The wintry weather has delayed the daffodils, so we have mainly Hellebores.
The wintry weather has delayed the daffodils, so we have mainly Hellebores.
Yesterday, on Good Friday, I listened to the Royal Choral Society sing Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall.
Gorgeous, glorious, a worship experience in itself. I sat still for most of it tears streaming down my face, as I listened to prophecies of the gentle lamb that was slain, who before his shearers was dumb, who becomes the lamb upon the throne hailed by ecstatic choirs:
Blessing and honour, glory and power
Be unto Him, be unto Him
That sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
And has redeemed us to God, by His blood
To receive power and riches, and wisdom
And strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing
And who, as the Kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, in the ultimate triumph of meekness and gentleness, is worshipped as the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords who shall reign forever and ever.
* * *
Tradition has it that moved by the majesty of the music, King George II stood as the Hallelujah Chorus began, and remained standing. And following the custom of standing when the King stood, the entire audience stood too.
Certainly, everyone in the Royal Albert Hall stood yesterday–the music was too majestic not to!!–though, in America, some in audiences insist on remaining seated through it.
* * *
Legend has it too that Handel’s servant came upon soon after he composed the Hallelujah Chorus and reported him saying, “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.” I don’t doubt it. The music is divine!
And if the music in heaven is anything like The Hallelujah Chorus, my, what a treat we have in store for us.
Linking with Laura Boggess http://www.lauraboggess.com/
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Gen 1: 2-31)
* * *
Darkness and formlessness were the natural state of things. But God loves order and light.
And with four words God created light out of the darkness and formlessness in which he did not delight.
Dawn, sunrise, sunlight, blazing sunsets.
And he could have given us a world of these, of sunrise and sunset and sunny days.
But he chose to leave darkness. For rest.
And for his own mysterious purposes.
And God pronounced this world, of light and darkness, of birth and death, of babyhood and old age, of beginnings and ends, very good.
* * *
In that beautiful Last Supper, Jesus sits with John, who adored him, practically draped on him. And on the other side, Judas. Sweet love and bitter hate on either side. And, in front of him, his father, on whom the eyes of his heart were ever fixed.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it. (Matt 26:26)
Within a day, he would be dead, and he knew it. And he gave thanks before the brokenness.
For this is the world the Lord has made, there is light, and there is darkness, and God pronounced it very good.
Darkness will turn to light again and again, and one day we will leave this earth we so love, and this life we so love, and be with him who is all “light, and in whom there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5).
* * *
The Spirit of God hovers over the world, insistently hovers, and so we can forth into it knowing that God, the great alchemist can bring good out of everything, all the darkness that sometimes oppresses us.
I am honoured to host this guest post from Matthew Currey of Tearfund.
Matt Currey is a disciple seeking to follow Jesus. He works for the charity Tearfund as part of the IMPACT UK team, seeking to play a part in bringing hope and transformation to those living in poverty in the UK.
He lives in West London, and loves music, food, film, reading, writing, volunteering, good coffee, local parks, exploring life and playing with his amazing family.
* * *
“Jesus’ existence made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks” Henri Nouwen
I was inspired, heartened and challenged by Anita’s post and subsequent discussions last week to Remember the Poor. As someone who works for the charity Tearfund and who has a passion for issues of poverty and injustice it’s encouraging to see people really engaging, exploring and taking action in this area. For me, beyond any professional/work capacity, as a Christian the issue of Justice and God’s heart for the poor, the broken, the marginalised is something that in my view should be at the heartbeat and forefront of the outworking of our discipleship. It is integral to our whole life and an expression of our worship.
The writer Brian Draper this week helpfully reminded me of a poem called A Future not our own.
33 years ago this week, on the 24th March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by a government-backed death squad, while he was saying Mass in San Salvador. As Simon Barrow, director of the think-tank Ekklesia, writes, “Romero was a remarkable and brave champion of the poor. But his background was not in the least radical. Far from it. It was exposure to the reality and human cost of injustice that converted him to an understanding of the Gospel that has peace and justice at his core. He has inspired millions of people – Catholic and otherwise, religious and non-religious, across the world.”
Poverty is not a statistic or an issue. Poverty is personal. Poverty has a name, the names of people who live in poverty are real people and not statistics. People who have a story, who have hopes, dreams and fears just like you and me. I am thankful and mindful of how important it is to keep being reminded of this. Because I know that it is possible that we ‘Remember the Poor’ but do we really know the poor and get really involved in the lives and stories of the poor?
