A Meditation For Those Who Stand At The Front

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You stand at the front of church and you see a sea of faces in front of you. Each one of them has a different story: some are facing questions about their career or their relationships or their future. Some are watching their partners grow more distant; others are watching their parents fade away through Alzheimer’s. Some are lonely, some are depressed; some are cutting themselves, some are throwing up their breakfast, some are figuring out the easiest way to stop the pain and slip out of this life. Some like booze too much, or money, or power.

Some are disabled, some are disgruntled,  some are dismissed. Some are figuring out their sexuality and their identity; some are figuring out what to do about their cancer diagnosis; some are trying to decide if they’re safe to discuss any of this stuff with the person next to them.

Some are sitting there desperate to worship; some are desperate to get out of there; some are just desperate. Some are scared, some are oppressed, some are waiting to see if your words are going to hit them with hope or hit them with condemnation.

Some need to be forgiven,  some need to forgive,  some need a safe place to be angry,  some need a safe place where they’re not going to be beaten. Some need permission to get the hell out of Dodge.

Some think they’re sinners while others think they’re saints, and the truth is they’re probably both. Some you love, some you like, some drive you crazy, and as you look at them you realise they’re also a mirror of the things inside you.

You look at that sea of faces and you’re faced with a choice.

You can be the one who throws a punch before twisting the knife.

You can be the one who keeps adding to the load, adding and adding and adding.

You can be the one with the most impressive PowerPoint and the most impressive platitudes.

Or you can be the one who reaches out and pulls back the curtain and helps them, and you,  find hope, because you look out into that sea of faces and see Jesus in the midst of them.

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Did Cain Have an Identity Crisis? (Genesis 3:15)

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This post is inspired by a sermon I heard fairly recently but I can’t remember who gave it! I’ll update this when I find out.

Did Cain have an identity crisis?

He rocks up presenting God with an offering of fruit and vegetables and then next thing we know he’s murdering his brother and going into exile; frankly, Genesis 4 is depressing. But does Cain’s behaviour have its roots in something that happens earlier.

In Genesis 3:15, as Adam and Eve are thrown out of Eden, God tells them of the future: there’ll be hostility between the Serpent and Eve’s offspring, leading ultimately to the Serpent’s destruction. In Christian thought this is the Protoevangelium, the first hint of God’s plan of redemption that would culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Straightforward enough, but here’s where the identity crisis kicks in – how might Eve and Cain have misinterpreted things?

See, Eden must have been a painful, recent memory casting it’s shadow over everything that happened after the Fall. And then Eve gives birth to Cain and maybe, just maybe, hope is reborn, maybe Cain is the offspring to crush the Serpent’s head. Maybe there’s even a chance to get back to Eden.

Thinking like that, is it really a surprise that Cain grows up to be a farmer? Maybe he’s preparing to return to the Garden. Maybe he thinks he can create a new Eden himself. Maybe his offering of “the fruits of the soil” is an attempt to return to God the Fruit that caused all this mess in the first place.

Lots of maybes, sure, but it would explain his rage against Abel, who is adapting to this new world as a nomadic herdsman and whose offering is acceptable to God. It may also help explain some of the tension Genesis shows between herdsmen and settlers. Even after Cain becomes a murderer he’s still trying to get the world under control by building a city.

When someone thinks they’re doing God’s will without actually involving God in the process, that’s dangerous. A crusade to crush serpents, empowered only by broken sinfulness is a terrifying thing. Hey, why wait for Jesus’s thoughts on things? Aren’t we capable of weeding out the Devil ourselves?

You’ll recognise those crusades by the trail of destruction left in their wake. Cain didn’t crush the Serpent, he crushed his brother instead.

And while this is a weird reflection in run up to Christmas, it’s relevant. The Christmas story presents us with kings and emperors trying to bend the world to their will, but real power comes in the form of a baby, in the actions of God and the true descendant of Eve destined to crush the Serpent. Let’s not second guess God, let’s just faithfully listen and learn and follow instead.

After all, Jesus is a way better Gardener than we are.

The Woman at the Well: Innocent as Charged? (John 4:1-30)

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Sometimes you’ve got to challenge your preconceptions.

Take the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus goes to Samaria and asks a woman to draw him some water from the local well. It’s noon and it’s hot and no-one in their right mind wants to be carrying heavy jars full of water at that time of day. The inference is that the woman is there, alone, for a reason; that’s backed up later in the conversation when Jesus reveals that she’s had five husbands and she’s not married to the guy she’s currently with.

