maggi dawn

Prayer

Some nights, when I feel lonely or disoriented for whatever reason, I listen to the shipping forecast. It reminds me of months and months of my life when it was the background music to feeding my baby son in the small hours. It reminds me of years and years of nights when it was the last thing I heard before sleep. It’s like the gentle rhythm of waves breaking on the sand, the clickety-clack of the train on the tracks, or the comforting drumming of rain on the roof; a sound that gathers up all the years of one life, and holds them in continuity with the generations that went before. It’s the comfort of the ex-pat far from home, and the prayer of the soul not quite sure of the God to whom they pray.

Carol Ann Duffy put it best:

Prayer

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

On forgiveness: feeding the doves.

Forgiving is the hardest thing to do.

Forgiving doesn’t trivialize an offence – as if to say, “It doesn’t matter – I forgive you.” It does matter. If it didn’t matter, there would be nothing to forgive.

Forgiving isn’t about deserving. If someone has offended you enough that forgiving them is a challenge or even an impossibility, then they don’t “deserve” forgiveness. They may need it, want it, ask for it, or they may not even care about it, but no-one deserves it.

Forgiving doesn’t come naturally. Natural responses to offense would be to hit back, or to withdraw and hold a grudge, or to find a surreptitious means of hurting in return. Some people are more readily forgiving than others, but find an offence deep enough, and you’ll find that there is a point at which it doesn’t come naturally.

Forgiving isn’t about trading. “I’ll forgive you if you pay” never quite works. There is restitution, of course – and if the offending party is prepared to do whatever is possible to repair an offence, then forgiveness may flow more easily. But for the offended party, there is always a level at which some cost is borne. If it was possible for the offense to be paid for completely, there would be nothing left to forgive.

Forgiving doesn’t turn the clock back – not completely. It doesn’t mean you pretend it never happened. It means that you choose not to take revenge, bear a grudge, demand an eye for an eye or worse.

Why forgive, then, if it costs so much?

Forgiving is about releasing chains that hold us.

The offender is released – to some extent – by being forgiven. Often not scot-free, because forgiving doesn’t mean pretending something never happened. Forgiving a relative triviality might mean a total repair to relationship, but there are circumstances where even though forgiveness is offered, the offender still has to live with conscience or consequence. Not all relationships can be completely repaired, and the injury and memory of the past can’t be wiped clean even if the sting is removed.

But the offended party is released, as well as the offender, by forgiving. Carrying a grudge, a burden of anger, creates lonely souls. Unresolved, it makes some people explosive, and others depressed, and its corrosive effect produces points of isolation.

And further, forgiving draws a line under the offence, so that you don’t spread bitterness to those around you, or to the next generation. If you have unresolved grief, bitterness, resentment, it’s almost impossible not to hand it on to those around you. So it is, in a sense, a duty of care to the world to move towards forgiveness, for it stops the spread of the disease. This is true even if you are the offended party. Not to take the steps you can towards forgiveness (and sometimes it takes time and a lot of repeated baby steps to get there) is to create a further offence to others out of the one that was dealt to you.

Forgiving a deeply felt offence really doesn’t happen in an instant. Especially so if it changed the whole course of your life (although curiously it seems that sometimes people find relatively trivial offences harder to forgive than ones of gargantuan proportions). Sometimes you have to live with a repeating cycle of forgiveness – coming back to that decision every single day, until eventually it wears a deeper groove in your soul than the anger and hurt and grief.  But what’s the alternative? It’s like choosing between which of two creatures you will feed. Feed the doves, and sooner or later their peaceful cooing will float through your window. Feed the wolves, and eventually they will eat you too.

