In these last six weeks, like others, I’ve been doing some tidying up and sorting. When it comes to a book that involves familiarizing myself once again with the story and, if it’s a good one, re-reading it. You can see why sorting takes me a while.
With encouragement from the younger members of our congregation I’ve been reading some of those books – the children’s books with well-thumbed pages – on my weekly YouTube recording.
Nearly every child’s book I’ve looked at; and that includes some teenage fiction classics too (like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings); has an angle on the perennial question: “What matters?”
It Zwibble, the kid’s story this week, says that saving babies, friendship, and courage matters. Harry Potter (I watched the whole series again!) is similar: the power of love, friends, loyalty, and bravery. And then the medium of these stories also sends a message: imagination and fun matter too!
These stories also subtly and sometimes directly offer a critique of other messages children, teenagers, and adults hear about what matters – like the clothes you wear, the house you live in, your popularity, the power over others you have.
Sometimes books, like Harry Potter, imagine a context where what is normative is no longer so. J.K. Rowling imagines the rise of a great villain who plunges the world into war. J.R.R. Tolkien imagines likewise. A time of crisis is used by these authors to raise the question of what matters. And for Tolkien WW1 & 2 were the crises he’d lived through and out of which he created an imaginary world where moral choices, somewhat like in the real world, would need to be made.
This current time, with a worldwide pandemic, with some 300,000 deaths, is also such a time of crisis. The word ‘crisis’ is a Latinized form of the Greek ‘Krisis’. Krisis has the sense of ‘a turning point’ or a ‘critical decision-making moment’.
There was an article in the Paris Review[i] last week that explored this crisis/turning point idea on a personal level. The author, Sabrina Mark, is an American who now, like many of her compatriots, is living in a bubble in a country with very mixed messages about bubbling – the result being increased uncertainty and fear. The article contrasts the author’s experience interviewing for a professorship at an American University in February this year, and the author’s experience now as a bubble teacher for her two sons. All the angst of that professorial interviewing process, the ‘trying to impress’, the projecting of oneself (a self that is sometimes hard to recognise), strategies to gain a job, a ‘respected position’, more income and the like, are now all reassessed in the light of a virus, death, the fragility of life, the relatively of income and need, and the fallacy of status.
Is real life, ‘truth’, a life with things, with status based on what we do, earn, or own? Or is real life/truth something else? These questions are not dissimilar to what many children’s books ask.
On a personal level most of us have been on some form of retreat – retreat away from the usual, the expected. For some that retreat has been a busy time, learning new skills and ways of coping to work with both old demands and new demands. It’s been a time of change. And change can bring a bucket full of stress. For others that retreat has been a quieter time: a time cleaning up, cleaning out, fixing, re-organizing, baking, and other pursuits. The purpose of retreats (and I’ve purposefully used the spiritual language of ‘retreat’) is not only to desist from we have been doing, but to refocus, recalibrate, in order to prioritise what really matters. Retreats can be turning points.
When thinking about ‘turning points’ I’ve been intrigued by what’s happened for Piers Morgan. As you might imagine I’m no fan of Piers Morgan. The Times interviewer Decca Aitkenhead likens his career to a kid who picks as many playground fights as possible in order to make a name for himself. And in that career he found friendship with another playground brawler called Donald.
What intrigues me is his reasoning behind his current falling out with Donald. In talking with Decca, Piers says: “Let's put all the stupidity and the nonsense and the silliness and the point-scoring and the culture wars behind us. All that stuff has to be changed. We have to put all our concerted energy into being different people coming out of this. Better people. Because this whole crisis, I think, has been a recalibration for everybody, about everything.”
This is conversion language. This is seeing-the-big-picture language and realizing, not unlike Sabina Mark’s experience, that he wants/needs to change. And, of course, real conversion leads to embodiment, living your words going forward.
Speaking of embodiment, I came across a great little quote the other day from Jon Bartley (a progressive Christian and co-leader of the Green Party in England and Wales). Jon said that for Christians what we understand by truth has to be embodied. And the embodiment of truth for Christians is acts of compassion.
