Being in Spain on retreat for the month, I can only follow the World Cup very much at a distance but even I couldn’t fail to get a little caught up in England’s dramatic penalty shoot out last night. I went online around full time to see the result and was pleased to see England winning 1-0. Before I could log out though the drama began – a late equaliser in stoppage time – here we go again I and many others were thinking. A tense extra time with Columbia rejuvenated… and then the penalties themselves. Morale was sinking – England have never won in such a situation…and they are the first to miss and we feel stuck in the well worn script. But then the surprise. .. they win…
I shouldn’t have doubted but I did. How appropriate that this all happened on the feast day of St Thomas the apostle. Even as I found myself saying ‘I can’t believe it’ I realised I was echoing some historic words from someone else who seemed caught up in the inevitability of disappointment. Thomas was surprised by Jesus appearing exactly in the place where a week previously he had insisted that unless he touched the very wounds of Jesus he would not believe. ‘Come and touch the wounds’ said Jesus ‘and then believe’.
I’m sure that last night touched the wounds of many a football supporter – 52 years of hurt and all that – but then came the surprise. That’s resurrection. Just as we are caught up in the inevitability of disappointment we are surprised. Sometimes God’s surprises hit us in the face as in the case of Thomas. Sometimes they are more subtle and need sniffing out in mindful attention. We need to make sure we are spotting them. A lot of what being here on a thirty day retreat is about is really taking time to see what God is doing in my life and the world around me, to notice his surprises. In fact they are more sure than England winning a penalty shoot out.
Finally lets remember to pray for the Columbians… After all we know how they’re feeling.
Oliver Wendell Holmes is attributed with this insightful quote. “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
The simplicity this side of complexity tries to make life more simple than it actually is. It is what many now see as the wilful simplicity that was inflicted on the electorate before the EU referendum, making out that leaving Europe would be a magical panacea for ‘getting our country back again’ – whatever that means – and the recovery of untold millions being wasted on Europe and its institutions. The complex web of relationships, benefits and difficulties was airbrushed out of the picture for the sake of some generalised feeling of ‘life is difficult and it’s all the fault of Europe’. The full extent of the complexity is now becoming apparent as the Brexit negotiations crawl forward and the government struggles to agree with itself, let alone Europe.
However I would argue that the remain campaign also failed in so much as it was not able to articulate ‘the simplicity on the other side of complexity’. Beyond the arguments around the single market, and immigration and all the issues where Europe brings costs and benefits there needed to be a vision of partnership that owned the complexity but was not compromised by it, but rather contained it as part of a greater meaning and purpose.
It is no different in the church. We can swing from easy certainties about God, the gospel, church growth or human sexuality to seemingly muddled complexities about theology, morality or ecclesiology where no-one knows quite what we stand for. There are hard questions to face wherever we turn and we do well to articulate them. However there is a confidence in God beyond the particular issues and which is in fact diminished if we make everything all too buttoned up and clear. I believe that Jesus and the apostles brought a simplicity to their message about the kingdom of God, the supremacy of love and the assurance of grace that acts as a foundation for everything else.
There will be a lot more to say about many things, but they must not obscure the foundation. That’s why within our life here at Launde, we place great value on silence. Silence helps us to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity, to live the essentials, to know God and ourselves before we argue for this way or that. Silence anchors us in the love of God, and from there we are more able to enter the complexities of life more honestly and effectively and with less need to get our own way or have it all sorted.
‘Christ is risen’ we cry each Easter, yet this year with Easter Day being April 1st it was easy to highlight the foolishness of it all just as the first disciples did when told the news by the women. It was T.S.Eliot who began The Wasteland with the line “April is the cruellest month..” in order to show the pain of hope as the natural world comes to life again. We cannot risk hoping too lightly.
Yet if Christ is risen, if Easter is real then we have to start risking new perspectives. We cannot just carry on with the assumption that that situation is always going to be like that, or that this person will never change. If Jesus has risen from the dead then anything becomes possible in this mixed up world we live in. No wonder the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians “from now on we regard no-one from a worldly point of view”.
