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

Misfits Round The Manger

As the sun rises on this Christmas morning, as gifts are opened and food is prepared, may we join with the misfits round the manger: the teenage mother, the tradesman trying to protect his family, the blue-collar farm workers heading in from the margins, those who come from other lands with different clothes and different traditions, the angels singing protest songs.

May the coming year be one where we remember that all those Nativity scenes are a hotch-potch of pilgrims, where we fight against the division and prejudice and isolationism that is rife in the world and we break down the fences we’ve built around the stable.

And may that stable be a safe space for those who’ve been rejected.

And may that stable be a sanctuary for those who are fleeing oppression and persecution and hate.

And may that stable be a place of honesty to which we can bring our hopes and fears and doubts and reconstruction.

And may that stable hold a welcome for our true selves, our true identities beyond those forced on us by expectations and history and the prejudices of others.

And may that stable see our trauma, our grief, our anxiety, our depression, and give us a place to rest and heal and be real.

And may that stable be free from the whims of empire and media and politics and trolls.

And may that stable be a place of challenge and growth and learning and transformation.

And may that stable continue to summon and draw to it the forgotten, the marginalised, the abandoned, and may it make the invisible visible and the silent a choir.

And may that stable have wheelchair access.

And may this Christmas we recognise the hope and compassion and challenge and peace that arrives with the baby who lies in the manger, who draws to him the misfits and gives them a Kingdom.

Easter Sunday: Back to the Garden

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Really it’s all about gardens.

The Bible, after all starts with a garden; the great cosmic scope of the creation story zooms in on a single location, a garden planted by God to home those created in his image. But the image is marred, the garden is lost, and the rest of the Bible is about a journey to restore that primal intimacy with God.

Jump forward to the end of the Bible and Revelation’s climactic description of the new Jerusalem. Here we read of a beautiful city, but one with trees and fruit and a flowing river. It’s an image of Eden restored; the journey of the Scriptures is a return to the garden.

So it’s no surprise that the Easter story is full of gardens; they’re present even at the darkest moments. Gethsemane is the place where a choice has to be made – the place where Jesus wrestles with his mission. Both Gethsemane and Eden present a choice between human desires and God’s; Gethsemane is where the right choice is made and Eden’s curse starts to be undone: “Not my will but yours” is a powerful enough prayer on its own, but praying it in a garden is a hint of where this story is heading.

And we head there almost immediately. On the agony and blood of Calvary, a dying man asks Jesus to remember him; Jesus tells him that they’ll go into Paradise together. The word ‘Paradise’ has very specific connotations; it means ‘garden’.

So the drama of that first Easter morning is played out in another garden. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb at the break of dawn, finding it empty. Wracked with grief and thinking that Jesus has been subjected to yet another unthinkable humiliation, she doesn’t recognise the hidden Christ.

She mistakes him for a gardener.

It’s the most profound mistake in the Bible, because God has always been a gardener. Eden and the prophesied City of God are evidence of that and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, access to those sacred gardens is restored. And so is hope and life and forgiveness.

It’s impossible to discuss Easter without talking about new life. Sometimes that’s the sudden, miraculous revival of what once was dead, but often it’s a slower resurrection, a cultivation carried out by a loving and patient Gardener. Sometimes resurrection takes longer than three days – the death of hope or love isn’t always reversed overnight. But new life is coming.

Mary didn’t get it wrong. Jesus is a gardener. He’s the Adam who got it right; the one who reopened the gates of Eden and shows us the way inside.

I have a bit of a imaginational heresy, that one day in Heaven, Mary tracks down Eve, gives her a hug and says “I was in a garden too, it’s gonna be okay.”

Happy Resurrection Day!

Open the Gates: How Jesus clearing the Temple speaks to how the Church should view disability (Repost)

It’s the Monday of Holy Week, on which we remember the cleansing of the Temple. I thought it might be a good time to repost this entry from a couple of years ago…

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the story of Jesus clearing out the Temple. It might have reached the hundreds by now, because it’s a cool, dramatic story. But there’s one element of the story I never noticed before, an almost throwaway line that nevertheless helps transform how we read the rest of the story.

