‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was last year ranked second on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of first two decades of the 21st century. It is a staggeringly wonderful piece of writing and I have to confess that, although I feel I must write this piece about it, I am deeply aware that I cannot do justice to the extraordinary quality of the work.

The story

Gilead is set in 1956 in a small fictional mid-western town of that name in Iowa and it takes the form of a long letter by a 76-year-old Congregationalist pastor named John Ames to his six- or seven-year-old son. His first wife had died in childbirth and their infant daughter had also died soon after. In his mid-sixties after many years of loneliness, he met and married his second wife, a young woman named Lila (the subject of a later novel by Marilynne Robinson) and she gave birth to their son.

John Ames has been told that he is facing imminent death because of a heart condition so he sets about writing this story of his life for his son to read long after he has died. His grandfather had been a pastor in Kansas and had fought in the Civil War in the cause of the abolition of slavery. His father, also pastor of the Gilead church, was a convinced pacifist and this had led to a rift with the grandfather. John’s brother had studied in Germany and had become an atheist and had fallen out with their father. John’s lifelong and close friend, the minister of the town’s Presbyterian church, always referred to by John as ‘Boughton’ or ‘old Boughton’, features prominently in the story. So also does his son, ‘young Boughton’, who had brought disgrace on the family and left the town. Later in the story, he comes back home. John Ames struggles to forgive him for what he had done.

What some reviewers have said

Gilead is much concerned with fathers and sons, and with God the father and his son. The book’s narrator returns again and again to the parable of the prodigal son — the son who returned to his father and was forgiven, but did not deserve forgiveness. … Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction. … As the novel progresses, its language becomes sparer, lovelier, more deeply infused with Ames’s yearning metaphysics.” (Ali Smith, The Guardian, 16th April, 2005)

“Robinson’s prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense.” (Ellen Levine, PublishersWeekly.com)

“Robinson demonstrates the extraordinary in the ordinary. She shepherds us up to our own death and helps us face it with confidence. She validates our lives in places where we wonder if they have had any impact. … This book is an amazing unveiling of the truth of the Christian faith, barely hidden behind the curtain of human mortality. Robinson’s guided tour of the dusty, dry insignificant town of Gilead is a walk through the deepest of our human experience. She shows us how to celebrate life and God and appreciate every last thing about this life and the life to come.” (Fred D Mueller, Customer Review on Amazon website, 2nd April, 2017)

Some quotations from the book itself (you can find many more here)

“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” (p. 8)

“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.” (p. 23)

“People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives.” (p. 76)

“Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” (p. 238)

“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.” (p. 280)

How and why has this book impacted me?

It’s opening sentences are: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.”

John Ames closes his letter to his son with these words: “I’ll pray that you will grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”

The pages in between were for me a journey into my own inner life and the world of my memories as well as that of my present relationships with the Lord and with family members and friends.

Later this year I will be as old as John Ames was when he wrote this letter to his son. I certainly have fewer years left of this life than I have lived so far. My father was my age (and almost the age of John Ames) when he passed away. Yes, between my father and me there was often not only loyalty and love but also what Marilynne Robinson terms “mutual incomprehension”.

Although I’ve never been a church pastor, I’ve preached many a sermon. Like John Ames, I’ve often wondered about their impact.

In 1956, the time of the setting of the story, I was just entering my teenage years, a country boy living with my parents and young brothers on the family farm in rural Ireland. Everybody knew everybody else and every grownup knew everybody else’s family histories and their scandals. It sounds like Gilead, doesn’t it?

I never knew either of my grandfathers but my mother’s father, like John Ames, was married late in life to a younger woman. He was a God-fearing member of the Christian Brethren of whom my mother talked warmly, albeit rarely. I don’t know if there was anybody that he found it hard to forgive but I’ve known family members who have found forgiveness a struggle.

I have sons and grandsons whom I love dearly and for each of whom I pray a bright future.

Need I say more?

God of all love and all grace, help us to live in your Big Story and to walk with you to the end of our days. Amen.

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What’s the Big Story (Part Two)

Our life-stories are special to us. A T-shirt slogan puts it this way: “I am starring in my own soap opera!”. Some details we can’t remember. Some we remember fuzzily. Some we remember with clarity as if they had happened yesterday. Some we will never forget as long as we have our faculties. 