The late Lesslie Newbigin put it like this: “It is obvious that the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed into any worldview except one of which it is the starting point… It is a boundary event, at the point where (as cosmologists tell us) the laws of physics ceased to apply. It is the beginning of a new creation – as mysterious to human reason as the creation itself.”
So it challenges us to ask what rules we want to live by. Recently I was thinking and praying about the state of the country. I will freely own that in relation to Europe I voted to remain. Apart from the economic case, it seems to me essential in today’s world to live interdependently and co-operatively with our immediate neighbours, who basically share our values and Christian heritage. However that is water under the bridge, and we are on the way to leaving. So the challenge that came into my mind was ‘Did I want Brexit to be a success?’ In essence it boiled down to whether I wanted the country to prosper and succeed from here on, or to be proved right in my assessment that Brexit was a bad decision.
I will confess that it is not easy to countenance certain politicians triumphantly milking any future prosperity as the vindication of the leave decision. But I knew deep down that wasn’t really the point. The real issue was whether I wanted the world to run on the basis simply of getting things right or wrong, or whether I wanted the resurrection to be the shape of human life and destiny. If it was the latter, then a new and good future was possible whatever the precise merits or failings of our human decisions and actions. Far more important than me or anyone else being proved right was praying for resurrection to be revealed in this and every situation.
To proclaim ‘Christ is risen’ is to live by new rules, by the power of God to make all things new. That means letting go of all merely human assessments and inevitabilities. It means daring to hope.
It is a year since we moved here to Launde Abbey and all I can remember is warm sunshine, carpets of flowers and the anticipation of spring. By contrast this year we have been grappling with snow, blocked roads, and winter hanging on.
While I’m glad that our move didn’t have to contend with such adverse weather and it has been testing to be cut off here around five times this winter, I’ve tried to challenge myself not just to see snow as an inconvenience and disruption to our everyday lives, and look for the blessings. So I offer you the ten blessings of snow….
- Everything looks beautiful. There is a transfiguration of the world around us as all things become white and shine with a dazzling brightness.
- It is indiscriminate in its transforming power. The ugliest building or mess is touched equally as the most beautiful landscape. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”
- There is a disarming silence – the busy world is hushed. More than just the absence of traffic, there is a dampening of noise and an arresting stillness that awakes an inner attentiveness.
- We are humbled by its abundance and power. “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?” the Lord asks Job. It inspires awe at the natural world.
- Everyone has to slow down. Driving has to measured and steady, footsteps carefully taken, journeys take their time. We cannot rush.
- It makes us prepare. We may not be able to get to the shops, or the delivery van may not get through. Instant availability gives way to anticipation and patient waiting. I’m glad we bought a four wheel drive.
- It creates community. We need each other, to look out for the vulnerable, to push the car, to dispel anxiety by companionship and reassurance.
- We remember to play. We build the snowman, fetch out the sledge or throw a snowball at the boss.
- We are grateful for the little things that we can so easily take for granted – the warming cup of tea, the thoughtful neighbour, the radio or television.
- It melts. It doesn’t last for ever, and usually quite soon the colours of things re-emerge, the daily routine is recovered and life returns to normal…. Or at least a normality that has been touched and even changed by the ten blessings of snow.
The lectionary last Sunday took us to the sublime opening of John’s gospel. We only usually read it at Christmas so it was a treat to be able to give it the attention it deserves on a ‘normal’ Sunday outside the razzamatazz of carols and cribs and nativity plays. Its central message seems so pertinent still today – “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”.
The phenomenon of Brexit and Trump which still continues to dominate our news day by day has generated a whole lot of new phrases about the nature and reliability of truth. It was back in 1986 when the then cabinet secretary used the memorable euphemism ‘economical with the truth’ but we have gone further now into the so-called ‘post-truth’ society characterised by ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.