(First published February 2014)

God three angry letters in a book

One of my long -time favourite poems is The Incarnate One by Edwin Muir. Nowhere does Muir suggest that faith should be thoughtless or anti-intellectual. But he identifies the subtle difference between thought that embraces and explores the mystery of the incarnate word, and the kind of logical, syllogistic reduction that domesticates God, pulls His teeth, and keeps the Divine Mystery firmly in its place. Even the most liberal of theologies, if their detail and practice is insisted upon to the extent that those who do not (or do not appear to) conform are excluded from the holy huddle, becomes a kind of “purity code”. It isn’t only fundamentalist theologies that exclude their non-conformers; drawing a line around who is “in” is a limitation that people of all political and religious persuasions are prone to fall into.

But back to Muir. Theology, when it becomes reductionist and exclusive, takes the blood out of the faith we are offered in an incarnate God, removes love and humanity from the equation, and takes us back to a law that we must obey or suffer the consequences. “How could our race betray/ the Image, and the Incarnate One unmake…?” Sadly, all too easily.

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,
Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,
The auguries say, the white and black and brown,
The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all
Invisibly will fall:
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown
Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well
The bloodless word will battle for its own
Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.
The generations tell
Their personal tale: the One has far to go
Past the mirages and the murdering snow.

 

Ordinary Time

 

What’s so ordinary about Ordinary Time?

After the anticipation of Advent, the spectacle of Christmas, the revelation of Epiphany and the blessing of all those lights at Candlemas, isn’t ‘ordinary’ a bit of a let-down? Who wants to be ordinary?

It has to be said, in the current climate, ordinary seems appealing and far from us. We seem to be living through the ‘interesting times’ of the apocryphal curse, and it seems a long time since the pleasantly dull days when one could show up at work and find everyone sipping their coffee with nothing but village gossip to talk about. Oh, for a return to ordinary.

In the context of church seasons, however, it’s a misconception that ‘ordinary’ means ‘not unusual’ or ‘not special’. Ordinary time isn’t plain, or unexceptional. The word comes from the Latin ordinalis, which has to do with putting things in the right order. Ticking the weeks off one by one. Numbering them, or naming them, so that you know where you are. When you put things in a numbered series – first, second, third, etc. – those are called ordinal numbers (in the linguistic use of the term, not the same thing as the set theory usage). Ordinal, ordo, and the Ordinary (bishop or office holder) all come from ordinalis, and they are all about either putting things in order, or arranging them in sequence.

The really big slab of ordinary time comes after the Easter season – more than twenty weeks leading back to Advent when the church year starts all over again. But this little slip of ordinary time between Candlemas and Lent, which can be as short as a week, doesn’t have to be insignificant.* You might be quite glad for something low key, to catch your breath before the next big thing – after all, endless feasts lose their sparkle if there is nothing to contrast them with. But even if they are quiet and unremarkable, that doesn’t mean the days don’t count for anything. It just means we count them as they happen.

*There is debate in some quarters as to whether Ordinary Time starts right after Epiphany, or after Candlemas. In the UK, it was always my habit to take the decorations down at Epiphany. But now I live in a part of the world that is regularly under snow for a good while after Christmas, I am much in favor of remaining in celebratory mode for as long as possible.

Candlemas. Presentation. Nunc Dimittis.

Today if you go to a church that celebrates seasonally you are likely to come across some mention of the infant Jesus being presented in the Temple. It was, I suppose, the first century equivalent of a baby dedication. The configuration was different, but the same themes were there: something – animals, poultry or other food  – got prepared and taken to the celebrations, gifts were brought and presented, and at the center of it all is the baby, focusing the attention on thanksgiving for the wonder of new life, relief that life has prevailed through the trauma of birth, and good wishes for the future life of the child.

In a suprisingly egalitarian clip in the gospels, two elderly prophets were present. One woman and one man: Anna, and Simeon. We don’t really know much about these two, except that they spent their lives contemplatively watching and waiting, paying attention to the signs of the times, seeing people come and go. People watchers often become astute readers of faces. All those times observing the wrinkling of a nose, the furrowing of a brow, the cracking of a smile, the shedding of tears. Like learning to read words on a page, you have to pay attention to faces to learn to read them.

