A Crown of Thorns is Still a Crown: The Feast of Christ the King

Just six miles south of here lie the ancient kings of Mercia. Aethalbard and Wiglaf, now no more than bones, are interred at Repton, capital of a kingdom that no longer exists, a kingdom that’s little more than archeology and dust.

Mercia may have long since been submerged beneath the waves of British history, but new kingdoms have risen in its place. Some of these are geographical, all flags and squiggles on maps, but many exist in less concrete spaces, spaces of business and media and ideology. Zuckerberg’s kingdom is bigger than Mercia ever was, its population larger than that of the Roman Empire at its height.

Different kingdoms still woo us, influence us, own us. Sometimes those kingdoms are even mythical, dreams of a golden age used to turn modern atrocities into acceptable expediencies, political fairytales no more real than Atlantis.

The Feast of Christ the King was introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. World War I had ended only a few years earlier, but the War To End All Wars hadn’t left nationalism and division buried beneath the poppy fields. Just eight years later Hitler became Chancellor of Germany; five years after that would come Kristallacht. Empires rise and fall, and too many of us are eager to dance to their marching songs. To often we embrace empires because we like control, like power and security. Celebrating Christ as King was meant to be an inoculation against that, a liturgical reminder of where a Christian’s true loyalties should lie. Maybe it’s even subversive; after all, the Church has far too often sanctified slavery and antisemitism,

In thinking about empires, Pastor Brian Zahnd has noted that “There’s always some guy on a horse”. Problem is, the guy on a horse is far too often carrying a cross. When Jesus was tested in the wilderness, Satan showed him all the kingdoms of the world in an instant. I wonder if that was literally all of them; Rome, Greece, Byzantium, London, Washington, Facebook… I wonder if the greatest temptation of all these was Christendom. As I type this, a line from the song ‘Hurt’ is buzzing through my head: “You can have it all, my empire of dirt”. As the world stumbles into dark places, that line feels strangely prophetic.

For all the times we’ve turned the Kingdom of God into an Empire of fear and hate, Lord we repent. I repent.

Because the Kingdom of Christ is built on different foundations. It doesn’t come at the point of a sword, although some wish it would; it doesn’t get legislated, although many have tried. It can emerge from cathedrals and megachurches (although sometimes it’s paved over by those very structures), but it just as often appears in soup kitchens and refugee camps and women’s refuges and prisons, in online spaces that stand against the memes and the trolls. It was born at a cross and is represented by a lamb. Christ is King, but his hands are nail-scarred and he knows the streets and doorways as intimately as he knows cathedrals and palaces, and when we praise the beauty of barbed wire, beware, because Jesus is likely on the other side of it, his Kingdom unseen but still a beacon of hope and love and light; a crown of thorns is still a crown.

 

Last year’s post for Christ the King can be read here.

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Silence Will Destroy Us (International Men’s Day)

I’ll be honest, it’s rare that I think about what it means to be a man. There’s a whole bunch of privilege tied up in that attitude, the luxury not to worry about who’s walking behind me on a dark street, who might grab me as I pass by them in a pub. But there are things we need to talk about, things that languish in silence, hemmed in by expectations and stereotypes. And that can have devastating effects – one of the leading causes of death for young men is suicide, and mental health problems are at record levels. That’s before we get into the number of rapes that are committed, the number of random acts of violence that take far too many lives.

Look, I know it’s not all men. I don’t want to suggest that, because I am a man and I’ve managed to avoid beating anyone to a pulp. But it’s too many men, and if we can’t talk about it on International Men’s Day, well, when can we talk about it? There are too many things we leave in the shadows, too many things that fester and mutate in the dark before they finally lash out at those around us or destroy us from within. We spin the myth that previous generations of men just got on with things; in reality, too many returned home from conflict, or from a funeral, or from a redundancy announcement at work with a stiff upper lip. Behind closed doors things were different; the actor Patrick Stewart explains how he believes his abusive father was the product of unresolved trauma in WWII. If we don’t talk about things, if we don’t seek healing, if we don’t get beyond the nonsense that society sells us, then we run the risk of destroying ourselves, of destroying those we love. And most of the time that isn’t necessarily physical.

