Thursday, March 15, 2018

'Enhanced Interrogation Techniques'?

Disturbing news this morning.
I have just read The Guardian and followed a reference to the nomination of Gina Haspel as Head of the CIA.  A Republican Senator,
Gina Haspel
Paul Rand (Kentucky) has opposed her nomination and disclosed Haspel's involvement in torture. (aka Enhanced Interrogation Techniques)
“To really appoint the head cheerleader for waterboarding to be head of the CIA?” Paul told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I mean, how could you trust somebody who did that to be in charge of the CIA? To read of her glee during the waterboarding is just absolutely appalling.”
Paul highlighted a ProPublica article from last year about a book written by one of the interrogators at the “black site” prison, recalling the waterboarding of the al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah.
He said: “The quote from one of the interrogators says that Gina Haspel said: ‘Good job! I like the way you’re drooling. It adds to the realism. I am almost buying it. You wouldn’t think a grown man would do that.’"
Of course, we know terrible things happen in war and in undercover operations, and while we prefer not to think about them, we bury such things behind euphemisms ("enhanced interrogation techniques") and it may be that we use such slippery euphemisms because we are ashamed, and we know their deeds are evil.  Nevertheless, when an exponent and advocate of such cloaked horrors stands to be made head of the CIA it seems to legitimise what is vile and shameful, and it undermines the supposed legitimacy and morality of both  the government, and the nation it serves and represents.  
Such things make us confront our own darkness and the mystery it holds; to pray is to confront that.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Leaf-Fall and the news this morning

This morning it was a falling leaf, blown in the wind, that caught my eye.  It marks the start of the season for leaf-fall and the gathering in of firewood, all due soon to be raked for compost or to be stacked and stored in the woodshed.

Rex Tillerson is sacked by President Trump - the news has just come through.  Sacked via Twitter, which seems absurd and, worse than that, disgraceful.  But Mr Trump seems untroubled by grace but instead exults in chaos.  In London Teresa May rebukes Russia for the use of a nerve agent and the attempted murder of a retired spy and his daughter; meanwhile Putin, in the wake of the Ukraine and the Crimea, mocks, unchecked. So many leaves blowing in the wind.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Lent 4: Disappointment

Readings: Exodus 6:2-13; Romans 5:1-11

“There's an epigram tacked to my office bulletin board, pinched from a magazine -- "Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.” 

Margaret AtwoodNegotiating with the Dead

I begin with the quote from Margaret Atwood because I want you to trace the emotion that underlies it.  It is a theological emotion, a spiritual fear, it is disappointment, and in its context, one recognises it as a recurrent, persistent, and despairing force.  Give up on ever meeting an author because you like his work.   Art and reality don’t connect.

I read Paul gratefully but with a question.  Paul always drives home the point that we are saved or justified by faith, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by living courageously amidst the troubles of this life.  Yet I find that I instinctively come with a question: is faith and stoicism enough?  Is this all there is?   Paul seems to anticipate the question: he reaches back far beyond faith and beyond discipline, he reaches back to the root fact of the universe – that God is love.  Notice how the text works:

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

The sequence Paul follows is a kind of layering that is progressively removed: suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; character produces hope; and hope does not disappoint us because the Holy Spirit gives us the love of God.  It is John who reminds us that fear is removed by love.

And yet, and yet … our minds keep running on the usual and familiar circuits.  We question.  We rationalise.  Why do we cling to hope and faith – is this just a grand illusion?  Is Richard Dawkins right?  We are, after all, familiar with disappointment in its various forms.  Surely it is part of life.   There are courses on how to manage it; there are drugs and medications to take the edge off it.   Are we aware of the love of God in our hearts?  If we answer frankly, well think carefully … is there a desire for that love; a trace of compassion or empathy; are there moments of generosity and grace?  What is it in us that make us willing to risk disappointment?   Are we prepared to acknowledge the possibility of God active within us, unbidden, subtle, mysterious and ever surprising?

These are questions we need to hold onto … and as we do I have in the back of my mind one of the poems by that great Dean of St Pauls, John Donne.  His faith and hope, risking disappointment, if you like, kept company with his questions.   At the end, he clings to Christ.

A Hymn to God the Father
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, 
         Which was my sin, though it were done before? 
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run, 
         And do run still, though still I do deplore? 
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done, 
                        For I have more. 

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won 
         Others to sin, and made my sin their door? 
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun 
         A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score? 
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done, 
                        For I have more. 

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun 
         My last thread, I shall perish on the shore; 
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son 
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore; 
                And, having done that, thou hast done; 
                        I fear no more. 

Wodehouse: a Matter of Style

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city's reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.” 
 P.G. WodehouseThe Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology

I have loved Wodehouse nearly all my life.  When doing my PhD in London I remember scouring the secondhand bookshops looking for first editions and, when the thesis seemed stuck, I would cheerfully read Wodehouse.  His sunlit world diverted the spirit while his sheer playfulness, and sense of the absurd, was always encouraging.

