Extreme Scripture

ApostlePaulWikimediaCommonsI have to admit that I find it hard to agree with the writer of the second letter to Timothy that all scripture is inspired by God and useful for a variety of pious purposes, so when a couple of years ago one of the clergy at our cathedral came up with the phrase “extreme scripture” I was instantly intrigued. It’s the sort of passage, he said, that makes you look across at a colleague and roll your eyes when you have to read it in church. There are a lot of such passages in the lectionary, and since at the cathedral the morning and evening offices are said or sung publicly every day, there are plenty of opportunities for reading some of the less edifying passages of holy writ.

There’s plenty of the violent, the disturbing, and the plain weird (what on earth is going on in Exodus 4:24-6?) in the Old Testament. What Phyllis Trible calls ”the texts of terror” confront us with some very strange aspects of God and his chosen people. But there are things which give us pause in the New Testament too. OK, if we want we can leave the Book of Revelation strictly to the fundamentalists to play with, but even the gospels have their strange moments. The other Sunday the gospel reading at the Eucharist was the passage in John 6 where Jesus speaks about his followers eating his flesh and drinking his blood. We’re used to thinking of it figuratively as eucharistic, but it must have sounded utterly bizarre to Jesus’ first followers, as if he were inviting them to cannibalism. No wonder some of them walked away.

And then of course there are the passages in the letters of Paul and the other New Testament writers which make perfect sense as part of the worldview of devout Jews of the first century, but which for so many of us invite eye-rolling when we read them as Christians of the twenty-first century. These letters may indeed have been inspired by God, but they’ve certainly been coloured by the assumptions of the people who wrote them down, assumptions which are no longer valid for us.

But then perhaps this is what really does make scripture useful for studying and making our own; not just the passages which comfort or encourage or inspire, but the ones we have to wrestle with, the ones where we have to decide what on earth is going on: Is this divine or human? Extreme scripture may help us to open our eyes, as well as making us roll them.

  • Margaret Wilkins

“Have you anything here to eat?

WhyAreYouFrightenedWiki“Have you anything here to eat?

This is a meditation which centres on food. It owes more to Martha than to Mary, as I’m writing it in the throes of preparing lunch for friends. And these are not just any friends; the husband used to be a professional chef, and is a very good and imaginative cook indeed. I’m perfectly sure that he’ll eat whatever I set before him and be positive about it, but all the same, I want to get things right.

And this isn’t just because I want to try to impress him. I really want both of them to enjoy the meal, and to be able to sit there and eat it with them and relax while we talk over the food. Eating together is such an important thing; it draws us together and cements friendships, lays down memories of good times together and promises more good times to come. Eating with other people is powerful and significant.

The disciples must have spent so much of their lives with Jesus eating with him, feasting with him at the wedding with Cana, sharing whatever they could find while tramping along dusty roads from one town to another, gazing with astonishment at the never-ending supply of loaves and fishes by the lakeshore. This Sunday’s Gospel gives us an unexpected insight into the bonds that held them together.

There they are, not quite daring to believe that it’s their real, solid Lord, back from the dead, standing among them in the old familiar way. So Jesus does the most practical thing imaginable; he asks them for something to eat. What could be more normal and ordinary and completely human? Here he is, returned from the other side of death, eating with them as he’d done so many times before. Then they really believe at last, and he can talk to them freely.

I’d better get back to the kitchen, and get my tagine into the oven; it won’t be long before our guests arrive. Thanks be to God, who gives us food to enjoy and friends to enjoy it with – and his own Son, who died for our sake and rose again to be our friend as well as our Saviour.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

Happy Lent!

LentenFare_editedOn my cookery book shelf I’ve got a book of recipes for Lent and Fridays, dating from the 1950s. It’s more than a recipe book; it details Lenten customs and traditions, and the writer makes the point that until very recently most people didn’t have much choice of food in Lent. Not for them the astonishing abundance of food we take for granted all year round; before refrigeration and air transport, you had to eat whatever you could find locally, and at the tail end of winter there wasn’t a lot.