It’s well known that, in the week leading up to the Crucifixion, Jesus marches into the Temple and throws around the tables of the money-changers and stampedes the cattle. So far, so familiar, but in all this chaos, something happens: “The blind and the lame came to him at the Temple.”

Why is this a big deal?

Because the blind and lame weren’t normally allowed into the Temple.

The reason is rooted in Leviticus 21:17-20 and 2 Samuel 5:8, and is interesting context for Peter’s interaction with a disabled beggar in Acts 3. But it points to something important that remains an issue for the church today.

Because the church isn’t always open to people with disabilities; the gates are shut and those with disabilities often find themselves stuck outside (again, Acts 3). And yet, pretty much the first thing that happens once Jesus causes chaos and disrupts the commerce and corruption and toxic respectability that had infected the Temple is that “the lame and the blind” come flocking in. It’s like people were just waiting for a moment like this.

I’ve blogged previously about families with disabilities at church and the hidden issues that affect their experience of Sunday mornings. TL;DR – it’s  often not easy. And this isn’t about the need for ‘pity’, because that’s patronising, it’s about everyone being able to take an active role in the Family of God.

So it was interesting to see how Jesus’s radical act opened up the gates and gave more people the opportunity to encounter God. Maybe that’s a message to our churches – maybe we need to pray that the Holy Spirit would turn over some tables so that we would become a more welcoming and inclusive space.

Of course, we’ve got to actually want this, and here’s the thing – often the biggest threat to our individual congregations is comfort, and often churches don’t really want the disruption. It doesn’t fit in with the demographic or the ministry profile or whatever neatly mown lawn we consider to be our harvest field. And when that’s the case, watch out, because it wasn’t just the Temple that Jesus needed to turn upside down.

We need to be open to some disruption so that we can truly be the church. And that may mean days of noise and chaos as we find our way into what God wants from us. But one thing is clear, we can’t lock the doors. We can’t pity from a distance. Following Jesus means turning over our own tables; following Jesus means opening the gates.

God in Nappies: A Post for Christmas

One of the miracles of Christmas is this: God enters this world as part of the world, living and breathing, growing, active. Much as art brings beauty and challenge to the world, all those Nativity scenes fall short of capturing this miracle, because God is life and so can’t be trapped in paint, in ink, in wood or marble or pixels. Instead he is wrapped in DNA and stardust, grows within Mary, emerges into the world and takes his first breath in a cave. Having called oxygen into being he now inhales it, exhales, joining humanity it all its physicality. The Word becomes flesh – not some demigod, not an avatar or reflection, but flesh and blood, genes and joy and heartbreak. Biology and theology intersect, science and the supernatural dance in his mother’s womb as she feels him kick. God becomes helpless, learning to walk and talk and bathe; God becomes vulnerable, subject to illness and accidents, carpenter’s calluses and executioner’s nails.

For all this exalted language, the Incarnation is a very tangible, physical thing. God is present on the earth, in the form of Jesus. The follow-up is that Christ should then be present in his church, and sometimes the less said about that the better. But it would be easy to let this become condemnation of others when, in reality, I need the Immanuel this Christmas, need God to be With Us.

Because I’m aware of my own humanity, my own fragility. I have sleep apnoea, I need glasses, I’m overweight – yeah, yeah, big deal – and my mental health isn’t what it should be, and that leads to anxiety and stress and depression. It hasn’t been too bad lately – medication and therapy and grace for the win – but I can still feel those metaphorical ghosts and demons nipping at the edge of awareness. The truth is, I need the Incarnation, need Christmas, need the belief that God understands what it’s like to walk this world. Maybe that’s why grace is so important; we all fall short of the glory, so better God comes to us rather than us building a futile ladder to heaven. Despite what the song says, God isn’t watching us from a distance, he stepped down into the mud alongside us.

So my Nativity scene is messy – the smell of animals, the sweat of the journey, the cries of childbirth, frankincense and myrrh, sleepless nights. Even the angels get political. Because life is messy. The world is messy. My heart is messy. And a God who stands with us in the mess is worth worshipping for love’s sake rather than fear’s.

The night draws in; so does the cold. As Christmas Eve draws to a close, I remember that God knew both as he walked our streets. The carol singers sing and I pray that I’d remember the God of genes and dust as the silence draws in, as the stars come out.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth,

The ever-lasting light.

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.