So, test your preconceptions: why had she had five husbands?

The traditional explanation I grew up with is that she was immoral. Put bluntly, she’d been sleeping around town, and she went to the well alone because she was an outcast. The man she’s currently with? Just her latest conquest.

Okay, so where exactly does John say that? There’s an argument to say it’s inferred, but adultery wasn’t the only ground for divorce at the time. It’s possible she was just too outspoken. It’s possible, if statistically unlikely, that she’d been widowed five times. It’s possible that she couldn’t have children. Why do we assume immorality?

Sure, living with someone who wasn’t her husband could imply a problematic relationship in that culture. But maybe that’s less about remorseless promiscuity and more about finding comfort where it can be found. After all, losing five husbands and a community is going to leave scars, regardless of who’s responsible. Maybe it’s a case of outcasts banding together.

Of course, it’s possible that she was guilty as charged, but look at how the story plays out – she becomes, effectively, an evangelist bringing the townsfolk to Jesus. We don’t hear “Go and sin no more” and the encounter it’s most reminiscent of to me is Jesus’s first meeting with Nathaniel. There Jesus displays supernatural knowledge of a situation and ends with the calling of a disciple. Nathaniel’s sarcasm, the woman’s marital status… Where these people started is less important than where they end up.

(There may also be something a little subversive about how the outcast woman ends up discussing theology and evangelising, while the male disciples are off sorting out food for everyone.)

Whatever her circumstances, this anonymous woman ends the encounter as both a recipient and an agent of grace. Maybe we need to recognise the ambiguity of the meeting, to use it to place ourselves within the story. No matter how sordid or oppressed or abusive our past, healing and forgiveness and grace are freely available. And if that’s not true for society’s outcasts then it’s a cheap parody of ‘grace’ that’s really just legalism disguising itself with nice hymns.

This ambiguity should also force us to ask questions, to see these people individuals. It’s easy to stereotype people, or turn them into icons that obscure their humanity (look at how Mary of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene have come to represent the dichotomy between virginity and promiscuity when the reality is far more complicated and human). Jesus treated the woman at the well as a individual; the church should do no less when meeting with outcasts, when thinking about making proclamations.

“Be kinder than is necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” The woman at the well was in that situation, so are the people we meet, so are we. Our preconceptions and prejudices hinder rather than help; following Christ should challenge our assumptions and lead us into a bigger, richer, wilder and more complicated world than we ever imagined.

Easter Monday 2014: Forgetting

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So the Easter celebrations have finished; the eggs are half eaten, the midnight vigils are over, Sunday has come and gone. It’s the most dangerous part of the Easter season – the time of forgetting.

We don’t mean to, of course, but the everyday starts to intrude – we return to work, or race to beat the bank holiday traffic to make the most of our holidays. Kids have to be fed, dishwashers need to be empty, commuting and shopping and grabbing some sleep become our realities. Easter fades from view for another year.

Okay, maybe that’s just me. I’m the first to admit I’m better at thinking about the Bible than applying it, and it’s easy to lose sight of the implications of Jesus rising from the dead 2,000 years after the fact.

Still, it’s too easy to consolidate Easter into a one-off transaction that secures one of those heavenly mansions but that doesn’t place any more demands on us, other than maybe an hour or so every Sunday. But while we don’t earn grace, following Jesus remains a 24-7 call. And that’s a challenge.

But the forgetting can take other forms. An encounter with the risen Jesus can lead to us running away – Peter meets Jesus in the upper room, but he still ends up returning to his life as a fisherman for a time. He needs at least one more conversation with Jesus to get to grips with his mission.

Because Easter is all about new life, but sometimes we experience slow-burn resurrections. We head towards life in all its fullness but we get sidetracked, we stumble, we slowly work through a lifetime of baggage and biography with the Holy Spirit graciously nudging us in the right direction.

This is why Easter is every day: resurrection isn’t a one time deal. It’s about dying to things that hold us back and the birth of something better, and it’s about the establishment of a kingdom that embodies life rather than death. Listen out for it, for the emptiness of the tomb echoes down the ages. Forgetting cannot be an option.

Easter Sunday 2014: Gardens

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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.

Happy Resurrection Day!