rainbows, everywhere

Have you seen them? All over everywhere, rainbows are appearing in windows — a gift from children to those who pass by. A promise of hope and solidarity.

Children understand rainbows. Rainbows are pure joy — fleeting wonder — surprise and delight. Quick, come see. Look what I’ve made. Then they put down their crayons, and move outdoors. They play with one of the miracles of the universe. Light bends. It refracts. White is all the colours joined together. The crayons tell a different story, but the garden hose knows the truth.

I have no desire to interpret these gifts from the children — they are pure gift, and we will find in them what we need.

But inevitably, in Christian circles, the rainbows are leading to other stories – of Noah, and the flood. The rainbow as sign of promise. Parents are relieved to tick off the RE lessons for the week, as youth leaders send out rainbow prayers. Noah is indeed one of our oldest stories — but it is not one I think we should be encouraging children towards right now.

Lots of you know that I will never by choice use the story of the Noah with young children. Yes, of course it is lovely to imagine animals two by two. A boat. A giraffe. A bit of rain, and then the raven. The dove. The bow of light that is the sign of God’s faithfulness.

But children will not be fooled. This is a terrible story. The boat and the gathering of animals, the rainbow itself — it is all predicated on the thought that God is weary of most of us, and is willing to kill us off. Any child who is paying attention to the story will quickly turn against this God character, who is mighty but fickle, and who is willing to do us harm. Some children will hear this story and internalise fear: ‘something bad has happened. It must be my fault. How can I be better so that no one will be hurt?’ Others will look at it, and write God off — and who can blame them really? A god who kills off unicorns is not a god we need.

And yet — this story is there in our scriptures. And the rainbows are everywhere. What are we to do with a story so captivating, and so cruel?

Refracted Word

First, we need to remember that Noah is just one story. It’s an early story, and formative. It is a founding myth and legend. But it is not the whole story of God.

The Noah story (Exodus 9) may suggest that God is willing to save only a few, to write most of us off . But Isaiah says: 

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,   
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, 
my Lord has forgotten me.’
Can a woman forget her nursing-child 
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands

Isaiah 49

God cannot forget us. God will never let us go.

So which is it? Do we worship a God who might drown us, or one who inscribes us in the palm of God’s hand?

In Scripture itself, the God of wrath is troublesome. Job saw it. Isaiah saw it. They bear witness to those who trust God enough to challenge the story, and to find a better way.

In Christ the story is challenged again:

‘Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

‘Neither this man, nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s work could be seen in him.’

John 9

Jesus becomes a new prism, through which we can see the glory of God. Blindness isn’t punishment. Sorrow isn’t always sign that we’ve done something wrong. That just isn’t how the universe works. God loves us, and sometimes it hurts. God loves us, but still people die.

What we know (what Job believed, what Isaiah had begun to understand) is that God is in the pain. And sometimes, the scale of the pain shows us the very depths of love.

The Noah story posits that God gets sick of us, and writes us off. The story of Jesus also posits that God gets sick of us: Jesus gets so cross that he overturns tables in the temple and curses a fig tree. But then, from crossness, he walks straight to the cross. He chooses death, rather than spinning the cycle of violence. He accepts suffering, so we can learn that even in suffering, God is there.

The stories of scripture are like the colours of the rainbow: none stand alone. It’s together that they show us the light of God.

Refracted Light

Remember the rainbow comes first. Before the Noah story — before any talk of of covenant, there was the light. And in the light, the rainbow hides.

In the beginning, when God created the heaven and the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep… God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light… And God saw that it was good.’

The rainbows are always there — waiting to happen. The Glory of God, hidden and revealed.

We have no claim on the rainbow.
It is given to us, but it is not ours.
It doesn’t need Noah, and it doesn’t need us.
It cries out glory, all by itself.

The children know this, and are willing to show us — if we just let them play.

finding the gifts

How are you today?

I suspect most of us are reeling — for days, now, we have been trying to make plans, put things in place, protect those who are most in need. And suddenly we are told to stop.

We will, of course, keep doing those things — but first we must stop. Re-think how. Go out as seldom as possible, and as purposefully as possible, so that we don’t carelessly throw away life.

