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Getting to Easter

Holy Saturday is the day of death, poised between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For me, it feels like the place I’ve mostly been these last few months, waiting for my wife to die and hoping that there’s resurrection. And her’s hasn’t been the only death recently. I’m learning that that the death of loved ones is inevitable if you get to my age (I’ve just been sent my Medicare Part A card until Speaker Ryan snatches it away from me, and have also picked up my British State Pension). There have been many, too many, intimations of mortality.

And so I wait for Easter. Will I recognize signs of resurrection when I see them? The gospel accounts suggest that Jesus’s followers didn’t, for they were seeking, not resurrection but restoration, the recovery of what was lost. Mary mistakes the risen Jesus for a gardener; and two disciples walk with Jesus to the village of Emmaus, unaware that it’s him until his characteristic act of breaking bread.  But the past has gone forever, and all the tears in the world can’t undo the present and restore what’s lost. Faith is the triumph of hope, not of nostalgia.

I talk to Udho every day, and am not too troubled by her lack of response. Faith tells me that she has a life beyond my life, so I must let her go and accept that she has new things to do and be. Just occasionally, I seem to catch a glimpse of her smile, an echo of her laughter. That must be enough for now, though I wish there were more.

As for the future? Well, tomorrow, I shall play a record of Maria Callas singing the Easter Hymn from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and echo her words: “Inneggiamo il signor non è morto”: – “Let us rejoice, for the Lord is not dead”. Some of my friends will tell me: “Christ is Risen”. And I shall respond: “He is Risen indeed”. This year, I’m keenly aware that there is real suffering, actual death, before there can be resurrection. And I shall hope to recognize it when it comes to me.

Death

My dear friend Gerrie Lubbe died recently. He was given a hero’s funeral service at his church in South Africa. Gerrie played a brave and important role in the freedom struggle there, and was the first president of the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with whom he worked closely, was present yesterday to see Gerrie off. But where to? What do Christians believe about death?12469615_917764874976643_3971013783331307134_o

Christmas draws our attention to the fact of death. Indeed, T.S. Elliot called Christmas “this birth season of decease”. For, as he put it, through the medium of the Magi:

“There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt.”

Yet the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew are shot through with references, not just to new life, the birth of a baby, but to death. For example, the ancient Simeon, when he recognizes the infant as the fulfilment of God’s promises, asks for his own death:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation…”

But Simeon promised Mary, not peace but agony: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also”. Prescient words: John records how, thirty years or so later, Mary was at the foot of the cross, on which her son was hanging and dying.images (1)

Too many people make religion either exclusive and bad-tempered, or else cloying and sentimental. Death is what some nasty religious people think is what should happen to those who believe and act differently from them. Or else it’s what mawkish religious people hope is a chance to enter an existence where things simply get better: “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”, as Joe Hill’s 1911 parody of the hymn “In the sweet By- and By” has it.

No wonder Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud thought, in rather different ways, that religion offered an illusory vision of a heavenly reality that sensible and reasonable people should reject. However, their beliefs somewhat misunderstand the Jewish roots from which they sprang. For most of the Old Testament period, Jews had no positive convictions about a warm and fuzzy hereafter. As the psalmist put it: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!” (Psalm 27:13). Even more bluntly, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote that:

“whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun” (9: 4-5)

Religion is mostly at its best when it’s forthright and challenging.

There’s no space here to frame a coherent Christian understanding of death. I doubt that there is one, anyway; only an impressionistic, elusive poetic sense that there may be more to life than meets the eye.

I offer two brief, elusive impressions.

First: our knowledge that we will certainly die should make us think hard about what we want to make of the gift of life. Some find the author of Ecclesiastes grim and hopeless and so, to a point, he is. But only to a point. Mostly, he challenges us to make the most of this life. For a summary of how to, I find John Wesley helpful: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

My second impression: as all aging people do, I occasionally think of death as the closure to life and wonder, “Is that it?”, partly in the sense of whether something comes after, but mostly to ponder the desolate thought that I may not have taken full advantage of the gift of life. I may have been an unprofitable servant. At such times, it’s not to scientists and religious theologians to whom I mostly turn to elucidate so great a mystery, but to poets and mystics. I’m happy, for example, to sing wonderful doggerel like:

“When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to Thee;
I will ever give to Thee.”

