maggi dawn

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.
-from the BRF bookshop, paperback or PDF version
-from in the USA

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 (née 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, grandparents, 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 women, 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 romanticization 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, for single or widowed fathers, and for those whose mothers have died.

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. 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, Mothers’ Day 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


“…Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.”

Brendan Kennelly

It’s almost the end of the semester and people are talking about endings. Graduation. Commencement. Retirement. Transfer. The worry that there is unfinished business, that the end will come before we’ve had time to say goodbye properly and tie up all the loose ends hangs around the corners of the mind. Anxiety runs so high that some want to melt away without saying goodbye at all, to go away for the weekend and just not come back.

This stress of endings, does it come from a deeply buried fear of death? Do we worry about all the things we won’t get done because deep down we know there are dozens of things we will never, ever get done? Long ago, I used to imagine that grown up competence would be a state of perfect organization, in which I would finish tasks completely and on time. Life seems to have taught me that the older you grow, the larger and more unmanageable the list becomes of things one “ought” to do, and the real key is to work out what is inevitably going to fall down the back of the desk eventually, and just give it a push. The things that really matter get done. The rest is a distraction.

Looking back and enumerating things not done is the way to despair. But look at all the things that are done. The children somehow raised, the qualifications imperfect but complete, the house that is untidy but not actually falling down, the tasks accomplished, even if the filing is not done, the friendships that survive a hiatus when life intervenes.

Graduating, retiring, transferring, moving. Instead of stressing about the end, look ahead with joy. And leave some of those ends untied, because these are, in fact, new beginnings.

St George’s Day: a poem

Tomorrow is St George’s Day – that day when the English tend to get embroiled in arguments about whether this is or is not really a national day, about the fact that St George wasn’t even English, and sooner or later someone will point out that it’s also the day Shakespeare was born and then, years later, died on his own birthday, and wouldn’t he make a better patron saint? with it all. Let us instead enjoy the inimitable humour of U.A. Fanthorpe, who retells the story of “St George and the Dragon” first by letting the dragon tell the story, then by giving voice to the girl, who – as is so often the case in life – is present in the painting but not in its title, and finally by taking the erstwhile Saint as a metaphor for unearned privilege and power, and putting him firmly in his place.

The poem is a response to Paolo Uccello’s St George and the Dragon – which hangs in the National Gallery in London.


Not my Best Side –  by U. A. Fanthorpe


Not my best side, I’m afraid.
The artist didn’t give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn’t comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don’t mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.


It’s hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn’t much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon–
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl’s got to think of her future.


I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can’t
Do better than me at the moment.
I’m qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don’t you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don’t
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don’t you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You’re in my way.

Myrrh: a new verb

A late afternoon phone call. A few bits of admin to tidy up. Another round of thanks for a fantastic job done. Then, just before signing off, I told him: “I myrrhed the wall again.”img_8393

“Of all the things that came out of last week,” he said, “a new verb was the last thing I expected.”

Ted Lyddon Hatten became an instant friend, and collaborator in the ritual arts, when we met at the Venice Colloquium in 2015. Shortly afterwards I invited him to come to Yale to spend a week as our artist-in-residence at Marquand Chapel.

He shipped over various boxes of art materials, including a packet of liquefaction — the beautiful-but-sinister, extra-fine sand that smothers the landscape after an earthquake. Then he asked us to save and air-dry the coffee grounds from our morning coffee-hour, every day for two weeks before he arrived. And, like Nicodemus to the deposition of Jesus, he brought with him a hundred pounds of myrrh.

All of these materials were used in “dry img_8431painting”;  myrrh layered over coffee, layered over liquefaction, and highlighted with fine white sugar. As the days elapsed, a huge vine crept further and further across the chapel floor, and then, overnight, an immense one-eyed feather appeared in the corner, as if dropped from a seraphom’s wing.

