By the waters

It being the first day of the month, it was time for Pray In The Sea. Inspired by Ourvoices.net, this was something we did in Brighton in 2014 and 2015, and we have revived it this year – after all, climate change has not gone away and the average sea level continues to rise. We meet just after low tide and stand in or near the sea, edging back as the tide rises. We keep silence for about 20 minutes, which means that it’s open to anyone of any or no religious practice or affiliation, and then there’s the opportunity to share any thoughts with the others, and that’s it.

2015.10.01 Praying for planet. Brighton beach 2This picture shows the time, in October 2015, when we were joined by Maina Taila from Tuvalu and Rev. Maleta Tenten from Kiribati. This was especially poignant, as the Pacific islands had been a particular focus for us, as they are so vulnerable to the rising sea. Also in this picture are a couple who were just walking along the beach, saw our banner and joined in.

Today, even though it was May Day, the sea was grey and wild, with dark threatening clouds scudding across in a cold easterly wind. I was thinking about Maina and Maleta and their island communities, where people are already leaving their ancestral homes for the safety of places like New Zealand. I thought about the people who are still, daily, crossing the Mediterranean to escape famine, drought, war, poverty or whatever other reason is so great as to force someone to leave their home and spend everything and risk everything to seek a different life in a new land. In a new land, their accent and perhaps skin colour will always mark them out as a foreigner. They will have to work hard to learn a new language and learn the unspoken rules of a new culture; they will have to work hard just to survive. As the West becomes increasingly hostile to migrants and refugees, they may never feel welcome and may never feel truly at home again. How does it feel to look out on an angry sea, across which a new but hard life may await, knowing that you can’t go back to an old life that civil war or climate change has destroyed?

Mucking about on my banjo yesterday, I discovered how to play Don McLean’s ‘Babylon‘ (capo at 3rd fret – seems obvious when you know). “By the waters, the waters of Babylon / We laid down and wept, and wept, for thee, Zion / We remember thee, remember thee, remember thee, Zion.” The Jewish exiles in Babylon, as described in Psalm 137, felt very homesick, to the point where they couldn’t sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land and hung up their harps on the willows. There is some linguistic fluidity in the psalm between the words Jerusalem and Zion. In verses 5-6, which perhaps express most deeply how far from home the exiles felt, it is Jerusalem that they vow never to forget. But in verse 1, they remember Zion, and in verse 3, their captors ask for “One of the songs of Zion.” In the bible, Zion is often simply an alternative name for Jerusalem, perhaps referring to the hill on which Solomon built the temple. But sometimes, Zion also takes on a greater symbolism to speak in ideal terms of, say, the messianic kingdom, and this utopian sense gets reflected in later thought, for example in modern Zionism, or in the spirituals of American slaves, or in the songs of Rastafari reggae. Zion becomes a metaphor for an ideal homeland yet to come. So, going back to Psalm 137, there was a challenge to the exiles not to hang up their harps in (understandable) sadness and despair, but to learn how to sing, in a foreign land, the songs of Zion: songs of the world to come when they would be free. For the exile who has hope, home is not where you came from, or where you are, but where you’re going.

As I stood by the waters of Brighton this morning, I thought that a similar challenge presents itself to climate activists and anyone else who feels that the world is not as it should be and longs for a better world. I think it’s to do with acknowledging the sense of dissonance we feel – that sense of being out of step with a narcissistic consumer culture – and making something creative of that sense. It’s about identifying yourself as an exile, a foreigner, a migrant, whilst living in this culture and participating in it for the common good – but always with a foreign accent and always out of step, always finding the cultural norms weird and un-natural, always refusing to assimilate. It’s odd because we are exiles within the culture we have left – it’s an inner migration but with an outward effect. The challenge is about learning to sing the songs of Zion in this foreign land: imagining how a world of justice, peace and life in its fullness might look in its different aspects, and putting that vision into conversation, song, story, poetry, art and a life lived out of step with what is, but in step with what we hope for. And I wonder if standing by (or in) the waters and weeping because of the distance between Babylon and Zion is the beginning of learning the songs of Zion and the journey home.

My feet in the sea

The Lord’s Prayer

Rowan Williams, in his book ‘Being Disciples’, makes an interesting link between the line in the Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” and the succeeding lines about forgiveness. I struggle to follow Rowan Williams a lot of the time, probably because I’m not one of your natural mystics. (For all the time I spend staring at trees, I would find it difficult to articulate what’s going on for me in those encounters beyond simply finding it spiritually satisfying). However, what Williams wrote did feel profound and these are the thoughts I’ve been having in the days since reading it.

