from the edge

Saturday 3 March 2018

By Duty Bound

We are now well into the Netflix series, The Crown. It is compulsive viewing, not just because of its brilliant performances and direction but because, for me at any rate, it speaks of things relating to the idea of duty. We seldom hear of duty these days, or think of it in the way the monarchy must think of it, as a binding relationship between love for a people and what must be done for the preservation of an institution. Neither do we think of how duty makes victims of those who are bound by it in the exercising of power, of the choices they must make and of the terrible failures which these choices can bring in their wake.

You could say that when duty is bound by love it ceases to damage those it serves, but from the moment duty hurts or blights another life love has taken leave of duty. No matter what the powerful person’s subjective feelings may be, they are, in this respect, the victims of their own power. This was the situation which Pontius Pilate found himself in.

The idea of duty has gone from being out of fashion to downright embarrassing. It’s not something you talk about. Faithfulness to duty seems like a cold, almost inhuman virtue, having nothing to do with love. Kant would have approved of this uncoupling of love with duty. But we, as a compassionate society, like to think that we would never countenance doing something out of duty which would knowingly hurt another person.

In that case, what of honour, and ‘honour’ killing? What of FGM? For some, these terrible actions are a matter of duty. But are we responsible for such actions when those who do them have an entirely different understanding of duty, of its place and purpose in society, than we do? Of course we are responsible, not only because the law of our country forbids such things, but because we are all responsible for everyone’s wellbeing and safety. Duty and responsibility go together. It follows that we are all accountable to the highest power for the extent that we do or do not exercise what we now call a ‘duty of care’ to others.

Those with the most power and influence bear the greatest responsibility for the duty of care for those whose lives they affect. They are therefore the first to be held accountable to that highest power. They are accountable for the lives which their decisions will affect, inasmuch as they have the power to influence them for better or for worse. Doing the right thing out of love may cost them their position. Pontius Pilate knew this only too well, but Jesus reminds him of who he is ultimately accountable to. At the same time, Pilate is not a free agent. Unlike the betrayer, he is bound by his duty to a system, the Roman Empire. It is Judas who, in reality, held the greater power. He was a free agent, compared to Pontius Pilate.

For the powerful, doing one’s duty is not always commensurate with doing the right thing. Duty bound by love is constrained. Love places a constraint on ill considered actions which arise from a sense of the dominant power of duty, in all positions of leadership. Love makes requirements of duty, not the other way round. But the good news is that love ‘unbinds’. It unbinds leaders who are prepared to take the risk of going beyond duty for the sake of love, when they are in a position to do so.

The Crown reminds us that powerful people are not free agents. They are not always in a position to make decisions in which love has the last say, even if they would like to be. We tend to judge the actions of powerful people from the safe distance of hindsight, forgetting the constraints, mores, and even lack of communication which may have complicated matters still further at the time. We have a duty to these powerful people, a duty coupled with the love we ourselves receive from the highest power and for which we must allow safe passage to whoever has wronged us either recently or in the past. The prayer taught by Jesus obliges us to take responsibility for them in our memories, to forgive, as we have been forgiven, to allow God’s love safe passage.

This is not about whitewashing over the past and pretending that wrongs were never done. Neither is it about forcing ourselves to feel lovingly towards people who have wronged us, when we do not. That is simply to prolong a lie, and the lie may be part of the ongoing pain and damage we are still having to endure. Taking responsibility for those who have wronged us is about owning those fragile human beings, even if they are dead, along with the pain they caused, and may still be causing – even if they are dead. This is as true for nations as it is for the individual. Love dictates duty when it comes to doing what is needed for salvation to happen among us.

Monday 19 February 2018

Wilderness Times

Re-visiting the blog after a 2 month absence (I’ve been working on a new book) is a fast forward exercise, lurching from pre-Christmas to one week into Lent. It feels like a pale replica of how I have always imagined travelling at the speed of light, compressed and outside time. This year’s transition from the post-Christmas season to the beginning of Lent makes life feel compressed, as it might be in inter-galactic space travel. It has left little room for mental or emotional adjustment. We are travelling at the speed of light towards light.

Easter being early this year, there has been very little time to re-adjust to the season of Lent. Epiphanytide ended rather abruptly less than 10 days ago and Lent has suddenly arrived with the first snowdrops. The wilderness season is upon us wrapped into the season of gestation and first growth. In this particular wilderness season, the one which presages ultimate and eternal life, we are obliged to think about what must come first, which is death.