It makes me wonder whether this at least partly explains the mantle of communal gloom which seems to have descended on the Christian world during Lent in times past: theatres closed, opera banned, and when a nineteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury held a (no doubt very decorous) party during Lent there was a public outcry. Lent was expected to be dismal. A lot of people still see it as a time for giving things up rather than taking them up, a time to feel guilty if you’re still eating chocolate (and oh, do I agree with the last contributor to GPN!) or enjoying a glass of wine.

But aren’t we supposed to suffer with Jesus in the wilderness, after all? Well, a carefully undertaken fast (and I’m sure Jesus knew exactly how to do it) can bring great lightness and clarity after the first few uncomfortable days, and it was in those forty days in the desert that Jesus confronted and accepted his vocation and sent Satan packing. Most of us can’t go off into solitude for forty days to wait upon God, but we can decide to spend these days in paying as much attention to God as we can, to ask in the silence of our hearts what he wants of us, what it is in our lives he wants to heal, what it is that he wants to give us power to do for him and for our brothers and sisters, and all the ways he wants us to grow in his service.

Lent should surely be a time of growth, not of grim determination to stick it out until Easter, an inward growing into new life just as the natural world is opening up into new life and greenness as it turns towards the sun. Happy Lent!

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it

It's a long-standing (and dancing) tradition.

It’s a long-standing (and dancing) tradition.

On Monday evening I went to watch a pagan ritual. At least I think it was pagan, though it ended with Compline in the parish church.

No one knows how long the men of the village of Abbots Bromley, in the English midland county of Staffordshire, have been dancing the Horn Dance on a Monday in early September. The sets of horns they carry in the dances have been carbon-dated to the middle of the eleventh century, somewhere around the time of William the Conqueror’s invasion, and rather strangely seem to have been imported from somewhere in Scandinavia, as they’re reindeer horns. If you Google for “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” you’ll find a number of websites, but no explanation of this strange survival. (My theory is that it’s sympathetic magic, meant to ensure an autumn of good hunting before the winter closes in – but your guess is as good as mine.)

However it started, it’s now something of a tourist attraction, with the dancers moving along the long village street and dancing outside the pubs (all doing a roaring trade) before heading back to the green in the middle of the village for the final dance in the gathering dusk. And after that final dance, and a short rest, they take the horns back to the parish church of St Nicholas near the village green, where the vicar blesses them and they hang them up in the north aisle until next year. We went into the church to watch, as did many other spectators, and once the horns were hung up the vicar invited us all to stay for Compline – which, as he cheerfully remarked, goes even further back into history than the Horn Dance.

There’s something wonderfully warm and inclusive in the way Christianity can embrace older ideas, things that are rooted in our psyches and have been expressed in one way and another as long as human beings have existed. Magic to ward off a hungry winter ends up being blessed in the name of the God who knows all our needs, just as earlier Christians transformed a bunch of midwinter festivals into a celebration of the coming of the Light of the World.

Not all Christians are this generous; the Puritans found a remarkable number of old customs of which to disapprove. Some evangelical Christians are nervous of anything they think might just have links with the occult. I once had a conversation with an earnest woman who was worried that my batik skirt with a pattern of suns was disturbingly “New Age” She had obviously never heard of St Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures” with its outpouring of praise to God for Brother Sun, Sister Moon and all creation.

Right at the beginning of Christianity, St Paul had to deal with similarly worried people. There were the Christians of Colossae, who were being harassed by the excessively pious with cries of  “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:16-20) and there were the Christians of Corinth wondering how fussy they should be about the origins of the meat in the market. Don’t get anxious about it, says Paul, quoting Psalm 24, because the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.(I Cor !0: 23-31). We need not be fearful; we live in a world which God has created and redeemed, and there is nothing which cannot be brought into his light and made holy.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

The Christmas kitty

Lucinda, in boxWe had an early Christmas present a month or so ago, a little tuxedo cat who found her way into the house one frosty night in early December. When I got up in the  morning I heard a mewing that didn’t sound like any of the resident cats, looked for the source, and found her sitting in the corner of the box room next to our bedroom, shy but determined.

