Breaking Free

Last month was the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. Every year for 18 years William Wilberforce brought a motion to the House of Commons seeking the end of slavery. And every year, save one, he lost. He rallied against a trade seen as fundamental to the British economy. Wilberforce defied the silent consent of bishops, the Church, the common interpretation of the Bible, and of course the polls, in order to be faithful to the simple truth that all were created equal and deserved to be treated the same.

The story of Wilberforce’s life, coming soon in the movie Amazing Grace, is one of choosing between Gods. Choosing between the God of his upbringing – a God of convention, comfort, and civility – and between the God who gripped and drove him – a God of justice and change. Wilberforce followed a God who led him into unpopularity and vilification.

‘Convention, comfort, and civility’ is a description of the grave. The grave is a solid tomb, with solid boundaries, and a solid door. It’s thinking is found in churches, clubs, pubs, and parliaments. The grave protects the insider. The clothes the grave provides are secure, warm, and comforting. The d├ęcor might be plain, but it’s predictable. The outside world is repulsed. Inside certainty is assured. The grave is safe.

Resurrection is not primarily a past event that happened once upon a time in a Jerusalem cemetery. Resurrection is a present event, a way of talking about the challenge to leave the deadly mummified structures and thinking of the past and to live in the spirit of Jesus. It is about breaking free. It is about justice and change. And it is not safe.


Abandoned by God

The wind is one of the metaphors that I use when trying to explain the limitations of an intimate deity. Like God you can’t see the wind but you can feel its effects. God blows where it wills. God can’t be wrapped up, domesticated, or walk hand in hand with us. God is more than relational metaphors. Unlike a loving parent, sometimes the wind abandons us and we are left bereft and alone.

Abandonment is a spiritual place that many have ventured into. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus cried from the cross. Abandonment is to wake up in the morning to an empty universe, and to go to bed at night with no comforting presence. Abandonment is when prayer is meaningless, and worship no better. With any and every call to God there isn’t even an engaged signal – just an eerie silence on the end of the line. This is the valley of the shadow.

If you are not at the place of abandonment, then be thankful. And be gentle with those who might be experiencing it.

If you are in the valley of shadow then remember those rules many of us learnt as children about being lost in the New Zealand bush: Don’t panic. Don’t run. Don’t let fear or depression overwhelm you. Stay still. Fretting will not help. Light a little fire if you can. If you are with others huddle together for warmth – for you body and your soul. And trust, as the Jewish mystics say, that the Hidden God will be seeking you.

None of the great spiritual traditions of the world offer simple solutions to the question of abandonment by God. At best they offer a series of stories or metaphors that in part contradict one another. There is no one answer that will fit every time.

So here is another metaphor I sometimes use when trying to make sense of abandonment. I talk about God as journey. God isn’t the destination, or the road, or the travelling companion, but the journey itself. God is the different places we come to, places of joy and serenity but also of pain and despair. The valley of shadow is therefore a place within God. It’s a place that we arrive at sometimes through no wish or failing of our own, sometimes through the connivance of others, and sometimes through our own stupid fault.

The cross was Jesus’ place of abandonment. The sky, on cue, darkened. Pain and death resulted. His crucifixion was seen as a political and religious necessity by the powerful, and totally destructive and pointless by his followers. Whatever you believe about Easter Sunday one thing is clear: Jesus’ didn’t carry on living, growing old with Mrs Jesus and having grandkids. His death was real. His pain was real. His abandonment was real. The God that he had lived was gone; and until we take that seriously we will not begin to fathom Good Friday or to understand our pain.


The Problem of Good Friday

I often talk about God as transformative love - a powerful and compassionate energy that surrounds, infuses, and transcends our existence. Jesus understood God as a personal force, ‘Abba’, which embraced the excluded and championed the ostracised. This personal force was therefore both contentious and upsetting for those who liked societal arrangements as they were. However for those who were on the margins of society this force was surprising and liberating. ‘Love’, ‘compassion’, ‘freedom’ and ‘inclusion’ are all words that point to the power that operated through Jesus and impacted on their lives. That power we call God.

Most traditionally minded Christians who pray to God as “Father” or Jesus as “Lord” would not generally dispute this understanding of God. They use “Father” as shorthand for God’s caring and protecting nature. Similarly “Lord” they would say is not a hierarchical militaristic metaphor but a way of talking about the primacy of Jesus’ love. ‘God is love’, as the writer of the Johannine epistles said centuries ago, remains the normative Christian understanding of the Divine.