This week’s Observer Magazine features an article about death (‘Memento Mori’ by Emma Beddington). It is a brave article. It also invites Christians to distance themselves momentarily from what we believe about death and re-engage with this unpopular subject from another perspective, the one which many people are most used to, which is simply the fact that ‘WeCroak’.  

‘WeCroak’ is now a phone app which reminds its user of the truth about their own mortality several times during a single day. Lent is a season for dealing with truths that most of us would rather not face, especially the ultimate truth that we must all die. You could say that it is a rehearsal period for death itself.

The only really frightening aspect of death is that, when the moment comes, we may not be quite ready for it, so it is essential to come to terms with this fact if we are not to be taken unawares by death. The purpose of Lent is to provide a space for facing the reality of our own mortality and of the passing of all things, both good and evil.  The phone app is useful here because it simply says, as it pipes up in its random way (there is no set time-table), that whatever you are doing or thinking or saying right now, this precise moment could be your last. What, therefore, would you really like to be doing, thinking or saying?

Facing into death is also essential for knowing how to live. We face into death by facing into the reality, or truth, about the present moment, or of our present set of circumstances. Am I at this moment bored? Or hungry? Or short of sleep? How do these feelings and states of health colour my responses to the needs of others? The last question is the one that matters most because our lives are bound up with other lives, especially those we deal with on a day to day basis.

This is not to suggest that Lent is a time for repression and arduous discipline aimed at some kind of mind enhancement or dubious self improvement. It is a time for defeating the kind of death which destroys the individual from within and then goes on to destroy society and the world we inhabit. Every individual is responsible for the greater whole.

We begin to address the questions which pertain to the present moment by throwing out old habits of mind which have passed their ‘sell by’ date, so to speak. What we thought yesterday about any given issue or person pertains to memory, and after a while memory can become skewed. Memories need to be revisited, and this may not always change them for the better. The truth of a memory sometimes has to be revealed as worse than we had thought it was. Facing into this truth is also a kind of dying, dying to the lies we have grown accustomed to living with.  

Lent is wilderness time, patterned on the forty days endured by Christ in the desert when he would have faced into the truth about himself and his life’s purpose – and questioned it. Lent is a time for questioning and for facing into doubt. The biggest questions are invariably presaged with the word ‘if’.

For Jesus, temptation also came as doubt: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread (you know you can do anything and you must, of course, take sensible measures when it comes to your own comfort and wellbeing)”. It came as “If you are the Son of God, jump off this great height (and show them all who you really are. You know you won’t die – or do you?”)

Lent invites doubt. But we need doubt if we are to know the truth about ourselves, and hence about the purpose of our life and of our own mortality. Lent obliges us to seek out and face into doubt, as we return to our own particular wilderness, to our compressed memories and to the truth about what we are doing, thinking or saying in the present moment. The good news about Lent is that we are never alone in our memories or in any of our doubts.

Saturday 16 December 2017

More Than 'Ho, Ho, Ho'

One of our Big Issue sellers has decided to be Father Christmas. I chat with him from time to time during the year and buy his paper, so there is a sort of affinity between us. There is something about good conversation, however brief it is, which connects you to a person. If you talk with them often enough you discover a sort of kinship. 

Another Big Issue seller in our town has grandchildren in Romania. She has to get on a bus and travel for an hour or so to get to her ‘patch’. It is not the only bus she has taken in recent years and we have often talked about this, and about what it feels like to have children and grandchildren living far away. We occasionally give each other a hug on parting.

Our Father Christmas seller is also from Romania. He is trying very hard to convince passersby of the festive nature of this season, but his “Ho, Ho, Ho” sounds a little tired and uncertain. He is imitating another people’s language, after all, rather than speaking it. He finds it difficult to speak their language because he does not quite understand their mindset, especially in regard to him and to other Romanians. Also, I do not think that a jocund Father Christmas, or the real reason for the festivities, are at the forefront of the minds of many of those who pass him by, whether or not they pick up a copy of the Big Issue. If they do pick one up, they are more likely to do so out of a mingled sense of helplessness and guilt, rather than as a result of having paused for the kind of exchange which brings joy to all parties involved.

There is a transparency about this whole scenario, in regard to the seller dressed as Father Christmas, as if we all know that it is a rather tired game. But when I stop to talk with him, or even as I think of him, I see through the Santa disguise to his frailty. I also sense the uncertainties and anxieties of others in the street, and their frailty too. One or two of them are wearing Santa hats. Another wears a bright pink coat, an early Christmas present, perhaps.