We locate ourselves in the stories of our lives, stories with a beginning at which we were present but cannot remember and an end which we know will surely come one day but we cannot usually anticipate when or how it will be. We are somewhere in between, we know not exactly where, and this has led some to talk of our human perspective as being both “middled” and “muddled”.[1]

Not only are there stories all about us, our own middled muddled stories and those of other people meeting, interacting, overlapping, and developing day by day, but we find that these our stories are parts of bigger stories, stories of communities and traditions, of people and races. Where does it stop?

We need a Big Story to make sense of all our little stories. Without a Big Story, we are left looking out into nothingness. We are like those in folk-singer Joan Baez’s ‘The Hitchhikers’ Song‘ of whom she says that they are “the orphans in an age of no tomorrows”.

There are many Big Stories that directly and indirectly shape the way we think and live. There is, for example, the Big Story of human beings all on their own in a chance universe, working their way up from nothingness, ever making progress in their understanding, needing no power beyond themselves. Life is getting better all the time as we learn more and can do more.

But is this story true? Yes, we know and understand many things that our ancestors didn’t. Our mobile technology gives us instant communication across thousands of miles even when we are out walking on a mountain slope. Our medical techniques save us from illnesses of which people lived in fear even a few decades ago. A few clicks on the computer keyboard give us access to masses of information formerly stored on many miles of library shelving. But is life really getting better in all respects? Are we human beings on our own making progress towards perfect harmony in our relationships, mastering our selfish impulses, or finding a way of coping with the inner despairs and dreads that haunt us in the dark hours? I suggest not.

But that’s a story in which many people live and move and have their being, the story of the “Ascent of Man,” the story of optimistic Humanism. (A very deformed mutation of it can be found, I fear, increasingly in the western world, in the Big Story of white supremacy.)

What great story is adequate to provide a true and meaning-giving context to the stories of our lives? I believe it has to be the Big True Story of God, the Christian meta-narrative. This is a story that is bigger than all of us.

The Bible comes to us not in the form of a textbook of theology but as a narrative, as the Big True (and amazing) Story of God and his world. The form is primarily that of a story and, even where it isn’t, the context of its poems and letters is still that Big Story of God and the world he has made, the world of people like you and me. Even our statements of belief in our creeds are retellings of this story, of movements of characters and events in space and time.

There are lots of stories in the Bible but they are all set in the context of a Big Story that begins with God himself. He made everything. He made us. But we disobeyed him and we chose to go our own ways. As a result, we were sent out of his beautiful Garden, no longer able to walk and talk with him as his children.

The focal point of this story is the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Cross is the hinge of history and the body of Jesus was broken on that hinge. But we come through to the other side—to life that shall never end! Death is not the end because death itself is defeated by the one who came back from death and will never die.

Jesus will return and make everything new. There will be “the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness.” (2 Pet 3:13, The Message).

This is therefore not only a story of what happened in the past. It tells of what will happen in the future. The best is yet to come! But it is also a story of what is happening now! The kingdom of God is here already, it is within us if we are open to him. It is both now and not yet.

Heavenly Father, help us to live, move and have our being in your Big Story. Help us to be better story tellers and to tell your Big Story, that best story of all, in all we do and say. Amen.

(This blog is adapted from part of a chapter in Bible-Shaped Teaching, a book I wrote a few years ago. The whole chapter and other selected contents can be found online in Google Books here.)

[1] The first to do so seems to have been David L Jeffrey in his People of the Book (p. 143).

What’s the Big Story? (Part One)

It was about fifteen years ago. My little three-year-old grandson climbed on my knee with one of his favourite storybooks. I read a bit and then, from his memory of the many times we had done this before, he told the next bit . . . and on we went together, telling the story in turns to each other. However, this time was to be different for, when we got to the last page, one of us (I can’t remember which) turned over to the blank page at the end and the blank inside cover of the book and we continued the story together, telling each other what might have happened next. As we went forward together in our imaginings, the pictures in the inward eye were much more vivid than those on the earlier printed pages.

We all enjoy stories. As children we love them but, as adults too, are we not also easily caught up in stories we read, hear or view on screen? Those novels for bedtime or vacation reading, the detective mystery unfolding on TV, the blog of that friend’s travels, the heart-to-heart sharing of a life’s ups and downs by a complete stranger sitting beside us on a long bus journey. They have different settings, different plot-lines, different characters and themes, different lengths. We listen to them, we read them, we view them in plays and films, we hear them in song, we make them up, we tell them. They make us laugh, cry, reflect, imagine, lose ourselves—as my grandson and I did in that tale that we read together.

