Choose

Today, I have set before life and death, blessings and curses,
choose life, that you and your descendants may live.’ 

This was one of those days when the sermon was going to happen on a wing and a prayer. The alarm goes off. You look at the lectionary app so that you can plan in the shower. You hope for the best.

Choose life, so you may live.

The relief flooded over me. A text I love. A text that always speaks. I knew, by then, the sermon would take care of itself. But it was more than that. This was once again the gift: choose life.

I was first given this text by a nun who didn’t quite know what to do with me during my first Retreat in Daily Life. I was given it again by a nun who did know what to do with me during my second Retreat in Daily Life. The first nun couldn’t cope with my saying, ‘I understand, but I don’t know how.’ The second one could.

Choose life.

We cannot actually take it for granted that we know how to choose.

For me, I had chosen very early on. I had chosen to survive. And that choice did away with any niceties of preference. To survive, you learn not to want what you want, so that you are not disappointed by what you don’t get, till the whole notion of choosing falls away. This was all a long tine ago now. Old wounds mostly healed. But that is why this text rings like a sharp bell, cuts like a two-edged sword, opens a vast space of yearning, even as my throat catches in fear. ‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’

If you are a survivor, you will know: to choose life is to let go of survival. It is to choose risk, to risk death, to risk pain, and (worse) failure. To choose life, you will have to learn, first, to feel.

‘Choose life’ is always a knife edge — the quickening tears, and the quickening hope that life is worth choosing.

And yes: there could be curses.
And yes: you may choose badly.
But look: you can choose. Choose life, and choose again.

There is no other way we can have freedom, and no other way we can find joy.

I’m still not sure I know how to choose life.
There are still many days I forget, or choose badly, or get stuck in the habits of survival.

But sometimes, life comes. And I get to choose it: and it might be painful; and it might be beautiful; and it is always good.

Spirograph

Spirograph.

The first experience of meditation.
An early glimpse of beauty coming from chaos.
The memory of young rage and disproportionate sorrow, when beauty was almost achieved but went spinning out of control.

Spirograph: a lesson in being human.

Yesterday, a friend was hunting for Lent Blogging ideas and I suggested ’40 words that quicken or express your hope in God’. It was meant for her, not me, but I woke thinking, Maybe?

I was thinking of words like spaciousness, wonder, ellipsis, kavod — I was thinking avocet, lapwing, purr. Nowhere, in all my imagining, was the God-word spirograph. And yet, there it is.

I had just set a class to doodling, asking them to keep the pen moving, while thinking about what it felt like when the weight of the world fell on your shoulders because someone, somewhere, had convinced you that you were supposed to be perfect.

It was hard for them. They are not used to being asked to draw what they feel or to use drawing to help figure out what they feel. They were too young for irony, and couldn’t spot the raw data in the room.

So, I gave them a prompt: you can start with a circle, if you like. See where it leads you. And suddenly, pens were whirring round. And suddenly the headteacher was whispering to the teacher in the corner — remembering the hours she spent as a child, that thing, with the circles spinning round. How she loved it. What was it?

Spirograph. It was my childhood too.

The liturgical year is a gift of circles — a spiralling round that grounds us in God. And each year that passes, I am more grateful for the memories that flood, at each pancake party, of every other pancake party. That moment, in a too small kitchen, with a too large crowd, when a person with a hot pan, and a person with a wet dish nearly collide, and instead, spin and turn. The trust that comes; the awareness of something unspoken that bind you; the dance of the body of Christ.

Ash Wednesday brings different memories, of all the selves I’ve been. The years when I ran eagerly towards Lent, looking for growth, expecting healing — young, and naive, and sure that God would come gloriously. The years of loneliness and exhaustion, when Lent was a task of faithfulness, God long since hidden, disciplines lost to the struggle to survive.

It’s all there, every time. Every person, every feeling, every hope for God.

And sometimes, it seems the circle comes round, and we get to begin again.

Spirograph: the gift of childhood.
First Meditation.
Infinite longing.
Beaty from Chaos.

 

 

Starting with Scripture

This month, a new group is meeting called ‘Where do I begin?’ It’s a whistle-stop tour of faith for those just starting, and for those in transition. Tonight it’s on Sacred Stories, and we’re going to start by clearing away some of the cobwebs around what scripture is and isn’t.  Here’s where we’ll begin.

