When The Night Has Come: A Post For Halloween

Christian-Cross-Carved-PumpkinWinter is coming, so they say; the clocks have gone back, the nights draw closer, we enter into Allhallowtide, a liminal season where past and present and future and worlds both visible and hidden start to coalesce.

It’s at this time of year, the ancient whispers go, that the veil between worlds thins. This isn’t a curtain I tend to poke behind, but the winter seems so dark this year; the spectre of old wars and the clatter of lying keyboards haunt the landscape as powerful men rape and pillage their way through their self-declared empires. Never mind Halloween, the veil has been thinning apocalyptically for a while now. I’m not sure I like it.

But maybe that’s something to think about this Halloween. Maybe we need to catch a glimpse of another world – not a world of wraiths and abandoned graveyards, a world lit only by flickering pumpkin-light, but a better world, somewhere more peaceful, somewhere more just, somewhere more real. Now is not the time to disguise ourselves as monsters so the monsters cannot break us, now is the time to stare through the tear in the curtain and catch a glimpse of hope instead.

Because as the world slips into the dark, hope’s the only thing that will keep us going, the only trustworthy will o’ the wisp willing to light our way. Stick to that path, lest we put too much trust in ghosts.

This is the season of all the saints and all our souls, and while we decorate our homes and schools and supermarkets with the dead and the undead, really this is a season that reminds us of a resurrection to come; at least that’s how I’m looking at it. Things may be in retreat at the moment, the hopes and fears of all the years gathering on the streets. That’s what winter’s all about, after all.

Yet spring will emerge one day, just as it always does. And while now we see through a veil, thinly, then we will see in full. That’s what keeps us going; that’s what brings us through the dark.

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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.

Who Belongs?

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A couple of years ago I was on a panel interviewing new ministers for a local church, and as part of that process we asked candidates what they felt was the greatest question currently facing the church. You can probably guess the answers, but the whole process got me thinking about that one question. And after all that time, I think I’ve got an answer:

Who belongs?

It’s not just relevant to the church, of course. The question of who belongs where is something that informs everything at a fractious time such as this, although it’s normally framed in a more negative sense – who doesn’t belong?

We try and convince ourselves that our communities, our politics, our institutions, our very hearts are inclusive and open, but the reality on the ground is often very different. We have dark urges pushing us to declare some of us on the inside while others – the Other – remain outside the gates. Because, after all, some of us just belong, and therefore deserve all the perks and privileges that entails. Others don’t quite belong – they look like us, but there’s something about them that means they don’t fit in. And to accommodate them is just too expensive or too difficult or too resource intensive. And bad things keep happened to them, but it always seems to be their fault, so what are we supposed to do about that?

There are others, of course, we’d rather shun, that needs to be ostracised for the good of the whole. They live among us, but we wish they were just a little more like us. Some of them will never really be like us though, and while we’re benevolent, we’re not foolish. So we decide they belong fractionally less than the rest of us – say two-fifths? Because civilisation belongs to those with the wherewithal to win, right?

Some of us are just too different, or just too in the way. So we try to concentrate them in one place, where we can keep an eye on them. Others are just a drain on resources, so we go with the deportation option. They get to live, but somewhere else.

Others we just herd into ovens, or in front of bullets, or at the business end of a machete. And the generations after us will say “Never again!”, but there’s always someone who doesn’t belong…

Who belongs?

Terrible, terrible things are wrought as a result of that question. And the reason that it’s the most important question facing the church, and our societies, is that too many of us gleefully act as cheerleaders and enablers of policies and attitudes that ultimately treat other people as less than human, as less worthy of justice and dignity, of happiness and opportunity, as less worthy of their very lives.

We don’t ask the question enough, we don’t ask it seriously, we make assumptions and in those assumptions are born both nightmares and apathy. And if our churches are rooted in the love of God and the grace of a man who stood between mobs and demons and those who allegedly didn’t belong, then our answer to this question needs to be as compassionate and as expansive and as merciful and as loving as the Spirit will empower us to be.

Putting Out The Fire Of The Prophets

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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 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.

One Body

There are times in history, more than you may think, when each one of us needs to choose. The nature of that choice takes on different clothing at different moments, but often it boils down to a simple decision: right or wrong, good or bad, love or hate.

Right now, over in America, there are white supremacists on the march. Their rhetoric is racist, their iconography inspired by the Third Reich and the Klan. They chant of blood and soil in a land saturated with the blood of genocide, in a land where the soil was worked by slaves.

At the same time, a line of clergy is singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’. This line is more diverse and it’s talking about how love has already won. That’s a difficult thing to say unless you’re talking theologically. If you’re talking politically or socially then a white supremacist march being normalised feels like something’s been lost. Or maybe something that’s been there forever feels emboldened.

St. Paul, writing millennia ago, described the Church as “one body”. This should mean something when churches are surrounded by Nazis, when dog collars face off against assault rifles. Each Christian is a brother, a sister to all the other Christians out there; one Body, one Church, one Lord. Faith should trump our other identities. Not that those identities aren’t important – this isn’t about erasing anyone. But it is about putting Jesus before our power, our privilege, our systems, our empires.

So this is a time for one of those choices. White Christians have to decide whose side they – we – are on. Because we can’t sit in pews tacitly accepting the intimidation, the oppression, of our brothers and sisters next door. We’re already too complacent about this globally – we cannot ignore it in our own communities. We can’t ignore it in our churches. We can’t ignore it in our own households.

Making this choice will be uncomfortable,  challenging, confronting. It will mean facing history and sociology and a host of stories and tears. It will mean recognising our privilege, it will mean having to change. But whichever way you go, you need to decide on which side of the line you’ll stand, you need to decide how you’ll answer some age old questions:

Who is my neighbour?

Who is my family?

Who is my Lord?