.

The difference with the revelation of a God who took on human form to take the punishment for the world’s sins could not be more stark.

Imagine if President Erdoğan instead of purging tens of thousands from schools, the judiciary and the armed forces, as punishment for the failed coup against him last weekend took the fall himself. (After all, questioning God’s authority is one way to think of sin). It’s that topsy-turvy.

I get why people reject a deistic God. A God who creates and then is overcome by lethargy for billions of years despite the unleashing of chaos and cruelty across that creation deserves to be held to account. Which is exactly what cannot be done to a distant, deistic God. Hence the contrast with the God who made himself known in Jesus.

It is an oft-repeated phrase: “Jesus died to pay the price for our sins”. But put it this way: God made us with freedom so that we could love truly and create and innovate and mature. Yet freedom also means the power to hate and destroy. God then held himself to account for each abuse of that freedom, each wrong choice. It was not out of regret for having created free creatures- for what loving parent ever regrets having a child when they prove to be imperfect. It was, as always God acts, out of love.

A sobering and heart-melting reminder of what authority can be used for.

Philippians 2:5-8:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature  of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”

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Leaving Up To Their Name

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A poster stands inside the Leave.EU campaign headquarters, a party campaigning against Britain’s membership of the European Union, in London, U.K., on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Britain’s economy could be thrown off track by the planned referendum on European Union membership, according to the Confederation for British Industry. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

 

In many cultures, including Jewish, a person’s name influences their character. Jacob was the grasper as his name suggested. And both Joshua, and later Jesus, held firm to the meaning of their name: “YAHWEH is salvation”. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the leadership of the Leave Campaign have all, well, left. First Farage, then Boris, then Gove, and now Leadsom. Maybe the Daily Mail has recently published an article on how the limelight gives you cancer. Maybe the underdog is allowed to b-s, and poetic license looks better on billboards and buses than it does inside Cabinet. Regardless, the control we were supposed to be ‘taking back’ has never felt so out of reach as when an economic crisis looks nigh and the premiership is handed over to someone not even elected by their own party let alone the nation as a whole. I thought it was meant to be the E.U that was undemocratic…

Cynicism aside, it is a reminder of why the tenacity of biblical relationships is actually a good thing, even when treating people and promises like any other disposable product is culturally accepted (Hollywood seems to reason that adultery is okay if the protagonist does it because y’know, feelings, but totally out of order if the protagonist’s partner does it). At innumerable points in the biblical story, human logic would have determined that God should have cut his losses and given up on trying to redeem humanity. From the get-go, distrust, pride, selfishness, cruelty, and exploitation abound. Heaven-sized reserves of patience must be necessary to cope with our myopic vision.

Jesus could have ousted some of his disciples when they seemed proud and snooty, or when they tried to redirect Jesus’ path away from the cross. Jesus himself could, in the face of mocking cynicism, proved that his humility was chosen from the throne of heaven rather than simple weakness.

Paul could have cut all ties with the Corinthian church when it permitted incest, or the Galatian and Ephesian churches when false teachings took hold there.

If things aren’t going your way, quit. If it didn’t turn out as you expected, call it a day. Don’t waste your precious time on people and projects that don’t make you happy. On one level, that sounds delightful (and I certainly do agree that walking away is at times the best way of showing love). As a perfectionist, setting fire to the mess sounds far more preferable to learning to live with and even love it. But then, what we admire and find inspiring in other people’s stories is not the cut-and-run, but the relationships that endure through thick and thin. The leaders of the Leave campaign is the subject of so much scorn, because without the ability to rewrite reality, we need the commitment of our co-authors. Perhaps, if Eve was Adam’s ‘ezer’ (helper/ strength), and it was not good for man to be alone, then part of that “not good” was the feeling of helplessness, especially in times when God feels distant.

Take Ruth, for example, a book that does not even mention God. It is through her wholehearted commitment to Naomi that their grief and poverty are redeemed.

Ruth 1:16-17

But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

The tenacity of grace can give us hope.

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And The Victory Goes to: Fear

Welcome to a post-truth, fear-fuelled political stage. After months of campaigning which preyed on the public’s primal emotions, rather than making good use of their high level of education, Nigel Farage claimed that Leave’s victory had validated their stand against lies and exaggerations. And thereby, he must have relied on our busyness, our constant inundation with information, and therefore our memories buckling under the weight, to rewrite recent history.

This is perhaps what scares me most of all. If leaving the EU means we are entering unchartered territory, most of all, I need to know exactly what is happening, where we are heading, and who is being hurt as a result. I don’t think I can trust any political or media institution to do that anymore.

The real victor- the one who would have won whether we stayed or left- is a mindset of scarcity. There aren’t enough jobs, there isn’t enough space, there isn’t enough control, said Leave. And sometimes poking through in the Remain camp: there aren’t enough logically minded Left-wingers to counteract bigotry. And with a victory to fear, we can expect that our deepest insecurities will be played upon and preyed upon for the foreseeable future- not just by politicians, but by everyone in whose (economic) interest it is to make us feel vulnerable and weak.

On a minibus of Year 11 students yesterday, conversation turned to the Referendum, and the atmosphere was imbued with anxiety. I was asked by international students if they were going to be deported; what would they do for university; whether this meant Donald Trump would win the U.S elections. The unspoken question behind one girl’s quivering expression: ‘what have we done wrong?’ On the contrary, dear one, you have been wronged: for before you have even put both feet into the world, you have been taught that it is scary. You have been taught that it is weak to trust. You know to be guarded.

My prayer for the Church is that we would hold onto hope in the face of fearmongering. Too often, Christians buy into the mindset of scarcity and project onto God an impatience, an intolerance, and a guarded heart that seems to have little to do with the Jesus of the Gospels. Living a life of accepting God’s love and returning it to the world depends upon vulnerability. That means being open to being hurt, but not being controlled by dread of that eventuality, for we know that we are held eternally within an unquenchable love.

2 Timothy 1:7

 “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

If we are scared, we cannot be peacemakers. If we are not vulnerable, we cannot be blessed.

The Beatitudes in Eugene Peterson’s translation:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom”

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The Rural Heart of God

 

Now, well into a tyrannical reign- the right amount of “well into” for the beginning to feel immeasurably long ago, and the end equally far off- when power was centralised far off on another continent, there was a puppet ruler of this place to whom regional loyalties meant diddly squat. (One might substitute ‘In the umpteenth year of the supremacy of transnational corporations, there was a democratically elected government which furthered the interests primarily not of the people in their care but of said TNCs). In that time, power and privilege felt unshakeable, and there was surely no way that a bunch of illiterate landworkers and fishermen could make the slightest bit of difference to the impenetrable armour of money and racial prejudice. In that time, there was a religious centre to match the political one, a religious hierarchy to match the political one, and everyone else from everywhere else could go do one.

And the word of God came to none of them.

“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,  in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.  And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The word of God came to the middle of nowhere. And from thence it changed the world.

(I remind myself of this as a country-bumpkin job-hunter, disenchanted with how all career-roads lead to London. There lies concentrated all the noise, and hot air, and hurried paces, and cold stares, and pickpockets (we’ll always have platform 15 at Victoria)…                       and all the organisations that I would give my eye-teeth to work for.)

Praise be to the God who subverts regional and socioeconomic inequalities, and raises workers not through perpetuating privilege, but from seeds, soil and the Sea of Galilee.

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