Monthly Archives: February 2012

Five not so easy pieces

We live in a time of troubles.

The world feels like it is broken. No money and no prospects make us feel like we might be broken too.  We want to be fixed. Not just fixed but for everything to be restored to being the way it was before, when times were good.

Feeling broken leads to a deep existential denial. Things aren’t supposed to go wrong, I’m not supposed to be treated badly or to be a statistic. No one told us it would be like this and we want it to stop.  We falsely believe that life, like the economy, should be one steady upwards curve. When it doesn’t, despair is the result.  Despair is easy when you are not equipped for bad news.  Despair deepens when your life sustaining fantasy about the way of the world is fractured beyond repair.

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan contemplative, has an exercise involving five pieces of advice he would give to young men as they embarked on adult life.  These are foundation stones on which to build a life that understands both the lies and the truths about living in a world that is less than perfect.

  • Life is hard

  • You are not important.

  • Your life is not about you.

  • You are not in control.

  • You are going to die

At first this looks like a grim list.  However, on deeper analysis this is a guide to how to prepare for a life that discovers lasting joy and peace and purpose rather than a continual helpless cry that “it wasn’t supposed to be like this”.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that real life happens in a mess and in the context of real people and relationships and economics. Last night when my colleague preached on these as a list for Lent he reminded us that we cannot fix the world with a technique or draw up a policy that will make everything all right. We can only be free when we understand Jesus’ phrase  “dying to the world”.  Only when we let go of the false promises will we find the truth and learn to thrive.

Reading that list also reminds me that I cannot live without others. If life is hard, it must be made easier with people who laugh and cry with me. If I’m not in control, then neither are you which means maybe we should work together. Not being important means you and I can have a mutual relationship.  The fact I am going to die one day provokes me to have a life worth being mourned by you.

If my life is not about me then maybe it is about you. If it’s good for you, maybe you will make it good for me.

RIP Tom Smail

This morning I read that Tom Smail had died. Tom was a great teacher of doctrine and Christian life who I had the pleasure of studying with before going to theological college.

The reason I met him was due to the letter telling me that I had been selected to train for ordination in the Church of England. It said, “Yes we want you but we want you to wait a year before going to college”. With hindsight that letter led to one of the best and most maturing years of my life. At the time it felt like a punishment and a misunderstanding.

The selectors felt I had problems with theological reflection and study. So, they recommended a year’s study with a theological mentor. Our wise director of ordinands noted that Tom Smail lived just around the corner from us and he had agreed to act in this role for me. I knew nothing about Tom. I hadn’t read any of his books nor encountered him in any of his roles either as parish priest or theological educator.

He was a short scot whose accent I sometimes found hard to understand. On our first meeting he and I chatted about my life and faith and what I wanted to get out of this arrangement. He was gracious but very serious about the task at hand. He assured me that while he thought perhaps the selectors didn’t really appreciate my understanding of theology he said that maybe I needed to take my reading up a step and to think and reflect more deeply.

So, once a month we would sit down and I would tell him about the book he assigned me. He was very good at not interrupting and I learned that some of his penetrating looks meant he was composing questions to ask me later. I once sat despairing at how hard Rahner’s “The Trinity” was to understand. I said to him, “maybe they were right, I don’t know much about theology”. He patted me on the shoulder and told me, “You don’t have to understand Rahner, you just have to read him.”

Tom brought humanity and grace to all he did while never accepting slackness or an unwillingness to apply rigour to the task.

Once I was done spouting on about whatever I had read, he would start teaching me. It was infectious. It wasn’t someone showing me how much he knew and how little I did. He wanted me to know and enquire. He taught as if it really mattered that I knew more about God and his purposes and his love. We always prayed together at the end and he always asked how Ruth’s pregnancy was getting on. I never felt that I was an imposition on his time or intellect and when I would drop him notes throughout my ministry he always responded and would offer words of wisdom.

I haven’t seen him in years but he will always be an important part of my journey and my maturing. I hope that in my own small way I can offer to others the gift he has given me.

Maranatha? Not till the end of the financial year…

Recently the NY Times carried two revealing articles about Apple.  One tells why they will never manufacture their stuff in the United States and the other describes the  human cost borne in the manufacture of Iproducts. The two weave one big story: unless American workers are willing to endure conditions found in developing economies, they won’t get a bite of the apple.

In order to call ourselves civilised, we have to be appalled at what is barbaric. That doesn’t mean we won’t cooperate with barbarism in the international  supply chain, we just keep it at arms length.  The way we keep that distance is as follows:

  1. Make promises and protocols ensuring that an ethical approach is taken in all dealings
  2. Be shocked and promise action when that approach is breached
  3. Talk about the progress being made, how regrettable it is that such things happen and how much we hope for that new day when all is well all the time
  4. Reset to point 1.

There is always a tension between where the ideal is and where we are.

Every revolutionary, social reformer and visionary feels the tension. Even Apple feels it. They would love to make billions of dollars without anyone suffering for it. But until that unlikely day arrives, it will take its billions while they are there to be had.  Apple has no feeling of responsibility to make that day happen.  They prefer to wait for it to come even though they have the economic power to change the conditions of their suppliers’ workers overnight. It doesn’t have to wait for a change in human nature or the arrival of a heavenly kingdom which would transform people into true humanity. It only has to be willing to take a smaller slice of the pie.

Christians can tell them how that tension will work itself out because the church has been living in such a tension for two thousand years. It’s called an Eschatalogical Tension, generated by living in the space between the inauguration of the Kingdom and its arrival in full (the eschaton, the end).  During that waiting time the church has usually fallen into the same thinking as Apple.

The Apostle Paul explained how the Kingdom could transform our worldview in this waiting time. Christ becomes our perspective. In him there are no longer divisions along race, gender or free/slave lines or any line we choose to separate and discriminate with. The call is to be fully transforming people not satisfied with waiting  for the kingdom to come before people taste justice and peace. His call is to live as members of one  family, dedicated to each other as God is dedicated to us.

However that sentiment didn’t stop Christians from owning slaves or creating first and second class members of the church.  By giving into the temptation to defer the Kingdom life till the eschaton, people felt they could see Jesus’ words that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” as an excuse smothered in slate wiping grace rather than as the poignant observation of noble failure it was.

The struggle in the eschatological tension is to live as if the Kingdom has arrived already and allow the spirit to empower us to live by its values as today’s values.  Apple knows the arrival of the ideal as reality is their final moment as a company with a license to print money and to make some men rich. The person who wants to be the slave owner knows the same. In their own misguided ways, they delay the kingdom because it profits them to do so. That profit is where their heart truly lies so they aren’t that fussed if it doesn’t arrive as long as its absence does not  inconvenience them.

Jesus calls his followers to die to this world now so that they may be resurrected now in order to be free to live the gospel now. It is costly, sacrificial and, like it was for Jesus’ first followers, a shock to  our sensibilities and upbringing. Heaven yearns to break in now whether we want it to or not.  &