Anna and Simeon read the three faces of mother, father, child. They looked into the hazy gaze of those infant eyes that as yet could hardly focus, and his unlined, unknowing baby face. They saw the meagre gifts the couple brought, and read the narrative of poverty; they looked at the gnarled and scarred hands of the man who carried the gifts, and read the story of hard physical work. And they looked at the young, spirited mother, so recently  over the threshold of womanhood, and in her face they read a half-written poem of joy and wonder, a good measure of defiance, and a little apprehension. She knew, yet she didn’t quite know, the significance of the child in her arms.

And they knew too. They saw something. Was it the baby’s face, the untold story in his mother’s eyes, or the unpronounceable secrets that his father had seen in his dreams?  Or was it all three of their faces that spoke of potential, promise, prophecy?

Thank God, said Anna. Thank God. This is what we’ve waited to see.
Now, Lord, said Simeon. Now I can die a happy man, for mine eyes have seen.


First published February 2nd 2014

Added note: The story ends with Anna immediately turning around and speaking publicly to those gathered in the Temple. On this day, the prophet and preacher in the Temple was a woman. People often say that Mary Magdalene was the first evangelist, and if you are counting from the resurrection, I guess that’s true. But don’t forget that Jesus’ mother had already pronounced the Magnificat, a poetic praise-prophecy any preacher would be glad to deliver. And here, although we don’t know what she said, it was Anna, not Simeon, who took the platform. Worth thinking about.

Brigid’s Lake of Beer

St. Brigid's Well

St Brigid of Ireland, the Abbess of Kildare (c. 450-52

St Brigid’s day is a time for purification and the rediscovery of creativity–an interesting juxtaposition in itself, as sometimes it’s in the midst of clearing out the clutter that I find new creative ideas begin to gestate.

Most of Brigid’s miracles had a maternal quality, often involving milk.  But she is also known for the poem attributed to her longing for a lake of beer to share with women, men and God. One should, perhaps, bear in mind that ale, in Brigid’s time, was far weaker than it is today, and that as water was not always safe for drinking ale, for those who could afford it, was the drink of choice. So her prayer is not so much a Dionysian dream, more a vision of safe food and nurture for all. Still, an eternal party without a hangover is a pretty nice image of church.

Jest apart, there is something that strikes home this year in Bridgid’s poem: her wish for a united human family is expressed with the recognition that unity can only be achieved when repentance, peace, charity, mercy and cheerfulness are given and received. She envisions these things as gifts of substance, to be given in physical quantity. Not wafty ideas, theories, or orders from on high, but “things”. Vats of peace, vessels of charity, caves of mercy, and drinkable cheerfulness. The current climate is one of the most socially divided I have ever lived through; finding ways to make peace, love, mercy, repentance and joy both tangible and share-able seems to me the best acct of resistance we can engage in.

I wish I had a great lake of ale for the King of kings,
and the family of heaven to drink it through time eternal.

I wish I had the meats of belief and genuine piety,
the flails of repentance, and the men of heaven in my house.
I would like vats of peace to be at their disposal,
vessels of charity for distribution,
caves of mercy for their company,
and cheerfulness to be in their drinking.

I would want Jesus also to be in their midst,
together with the three Marys of illustrious renown,
and the people of heaven from all parts.
I would like to be a tenant to the Lord,
so if I should suffer distress,
he would confer on me a blessing. Amen.

For the sake of my community and my companions…

I asked a number of different people if they would like to preach this week. I live in a community of people who are rarely reluctant to preach. Mostly they love to step up and say something. This week, no-one wanted to preach, so being the Dean of Chapel and the backstop for everything, the honor fell to me. It was difficult to figure out what to say on this strange week, caught between MLK Day and the inauguration.

But, eventually I came up with what needed to be said, and so many lovely people have asked to read the script that I post it here. I make no boast. It is just a sermon, not brilliant, but somehow it turned out to be pertinent to my own little community on this day. I post it here for them. If anyone else finds it useful, God bless you.

