Shedding illusions

Many have asked if I had a good sabbatical.  The short answer is yes, thank you.  Even in that short expression there is much to elaborate on!  I was told before I went that a sabbatical would be disruptive to me personally. He wasn’t wrong. I think the best way of describing my time away is to say that I have shed (at least some of) my illusions. That is not to say that I have become completely disillusioned with everything, though that is certainly true of some things. Fr Richard Rohr, Franciscan Priest writes in his daily meditations: “Normally, the way God pushes us is by disillusioning us with the present mode. Until the present falls apart, we will never look for something more. We will never discover what it is that really sustains us.”  None of us really like this experience. Part of this is about letting go, becoming humble, the death of the ego.  It is the process described by St Paul in the letter to the Philippians. Stepping out of the place of safety into the unknown.  In Matthew 21:23-32 the Pharisees are trying to challenge Jesus and claim authority from their ordered world. Notice how Jesus responds.  Firstly he doesn’t respond from the ego. He recognises what is going on and he offers his questioners the opportunity to be humble, the opportunity to say that they were wrong, the opportunity for them to step out of order into disorder, so that he might enable them to rebuild. He is offering them the chance to let go of their illusion of control which in all probability may have led to them being held in greater esteem by the people and to reorder their lives.  Of course, that doesn’t happen.  They see Jesus as a greater threat to their authority.  They do not want to allow the disruption, the disillusionment of how things are.  Yet, it is necessary.  Jesus would say, “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” (John 12:24).  The image above is of my study wall, it is my reminder to be humble. For it reminds me that I am completely dependent on so many others, that who I am and all that I do is built upon the shoulders of others.  It is an eclectic gathering of people’s thoughts notes, well wishes, quotes, sketches and the occasional moan!  I’ve recently put it all back up, it has been sat in a folder for the past few years waiting for the right moment.  As I put each card on the wall, I read each note, or letter and remembered either who had given it to me or where it had come from.

Amongst the cards is a photograph I took of an exhibition by the welsh sculpture John Meirion Morris, whose obituary was recently in the news.  Although an atheist, John Meirion said the exhibition in the Anglican Chaplaincy was the most appropriate spiritual venue for his work, better than any gallery.  I had the privilege of working there at the time. It produced an incredible spiritual experience.  I took the photograph of the exhibition in order to sell a few cards as mementos for those visiting.  John was so taken with it, that he asked if I could create for him a ‘Christmas’ card using that image. He, a sculpture and artist with an eye for detail was incredibly humble in his appreciation of the image and I, humbled by his reaction.  We don’t always react with such generosity.  Often our reactions are to humiliate the other rather than to be humble. It can take a lifetime to allow ourselves to have as Paul writes the same mind as Christ to allow ourselves to let go and to let God.

On generosity and Coronovirus to lighten our darkness

No wonder Jesus taught in parables, in stories about the Generosity of the kingdom of God.  Because for the most part we just don’t get it. Jesus likes to provoke his listeners to expand their imaginations about what they know and understand to make a serious point. For God’s generosity outstretches our simple imaginations and even on our best days very often we want to limit that generosity to those like us or who think like us or those in our club or those we think deserve it… 

And if you don’t believe me ask the (how many are there?) Christian denominations who all think so slightly differently about how exactly we ought to go about things.  So parables like this just don’t make sense in our capitalist world of bigger better forevermore. Clearly Jonah didn’t get it either, as God asks, it is right for you to be angry? We’re obviously in good company. 

I wonder perhaps if we need to see the Coronovirus as a light in the darkness, a sign of the generosity of the kingdom of God as we hear in the parable from Matthew’s Gospel 20:1-16? And yes, I’m being provocative.  What can it illuminate?  It has cast a light on a great deal of things that would otherwise have remained in the shadows. The theologian, ecologist and Scottish Quaker Alistair McIntosh suggested in 2016 when Trump was elected, that Trump is good for us because he illuminates our shadow side.  What he went on to say was, in effect, Trump said, or more often tweeted what many thought, but felt they ought not to say out loud. And when the crowd cheered – it became policy.  You might say the same of anything in fact that brings out emotion, anger, prejudice, the shadow side, we’ve all got one, it’s perfectly normal!  So Coronovirus, a light in the darkness?  Well, it certainly illuminated for us our illusion of control over this earth and our illusion of what we appeared to think of as normal.  You know the phrase the new normal, but perhaps ‘becoming normal’ would be better, for we are still, I think learning what it is to be human. We are, humanity that is, still growing up.  Becoming normal means beginning to truly see, to be able to recognise that what we do always has an effect on something or someone else and when we realise, when we truly see then there is a chance to as the phrase goes build back better. Or as Jesus might say bring close the kingdom of heaven.  But will we take the opportunity? Illumination comes in many forms.  Jonah wasn’t quite ready sitting under his withered bush. He was still angry at what he perceived as an injustice.  What would the hearers of Jesus’ parable have made of it.  There is so much in there of the worth of a human life.  The worth of each person, the ability of some to find employment and others not.  The growing gap between those who have and those who have not.  Coronovirus has offered us at the very least a lens to see our world differently, that what we had was not normal, when we systematically underfunded our NHS and social care system. It doesn’t have to be normal to measure the worth of our economy in how much stuff we buy. Is it normal to struggle to find a home for millions of displaced peoples or to be unable to house the homeless in our own nation or to only see that they too were human when disaster strikes. Is it normal for the welfare system to only offer a hand out not a hand up.  When the poverty gap will never be over until we at least recognise that there was a gap.  How can it be normal to pollute the air and the water and the land which gives us life. Why did it seem normal to need yet more energy to power even more gadgets more individual transport more flights more roads.  I don’t think it was normal to never stop chasing around frantically busy in an attempt to keep on keeping on with whatever it was and then we ask what was it that was so important yesterday that I didn’t have the time to pause for a moment and then when we did we began to ask why and perhaps did we begin to see, to hear, as we heard the birds singing where we’d never heard them sing before.  If the traffic noise is so great, do the birds sing anyway? Have we forgotten already? Are we ready to pass by the opportunity to be a generous people and as in the parable of Jesus to bring close the kingdom of God.