The quotation above is a masterpiece of the Wodehouse style.  Not a wasted word - but every word made to work to maximum effect.  The shallow exuberance of Freddie, longing for a drink, but sorely out of sorts without one, is weighted against the grimness of the Russian novel 'only to find the vodka bottle empty'.  A superb lighthearted example of bathos worked to great effect!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Lent 4: "Look at the Cross and Live"

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Reflection: John 3:14-21
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

I have known this text from my childhood.  I am confident that I was made to remember it in Sunday School.  It is a famous text: it has been described as the gospel in miniature.  For any would-be evangelist (which is all of us) it was one of those verses that had to be kept loaded and ready to fire!

But John does something quite different with this text: he precedes it with a reference to the incident in Numbers when the Israelites are punished for their rebelliousness by an infestation of poisonous snakes and Moses, to save them, designs a cross with a brazen serpent on it and whenever someone is bitten then the afflicted person must look at the image and they will recover.

John connects this detail with the cross; i.e. Moses’ design of the uplifted serpent prefigures Christ’s saving work on the cross. In the Moses’ account, if someone is bitten they turn, look at the snake on the cross, and live.
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

There is a crazy and bizarre aspect to the story of the snakes in the desert, but John doesn’t hesitate to use it and make the connection: This is what God did in the desert then and this is what God has done on the cross now.  Look at the cross and live!

How does this work for us?

The truth of life in this world is that it can be harsh.  We almost certainly will be bitten by something, though probably not a snake.  Troubles in relationships, in work, in our family, in our church, in our community, there is so much scope for something to go wrong.  But being ‘bitten’ is usually nothing that we can prevent; the only thing we can control is how we respond to it.
In the Moses story they are saved by looking up at the brazen serpent.   In the Christian story the same principle applies: we look up at the cross – and we live.  We look up at the cross – and that makes us stop looking down at whatever it is that we are struggling with.  We no longer give our attention to what torments us; in fact giving it our attention is frequently likely to empower it.  Instead we must look at the cross – and live!

Last week in our Lent studies on Prayer Luigi Gioia made a similar point in a chapter called ‘Saving Time’ (pp.35-36).We have all struggled with this book and come to marvel at how he makes connections and takes us into spaces and places we had never suspected.  But he speaks of how if don’t want to be trapped by the limits of this world, caught up in the remorseless cycles of time, ‘slaves of chronos we must keep a certain distance between us and our activities so as to see everything from the viewpoint of the world to come.   To maintain this distance, to perceive and manage time as the break-in space where the Lord is coming to establish His Kingdom, to deal with the world as though we had no dealings with it, we have to be watchful, asking continually for his coming, seeking the justice of his Kingdom; in short, we have to pray.’ (p.36)

To look at the Cross is to pray.  We keep coming back to the Cross to this great sign which is the medicine of the world - "Crux est Mundi Medicina" (The Cross is the Medicine of the World).  Look at the Cross and live! 

I leave you with my text: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

Monday, March 5, 2018

The One Thing: Paul at Evensong

Reading: Phil.3.4b-14

… but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus

This one phrase of Paul’s has impressed itself in me … it is so charged with a sense of his clear focus and purpose, his absolute and unremitting resolve, his drive and urgency … he just cannot be ignored.   

This is a man possessed by God: “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” 

This is a man inflamed by God: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  

There are no half measures here, no compromises, and nothing with even a hint of moderation; this is raw undiluted passion; it is all or nothing!  To realise what is going on here, that the power of Christ is at work in Paul’s life, is to come close to a power that is unnerving, terrifying, and life-changing.

It is also electrifyingly attractive.  The mystery of God is all of this and no wonder the insight and wisdom of Augustine when he confessed that ‘you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’  I remember the power of the altar call in the revival meetings – the call to surrender to Christ; to come home to the source.   The call to receive the Spirit – electrifying indeed!

“this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” 

This is close to the journey that is at the heart of Lent: “forgetting what lies behind”  is about letting go of the luggage that we all carry - the memories, hurts, bitterness, resentments, grief, guilt, and pain that are inseparable from the business of living.  

Lent is the time when we re-think our lives and face boldly those things that continue to hold us back like a dead weight as we lurch and stagger toward Christ, or worse, just give up and despair.  

This is the time when we seek Christ’s deliverance and healing, and resolve to set down all that holds us back.  This is a time when I encourage everyone to use the sacrament of reconciliation: I know we are always embarrassed and cringe at the thought of spilling all this private intimate stuff to a priest; but the blessed relief when it is done; when the infection is lanced; when the luggage is eased from our shoulders!

“straining forward to what lies ahead,” 

Notice the reference to straining – it catches the intensity of Paul’s calling as he looks towards the future.  My thoughts run back to the gospel this morning and Jesus cleansing the temple.

Zeal for thy house will consume me … but what else is there? What else indeed?