Readings:
Psalm 122, a song of ascents.
Excerpts from Mr Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, and his Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem… For the sake of my community and my companions, I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122, 6, 8)

It is good to come back to Marquand at the beginning of this new semester, and find you all here ready to sing and pray and worship together. As the Psalmist wrote, “I was glad when they said to me, Let us go up to the house of God.”

We come in here, day after day, week after week, to gather for worship. And we gather around a particular narrative of worship: we aim to be interdenominational, welcoming and hospitable, attentive to many different voices, inclusive of many variations of belief and practice, and to weave all of this together into one thread of worship in which different voices remain distinct, and yet inform each other.

I hear myself telling people this narrative so often: to prospective students, to returning alumni, and in places where I travel to lecture or consult on worship. People all over the place have heard about Marquand, and are intrigued. They ask how we make our worship so varied, so vital, so inclusive, so creative.

It’s a good narrative that we tell. It’s a good vision. And I know, from the testimony of a huge number of alumni, that its often only after people leave here that they discover the effect Marquand has had on them; they tell me that this diverse, idiosyncratic, and sometimes slightly chaotic mix of traditions has served to shape their own spiritual growth at a depth they didn’t even realize was happening while they were actually here.

All of that is good. But it would be dishonest not to admit that in the everyday, there are times when—in the moment—people find Marquand frustrating and too much to deal with. One person’s inclusive language is, to someone else, an offensive rewriting of their tradition. One person’s exciting revelation can be bewildering or alarming to other people. Some people sense sincerity in an extempore prayer, while for others anything less than a carefully and artfully pre-written prayer lacks seriousness.

We are—a bit like ancient Jerusalem, perhaps—a great combination of people from up and down the land, and all around the globe, coming in to God’s house, and there discovering that our local habits are by no means universal. We tell the story of inclusion and embrace. But we have also made the surprising discovery that we are so diverse that any one of us can, at times, feel quite alien.

*** ***

One of the things that has been writ large in public life over recent months is the negative effect of deceptive narratives. People are sick of being lied to; tired of finding that while some facts were spun, others were concealed, and what they were given was nothing like the truth. People are angry to find that they have been promised one thing, only to have the promise whipped away from under their feet. It’s happened countless times around the world in recent years, and the cumulative effect of spin and lies is coming home to roost. The feeling of betrayal that has crept across Europe and America in the past couple of years is palpable.

Now I’m talking today about worship, not politics. But the political stage is the backdrop to absolutely everything else at the moment. And so I’ve been thinking lately about how we frame our narratives: about what it means to tell the truth; about what it means to be both truthful and inspiring.

Everyone knows that when you are dealing with information, you can produce quite different results depending on the way you present the facts—and that is not necessarily sinister. Read your classmates’ papers, and you will see the same facts presented in quite different ways, because the facts are marshaled to forward an argument: we do that all the time in our books and articles and papers. But the more you hone those skills, the more you become aware that, given a degree of power and a willingness to sacrifice ethics, it wouldn’t be that hard to learn how to manipulate the facts, spinning some and concealing others, in order to maximize power and control outcomes.

But there are modes of speech where another kind of spinning takes place: this time not unethical, but inspirational. A way of setting out the stall not merely as a set of facts, but as possibilities that spark the imagination, that draw the creative mind into play, that inspire a series of unpredictable but positive reactions. These modes of speech are called aspirational narratives, and they spin the facts, not to maintain or hold on to power; but to invest power in others.

An aspirational narrative is a story about how the world could be, told in order to bring that story into reality. It can be found in a work of fiction, a poem or a speech, it can be in a sermon, or a private correspondence. It can appear in a mission statement—or even in a strategic plan. It’s what an author gives to their reader, what a good mentor presents to a student, a parent to a child, a coach to an athlete, a pastor to her flock. Aspirational narratives are not merely candid about how things are, and they are certainly not cynical (because that shuts down the imagination). They are delivered in the optative mood—and you have to pay attention to spot that in the English language because we don’t have a conjugated form of the optative; it’s created by the way the words are arranged for a hopeful, positive effect. It gives us the best reading of how things are, and hints at the promise of how things could be.