The problem for both Traditionalists and I is Good Friday. On that day the Divine ceases to be love, we experience abandonment, and normative comforting theology is tsunamied. It is a day of disconcerting silence.

Some paint Good Friday as God the Father and God the Son working out a deal. “Look kid,” says Mr Deity, “if you want to save the world you got to do this suffering number. I’ll look the other way, and you just hang in there.” “Okay Dad”, says the kid, “I’ll try not to look sad.” Both are said to be acting in and out of love. Good Friday is just the pain before the gain.

The problem is that it doesn’t take much to figure the deal is morally bankrupt. Loving fathers don’t freeze their feelings and let their sons be tortured and killed. The means does not justify the ends. If God were all loving then God would have intervened. End of story. So either God couldn’t have intervened [not all powerful] or wouldn’t intervene [not all loving]. The cosmic deal doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when you have an anthropomorphic deity who is supposedly the final word on love.

Good Friday is vital in the Christian calendar because it challenges us to wrestle with the notion that God is more than anthropomorphic projections or metaphors of intimacy.


Washing Feet

Who wipes up the kid’s mess? You know, when there is a cordial spill, or when mud is traipsed in? Ideally, so the family theory goes, ‘the one who made the mess cleans it up’. But you know and I know that ideals and theories don’t always work. Inevitably it comes back to Mum or Dad - or, in Jesus day, the servants.

Not that Jesus had servants. He wasn’t from the wealthy end of town. But, being the local popular healer [or was it just the novelty factor?] he seems to have got a lot of invitations to the homes of wealthy people. “Come in, Mr Jesus.” “Pleased to meet you, Mr Jesus.” “Care for some wine Mr Jesus?”

When one arrived at such a home the host would admit you and a servant would wash your feet. While this custom may seem rather nice to us the dirt and mud of Palestine was not particularly nice inside one’s house. People’s feet carried the world with them. The washing was a menial task, one that wasn’t popular among the servants, and therefore usually left to the least influential. One could imagine that a child, lowest on the pecking order, would get this task.

In the Last Supper account we are told that Jesus ‘knowing that he had come from God and was going to God’ got up from the table and began to wash his disciples feet. The preface is important. Knowing the end was coming Jesus wanted to convey and pass on the things that he considered essential. He chose to teach about leadership by ritually symbolizing their primary call to be a community of equals.

Jesus didn’t take up the towel and basin in order to show his humility. He didn’t need to. Nor was it in order to encourage those who would be leaders in the emerging Church to do menial tasks. This wasn’t about so called “servant ministry”. There was, and is, nothing glorious about being a servant – as many of us whose ancestors came here to escape the English class system know.

The foot washing was a demonstration of equality. The master [Jesus] is not greater than the servant [Peter, you, or me]. Neither is the reverse true – the servant is not greater than the master. The Jesus movement sought to encourage servant-less and master-less communities where people were brothers and sisters to one another and the only ‘master’ was God.

Leadership in the Jesus realm is not based on who is the greatest, or who is the most powerful or popular. Nor is the inverse true. Rather within the community of equals each person’s gifts and talents are accepted, nurtured, and used. These gifts and talents are God-given, and to God we are accountable as a community regarding their usage.

When choosing people to be bishops or priests I often hear “servant” language – that clergy should be involved in the menial tasks of church life and life in general. While all of us have menial chores to perform, and some of us [especially parents and workers in the hospitality industry] have more than others, I don’t think they are a prerequisite for leadership. What is a prerequisite is an attitude - an attitude that no task or person is beneath you; an attitude that the number of menial tasks doesn’t means you are better or worse than anyone else. In other words the leader must have an innate knowledge that they are fundamentally the same as anyone else – they are no better or worse. The leader will be given, or acquire, a degree of power. Power does not mean they are better, or worse, than anyone else.

Of course, there is a problem with power. When power comes your way the temptation is to think that you earned it, or it’s your right, or that you are somehow better than others. There are many examples of monarchs, politicians, bishops, business people, and clergy who have fallen into this pit. Maybe Jesus was aware of what his followers would have to face in the future, and he was trying to warn them.

So, the ritual foot washing of Maundy Thursday is a reminder to us all. It reminds us of our vision of Christian community, equals in the sight of God and one another, encouraging each other in our gifts and ministries. It reminds us who have positions of leadership that we are no better or no worse than anyone else, and at any time we may be called upon to serve God and our community in ways we don’t expect, even in ways we think are beneath us.