Wax Strips And Wittenberg Nails

Office food

The office snack bowl: bringing together health-conscious head of fundraising and the rest of us who just want chocolate.

A friend of mine (and I genuinely do mean a friend, this isn’t a story about me that I’m embarrassed to admit is about me) was waxing her moustache. She applied the wax strip, smoothed it down, and prepared to pull. She began to pull it, decided it was too painful, so left it and went to bed. The next morning she woke up, had wax which had hunkered down and brought in several strands of hair from her head for good measure but had decided to divorce the strip of paper. That her face is now wax free (also hair free) is the result of perseverance and repeated exclamations of pain.

What is my point? Other than wanting to stress that this is not a personal anecdote because I am a boss at willingly ripping hair out of my body in acquiescence to patriarchal aesthetic standards. My point is this: unity hurts, but not as much disunity does. 

It’s Reformation Day (if you’re a church history nerd). It’s also Hallowe’en (if you’re into chocolate and exceptional grammar). This year Reformation Day is a bit of a big deal because it’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. There was a time when I could tell you a lot about the 95 theses, but that time was a first year undergraduate module on medieval and reformation theology and over time, the nuances of reformation history have been replaced by other, more exciting (and useful) theological facts. Anyway, long story rendered exceedingly short and majorly simplified: there was a colossal church schism in the West and, much like the schism with the East, our ecclesiology since then has been an almighty spit in the face of the call to be the Body of Christ. (I told you this was over-simplified, please don’t shout at me, I’m a theological ethicist, not a church history expert).

As it’s the 500th anniversary, there’s been much more of a buzz around Reformation Day than perhaps there usually is. Across my networks, opinion is slightly divided. My broadly Protestant Facebook friends are very happy about the Reformation and my more Catholic-leaning Twitter world is slightly less enthusiastic.

Say a miracle was to happen and Rome and everyone else reunited, and then West reunited with East, it would be amazing! Wouldn’t it? The church coming together as one body… although, if you’re an ordained woman or an ordained man who would want to say “ordained woman,” how idyllic will unity be in that instance? Can you even get unity through that chasm?

There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. In genuine unity, you see that every human being is in the image of Christ, you capture just a glimpse of God’s love for them, and your care and compassion for them becomes consuming and forever unfulfilled to completion due to the postlapsarian condition. I’ve only been in the Community of St Anselm for a few weeks, but that vow I made ‘I choose you’ to my fellow community members has unequivocally become ‘I love you.’

On my lunch break, I think about the resident members sharing the peace with one another before they celebrate the Eucharist. As the majority of my colleagues come into the office around 9am, my mind is drawn to my fellow non-resident members going into their various places of work. Through Twitter, I see where in the world my Abbot is and I pray for him. My Sharing Group WhatsApp buzzes and I am reminded of these people who opened their lives to me and I to them and the humbling yet empowering privilege that is. I scroll through the notes on my phone and come across the words written down after time with my spiritual companion, words straight from God that sear through my inner being, the fire of divine love. And then I remember that even though our ultimate authority is on the throne, in this temporal realm she belongs to Rome while I belong to Canterbury, that whenever someone says ‘we all share in one bread,’ I can no longer say that without feeling crippling pain because she and I cannot share in one bread. 

There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. Ask the God who hung on a cross until he died.

Unity hurts, but not as much as disunity does.

I liked the Eucharist a heck of a lot more than I did before I donned an alb, took a cross, and said ‘I choose you.’

Disunity destroys your ability to see the image of Christ in another. Disunity distorts what truly matters, it values things over people. Disunity revels in jealousy and greed and anger. Disunity treats the cross like a game of capture the flag. Disunity says ‘this is my body, broken for some of you.’ Disunity would have been a full stop after the gates of Eden closed. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite happens. God makes us garments and clothes us. He covers our shame but we still feel acutely that shame. But I’d rather feel that than death. Disunity brings death.

Unity hurts; to turn to the person who has wounded you and say ‘peace be with you’ can be utter agony. But disunity, it might feel gratifying now, it might shirk the responsibility of reconciliation in the present, it might seem like all you are missing is a toe here and a finger there, but the end result is a pain unendurable.