This is similar to Meister Eckhart saying: “You may call God love, you may call God goodness. But the best name for God is compassion.” The ‘God-truth’ is compassion.
Compassion is one of those things that matter – that really matter. So, how do we build an economy where compassion really matters? Or a faith community where compassion is our purpose and plumb-line? Or help Piers and others who want to take off the old garments of narcissism, pulling people down, and point-scoring, and put on the new garments of cooperation, building each other up, and compassion? (This clothing/ re-clothing metaphor I’m borrowing from the pseudo-Pauline author of Colossians 3)
In my Tuesday Edition #7, (May 5th), I wrote about Julian of Norwich who lived from 1343 to 1416. Her entire life was spent within the reality of the Black Death that resulted in the killing of a third of the population of Europe. And in that terrible context she writes about what matters – namely joy, gratitude, and goodness. Julian both embodies joy, gratitude, and goodness, and also finds it in the world about her. She hears the ‘word of God’ in the singing of a bird, or the cascading of a brook. She sees the goodness in others and in creation and celebrates it.
But what I didn’t write about was that the truth she embodied was not triumphant. It didn’t win the day. Fear, ignorance, and the use of fear to aggrandize power won the day. The Black Death, with no science to comprehend it, replaced respect for the sacredness of creation that had dominated the spiritual consciousness of Julian’s predecessors in the Middle-Ages (like Meister Eckhart) with fear of nature. Fear and blame came to predominate. Jews were once again made into scapegoats. As were women: witch burnings and often destruction of cats accompanied some of the frenzied responses to the pandemic. People projected blame, and leaders (political and religious) cultivated those projections. We need to be very wary of peddlers of fear and blame.
It is interesting that in a famous stained glass window of Julian her ginger cat is prominently displayed. Might that be a not-so-subtle critique of the witch burnings and cat killings resulting from the fearful response to the Black Death? How ironic since cats could have killed many of the rodents who were carrying the disease.
I began this sermon talking about children’s books and how authors often thread their stories with suggestions, imperatives even, about what matters. In the context colourful and imaginative pictures, they spin tales that help us at ‘turning points’, at crises. These authors – or maybe it’s only the ones I read - are committed to the wellbeing of their audience.
When we come to many of the stories in the Bible though, the motivations of the authors, and later editors, are mixed at best. Books purporting to be history, like our text from I Kings 19, often are written to please the author’s patron. Yet sometimes into these stories there is a subtle counter-narrative that the patron might not be too pleased about.
I Kings 19 is story about crisis. The text begins with violence. Elijah, believing it is his God’s will to slaughter false prophets, and despatching 450 of them, flees from the political consequences. And he’s scared of those consequences. He goes in the desert and wants to die. Then God’s angel turns up with some takeaways; and this gives Elijah a calorie boost that allegedly lasts for 40 days. Some takeaways!! Anyway, Elijah next appears at Mt Horeb.
Here the text gets interesting. The God character (and it’s always helpful, as Karen Armstrong reminds us, to presume God is a character and not the same character as we might have met in the Scriptures before) asks Elijah “What are you doing here?” And Elijah tells God what a great murdering job he’s done. God says nothing. Instead of refuting Elijah, God announces God’s presence which ultimately comes not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence” i.e. nothing. Then God asks exactly the same question of Elijah as before: “What are you doing here?” And Elijah, imagining God has a hearing difficulty, repeats himself.
I would like to suggest to you that in the nothingness (the sound of silence) and in the repetition of the question ‘what are you doing?’ there is a theological challenge happening that Elijah doesn’t get. In this crisis, in the fear of this time, there is an opportunity for Elijah to change what he’s been doing. But he doesn’t hear this wholly new experience of god – namely the power of the nothingness. He doesn’t hear the haunting ‘whisper’ (NIV translation) that might not only challenge his murdering behaviour but also how he understands divinity. Maybe there is a whole different way of godness that doesn’t involve zeal, and retribution, and proving that my one is bigger and better than your one.
So maybe the takeaway from this old story is simply this: In the midst of a crisis when we experience something wholly new will we learn from it, or when the crisis passes will we just carry on like we did in the past?