The Gleanings are (probably) not for you

The Gleaners

The Gleaners

Written for BBC Radio Wales’ ‘Celebration’ 20th Sept – harvest thanksgiving

The earth is full of the things you have made. Grass for cattle, vegetables for the people. You make food grow from the earth. You give us bread that gives us strength. [Psalm 104:13-15 (adapted)]

Psalm 104 is a song of praise to God in Creation, and there is much to give thanks for.  However, this harvest time we hear in the news that the wheat harvest has been poor. The price of flour, and then of course, bread will probably rise. As always those who can least afford this will be hit the hardest.  With the pandemic continuing to change our lives there are difficult and worrying times ahead.  However, we can still be ever thankful not least for those who gather or prepare food and especially for those who have delivered it and prepared it when we have been unable to go out ourselves.

Today I want to share with you an agricultural story.  It’s a story of love, of loss.    A story of courage and trust.  A story of the land and of the hospitality of others.  And I’ll reflect a little on my own harvest journey this year in our garden. 

Our Bible readings today come from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of Ruth begins with famine and tragedy.  A farming family travels to a foreign land for work.  Naomi’s husband and sons die whilst they are away.  She is left with her two daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth and prepares to return home as she has heard that the famine has come to an end.

Naomi set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me?  Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.  Naomi said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

What a story of trust and courage.  Here is, we presume, the young girl Ruth with her older Mother-in-law Naomi in search of somewhere to live.  For Naomi, there is no certainty in her returning home – she must trust that there will be someone to offer hospitality. For Ruth this is a new journey to a foreign land.  She is prepared to risk everything in search of security, food and shelter. Many people, as we hear in the news, are making journeys away from persecution, hunger, and lands rendered uninhabitable, times haven’t changed have they.  As we will see, Naomi and Ruth are lucky, there is someone who will offer them a home, but they also must gather enough food to live on.  Ruth goes out into the fields and begins to gather leftover grain behind those who are harvesting.  This old custom is called gleaning. The poor had the right to glean in the fields at harvest time and the owner of the field had a duty to leave a little of the harvest.

And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour.” Naomi said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So Ruth went. Ruth came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. Ruth said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So Ruth came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

We’ll return to the significance of gleaning for us in a few moments, meanwhile, Join me walking through our garden this harvest time.  We take a simple harvest through the year of leaves, fruit, nuts and a few planted vegetables. We will never be self-sufficient though. Everything is allowed to grow naturally with little input from us. There is always something to gather – even in winter – though pickings may be slim and we often garden the weeds.  At this time of year I walk amongst the trees and bushes taking a harvest for a green salad of vine leaves, mint, sage, marjoram, horseradish, raspberry, lime, sorrel, clover leaves and flowers; fallen apples and the occasional blackberry from the hedgerow It can be hard to see how there is so much hunger in the world with such abundance in nature all around us for which we do little and receive a great deal.  This year our cherry plum didn’t give a single fruit and the damson and Victoria plum trees were sparsely covered.  Some years a tree will take a break I’m told.  When crops we depend on fail, people go hungry and we become dependant on our neighbours.  In the story, Ruth and Naomi were dependent on the sanctuary of others.  I wonder if we are ready as a nation to offer the same sanctuary, to share our harvest with those who come so that all have enough to eat.

It is clear though in our garden there always seems plenty left over that I cannot reach or that falls to the ground.  These gleanings are readily gathered by the many birds and small animals that rely for their food on what grows naturally. We take what we need to supplement what we buy.  Of course, if the apple or plum tree does not produce a harvest we can always go to a shop, thankful that the harvest somewhere else has been successful.

You’ll recall, in our readings, Ruth going out into the the fields to glean, to gather grain behind the harvesters.  I wonder whether this story has something to teach us in these times? Especially at this time of our harvest thanksgiving.  I’d like to suggest that when you next go to a supermarket you think of this story.  We might think that gleaning is an old practice which either cannot or does not happen due to modern farming practices.  But I wonder as I walk down the aisle in my local supermarket and see the shelf of reduced items.  I noticed recently yellow tape marking out the area around this shelf, I presume to encourage people not to crowd in and maintain their social distancing – it is telling that this was the only area it was required.  I wonder If these are not the modern equivalent of gleanings left out for those who cannot afford the full price.  Perhaps, if we can afford to, we ought to leave these reduced temptations for those who need them. Sadly it seems, there are many in our society who do.  

On a personal level I can add to my weekly shopping list ‘something for the foodbank’ and offer in that spirit of gleaning a little food for those who rely on the generosity of others.  As a church we can offer a place for collections of food to be gathered for our local foodbank.  As a society we should be asking how we can end this poverty and hunger so that there may truly be each year a harvest for the world.