We’re told there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to masculinity, but the problem with that is that it ends up not fitting any one. This has always made me uncomfortable – I don’t drink, I don’t follow football, I’m probably a classic Beta Dog – and at times that’s made me feel out-of-place. I have self-esteem issues, some of which are rooted in verbal abuse I received from the resident school psychopath around 30 years ago. Some of them lie closer to home. Long-lost voices still speak up now and then, when it’s late at night, when I’m driving on autopilot. I snap at myself to shut them up and they recede, for a while at least. Not everyone’s as fortunate; the ghosts I believe in emerge from history and arguments and rage, and some men can only escape them by using a rope or a razor. Others try to exorcise them with drugs, with sex, with power. Too often it doesn’t work, the hauntings are too loud.

And then there are those who are are pushed to the margins of masculinity – men who fall in love with men, men whose bodies don’t match their minds and their souls. They face rejection and persecution, and to many this will ring hollow as it comes from a Christian blog. There’s an ecclesiastical machine that grinds far too many between its teeth, a sanctified rage that sees too many prodigals cast out and beaten. We talk of the love of Christ, but I wonder if too many of us see this as weakness, if too many of us prefer to wield swords of ‘purity’ and ‘retribution’. Too many fathers reject their sons and think they’re being strong as they do so. Too many rail against the sins of sex, but at the same time, #MeToo is still a thing. So’s #ChurchToo. Some male spaces make me uncomfortable; to others, many male spaces are terrifying and potentially deadly.

I don’t have any clever answers here. As a preacher, I want to say that Jesus should be my role model, but even then we find ourselves caught up in weaponized Messiahs, images of Jesus the Pride Fighter over-writing the Jesus of the gospels. There are some kinds of masculinity that become idols, that grow into heresies. And they cease power and they leave victims in their wake. They sing songs of war, but ignore the traumatized and the wounded warriors who sit on street corners, wondering what happened to the parades. They spend a fortune at Christmas, but still wonder why their kids are scared of them. And the only answer I can come up with is that we need to talk about this more – talk at the pub, talk at work, talk at home. Talk to our kids. Talk to our partners. Talk to our friends. Because silence becomes a void we desperately try to fill, silence drives our complicity in things we should rightly hate, and ultimately, silence destroys us.

Three Reasons We Should Pay More Attention To Church Toilets (a post for World Toilet Day)

Think of church and you might think of a modern, open plan worship space; a stage, perhaps, and lighting rigs and a big LED screen hanging on the wall. Or you might think of Europe’s great cathedrals, high ceilings and hushed tones and holy statues lurking in corners. I’m guessing no-one thought of the toilets.

That’s a mistake. And there are three reasons why (aside from the obvious):

Justice

We need to think about the toilets because, frankly, in comfortable western societies toilets are taken for granted. The whole messy business of getting sewage in and out of places is something other people worry about. Yet 2.4 billion people don’t have a clean, safe place to go about their business, and while that’s obviously a health and hygiene issue, it’s also an issue of justice – girls around yhe world can’t go to school, or are put at risk of rape, all for the want of decent facilities. That’s why the Toilet Twinning initiative is such a good idea – it can turn your church toilets into vehicles of justice, and maybe that’s the sort of thing that Jesus would have us think about, rather than yet another upgrade to the sound system.

Dignity

There’s also the issue of dignity. Again, something that’s easy to take for granted,  but imagine being out of the house and getting caught short and genuinely being stuck without access to a toilet. That’s an everyday reality for many people with disabilities, something that organisations like Changing Places are working to, well, change. Around 1/2 million people can’t use standard toilets and there aren’t enough disabled facilities out there to grant people the dignity they deserve. Churches aren’t always as welcoming to people with disabilities as they could be; maybe you need to see whether the disabled loo in your church is fit for purpose, or whether it’s just become the place where the mop buckets are kept.

Service

But someone’s got to look after those toilets; someone’s got to fix the leaks, someone’s got to mop the floors, someone’s got to change the loo rolls. And if I know churches, the majority of people doing that are probably pensioners, often elderly women who love to serve the church but who don’t get enough recognition, many of who probably shouldn’t be lugging vacuum cleaners around in the first place but there’s no-one else to do it. Somewhere along the line we ritualised Jesus washing the feet of his disciples; maybe next Maundy Thursday the elders should quietly do a stint cleaning the toilets instead. They should certainly give thanks and recognition to the army of unacknowledged servants who make sure the church is cleaned every week. I believe Jesus honours this work; his church should too.