First of all, I have grown to like the Lord’s Prayer. I started using it more frequently a few years ago when reading about St Francis of Assisi. I like St Francis because he liked animals. I like animals. Apparently Francis told the Friars to say the Lord’s Prayer 24 times when they prayed. I find the prayer says all that needs to be said, and very succinctly and helps keep my rambling prayer-thoughts on track. In particular, I think that the double-sided forgiveness clause is a stroke of genius, connecting my attitude towards those who have wronged me to my hope that God will forgive me, and describing a life lived in grace towards God and towards the world. The perfect tense in Matthew’s gospel challenges me – I ask for forgiveness “as [I] have forgiven.” It’s not a pledge of vague intention, but a statement of completed deeds, which is presented as the model for God’s forgiveness of me. The language of debts and debtors (not sins or trespasses) also seems to root forgiveness in the real, material world. I might forgive you for the way you spoke to me, but I’d still appreciate having the ten pounds you owe me – they’re two quite different things … unless you’re Jesus, in which case they’re not. I think that, for Jesus, spiritual and material were like dimensions of one reality, in the same way that thoughts and actions were dimensions of one real person.

The debt thing leads back to the daily bread. If I am praying for my daily bread, trusting God for my needs, then why would I borrow, either from a neighbour or from the future? Racking up a debt would indicate that I have not been content to live within the gift God has given. God’s provision is enough, but it doesn’t always feel like it. The present moment is enough, but I worry a lot about the future and fret about the past. On the flip side, if I am content with God’s gift of today, why would I lend to you? Who cares about tomorrow, or next year, when in each day, God provides? I should just share today’s bread with you, because it’s “Give us…” So it seems that the radical trust involved in living in the grace of what God has given is wrapped up with not finding ways to get more for myself and not keeping accounts with others, but letting the grace ebb and flow around and everyone will have enough. It seems like a very gentle way of life, and contrasts hugely with the way the world is, where some of us accumulate so much at such great cost to other people, animals, plants and the earth itself.  Jesus’ alternative seems very liberating to me, but a long way from where I am.

The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew’s gospel (Luke’s version doesn’t count because he’s missed half of it out while his mind wandered – so much for ‘Lord, teach us to pray’). Nigel Wright says that Matthew presents the story of Jesus – including his teaching – as a framework within which we may learn to live as his followers. To me, it’s as if within the grace and truth embodied in Jesus, there’s a broad space where we can live free. Jesus’ teaching can be hard, and his example is near-impossible, but it’s not a test to fail or a stick to beat yourself with. It’s a gift from God, with trust and forgiveness and love at the heart of it – a broad space within which life is given and received, hallowed and enjoyed.

There are parallels in the older covenant. The Torah, the Law of Moses, is not just a collection of commandments against which your life is to measured. It’s five books of stories, including some great stories (and some terrifying stories), about people and the God who made a covenant with them, within which life can be lived as a gift of God’s liberating grace. I think that engaging with the Law in its wholeness teaches how you can live free by God’s grace: not just the commands but letting the larger story live as your story, inhabiting the story just as you might inhabit the land itself as a gift.

I think it might be the same with Jesus. The Christian life may be less about some transaction when a holy man was killed on a cross and more about that episode plus the rest of his story too: not a transaction at all but a gift. It’s about inhabiting that story as our story and I think that the Lord’s Prayer takes us to the heart of doing that. Amongst other things, it looks for God’s will to be done on earth – including the bit of earth that’s me and the bit I inhabit, but applying to all other inhabitants of earth too. As already pointed out, it uses the material language of debt rather than the spiritualized language of sin. It insists on being plural: although Jesus has been advising praying in your room, in secret, it’s still ‘us’ and ‘our’ daily bread. So it’s a prayer prayed with the world, on behalf of all beings on earth who (in the words of Psalm 104.27) look to God to give them their food in due season. And it has at its heart this radical trust in God and a refusal to keep accounts either with God or with anyone else, because today is a gift and the gift of God is always more than enough. So the Lord’s Prayer is not about my spiritual (or mystical) practice. It’s about a world whose basic system moves wealth from the poor to the rich, a world of refugees and war, of pollution and climate change, of exploitation of soil and extinction of species, and it’s about the transformation of this world until it resembles a just and peaceful community in which all flourish. I wonder if it literally was the Lord’s Prayer, i.e. the prayer Jesus prayed, the prayer that kept him grounded in and aligned to his mission, and I wonder why it’s not had the same effect on the church that’s prayed it for 2,000 years or on the dominating culture that’s supposedly rooted in Christianity? Or on me, for that matter.

“Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Such a simple sentence that, if it were ever put into practice, would change the world.

 

 

Creation Psalms

I am about two-thirds of the way through a sabbatical, in which I’ve been exploring connections with nature. There are a few posts here on the blog about this, but a new project that’s emerging from this period of focused study and prayer is a website called Creation Psalms. I’m writing some reflections on some of the psalms that deal with nature/creation, incorporating some of the insights I’ve been getting from staring at trees and reading the occasional book.