The symbolism of the materials emerged as Ted engaged the community in conversation. ‘What does coffee-hour mean to you?’ he asked, ‘what is the essence of the conversations that we have saved in these grounds?’ At first the predictable, heart-warming answers flowed: I talk to people who are like life support, I wouldn’t make it through without them; coffee hour is a chance to engage informally with professors as well as peers; it’s when we exchange news and pick up notices; coffee quite simply gets my eyes open for the next chunk of the day. A short pause, and then the unsayable was said by one lone voice. ‘The coffee we drink is actually pretty bitter. And sometimes our conversations are bitter too.’ Silence fell around the room. Eyes were cast down; heads nodded, no-one spoke. This community where so much good happens has its griefs and divisions too; so much passion for truth and activism comes with its own bittersweet price.

The story of the week was drawn from the sixth chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet caught sight of God — “high and lifted up, and the hem of his garment filled the temple”. The hem, mind you: not the entire divine being, just a couple of inches at the bottom of God’s coat entirely filled one of the largest structures in the ancient world. No wonder the “foundations of the temple shook”, and suddenly the sight of a terrifying, destabilizing material such as liquefaction began to make sense as a symbol in worship. No wonder Isaiah stood awestruck at the sight of those fantasy-land winged creatures fluttered around the skirts of the divine presence.

Myrrh is well known as a religious symbol for death and burial. Less well-known, perhaps, is its earthly context as a self-healing resin produced by the dindin tree to seal wounds to its trunk or branches. Harvested, dried, and cut fine, it becomes the heady and expensive incense that smells like church. A symbol of death was transformed, in this particular ritual art, into a symbol of healing, life, resurrection. And the whole picture was grounded by… well, by the coffee grounds. Strong smelling, dried and with the life squeezed out, the remnants of sweet and bitter conversations, the coffee spread across the floor, un-moored by the liquefaction, and pressed down by the healing power of myrrh, the heady smell of the sacred remixed with the dregs of everyday life.

No-one could quite believe all this art was deliberately ephemeral, and when Ted invited the congregation to gather up the myrrh in tiny jars and take it out across the campus, spreading it wherever healing seemed to be most needed, no-one moved for several minutes. And then the whole act of worship was unmade, harvested, made ready to take out into the world.

We packed the artworks, the myrrh, and the liquefaction to ship to Ted’s next destination. We swept the floor and tidied up the space, and then, suddenly registering our tired minds and aching muscles, planned to debrief over supper and a bottle of wine before heading our separate ways. But as we stood up to leave, there was one last bag of myrhh left unpacked. Outside the window it was snowing gently, and the afternoon light just beginning to fade. ‘Let’s walk the walls,’ I said.

Outside we walked through the snow, round the perimeter of this beautiful building, where so much good happens, but in all our striving after excellence, our foundations are sometimes unmoored. Faith is found, and lost, and found again, friends are made and unmade, ideals clash and hearts are broken as often as they are mended. We sprinkled the grains of myrrh along the walls and the borders as silent prayers, myrrh for healing the shaken foundations and the bittersweet tensions.

A week later the snow was melted, and the early sun had baked the myrrh into caramel streaks along the pink granite as I walked the walls once again, silently sprinkling a little myrrh for healing, self-preservation, new life. Myrrh. A new verb. A new way to pray.





February 27, 2016

40 ways: keeping a joyful, thankful, holy Lent

Lent begins on Wednesday February 10th 2016;  it lasts a bit over 6 weeks, or around 40 Days. So here are 40 ideas for keeping Lent. The Great Commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your giving it up heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself” (with the implication that caring for God’s earth is rolled into the bargain) so I’ve thought up 40 ideas for keeping Lent that appeal to the creative and literary, to the development of community and relationships, to promote social action, and to encourage ecological responsibility, as well as individual spiritual concerns. You could:

  • choose just one of these (such as writing a thank you note) and do it every day.
  • choose one category and repeat it throughout Lent.
  • choose one from each category to do throughout Lent.
  • agree with a group of friends, or with your congregation, on one or more of these to practice together.

If you are very organised and energetic, I suppose you could even do them all. But I think it unlikely.