I’m even happier to ponder the words of the extraordinary Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-73). Today, I read them and think of Gerrie, and am thankful for all he was and hopeful for all that might yet be:

“Knock, And He’ll open the door
Vanish, And He’ll make you shine like the sun
Fall, And He’ll raise you to the heavens
Become nothing, And He’ll turn you into everything”

Religion

I like religion less and less, the older I get. To explain why, let me mention two examples from my own family of Christian faith. The smell of corruption that presently emanates from the Vatican is stomach-churning, and Pope Francis’s attempts to clean house seem to have called forth from his critics, not repentance but denial, dissimulation and unseemly finger-pointing. In the USA, many Christian politicians pander to people’s greed, fears and stupidity rather than appeal to their sense of justice, compassion and fair play. I was very amused, years and years ago, when a distinguished Christian leader observed ruefully that, in the church, very often it’s not cream but scum that rises to the top. Not that I quite believe him. My own experience is that it’s mediocrity that often wins out, with the trivial telling the talented what to do.

Look at the wider world of religions, and much the same could be said. And I haven’t even mentioned the propensity of some religious people to turn to violence in order to further their demented and wicked causes.

I write these words, ironically, upon my return from church. Why, I ask myself, do I still attend to the things of religion?Sistine_Chapel

Two reasons, I suppose.

The first is that I take John Wesley’s point that it’s difficult to be a solitary Christian (or Muslim, Buddhist, whatever). There are many excellent religious people and I find that they keep me in faith and hope and love. They have done, throughout my life. When I lived in India, forty years ago, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Parsees and others looked after me, who was the newcomer and the immigrant, because they had been shaped by their beliefs to love the stranger. Long years later, they continue to inspire me to show compassion, and to want to be good.

The second reason is that religion has all the best stories, and I’ve found them to be life-changing and life-enhancing. As I enter into the Christian story and stories, my life is challenged and changed by what Christianity’s narrative tells me about how to be a grown up in a world where it’s so much easier to be a 63-year-old perpetual adolescent, whining, entitled and angry. I’m not always as adult as I ought to be, but religion encourages and resources me to try harder.painting_1

The stories of Christmas appeal to me most. So I shall read Matthew and Luke, sing carols, read the season’s best poets, and be grateful that Christianity exists for, without it, such stories would never be told and I would be another person entirely. My gratitude will be tempered by embarrassment and horror at those religious people who, noisy as they are about their beliefs, haven’t got the point.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And a Happy New Year.

‘The years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”’: a story of old age. 2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33

Today’s Bible reading is quite wonderfully told. It has drama, heightening tension, tragedy and pathos. If anyone asks you why people still read the collection of ancient documents we call the Bible, point them to this masterpiece.

It’s a bleak tale of old age. King David’s now an elderly man, almost 70 at a time when people died young and 70 was as much as the luckiest man or woman could hope to reach. But luck seems to have deserted David. The king’s favorite son, Absalom, has risen in revolt against him, determined to wrest the kingdom from his father. David has fled his capital of Jerusalem, the revolt has all but succeeded, but his followers have regrouped for a decisive battle. Before it takes place, David begs his leading men to spare his son. They don’t. David stays back at base camp, waiting for news of the battle and of his son. And when it comes to him, he dissolves into grief: “O Absalom, my son, my son!”david-absalom

The story acknowledges the old king’s agony. Thirty centuries later, we can still be deeply moved by the rawness of his anguish. But the king isn’t the hero of this story; indeed, he’s almost the villain and, in order to understand that, we have to go back a few years and look at David’s private life.

David was never any good at close relationships. He was so obsessed with himself and his own image, he had little time to spare for others. He was too interested in himself to be that interested in others. He could love well, but never wisely.

And he loved Absalom, his third son, best of all. Absalom was the mirror image of what David had been, forty years before, in every way except for what really counts. He was the handsomest man in the kingdom, and David doted on him. Not just David was captivated; Absalom was a charmer, so everyone loved him. But nobody loved him as much as he loved himself. So he came to think that he could get away with anything.

