The virtue of Christian hope (2): actively remembering

Yesterday I spoke about Christian hope being a choice.Today I want to say that it is also a virtue. That means it is something that we can practice and get better at.

Now in saying that Christian hope is a virtue I am drawing on the classical Christian tradition, derived from Aristotle, that describes the virtues as the building blocks of the good life. In simple terms we are what we regularly do, that is our character, and the path of Christian discipleship is, in simple terms, the pursuit of Christian virtues. So if we are to inhabit hope, then we need to make a habit of hope, and this morning I want to touch on how we do that: how do we build the habit of hope so that we show to the world the virtue of Christian hope?

I wonder how many of you are familiar with the concept of the sacred bundle? This is a native american tradition, in several tribes, wherein there is literally a cloth bundle that contains items that have significance for the tribe. These items can be anything – feathers, rocks, glass ware, old weapons, bits of fabric, anything. What binds the bundle together is that they are all significant for the life of the tribe, and each one is the focus for a story. To receive the sacred bundle, and to have the stories told, is to be initiated into the tribe.

Such things can also happen in churches of course. You are not allowed to remove this flower pedestal because it was given in memory of Vera, who ran the flower guild for many decades before she went to glory….

More seriously, our Christian tradition also has sacred bundles – we tend to call them liturgies – and we inherited this from the Hebrews. Consider the ritual of passover. Why is this night different to other nights asks the youngest person present – and this is the cue for a retelling of the story of the flight from Egypt, the wonderful acts of God that led his people from slavery under Pharaoh to freedom in the Promised Land. The sacred elements of the tribe are brought forth – the unleavened bread, the roast lamb, the herbs – and with each item a story is told, and through the telling of this story the Hebrews are renewed as a people.

Of course, Jesus consciously takes up, renews and transforms this tradition when he institutes our Eucharist. Do this to remember me he says. And when we take our sacred objects, our bread and our wine, and we tell the story of Jesus we are renewing our identity as the people who proclaim his death until he comes again; and without wishing to get too deeply into matters of theological controversy, this remembrance, just as with the passover, is not simply a calling to mind of something that has happened in the past, but also an anamnesis, a making present – in the act of this remembering we meet with him.

With both the passover and the eucharist, there is, then, a deliberate remembering of what God has done in the past, which forms and shapes us in the present, equipping us and enabling us for our work in the future.

Now I hope that you have all found an answer to my request from yesterday – what is it in your own lives that you call to mind, and therefore you shall have hope – because what I want to suggest to you is that your memories are your sacred bundle. You may have particular objects to go with them as well – this mug from which I am drinking my tea this morning was given to me by someone in my last parish, and I think of that person whenever I pick it up, and with that memory comes a whole package about my own story, about the shape of my ministry, about times of pain and joy… and so on. It is an object that conveys a powerful meaning for me – something of a sacramental.

Just as with passover and eucharist it is important to take time, regularly, to remember the elements in your sacred bundle. This can be a private activity, taken up when you go into a room by yourself, but many elements can be shared, indeed they must be shared, with trusted, close companions – with family, with friends, with a spiritual director. I think of these people in my own life as the custodians of my story. When I get bogged down with the burdens of daily life, time spent with close companions, those who have known me for a long time, recalls me to myself, and I remember who I am: a child of God, redeemed by Grace, called to his service. When we consciously remember those key elements from our own stories, it is a deliberate remembering of what God has done for each of us in the past, which forms and shapes us in the present, equipping us and enabling us for our work in the future.

Whatever is in your bundle, I would like, in closing, to add three things to it, if they are not there already – they are three things that I keep in my own sacred bundle, and which have helped me.

The first is a small piece of paper with these words inscribed upon it: this too shall pass. As Ecclesiastes puts it, there is a time for everything under heaven. Whatever Jeremiah-like conditions we may have to endure in our lives – this too shall pass.

The second is something that was emphasised at Westcott House, where I trained – the verse 1 Thessalonians 5.24: pistos ho kalon, the one who calls you is faithful. You can trust him. He who has brought you to this place, this moment, he will never leave you or forsake you.