Mr Thomas Jefferson’s words—among the most inspiring ones of the Founders—are by definition aspirational narratives. They ring with hope and dignity. You don’t have to read very much history to discover that he was certainly not writing about a state of affairs that he had already brought into being—either in the nation, or in his own household—and right to the end of his life he grappled with the serious contradictions between idea and reality. But the gap between his words and the degree of progress he made towards realizing them doesn’t make them dishonest words. We recognize them even now as aspirational narratives: words to live into; visions to stretch towards.   Mr Jefferson was brilliant, and deeply thoughtful; I think you can construe from elsewhere in his writings that he knew very well the world might never perfectly realize this vision of an equal society. But that’s no reason not to state the ideal, and no reason not to strive towards it. As Oscar Wilde said a century and a half later, in one of his famous one-liners: “Shoot for the moon: you may miss, but at least you will land among the stars.”

Thousands of years earlier, King David* wrote: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” an aspirational narrative if ever there was one. The heart of the world lies in the divided mess of Jerusalem, and in the long and fractured history of that beautiful city, peace has mostly eluded her. King David—like Mr Jefferson—was not afraid to speak of what could be, and, in fact, he states candidly both the aspiration and the call to action that is needed to realize the vision. “Pray,” he says, “for the peace of Jerusalem,” and then he adds: For the sake of my community and my companions, I will say, “Peace be within you.”

Older translations say ‘for the sake of my brothers and my companions,” and most newer translations, aiming for gender inclusivity, render this as “for the sake of my family and friends.” But that seems to imply that David is concerned only with the people who matter to him—his circle of special people. ‘Family’, of course, can cover a great many relationships, not all of them joyous. Nonetheless, ‘family and friends’ denotes the group of people you include in your life events—holidays, weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, and so on. But that is not quite what David is talking about. By companions he means the people he hangs out with, the people he chooses to be with. But by brothers, he means the people in his wider community that he can’t get away from, but doesn’t necessarily find easy on a personal level. It might perhaps be better rendered with this phrase:

“For the sake of my community, and my companions, I will say “Peace be within you, Jerusalem.”

Your companions are the people you hang out with, and perhaps a wider circle of people you feel at ease with, and are happy to see. Your community includes the rest of the people—the ones you don’t understand, the ones you don’t get or who don’t get you, the ones who make you feel threatened or anxious, the classmates who so irritatingly disagree with you, the chapel- or church-goers whose prayer style or doctrinal statements make you feel awkward or uncomfortable.

David prayed, not just for the sake of his companions, but for the sake of the whole community. The ones he liked and the ones he didn’t. The ones he agreed with and the ones he didn’t. “For the sake of my community, and my companions, I will say, “Peace be within you.” David’s vision was not only hopeful for peace in his own private life. All truly aspirational narratives extend far beyond your own little circle: they hope for the wellbeing of the world beyond—which means that they always end up being costly as well as inspiring.

*** ***

There was never going to be a complete and permanent peace in Jerusalem, but he prayed for it anyway. Not just for himself and his friends, but because the community needs peace.

There is not too much peace in America right now. But we should pray for it anyway. Because the community needs peace.

There is not always peace in Marquand Chapel. But we should pray for it anyway. We should keep talking our aspirational narrative; keep telling ourselves that we can worship together and find fellowship with people who are not like us. Because if we can’t do it here, how are we going to make peace in the streets of New Haven, and New York, and Chicago, and D.C., and Houston, and every other town and city across this land?  Our narrative is really about something far bigger than a program of Divinity School worship. It’s about forming ourselves as people who can take the lead in the big wide world—who can confidently say that we know a religiously diverse community is possible, because we’ve been there; who can say that the richness of an inter-faith community is a genuine alternative possibility to a world that keeps blowing itself up, because we’ve been inside a microcosm of that very thing. Our aspirational narrative has a far bigger embrace than just our little community. It’s a vision to live into for the sake of the world, and it is fueled by those little shafts of light that shine through on the days when we are at our best.

So pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

And pray for the peace of America.

Pray for the peace of New Haven, and Yale Divinity School, and Marquand Chapel—for the sake of your companions, and for your community too.

And shoot for the moon. Because we will miss it, I’m sure. But we may just end up among the stars.

notes:

*King David is traditionally the figure to whom the Psalms are attributed, but was not necessarily the  author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Jerusalem”

I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
it’s ridiculous.

There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Jerusalem” from Red Suitcase.

Advent: Early or Late?

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

….Though an army camp against me, my heart shall not fear…
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!       Psalm 27

If you’re reading this on (or before) the first of December, you may already have had a Christmas card or two fall through your letter box. I love receiving Christmas cards, from the first ones that arrive on the first of December and those with a panicked message of lateness on Christmas Eve, to those that come with a sheepish apology around the third of January. Whenever they arrive, early or late, I’m always cheered up by this annual reminder of how many friends I have.

I have to admit, though, that I find it slightly depressing when the commercial side of Christmas begins way ahead of schedule, and shop displays and Christmas lights go up in November or even earlier. So when the very first cards arrive in early December, I’m usually feeling a bit “bah-humbuggy’ about it all! But when the last posting day is upon us and I realize I’m behind schedule, then I envy the foresight of my early-bird friends and vow to be more like them next year. Certainly Christmas can sometimes feel less like a feast to be celebrated and more like a deadline to be reached… Christmas creates deadlines for all sorts of people – church leaders, school teachers, retailers and many others. Such moments focus very sharply our sense of time, and being bound by time.

In devotional terms, though, following the seasons of the Church year can leave us with this feeling that things never happen at the right time. The realities of life rarely match up with the mood of the Church year; they always come too early or too late. If, as we travel through Lent or Advent, life is delivering abundant joys and happiness, the sombre tone of the season never quite hits home. But it’s even harder to deal with if you are feeling down or low when Christmas or Easter arrives. A few years ago, a friend and I wrote to each other all the way through Lent, sharing our reflections on the season. She was a great devotee of retreats and silent space; I was the mother of a newborn baby and silent spaces were few and far between. Our Lenten experience was quite profound that year, as we were both going through extreme lows for quite different reasons. On Easter Day my friend emailed to say, “I’m so fed up with the Church year. Resurrection? I don’t think so. I feel like I need to stay in Good Friday for a good long time yet.

All too often we have this dislocated feeling of being out of time, out of step, and Christmas is a particularly difficult season to negotiate if you don’t feel like celebrating. It’s not only the Church but the whole culture that feeds us an exaggerated image of happiness and celebration, which sets us up to feel very low if we are not in the party mood. Most of our life is lived in this in-between place, where things come early or late, but never on time.

Psalm 27 is sometimes given the title “A Triumphant Song of Confidence.” I think it reads more like a defiant song than a triumphant one. The way the psalmist mixes up his tenses creates an interesting effect of reflecting on pasts promises fulfilled, asking for something to happen right now, stating that it’s already happened and confidently predicting that it will happen in the future. He seems, at one and the same time, to be giving thanks for something that is already here and asking for help in the middle of trouble. There’s an urgent anxiety about his cry for help: “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me…” (v9). Perhaps there’s even a touch of the childish promise to be good if God will only help him: “Teach me your way, oh Lord, and lead me on a level path” (v11). The psalmist’s experience reminds me of the dislocation of our lives from the Church seasons. God’s gifts do not always come according to our timetable or at the moment when we think we need them. Advent and Christmas promise us God’s presence, and yet it seems that sometimes God hides his face and is nowhere to be found. God’s timetable is not the same as ours, and our sense of need or urgency doesn’t twist God’s arm into a response.