There is a certain pathos about it all. This being said, I would not describe the situation as an unhappy one. It is just normality trying to enter into the spirit of the season. Everyone is trying very hard, but most are unsure of its purpose, or of the meaning of the festival itself. Perhaps they would rather it was called something else, as it sometimes is. In the US you wish people ‘happy holidays’, rather than happy Christmas.

But in Romania, Christ is still at the heart of it all. It is still Christ-mas. Presents are exchanged on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, and the season extends into early January with an emphasis on family and community and with much carol singing and different kinds of festive foods. My Big Issue seller, dressed as Santa Claus, must be feeling quite disorientated as he stands alone outside a clothing retail chain next to a chemist. The shops have somehow obliterated the saintliness of Nicholas.

Perhaps he senses that many of the people in the street are wondering what they are doing there too, and he feels a kind of affinity with their anxiety and uncertainty about the meaning and purpose of all this shopping. There is an underlying greeting, and even something of prayer, in his rather tremulous “Ho, Ho, Ho”. For a moment, the pedestrian precinct is a quite different place. It is transfigured. We sense the words ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ penetrating the banality of the words being called out by the Big Issue seller. They seem to be spoken from within human history, projected by the Romanian from his own culture and religion. I think he is also picking up on something in our collective subconscious, the need to say ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ in response to a divine greeting sensed in rare moments of stillness during this season.

The Christ of Christmas is waiting to greet us. He knows us well and greets us in his vulnerability, in the risk he takes in coming into the obscurity of his own circumstances, of having to be born in someone’s garage. In the years to come, he will know more rejection and disappointment. He will know pain and failure, as we do, but he will embrace our pain and failure with a child’s joy. He experiences the same joy in encountering us, as he did that first odd assortment of visitors, a couple of farm labourers and three foreign dignitaries.

Joy runs deeper than happiness. It is mined in a far deeper seam. Joy endures and withstands all manner of suffering because it is of the very nature of God who is love itself, love Incarnate, love become one of us. I sense that the Romanian Big Issue seller knows this. It will keep him going in the bleak months ahead.  

Sunday 3 December 2017

Season of Hope

This week a man was given his life back. He has been in prison for 20 years for crimes he did not commit. It is said that he will get compensation, although it is hard to see what will compensate for the loss of 20 years of a person’s life and with it, presumably, friends, family, career and reputation.

What do people who are wrongfully imprisoned dream of during their years of mental, physical and emotional deprivation? It must take a while to even get to the stage of dreaming. Perhaps you give up in the end and simply try to survive on what little you have in the way of personal resources – the resources which enable you to believe in yourself and in the possibility that justice will be done. Perhaps you dare not hope, because hope embodies a kind of certainty. It is about looking forward to something that you are certain is going to happen, in the way only children know how to do. Years of captivity can grind away such innocence.  

If we retain enough of our childhood innocence we will not have quite forgotten how to hope. There is an excitement about hope which moves us forward and teaches us to see the goodness in others. Hope, and the certainty it promises, derives from the love which is its source. Looking forward to something good is a quite different feeling to what is experienced when, sadly, we relish the moment in the future when someone will get their just deserts, or when we will be finally vindicated at someone else’s expense. These things may well happen, but the moment, when it comes, will feel hollow. 

The difficulty about hope is that the things we look forward to with eagerness, joy and even a degree of trepidation, do not always happen, or work out in the way we had thought they would. So there is always the risk of pain. Daring to hope is also being willing to accept pain and even disappointment. Dealing with disappointment is the risk we take when we dare to hope in the fullest sense of the word.

For many children Advent is a season of eager expectation, having mainly to do with looking forward to receiving Christmas presents. For others it is not. The presents are spoiled by circumstances; fighting parents, the death of someone they love, the looming cloud of debt which is part of the reason that their parents are fighting. The looking forward ends in anxiety and sometimes fear.

Advent is the season for a ‘looking forward’ which never disappoints. If we engage with it as the beginning of God’s fulfilled promise, we will not be left stranded on the rock of disappointment, or returned to ourselves as we were before we began to look forward to the fulfillment of the promise.

The best of our usual expectations often return us to ourselves, not because we are selfish or unimaginative, but because so often there is nothing much beyond whatever it is we are looking forward to. Hope embodies the promise that there is something greater and better than what we know of ourselves, something that can make a positive difference to the lives of others. Hope embodies the idea that we are valued and capable of immense goodness.