The last item is another verse and one which, for me, encapsulates everything that I have been trying to say so far. For the purpose of our remembering is to place any present experiences into a larger context, to place our lived story into the context of the larger story that God is telling – and we know how that story ends. There are many verses that might serve to remind us of this larger story, and of where it ends, but for me this passage in Romans 8 serves me well: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. 38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NLT)

So choose hope – choose hope and make it a virtue. Practice it, practice your remembering. Practice it in your public ministry and liturgy, practice it when you go into a room by yourself. Practice it by remembering who you are as a child of God, practice it by remembering who we are as a people called by God to go out in the name of Christ to serve his people. Practice hope and make it into a habit, and in doing so, you will truly inhabit hope.

Then, whatever you meet in your ministry, you will be equipped to say with Jeremiah, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope…”

Amen

The virtue of Christian hope (1): hope is a choice

Christians are not called to feel hopeful; Christians are called to choose hope.

There is a passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah that I would like to share with you (Lamentations 3.19-24):

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

Jeremiah sees around himself the devastation of Jerusalem, the trauma that the people of Israel have experienced. Read Lamentations for the detail of that. Yet still he chooses to hope.

There are times when we too can feel ourselves surrounded by devastation. Our present situation with the virus is for many just such a time. I know from hearing your stories that many of you have come through difficult times to arrive here. I also know that many of you will experience such times in the years to come; times when things will start to lose their sense, when a dark fog of bewilderment descends in which all we can do is cry out ‘Oh God!’

It is to help you in such times that I say to you now: Christians are not called to feel hopeful; Christians are called to choose hope.

Our human freedom, our distinctively human soul, is found in the place between the stimulus and the response. What do I mean by that? Permit me to talk about puppies.

Specifically, I have a five month old puppy in the Vicarage at the moment – she is called Bazooka, and she belongs to my 18 year old son. Now puppies are delightful, but they need to be trained, and that means that sometimes the puppy gets told off or given a sharp tap on her nose. She’s doing well, and has learned, for example, to patiently sit whilst her food is being prepared. When she is stimulated by hunger, and the smell of the food is filling her nostrils, she has learned not to express her natural response of rushing to the food. She has become more skilled, more mature, and life is much better for everyone as a result.

When we experience devastation, when we are like Jeremiah and lamenting what has come to pass – this is a stimulus. As human beings with souls we can choose how to respond. We can choose to hope. Now, this is not a matter of denying the truth of a situation, however difficult it might be. We are not called to forget or ignore or suppress our suffering. Our calling in fact is the opposite, for the choice of hope depends upon a clear, a calm – even a cold assessment of the truth of our situation. Rather, choosing hope is about seeing the whole truth – allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, to mourn and lament the loss of what has passed away – but then… placing that truth, those feelings, into a wider context, into a larger story.

Jeremiah does that, and he chooses hope when he remembers. He remembers God, he remembers what God is like and he remembers what God has done before – and it is on the basis of those memories that Jeremiah hopes. Jeremiah remembers, and so he gains a greater perspective, a wider context, a larger story. It is this remembering which, in the face of the stimulus of devastation around him, enables him to respond with hope.

So I have a request to make of you all for this afternoon. A mission for you, should you choose to accept it. Jeremiah calls to mind all that the Lord has done for the people of Israel up to his time. My question for you to ponder is: what has the Lord done for you to lead you to this time? How has God led you, and shaped you, and blessed you? What are the essential moments in your journey of faith, in your story, that you want and need to remember? Of what are you able to say “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope”?

Tomorrow morning we will do some work with those memories, as we learn the skill of Christian hope. But for now, let me just emphasise this: Christians are not called to feel hopeful; Christians are called to choose hope.

 

(Part one of a talk I gave to ordinands on their retreat – via Zoom! It went well)

Gesticulating with ‘wrath’ – why we need to rehabilitate traditional language if we are to learn what God want to teach us

When it comes to language about wrath I have been accustomed for a long time to quote what Julian of Norwich says – that there is no wrath in God. When pushed, I have tended to nuance that comment by saying that wrath is a real thing that we need to take account of, but I have been comfortable not to identify an experience of wrath with the experience of God’s purpose for my life.

I have come to believe that I have been missing something essential to the life of faith, which traditional language of wrath preserves, and I’d like to briefly sketch my thinking. I would say at the outset that I’m going to argue for a rehabilitation of the language of wrath in principle – I’m not here going to say how that language needs to be used in practice, with respect to COVID. Hopefully we can engage with that work in our discussion.

My title draws from a passage that I have been mulling on, which is something that Wittgenstein once wrote (Culture and Value 85e). He says this:

Actually I should like to say that in this case too the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense”

My thinking is simply this: our language of wrath is a way of saying something about our lived experience before God, and if we outlaw this language then we are not making anything clearer. So what might our gesticulating with this word ‘wrath’ be about?