I am very mindful of the times I have had the privilege of travelling overseas with Tearfund and each time the opportunity to encounter and live with others who materially may have much less than I do but who have a richness of hospitality and community that I often lack. These experiences can be overwhelming. I am thankful for the people, stories and lives of hope that I have connected with on these trips. They are humbling and inspiring.
In an age of hyper individualism and hyper communication it can be easy to be both overwhelmed or conversely overly cynical or overly able to hibernate from the horrors all around us. I’ve done both and keep repeating that pattern. I wish I didn’t but I do. Learning can take time, for I am slow and also if I am honest I crave my comforts and my safety.
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
Last year I embarked upon a series of 9 themed journeys throughout 2012, with each one lasting for 40 days. It was a really great experience and I am glad that I did it. However my reflection was that in being intentional we also have to be full of grace. In being passionate and compassionate we need to be shaped by Love, Mercy and Humility, not false humility, but characteristics that keep our service and our journey fresh, real and honest. I came to the conclusion, with thanks for the help from the brilliant book by Mark Powley called Consumer Detox, that less really is more.
It’s amazing what can be achieved when we focus on one thing and do it well. I love this film that is based on a modern day outworking of The Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14: 15-24). In it the two people who are set the challenge have to focus and do the one thing well.
What is the one thing that we might be being stirred or encouraged to do? How could we use our gifts to practice generosity, hospitality, creativity or something else entirely?
A famous Zen koan
A man walking across a field encounters a bear. He fled, the bear chasing after him.
Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The bear sniffed at him from above.
Terrified, the man looked down to where, far below, a tiger had come, waiting to eat him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine.
The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine in one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted! “Ah,” he said. “Delicious.”
Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thess 5 16-18)
I loved Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. It’s the only film that I’ve watched, dazzled—and then immediately watched again.
Terrence Malick, the auteur–who studied Philosophy at Harvard; was a Rhodes Scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford translated Heidegger; taught philosopher at MIT; wrote for the New Yorker; and directed six visionary films–is a modern America genius, apparently as immersed in philosophy as in the Bible.
The Tree of Life is a modern Book of Job, an exploration of why bad things happen to good people, a Miltonic attempt to justify the ways of God to man–and probably the most theological film I’ve seen.
The film explores dualistic ways to live—selfishness and love; “nature” and “grace,” or theologically, as a son of God, entitled to all the goodness of his household, or an orphan who must scavenge, scheme and grab.
* * *
Mrs O’Brien, an ethereal woman,(a luminous Jessica Chastain) opens the film with a close quotation from the Imitation of Christ contrasting the way of nature and the way of love and grace. “We have to choose which we will follow.” The way of “nature” or unredeemed man “finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it, and love is smiling through all things.” “The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end,” her opening monologue concludes.
This belief is instantly challenged through the death of her youngest son, R.L. who represents the way of grace and goodness, in contrast to his conflicted elder brother Jack, who is singled out for his father’s bullying. R. L., for instance, in a pregnant wordless scene, gently and beautifully forgives Jack, who shot him with a BB gun. “I do not do the good I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” Jack explains in one of the Biblical riffs from Job, or Psalms or Romans which punctuate the film.
* * *
The Tree of Life is the story of a mismatched couple, Mrs O’Brien, committed to love, grace and gentleness, and the unpleasant, extremely hardworking Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), who gave up his dream of being a musician to become an engineer, but who is dogged by failure: none of his 21 patents he filed for while moonlighting make money; his business schemes fail.
Such a life makes for bitterness, and bitter he is—especially against anyone who has money or success. Men frustrated at work can be splenetic at home, and so he is. In this little sphere in which he can maintain control, he does—a slammed door has to be reclosed quietly 50 times. Jack, his elder son is upbraided for grass which does not grow in dense shade. Jack must spend his evening turning the pages while Dad plays Brahms. Unsurprisingly, Jack grows up hating his father, praying for his death, sorely tempted to bring it about!
* * *
The Tree of Life deflates the American dream which works for some, does not for most, and for pretty much everyone is simply not worth it. It misses the joy and glory of life in the struggle to get ahead in a race which doesn’t matter.
Mr O’Brien’s rage and bafflement at how his own life turned out morphs into a determination that his boys will be tough, will persist, will win. “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” he says. “If you are good, people will take advantage of you.” “The world lives by trickery. If you want to succeed, you can’t be too good.” “You make yourself what you are; you can take control of your own destiny. “Don’t say ‘I can’t.’ Say I am having trouble; I am not done yet.”
