Sunday, 19 June 2016

Seeking and finding God, in the wilderness and in stillness

Sermon preached at Paulerspury URC on 19 June 2016. Texts: 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29.

I'm going to start with the wilderness that Elijah escaped into, fleeing for his life. Not a friendly place. Not a place of hope, or a place you want to settle in. No human settlements, no good land or easy access to food, limited shelter against rain or sun, risk of attack from wild animals. In this country, there’s not a lot of it left, even in the more remote areas. But elsewhere in the world, there are plenty of wilderness places where if want to travel, you’d better take care and go equipped. And if you go back in history to times of less settlement, there’s a lot more wilderness around. So it’s a common theme in the Bible. The Israelites travelling out of Egypt spent forty years in the wilderness. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness preaching repentance.

Image: Negev desert (Wikipedia)
This week feels like one of wilderness for our society. This is not a week for a cheerful all-shall-be-well sermon. The murder of Jo Cox MP, a decent person working hard to help people, has hit many of us hard. It comes in the middle of a really bad-natured and divisive referendum campaign about EU membership, which has brought out the worst in so many people. Elsewhere in the world we’ve had the massacre at the gay bar in Orlando, and the constant drum-beat of violence in Syria and Iraq. The world feels dark.

Many of us have our own individual wilderness that we’re struggling through. Some people struggle with their health or that of a loved one, watching someone decline and not knowing whether they’ll ever recover. Others struggle with depression, stuck in the mud of all-consuming unhappiness and not knowing how to get out. Again, others struggle with economic hardship, with uncertainty about their job or no job at all or not enough money or no roof over their heads. I’m struggling with my own wilderness of still another sort, after receiving a recent setback. Where that takes me next, I simply can’t say. This sermon isn’t about that, but it gives me a little taste of the other sorts of wilderness.

But here’s the thing about wilderness, as so many people experience it. It might last forty days, or it might last forty years, or it might end next Wednesday. But most people, most places, simply don’t know how long it’s going to last. It’s a time of wandering, a time of emptiness. It’s a bit like the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Looked at now, we know that Saturday only lasted for one day, but on the day after Jesus died, his disciples didn’t know that. The American preacher John Ortberg called that Saturday:
The day after this but the day before that. The day after a prayer gets prayed but there is no answer on the way. The day after a soul gets crushed way down but there’s no promise of ever getting up off the mat. It’s a strange day, this in-between day. In between despair and joy. In between confusion and clarity. In between bad news and good news. In between darkness and light.
So let’s go back to Elijah wandering in the wilderness. He was in a literal wilderness, but he was also in an emotional wilderness. He’d just had a huge triumph, defeating the prophet of Baal in a contest of gods in a scene on Mount Carmel where he literally called down the fire of God. But then he chose to kill 400 of them, and Queen Jezebel, a follower of the worship of Baal, had threatened his life and he fled for safety. He’d come down from his big victory and now he felt isolated and alone – twice in this passage he says he alone is left of the prophets of Yahweh.

Image: Russian icon
From victory to despair. He wanders alone in the wilderness. He sits alone under a solitary broom tree and wishes for death. It’s a sad and lonely image. But then God comes to his aid. He sends a messenger with fresh food and drink. Elijah drinks and eat and falls asleep. Even then Elijah seems sceptical, as well he might be given the danger. As some commentators observe, the word for the messenger which brings him food, mal’akh, often translated angel, is the same Hebrew word as the messenger who came from Jezebel to threaten his life. But the angel comes to him a second time and reassures him and the food gives him strength to journey for those forty days. Let’s emphasise that point. In the midst of Elijah’s wilderness moment, physically and emotionally at his very lowest, God sends a messenger to him and says: hang on there. I am with you. I will give you strength to carry on. And that’s a key message from this passage, as much as what follows. In the wilderness moments of our lives, God is with us. God comes to us in the wilderness and feeds us as we need to be fed, he gives us the strength to carry on.

So Elijah eventually makes it through the wilderness. He comes to a holy place, a notable place, to Mount Horeb which is also called Mount Sinai. In this place, and very possibly in the same cave where he goes, Moses met with God and was given the Ten Commandments. It’s the place where the covenant with God was established. He hears the voice of God asking why he’s there, and proclaims his aloneness. Given that Elijah has just been calling down fire, it’s not that surprising that he expects to find God’s voice in big signs of natural wonder – the earthquake, and the wind, and the fire.