She plainly wasn’t a stray; she was glossy and had a blue collar, but when we offered her breakfast she wolfed it down and made short work of a couple of refills. At first we thought she was lost, but there was no identification on her collar and when we took her to the vet to be scanned for a microchip there wasn’t one. We put up advertisements with her photo and looked on lost cat websites, but no one claimed her and no one reported her missing.  In the meantime we observed that she wasn’t too well housetrained (though she soon sorted that out for herself once she got used to using the cat flap) and began to wonder if someone had acquired her, perhaps to please a child, but didn’t really know how to look after a cat – and had got tired of her and dumped her.

Wherever she came from, Lucinda is now part of the family. Apart from making the faux pas of chasing Felicity the Fierce, the next youngest of the cats, she’s settled in nicely, though Felicity now gets nervous at the sight of her and has totally lost her credibility as a Tough Kitty.  Feline dynamics change just as much as human ones when there’s a new arrival.

She came into our lives unsought and unexpected, but we’re delighted that one cold night she somehow negotiated the unfamiliar cat flap and took refuge with us. At the beginning of a new year, who knows what other new things lie in store? God’s gifts sometimes take us by surprise; instead of giving us what we ask, he has a way of dropping the unexpected into our lives and changing them in a way we’d never thought of.  May we all be open in the coming year to the gifts he has waiting for us.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

GPN: St. Chad’s Gospel

In the seventh century, the place where I live was part of the kingdom of Mercia: one of the patchwork of warring kingdoms into which England was then divided, it was a society of pagan Saxons.

In the second half of the century an unassuming missionary bishop came south from Northumbria and began his journeys round Mercia, walking its roads and tracks, preaching, talking to the people he met, and baptising an increasing number of converts. St Chad’s mission was a brief one, cut short by his death, but his gentleness and humility seem to have been what tipped the balance for Christianity in Mercia and led to the conversion of the kingdom.

In 700, some three decades after his death, one of his successors built a shrine over his tomb in the town of Lichfield, not far from the royal court at Tamworth and a few miles from Watling Street, one of the great roads the Romans drove through the forests and marshes of Britannia. It became a centre of pilgrimage, and the buildings on the site grew successively larger and more magnificent, culminating in the Gothic splendour of Lichfield Cathedral.

We recently went to the choral eucharist there, unaware before we arrived that it was the cathedral’s feast of dedication, the annual commemoration of the founding of that first shrine. It was a dignified and joyful service, with music by the cathedral’s fine choir and a thoughtful sermon by the Dean – but the really memorable thing about it was the St Chad Gospel, a copy of the gospels which was probably written for the original shrine around 730. This Sunday it was carried into the cathedral instead of the normal Gospel book. As choir and clergy processed in, the Dean carried the open book aloft, smaller than it looks in its case in the chapter house, , and grey and worn from centuries of use, but a tangible sign of the continuity of the Christian community in that place.

The monks who wrote that Gospel, and the clergy who read from it in the shrine church in the little Saxon town, didn’t seem very far away from us that morning. As November approaches and we look forward to the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, it’s good to feel our brothers and sisters who’ve gone before us close at hand. Those who have died in the past year or so, whom we remember vividly and lovingly, and those who died centuries ago in other lands and other cultures – all are held together with us in God’s love in the communion of saints.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

You can leaf (virtually) through the St Chad Gospel yourself at Lichfield Cathedral’s website.  

Sacred or profane?

I’m a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, the Anglican Franciscans, and at around this time every year I get a form from our Area Guardian asking me for a brief spiritual report. It enquires if I’ve been to the local and area meetings this year, if I’ve seen my spiritual director (alas, I still haven’t acquired one), if I’ve been on retreat, and its final question is, “Has any one thing impacted on your life in the past year?”