I believe deep in my bones that this is not a day for doing, but for stoping. Be still. Notice what you are feeling. Hear the deep longing of your heart and the whisper of God. This is a day for breathing.

And as we breathe, we can begin to choose: how will you use this time?

I know that I am one of the lucky ones right now: I like solitude. I like silence. I have done this before. Once before in my life, I took a year out — after a bruising time — to heal and to think and to be. It was one of the happiest years of my life, despite all the worry of my extroverted friends who couldn’t imagine how I was coping.

So, what follows is plan for coping — for finding the gifts of this unexpected time.

Step one: just be

This week, whatever happens is fine. Experiment. Figure out what time your body wakes up naturally. When you need to go to bed. Notice the ups and the downs, the worries and the possibilities. We are grieving right now, and grief takes a lot of energy. Go gently with yourself.

Step two: decide on patterns

Most of us rely on external prompts to structure our days, our weeks, our years. Suddenly, we must create these things ourselves.

It is worth thinking about rhythms for the week, as well as rhythms for the day. If you know that Tuesday is the day you will do shopping, it will help you realise that that thing you think you need on Saturday can wait. If you know that Friday is the day you will cook a proper meal and make dessert, it will help you be sensible on Tuesday when you really want to make cookies, but know that you only have a few eggs left.

Step three: give yourself permission

Part of the gift of a set pattern is that it helps you give yourself permission for those things that bring joy. If Thursday is your big house-cleaning day, then Wednesday is free for something else. Decide what. Then know, all day Wednesday, that it is OK that you are not hoovering, bleaching, dusting, digging, or even going out to help someone (unless there is sudden need). This is your day for joy. You are free to read, write, paint, sew — do whatever you have chosen. It’s OK.

Step four: stay connected

When I took a year out, I was extraordinarily lucky. I had the week days to myself, and the weekends with people I loved. This time there will be no delightful dinner parties or long walks in beautiful places. But we still need our friends.

For introverts, it’s worth taking the unexpected blessing of this time for deep solitude and silence. Take a day — or two — each week when you speak to no one. But the other days, be intentional about talking with the people who make you who you are.  All those friends you have lost track of — the ones there is never time to see? This is the time. Call them. Don’t worry if it’s been five months, or five years. Call them. We simply do not know, right now, which of our friends we have seen for the last time: it is time, now, to reach out and give thanks for the ones you love.

But also: this is a time when it would be easy to draw your circle too small. I have heard so many say, ‘I’m fine. I have my family.’ Yes. But down the street there is someone who has no family, or whose family is ill, and whose phone does not ring all day. At least twice a week, reach out to someone who isn’t your close friend, and just see how they are. Take the initiative. Ring a neighbour, a colleague you wouldn’t normally talk to outside of work, someone you vaguely know through a shared activity.  They will tell you if they’d rather not speak — but more likely, they will be grateful to know that someone cares.

For extroverts: you know what to do. Ring. Ring. Ring.

step five: even grief has rhythms

As time goes on, you will have good days and bad. Some weeks will fly by, and you will be at peace — happy even. At other times, your mood will drop, and everything will be hard, and all the loss will rise up and overwhelm you. You just need to ride the waves, and know that light and laughter will come again.

But also: notice the patterns. Sundays were my bad days. I would start off hopeful enough — and with the gift of public worship, which will be denied us for a while. But by afternoon, I was impossible to be around: sad, angry, tearful as I stood at the edge of the huge gaping hole in my life. That very misery was part of how God worked, part of what taught me that I wasn’t going to be able to escape priesthood, that I was being called home.

For you it will be different — but there will we something that you miss disproportionately, that makes you cross and sad, and that will teach you the shape of your deepest longing. What is the thing you cannot live without? That is where you will one day put your energy when this time of exile is done.

We are being given a chance to reinvent our world.

The grief and pain will be beyond our imagining, and we will have no where to hide from it. But God will not abandon us. We are being given a gift of time, to learn ever more deeply: we are loved.

run

Sometimes things happen in church.

Tonight, as I stood at the altar, saying the prayer of offering, someone entered the worship space and I froze. It was the way he entered, coming in fairly quickly, not walking forward to one of the altars, or coming towards the sanctuary to join us. He cut across, to the fair aisle, the hidden aisle, the place of greatest shadow. He had a hood raised, and a large puffy coat unzipped, but wrapped around him.

