About Matt

Lover. Fighter. Matador. Just some of the words that haven't been used to describe me recently. I'm a 36 year old Brit who writes about life, faith, comic books, history and any other randomness that springs to mind. Enjoy the blog. Leave comments!

Pandemic Pentecost

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Art by Mark Wiggin

Happy birthday, Church! It’s been a bumpy couple of millennia (could have done without that whole Constantine business, frankly), but here we are. It’s not the sort of Pentecost we’re used to – lockdowns and social distancing and Zoom galore – but maybe, like Easter, this gives Pentecost 2020 its own special authenticity. After all, two thousand years ago the disciples were hiding away, trying to figure out what to do next, waiting for God to make clear the way forward. And then the Spirit blows up their circumstances, wind and fire and a explosion of expression as suddenly the disciples are speaking languages they’ve never spoken before.

That last one is important. The Holy Spirit is a communicator, after all, and this feels like one of those moments in which the Church is learning to communicate all over again. It’s easy to get all Zoomed out, but look at the way congregations have been embracing the challenge of going online. And for many people who have needed to be part of an online fellowship due to the inaccessibility of many church buildings, this is an affirmation and a chance to show what the Spirit has already been doing.

Because behind all these Youtube videos and Instalives is code – language, if you will. And while Peter and the others couldn’t have even imagined Skype and Facebook as they spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem all those years ago, the Holy Spirit could. Maybe this is its own little heresy, and if so forgive me, but I can easily imagine the Spirit biding his time to speak in a language of ones and zeroes, to send his fire through the wires and the broadband signals, to become the (Holy) Ghost in the Machine. This isn’t just theological musing – look at how many people have, in the midst of a lockdown, been able to explore issues of faith for the first time because so many churches have embraced technology? How many creative people – not just musicians and speakers, but coders and video editors – have been able to get involved in church services for the first time? All these new technologies, new expressions of art, suddenly they’re playing their part in the Church because the Spirit can bring together new languages and new creatives and make them shine.

Every year we hear the reading from Acts 2, and some poor soul has to pronounce the list of ancient nations correctly. But I think there’s a bigger idea within all this than we sometimes appreciate. Pentecost is a reversal of the Tower of Babel, language being used for unity rather than division, and in a world where so much much divides and isolates us, we need a big-brush approach to language. And so that’s a prayer for us – which languages do we need the Spirit to help us use? Sign language? Makaton? Braille? Many communities have been isolated from the Church because we don’t use their language, we can’t communicate with them effectively. May God forgive us for this; may God give us the wisdom and humility to learn from those communities that have already been led by the Spirit to embrace technology because it was the only way for them to form congregations.

The Spirit is a healer as well, and so may we use these strange and scary times to seek that healing – in terms of COVID-19, yes, but also in terms of attitudes and prejudices. I turn on my TV and America is in flames; I open my email and find that our local Chinese church is facing increased xenophobia as a result of the pandemic. Too many people thrive on Babel’s curse, and that’s something we have to confront. And then there’s the silence – of mental health, of domestic violence, of suicide, of injustice. Communication can help defeat those as well, as long as there’s power behind it and not just words.

The Spirit is big, really big. We can list his attributes – Healer, Communicator, Artist – but the whole is bigger than the sum of his parts. He can heal through art, heal through communication. He can make his people change and grow and signpost Jesus. He can make old things new again, and he can bring hope to the silence, even in lockdown.

Happy birthday, Church.

Holy Week: Easter Sunday in Lockdown

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Hallelujah, He is Risen, Wayne Pascall

Christ is risen!

It’s strange to say that without hearing the response, centuries of liturgy all left hanging. This isn’t how any of us expected to be celebrating Easter. We should be gathering and singing, but the virus is still circling and we need to be protecting the most vulnerable among us.

But here’s one of the great plot twists of the mad year of 2020: this may be the most authentic Easter many of us have experienced for a long time. After all, that first resurrection day wasn’t celebrated with parades and chocolate, it slowly emerged into a quiet garden, into locked rooms full of frightened and confused followers. Two thousand years later, and once again this feels like the sort of Easter on which Jesus sneaks up on us while we’re trying to figure out where to go from here.

The first person to meet the risen Jesus was looking for him through a veil of tears, and at first she doesn’t recognise him. There’s too much grief, too many broken expectations. Mary is broken by the moment, trapped in heartbreak and the what-happens-next, but she hears the footsteps, hears a half-familiar voice, and then hope raises from the dead, echoing outwards and forwards and backwards from one garden to another.

(I have a strange image in my head, Mary meeting Eve in some corner of Heaven, saying “I was in a garden too, it’s gonna be alright”).

Then there are the disciples, locked away in a room somewhere, to scared to go out onto the streets, trying to process what’s going on while getting under each others’ feet, too much mourning and testosterone in a confined space. But suddenly Jesus is in the middle of them and their lives are rewired along with the universe.