Stories are central to the way in which we structure our understanding of ourselves and others, of actions and events. They are part of our language and thought, of our whole experience of the world and our way of living.

We don’t just enjoy them as diversions, we think in stories. And we dream in stories, however chaotic these tales of the night may be at times. Whether waking or sleeping, we place characters and events in patterns in space and time. We locate ourselves and one another and the things that happen to us and around us in narrative contexts.

We are story-makers! Whether listening on the train to half a conversation that somebody is having on his cell phone, or reading the inscriptions on gravestones, or anticipating the next episode of a serial story on the radio, we cannot help filling in the details.

There is a fundamental incompleteness to all the stories that we tell, just as my grandson and I experienced when we came to the blank pages at the end of the book and found that we just had to continue the story.

This is true of our own personal stories, the stories of our lives. They need the context of bigger stories to make sense of them. Otherwise we are left looking out into nothingness.

Part Two next week!

Heavenly Father, help us to live, move and have our being in your Big Story. Amen.

(This blog is adapted from part of a chapter in a book I wrote a few years ago.)

Shopping Mall as Cathedral

Imagine that we are alien researchers from Mars who have come to the strange world of Planet Earth to study the rituals and religious habits of its inhabitants. Imagine that we are going to visit one of our 21st century culture’s most common religious sites. This is what James K. A. (Jamie) Smith invites readers of his book, Desiring the Kingdom,[1] to do. Let’s accompany him as he approaches the site. It is not a church or temple … and yet it is!

As we approach, we notice that the site is very popular. It is “throbbing with pilgrims every day of the week”. The entrances to the site are “framed by banners and flags, familiar texts and symbols” and just inside there is “a large map – a kind of worship aid” to help the novice to find the “various spiritual offerings”.  The “regulars” don’t need the maps because they are “the faithful, who enter the space with a sense of achieved familiarity, who know the rhythms by heart because of habit-forming repetition”.

We notice the design of the interior of the site. There are windows on the high ceiling but none on the walls. This “conveys a sense of vertical and transcendent openness that at the same time shuts off the clamor and distractions of the horizontal, mundane world …(and) offers a feeling of sanctuary, retreat, and escape”. We find that it “almost seems as if … we lose consciousness of time’s passing and so lose ourselves in the rituals for which we’ve come”.

Like medieval cathedrals, the mall has “mammoth religious spaces … alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints”. Instead of stained-glass windows, there is “an array of three-dimensional icons adorned in garb that—as with all iconography—inspires us to be imitators of these exemplars”. They embody for us “concrete images of ‘the good life’ …embodied pictures of the redeemed that invite us to imagine ourselves in their shoes”.

As we enter a side chapel, we are “greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms”. After a time spent browsing among the racks, “with our newfound holy object in hand, we proceed to the altar, which is the consummation of worship” where we find “the priest who presides over the consummating transaction … of exchange and communion”.

We leave “this transformative experience … with newly minted relics, as it were, that are themselves the means to the good life … something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season”.

Like all good teachers, Jamie Smith is concerned to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. He wants us to see the experience of the shopping mall with new eyes “in order for us to recognize the charged, religious nature of cultural institutions that we all tend to inhabit as if they were neutral sites”. Our desires are being shaped, our hearts are being formed, by the mall and “its ‘parachurch’ extensions in television and advertising”.

The point that he is trying to make is that human beings are worshippers. The question is not whether or not we worship but who or what we worship, who or what we love in our hearts. We have to have gods if God is missing from our lives.

Neil Postman says that consumerism is one of these gods. (He lists others, including nationalism, reason, science, and technology.) He says that the basic moral axiom of consumerism is expressed in the slogan “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”.[2] You are what you accumulate.

One of the most famous works of photographic artist Barbara Kruger proclaimed “I shop therefore I am”.

The god of reason says, “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). The god of consumerism says, “Tesco ergo sum”!

The God and Father of the Lord Jesus says that we are because he is.

Gracious loving Father, God who is love, please help us to always have the desires of our hearts shaped by you so that we may worship, serve and love you above all and we may help others to come to you and love you too above all. Amen.

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[1] Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 19ff. See also here.

[2] The End of Education, p. 33.