1. Start or join an online book club and read a Lent book with others.
2. Start or join a local book club to read a Lent book with others.
3. Watch “40” by Si Smith
4. Choose one great novel you have never read, and read it this Lent. Middlemarch, or To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance. Is there a character you closely identify with?
5. Choose a great novel you have read before, and re-read it. Take your time. What do you see this time that you didn’t see before? A character you didn’t notice, a theme you missed the first time, a theme that touches you now because 5/10/20 years on you see the world differently?
6. Choose one new musician or artist and listen to their work regularly throughout Lent. Listen to the words. Listen to the tone, the melody, the structure, the texture of the music. Why does it move you?

Social/community spirituality
7. Say sorry. Where is there a relationship that is cooled, ruptured, upset? Say sorry.
8. Write a random thank you note (or email, but handwritten is so lovely!). Who do you appreciate?
9. Make a list of your friends. One per day, send a brief email, make a phone call or post a brief note to say hello. Keep it short and do-able: the point is to keep in touch, not write a novel!
10. Keep a group journal. See here for Steve Taylor’s Advent Journal, and adapt it for Lent.
11. Invite friends for a Simple Sunday Soup lunch. The company is the point. Eat together. Simple, unfussy food; good, sustaining company.
12. Make a point of smiling and saying thank you to people – in shops, on buses, in pubs, on pavements, to delivery people, to teachers and roadsweepers and vicars, and…
13. Power down. See whether you can agree a no-phones at meals policy in your home, switch off all technology 30-60 minutes before bedtime, and make sure you have 30 minutes of uninterrupted time with the person(s) you love the most several times a week.

Spirituality and prayer
14. Don’t give up cake, or chocolate. Instead, give up inherited ideas about God that cripple your soul. See here for more.
15. Read all the way through one Gospel of your choice. About half a chapter a day, or less if you pick Mark.
16. Say a prayer of thanksgiving every day. Thank God for the things you usually take for granted: food, clothes, shelter, life itself.
17. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, and learn to keep still and silent for five minutes every day. (You might need to start with one minute and work your way up gradually.) Listen to the inner voice.

Social action
18. Take your unwanted clothes and goods to the Goodwill/Oxfam/charity shop.
19. Volunteer some time at a local charity.
20. Make a donation to a charity.
21. Join the dots between prayer and action: choose something to pray for *and* give time or money to.
22. Find out which of your local schools needs volunteers to hear children read.
23. Revive a medieval habit: reduce your household bills by eating more simply, and give the money saved to the poor. (Combine with no. 11 to make it a community exercise.)

Ecological/environmental – form a new habit in Lent to care for the earth.
24. Change the light bulbs in your house to eco-bulbs, and turn off lights when you leave the room. (Note: that thing about flourescent bulbs using as much energy to turn on as they do to burn for 30 minutes? It’s an urban myth. Turn them off.)
25. Turn the heating down by one or two degrees
26. Hang up your laundry instead of using the dryer.
27. Unplug your appliances when you aren’t using them. Do the earth a favour, and save around $100 US/£60 GBP a year as well, which you could give to charity or church.
28. Learn how to reduce your energy consumption. (Bonus: your bills will go down so you can give a little more away!)
29. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle i) – reduce food wastage. Shop with a list; use up leftovers, only buy and cook what you can eat and really need.
30. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle ii) – spend a couple of hours one weekend thinking about your shopping habits. How can you buy less, avoid buying what you don’t really want or need, eliminate shopping for leisure, buy vintage, buy fairtrade. Fairtrade USA  — Fairtrade UK
31. Use your bicycle, the bus, or share car journeys. Less fuel used = happier earth.
32. Find a source of locally grown food and support it, or grow something yourself.

Joy-inspiring spiritual practices.
33. Pause 4 or 5 times today to give thanks for what you usually take for granted. Food. Shelter. Life. Friends.
34. Take a leisurely walk, alone or with friends. Stop often to look for beauty.
35. De-clutter a cupboard or wardrobe. Give away what you don’t use or need.
36. Sing! Singing fills your system with oxygen and makes you feel better.
37. Look up! What do you miss on your daily journeys by looking down at your feet?
38. Clean the windows. Let the sunshine in!
39. Plant some bulbs in the garden or in a pot for the windowsill.
40.  Say thank you to others, for simple things. Tell people when you appreciate their kindness or value their friendship. Don’t wait to give a eulogy: tell them now.