Eventually, Mr. O’Brien loses his job. Broken and heartbroken, in a scene which must speak to many in the Great Recession, he muses, “I wanted to be loved because I was great, a big man, but I am nothing. The glory around us, the trees, the birds: I dishonoured it all & didn’t notice the glory. I am a foolish man. I wanted so much, and what have I got for my life’s work? Zero. Zilch. You boys are all I have. All I want.” He laments, in anguish, the simply glory of the three childhoods which passed him by while he chased chimeral success. Mr. O’Brien has his own Jobian question of the universe: Why? “I never missed a day of work, tithed every Sunday?”
* * *
“What are we to you?” the grieving mother asks at the start of the film when a telegram announces the death of her son. “Do you even care what happens to us?” This is the central question of the film.
When Job questions God, God silences him with his questions, one of which is the epigraph of The Tree of Life.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
And God’s “show-don’t-tell” answer in the film, as in the Book of Job is a stunning peacock-display of the wonders of creation. Like the ways of God. Fittingly, a sermon from Job provides a lengthy voice-over.
We see as Anthony Lane writes in the New Yorker, “glimmers of unfathomable light, vast interstellar conflagrations, drifting throngs of stars, planets in their formless infancy, sun and moon occluded by dark storms, energizing jolts of lightning, gulping primordial pools, early plants, early creatures, slow-dancing jellyfish, hammerhead sharks, a dinosaur lounging on the shore, an embryo’s eye.”
The film’s title refers to Darwin’s Tree of Life, of course, to a relentless, but mainly benevolent and beautiful evolution, not accomplished without tears. In a surreal sequence, a dinosaur dispassionately places his mighty paw on a wounded dinosaur’s neck—and then darts off. A meteor eliminates them all. R.L. dies. The ways of God transcend our understanding.
* * *
The Tree of Life is a cinematic Ulysses, ethereal, beautiful, bewildering, using a Joycean stream of consciousness, interior monologues, or whispered prayers, as a broken-hearted, now middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn) and his mother contend with God.
I have never seen a movie in which the characters pray quite so much, except the sublime Des Hommes et Des Dieux, Of Gods and Men. “Mother, brother, it was they who led me to your door. You spoke to me though her. You spoke to me from the sky, the trees before I knew I loved you, believed in you,” Jack says. The film, a passionate dialogue with God, is reminiscent too of Augustine’s Confessions, also a love letter to God.
* * *
The motifs in this allusory film are literary and Biblical, as well as autobiographical. Characters walk through a succession of open doors set in barren landscapes. There are Narnia-reminiscent lampposts. There are many motifs of transition—bridges, corridors–and ascent: elevators, stairways, ladders, domes, spirals. Venetian masks drift away as we will know fully as we are fully known. Oh and the landscapes!–Moab, Yellowstone, Iceland, Antarctica, Niagara, The Great Barrier Reef and its jellyfish: all the gorgeousness of the world compacted into one film.
* * *
The Tree of Life is set in a Fifties America, in Waco, Texas, where Malick grew up, “idyllic” some reviewers say, but in which I am glad I did not live. Boys on the loose during the long summer vacation behave, unfortunately, like boys—frogs are let loose in rockets; bloodied dogs creep away; houses are vandalized and broken into; the crippled are mimicked. Neighbourhood boys follow trucks spraying DDT, dancing in the fumes.
It’s a deeply autobiographical film. The gentle brother who plays guitar recalls Malick’s youngest brother Larry, who went to Spain to study with Andres Segovia, but frustrated with his lack of progress deliberately broke both his hands, and later committed suicide. The boy who dies in a burning house, and the scarred friend represent coded memories of Malick’s middle brother Chris, who was badly burned in a car accident which killed his wife and left him scarred for life.
* * *
The lyrical final sequence takes place on the far shore of the world beyond ours. The middle-aged Jack, stumbles through a lunar landscape of weird rock formations and infinite oceans in which he is reconciled to all those he has loved, adored, contended with and lost—his beautiful mother and brothers, his hurt, baffled father, and even the lost angry boy he once was!
On and on, he sleepwalks through open doors, and bridges, through a landscape a bit like a Greek underworld, through a wandering crowd of familiar people looking for and finding all they have loved and lost. His family discover each other, embrace ecstatically, and walk together through the sea, in “reconciliation, word over all, beautiful as the sky” as every tear is wiped away. And, in the background, glorious Gregorian chant: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. Amen.