I talked earlier about the sound that silence makes [and played the song Quiet from Matilda the Musical]. I find the song Quiet very moving because it expresses that feeling of profound and deep silence, of total connection with God, so well. But that’s an attitude of mind. One thing I learnt from my time as a Quaker is that the point isn’t the silence either. The silence is a tool. The point is the stillness inside, an attitude of readiness and openness to God. You can get that stillness in noisy places. I use a daily prayer podcast on my phone, which is designed for use in crowded spaces, and I often listen to it on the train from Northampton to Milton Keynes, standing up a bit uncomfortably with my bike. And it works. God can be found in all sorts of places, in all sorts of ways. God gives us strength in the wilderness places, but God can give us strength in the ordinary places of our lives as well, if we are able to listen for what the King James Version calls the still, small voice.

One more thing to say, and for that we need a verse of the passage from Galatians. There are many sermons to be preached from this passage, about freedom and law, about coming out of being disciplined as children in faith into being mature believers living in Christ. But there’s one verse I want to focus on, which speaks to the rest of what we’ve been thinking about this morning. It’s verse 28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Our society is riven with divisions – like in the text between racial groups, economic groups, or gender; but also between religions, nations, political affiliations, sexualities and others. It’s one of the causes of some of the ways we sit as a society in the wilderness. And people make so many judgements as a result of these divisions. The killings in Orlando seem to have been related to one – the people in the nightclub were killed because they were gay, or because they had friends who were gay, and the guy who did the killing hated them for it. We don’t yet know why Jo Cox was murdered, but it seems to have been hatred for the things she stood for, the people she championed. There are many who hate others because of divisions they see as more important than a common humanity. Paul tells us that they are totally wrong to do so: all are one in Christ Jesus. There is no division between rich and poor, or gay and straight, or black and white, or Brexiter and Remainer, or male and female, or Russian and English, or Catholic and Protestant, or between you and me. All are one in Christ Jesus.

God comes to us in all places, brings us help when we least expect it, and can be found in all kinds of people. We may be in a wilderness place, but if we listen attentive for the still small voice of God, then God will be with us, and will be with us in the wilderness.

Let us pray:
God of all people everywhere,
Help us to find you in the midst of the noise and turbulence of our lives.
Help us to seek for you when we stumble in the wilderness,
Help us to look for you in moments of our greatest despair,
Help us to search beyond noise for the voice you bring us in quiet ways.
For we know you are with us,
And we know you are with all people,
And we thank you and love you for it.
We pray these words in the name of our risen saviour and lord, Jesus Christ.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Behind civic nationalism is the uglier sort: why I'm grumpy about the Queen's birthday celebrations

Image: PBS

I've been slightly grumpy for the past few days. There are a number of good reasons why I might be feeling grumpy (the OU for which I work is still in a pickle, I was recently knocked back for something I thought was right for me, and the UK is in the midst of a wholly unnecessary referendum which could have dreadful consequences). But actually that's not why I'm grumpy.

It's because, bizarrely, a woman I've never met is celebrating her 90th birthday. In a sense, good luck to anyone who gets that far in life, but this particular woman is the head of state of the country where I live, and too many people are making too much of a fuss of her birthday.

The media's interest is unsurprising. I know why the BBC would make a fuss - they're establishment to their core, and always milk the royal occasions (plus they want not to be eviscerated by the Tories and just might manage it this time). And much of the rest of the media is solidly rightwing anyway. Plus all of them like good copy.

But it's other civic institutions that bother me and have been making me grumpy. A depressing number of churches, even the supposed non-conformist ones (including my own local church) are holding special Liz-is-90 services complete with flags and national anthems. Even schools are getting into it - my kids' (excellent) school had pupils dressed in red, white & blue this week, and by accounts I read they weren't alone.

So what does this mean, apart from a rise in my grumpy-old-git quota? The Guardian has an incisive article by Dawn Foster which refers to a 'pernicious new patriotism' - she especially refers to street parties of which I've not seen much evidence (and a lot less than the Queen's diamond jubilee) but I think her analysis is quite right.

Perhaps we might call this civic nationalism, a phrase used to good effect by the pro-independence camp in the Scottish referendum. There the phrase referred to a nationalism based on committment to a place of residence rather than to ethnic background. More generally, the phrase is said to refer to a nationalism compatible with liberal values, inclusion and tolerance. But I think it's only a slight stretch to suggest that it also refers to the kind of soft nationalism that we're seeing around the Queen's birthday celebrations.

There's an attempt to be inclusive, to draw the nation together around a supposed shared love for the monarch. We all know the monarchy is politically weak (though their wider influence remains strong and they sit at the top of a pyramid of deference and power), and they have little power to command the people to love them. It's quite a different story from the huge portraits of supposedy-beloved leaders found in undemocratic states in various places. So it has to be voluntary. But it's partial. It excludes republicans. It excludes those who disagree with the current political structures of the UK (such as Scottish, Welsh or Irish nationalists). Despite the civic tag, it risks excluding those born outside these isles.