Now, two more elements of throat clearing, before I suggest a tentative answer. The first is to make a reference to Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which so famously begins “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” I don’t believe that it is possible to do theodicy as a Christian. That is, as soon as we start to make some sort of moral evaluation or justification of the ways of God to humanity then we have embarked upon the path of idol worship. We are not the measure of God; God is the measure of humankind.

Yet we do want to insist that God is good; that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. Even with a properly reticent and analogical understanding of that language I do not believe that we can escape saying that God is good and that this is foundational for our faith and spirituality. So my second element of throat clearing is this: when Job loses his health his wife invites him to “curse God and die”, which invites the rebuke “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”

So to weave these three things together – Wittgenstein, Bonhoeffer and Job – and finally make my point, I want to say that when we use the language of wrath, when we gesticulate with it, we are not engaged in some sort of theodicy, as if we were making some sense of judgement over God; rather we are asserting, with Job, that the good that we receive in this life cannot be separated from the evil.

As a matter of theological grammar, I would now say, we cannot give thanks to God for the good things that we receive in this life from Him if we cannot at the same time cry in lament for the bad things that we receive in this life from Him. If we say that the bad things that we receive in this life are not from God, if we abandon this sense of God’s wrath, then the blood drains out of our thanksgivings to God too.

What, to refer back to Wittgenstein’s language again, is the difference that this language makes in our lives? Or, given how widespread the abandonment of this language has become, what difference did this language make in the devotional lives of those who have gone before us? What spiritual lessons might there be for us if we pay attention to their prayers?

I would say – if we look at the Book of Common Prayer for example, that +Christopher discussed, and the language wherein pestilence and horror is taken as a form of chastisement, and an invitation to repentance – that this is above all an insistence that the experience being undergone is meaningful. That we, who are in a state of dependence upon God, experience God more intimately when we are in extremis, when we are put to the test – and that God opens up a path of redemption for us that proceeds directly from the place of our suffering.

In other words, the spiritually essential heart of this language of divine wrath is not that we gain a heavenly imprimatur for our own prejudices, nor that we come to some rationally satisfactory accounting or justification of divine activity but that: without wrath we have no redemption. To use the language of wrath, to insist upon God’s agency and responsibility in our suffering is to make the claim that all of life is meaningful, and that there is a way forward from where we are. It is, in the end, the only thing that enables us to cling to the cry that God loves us even when he chastises us.

If we are to find the path that God is giving us to walk in out of this present pestilence, I do not believe that we will succeed unless we reclaim a healthy sense of God’s wrath. We must repent of our ways and return to the living God, for he has torn us, and he will heal us.

The Lord giveth; and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

(A talk given to the Severn Forum last night)

How to live faithfully towards the truth

To seek the truth is a blessed endeavour, for “you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free”. It is a journey common to all the great spiritual traditions of the world. Gandhi described himself as a “satyagrahi” which means ‘a seeker after truth’. As I am a Christian, I shall use the Christian language here.

To seek the truth is a journey. It flows from a decision to pursue the truth, but we cannot fully attain the truth in this world. This is because “the heart is deceitful above all things” and we are to pray “save me from my secret sins”: we deceive ourselves. To become free from that deceit is the work of a lifetime.

The journey into truth is called ‘the way’. The way is followed by developing the habits of truth, letting our yes be yes and our no be no, and putting a bridle on our tongue. Before speaking we ask, not simply “is this true?”, but also: “is it loving, is it timely?”. This development of habits is called the cultivation of virtue.

The most important virtue to cultivate in the pursuit of truth is the virtue of humility, for it is humility that enables us to see ourselves as we truly are. Humility avoids two equal and opposite errors: the great sin of pride, in which we puff ourselves up and believe ourselves to be greater than we are; and the great sin of despair, when we despise ourselves and believe ourselves to be unlovable.

We cannot go on the journey into the truth relying on our own power. We need help, help from a higher power. This is why it is a spiritual journey, and all the great spiritual traditions describe it. The journey into the truth is the journey into God. It is the Holy Spirit that will lead us into all truth, for there are things that we cannot yet bear to know.

