Dusty feet

This is a sonnet-format response to a friend’s facebook post asking if there are any hymns about shaking the dust off one’s feet. It’s not at all what he asked for – sorry Steve!

The dust reminds us of our origin,
from where we’ve come, not where we want to go.
And as it clings, brings with it all we’ve been:
familiar places, things we think we know
and may not like; perhaps we’d like to leave
them all behind, but they have made us who
we are today.  The stuff we now believe,
the wisdom our experience treats as true
is just as much a part of us as all
the atoms of our flesh. And we are kind
of stardust. That’s a fact with its own call
on what we choose to keep or leave behind.
Then, when we shake the dust from off our shoes
we do so, knowing what we have to lose.

Just a second…

On 30th June, just before midnight (GMT) we all get an extra second – this happens every so often because the rotation of the earth doesn’t take exactly 24 hours (just like the orbit of the earth doesn’t take exactly 365 days, requiring us to have leap years to get back in sync).  Brilliantly, there is an international body responsible for monitoring the rotation of the earth and deciding when we need a leap second.  You can read all about that here.

This means I will have to wait slightly longer for it to be my birthday – but as a bonus, it means I get to spend slightly longer being in my 30s before I become middle aged.

The question I ask myself, though, is what could we do with that extra second? A second is not a long time, but here are some suggestions (you can always do them earlier in the day if you’re planning on being asleep during the extra second):

  • Do nothing. Actually nothing – take a conscious, if only tiny, pause, to see what it’s like.  If you like it, try a longer one.
  • Smell the roses. Or whatever – have some sort of sensory experience of beauty that will last beyond the second it takes to do it.
  • Tell someone you love that you love them.
  • Kiss someone you love.
  •  Send up an arrow prayer for world peace.
  • Take a photograph of something beautiful, or interesting.
  • Smile at someone.
  • Think of someone you haven’t seen for a while.
  • Switch your computer off.
  • Sign a petition.
  • Store up your spare second and use it to vote in the next election (yes, I know it takes longer than that to vote, if you take into account the queuing up and travelling to the polling station, but to put the cross in the box does just take one second, and has a lasting impact).

Here are some things that take about a second to do, that the world could do without – they’re the ones that came to the front of my mind first:

  • It takes about a second to strike a match. What if people stopped setting fire to predominantly black churches in the USA?
  • It takes about a second for a bullet to travel 2500 feet. What if people stopped shooting each other?
  • You can insult someone or swear at them, or belittle them with a glance, in under a second. That’s a second that could be better spent.
  • And while we’re at it, it probably takes about a second to throw a punch. We could not do that, too.
  • Do we ever make judgments about people by the way they look, or dress?  That probably takes less than a second. What would happen if we didn’t?  Keeping an open mind takes longer.

Reading this through, it’s a load of idealistic sanctimonious rubbish, really, but if having an extra second makes us think about the split second actions (and failures to act)  that have a lasting impact, then that’s got to be a good thing. We have the extra seconds every so often (even though they’re a nuisance for certain technological infrastructures) because otherwise future generations would have to make much bigger adjustments. It’s one of the (few) ways in which our current generation is being responsible about the future. Maybe the best use of the extra second is to do something in keeping with that responsibility to the future, that ‘reorientation’ towards the world being at ease with itself.

Set in stone

The great sculptor, Michaelangelo, who created some of the most beautiful figures ever to be carved from marble was once asked about his method.  He replied, “I simply work on the block of marble, removing all that is not part of the sculpture until only the sculpture remains.”

Nowhere is this process more in evidence than in his unfinished ‘slave’ sculptures.  Michaelangelo was commissioned to create them in 1505 by Pope Julius, for the Pope’s own tomb – there were supposed to be thirty in total, but the Pope died soon after planning his own tomb, and the project was never completed.  If you ever go to see Michaelangelo’s famous and very perfect statue of David, as you walk through the gallery leading to it you will pass some of these unfinished slaves, exhibited precisely because in their unfinished state, and in the shadow of David, they seem to say something profound about humanity.

They seem to emerge from the rock, some gracefully, some full of struggle, desperate to gain their freedom.   And in them we can see Michaelangelo’s process at work.  His own expressed intention of freeing the figures that already exist within the stone is reflected in his technique. Almost all sculptors who work in stone tend to block out the main shapes of the whole sculpture roughly, and then gradually fill in the details. Michaelangelo, though, chiselled away at the stone, bringing individual parts of the sculpture to a perfect finish before moving on. That’s what makes the unfinished slaves seem to be freeing themselves from the rock that keeps them captive.

unfinished slave 1unfinished slave 2unfinished slave 4unfinished slave 3

So, on the way to see the chiseled, muscled, perfect, naked manhood of David, you walk through the corridor of the half-emancipated, equally muscled and naked, slaves.