Missing God

‘Missing God’ is a very moving poem by Dennis O’Driscoll. I’m going to quote it in full and then I’ll link it with a recent very surprising statement by Richard Dawkins, the well-known evangelist for atheism.

It was in a book by an Englishman who has made his home in Scotland that I first came across this poem. It was by an Irishman of whom I had never heard even though he was from Thurles which is less than twenty five miles from where I was brought up. (The book was David Smith’s Moving Towards Emmaus.) O’Driscoll was a friend of Seamus Heaney and one of his books is a set of interviews with Heaney entitled Stepping Stones. (You can see and hear them in conversation here.) Following O’Driscoll’s sudden death in 2012, Heaney entitled a tribute to him ‘My Hero: Dennis O’Driscoll’.

Here is the poem, Missing God:

His grace is no longer called for
before meals: farmed fish multiply
without His intercession.
Bread production rises through
disease-resistant grains devised
scientifically to mitigate His faults.

Yet, though we rebelled against Him
like adolescents, uplifted to see
an oppressive father banished –
a bearded hermit – to the desert,
we confess to missing Him at times.

Miss Him during the civil wedding
when, at the blossomy altar
of the registrar’s desk, we wait in vain
to be fed a line containing words
like “everlasting” and “divine”.

Miss Him when the TV scientist
explains the cosmos through equations,
leaving our planet to revolve on its axis
aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.

Miss Him when the radio catches a snatch
of plainchant from some echoey priory;
when the gospel choir raises its collective voice
to ask Shall We Gather at the River?
or the forces of the oratorio converge
on I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
and our contracted hearts lose a beat.

Miss Him when a choked voice
at the crematorium recites the poem
about fearing no more the heat of the sun.

Miss Him when we stand in judgment
on a lank Crucifixion in an art museum,
its stripe-like ribs testifying to rank.

Miss Him when the gamma-rays
recorded on the satellite graph
seem arranged into a celestial score,
the music of the spheres,
the Ave Verum Corpus of the observatory lab.

Miss Him when we stumble on the breast lump
for the first time and an involuntary prayer
escapes our lips; when a shadow crosses
our bodies on an x-ray screen; when we receive
a transfusion of foaming blood
sacrificed anonymously to save life.

Miss Him when we call out His name
spontaneously in awe or anger
as a woman in the birth ward bawls
her long-dead mother’s name.

Miss Him when the linen-covered
dining table holds warm bread rolls,
shiny glasses of red wine.

Miss Him when a dove swoops
from the orange grove in a tourist village
just as the monastery bell begins to take its toll.

Miss Him when our journey leads us under
leaves of Gothic tracery, an arch
of overlapping branches that meet
like hands in Michelangelo’s creation.

Miss Him when, trudging past a church,
we catch a residual blast of incense,
a perfume on par with the fresh-baked loaf
which Milosz compared to happiness.

Miss Him when our newly-decorated kitchen
comes in Shaker-style and we order
a matching set of Mother Ann Lee chairs.

Miss Him when we listen to the prophecy
of astronomers that the visible galaxies
will recede as the universe expands.

Miss Him the way an uncoupled glider
riding the evening thermals misses its tug.

Miss Him, as the lovers shrugging
shoulders outside the cheap hotel
ponder what their next move should be.

Even feel nostalgic, odd days,
for His Second Coming,
like standing in the brick
dome of a dovecote
after the birds have flown.

In his book, after quoting this poem, David Smith writes, “Here, surely, is the authentic language of the Emmaus road experience, of those who tread a path from which God has gone missing, and yet confess that as the sky darkens and the air grows cold, they are missing God” (p. 29).

Richard Dawkins was recently reported as saying he feared that if religion were abolished it would “give people a licence to do really bad things”. He said that security camera surveillance of customers in shops did appear to deter shoplifting, adding that people might feel free to do wrong without a “divine spy camera in the sky reading their every thought”. He went on, “People may feel free to do bad things because they feel God is no longer watching them”.[1]

By the entrance to our local Morrisons store there is a life-sized picture of a policeman looking at you and smiling, albeit with handcuffs visible hanging by his side. It certainly makes one feel that one is being watched!

The policeman has a friendly and welcoming smile. I think the God of Dennis O’Driscoll’s poem has a welcoming smile but the god of Richard Dawkin’s writings doesn’t. In a book of over 400 pages, The God Delusion, Dawkins devotes just three to the subject of love (pp. 184-186). Yes, there is a lot of evil and suffering in our world (and, as Dawkins frequently points out, people who profess to believe in God have contributed and do contribute their share to it!) but isn’t it amazing that we can also find love everywhere and often in the most surprising places? Is there any other possible source of it all but the God and Father of Jesus Christ?