Unity hurts, but not as much as disunity does.

Advertisements

God Doesn’t Make Cars Crash, And You Know It

twocath

Two Cathedrals

I have a confession to make: I love The West Wing. Yes it’s uber-idealistic, it’ often descends into liberalism sans-nuance, and Josh Lyman’s occasional misogyny renders my unabashed crush on him exceedingly problematic, but I just love it! And being the theology nerd that I am with a keen interest in theology and cinema and television, I cannot help but have my ears prick up when anything vaguely theological comes on my radar, and The West Wing delivers theology in abundance.

There are so many places to delve into The West Wing and its theology: “Take This Sabbath Day,” “Shibboleth,” “Pilot” with the questionable biblical exegesis but it’s Bartlet being Bartlet so I’m inclined to let it slide. But I’m going to focus on one episode in particular: “Two Cathedrals,” the final episode of the second series.

In this episode, the world learns that President Bartlet has MS, something he withheld during his election campaign. As reporters gather for a press conference, the President is also dealing with the aftermath of the death of his assistant, Mrs Landingham who died in a car accident. Through flashbacks, we learn that Mrs Landingham knew Jed when he was at school, she recognised his leadership potential, and she tells him about the gender pay gap in action at the school. At her funeral, Jed does some things in church you probably shouldn’t do and which resulted in the National Cathedral banning all future shows from filming there. Caught up in a tropical storm, he heads to a press conference where he is asked whether he is going to run for re-election and then… end of series.

Consumed with grief at Mrs Landingham’s death, feeling the burden of responsibility for the people around him who have been put in harm’s way because of their proximity to him, overwhelmed by the challenges faced by his office, and probably feeling guilty about having hidden his MS from the electorate and the frustration of having such an illness, he paces at the front of the church, talking – yelling – at God.

BARTLET
[tired] You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?

He slowly walks up the center aisle.

BARTLET
She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that
supposed to be funny? “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name? There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the north Atlantic last year… 68 crew. You know what a tender ship does? Fixes the other ships. Doesn’t even carry guns. Just goes around, fixes the other ships and delivers that mail. That’s all it can do. [angry] Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. [holds out arms]
I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new
jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new
acres of land for conservation, put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war,
I’ve raised three children…

He ascends the stairs to the Inner Sanctuary.

BARTLET
[pleading] That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio?
A deo iusto? A deo scito?

He stops at the top of the stairs and extends his arms.

BARTLET
Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus nuntius fui officium perfeci. [angry]
Cruciatus in crucem. [waves dismissively] Eas in crucem!

Bartlet turns away in anger. He descends to the lower sanctuary and lights a cigarette.
He takes a single puff, drops the butt to the floor, and grinds it defiantly with his
shoe. He looks back at the altar.

BARTLET
[betrayed] You get Hoynes!

Bartlet holds back tears as he walks down the aisle.

‘What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name?’ It’s easy to blame God. His hugeness, his otherness, the mystery of him, the creator of the universe who still somehow whispers our name, means that he’s easy to rail against. He can take it, can’t he? And let’s face it, if he is as good as he says he is, then why am I in pain? Why do I feel let down? Why has this bad thing happened to me?

I was talking to a friend from St Anselm recently and something he said has stuck with me, like an itch that refuses to be scratched. He was describing someone who had been like a father to him: powerful, protective, but also someone to be feared. Now, I don’t want to in anyway vindicate fathers/father figures who are abusive, but there’s something to be said for the God the Father who you are slightly afraid of. Not because they will hurt you, not because they will abandon you, not because they are vindictive, but because in that place of fear, you do find the confusing, paradoxical mercy of God, the ‘appalling strangeness.’ I do think God can take it when we get angry or frustrated at him; if he didn’t, then his Son wouldn’t have cried from the cross ‘why have you forsaken me?’ But in that anger, we can’t blame him for what happened. Just because you can call God a son of a bitch, doesn’t mean you should.