Zeal inspired the aged Simeon to come to the temple to wait for the Christ and Anna to devote the whole of her widowhood to prayer in the Temple.

Zeal compels Jesus to make a whip of cords to drive out the animal sellers and money changers profaning the sanctuary with idolatry, thievery, exploitation, and corruption.

Zeal transfigures a worshipper's sight to perceive the glorious architecture and carvings, the magnificent embroidered curtain, the silent holy of holies of the Temple as a mere shadow of something unseen, un-seeable, and subtle. 

Zeal moves truly great people toward striving to visibly manifest the Temple of Christ’s body through justice, peace, respect, understanding, holiness, and love.

With zeal, we preach the cross even while it comes out sounding like foolishness, said St. Paul (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

Fools or not, zealous or not, like Paul, with Paul, you and I strain forward to what lies ahead.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Lent 3 'Rethink your Life'

Lent 3 2018 (Year B)
This Third Sunday in Lent is a good time to take our bearings and think about where we are in the Lenten journey.  For many of us, we have been on this journey before.  What’s new?  The truth about Lent is that there are no short cuts.  It takes time.

The great Russian priest, Father Alexander Men, who was assassinated in 1990, has this to say:

“The good news of Christ was preceded by a call to repentance … and the very first word of Jesus’ teaching was “Repent”.  Remember that in Hebrew this word means “turn around” and “turn away from the wrong road.”  While in the Greek text of the gospels, it is rendered by an even more resonant word, metanoite.  In other words, rethink your life.  This is the beginning of healing.  Repentance is not a sterile grubbing around in one’s soul, and not some masochistic self-humiliation, but a re-evaluation leading to action.  The abscess must be lanced, otherwise there will be no cure.”

Taking his lead, we can think of Lent as a journey where we seek healing, where the process is one of careful re-thinking of our lives as we journey toward Easter.  This is a journey that carries a hope and an expectation – that we will be changed.  That we will see the world afresh, see it charged with the presence of God and know again in our hearts the exuberance and delight of God.

Sunday by Sunday we have followed the scriptures, especially the gospels: and of these it is essential that we remember that we are following the stories of Jesus that were written years after the first Easter.  They were written long after the resurrection and after the apostles, the early church and other witnesses had had time to reflect, understand and assemble the greatest story in their different ways.

How can we imagine the transforming reality of the empty tomb?  Even more the risen Christ who appears through locked doors and says ‘peace be with you’?  The world changed that Easter morning; lives were transformed even as these witnesses were bewildered and frightened by what made no sense at all.  Each gospel tells these events in its own way. Each gospel is an opportunity and invitation for us to re-think our life.

So it is with John this morning.  While the synoptic gospels (the name given to Matthew, Mark, and Luke) only have Jesus enter Jerusalem at the Passover, when he is killed; but John has Jesus in Jerusalem at the Passover at the start of his gospel and includes this dramatic scene when he clears out the temple, which would certainly have attracted hostile attention from the authorities.   Here is Jesus in the centre of the Jewish world: the temple, the holy place where the rituals that ensure Jewish identity and faith are maintained; and he turns it all upside down.  It must have been shocking to those who observed it.   It must have raised questions for his followers.  It certainly raised questions for those who would oppose him; John just calls them ‘the Jews’. We see the questioning Jews misunderstand Jesus when he mentions the temple but means his body – that he will raise it up in three days.

To make sense of what is going on we need to go back to the start of the Chapter (2) to the phrase that  begins: ‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.’  We all remember the story – this is the moment when Jesus is asked to help in an embarrassing social situation – the wine has run out.  You know the story, at his command the stone jars are filled with water and taken to the chief steward who tastes and praises it as ‘good wine’ and we are told “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” (2:11)

John is directing our attention to a defining moment in his story of Jesus.  The disciples have just witnessed Jesus reveal his glory; show who he truly is; and they believe.  As he turns water into wine, the old and the ordinary into something totally new, so among them is the incarnate God, the promised Messiah.  We may well assume that the disciples have had to re-think their lives.

The wedding in Cana is the springboard for what now happens as the scene shifts a hundred miles south to the incident in the temple.  The last book of the Old Testament canon (Mal. 3:1-4) had prophesied that the Messenger of the Lord would suddenly come to his temple like a refiner’s fire, and so Jesus suddenly appears in the temple and expels all the elements of the old spiritual order.   This temple and its options for sacrifice are no longer needed, for he is the one who will be the sacrifice.  The old order has gone and the Lord is among his people: he will fulfil all the festivals, the sacrifices and the temple itself.  Truly a moment for re-thinking one’s life!

The story takes us to this point: but where do we stand?  Are we among the believing disciples?  Amazed and confused, but trusting in Jesus nonetheless; even as he shakes the institution that they have been brought up with, and cherish.  Maybe we are like the religious authorities: resistant, literalist, and always wanting some better evidence, or argument.  Will we use this Lent to re-think our lives?