We cannot sustain ourselves on the journey into truth unless we know that we are loved by the higher power. If we are not confident of that love then we will be terrified of making a mistake, and then we will not be able to take a single step. The love that enables us to walk in the path of truth is called forgiveness. If our hearts are set on God then it does not matter how many mistakes that we make. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

The most important thing to know about forgiveness, a spiritual law, is: “the measure that you give shall be the measure that you receive.” In other words, if we share forgiveness, then we shall be forgiven. If we share condemnation, then we shall be condemned. This is called the life of grace: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

This is what it means to be perfect, and we are to be perfect in the way that God is perfect. God sends his rain upon the just and the unjust alike – in the same way, we are to share forgiveness with those who are worthy of it and those who are not worthy of it. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, we all fail in our seeking towards the truth. Yet because we do not rely on our own power, our own goodness, we can keep going even when we stumble. This is what is meant when we are told to “bear each other’s burdens”.

There are dangers on this journey into truth. The world does not recognise the truth and is hostile to those who seek the truth. The ways of the world are flattery and manipulation, accusation and condemnation. The world will use those ways to tempt and force those who seek the truth to turn their backs upon the way. In order to progress towards the truth we must become wise to the ways of the world.

The ways of the world can be known by learning about the prince of this world, the enemy, the father of lies, the accuser, the Satan. If we were on trial there would be a prosecutor, whose job is to accuse – that is the Satan. To walk in the way of truth is to realise and know that we do not have to defend ourselves from those accusations. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to defend us from all assaults of the enemy. As we do not need to defend ourselves, we do not need to play the game of praise and blame. In this way we are set free from the world, and we “know the peace that the world cannot give”.

The prince of this world has been overcome. We do not need to be afraid of him. Indeed, fear is the opposite of truth. The command repeated most often in Scripture is “do not be afraid”. As we cultivate the virtue of humility we learn the truth of who we are, and the truth of who we are is that we are the beloved children of God who have been redeemed from captivity in the world by what Jesus has achieved. If we turn to Jesus, no matter where we are, then we will know the truth and the truth shall set us free.

The deepest lie told by the father of lies is that we are unlovable. The journey into truth is the journey into realising the nature and consequences of that lie, and slowly and patiently allowing God to heal us.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life… If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”

That is the destination that we find at the end of the journey into truth. We will be at home, we will know that we are loved, and we shall be at peace.

Some theses about spirituality and ‘mental illness’

1. There are phenomena that people experience within their own mental life that are often life-denying at a minimum, life-destroying as a maximum. Please do not interpret anything else that I say here as in any way denying this first and most basic truth. My issue is all to do with a) how these phenomena are understood and b) how those who have to endure them are treated, both by ‘professionals’ and by wider society.

2. There is no such thing as ‘mental illness’. There are physical illnesses that have mental symptoms (eg Alzheimers). To describe the phenomena of thesis #1 as ‘mental illness’ is to wrongly apply a form of language (‘illness’ and ‘disease’) from one area of life to a different area of life. It is a category error, a philosophical mistake. That it is a mistake with a vast apparatus of the state and capitalist industry supporting it does not make it true.

3. The language of modern professional psychiatric care – as best summarised in the risible DSM (see this, which I think is brilliant) – is a perfect example of a Kuhnian paradigm which is overdue for being overthrown. In just the same way that the Copernican paradigm eventually couldn’t cope with all the epicycles that had to be introduced as a result of telescopic observations, we are not far from the time when contemporary psychiatric understandings will collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy and contradictions.

4. Pharmaceutical drugs do not work in terms of curing the phenomena of thesis #1. They do have benefit in terms of the placebo effect (which I do not see as trivial) and in terms of stabilising a volatile situation, ie they can suppress symptoms. Put simply they are a tool of social management. They do not heal people; at worst the side effects simply increase the phenomena of #1.

5. We cannot understand the phenomena of thesis #1 by looking at individuals in isolation but only as human beings embedded within a particular community and context. The phenomena of thesis #1 are inescapably social.

6. It is in the interests of the state that those who exhibit disorderly or otherwise unwelcome behaviour are pacified and controlled. Any full understanding of the phenomena of thesis #1 needs to have abandoned political naïvete.

7. It is in the interests of the pharmaceutical industry that there be new diagnoses of new forms of disorder, which thereby justify the creation of new drugs with new patents that form new income streams for those companies when old patents expire. Any full understanding of the phenomena of thesis #1 needs to have abandoned commercial naïvete.

