National Storytelling Week Chapter 3: Sacred Landscapes

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Chapter 2.

Not far from where I live, there’s a holy well, sitting quietly hidden in the shadow of tower blocks. It’s easy to miss, a sacred site sitting in the middle of urbanisation. Passing by, you’d barely notice its existence, but it carries with it history and memory. It tells a story without words, and in doing so it transforms the landscape.

The church, over the years, has latched on to a couple of key ways of telling its story – sermons and music. These will form the basis of most Sunday services; at their best, they’ll work together to promote an atmosphere of worship, at their worst, well, the preacher and the worship leader will be ready to drown each other in the nearest font.

This emphasis on two particular ‘media’ has pushed out some of the other ways in which the gospel story has been communicated over the centuries. Look around an old church next time you get the chance, look at the windows and the walls. The sun will shine through technicolour glass and bring to life the nativity or the feeding of the five thousand, or a host of saints and angels. In the years before most people could read and services were conducted in an alien tongue, stained glass was one of the ways in which people were drawn closer to God.

The same thing goes for the landscape around us. On a hill near where I grew up, a cross was erected for an Easter service one year. Only they forgot to take it down and so the cross remains, visible from miles around. That tells a story too.

Or look at a map. ‘Gospel Oak’ tells you where a wandering preacher would once gather his congregations; ‘Gospel End’ will point you to a parish boundary. Place names often communicate important information – directions, warnings, commemorations… We name our spaces for a reason, and if you know what you’re doing, you can read a map and see stories emerge from the lines and borders and contours. The Bible does this a lot – read the Old Testament and see how many times someone named a place after some defining moment in their life. And then all the people who moved into that place after them remembered what happened there and fixed their identity in their surroundings.

Wendell Berry once said that there are no unsacred places, only sacred places and desecrated places. And sometimes it’s not words or even songs that draw attention to that sacredness, it’s art and memory. They can serve as vehicles for telling stories, or they can tell the stories themselves, and we need to respond to that. The way in which we communicate has changed over the decades, and the church risks being left behind by the future and, ironically, its past – our predecessors enchanted the landscape and embedded a story in the world around them, and so we have a duty to rediscover and reimagine and reawaken those stories etched into the world around us, to amplify them and recapture their original impact.

And then we’ll discover new ways to deploy the artists and storytellers in our midst, and leave new stories in the world around us, letting the generations after us hear our voices and follow in our steps.

 

National Storytelling Week Chapter 2: The Bread and the Wine

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But in gathering around that altar, we’re remembering the core story of our faith. We reenact it, a time-travelling imagination that connects bread and wine across centuries in remembrance of shed blood and a broken body and their restoration, because the only reason this imaginative leap is possible and necessary is because of the Resurrection.

There’s a danger in divorcing the story from the ritual. It’s easy to receive communion and take it for granted, a moment in a service that becomes no more important than than the coffee served afterwards. On maybe it’s become magic, a ritual that we hope will change the world in our favour, a metaphysical transaction, the power lying in the elements and an incantation rather than in the one being remember.

There’s debate over whether the Last Super was a formal Passover meal, but either way, stories would have been on the minds of everyone as they celebrated the liberation of their people from slavery. So when Jesus breaks bread and pours wine and asks his followers to remember all that is to happen, he’s tying in to a tradition of remembrance and of storytelling that build and unites communities around their meals together. It’s a story of pain and brutality, betrayal and politics, hope and love, grace and redemption. It’s at the heart of Christianity and forms a bridge from history and from heaven into our lives and souls here and now.

So it’s a heartbreak if the Eucharist becomes reduced to an empty ritual. The bread and the wine carry with them a story that has the power to change us, and that’s something glorious, something to celebrate. In her book on the Eucharist, the writer Sara Miles says:

I understood why Christians imagined the kingdom of heaven as a feast: a banquet where nobody was excluded, where the weakest and most broken, the worst sinners and outcasts, were honored guests who welcomed one another in peace and shared their food.

 Whenever we’re close to turning Holy Communion into a vain repetition, we need to think of this and find a way to rediscover this memory of hope and grace. This might need us to reframe and retell the story, to bring our imaginations and our artistry into the fray to remind us of why we walk forward and take the bread and wine. After all, there are days on which we need to re-enchant our rituals.

There are other days, of course, when we need to re-enchant the world itself.

To be continued…

Light in the Dark: #Candlemas 2016

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There’s a tradition, in Poland, that candles blessed at Candlemas are lit to ward off storms; the day also coincides with the death of winter and the rebirth of spring, and people will light candles to keep away the dark. That’s not such a big deal nowadays – I’m writing this under neon lights, after all – but back in the day, before electricity and lampposts, even the tiniest flame must have been a flickering symbol of hope.

Looked at that way, you can see why Candlemas became one of the big feasts of early Christianity. It commemorates Mary and Joseph presenting the month-old Jesus at the Temple, whereupon they have strange encounters with a couple of old folk. One of them, Simeon (although it doesn’t actually say that he was old…), sees Jesus and launches into a song of hope and prophecy, but once again, as we see throughout the stories of Jesus’s childhood, there’s a strand of darkness running through it.

Things start optimistically enough:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

This is a revelation – this tiny baby is the hope of the world, light breaking into darkness. The tiny flame is lit, and Mary and Joseph are moved by the old (?) man’s words. And why not? This is only 40 days after the Nativity, they’re probably still buzzing about how the Messiah has come, about how Heaven’s broken through into the grime and the pain of human life. It’s a message that resonates throughout history – the Lord has come, the Light of the World is here. Even today that’s my hope – the light in the dark, no matter how claustrophobic that dark seems to get.