And that's where the uglier sort of nationalism sits behind this kind. Nobody is forcing anybody to participate. For most people, it's easy enough to exclude yourself from the events celebrating the royal birthday, or to stay silent when the national anthem is sung, or equivalent acts. But you still risk being excluded from the wider group, whether you seek that or not. You risk being called a killjoy or grump. Those who live their lives in edgier sub-cultures within the UK than I do might risk more. Those who want to participate in public life put it at risk, at Jeremy Corbyn discovered when he refused to sing the national anthem last year.

Image: Steve Bell cartoon, The Guardian
Opting out of civic nationalism should be a right for anyone, without being seen as disrespectful, unpatriotic or odd. The same line of argument can be made around the increasingly-hysterical attitudes to wearing red poppies around Remembrance Day, which is seen as quite problematic for some people. In a culture of individualism, tolerant to so many symbolic differences, it's peculiar to be forced so publically to conform to these symbolic acts.

The further risk is of political manipulation. As I write, the country is 12 days from a referendum on leaving the European Union. It's a hugely heightened time for issues of nationalism, of any sort. So far the current events haven't been exploited by the Leave campaign, but it may yet come - or may yet make a difference.

Nationalism is not always evil, but it is often dangerous. We're experiencing at least some form of it with the Queen's birthday celebrations, and it's playing with fire. That's why I'm grumpy.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Narratives, identity and information

I like reading history books from time to time. And I'm interested in the ways in which large-scale systems succeed or fail (I've recently chaired the production of a module on the subject). Systems don't get a lot bigger than whole countries, so a history of the fall of countries appealed to me. And by accident I found one by an author I've liked previously, Norman Davies (author of Europe: A History and The Isles among many books). Davies' book is called Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, and it gave me much to think about in the way we construct narratives of identity, building and rebuilding information about who we are and where we come from.

The book presents fifteen states which once existed and no longer exist, as least as independent states: Tolosa, Alt Clud (the ancient British kingdom later called Strathclyde), Burgundy, Aragon, Litva (Poland-Lithuania), Byzantium, Prussia, Savoy, Galicia, Etruria, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Montenegro, Carpatho-Ukraine, Eire, and the USSR. (Two of these states do once again exist: Montenegro ceased to exist for decades but is now as independent state, and the chapter on Eire is about the progressive retreat of the UK from the island of Ireland.)

Well, all flesh is as grass (one of my favourite bits of Brahms' Requiem), but that's not really the point of the book. The point is that many of the states described in the book were once considered powerful and important, utterly safe, likely to continue for ever. And then they didn't. I've written elsewhere on this blog about the rapidity of changes in states. But the thing that's so fascinating in the book is the ways in which some of these states, once they ended, became forgotten as a marker of identity. Once, to be a Prussian was a significant thing, a way in which people conceived of themselves; few do so now. Once, the kingdom of Savoy-Piedmont-Sardinia was a signficant and important state and its subjects thought well of themselves; this identity doesn't exist now. And as for Alt Clud (my own native region) - well the people of the West of Scotland might just about remember that Dumbarton was once their capital, but only in a very vague way, and its boundaries and histories are very poorly known.

So why does this connect with information? Because our research group is thinking about narratives and rhetoric in the construction of information, and we're well aware that information and identity are deeply tied together. We construct our political identities, our sense of who we are as members of a large group, through the inherited information we receive about ourselves. And that inherited information is created and shaped through narratives of the national past and present.

So it really matters that much of the national identity of Estonia was once deliberately suppressed by the USSR, or that Poland-Lithuania completely ceased to exist for two centuries and had to be rebuilt, or that (not one of Davies' cases) Scotland was unsuccessfully rebranded as North Britain in the mid-18th century. In different ways, each of these was a failed attempt to create a narrative, to shape the identity of a people. Likewise, although Hitler infamously said "who now remembers the Armenians?", the Armenians and their genocide in the last days of the Ottoman Empire have not been forgotten.

But other identities have been lost, narratives shaped deliberately or unconsciously. As I said above, few people now see themselves principally as Prussian, or Savoy-Piedmontese, or natives of Alt Clud. Even the once-great kingdom of Aragon is slightly lost to history - Catalunya may have a thriving independence movement, Aragon rather less so. And the history of Burgundy is even more interesting, comprising areas now considered part of Italy, France and Switzerland, even though the name has lived on solely in France.

Many of my points above, if read by political activists of various stripes, might be disputed. Some might say that my information is lacking! Or perhaps that of Norman Davies (though I may well have misrepresented him in places). And certainly some of what I say about particular identities can be contested. But that emphasises my point: that political identity is not a static or objective thing, but is something that shifts and is created and is the subject of competing narratives. And that makes it a subject deeply bound up with our understanding of the information we hold about ourselves and others.