It might have just been a wanderer, someone seeking shelter. But it felt wrong, and I was very aware that there were only three of us at the eucharist tonight, all way up by the altar, and he was out of sight. I watched as I said the prayer, and tried to assess options.
There was a moment, just a moment, when I saw him moving and I came within half a breath of saying ‘Run! Into the sacristy. Now.’ But I wasn’t sure yet — so I did something else instead.

I left the altar and walked towards him — and towards the light switches, because we had been lulled by a light evening into too much carelessness. I think I said to the others, ‘stay here.’ I certainly thought it, and they did.

I spoke towards him, saying loudly, ‘let me give you some light, so you can see better.’
He walked towards me and said, ‘is it alright that I am here? Can I stay?’

I relaxed a bit, and said yes. He was welcome to stay to pray or for some quiet. We would continue the service. I returned to the altar and began the eucharistic prayer. He sat in a pew. Then shifted, and wandered again. He came up into the choir where we had been before we moved to the altar. I called ‘you are welcome to join us here.’ And then realised — there were handbags. He suddenly walked out.

And as I said ‘handbags’ to the congregation, one realised hers was missing, and ran like a flash after him.

‘Don’t go alone. Don’t put yourself in danger,’ I said as I too ran from the altar to follow her. By the time I caught up, they were on the path, and she had confronted him. She took her bag off him, and he did not resist.

We were very lucky. Had he wanted to harm us, he could have. For some reason, he seemed unclear of his own desire.

But later — once the adrenaline was gone — and once I had shown the tiny Tuesday night congregation where the hidden exits were, and told them that if I ever gave them a command to ‘Go’ they must obey. Into the sacristy. Lock the door. My phone will be in my bag or on the desk. Better one person in danger, and three people safe with a phone than all at risk. They must go. But later, I wondered…

What happened that Maundy Thursday night?

What happened when the soldiers came for Jesus?

I have always, always preached this as betrayal. The disciples scattering. Fear overcoming love.

But what if he wanted them to go? What if they were right to flee? Run. Scatter. Dissolve into shadows.

What if Jesus walked toward the cross, not desolate or afraid, but thanking God the others had all gotten away?

 

Milkweed

It had been years since I’d seen it: the pale gilt and silver of winter milkweed.

Milkweed is a paradoxical plant. It is the only food and childhood home of the monarch. For that alone it should be celebrated and loved. But it lives on the margins, in the marshes, and is mostly ingored. Those who feel passionately about it often hate it — a sticky mess of a plant, that won’t behave, and leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

In summer, I can walk past it — not notice, unless the butterflies are there. But in winter, it is glorious: pods curled back to show their gold heart and the fraying satin of home-body seeds.

It is this that draws me — the paradox of scattering and gathering. The clinging seeds that keep me grounded, while heart soars with all the seed that flew.

Sometimes, my sense of church pulls like that last seed in the winter pod. Should we cling so long, and at such cost, to something so unpromising? Should we hold on, so that the future is rooted in this place?

Church, for me, is not a place, but a yearning. A willingness to be stretched and torn and blown on the wind because this is the only hope there is.

Every year, it seems, the church tears itself apart. We start out, dreaming of justice, longing for beauty, trusting that God calls us to transforming grace — and our mouths go dry crying against the wind, railing against the ever rising injustice, against the cruelties and prejudices that we thought we’d moved passed, that grew stronger as we looked the other way.

Today, too many in the church I love are hurting — we hurt over botched invitations to Lambeth, and the systemic injustice that speaks of ‘women priests’ as something you can choose to believe in. We are worn down by abuse of power, a readiness to blame the victims, and a cultural habit that silences those who speak out. Sometimes, we are simply tired of the tedium and prose, and dream of a church more lovely, wild and free.

And yet.

The seeds that cling in the winter pod are resilient. The filagree of silk that could so easily be crushed, might even yet break free. Soar. Dance. And if it doesn’t? Well, it will eventually drop to the ground, set another dream in place, create another stubborn weed trying to bring glory out of the mud. It is what we are called to. Some must stay for the butterflies. It is the only food there is.