Thomas is late to all of this, so he doesn’t show up till later. He hears what the others say, sees the hope exploding on their faces and he thinks they’re crazy. The situation is, after all, hopeless; sooner or later reality will catch up with them. And I guess it does, for Thomas anyway, because he too will encounter Jesus, his doubts becoming part of a bigger story.

I’ll be honest, here in the quiet of Easter Sunday morning – I’m not always the most hopeful person; I worry, I fear the worst, I avoid thinking too far into the future because I don’t like not being able to see beyond the horizon, and the lockdown isn’t exactly helping that.

But it’s Easter, and Christ is risen, a guerrilla gardener sowing hope in places that need it most, walking quietly into situations and whispering our names to show us he’s still here. And that’s true even when we can’t meet together, when our celebrations pass through screens, when the world is fraying at the edges. If Easter isn’t good news while we’re all still on lockdown then it’s not the Good News. The Garden is springing back to life.

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed.

 

 

“When the last star burns out, God’s love will be there for whatever comes after.” Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine

Holy Week: Singing on Calvary’s Tree

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus gasps these words from the cross at the height of his suffering. We read them and hear abandonment, despair, a fracture in the order of things. This is, after all, ‘Good’ Friday, the day we took the artist behind the universe and smashed nails through his hands, sanitising our violence through theology and an act of nominative irony.

But to this blood-soaked hill, to this skull-shaped memento mori, to this violent, enraged species, to this lynch mob, Jesus sings. He sings to Calvary, he sings to all the persecuted, assassinated, disappeared down the ages. You can hear different rhymes in the song, different remixes, you can bring to it samples of an advocate in a courtroom, an unlikely champion, a doctor in the hospital. You can do all that but first you’ve got to hear a man in pain.


It’s easy to miss the singing, even when you know that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. We’re a literate culture, we’re used to individualistically reading the psalms in our bibles. But Jesus would have recognised it for what it was, a song.

So when we picture Christ bloody and battered and bruised, maybe we need to hear him gasping out a song, finding expression and comfort in ancient lyrics. Music is powerful, after all, a source of empathy and visions. In the midst of pain and crushing despair we often turn on the radio and find hope in singing along; maybe Jesus was doing the same with the ancient songs of his people.

Or maybe the message was for us, for those who come to the cross and try to find glimpses of a future, any good future, in the asphyxiated, shattered saviour held in place by both love and nails scientifically deployed to prolong the agony. Maybe the message was for us, because while Psalm 22 begins in violence and defeat, it’s a musical journey towards hope, towards grace, towards a future. It begins with godforesakeness, but turns and heads towards conviction:

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

There are times when we don’t have the words and we need to borrow them, especially in times of great pain; why shouldn’t the fully-human Jesus do the same?

But let’s not race to the end of the song, let’s not ignore the suffering because we’ve caught a glimpse of a better world. For now it’s still Friday, and Jesus still hangs on a tree, surrounded by terrorists and lynchings and weeping and pain. This is the day Jesus dies; a day for sad songs and mourning.

But as we do, remember that even sad songs can crack open a door through which life gets in, even sad songs help us press through the pain, even sad songs help us see Sunday from the broken depths of Good Friday.

Holy Week: What To Do When You Can’t Wash Feet

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Maundy Thursday is a time of rituals. The name derives, apparently, from the Latin mandatum, ‘commandment’, based on Jesus’s insistence that we love each other, and so today represents service and charity: we re-enact Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, we see the Queen give out Maundy Money to deserving pensioners (although this year it’s gone out through the post thanks to COVID-19. Times are strange.).

That love was, for Jesus, a very practical thing. The Son of God picks up a towel and a bowl of water, kneels down and takes the posture of a servant as he washes the sweaty, dirty, blistered feet of his followers. Here in the UK, we’ve developed another Thursday ritual over the last couple of weeks, cheering and clapping for the NHS from our doorsteps at 8:00pm, and I can’t help but bring the two together, especially the nurses and cleaners, porters and doctors who are holding things together while being over-worked and under-paid. I have a picture of Jesus washing hands and not feet, singing ‘happy birthday’ in a hospital staff room to make sure his timings are right.

There will be a lot of people grieving the cancellation of foot-washing services today, and I understand why. There’s an intimacy to our re-enactments that many find meaningful and moving. It can break through our pride and our self-consciousness and help us to practice humility, both washers and washees. Maundy Thursday helps us re-position ourselves, and that’s a particularly stark reminder this year, when we’re realising just how much we rely on those we take for granted, grocery workers and binmen suddenly on the frontline of a terrible pandemic. So maybe this year Jesus is also stacking shelves and emptying garbage, because although our church buildings are empty tonight, there’s still work to be done, love to share, feet to wash.

See, there’s a danger in washing each others’ feet in a nice, organised service (and how many people have a shower and change their socks right before going out, just so they’re plenty clean before the pastor and his bowl gets anywhere near them?). Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, showed them love and grace, but not long after he’s sweating blood in Gethsemane and instead of praying with him, Peter and the gang are falling asleep, right when Jesus needed them.