Unfortunately Simeon doesn’t end there:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

The Light of the World might be here, but people are going to speak out against it, and when he’s only 33, his mother will have to watch him be crucified by corruption and empire. The light has dawned, Mary, but it’s gonna hurt, the pain’s going to pierce your soul and the world’s going to remember that heartache and write songs about it.

Faith isn’t easy. Sometimes being a disciple means standing against the world; sometimes being a disciple means standing about the ‘church’. Empires like to kill the prophets, snuffing out the light of hope if they deem that to be necessary. That’s why Christianity, at its purest, is cross-shaped.

But the Light of the World is also a fire, and the flame needs to burn, whether that’s a candle beating back the shadows, or the whole lot being razed to the ground so that something better and more holy can be born from the ashes. And that can be a painful process, and it’ll meet with resistance, but sometimes that’s the only way forward, the only way out of the dark.

So light a candle. Spark a flame. And carry the hope of the world into the night, confident that sometime soon the sun’s gonna rise.

National Storytelling Week Chapter 1: Let the stories be heard

17627-campfire-flames-pvEvery so often, when the time is right and the Spirit moves, a church service can be utterly derailed by something as simple as someone getting up and telling their story.

Sometimes this is spontaneous, sometimes it’s planned, but when an unheard story is told with honesty and vulnerability, it holds the room, somehow becoming its own kind of sermon. I’ve seen it happen – you can’t package it, you can’t manipulate it, you just open up the mic and get out of the way and let the story speak for itself, and God through it.

I believe in people being able to share their stories in church. There are precious moments when a congregation can be formed and an individual can be freed, and we don’t carve out enough spaces in our worship services for these moments to happen. And the more we become a society driven to share the minutiae of our lives through social media, the more important and central this is going to be.

There are stories that need to be heard, not because they’re filler-fodder for an inspirational sermon, not because they’ll make everyone feel better, but because they’re the truth of people’s lives, and its a sad reality that some truths go unheard and leave in impoverished in the silence. But our churches shouldn’t be afraid of truth – challenged, convicted or changed, sure, but not afraid.

So if you’re a church leader, look around – what voices are going unheard in your church? Are there communities in your neighbourhood that interact with you every day except Sunday morning? Whose stories do you need to amplify?

(Because remember, it’s not about you, it’s about Christ and his Kingdom, and that Kingdom may be build in places you don’t go and your people need to hear about that.)

Instinctively I want to follow this up with an appeal for everyone to tell their stories; after all, over the last couple of decades, technology has democratized this sort of thing, right? We all have a voice now… Except some people will speak out and get shouted down, some will tell their stories and get fallen upon by an army of trolls. Everyone has a voice, but death threats and trolling are an efficient way of silencing people. We need to be proactive in creating and safeguarding storytelling spaces, and we need to work on the online signal-to-noise ratio.

But telling our stories can be transformative. They can reshape and reinvigorate and redeem the world around us. They can create spaces for healing and justice around our campfires. They tell us where we’ve been and where we’re going, of what the Empire has done and, subversively, what’s been growing in the margins and the cracks.

We can spiritualise this and call it ‘testimony’, but at its core we need our churches to be storytelling spaces with campfires next to our altars. And then we’ll be able to gather around the bread and wine with the sound of our stories in our ears. We’ll hear our many voices and maybe hear God in the midst of them.

To be continued…

Martin Luther King Day 2016: Tombs for the Prophets (Matthew 23:29-32)

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Look, the last thing the world needs is another white guy talking about Martin Luther King. I get that. But thoughts have got lodged in my head, and I keep going back to words spoken by Jesus in the last few days of his life. In a searing attack on the Pharisees, he yells “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous”, even though they’re complicit in the acts that put the prophets and the righteous in the tombs in the first place. And Jesus is rightly furious at this, because it’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

Martin Luther King is a towering figure of the 20th Century. “I have a dream” isn’t just a great speech, it’s a prophecy, a glorious, beautiful vision casting that’s rightly remembered decades later. But the tragedy is that King gets frozen in amber during the March on Washington. He’s considered a Great Man, and we learn about him in schools, and the Americans have a day dedicated to his memory. He’s an icon.

But he was more than that. He was a flawed man who found himself caught up in history, and he made mistakes, and by the end of his life, people were questioning his relevance and noting the tensions inherent in his message. He was also a prophet, but not in the sense of a plaster-cast saint; he spoke words of righteousness, against racism and inequality and violence and war. And so the FBI wanted to destroy him, and people beat him and firebombed his house; he got thrown in jail and, ultimately, he was murdered. We like prophets who talk about non-violence, because we can be violent towards them in response.

That’s what happens to real prophets. We like them once they’re dead and gone and we can sanitise their message, but while they’re actually running around on earth, we’d much rather just shoot ‘em. Two thousand years ago, Jesus railed against how we treated prophets and just a couple of days later he was nailed to a cross. If we think about it long enough, we can probably come up with the names of prophets who are being persecuted right now.

The worst of it is, we then erect statues to their memory and publish their words in nice little gift books, and the rage and the fire and the Spirit that danced through their words gets extinguished. We praise Martin Luther King for his vision of an integrated word, but we’re still cheering on wars, we’re still a grossly unequal society, we’re still seeing unarmed black people shot by police. And the prophets will still rage, and they’ll still get killed, and we’ll still use them as inspiration porn in an effort to quiet their cries and put out their fire.

Maybe we should just start listening and changing instead.