Even with killing a half-brother, called Amnon. The man deserved it, all right. He raped his own half-sister who was Absalom’s full sister. David did nothing, maybe because Amnon was his eldest son and heir. Absalom’s wanted revenge because his honor was touched but he bided his time for two years, pretending that everything was hunky-dory. Then he got Amnon drunk at a party, and had his servants kill him. Absalom went into exile for two years but then came back, forgiven by the indulgent and self-indulgent king.

David’s family was a mess. He was absent when he should have been present, easy-going when he should have been firm, forgiving when he should have punished. No wonder then that Absalom discounted and disdained him. He was a vain peacock, flattered and fawned over by many. Absalom declared himself king, slept with his father’s concubines to show his contempt for the old man, and then set off to defeat and kill his dad.

All went well, to begin with. David had to flee for his life. Yet in the end David was saved by two things. Some of his old comrades stood by him, stiffening his sinews when he thought of giving up. And, just as important, Absalom’s style wasn’t matched by any substance, and he blew it. He was only a pretty boy, puffed up, quite without any real qualities when all the outward gloss melted away.

And so our story begins with David, once almost out for the count, now in with a fighting chance of saving his kingdom. But, and here’s a tragic thing: others had to save it for him; he was too old, too full of misery and self-pity to take the lead in saving himself and others.

When David tells his men that he’ll lead them into battle, they tactfully reply that it’s better that the king stays at base camp. What they really mean is that he’s a hindrance, befuddled with grief and fear and anger, a shadow of his former self, all glory departed. The old or should I say young David would have damned them to hell, and led the charge, anyway. Now, he gives way and agrees to stay out of the way, without any protest at all.

David’s men knew that only he or Absalom could survive the battle, not both, or else the kingdom would fall into devastating and prolonged civil war. So when the old king begged his generals to save his son, their silence spoke volumes. The passage makes it quite clear that all the people heard the king’s plea: it would’ve been shocking to them that he made it, and then that his highest officials disobeyed him. David looked like an old fool, to everyone. In the end, Absalom died a death worthy of his life, fleeing on a mule; his long hair, symbol of his vanity, got caught up in a tree. The mule trotted on, leaving him swinging in the wind. General Joab wounded him with three spear thrusts, then his men finished him off.

Joab and his men let a foreigner, a Cushite, tell the news of his Absalom’s death to David, in case his famous temper lashed out, striking to death the bearer of unwanted tidings. In the event, David simply gives way to weeping and wailing. Instead of riding out to greet and thank the men who’d been willing to give their lives for him, the old man takes to his bed. The king should be the father of his people, but he can’t see past his own grief.

When General Joab pitches up, he’s furious. He says to David:

“Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines… You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.”

This devastating speech makes David see sense. He controls himself, goes out to his men, and offers them his thanks. But he was bitterly angry at Joab’s truth-telling. A few years later, David, on his deathbed, ordered the execution of Joab: a last, final flare up of an exhausted old man’s temper.

For the larger part, after the death of Absalom, David was a busted flush. His followers began maneuvering for prime positions under whoever they bet would soon take over from the old man, and David no longer had the strength or the desire to impose his will on them.4783160968_a0f75d4875_b

This is the story of a man in decline. The Old Testament has a number of things to say about old age. About Moses, for example, the Good Book says that “[he] was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor was his natural force abated.” Well, bully for him, think I, as I squint at my Kindle and take my umpteenth pill of the day. There are other pious scriptural words about older age conferring wisdom, which I would like to believe but mostly don’t. Actually, the greatest biblical passage about old age is in the Book of Ecclesiastes and is truly terrifying. It goes like this:

“Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” ;… in the day when the …  strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when one … rises up at the sound of a bird, …; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors lie in the road; … and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, … the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.”

This chilling portrayal of physical, emotional and mental breakdown isn’t far from David’s experience. He was once Israel’s greatest idol, somewhere between a jock and a rock star. Now, he’s a sentimental old man, confused by what’s happened to him, scared for himself as much as for his son, unwilling to attend to the duties demanded of a king, lost in his memories. That it should have come to this: Israel’s greatest king, from whose descendants the messiah was to come, waiting for others to decide his future, and all but despised as a maudlin ‘has been’ by his own generals.