Mrs Landingham appears to President Bartlet, it’s a figment of his imagination, it’s clear he’s alone in the Oval Office.

ARTLET
Ah… Damn it! Mrs. Landingham!

He turns away, realizing she won’t come to his call, and then the door opens…

MRS. LANDINGHAM
[walks in, small and resolute] I really wish you wouldn’t shout, Mr. President.

BARTLET
[beat, as he looks at her in disbelief] The door keeps blowing open.

MRS. LANDINGHAM
Yes, but there’s an intercom and you could use it to call me at my desk.

BARTLET
I was…

MRS. LANDINGHAM
You don’t know how to use the intercom.

BARTLET
It’s not that I don’t know how to use it, it’s just that I haven’t learned yet.

She looks at him and he smiles shyly, as if he’s been caught lying.

BARTLET
I have M.S., and I didn’t tell anybody.

MRS. LANDINGHAM
Yeah. So, you’re having a little bit of a day.

BARTLET
You’re gonna make jokes?

MRS. LANDINGHAM
God doesn’t make cars crash, and you know it. Stop using me as an excuse.

God doesn’t cause cars to crash. I have a profound pastoral hatred whenever people say things like, ‘God has sent you this tragedy to test you.’ It’s wrong, it’s just impossible to rationalise theologically and sends you into a major theodicy problem. Blaming God, attributing the origin of evil and suffering to him, does the person suffering a huge disservice, to tell someone that God is the author of their pain is to tie their hands behind their back so they can’t reach out for God’s embrace. It is to deny the otherness of pain and suffering and evil, to give it a prominence it was never to have in God’s creation, to bind it inextricably to God when his promise is that on that amazing day there will be no tears and no more pain.

I don’t have a fully worked-out theodicy, if anyone does then I’d be concerned, although when Mike Lloyd finally gets round to finishing his book on the doctrine of evil and suffering then it will probably best articulate the doctrinal position I hold. (I’m a convert to Mike’s position on this issue, but not on his jokes, that needs to be emphatically stated. Also Mike Lloyd was my Principal at Oxford and someone who I respect unreservedly).

In his book, Café Theology, Lloyd writes:

The author [of the Book of Job] is deliberately and carefully distancing God from any imputation of direct involvement in, or responsibility for evil and suffering. He is, in other words, guarding the goodness of God. It seems to me that we should do likewise. We too need to put moral distance between God and evil. We need to be careful in our thinking and our speaking not to suggest that God is the author of suffering. We need to preserve the distinction between what God permits and what He commits. To forget the distinction is to say that God wills Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the Gulag and the Laogai and the killing fields and Enniskillen and September 11th – and that we must never say. We must guard with our theological lives the goodness of God. We may and we must feel the strength of the case against that goodness. There is a Job in each one of us and he must be allowed to rail. But the time must come when we put our hand over our mouth and find our hope in the goodness of God. For only an ultimately good God can be relied upon to answer our cries. Only an ultimately good God can be relied upon to care. Only an ultimately good God can be relied upon to put all things to rights.

I once wrote a short story called ‘Playing The Job Card,‘ where I melodramatically laid the blame for a painful situation I was in firmly at God’s door: ‘Is it part of your plan to deal me the Job card? You’ve forced my hand to play a game it doesn’t want to. Do you hear me? I don’t want to play anymore!’ It finished, ‘Tell me there’s a twist in the game. Make it stop hurting. Please… I’m trusting you. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ The God who causes your pain cannot be the God who wipes away your tears. That makes him vindictive, that makes him a Father you cower from, rather than stand under in fear through worship. The God who wipes away your tears is not the author of your suffering, nor does his goodness nullify the pain you feel, rather it is a deep acknowledgment of it and of you, and of how much he loves you.

God doesn’t make cars crash, and you know it.

My Scarlet A

the-scarlet-letter

A is for anxiety.

‘The Bible contradicts almost everything I say about myself. It says I am worthy of love; it says I am unique and valuable. It says I am of incomparable value to God.’ Katharine Welby-Roberts.