The Christian story is good news because it allows for the possibility that our expectations can be transfigured, including the often limited expectations we have of ourselves. So the good news of the coming of God’s Christ obliges us to live in such a way as to be bearers of hope. As hope-bearers we give others permission to act and think from the goodness within them, even if that goodness is not at all apparent. The hope which is given to us in the season of Advent requires that we shine a light into their darkness and into the darkness which surrounds us, so that goodness, or ‘righteousness’ may be released into it.

This is one aspect of the activity of prayer – holding the world and our neighbour in their darkness until they emerge into the light. Anyone who has traveled by air will know the feeling of emerging into bright sunlight when the plane, as it takes off, finally penetrates the grey of the place they left behind. The hope promised us in Christ takes us, and all for whom we pray, through the dark realities which surround us and into that place of light.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

#MeToo - What of Forgiveness?
The easiest way to deal with the wounds of abuse – any abuse – is to think nothing, (never mind say nothing), either of the past or of the present. You just ‘deal with it’, a very apt expression, but one which, if acted upon, can be toxic. For one thing, it is a lie. You never ‘deal with it’, so why, at any point in history, do we pretend that this is possible? 

The #MeToo movement is epoch changing, not only because it goes some way towards validating the suffering of the victims of abuse, but because it gives us all permission to re-connect with and, in some measure, own, our pain. We do this privately, in our own dark corridors of remembrance, and in solidarity with others in the #MeToo movement. We also do it in solidarity with other generations.

Abuse, as we well know, is not an emerging phenomenon. It has been around for centuries, so it helps, I find, to try to place one’s own pain in the continuum of the abuse suffered by the perpetrators and by those who preceded them. This does not exonerate the abusers. Neither does it oblige, still less enable, me to forgive them. As if forgiveness was purely a matter of understanding contextuality, cause and effect, and thereby accepting the abuse as inevitable. But this is how women, and I think many men who may have been physically abused in childhood, try to come to terms with what a generally abusive childhood or youth still does to them.

There are two serious flaws in thinking that we can ‘deal with’ abuse and the effects of abuse. First, it tends to ignore the fact that abuse is not limited to the sexual and physical. Sexual abuse, for women, is more often reinforced by what seems at the time a natural and ‘deserved’ shaming of the person concerned. Perhaps it is the same for men. If an adult implies that we are ugly, stupid and to be laughed at rather than with, we accept it as a given. ‘Put downs’, the many chance remarks deemed as OK, but deeply wounding, enforced compliance with how we should look or behave, all in the context of dishonest and manipulative relationships, build a toxic mix of shame, anger, fear and self-loathing.

Very few sexual predators will genuinely want their victim to feel that they are beautiful, intelligent, unique and loved. On the whole, they will either intuit, or possibly know, that their victim has been conditioned to believe none of these things. This makes them fair game. It gives the abuser ‘permission’ to behave as he or she does towards them. Furthermore, and as we all know, abuse is not limited to the sexual. Emotional abuse will, often as not, occur between members of the same sex, first in family contexts and later in social and professional life. By then, it is more commonly known as bullying.

As Christians, each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask to be forgiven as we forgive those who have sinned against us. To be honest, I find it almost impossible to pray these words when I think of my own abusers, as well as of the hundreds of women coming forward in the #MeToo solidarity movement. What does forgiving actually entail for us? As I have never really found an answer to this question, I tend to mentally ‘bracket’ the words Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us as I am saying them, and hope God understands, but I don’t just leave the people concerned in a kind of limbo. Later, I ask God what he thinks those of us who have been sinned against are supposed to do with our recurring memories, with our feelings about these people, and with our own anger and shame.

There seems to be no answer to such questions. But I do believe that we pray to a God who not only understands but shares the feelings which prompt them. There are many ways we could visualise this sharing. Being present to the words Why have you abandoned me? spoken from the Cross is one of the most obvious, although not always the most efficacious when it comes to having our negative feelings about forgiveness validated in the moment.

Perhaps a better way is to see the wounds we still carry, because they are far from healed, as part of our transfigured inheritance. They become what makes us worthy of honour in the presence of the Lamb (Rev.14:1). In them we share in Christ’s glory, beginning with the shame and agony of his dying and death, but moving with him to his embracing of us in his risen life. This is not a pious metaphor, or some kind of mental cop-out. It is something which can take a life-time to learn, or it can be learned in a single revelatory moment of understanding.