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Washington D.C. and was able to visit some of the monuments there.

IMG_20150410_192649[1]IMG_20150410_192005_kindlephoto-69091165[1]All the capital’s memorials are designed to impress: Lincoln and Jefferson, in particular, are vast figures, and the long view down the mall to the National monument is an exercise in grandeur. You can practically hear the Copland fanfare playing in the background.

And, of course, there is the more recent memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. And this is just the famous ones, in the capital. There are plenty of others, including Mount Rushmore’s faces emerging from the stone of the cliff. All of these memorials set in stone something of the past – figures whose importance was such that their likenesses were considered worth preserving in keeping with their influence – a lasting and substantial tribute to match their lasting and substantial impact.  The real shocker is that it took so long for the memorial to MLK Jr to be commissioned, funded, and installed in its rightful place alongside the others.

IMG_20150411_161139[1]But there is more to the MLK mem0rial than simply a matter of saying ‘about time!’  The shape of the sculpture reflects words from his “I have a dream” speech: ‘Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope’.  The larger rock stands behind the statue, and indeed the figure himself is still emerging from the smaller rock in which it is carved.

It can be no accident that the ‘mountain of despair’ is part of the finished monument, and the figure of MLK Jr, the great champion of equality and civil rights, appears still part-trapped in the stone from which he emerges. Like the unfinished slave sculptures of many centuries before, those parts of the figure that have emerged from the stone are perfectly finished, but much remains to be done.  If MLK had lived, he might have echoed that sentiment: freedom and equality have started to emerge, but there is much to be done.

And just as Michaelangelo’s unfinished slaves line the path to the completed David, and, like him, are naked and muscled even in their emergent state, so also the MLK statue occupies a place on the pilgrimage-like route through the many D.C. memorials, and like his fellows, Lincoln and Jefferson, Martin Luther King emerges from the rock as a statesman.  His memorial, at least to my eye, portrays him as the greatest president that the USA never had.

A memorial such as this sets something in stone, quite literally. But in this case, what is set in stone is something unfinished, something dynamic, something of the struggle which is still, many decades after MLK’s assassination, ongoing. What better way to celebrate a man’s legacy than in a way that draws our attention to the continuing responsibility on all of us to work on making his dream a reality in our own lifetime.




Hymn about the Transfiguration

I was asked to write a hymn for a church dedicated to the Transfiguration, as there aren’t many hymns written for that particular feast day.  Here’s a first draft – as always, it’s not final, and comments, criticisms and suggestions are very welcome!  The tune they asked for was Ellacombe (‘The day of resurrection’).

All glory be to Jesus,
all joyful songs of praise!
Ascend, with him, the mountain,
And on him fix your gaze.
For Christ reveals his glory:
The Son’s bright shining rays;
The veil, worn thin, breaks open
to set the soul ablaze.

On earth, a glimpse of heaven,
in darkness, dazzling light;
From lowly plain and valley,
to holy mountain’s height.
Now all that world’s divisions
in Jesus may unite:
An ordinary moment
is blessed with God’s delight.

The light of light eternal
to faithful eyes is shown,
The mystery of the Godhead
miraculously known.
The seeds of Jesus’ passion
in glory would be sown,
so fruits of resurrection
could out of sin be grown.

The words of affirmation,
of challenge and command,
To listen, learn, and follow
in all that God has planned.
May graceful transformation
by God’s almighty hand,
empower us now for service
in this and every land.

Trinity Sunday 2015

For a service of Choral Matins at St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Upper Arlington, Columbus, Ohio, USA.

Sometimes we can’t see something clearly because it is too small, but there are times when we can’t see something clearly because it is too big – like standing at the foot of a mountain and being unable to see to the top, but nevertheless being overwhelmed by the vastness of it. We may know in our minds, having read up on it, exactly how high the mountain is, how many people have climbed it, where it lies in the list of the world’s highest or most difficult peaks, or any other random facts. But standing there at the foot, and looking up, somehow the facts and figures will fail to explain away what we see – and the awareness that we are only seeing one view of something impossibly vast, impossibly ancient. The facts and figures can’t capture the awe, and the wonder.

Most of the year in church, it’s as if we are invited to follow particular paths up the mountainside, to stop along the way and turn over a few small stones, in terms of our understanding of God. Today, we are invited to stand at the foot of the mountain and try and drink in the whole thing. We’re invited to try this, annually, at least partly to reassure ourselves that we can’t.