For more on Lent: check out my book – Giving it Up: Daily Readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day

Saving Daylight 2am on Saturday night, the clocks will go back in the United States. In the UK, this twice a year ritual of messing about with time is known as “British Summer Time”, a title which often gives rise to wry comments during a poor summer. Here in the United States it’s called Daylight Saving, which one Robertson Davies (1913-1995) found just as much a misnomer as “British Summer Time” seems to me.

“I don’t really care how time is reckoned so long as there is some agreement about it,” wrote Davies, “but I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind. I even object to the implication that I am wasting something valuable if I stay in bed after the sun has risen. As an admirer of moonlight I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.”

(Robertson Davies, The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks, 1947, XIX, Sunday.)

Thanks. And I love you.

I’ve been r12122408_904295822983188_3360471954791227625_naising my son by myself for a long time. Sometimes it’s really hard work; often it’s show-stoppingly brilliant; most of the time it’s just normal life. Today, though, came one of those tiny moments in the middle of an unremarkable day that suddenly wakes you up to the wonder and the joy of being in this world.

I get home from a relentlessly tiring week at work. Before I even have time to make a cup of tea, I get a text:
Son: Mum, I need a favor. I’m at my gig, and the drum throne on the stage is way too low for me. Can you bring mine?
Me: Sure. You mean right now?
Son: Yes, please?
Me: B there in 30 mins.
Son: Thanks Mum!

Thirty minutes later I text him that I’ve arrived. I see his six foot three frame loping across the car park, then he disappears between the trees, and then suddenly re-emerges, face smeared with green paint because it’s Homecoming weekend, and that’s what they do here. I think my English boy has become just a tad more American than he realises.

“Mum!” he says (in his deep bass voice that still surprises me every day), “You are the absolute best.”
That’s sweet, I think to myself, but not surprising as I just drove five miles through Friday rush hour to save his gig. And I did bring him up to say please and thank you.

But then he leans over and gives me a huge, unabashed kiss. Right there in the High School car park, where it really, truly isn’t cool to kiss your mum.
“Honestly, Mum. Thanks. And I love you!”

And he lopes off again, drum throne in hand, leaving me feeling calmly, deeply joyful, as if my feet have somehow reconnected with the earth, my heart rejoined my soul. With all the handicaps and shortcomings our nomadic, turbulent life has consisted of, this remarkable young man has grown up in front of my eyes, and he is a wonder to me.

(photo credit: Gabe Simerson)

Naming God: Inclusive and Expansive language

“Like the nine billion names of God
Don’t bring you any closer
To anyone you can simply set eyes on…”          

(Bruce Cockburn, One of the Best Ones)

Language is a powerful tool. How we employ it in theology matters because we are attempting to articulate truth as we find it. But liturgical language has a particular power to reinforce ideas, images and beliefs; it is a performative utterance, enhanced and reinforced by rhythm, poetry, and music, and it sounds the depths within us because it is employed consciously and deliberately in relationship to God and to the worshipping community. It’s hard, then, to overestimate the importance of the language of worship, and in constructing it we need to attend to concerns that are closely entwined: pastoral, theological and aesthetic.

Innovation in liturgical language always has a theological undercurrent, but the initial motivation for change is often pastoral, rising from a concern to ensure that those who come to worship do not feel excluded, disinherited, or undervalued by the language of worship. In response to this, words that imply feudal, military or imperial power, gender attribution, or other culturally sensitive issues, have often been carefully excised from liturgical scripts, rendering unusable for the purposes of worship a whole slew of names for God, such as Father, Lord, King, Warrior, Strong Tower, Shield, Defender.

Problems raised by “Inclusive” Language
There are, though, a number of problems with this exercise. In the effort to make language inclusive to one group, we can inadvertently exclude another, or we find that we have achieved little more than replacing one problem with another. For example, to exclude any charge of patriarchy, liturgical language may be re-cast by replacing all male pronouns with female ones. Certainly this may have some value in shocking the ear, startling the mind into entertaining a new vision of God. But simply employing a new set of pronouns while leaving the structure and enactment of the liturgy exactly the same is at best a temporary fix. If we merely substitute one power structure for another, a new metaphor for an old one, then we are in danger of merely whitewashing sepulchers, rather than drawing closer to truth.