Well, yes, it has, I thought, as I scanned the form; it’s been the move from our parish church to Lichfield Cathedral. A series of unpleasant incidents at the church made us feel that we really had to leave, and it was a very painful and difficult time. While we were considering where else we could worship we thought we’d go to the Cathedral, only a few miles away, and enjoy the music there without getting involved.

But we were made welcome, people talked to us over coffee, and it didn’t take long to realise that we felt at home there. So we’ve stayed, and are finding it so much more intellectually and spiritually stimulating than our former church that what we experienced as a disaster a year ago God has turned into a real blessing.

So that seems the obvious thing to put on the form; but then I thought again, because the other major event of the past year has been the redesigning of our kitchen. We inherited a cramped, badly planned kitchen when we bought this house, and over the years it became more and more cluttered and uncomfortable. Finally we nerved ourselves to ask our friendly builder about putting in a new one, chose the fittings, had it designed, endured four weeks of banging and drilling and dust, and now have the most beautiful light, bright kitchen, which feels about twice the size of the old one. Every morning when I come downstairs I look at it and think how much I like it. It’s a joy to be in and a pleasure to work in, and it’s changed my attitude towards cooking and entertaining. And that too is a blessing.

So which do I pick to put on the form – the blessing which has made me feel closer to God, or the blessing which has made me more eager to offer hospitality to others? I still can’t decide; and after all it isn’t a question of sacred or profane, because Jesus puts the two commandments, to love God and to love one’s neighbour, together. Perhaps I just need to answer that question in the smallest possible writing and include both.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins


Life and death in the garden

When we moved into this house twenty years ago there was a eucalyptus tree in the back garden, just opposite the kitchen window, a tall, feathery, graceful  thing, whose light branches filtered the sunshine without blocking it out. Over the years it grew taller, and it became obvious that it was too near the house for comfort. My husband wanted to get rid of it; I defended it. We compromised and lopped the top off, but it just grew back, taller than ever.

Until  this year. It became obvious in early summer that there was something wrong; its pale green leaves dried up and turned yellow. By the end of the summer it was obvious that it had died. I googled to try to find out what had happened to it, but all I found is that it’s a tree which is generally resistant to disease. Our neighbour thinks that our last bitter winter might have killed it, as it has done a couple of trees in his garden.

Whatever it was, it was plainly dead, and so yesterday our one-day-a-week gardener Simon did a heroic job of lopping of its branches and reducing it to a fifteen-foot-high stump, to be dealt with next week. It feels very odd looking at it from the kitchen window.

But before he tackled the eucalyptus, Simon repaired our compost bin, just by the old pear tree which hasn’t produced any fruit for at least ten years. I took his morning mug of tea out to him there and while we were talking I noticed something on the grass at my feet. It was a pear, absolutely perfect, undamaged by insects, which had fallen from the tree. Simon had pruned it hard earlier in the year, and after all this time it had started to produce fruit again.

We stared up into its branches but couldn’t see any more pears among the leaves – but when Simon came in at the end of the afternoon he brought another pear in with him. So there are probably more, and I shall go out and look later in the day.

I shall miss the eucalyptus, and I grieve for its death.  But I’m thrilled by the new life in the old pear tree, and intrigued by the thought that it was hard pruning which made it bear fruit again.

It’s all too easy to draw simplistic parallels with human life, and sometimes prolonged hard times can seem to kill the human spirit just as effectively as last winter killed our eucalyptus, but sometimes  tough things in our lives  can have a surprising effect in helping up bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, and we can say with the psalmist, “The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death”

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

After the riots

We’ve had riots before in the United Kingdom, local outbreaks fuelled by tensions within a community that suddenly reach breaking point.   These were different.

They started in a standard way:  a man was shot by the police in North London, a group of local people staged a peaceful protest, other people with less peaceful intentions used it as an excuse for a disturbance – and then it spread.  It spread across London, not just to poorer parts of the capital but to more affluent areas, and it turned from rioting into looting and general destruction.  And then it spread still further, to other English towns and cities.