Such an understanding gives us the greatest freedom. This does not mean that we are given permission to indulge, even momentarily, in gratuitous hatred and desire for revenge. It means that we too are forgiven for finding it impossible to ‘forgive’. But such freedom brings responsibility. We are now ‘responsible’ for our abusers, lest they fall into the abyss. This means that we must be willing to receive what is needed for us to have a transfigured way of seeing them, so that we can ‘hold’ them. It does not mean persevering with, or reviving, destructive relationships. It means allowing ourselves to have deep compassion for those who abuse us, or for their memory. We ‘hold’ what we know of them, as best we can, in the ‘safe space’ of the mercy and forgiveness of God, a space which we ourselves are also occupying. Even if the feeling of compassion only lasts for a moment, it will never completely go away, for His mercy endureth for ever.

Monday 2 October 2017

Are We There Yet?

Within half an hour of setting off on a long car journey – from Wales to the South of France, for example, a small voice from the back seat would be heard asking the question we parents dreaded. “Are we there yet?”  I’ve often wondered if this is more of a philosophical question than one which has to do with mileage and the hours yet to be endured. For a child, a twelve hour car journey is a significant chunk of her remembered life. I also wonder if it’s not a question we are all asking in regard to all kinds of things – politics, the economy, a solution to environmental melt down, or even in regard to the end of our own lives – the latter, especially. Are we there yet?

Children are particularly interested in things pertaining to life and death. So 'Are we there yet' leads quickly to other questions. What happens when you die? Where do you go? And does such a place or dimension permit you to pick up where you left off in regard to relationships, human or animal, which were suddenly terminated by death? Happily for most children, death is, in a sense, a kind of continuation of life as they know it, but better.

If they are right, it is still quite difficult to gauge what the meaning and purpose of life now might be, especially given the very vague demarcation line which exists between life and death as children often perceive it. Life is still open-ended for them, less finite, more infinite, so they can see far greater distances, on the eternity spectrum, than most of us can until, perhaps, we reach a very old age. Then, we are returned to the conceptual space remembered from childhood, perhaps without realising that this is what is happening.

In the later mid-life years, before we reach this stage, a picture starts to emerge from what until now might seem an incoherent, and often disconnected, series of life events. The questions now being asked are not so much to do with what happens when you die, as what is the meaning of life? What is its purpose? Looking back over the years, it seems that on the whole, we have been far more anxious about purpose than we have about meaning. Purpose has concrete implications. It has to do with ‘making something’ of oneself or even, in today’s parlance, of ‘getting’ a life. But unlike purpose, meaning is something that simply has to be allowed to happen to us. It is a given.

Underlying our aspiring for purpose lies a considerable amount of anxiety. Anxiety is another word for fear. So when it comes to the purpose of life, we are afraid that we might have ‘failed’. The people we fear most in this regard are usually parents, then our own peer group and all those significant others who in some way exact standards of achievement, even if these expectations only live in our imagination. Furthermore, we often imagine that these particular fears will vanish once those who have instilled them in us die, but this rarely happens.

On the other hand, insofar as we live and die in Christ, we are already on the other side of the demarcation line between life and death, meaning and purpose, and between time and eternity. We are already partly in the other dimension. Far from being frightening, this dual-time state of ‘existence’ ought to be a sign of hope for us in the present. For one thing, it cuts into our ideas of linear time, especially in regard to our earthly life-span. When it comes to eternity, we are in the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’. We depart from linear time into a time-frame in which the meaning of life as we know it, has nothing to do with purpose in the ordinary sense of the word.

 In Christ, and in the context of eternity, meaning and achievement bear no relation to each other. We do not need to achieve, or to purpose our life now with a view to fulfilling someone’s expectations, or our own. In God’s economy, the meaning and purpose of our life comes in any given moment when a thought or action is purposed for the good of others and for the good of the earth God created. But, as I said earlier, it is the allowing which is important. Allowing is not the same as striving for something.

Allowing God’s purpose for our life is a little like the biblical concept of Wisdom. Wisdom, the living Spirit of God, has been around for eternity, ‘dancing’ with God. We are invited to enter into that dance. But we have to listen carefully for its measure, for the things which allow Wisdom to be danced through us in our earthly life time. When it comes to what happens when we die, the person who is wise, and who has taught others wisdom, will, as scripture promises ‘shine for all eternity’.  (Dan. 12:3) We’re nearly there.