Jesus cried from the cross with what Dennis O’Driscoll calls “stripe-like ribs” saying, “Father, forgive them”. Risen from the grave, he stands with open arms and a welcoming smile saying, ““Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.” (Matthew 11:28, The Message)

Gracious loving Father, God who is love, please forgive us when so often we go off on our own and you go missing from our lives. May those who are missing you find you and your love in us. Amen.

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[1] ‘Ending religion is a bad idea, says Richard Dawkins’, The Times, 5 October 2019.

Working Together in Synergy

Paddy and Bartley were two horses behind whom my father would plough the fields on the home farm in Ireland. Paddy was an old and disciplined animal but Bartley was young and headstrong. When my father was ploughing, Bartley sometimes wanted to pull the plough in a different direction from Paddy. When this happened, my father had to work very hard to get them to pull together in the same direction. At other times, Paddy and Bartley worked happily together and progress with the ploughing was so much easier then.

Synergy is a combined effect which is greater than the sum of individual effects. Two horses working together can pull rather more than twice what one horse can pull alone. My father sometimes enjoyed the effect of synergy between his horses but all too often it was lacking and he would come home exhausted by his efforts to promote it.

The Greek word ‘sunergeo’ is used several times in the New Testament in verses that talk about ‘fellow-workers’, “co-workers” and ‘working together’. For example, 1 Corinthians 3:9 reads “We are co-workers in God’s service”. Some of these verses even suggest that we can be co-workers with God himself, we can work synergistically with him and he with us!

An oft-quoted verse in Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29, NIV). The image here is probably not of horses but of oxen yoked together to work together.

Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases the verse this way: “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

This has implications for us in our daily lives in our work-places. We need to walk with him and learn from him. We also need to walk and work with others. Those of us who teach easily come to see ourselves as queens and kings in our own classrooms and I expect the same kind of thing is true in other workplaces. We do not like to have others observing our work closely. We may be having problems but we tend to pretend to others that everything is all right at our desk or in our classroom.

A partner relationship with another colleague can be very helpful to both. We can commit ourselves to share the highs and the lows, to observe one another’s ways of working and expose our own practice to the scrutiny of the other, to work together to find new and better ways of doing things. We are not really self-sufficient, we need one another. Why pretend to be perfect?! Why not be vulnerable? What have we to lose except our pride?!

O God of all might and energy, as workers together with you and you with us, we ask that you will help us to admit our need of others and to work better together with them and that we will help those with whom we work to discover more synergy in working together too. Amen.

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He is my brother!

“Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” (Hebrews 2:11, NIV)

One of my favourite tracks to play and sing along to in the car is an adaptation by Carey Langtry of the hymn ‘Peace is Flowing like a River’. (In fact, it was thinking about it that led me to ‘Rivers in the Badlands’ as a title for this website.) After singing a couple of verses, he pauses to say a prayer that begins “Dear Father, Brother Jesus”.  We often pray “Lord Jesus” but to address him as brother somehow feels daring and yet the verse above from Hebrews and other Bible verses encourage us to regard Jesus as our brother! Wow!

I’ll come back to this but, first, I want to say a little about the popular hobby of family history research. It has been one of my hobbies for many years and so I enjoy watching TV programmes like the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ or ‘Heir Hunters’.

What motivates people like me to give time to such research? I have to admit that it may be pride because we want to be able to tell people how far back our family records go or how many people of high status feature in our tree. (A second cousin of mine is an eighth cousin of Barack Obama. The relationship is through his mother rather than his Shortt father so, sadly, I can’t claim blood relationship!) Perhaps, on the other hand, pride in our ancestry takes the form of showing that we have come from ‘humble origins’ and have ‘made something of ourselves’.

Perhaps we are motivated by an interest in the people themselves who have, to some extent, shaped us to become the people we are. What were they like, our grandparents and our more distant ancestors? What were their lives like? We want to understand them better and, in doing so, to come to a better understanding of ourselves.

Perhaps we are motivated by a concern to create and preserve historical records for future generations. In former times, we used to record family births, marriages and deaths in what we referred to as the ‘family Bible’. We wanted these to be there for the future.