8. The philosophical roots of contemporary psychiatric care lie in atheism and materialism – in other words, it proceeds on the assumption that there is no such thing as the soul.

to be with the freakshow

language of demons and angels

personal agency

human centred care

taking the soul seriously

it is possible that the greatest failure of Western churches in the twentieth century is that they have capitulated to the psycho-complex. If we are unable to cure souls, then what on earth is the point of us?

Clement quote about father nursing

Christianity has declined because it no longer believes in magic

Eucharist icon

Some thoughts prompted by reading John Michael Greer here. JMG says, “I’m far from the only person to notice that something very strange has been happening to Christianity for quite a long time now. The liberal denominations that used to be the mainstream capitulated to atheism back in the 1950s — you’ll have to look long and hard to find ministers in any liberal church who actually, literally believe in the objective reality of the God whose weekly worship they’re paid to conduct—and now function mostly as charitable foundations and political-action committees with a sideline in rites of passage.” Then later on he says, “Valerie Flint, in her brilliant book The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, has documented that a core reason Christianity was able to spread so rapidly across Europe, winning support from local warlords and kings, was that Christian monastics and clergy earned a reputation for being better at magic than their Pagan rivals: better, that is, at delivering the goods that religion is supposed to deliver.”

I think there is a very great deal of truth in this (I leave aside the category mistake that JMG makes about ‘God’ and gods).

Specifically, I see the death of the mainstream churches (in the West) as rooted in a surrender to a scientific spirit which – as part and parcel of that spirit – also rejects any acceptance of magic and (what is commonly called) the supernatural.

If the church doesn’t dispense magic – and the most magical elements of Christianity are the sacraments – then it no longer has a spiritual purpose, and JMG’s description is justified.

Magic here must be understood in its proper sense, not Harry Potter-esque action at a distance, but rather as the changing of consciousness in accordance with will. In Christian terms it is about the renewing of our minds.

How many clergy actually take spiritual warfare seriously in their daily lives? I am only beginning to, and I am aware of how far I have to go in developing this, yet I am very conscious that – most especially from the viewpoint of the institution – I am a bizarre outlier. It’s a marker for how far the scientistic spirit has taken root within the church itself.

I am conscious of having written about this in greater depth in my book: “With you is my contention O priest!” I am quite certain that unless we attend to this deep spiritual wound within our common life then everything else we do will be of nothing worth.

Which is another way of saying: the first commandment must come first, and because that is laughed at within the church, this is why we die.

(Perhaps the problem is that different factions within the church claim the right to say what the first commandment means. At least the RC church doesn’t have that problem.)

Something to add to my musings about the Church of England. I do not yet have a solution; but I am working on it.

Leonard Cohen’s Amen – how to live faithfully in the context of suffering


I would like to talk about suffering, and I want to use Leonard Cohen’s songs as a means through which to explore what it means to respond with faith in the context of suffering.

I believe that suffering is a human universal. We all suffer. Now it is possible to engage with this as a philosopher, and that leads us to consider what is called The Problem Of Evil (with capital letters). That Problem can be simply stated: how can a loving and all powerful god allow us to suffer? Or, more precisely: God is all powerful, God is all good, there is evil in the world – you can only logically choose two of the three.

I am not going to give you an intellectual answer to that tonight. There are some intellectual answers but they don’t reach me; they don’t make a difference to me as a human being seeking to live his life in the context of suffering.

To enter into suffering is to enter into a mystery of our human life, possibly the defining mystery. When Christians talk about the world as fallen, as broken, we use these stories and this language to describe the reality of our life as we experience it. The Bible never gives an intellectual answer to The Problem Of Evil – what it suggests is that an intellectual answer is a blasphemy, an attempt to justify God to our own conscience, an resistance to allowing God to be God and thereby accepting our creaturely state (for more on that see the book of Job).

I see Leonard Cohen’s work as fitting into this Biblical tradition, and this is why his songs speak to me. Cohen’s perspective is fundamentally Jewish, Biblical and liturgical. Yes, he spent time doing other things, especially his training as a buddhist monk (I would also add that his writing is saturated with Christian references, and to my mind he ‘gets’ Christianity) but Cohen himself said that he never felt any need to change who he was, a Jewish man.

Most particularly, for me Cohen is a modern psalmist. He articulates for today the sort of thing that the Psalms articulate in Old Testament, the full range of human feeling and emotion. He was also deeply influenced by modern Jewish liturgy – but I shall come back to that. Yet one key way in which his work is Jewish is that it is always under the shadow of the Holocaust, often in surprising ways (as with Dance me to the end of love). This is a thread that runs through his life and his work and there are many references to it, often with an echoing and paralleling between more personal elements and the more large scale prophetically judgemental and obvious ones.