When I was a child we had a maiden Aunt, a remarkable and wonderful woman, who always, absolutely dependably, forgot all our birthdays. But at some random time of year – May or July or November – s big parcel would arrive full of presents. They might say “Happy Birthday” or “Happy Christmas” regardless of the time of year. It seemed madly exciting to us to get a completely unexpected present just when life was going through a tedious moment. It was always books (she taught English literature and was bang up to date on all the latest releases) and they were always wonderful. The same aunt, when we went to stay, would sneak into our bedroom just before sunrise, pull jumpers over our pyjamas, and put our bare feet into shoes with no socks (against Mum’s rules!), and quietly exit the house with us, leaving everyone else asleep. Then she would pile my sister and me into her very old Austin and drive us down to the beach. This was in Somerset, where the beach goes out for about two miles at low tide. There she would drive out across the sand – again, strictly against the rules, but there is no one there at sunrise to make you obey the rules – and out of the car would appear a Primus stove, an omelette pan, eggs, butter, salt, pepper and fresh bread. We ate omelettes and drank tea as the sun rose over the sea, and then went paddling in our pyjamas, breathing in great gulps of early morning salty air. The woman was a genius, and we adored her.

Whenever I forget a Christmas card, a birthday card, or whatever, I think of Auntie Margaret. Please God, let me be like her. I hope I never become the kind of person who demands diamonds and perfume on the right date. I hope I do become the kind of person who remembers to send gifts that someone will love, instead of gifts to satisfy a deadline. Whenever God’s gifts elude me – when there is no joy at Easter, no wonder at Christmas, or simply no sense of God’s presence in between times – again I think of Auntie Margaret. The gift will arrive at the right moment, even if not on the ‘right’ date. Joy on demand is joyless indeed, but omelettes on the beach and presents in July I can seriously live with.
If we confidently depend on the knowledge that God’s gifts, unlike Santa’s, are not delivered to a deadline, then we can live within the seasons knowing that the gift they representwill come to us, unexpectedly, not necessarily on time. We can say with hope, or even a little holy defiance, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
This is an excerpt from Beginnings and Endings (and what happens in between) : Daily Readings from Advent to Epiphany.
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Happy Advent to one and all!

Mothers’ Day

This Sunday will be celebrated in the USA and Canada as “Mothers’ Day”. It has different historical origins from the UK’s “Mothering Sunday” which is always kept on the fourth Sunday of Lent. The UK version dates back to an old Church custom of connecting with “mother church”. In the USA, however, Mothers’ Day began in 1905, the year Anna Jarvis’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Anna Jarvis proposed a holiday that would honor mothers and their work. Ann Reeves Jarvis had been a peace activist, who notably had cared for wounded soldiers in the Civil War, caring equally for soldiers who had fought on either side, both as an act of compassion for the individual men, but also as a means of protest against the war. Men may fight their battles, Reeves Jarvis thought, but mothers do not want their men to go to war at all. (One is put in mind of other movements of women with similar aims – such as the Women for Peace movement Northern Ireland (later  known as Peace People). Led by Mairead Maguire (nee Corrigan) and Betty Williams, women joined hands across the divide to try to find a peaceful resolution for the Troubles.)

On both sides of the pond, though, despite their different origins, Mothers’ Day gradually morphed into a commercialized event that is purely an appreciation day for mothers. The commercialization began even in the first few years after Jarvis began the tradition, and she was horrified at the sentimentalization of her original idea.  Why? On one level, it’s nice to celebrate people you love: what could be wrong with that? But Anna Jarvis’s upset was well founded. Because unfortunately there is now something spectacularly skewed about the way these days are named and celebrated.