It won’t appeal to everyone, but here you are, if you’re interested:

http:\\creationpsalms.wordpress.com

 

Daybreak

I’ve just had a very timely retreat at Sheldon, in Devon. I spent much of the week putting off dealing with the big emotional issue that I’ll soon be leaving my present churches and moving on. But if you’ve got to deal with something tough, or try to avoid doing so, you may as well be in a place of extraordinary natural beauty and an atmosphere of loving care. So I was in the right place.

Teign Valley

 

On Sunday morning, there was a thick frost.  In the twilight, I walked out to a sheltered dell and sat and waited for the sunrise, which I expected over the crest of a hill quite soon. It was a beautiful morning, crisp and quiet. No wind blew, no birds sang, all the humans were snug and quiet in their distant beds. The only sound was the patter of leaves dropping from an ash tree. I sat and waited for the sun. I waited and I waited. I could see sunshine on the hills behind, across the valley to the west. Maybe the sun was going to leave me out today. I waited and I waited. Maybe the sun had risen as much as it wanted today. There was a bright patch just above the crest, but it was just sunlight diffracting in a cloud, that drifted away. I waited and I waited, growing steadily colder. Then it came – at first a dazzling too-bright peep but once it had started, the sun rose rose very quickly. The dell was filled with light. The leaves shone vivid green. The birds started to sing. It was stunningly glorious.

Sheldon sunrise

“My soul waits for the Lord,

more than watchmen for the morning.”

(Psalm 130.6)

God does come. In his time, and with light and fire for a frosty world, and with the gentle rain of blessing, like falling leaves in an autumn sunrise.

“O Israel, hope in the Lord!

For with the Lord there is steadfast love,

and with God is plentiful redemption.”

(Psalm 130.7)

 

The sound of drums

The garden is an oasis of peace and quiet.  As I walk down it, often I can feel the stress falling away. When I had my little breakdown three years ago, the garden was a great source of healing.  My habit most mornings is to sit down at the end of the garden with a coffee and then pray.  If it’s rainy I sit in the shed, which is down at that far end.

The wild end of the garden
The wild end of the garden

Sitting in the garden early this morning with my coffee, across the birdsong and the peaceful rustle of the leaves in the breeze came the sound of drumming.   Our neighbour behind us put up a shed last year at the end of their garden.  It’s a luxury shed, with a slate roof and velux windows, so I’d hoped it was an office of some sort.  Now it seems like someone in the family has taken up drumming and has been sent out to practise in the shed.

I know how much enjoyment you can get from playing music.  I know that there is nothing like being in a band.  I know that the band practice is usually at the drummer’s house (or garden shed).  I have played with some drummers who needed to practise more.  I know that drums have to be hit, not tapped, and that electronic kits are rubbish.  So I have every sympathy with the drummer in the garden, and also with the rest of their family not wanting to have to put up with drums in the house.  I feel very mean about feeling angry about drum practice wrecking my peaceful garden (coming on top of another neighbour who plays country and western hymns at high volume).

It’s a challenge to me.  This morning, I felt like living in a cabin in the woods, miles from anyone, had never been more attractive.  But that’s not a way to build a viable future for the world.  We all need to learn to get along together so that we can all (including, of course, animals and plants) flourish.   There is a time for drumming, but there is also a time for silent out-doors coffee drinking.  The big flaw, I think, is that I have never talked to those neighbours in six years of living here.  I don’t even know their surname.  That’s modern suburban living for you.  I talk about community but really, I would rather live in isolation from others and their noise.  Perhaps negotiating creative co-existence at the end of the garden is an opportunity to reach out beyond my bubble and build a bit of what I say I believe in.  On the other hand, drummers are a bit scary – there’s something of the animal in them.  It’s often easier to stay with broken-ness than to grow, as I was preaching last Sunday (John 5.1-15)

Animal

 

The light shines in the darkness

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”  

(St John 1.5 (New International Version))

I’m not sure if this should be a Christmas or an Advent sonnet.  You decide!

The earth was dark, and dark misunderstood
the fragile point of light that pricked its veil.
These wise men, strong men, shepherds, kings must fail:
impressed by stars and glory, greatness, good,
salvation, justice, peace, the reign of God.
Bring gold!  Bring worship!  Raise the holy grail
and God will come in pow’r and will prevail!
Dark hope.  Light smouldered small on blood stained wood.
And on the path the keepers of the door
sit in the dark and, silent, watch and wait
for those who leave the lights they knew before
to find a hand to lead them through the gate.
   The earth is dark and, try with all its might,
   the dark will never understand the light.
  

© 2004 Alex Mabbs

Hermitage

There’s a shed at the bottom of the garden.  It was full of tools, toys and sheddy clutter.

You can see that it’s not the best use of a fairly large space.  So I’ve put in a stud partition (using my hand drill! (see previous post)) and turned it into two rooms.  To begin with, there’s a garden shed –

On the other side is my hermitage.  Now I can spend un-interrupted time on my own praying or reading in the garden while not getting soaking wet – quite a benefit in England in 2012.