All that being said, let me begin with the ‘title song’ – Leonard Cohen’s Amen.

This song contains demands made of God, the demand to hear from God when we have made the time to listen and we still cannot hear, when “we’re alone and I’m listening so hard that it hurts”: tell me that you love me, tell me that it all makes sense, tell me when there is fairness and the suffering has been justified, tell me that you want me then…

This is a plea, a form of lamentation, a classically Psalmist form of song. Cohen is clearly articulating what it feels like to suffer and to bring that suffering to God. Tell me, tell me.

As such, this is a thoroughly orthodox and faithful response to our human condition.

Here are some further examples of Leonard’s spiritual orthodoxy:

Treaty (pleading honesty with God)
I’ve seen you change the water into wine
I’ve seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don’t get high with you
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

If it be your will (surrender to God)
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

Show Me The Place (begging for guidance)
Show me the place where you want your slave to go
Show me the place I’ve forgotten I don’t know
Show me the place where my head is bendin’ low
Show me the place where you want your slave to go

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

Anthem (prophetic cry for righteous judgement)
I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned,
they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Villanelle For Our Time (the wound of self-knowledge)
From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.
We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.
Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

Where Cohen’s orthodox and faithful response to our human condition comes over most effectively for me is through his use of biblical words at key points, that is, where the Biblical words are used liturgically. The most famous example is of course Hallelujah which means ‘praise to God’:

and even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the lord of song,
with nothing on my tongue
but Hallelujah

No matter what happens, we praise God.

From his last album, there is the word Hineni which means ‘Here I am Lord’ and means surrender to God’s will; it is the response of Abraham, Samuel, Isaiah in the Old Testament.

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Finally, for my purposes here, is the word Amen, which means “so be it”.

I mentioned the book of Job earlier. When Job suffers, his friends come to see him and say that he must be suffering because he has done something wrong. That answer is comprehensively rejected (it is rejected by Jesus too). We are taught that there is no necessary link between suffering and individual merit; rather vengeance belongs to the Lord. In his song Amen Cohen is pleading for some answer, in just the same way that Job pleads for an answer. Specifically, and with the shadow of the Holocaust in the background, and an extravagantly offensive promise of Christianity in the foreground, Cohen sings

Tell me again
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb…
Tell me again
When I’ve seen through the horror
Tell me again
Tell me over and over
Tell me that you love me then
Amen

Here I believe we have articulated the only human response to The Problem Of Evil that can ever satisfy.

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Ivan articulates the most powerfully effective form of The Problem Of Evil. He asks if, were the price of making heaven on earth the suffering of one innocent child, would we accept it? Ivan says no. It is not that he doesn’t believe in God, simply that he declines his ticket of entry into creation, on the grounds that it is unjust.

In contrast to this, the faithful response is to say ‘Amen’ to creation. To accept the ticket. To accept that pain and to trust. It is to say Yes to God.

In the Jewish liturgy, Amen is the response to a blessing.

Amen leads to joy.

You got me singing
You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had
You got me singing
Ever since the river died
You got me thinking
Of the places we could hide

You got me singing
Even though the world is gone
You got me thinking
I’d like to carry on
You got me singing
Even tho’ it all looks grim
You got me singing
The Hallelujah hymn

This is the yes to God, this is the acceptance of the life that we have been given, this is the receiving of the whole package, good and bad, evil and joyful – as a gift. This, I believe, is the only spiritually healthy and life-affirming way to navigate through our sufferings.

Cohen as an artist is seen as depressing or melancholy. I have never found him to be this way; on the contrary, listening to him always fills me with joy. I gain a sense of being understood and exalted, as Cohen gives a fully human response to our situation. Cohen articulates the pain yet returns always to the beginning and end of faith.

This is holiness. This is the spiritual drink that sustains us, this is the food of life… and this is why I love listening to him. He brings me closer to God.

Was Uzzah just neurotic?

I’ve been writing up something for the PCC about what we consider sacred, and looked back at the story from 2 Samuel 6 about Uzzah – he’s the guy who is struck dead by God for touching the Ark of the Covenant.
uzzah
(picture from here)
I wonder – was he simply a really stressed-out guy? In other words, was he just someone nervous, terrified of his responsibility for carrying the ark, incredibly jumpy (totally the wrong sort of person for the job in other words) – who, when disaster struck and the oxen stumble, reacts simply as a human being to steady the Ark – and then realises that he has broken a major taboo and the stress overwhelms him and he drops dead of a heart attack?