Another approach is to remove gendered language from liturgy altogether, and instead to engage neutral descriptors for God. One of the most-used replacements for Father-Son-Spirit is Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer, which attempts to retain a three-fold character without attributing gender to God. Yet here again the language has theological limitations. It is a seemingly Trinitarian formula, but these three actions properly belong to God in Unity; to assign them to three functionary names is, by implication, to deny the unity of God in creation or redemption. But perhaps worse, used in exclusion, this kind of language describes God in terms of function rather than relationship. It is fundamental to Christian theology that God, while not a corporeal being, is not impersonal. God is not an “it”, and the language of job descriptions doesn’t serve to address God adequately.

A further issue with avoiding particular names or pronouns is the tortured relationship that results with historic texts that are undeniably beautiful, but were not written in inclusive language. Adapting anonymous texts from unknown sources is one matter, but can we really justify updating the elegant and captivating language of John Donne, George Herbert, or John Mason? (If it doesn’t disturb the artistic conscience to replace a pronoun in one of their works, at least one would hope that respect for rhyme and meter might deter us!) But once we realize we cannot rewrite their words, are we really going to accept the impossible choice that the demands of inclusivity impose, and impoverish our experience by never reading them at all?

“Expansive Language”: a better solution?
It’s clear, then, that inclusive language poses significant difficulties. But another approach is available in “expansive language”, which has been an undercurrent in liturgics for some time, and has more recently come to the fore.

Expansive language aims to use as many names and metaphors for God as possible; to stretch the imagination towards God, in order to allow our minds and our mouths to discover that alongside the comfort of loved and familiar imagery, there is also novelty, shock, challenge and joyful surprise in our encounter with the Divine. If we limit our language for political, pastoral or personal reasons we run the risk of domesticating God, or even of making God in our own image. But the beauty of expansive language is that rather than limiting the range of language and metaphor available to us, it opens up many more possibilities. Rather than excluding or excising difficult terms, they are brought into balance by contextualizing them within a broad range of language that doesn’t privilege one name above another. Formulations such as Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer become less loaded with theological problems if they are used alongside other names such as Donne’s “three person’d God”, or the abundance of metaphor within the pages of scripture – God is a rock, God is water, God is a shepherd, a lioness, a mother hen. Traditional names such as Father or Lord can find their place when they are moderated by the use of a plethora of other names, which together serve as a constant reminder that God is far bigger than any one of them. And we are able to engage in a “conversation with the Saints” by reading historical texts, in the language of other ages, thus recognizing that our faith is not merely of the moment, but has an enduring quality.

Walter Brueggemann encourages expanding, rather than restricting the range of terms we use, pointing out that the cutting down of metaphors leads not merely to impoverished language, but to idolatry. “The Biblical defense against idolatry is plural metaphors. If you reduce the metaphors too much, you will end with an idol. So more metaphors gives more access to God…”[1]

What if I don’t like certain names, or don’t use them on principle?
If you are entirely unused to hearing God addressed as mother, it will sound strange the first few times. Or, if you have resolved never to name God with male pronouns, then it may appear retrograde to hear them included. But the invitation to expansive language is a call to stretch the imagination towards God, rather than focusing on those words that touch our own personal reflexes. It is more than merely a request to tolerate things we dislike for the sake of others, even though that has a value in itself; but an invitation to discover a richer imaginative world. Naming God in ways that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable pulls us out of our comfort zones, and thus we are enabled to catch a glimpse of the God who is “other”, a mystery that is beyond human telling.