This concern is linked with a logical desire for completeness and accuracy of detail. We are constructing a jigsaw that has no edges and is multi-dimensional. We hunt for pieces to fit. We try to put together assorted pieces of evidence. We are detectives looking for clues that will solve the puzzle. Finding one missing piece can change the whole picture.

This concern is linked with a desire for a bigger perspective that puts our lives into context. Generations come and generations go. The children are born, the parents have great hopes, sometimes fulfilled but sometimes things turn out so differently. Family history study reminds us that we too must die one day.

However, I’m talking as if the pleasures of constructing a family tree are open to everybody and I am deeply aware that is not the case. I have friends who were adopted as infants and who do not know the names of one or even both their biological parents. Indeed, I have tried to help them in their searches.

A recent blog on the website of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity entitled ‘Inherited Identities’ puts all this into context as it concludes with these wise words:

“Although we are shaped by our ancestors, we are not destined to follow in their footsteps; nor can we inherit the glory or guilt that comes from their actions. For ultimately the important question is not where you are descended from. It is not how you will be remembered. It is not even: who do you think you are? Rather, it is: who does he say you are?”

Our human families are important, very important. But if we have come to a personal faith in Christ, we are adopted into a new family! We are all brothers and sisters to one another in the family of God. We come from all generations and all nations into his family.

The Bible nowhere says that we should not care for and care about those to whom we are naturally related, our human kinsfolk.  I say again, our human families are very important but this is even more important. We are in the family of God. Our identity and our standing before God is not ultimately in our human lineage, it is in our relationship to God our Father through Jesus his Son.

He is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.  We can therefore pray with Carey Landry, “Dear Father, brother Jesus”! Wow!

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Green Spaces in Time

At the start of a new year, the writings of three friends of mine have come together to make me think about green spaces in towns and cities and our need for metaphorical green spaces in the busy ebbs and flows of our lives.

David Smith posted a blog on New Year’s Eve in which he quoted Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, from his book The Sabbath, pointing out that “in the Bible time is not just a succession of intervals. Rather it is shaped into significant ebbs and flows that shape experience of the world”. Heschel put it this way:

“Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious…Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.”[1]

The phrase ‘architecture of time’ intrigued David and it leaped out from the page to me too. I had been reading Curriculum Planning with Design Language, a great new book by Ken Badley. It is written for teachers but I think it has implications for all the projects that we plan in the workplace or home. Ken takes the design philosophy of architect Christopher Alexander as his starting-point and he proposes ten design principles for our projects. They include ‘centres’, ‘boundaries’, ‘entrances and exits’, ‘coherence and connections’, … but the one that Heschel’s talk of ‘architecture of time’ made me think about was Ken’s seventh principle – ‘green spaces’.

Ken talks about the quiet backs of Oxford colleges as paradigm examples of the breathing spaces that cities and towns need and goes on to define green spaces in our working lives as “activities people engage in that are very likely different from work”. Heschel encourages us to think of time not as something that simply and remorselessly flows by but as something that we shape just as architects shape buildings and their environments … and he does it in a book entitled The Sabbath! The green spaces that we should design into our work projects (or our plans for 2020) are the sabbaths, the jubilees, the resting-places, the coffee-breaks that give us opportunity to breathe in the stillness, the greenery, the sounds of the metaphorical park or garden!

The third friend is actually a student of mine from Dublin who is presently writing an essay for a module on the theology of work. He it was who a few weeks ago introduced me to Heschel’s ideas and he has effectively convinced me that any such module should have at its heart a theology of rest. My curriculum for the module needs not only the breaks that I provide for in classroom sessions but also a focus on the importance of green spaces in our architecture of our time.

My thanks to my three friends for forcing me to face up to the fact that my tendency to workaholic-ism is not a good thing!  I need to shape my time differently.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Company, 1951), p. 8.

Two Hallelujahs

Last year at a conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, I sat with about a hundred other Christian educators from across Europe and beyond. The speaker was Ken Badley, a good friend of mine from Canada, and, as he brought his presentation to a close, he talked briefly about two hallelujahs, juxtaposing two video extracts in a way that moved me deeply.

The first video featured a flash mob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah by an Ontario choral society. The video was recorded in a shopping centre food court by hidden cameras and planned by a small company called Alphabet Photography as a thank you to their customers. Unsuspecting shoppers were startled as, one after another, singers rose to their feet and joined the hallelujahs. Surprise turned to delight on the faces of many as the performance moved through “And he shall reign forever and ever” to “King of kings and Lord of lords” and ended with the climax of the closing hallelujah. I wish I could have been there! If you haven’t seen the video (and even if, like me, you’ve watched and listened to it many times), you can do so by clicking here.