Old age is cruel, treating some well and others, not so much. It sometimes has a habit of revealing who we truly are. A friend of mine in old age, whom I loved dearly for over 40 years, became almost saint-like as he grew more frail, all his early youthful boastfulness falling away to produce a real mensch, as my Jewish friends say: a person of integrity and honor. Other friends of my youth haven’t produced a harvest worthy of their talent, because some flaw kept them from all they could be.

So I read this story from David’s declining years with enormous admiration for the Bible writer, who didn’t spare this once-great king from the searching light of truth. But I also read it with some compassion for this very flawed, but still quite remarkable man.

And I’m given to think that: we don’t judge Iris Murdoch by her closing days lost in dementia, but by her acute novels that raise issues that matter. We don’t picture Muhammad Ali as a shaky old man felled by Parkinson’s disease but as the graceful, dancing athlete who took out Sonny Liston with humor and grace. We think of David, and look beyond today’s portrait of him as a passive, broken old man used by others for their own advancement, and instead see the courageous young boy who, against all the odds, slew the giant Goliath and put steel back in the spines of the Israelite troops. Each human is not just her finest moment, but neither are we our worst moments, or even some sort of composite of them.808px-David_Slaying_Goliath_by_Peter_Paul_Rubens

What we truly are is known only to God. What we hope for, for David and for all of us who are fortunate enough to meet and greet old age, is that God can make sense of our tangled lives, the good, the bad and the indifferent, and bring out of them: meaning and fulfillment, a miracle of grace.

Two of My Mentors

My dear friend Gerrie Lubbe has written his memoirs, entitled Embraced By Grace: The Story of a White Ant (Potlaka Books, 2014, ISBN 978-0-9814175-1-6). In them, he tells of his life as a white Afrikaaner in South Africa, who grew up dissatisfied with the injustice he saw inflicted on those of a different color. His courage came at a cost to him. You should read the book, and learn his story for yourself, so I won’t comment on it here, except to point to the wonderful work he did as the founding National Director of the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religions and Peace from 1984 to 1994.dt_gerrie

His ability, as a deeply Christian ordained minister, to work with and learn from leaders and ordinary people of other faiths to seek justice and pursue it, is inspirational. We first met at a World Council of Churches sub-unit on dialogue meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the early 90’s. I am proud to know him and to be his friend. Those of us who have spent our lives seeking to live by and point to the good things of religion, rather than its depressing exclusivities and trivial certainties, can find solace, encouragement and hope in Gerrie’s book.

Another, even earlier influence on my developing religious life was that of my teacher, John Bowker. Over his long academic career, he’s had the extraordinary knack of anticipating some of the intellectual challenges to Christian and wider faith from the natural and social sciences, by framing a Christian defense in clear and irenical ways, seeking to promote respect and understanding, even where agreement isn’t possible. His two books about concepts of suffering and death in the world’s religions have haunted my imaginal worlds for decades, and have helped me in dark times.speaker_johnbowker

John turns 80 this year, and I’ll be present at a celebratory lunch for him at the end of July in Magdalene College Cambridge, presided over by its Master, Rowan Williams, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury. A book has just been published in his honor: A Man of Many Parts: Essays in Honor of John Westerdale Bowker on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, edited by Eugene E Lemcio (Wipf & Stock, 2015, ISBN 978-1625640710). I am proud and glad to have contributed a chapter entitled A Pilgrimage of Grace: The Journey Motif in Luke-Acts. I shamelessly commend this book to you, and hope you will buy it in honor of a great scholar and, like Gerrie, a great Christian soul.

Meanings of Christmas

The older I get, the more I think that Karl Barth was right to maintain that religion is unbelief, though not perhaps for the reasons he gave. So much religion is exclusive, trivial and violent.