It’s World Mental Health Day today and I’m going to let you all in on a secret: I struggle with anxiety. It began when I was reasonably young, but by the time I became a student, it stopped being manageable and being able to be passed off as run-of-the-mill nerves or shyness, and became this secret shame, the damning scarlet A I thought everyone else could see when they looked at me. When anxiety made it difficult to leave the house, I felt it would be better to have my friends view me as flaky, as a last-minute bailer on plans, than actually admit the truth: I have anxiety, I’ve been ploughing on through the day, and right now, I just need the safety and security of staying home this evening because I’ve done a great job of being Hannah Barr today so I would like to reward myself by putting on Netflix and pretending to be CJ Cregg. It’s difficult to admit to having anxiety. I feel the embarrassed urge to tell you that it’s not as bad as it used to be, that I’m pretty fine now. As I write this, I’m still not sure if I’ll have the guts to post this. And it currently feels pretty crazy that a version of this has landed in the inbox of my work’s Head of Comms for posting on our website.

There are two reasons for this: first, there is the fear that if people know I have anxiety, they will take responsibilities away from me, not trust me to do things well, not give me the opportunities to be pushed and allow me to push myself. Second, it is the fear that people won’t believe me and they’ll tell me to get a grip. In the six years since my formal diagnosis of anxiety, I have achieved three degrees, lived and studied abroad, won some awards, been consistently employed, taken lots of risks, made friendships, sustained friendships, done lots of public speaking (which is one of my favourite things to do), and a whole host of other things. This isn’t to brag – although this week I was shortlisted for Tweeter of the Year and I am way more proud of that than I should be! It’s just that sometimes, those things have been bookended by anxiety attacks and of course I would far rather you see my public achievements than the treading water in the background.

But there is also a third reason I’m often reticent to admit all this and it’s to do with being a Christian. Word of advice: quoting Philippians 4:6 to someone with anxiety has the same effect as telling someone who isn’t calm to calm down, it doesn’t work and it just makes them more annoyed!

The overarching narrative of gospel is wholeness. We begin with one God who is perichoretic in character, this means that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in perfect harmony and communication with each other, mutually indwelling. This God makes the world and human beings in it and God and humankind are in a perichoretic embrace. A fracture happens. God and humankind are separated. This breaks God’s heart so he does the extraordinary: he sends his son to make a way for that fracture to be healed, for God and his children to be reunited forever. And now we wait for the fullness of that, for that day where there will be no more tears and no more pain.

But that day might not be today. A lot of damage has been done by Christians, however well-meaning, suggesting to those who struggle with their mental health that they are being tested by God, or they are not praying hard enough, or telling people that they are broken. We are all broken; but it’s because of our sin, not because of our health, mental or physical.

As Christians, we have the best thing you can say to anyone who is struggling whether it’s due to a formal or severe mental health diagnosis or whether it’s in the day-to-day struggles and triumphs which impact on all our mental health. Because as Christians we can say ‘God is with you.’

Let me tell you a tale of two Psalms.

I have prayed these two Psalms throughout my struggles with anxiety; I’ve prayed them when it’s just been that horrible heavy feeling of tar wrapping itself around by chest, I’ve prayed them when it’s felt like I just can’t breathe.

The first is Psalm 50 which features the great verse ‘weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.’ This Psalm has brought great comfort to me because it points me towards hope, that this anxiety is ultimately temporary, a scarlet A which I put there myself and which God will take from me on that amazing day.

The second is Psalm 88. It is the only Psalm to not finish on a message of hope. Rather, it ends ‘darkness is my closest friend.’ And sometimes I have just stayed in that Psalm, in the darkness, not seeing a way out. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t there with me, quite the opposite.

If you are struggling with mental health, God is there with you, in the dark and in the flickers of hope. If you are journeying with someone through this, be patient with them. The cross event was over three days: a day of visible agony, a day of hidden anguish, a day of joy. God is with you in whichever of those days you find yourself in. He is with you even if it feels like it has been a lifetime of unrelenting agony or anguish and tasting joy before being plunged back into despair doesn’t make you a failure. God is with you. He’s got you. He’s not letting you go. He loves you and he is proud of you. God is with you.