The mother has the last word, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
Philosopher Jacques Maritain once said that the culmination of knowledge is not conceptual but experiential: I feel God. Such is the promise of the Scriptures: Be still and know (experience) that I am God.
My own journey bears witness to that. I mean simply that a living, loving God can and does make his presence felt, can and does speak to us in the silence of our hearts, can does warm and caress us till we no longer doubt that he is near, that he is here.
Such experience is pure grace to the poor, the children, and the sinners, the privileged types in the gospel of grace. It cannot be forced from God. He gives it freely, but he does give it, and has given it to such as Moses and Matthew, to Roslyn and me.
In fact, there is no one to whom God denies it. Ignatius of Loyola said, “The direct experience of God is grace indeed, and basically, there is no one to whom it is refused.”
In essence, there is only one thing God asks of us—that we be men and women of prayer, people who live close to God, people for whom God is everything, and for whom God is enough. That is the root of peace.
When we start seeking something besides him, we lose it. As Thomas Merton said in the last public address before his death, “That is his call to us—simply to be people who are content to live close to him to renew that kind of life in which the closeness is felt and experienced.”
Image: Francis of Assisi in Franco Zefferelli’s gorgeous film, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”
“All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor,” Galatians 2:10
Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis describes how, during the conclave, as it became evident that the voting was swinging his way, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, “a great friend, hugged me, he kissed me and he said, ‘Remember the poor!’ And that way the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.” The saint who loved the poor.
Canadian songwriter and church planter David Ruis, whom I heard speak at a New Wine Conference has a tattoo on his arm which says, “Remember the Poor.” Except it starts at the wrist, and travels up his elbow, and his shirt covers the last letter, the joke goes.
* * *
So how do we remember the poor?
Well, we share our wealth. How much? The Old Testament figure of 10% remains a good yardstick, in my opinion, though this sum should be governed by grace and the spirit, not law.
Just 10%? Not “sell all you have and give to the poor?” (Matt 19:21). Well, I have noticed both when I lived in small town Williamsburg, VA and in Oxford, that God places Christians at every level of society from the highest, right down. In the Gospels, the people attracted to Jesus included rich members of the Sanhedrin like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as well as fisherman.
At my evangelical church in Oxford, my small group and spouses includes two Principals of Oxford Colleges, ministry heads, doctors, professors and successful business people. To be realistic, if these people did not dress, drive cars, entertain and live in houses that befit their “station in life,” to use a Catholic phrase, they would be written off as weird and different, and their ability to be the fragrance of Christ, to present Christ and faith in him as attractive would be severely compromised. For that is one way of winning people to Christ—lifestyle evangelism, being the fragrance of Christ, attracting people long before important conversations ever take place.
* * *
Hmm. So remember the poor without necessarily giving away so much money that you are one of the poor. How do you do that?
Here are some ways I can think of, which I mostly practice.
1 Give. Of course. Many (most?) Christians in the first world could increase their giving without feeling the pinch, I suspect!
2 Even if the money you saved is not necessarily given away, and even if you are not yourself poor, act in your choices as if you remember that you live in a world in which there is extreme poverty.
Don’t necessarily treat yourself to the best of everything, even if you can sometimes afford to. It’s a small way of maintaining solidarity with the poor.
Some practical ways:
a) Restraint in clothing—not buying too many clothes which are overpriced, will rarely be worn, or are whimsically fashionable and will soon date—even if one can afford to.
b) Restraint in food choices—not necessarily buying the most expensive items in the store or in a restaurant menu, even if one can afford to. Being content with simplicity
c) Interior decoration. I used to upgrade when furniture looked a bit worn, but now I often say, “So what? It’s a bit old and a bit worse for wear, but so what?”
d) Not having the best you can afford in things which tend to be status symbols (houses, cars, holidays) frees you from caring what people think, or how they assess your income or net worth.
For instance, we bought our family car, a Chrysler Town and Country minivan (called a Dodge people-carrier here, in the UK) in 2001. It’s now 13 years old, but is running well, and so we haven’t replaced it!
e) On the other hand, avoid false economies whenever you can afford to. These waste both time and money. Though, of course, you will pay more at the outset, buying high quality furniture, clothing, appliances and cars which you can use for many years makes perfect sense even in a world of poverty (rather than buying cheap computers, shoes, toasters and clothes which you will always be replacing).
* * *
Oh, I am just a novice at this. What is the best way to “remember the poor?”