We weren’t directly affected by it in our town but other places within a few miles had their shops looted and vandalised. People I knew were affected; friends coming to dinner from one of the affected areas cancelled in case they met trouble on their way. Places I know well suffered – the pleasant London suburb where I used to go shopping with my parents when I was small, an area ten minutes’ walk from where I used to live in Bristol, the centre of Birmingham.

And now of course we have the hangover, politicians talking about the breakdown of traditional values, and the sad procession of erstwhile rioters through the courts.  Some are unemployed, bored, frustrated young people with little outlet for their energy. Some are children. Some are adults with families and responsible jobs.  Some were turned in by their parents, some turned themselves in because they were so ashamed next day of being caught up in the looting. Surprisingly severe penalties are being handed out for offences that in other cases might be treated quite leniently, especially when it’s a first offence.

And of course there are the victims, people who’ve lost their homes and their businesses, and those who died – one man beaten to death when he tried to put out a fire that looters had started, three men mown down by a car as they tried to protect their community.

I’ve been trying, along I suppose with most of the rest of the population, to make some sense of it all, but I haven’t really got very far. Still less have I managed to make any theological sense out of it. I don’t know where God was in this orgy of violence and destruction and pillaging. I don’t know what possessed people to join in, and neither, it seems, do many of those who did. A psychologist on the radio suggested that it was the feeling of power, of being part of a crowd which could do whatever it wanted, that drew people in.

And yet there is light shining in the darkness. Almost as soon as the looters had swept through, people in the areas affected turned out en masse to clear up the mess and support the victims.  The father of one of the men run over in Birmingham, a devout Muslim, appealed for peace and reconciliation instead of retaliation, and his message has been heard.

I think we’ve all been shocked and sobered, and perhaps – just perhaps, nothing more – the riots will  prove to be the first step towards a better and more humane society.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me”

Not long ago my husband and I came back from Taiwan, where we attended a conference and then spent a few days travelling and exploring on our own.

It’s strange being in a country where one can’t even read the signs on shops. I’ve managed to memorise all of five Chinese characters – only 1995 to go, I believe, until I can read a Chinese newspaper.

So we were functionally illiterate, but it didn’t really matter as we were surrounded by so much hospitality. At the university where the conference was held we were attended by a bevy of English-speaking students  ready to help us in every possible way, and on the tour of the island that the university organised after the conference everything was laid on for us.

The first afternoon of the tour we spent in Matou, a town in the south of the island, where we were taken to three Taoist temples, two quite simple local ones and a third rather spectacular one.  At the first two we were given plates of fresh tropical fruit, and at all of them a sort of sweet drink with bits of jelly (and at the last temple beans as well) floating in it. It sounds odd but it was delicious on a hot humid afternoon.

The first temple presented us with masks and calligraphy, the second put on a traditional dance performance by members, and the third  produced a speaker who gave us an outline of Chinese religion in Taiwan. And then we went to the house of an artist who makes figures of the gods for temples as well as other sculptures. We got fed even more there – a sort of bread pudding, and tea-flavoured jelly. So that night’s dinner was cancelled, and we all retreated exhausted to our rooms.

We were happy to be strangers in a strange land, unable to speak the language or read the signs, and dependent on others for help. We were there to enjoy ourselves, tourists with cool comfortable hotel rooms to go to at the end of the day and tickets to fly home at the end of our visit.

But around the world, there are thousands upon thousands of other strangers in strange lands, people who are there because they’ve fled from war or famine or persecution in their own countries, people who don’t want to be there, who just want to go home one day, people who often have no money to buy even the basics of life in a foreign land.

Too often our reaction to the stranger in our midst, the one who doesn’t speak our language or know our customs, is one of suspicion or rejection. Jesus himself was born far from home, in a strange town where Joseph and Mary received an uncertain welcome, and when he speaks of welcoming the stranger at the end of Matthew 25 he includes it among providing such basic necessities of life as food and drink and clothing.   Are we ready to welcome in his name the stranger, the outsider, the  person who isn’t like us?

– Margaret Z. Wilkins