Expansive language, then, delivers the freedom to play with language creatively, to encompass grammatical elegance and poetic beauty, to include unedited ancient language that underlines the historicity and enduring quality of faith. And the result of expanding rather than eliminating vocabulary is a liturgical language that is more broadly inclusive of those who come to worship. Rather than adjusting our language to remove all offence, then, let us stretch our imaginations: use the names that others use, listen to the various narratives encompassed within this community, and try out the names that emerge from them. Each of us may encounter names that are unfamiliar, curious, or even a little disturbing. But as Desmond Tutu famously said, we are a “rainbow people of God”; our language needs to reflect that diversity, rather than the dullness of neutralization.

Rather than make our capacity for naming God smaller, then, perhaps it would be better to reflect on the fact that some have refused to articulate any name for God as a way of acknowledging the complete otherness of transcendent holiness and mystery. Perhaps it would be better, too, to explore the breadth of the ways God has tentatively been named, always in the knowledge that every name reflects only a tiny part of the reality. We might rediscover, from the scriptures, and from two thousand years of Christian theology, some of the many names of God: helper[2], Lord[3], servant and friend[4]; compassionate father, a mother who breastfeeds her children and knits[5], a tigress, a mother hen, a shepherd, a rock and a tower, a shield and a defence, a landowner, a housekeeper[6], a baker of bread, a mighty ruler and a powerless infant, the light that lightens the world, and the darkness that is above all light[7]; the God who is both love and wisdom,[8] and at the same time the God whose name, however close we try to get to it, will always elude us.

Let’s take all these names and more besides, let’s roll them around in our mouths, and taste and see whether they are, in fact, good; and let us feel our way towards articulating our worship in a way that is both inclusive and respectful of one another as it is honoring and worshipful of the God whose name, as St Paul says, is above all names.[9]

originally published in 2011, Marquand Reader, Yale Divinity School

[1] Brueggemann, in an interview with Krista Tippet for On Being, 2011
[2] John 14:16
[3] John 20:28
[4] John 15:15
[5] Julian of Norwich
[6] Luke 15 – see Letty Russell, Household of Freedom
[7] Dionysius the Areopagite
[8] Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith
[9] Philippians 2:11

Heart or mind? Henri Nouwen on University teaching.

I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gone through the university. I am very grateful for my own education as well as for my years of teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. I still believe that the university is a place where people can develop their minds and learn skills, but also they can develop their personalities and their spiritual life.

For me the university has always been an ideal context for spiritual formation. I always felt that if you want to offer spiritual formation at the university, you can. It is not that the university as such is against spiritual formation. It is just that often the university does not know how to integrate spiritual formation within its academic disciplines.

I must also say that the university is an enormously competitive place. It lives by an ethic of upward mobility. It says, “You have to make it in life. You have to be better. You have to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever, and you have to show that you can do it.” That’s the world. The university has become a place that prepares you for the fights in the world.

But a university with a Christian or a spiritual side to it is good when it allows the people to realize that the deepest human values are beyond competition, that Jesus was into “downward mobility.” He took the descending way. He talked about humility, forgiveness, and healing.

A university education is very important. Here in our community, I work hard to get people into higher education, so that some of our people take degrees in theology or social work. I am not anti-intellectual. Just the opposite! I’m not saying, “Go to a nice little community and spend the rest of your life there.” When a young man comes to work with us, after a few years I say, “Why don’t you go and get a degree?” You have to be as prudent as snakes and gentle as doves.

Now some universities, more than others, are able to live with the tension between downward and upward mobility, the tension between ambition and humility, and so forth. Next fall I’ll be teaching at the university, and I feel very welcome there.

The people there are good and caring people who love Christ and the gospel. But also they have to raise scholarships, give grades, compete, and get students. It’s also a very worldly operation. I don’t think it’s so bad that the tension exists.

The great teachers are always those who can live the tension. They are not criticizing everybody, they’re not complaining. They give young people a vision. In my own family my father was always saying to me, “Be sure that you make a difference in the world. Be sure that I can be proud of you.” And my mother would say, “Be sure you stay close to Jesus.” (And my father agrees with my mother!) Yes, it’s a competitive world, but where is your heart?

an extract from Darryl Tippens’ interview with Henri Nouwen conducted at the L’Arche community called Daybreak near Toronto, Ontario, Canada on December 29, 1993.