I ask this because it would seem odd for a God who accepts crucifixion for himself to get that upset about a wooden box.

No man is an island

In my last column I talked about the spirituality of anger, looking mainly at anger from the perspective of an individual. This week I want to talk about the more social elements.

One of the consequences that often follow from a mistaken suppression of personal anger is that the person concerned becomes depressed. Where anger is a normal and legitimate response to something that has gone wrong, where it is what I call ‘righteous anger’, and where that anger is suppressed for whatever reason then it is common for the person whose emotions are being suppressed to lapse into a depression.

It is rather like the way in which zoo animals can become depressed as a result of being taken out of their natural environment. A lion might be as fully fed as they could ever wish, yet if forced to live within a compound that is just a small fraction of the territory that they are adapted to in the wild then the lion simply will not flourish. A vital part of their instinctive nature has been walled off, and a listless anomie can settle upon them.

I believe that much human depression is analagous to this. Now let me quickly add that depression is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon – an overwhelming experience for those who suffer with it, and a controversial source of dispute for those who seek to understand it. I would hold open the possibility that there are non-social reasons for depression, that is, that there may be some cases or forms of depression that are correctly called an illness. I shall pursue the details of that discussion another time. All I need to rely upon for my purposes here is an acceptance that there are some forms of depression which come about as a result of particular events and circumstances in a person’s life.

My concern is – when this happens, how do we as a wider community react to that person’s suffering?

Do we seek to keep the sufferer silent? After all, there is a long and disturbing history of authorities seeking to silence those who are opposed to the status quo. What happens when the righteous anger of a protester is suppressed? Does the protester then become literally like the lion in a zoo, confined within concrete walls and denied access to our fully human society?

Do we mistakenly medicalise the situation? That would seem so much more humane a response than simply locking up someone that makes the establishment feel uncomfortable. Yet as the magnificent ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ dramatised, a neutralisation of dissent under the guise of medical therapy can be even crueller than the loss of liberty itself.

Or might we start to take the individual seriously, and seek to understand what is happening in their life and relationships? Might we in fact start to treat the individual, not as an isolated atom that can be best understood through isolating them from their fellows, but rather as an integral part of a much larger web of connections? This is the approach taken by, amongst others, family therapists who have long recognised that it is often impossible to heal one member of a family without also engaging with the other family members alongside them.

I would wish to broaden out that sensibility to consider the wider society. If a person has become depressed I would argue that there are often particular roots in political and economic factors. For example, if someone has lived and worked as a miner for twenty years, through to their mid-40s, and then as a result of political decision making that pattern of life is removed as a practical possibility for them, it is not surprising if depression follows. The right response to such a situation is not to punish the sufferer for their wrong views but rather to sympathise with their plight and begin to investigate ways of changing their situation – to give the legs of the lion more room to roam.

Where does such an analysis end? After all, the extent of social injustice stretches very far. For me, I am forced to draw upon the traditional Christian language of the Fall in order to make any headway at all. The doctrine of the Fall states that we are all born into a sinful world and we cannot help committing more sins as we live within it. In other words, there are no easy answers on which we can depend when faced with the messy reality of human psychological health. There is no neat solution that fixes all things and all people. Yet there remain two insights on which to cling.

The first is simply: we are in this together. When one of our number suffers, we all suffer. If we are to become a community of healthy individuals, we need to recognise and take seriously that healthy individuals are the fruit of a healthy community and a healthy community is one that sees each member as part of a greater whole. This is the genius that lies behind the foundation of the NHS, the insight that disease and other medical problems can fall upon any one of us at any time, and it makes for a saner society if we share the risk between us.

The second is that grace arrives in surprising ways. When all things seem to be against us, when all our choices range from really bad to even worse, that is often the time when we can be most surprised by God. The world is not fixed to run along a particular course, and sometimes our hopes can be vindicated after all rational thought has told us to give up.

Sometimes the suffering of a single person is enough to alert a healthy community that something much larger is going wrong. In just the same way that there is a ‘patient zero’ at the beginning of an epidemic, so too do individuals respond first to larger cultural changes. I believe that we cannot fully understand depression and related mental problems in isolation from the families and the communities within which the sufferers live and move and have their being. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

The spirituality of anger

Anger-inside-outWe live in a society where the open expression of anger is mostly frowned upon. I say mostly because there are some situations where our society seems to deliberately cultivate anger for the entertainment of others – I am thinking here of certain reality television programmes, where watching somebody have a meltdown on camera is considered a reliable way to get attention, and therefore higher ratings, and therefore a higher income. Such is the nature of our decadence.

