Helter Skelter

I feel weird writing this. It’s rooted in strange thoughts that have been rattling through my mind since I heard that, at a New Year’s Eve concert last year, Paul McCartney made a surprise appearance at a Killers concert to sing Helter Skelter.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; he’s one of the Beatles, he can play what he wants at any concert he wants. But Helter Skelter is a song with a strange history: McCartney apparently wrote it to sound like the fall of an empire, while Charles Manson used it as a code name for his deranged race war conspiracy. It was scrawled on a fridge at the scene of a mass murder, for goodness sake.

So hearing that Helter Skelter heralded 2017, a year in which white supremacists and resurgent Nazis march with torches, in which world leaders tweet and dream about spraying nuclear fire across the Pacific, well… The image is haunting and I can’t shake it. That’s probably why I’m writing this.

Because there’s a counter thought emerging: that as people of faith, we need to protest and resist the darker shadows of our society, and envision and embody a different world. We don’t have to ride the Helter Skelter; we can nail the OUT OF ORDER signs to the whole skeletal fairground.

We can, but too many of us are joining the queue to pay a misplaced tithe to the carnival barkers and the rowdy mesmerists. And all the while the frogs of war croak in the chill swamps of night.

This is why we need to stop, and kneel, and gather round the bread and the wine, not just like our lives depended on it, but those of everyone else as well. Our hope is found in the Eucharist, in the body and blood that unites us rather than divides, in the power that reveals itself not through empire, but in a cross outside the city walls. This is where the strength and the character of the Church is formed; not by the games of Caesar but by meeting around the table and seeing that we’re brothers and sisters sharing in a Kingdom banquet.

There are plenty of people who scream with joy as they Helter Skelter through what’s left of 2017. We don’t have to join them, we don’t have to be formed by them. We have to eat, and drink, and sing a different song.

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Socks: A Post for Ascension Day

The Ascension is a weird story, a strange climax to the Gospel story in which Jesus levitates into the clouds leaving the disciples freaked out and wondering what was going on. It’s hard to know what to do with that; the Resurrection feels like the real end of story, reversing the Crucifixion and breaking the curse of death. The Ascension sometimes feels like one of those Marvel post-credits scenes that leaves half the audience going “Huh?”

But the Ascension plays on its double-meaning; this is the moment that Jesus ascends his throne. It’s the consolidation of his kingship, a cosmic coronation. Jesus leaves Earth to reign from heaven, which is another reminder of the inauguration of his Kingdom. The Ascension therefore shapes our identity – we serve as citizens of this Kingdom, and  as servant of our King.

That means the Ascension has implications; for instance, what does living under the reign of Christ look like? What does it mean in the ordinariness and mundanity of everyday life? If the Kingdom of God had always been a spiritual, other-worldly thing then we could get away with that sort of faith. But before he ascended Jesus incarnated into the mud and muck and complexities and blood of human life. That transforms what his Kingdom looks like.

So. Socks.

In seeing at what a Christ-centred Kingdom might look like, we need to look at Jesus himself. Here’s someone who typifies his reign through sacrificial love, by kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples. And this is where we run into incarnated spirituality, because we sometimes re-enact this moment in church. And although I can’t swear to this, I’d bet that a lot of people participating in the ritual wash their feet beforehand and change their socks. Do we erect a barrier against a spirituality that was designed for the dirt?

(Always remember that the disciples didn’t wear socks.)

If Christ is on the throne, and if we’re his followers, and if we’re inhabiting a spirituality that encompasses both soil and soul, then socks become totemic. Metaphorically they may be a barrier to us having our feet washed by Jesus; practically, they’re one of the most requested items at homeless shelters. And while washing our feet might be a powerful expression of intimate community, washing and clothing the feet of someone who hasn’t changed their socks for weeks embodies the Kingdom in places it’s most needed. It’s interesting that the Ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, a day’s walk from the city – the Kingdom of God is often found in liminal spaces, emerges out on the margins.

This isn’t just about social justice, although don’t kid yourself that the suffering around us isn’t our concern; it’s incarnating the reign of God in the world, setting up a beachhead against all the things that seek only to steal and destroy. The Ascension knits two worlds together and makes them one.

In a world that’s shaking, maybe we need the Ascension more than ever.

Breakfast (John 21:1-19)

Waves lap the beach and the sun sneaks over the horizon as a band of fishermen finish an unsuccessful night shift. With the benefit of hindsight we know they’re disembarking into a moment of redemption, the story of Peter being forgiven and reinstated echoing through a million and one sermons. We’ve heard all about the different Greek words for love, we know the symbolism of sailors and shepherds, we smile as Jesus reruns a miracle to reawaken the memories and the faith of his disciples. But we miss one thing.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says. Because the disciples were hungry.

These aren’t rich men, and they’ve just pulled an all-nighter. Much as we’do love them to be spiritual sponges, soaking in the presence of Jesus, remember that they go into this story tired and confused, bad tempered and guilt-ridden and gagging for a decent meal.