Ken then played an extract from a second video, a very different hallelujah. This featured the late Canadian singer and poet, Leonard Cohen, and the Hallelujah song that had taken him five years to write when he was going through dark times.

Rooted in his Jewish faith, Cohen moves from the failures of David and Samson to sing of the necessity of a song of praise in the face of pain or joy. “There’s a blaze of light in every word; / it doesn’t matter which you heard, / the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!” Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah! “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

I wish I could have been there to hear him sing the song. The scene is dark, the singer wears black but hallelujah swells up out of agony. Again, if you haven’t seen the video (and even if, like me, you’ve also watched and listened to it many times), you can do so by clicking here.

I remember as a teenager learning a chorus that had the lines, “I’m living on the mountain, underneath a cloudless sky, / I’m drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry”. There are indeed times when the skies are blue and joy fills the heart, when “God’s glory is on tour in the skies, / God-craft on exhibit across the horizon” (Psalm 19:1, The Message), when everything within us swells with hallelujahs to the Lord of Song. “King of kings and Lord of lords. … Hallelujah!”

There are also times, many times, in the valleys of life when all around seems dark, when the wicked prosper in the world and the poor suffer, when family concerns weigh heavily, when personal failures seem ever present. These are times when we are “on a diet of tears—tears for breakfast, tears for supper” (Psalm 42:3, The Message) and we ask over and over again, “Why, O Lord?”. We are not alone in this for the agonised cry of the young Prince of Glory from the tree of Calvary also shouted “Why?” into the darkness. We read, “From noon to three, the whole earth was dark. Around mid-afternoon Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’” (Matthew 27:46, The Message)

The many psalms of lament and the example of Jesus himself permit us to question the Father, to cry out to him with frankness and tell him that we do not understand why things are as they are. This is not the same as grumbling about God for these things are said to him and not behind his back (as if anything could be behind his back!).

However, the psalms of lament characteristically go on to utter what Leonard Cohen calls a “broken hallelujah”. Hear that hallelujah as the psalmist continues to lament :

 “Sometimes I ask God, my rock-solid God,
‘Why did you let me down?
Why am I walking around in tears, …’

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God—
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.” (Psalm 42:9,11, The Message)

Thank you to Canada for the Ontario choral society and for Leonard Cohen and their two hallelujahs and thank you to Ken Badley for putting them side by side, the holy and the broken hallelujah.

All Real Living is Meeting and …

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (I John 4:16)

No, not endless meetings, although sometimes it can seem like that! Teaching is endless meeting. This a statement made by Parker Palmer in his book, The Courage to Teach, as an addition to a quotation from the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. The complete sentence reads as follows:

“’All real living is meeting,’ said Martin Buber, and teaching is endless meeting.”[1]

At their heart, teaching and learning are relational. We are not merely communicating or acquiring knowledge or skills, we are relating with those among whom we teach and learn. Few other callings are as intensely relational as teaching. What Michael Schluter of the Jubilee Centre called ‘The R Factor’[2] is everywhere present in the classroom.

God is relational for he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in relation with each other in the Trinity through all eternity. He made us in his image to be relational beings and he said at the beginning that it was not good that we should be alone (Genesis 2:18). He made us for relationships of love with him and with one another.

In a very helpful article (available on the internet), Marshall Gregory tells of a discussion with an English class at a secular American university in which he found himself saying “blithely, not seeing my own words in advance, ‘I think my job is to love you. … Unless I love you properly, I cannot teach you well. Grounding my teaching in love is the only way I can make sure that I do this job right’.”  He goes on to say that he did not know that he had a view about teacherly love until he found himself saying this. He went on to write this article and to argue that the only proper love between teacher and student is the agape love that God has for human beings.[3]

Yes, teaching is endless meeting and the only adequate resource for all such meeting is agape.

Loving God, as we meet and relate to those whom we teach, may we live in your love and may they come to do so too. Amen.

[1] Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 16.

[2] Michael Schluter & David Lee, The R Factor, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993).

[3] Marshall Gregory, Pedagogy and the Christian Law of Love, first published in Journal of Education & Christian Belief, 6:1 (2002) and accessible on the EurECA website.