For one thing, not everyone has good feelings about their own mothers, about being a mother, or about the loss or pain associated with motherhood. And for another, it isn’t only biological mothers who “mother” people–a whole host of aunts, uncles, friends and relations take part in the nurturing work that “mothers” people into adulthood. But a much stronger critique comes in observing how the day is celebrated culturally. In conversations over the last couple of weeks in my city, I’ve heard one woman after another say that they will be celebrated by their family “giving me a day off”. It seems to me that naming a day – one day a year – on which mothers are relieved from the generally accepted duties of motherhood (cooking, cleaning, looking after everyone) reinforces the very things we ought to be challenging. One day a year on which I’m not expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and other household management? That’s a huge backwards step from celebrating women like Ann Reeves Jarvis and Maired Maguire who have spent their lives as peace activists. Is one day of appreciation for women, without challenging the cultural assumption that their primary function is as domestic servants, really something to celebrate? How about the rest of the family learns to shoulder their share of the burden all year round?

Churches are under considerable pressure to go along with this cultural event, forgetting the idea of mother church; forgetting the laudable aims of women who have given their lives in the promotion of a better and more peaceful world, and instead finding themselves pressurized to a schmaltzy and narrow celebration of motherhood, which, in reality, diminishes our idea of motherhood, exalting the domestic sphere and ignoring the wider picture altogether.

Here is a clip from something I wrote in a book a few years back, raising a small but important challenge: if we are going to celebrate Mothers Day, we need to free ourselves from its commercialization and think differently about what we are doing, promoting the place of women in the world, understanding the wider notion of mothering, and not reinforcing a worn-out idea of mothers as martyrs to the family.

 

While Jesus was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
Matthew 12: 46-50

“… While, on the surface, it seems a nice idea to spend a whole Sunday celebrating mothers, it has a complicated flip-side. Why only mothers? Why not fathers, grandparents, children, aunts and uncles, siblings, single people, childless people, and more? The romanticisation of the mother-child relationship is full of fraught overtones: what does it say to women who are not mothers? Are we suggesting that their contribution to the world is somehow less valuable, less worth a celebratory day? The new focus on Mothers’ Day comes with barbs for those who are childless but not by choice, for those who are infertile, who have suffered miscarriages, for women whose children have died or are estranged, or for single or widowed fathers.

Some years ago I suffered an early miscarriage and, given the brevity of the experience, was almost surprised to find that while the world continued to turn unawares, I was quite washed away with grief. One of my closest friends at the time was a woman older than me who had longed for children but never been able to have any herself. Rather than talking interminably about my situation, she simply checked up on me regularly to make sure that I was eating and sleeping properly, and getting out and having some fun.

After a few weeks, Mothering Sunday loomed on the horizon. I began to tell myself that I would be fine by then, how I would think happy thoughts and get through the Sunday services without a worry. Then my friend called.  ‘I’ve booked a cottage in the country,” she announced. “Inform your church you are taking the weekend off. You need to come away with us. We will not spend a single moment thinking about mothers and children; we will have a mid-Lent feast that focuses on the family of the Church. That’s you and me, kid.’

She was so right. The last thing I  (and the six other men and women she had invited away for the weekend) needed was to dwell on our raw and recent griefs, and have them aggravated by children with bunches of flowers and the vaguely implied message that real women are mothers. Instead, we cooked and talked, laughed and sang, prayed and gave thanks for community and friendship and life in all its fullness. I came home at the end of the weekend with hope reborn in my heart that life would go on.

Jesus’ words concerning his mother and family are among his “hard sayings” – they sound rude and lacking in compassion, and hard to reconcile with the Jesus who seems to care about everyone everywhere. Yet maybe, rather than rejecting his own mother and brothers, he is calling us to broaden our vision of community, so that we can encompass those who cannot retreat to tight-knit family units of their own.

I think it would be worth putting serious thought into reshaping today’s feast so that family life is placed firmly within the wider context of the community of Mother Church. We may fear an outcry if we shifted the focus of Mothers’ Day, but our concept of family life will be sad and inadequate if we allow it to be constructed for us by advertising campaigns and the greeting card industry. If, like Jesus, we have the courage to embrace a much wider concept of community than the nuclear family, then we too might find that we don’t have to accept our culture’s narrow and exclusive myths about families.

from  Giving it Up: Daily Bible Readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day

post originally published in 2014