Let’s be honest here, quite often that describes Sunday morning. We put on our nice clothes, and cajole and threaten the kids into the car, and smile as the steward hands us a newsletter, but what we really want is a fry-up and an extra hour in bed.

For others among us, that’s a luxury. We’ve had to choose between breakfast and turning on the central heating. Something went wrong with the car and now the overdraft’s starting to creak. The ink on that redundancy letter is just about dry.

Here on the beach there’s a reason that, before he’s a prophet, before he’s a liberator, before he’s the good shepherd, Jesus is a cook. He sits by a fire cooking fish for his friends. Yes, he’s about to give Peter forgiveness, but first he gives him breakfast.

We try so hard to separate the ‘spiritual’ from the ‘practical’, but that’s such a false dichotomy. We can can have all the right doctrine and all the right theology, but sometimes, before all that, people are desperate for a mug of coffee and a couple of slices of toast because they’re stressed and exhausted. We can have rockin’ worship and a 45 minute sermon, but that’s going to be hard work for anyone who hasn’t eaten that morning.

And why is coffee always served after a service rather than before?

All needs are practical, all needs are spiritual. What does that mean in a world of alt-truth and food banks? What does that mean for how we plan our services, our worship?
Jesus cooking breakfast was an act of love, maybe one of the easiest acts of love to emulate. All you need is a toaster.

Stations: Humiliation

1102014731_univ_cnt_2_xlAnd now Jesus ascends the hill; his long walk is over and the end is near, but there are still humiliations to come. The soldiers strip him of his clothes; forget all those works of art where Jesus wears a loin cloth, the fact is that people were crucified naked. This is, after all, a public spectacle; crucifixion isn’t just about killing someone – a dagger and a dark alley would deal with that with far less hassle – but about stripping them of their dignity and their self-respect and their basic humanity. And so no-one’s going to step in and spare the modesty of the Messiah – they want him naked and ashamed.

Maybe this feels like an humiliation too far. Pain and beatings are one thing, but this is more calculated. This is designed to show who’s in charge, to rob Jesus of his agency and his dignity. The fact that soldiers start gambling for his clothes is just another twist of the knife – imagine being stripped and seeing even your clothes being passed around as trophies. This is a part of the crucifixion we often overlook, but it’s one of its vilest elements.

The Australian church leader and activist Jarrod McKenna recounts how, during a protest over the rights of refugees, he and his colleagues were arrested and strip-searched, in what seems to be more of a calculated attempt at humiliation than any real security concerns. And in re-reading that story I’m confronted with the injustice and the dehumanisation that often takes place under our radar. Jarrod later staged a protest in his underwear as a way of drawing attention to what had happened; it’s confronting and challenges our concepts of public modesty, and maybe we need to remember that Jesus isn’t crucified in a way that makes him look good for the portraits, but in a way that takes on the worst the world has to offer.  And we should pause and recognise that, because we’re too close to the story, we know how this ends. We’re too quick to jump to Easter Sunday, or even the darkening skies of Good Friday. At least there’s power there, at least there’s hope.

But for now, Jesus stands naked and alone, smirking eyes catching him at his more vulnerable. And now one soldier leaves his group and picks up a hammer, as his comrades-in-arms continue to throw dice. The game goes on with no great urgency. Everyone knows who lost.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Palm Sunday: The Art of Looking Ridiculous

Jesus doesn’t march into Jerusalem at the head of a vast army, nor does he wave from the back of a tank. There’s no fly-past from a squadron of fighter jets, there are no nuclear silos on standby. Anachronisms aside, this isn’t how Jesus rolls.
Instead he sends the disciples into town to find a donkey; a colt, the foal of a donkey. Jesus, a full grown man, is going to make his triumphal entry on a donkey that’s way too small for him. He’s going to look ridiculous. Maybe that’s the point, maybe this is a piece of prophetic theatre.

After all, this is Jerusalem, full of Passover pilgrims and simmering tensions. Rome won’t be looking ridiculous; Pilate will have war horses riding into town, and chariots, and gleaming armour and sharpened swords. Rome won’t be looking ridiculous, Rome will be looking powerful, intimidating, dominant.

Palm Sunday is, among other things, a piece of satire. Jesus announces his Kingdom in a way that mocks the imperialists and the occupiers of the time, mocks those who so worship earthly power in all its iterations. And in doing so he may look foolish, feet dragging on the floor as the untrained donkey veers this way and that, but still people look at him and shout “Hosanna!” Lord, save us.

This whole ride to the rescue becomes increasingly bizarre over the course of the week, culminating in crucifixion. And if the story ends there then it is ridiculous, just another protest that ends in violence.

But it doesn’t end there; the tomb is empty and all the Powers of the world are unable to overcome a thirty-something carpenter riding a donkey that’s too small for him. The Kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules and never will.

And so we follow our King and embrace the foolishness, part of the community but dancing to another song. We respond to things in a different way, rejecting the binary choices presented by the world and offering compassion and grace instead. We lay down our swords in the face of a thousand empires; we continue to ride our donkeys.

Or do we?