So this Sunday, when you walk past the church toilets, think about what they might have to teach us. Because it’s in the things we most take for granted that we are often the most challenged; it’s in the most humble of places that God often speaks the loudest.

A Hundred Years, a Single Day

We found out yesterday that my Great-Grandfather fought at Ypres.

A yellowed newspaper interview with my grandmother tells of when her dad, who served with the Canadian Highlanders, returned home, all bunting and It’s a Long Way To Tipperary. Apparently it didn’t seem so bad in the midst of the celebrations. I wonder how much of that was relief. He was one of those who survived, and although he suffered the affects of mustard gas and frostbite for the rest of his life, he was one of those who came home, who made it to November 12th, 1918.

A hundred years ago, the guns fell silent over the War To End All Wars. But just twenty-two years later, my great-uncle was being evacuated from Dunkirk. A hundred years since Armistice and war is still a reality, still a source of pride and identity and power. We walk through fields of poppies while singing marching songs.

The tragedy is that there’s a vampiric part of our collective psyche that’s built on blood; the blood of our enemies and the blood of our people. That multi-million pound arms industry will never be funded by never agains, after all; memories of the past aren’t always enough to bring piece, especially when every problem looks like a battle and every solution looks like a bullet.

Embodying visions of peace that build on remembrance but take seriously the present and set about creating a future… That’s the hard part. It means taking responsibility for the Never Agains, each one of us. If we’re to beat swords into ploughshares, we’re going to need more blacksmiths, more inventors, more people willing to see their weapons and their perspectives transformed.

This morning I took my son to the local Remembrance Day parade. A group of veterans marched in front of rows of children, and we stood in silence before the war memorial. We prayed that we’d remember as the names of the fallen were floated on the wind as we made our way home. A hundred years have passed worldwide but not a single day of peace. May our hearts and hands awaken to the ways of peace, for in the fields of blood the poppies still grow.

All Souls Day

They say the dead are closer at this time of year. Maybe that’s easier to believe as the nights draw in, as the earth draws into a kind of hibernation. Here in Britain it’s a season of memories, all poppies and fireworks. Remember, remember, what we do to our enemies. Remember, remember the fallen. And while All Souls Day isn’t part of my tradition, there’s something about this time in history that’s bringing the dead closer. For me that isn’t personal mourning but corporate. It’s getting darker earlier now, and in the quiet and in the shadows it almost feels like memories are haunting us like ghosts. It’s been less than a week since a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue and that can’t help but evoke the countless other times the spirit of antisemitism walked abroad. We say “Never again”, but we’re oh so good at forgetting, and forgetting turns remembrance into repetition.

Traditionally this is a time to commemorate loved ones who have passed on, but ‘All Souls’ is an encompassing name. It’s non-specific, inclusive, draws in the forgotten, the ignored, the disappeared, and when we lean into that, memories can act as an inoculation. Often consciences are haunted – new evidence keeps emerging around the lynching of Emmett Till, and only last week Matthew Shepard was laid to rest after 20 years – but too often it’s not enough. As a society we still worship death too much, and even pastors are enamoured with arms deals. Maybe restless spirits are the price we pay for that.

And yet we need those ghosts, because behind them is life, and though we remember Martin Luther King was assassinated, we can remember his life, his dream. We can be shocked by the image of Alan Kurdi lying dead in the sand, but we can also remember the photograph of a smiling little boy on a slide, and let it transform our image of migrants and caravans. We can remember the innocent and the unarmed who have fallen and honour their names through our calls for justice.

In Mexico they celebrate Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead with festivities and dancing. I like that; I’ve been maudlin here, but there’s a power in remember those we loved, they way they made us laugh, the sound of their voice, the things they taught us, the way they loved us back. Memories have power, they can drive us forward, we can dance into the future because others once danced with us, and others will dance in the future and maybe remember us. We’re part of a lineage, and our stories can give strength to the generations to come.

At the heart of Christian ritual is an act of remembrance, the body and the blood and the empty tomb. And so we’re not saved by the dead, nor need we be haunted, but memory can join us together, can remind us of who we are, who we should be. May our memories be sanctified, and may the ghosts that hold us back move into the light.