(We also don’t read of any of the disciples then washing Jesus’s feet. Well, apart from Mary earlier, and that caused all sorts of trouble.)

It’s easy to be a servant for an hour under controlled conditions. But we’re in the time of the Coronavirus, and conditions are anything but controlled. There are people who can’t go out to get shopping, there are those who can’t get hold of essentials because someone else decided to panic buy and start hoarding. There are people who can’t go on lockdown, key workers who have to be out there on the front line, putting themselves at risk, often without adequate PPE (and the list of medical staff who are passing away because of this is getting longer by the day). There are parents who now need to home-school, there are kids who are now trying to learn in a liminal space and time that’s beyond their experience and yet is adding to the climate change and economic chaos and political confusion that have marked recent generations. There are those at heightened risk from the virus because of inequality, poverty and lack of privilege and access.

And then there are those who have to make life and death decisions. There are those who can’t be with their loved ones in their final moments, there are families who have to choose who gets to go to the funeral and who has to mourn alone. There are those asking ultimate questions to which all our pre-prepared answers may feel trite.

And there are those who are vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled, the people who, from the beginning, have been told that they’re the ones most at risk, the ones who are spoken of almost as if they’re expendable, the ones who are left in limbo as political decisions are made in haste, the ones being asked to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ forms, the ones who know that, if they catch this thing, they may well not recover. People whose feet are perfectly clean but whose hearts are breaking.

On this Maundy Thursday, the whole world is a Gethsemane. Jesus weeps alongside us, but as the Church we’re called, not necessarily to wash feet or carry out a ritual, but to embrace servanthood, justice and love. That’s not something we can be responsible for purely on an individual level – the world is big, we are small – but that’s why Church is a team sport. And in the middle of all this, I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is with binmen and nurses and carers and delivery drivers and today, and every other day, is a day to follow His lead.

Spy Wednesday: Betrayal

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Judas: The Departure by Ghislaine Howard

Today, if you follow a traditional church calendar, is Spy Wednesday. The liturgical observance with the coolest name, this is when Holy Week starts getting dark, when  players start meeting in shadowy corners and thirty pieces of silver change hands. Decisions are made that will shape the days to come, with one name being forever tainted by the events of the next 72 hours.

Perhaps appropriately, Judas Iscariot is a shadowy figure. We’re not entirely clear on why he did what he did: some think he was a zealot (maybe even literally) who misunderstood Jesus’s role as messiah, who wanted to provoke a confrontation between his leader and the authorities, but who then got steamrollered by events as they turned out differently from how he expected. Others claim that Judas was in fact working with Jesus as part of their masterplan, making him the one true disciple. There are those who see him as a thief who ultimately decided that Caiaphas would be more profitable than Jesus; there are those who think he was just a man born bad. Maybe he thought he could get away with it, that the Prince of Peace and the King of Love would be an easy mark. It’s sometimes easy to mistake Jesus for being weak.

Whatever his motivations, Judas is now a synonym for betrayal. And yet tomorrow we’ll remember the Last Supper, and how Jesus washed Judas’s feet, and we’ve got to figure out what to do with that moment of grace. There are plenty of us who wouldn’t blame Jesus for publicly condemning Judas – there were, I’m sure, eleven other disciples who would have been happy to make sure Judas never got past the car park. We can argue that, knowingly or not, Judas is playing his part in cosmic events, but for a moment stop to consider the humanity of the moment – Jesus is sold out by one of his closest friends, the first hammer blow of Good Friday taking place here on Spy Wednesday.

Betrayal can be big business, ratings fodder for soap operas and occasionally politically advantageous. But for all that, it never hurts any the less. The lies, the deceit, the gas-lighting, the knife in the back, the clandestine emails, the violence, the theft, the world come crashing down as a friend or lover, child or colleague, ally or homeland turns Judas. And let’s not pretend there aren’t those who’ve been betrayed by their church, who were told they’d be welcome but who were then rejected, those who felt safe until they found themselves alone with the wrong person, until the cover-up swung into place.

The textbook answer is to say we should forgive when we’re betrayed, because it’s what Jesus would do. And there’s truth in that, but here on Spy Wednesday let’s acknowledge how difficult that can be, how much work and rebuilding has to go into something as simple as saying “I forgive you.” Sometimes it’s easier to put the burden of reconciliation onto the person who was hurt the most without recognising that this is a process of healing, of re-learning to trust, of reconstructing our self-image into one that we don’t think deserves to be betrayed. If you’re in that place, then I hope you can heal, that you can move forward. You didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.

And then there’s the other perspective. There are times in everyone’s life where the choice is clear, to take the thirty pieces of silver or to remain true. The damage I described above? It’s a lot easier to heal from if the betrayal never happens in the first place. And yes, that may sound dramatic, but there’s not a one of us who hasn’t been hurt, from Jesus on down, and silver glints in the shadows like a beacon.