Post-truth was one of the new words entering the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016 with the definition: ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ The president of Oxford Dictionaries was quoted as saying “Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source, and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.. I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.”
Post-truth seems to be saying that we don’t really care about facts. We’ve seen it in political discourse where huge claims are made with very little factual reality. But then many people it seems have lost faith in established politicians or experts. They don’t trust their so-called facts. Globalisation has not delivered for them so they are ready to throw over the system for the sake of something which just feels better. We enter a post truth society.
I have some sympathy. Facts can be cold and hard. We can be overwhelmed by reality, about the world, about our country, about ourselves. We want something more relational, more understanding, more sympathetic. That for me is where John’s gospel comes in. ‘The word became flesh…. full of grace ’. God comes to us not just with commands or doctrine or philosophical insight. He comes as a human being and he comes full of grace – accepting, merciful, forgiving, loving.
But it doesn’t stop there. He comes full of grace and truth. He starts where we are – but then wants to lead us into a more honest reality. So as Christians we look not so much for a post truth society as a pre-truth society. We affirm the importance of truth, but before it we say there is relationship, there is grace, there is the welcoming face of God in Jesus Christ. God comes to us with love, understanding and patience. When we receive and trust Him, then we embark on the adventure of reality and truth and transformation.
I thought I knew, at least technically, what hospitality was before I came to Launde Abbey but a few months here has taught me that I have a great deal to learn.Â Hospitality is not just about offering a welcome, good food, kindness and a lovely bedroom in which to stay the night.Â Hospitality is first and foremost about an interior attitude, a generosity of spirit that has real intentionality about it.
At Launde Abbey we welcome different individuals and different groups almost daily.Â Every guest is unique.Â Every group has its own set of unique needs.Â The differences inevitably set up tensions inside us but I believe these tensions are there for us to work with creatively and in doing so to begin to understand the outrageous hospitality that is the essence of the gospel.
What I noticed was happening inside me after I had lived here for a few months was that I was taking on ownership of Launde Abbey in an emotional way.Â This was hardly surprising.Â I live here, this is my home.Â It is also a space made sacred by our visitorsÂ desires, needs, attitudes and actions.Â It is a place that needs to be safeguarded and as such I felt it should be treated in such and such a way.Â But this is where I realised I needed to be careful.Â I was becoming possessive of the place and in my attitude I was in danger of becoming the church Âpolice.ÂÂ Â I didnÂt realise it but I was closing down inside myself to some of the people who come.Â I was not being outrageously hospitable.
Some groups are Christian in a way that I recognise and feel at home with.Â Others are travelling in a way that I donÂt always understand.Â Some people love silence.Â Others long for communication.Â Some people come to Launde avowedlyÂ Ânon-ChristianÂ, Ânon-spiritual,ÂÂ or Ânon-religious.ÂÂ They simply want to use the facilities which they appreciate usually very much.Â Others simply donÂt appear to want or value what I value.Â This I recognised can hurt.Â It can feel like a rejection of myself.Â
But I am now recognising that the invitation Christ offers in his gospel is to look beyond the superficial understanding of hospitality which I spoke of in the opening paragraph.Â In his life Jesus opened his arms wide to all those who didnÂt play the religious game as those who ran the organisation thought they should.Â He healed on the Sabbath.Â He allowed his disciples to pick ears of corn on the Sabbath and eat them, to eat with unwashed hands.Â Jesus touched lepers, ate with those who most certainly would have made us feel very uncomfortable had we lived then, and washed dirty sweaty feet.Â He absolutely and consciously broke the accepted social rules of hospitality and in his teaching and behaviour went straight to the heart of the matter.Â True hospitality lives in the place where we put ourselves out Â out of our comfort zones and into a place of vulnerability.Â True hospitality is putting myself in another personÂs skin: seeing the world though their eyes.Â True hospitality is in the heart.Â It is the conscious and intentional opening of ourselves to the other and making the stranger the friend.