Things worth knowing about the Bible:

1. The bible tells stories about God’s relationship with God’s people.

2. The stories are told in ways that made sense to the people who first told them. The imagery, the words chosen, the names, the symbols — they all reflect the best language God’s people could find at the time to express what they were experiencing of God.

3. The stories are told in ways that can make sense to us too, but things aren’t always as they seem.

4. God is not afraid of our questions.

5. God’s people can learn, and do learn. God sometimes helps us to change our minds. There are stories that contradict each other in scripture, and big ideas that are fought over through its pages. What remains constant is the witness of people trying to make sense of the world in relation to a God who is both love and justice.

6. God is bigger than scripture.

7. Just because something does not appear in scripture doesn’t mean that it is not of God. There are no stories about the rainforest in Scripture. There are no polar bears. That doesn’t mean God isn’t in the rainforest, nor that being a polar bear is a departure from God’s plan.

8. God meets us in scripture. As we pray with the polar bears, we might find that a psalm that has been sung for thousands of years says exactly what we need to say. Scripture gives us stories and words and images that become our own, as we become part of the story of salvation.

9. Jesus is the Word of God. Not stories about Jesus. Not the gospels. Not what Paul said. Jesus. Human beings are endlessly elusive. We believe that Jesus truly shows us God, and shows us God completely, but we are still learning what that means.

10. The big story matters more than the little stories. The big story is that God loves us into being, and gets frustrated with us when we make a mess of the world, but goes on loving us and doing whatever it takes to give us life. The big story is also that God wants us to join in the loving and the doing, to give life to others.

Bonus: The book of Genesis is not the oldest story. It was not the first thing written. It took God’s people many centuries to learn to say that there was only one God, and that God was the creator of all. They learned this only when it seemed they had lost everything.

and I had time — just

I have spent much of the past month feeling angry with the Church of England. It happens sometimes. The Church of England can be a wonderful place, full of generosity and opportunity and unexpected relationships. And it can also be a place that leaves me feeling morally compromised each day, as I think ‘can I really do this? Does being an Anglican in England really mean that I must tolerate sexism, patriarchy, and tactics that silence dissent under a gloss of kindness?’ (Have I mentioned I’ve been angry with the C of E lately…)

So much of my understanding of Christianity is bound up with liberation. It is the experience of God surprising us, untying our knots, showing us blessing in unexpected places that first drew me to faith. There is inherent radicalism in realising that the incarnation demands that we see God in each person, and that the church is built on the fact that the bonds of friendship and shared purpose with God can go deeper than any limitations of family or tribe or culture. But so much of that gospel is hidden when I am supposed also to say that ‘these beliefs are optional. The church also teaches that women must be subject to men; and that gay people are only acceptable if they don’t fall in love.’

This morning, I refused to take part in a liturgy that blindly affirmed patriarchy in a jolly, old-boys way that meant no harm but erased women, and I thought again ‘what am I doing?’

And then, I picked up Mary Oliver, to soothe my nerves before settling down to plan a funeral.

This — this — is what I’m doing. There are days when I’m not sure if I’m the poem’s ‘I’ or the racoon. I’m not sure if I think the racoon is one person, those ones we exclude, or the church itself. But this is what I’m doing, and the hope of doing so, and continuing to do so, makes the frustration and moral outrage and sense of being compromised bearable. Almost. Usually.

Touch-me-nots

The touch-me-nots
were still blooming,
though many had already gone to seed–
jewel of weeds, orange, beloved

of hummingbirds
for their deeply held sweets,
and the ripe pod, when touched,
so quick

to open and high-fly
its seeds into the world.
I was walking
down a path

where they grew, succulent and thick
in the damp earth near
a stream, when I saw
a trap

with a little raccoon inside,
praying,
as it felt, over and over,
the mesh of its capture,

and I had time —
just time —
to stumble down to the stream, and open the trap,
and say to the little one:

Run, run,
and the little one flew —
I did not touch him —
and climbed high into a tree.

And then I too, knowing the world,
ran through the jewel weeds
as someone, unknown and not smiling,
came down the path to where

the trap lay, stamped upon
by my very own feet,
and while I ran, the touch-me-nots
nodded affirmatively

their golden bodies —
I could not help but touch them —
and dashed forth their sleek pods,
oh, life flew around us, everywhere.

Mary Oliver
in New & Selected Poems vol.2