Yet should such behaviour be exhibited outside of the strange confines of a television studio it is seen as a sign of a disturbed mind, and in some situations strong words are highly likely to lead to trouble with the law.

I believe that this is a problem. We need to rehabilitate the expression of anger in our society, and give it a proper place. I see this as ultimately a spiritual issue, in that the suppression of a healthy anger has caused a great many other maladies in our body politic, causing immense suffering to individuals and allowing for a great many abuses by the dominant powers to go unchecked.

After all, anger is a constituent part of any animal, an element that enables them to live and function effectively within their environment. Without being able to call upon an angry response an animal is an easy target for predators or rivals. Imagine a stag trying to establish dominance within their territory, in order to mate – if another stag comes along and enters that territory without any response then the first stag will soon lose out in his love life and die off. No, anger is an essential part of a full and rich human life.

How can a Rector be arguing in favour of anger – isn’t anger a sin? Actually no, anger is not a sin. Jesus himself is recorded as being angry several times, most prominently when he drove the money traders out of the Temple. This was almost certainly the event which precipitated the authorities taking action against him, and which directly led to his crucifixion.

What Jesus demonstrated throughout his life was something called righteous anger. This is the healthy response of a human being to a situation of injustice. For example, when Jesus sees the religious leaders being indifferent to human suffering he loses his temper with them and ‘goes off on one’, indulging in some quite colourful language to bring home to them how appalling their behaviour is. Most of us react the same way when we see someone being bullied or abused.

One word of warning though – we’re not quite so mentally and spiritually healthy as Jesus. When we experience anger there is no guarantee that we are right to experience it. Sometimes we will experience the anger in response to an injustice that we can see outside of ourselves. Sometimes, however, we will become angry if we believe that we have been slighted, that we haven’t been given our due, that people are not offering us sufficient respect. In other words, the injustice will be bound up with our pride. This can be an unbelievably toxic combination.

How can we discern the difference? Only by prayer. Prayer is often caricatured as begging for the unlikely from the improbable but that misses the heart of the matter. Prayer comes in different forms, and one of the key ways to pray involves giving something our full attention. That is, if we pay attention to something (or someone) then we allow it to be itself; in other words, the process of prayer is the process of seeking to eliminate our own distortions and biases, our own projections and neuroses, in order that the full truth of that something (or someone) can emerge.

This is what needs to happen with our anger. Not that we need to pray before we allow ourselves to become angry but rather that, if we find ourselves becoming angry on a regular basis, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Is this anger truly being driven by an injustice out in the world (and if it is, to what use shall I put this angry energy that God has given me)? Or, is this anger simply born from a misplaced sense of pride, and is this angry energy being given to me so that I am motivated to do the hard spiritual work of examining my assumptions and sense of myself, in order that I can then see the world more truly? When Jesus said that some demons can only be driven out by prayer, I believe that this was what he had in mind.

There is a sin – one of the worst, called ‘mortal’ sins – that is related to anger, but which needs to be carefully distinguished, and that sin is called wrath. Anger is an immediate response to a particular situation, an emotion that can quickly blow over, and which certainly doesn’t need to be eliminated from our relationships. Wrath, however, is not an immediate emotional response, rather it is a settled disposition of the will. We have to decide to be wrathful. Wrath occurs when someone is determined to bear ill-will towards somebody else, thus refusing all human contact with them, or making such human contact as occurs devoid of human feeling and warmth. It is a refusal of forgiveness and a rejection of grace. Instead of the volcanic explosion of anger, wrath is the ice field, a glacier cutting off human life. It is, in short, a refusal of relationship – and that is a very useful definition of sin as such. To succumb to wrath is to place our own souls in mortal danger, and the consequence is that the wrathful person becomes sick in mind and often body.

The bible is filled with rich examples of righteous anger directed at those in positions of power and authority who use their status to abuse the weak and vulnerable. Jesus says: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness!” If we imagine Jesus saying this in a perfectly placid and calm tone of voice then we are suffering from a failure of the imagination. No, Jesus was angry and expressing his anger forthrightly. We would benefit from a bit more of such anger today.