Trinity Sunday is the day in the year when we remind ourselves that we cannot grasp God fully. That God is God, and we are us, and there’s an issue with scale and perception and language and sheer weakness of the human mind and soul that means we can look and feel awe and know that we’re not really getting it. I find this immensely reassuring. Because the moment we think we can get it, we can guarantee that what we are getting is not, in fact, it.  The doctrine of the Trinity is supposed to be just a little bit mysterious, because it reminds us that God cannot be packaged into a neat box and be fully understood. That is to reduce God to something manageable – and ‘manageable’ doesn’t quite seem adequate as a description!

In our reading from John, this is captured wonderfully by the idea of light coming into darkness. In our translation, the darkness did not overcome it – in others, the darkness did not comprehend it. When I was learning Greek at seminary, it was suggested that the English word that best gathered together the Greek’s dual meaning of ‘understand’ and ‘overpower’ was ‘grasp’.  The light came into the darkness, and the darkness couldn’t grasp it. Or, more colloquially, the darkness didn’t really get it.

And that’s why I’m not going to be talking about ice, water and steam, shamrock leaves, or any of the other wonderful and equally heretical images that the Christian tradition has come up with over the centuries to get through the mental block of the one in three and three in one thing.  Useful though they are, they can be a bit of a red herring.

Happily, this is where matins comes in.  Matins is full of the Trinity, in fact, what we call the ‘Doxology’ appears four times in this service today, by my reckoning: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.  ‘Doxology’ – another Greek word – simply means ‘words of glory’ – is a technical term for praise, and we use it for this particular formula of praise to the Trinity, capturing both the three in one and one in three, and the concept of eternity, in just a couple of verses.

It appears in the opening set of versicles and responses, and at the end of the psalm, and most of the canticle options. It keeps coming back, like a refrain, and the implication is that whatever you’ve just said, it’s going to be right and appropriate to finish by singing praise to the eternal Trinity. This can sometimes be jarring – Matins in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer doesn’t change much depending on the time of year, and the monthly cycle of psalms in it simply runs through them in order. So on certain days of the month you can easily have one of the more violent psalms, or one of the most profound laments and cries for mercy, and still be asked to sing ‘Glory be… ‘ straight afterwards.

This is also  something I find reassuring. Yes, it may jar. But it’s a way of saying, God is still God, even when I’m having a bad day, or a bad year. God is still God, even when I hate the people who are giving me a hard time, even when everything is collapsing around me. God is still God even when all I can do is fall on my knees and cry for help, begging for mercy.

Because who God is doesn’t depend on how we are each feeling at any given moment. God is God, and God is glorious and worthy of our praise and worship, every moment of every day. Actually, it is precisely because God does not depend on our feel-good factor to be praiseworthy that we can, in fact, fall on our knees before him asking for mercy.

As the doxology reminds us that God is God, and that we mustn’t remake him in our own image, it also reminds us that instead, we must be continually remade in his image – an image in which  variety, difference, mutual love, creativity, sacrifice, blessing and unity are the hallmarks not just of individuals but of churches, maybe even, in God’s ultimate purposes, of the whole of the human race. This is what the doxology looks like in real life.

Doxology, praise, worship – this is a kind of theology. It’s a kind of theology that lets God be God, and that lets us be us, that invites us to be drawn into the life of the Trinity that is all about love, and difference, and self-giving, and creative enjoyment of one another.  It’s a sort of theology that allows us to say something to God and about God without getting stuck on one metaphor, image, or analogy or another.

That’s why it’s so apt that the very Trinitarian formula that we use to praise God in his vastness and greatness is also an expression of all the ways that that mystery has been made known to us – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are our experience of God through history and in our own lives. The very doxology that reminds us to let God be God also reminds us of all the ways that God always has been, is now, and always will be intimately concerned with his creation.  We know what it is to be a child of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, sharing our humanity, and we know what it is to have God within us, and breathing life into us, into the church, and into the whole universe.

It’s easy to see a whole mountain from a long distance away – part of the reason that we can’t grasp God easily is not that he is too distant, but that he is so very close, so very ‘everywhere’ and so very present, so constantly revealing himself to us in wonderful and awesome ways. The very expression of the doxology is a reminder that we experience the mystery of God not as something difficult and far away but as something nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

That’s why we’ll never really grasp it. How can we grasp the one who is already grasping us? How can we seek the one who has already found us?  How can our faith be anything other than a response to God’s faithfulness? How can our understanding ever be other than a response to the fact that we have already been understood?  How can we worship God if he has not first opened our lips and given us a voice to sing his praise?