In this, it’s like any other human creation. One mistake some, though by no means all, non-religious people make is to suppose that, if religion withered on the vine, the world would be a happier place, freed from self-serving claptrap. In reality, religion would simply make way for other nonsensical ideologies and convictions held and practiced by inadequate, damaged and damaging people. Furthermore, since I seem unable to stop being religious, I hope that the life of faith, at its best, is more than self-serving claptrap!

I often think back to the words of my wise teacher, Michael Skinner, who told me that, at the very least, it’s important to support institutional religion because it keeps alive great and transformative stories, by passing them on from one generation to the next. As Christmas approaches, I reflect on how right he was. (And, as I get older, my indebtedness to him and to others who helped shape my life, seems more and more clear to me. But that’s not quite the point I want to make.)download

Too many theologians freeze dry the stories of Christmas, having shaped them into some narrow doctrinal certainties. The accounts of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, the birth of her son, the visits of the shepherds and the wise men, should, instead, warm our hearts, stir our imaginations, and set our minds free to make all sorts of connections between them and us and the world we live in. They should teach us to live and learn us to die (as Lady Jane Grey wrote to her sister, just before her execution), not tell us what to think and do. The great Muslim mystic, Rumi, though educated in theology, got it spot on when he described many such people as ‘curs, baying at the moon’. They claim to know too much, and what they know is often beside the point.

I wish you all a merry Christmas. More than that, I hope that these ancient stories, full of wonder and of all the possibilities of hope, help to transform us into better people, whatever our beliefs or lack of them.

A time for change: an orchestral conductor, a pope, and …

The great English orchestral conductor, Sir Colin Davis, who died earlier this year, was loved as well as revered by many artists who made music with him. They admired his gentleness and kindness. He didn’t carry a loaded gun in his pocket into rehearsals and concerts, as Artur Rodzinski is alleged to have done; he got his results by quite different methods. It wasn’t always so. I remember sitting in on a bad-tempered rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall way back in 1968. Apparently, upon the disintegration of his first marriage in 1964, he spoke to himself in the mirror and told himself that “it won’t do”. And so began a process of change, a happy second marriage, and a growth into greatness. Change takes time: my experience of a difficult rehearsal was four years after his moment of self-discovery. Christians call that moment and continuing process: repentance.sir-colin-davic-conductor-393267

Something similar appears to have happened to Pope Francis, formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio. I’ve just finished Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2013), which is quite candid about his earlier life. His time as provincial of the Argentinian Jesuits split the order and, when he left that post, an outsider was called in to heal the wounds, and Bergoglio was sent into exile to Germany. His actions when Argentina was viciously ruled by a military junta have also come under scrutiny, particularly his treatment of two of his former teachers, whom some claim he informed on to the junta. They were tortured. One died in 2000, convinced that Bergoglio was his betrayer; the other has since been reconciled with him. There are still plenty of people in Argentina who have nothing good to say about him, and believe that all his popular actions as Archbishop and later Pope are self-serving and narcissistic.

Vallely tells us that somewhere along the arc of his ministry, Bergoglio changed. I’ll leave you to read about that for yourselves. It’s fascinating stuff. The conservative opponent of liberation theology became an ardent advocate of God’s preferential option for the poor. An authoritarian lover of the old pre-Vatican 2 traditions has become an advocate of collegiality and inclusiveness. Rather like the great Pope John XXIII, his essentially traditional beliefs seem now to be tempered and even transformed by a generosity of spirit.pope_francis.jpg.size.xxlarge.promo

As I prepare to retire from Methodist ministry at the end of this month, I’ve taken to reflecting on great Christian terms like “repentance”. When I was a pastor of churches, made up of people of all sorts and conditions, it was touching and humbling to see some difficult people change for the better. But I also saw people pretend to change. It wasn’t hard to separate the sheep from the goats. Those who faked transformation did so because they’d been found out, and wanted to wriggle off that hook without any consequences for themselves. So they’d use language about everybody needing to learn, when the truth was that others didn’t need to, and they wouldn’t and possibly even couldn’t.  I was also inclined to look at what people did rather than what they said. It amazes me how many people let phonies get away with it. They shouldn’t: manipulative, self-involved people need to be called out on their actions for the sake of their souls, and for the common good.

I rather think that Pope Francis is a changed man. Let’s see what he does.