‘The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other, is by music. When I would form in my mind an idea of a society in the highest degree happy, I think of them as expressing their love, their joy, and the inward concord and harmony and spiritual beauty of their souls by sweetly singing [or making other such music] to each other’.
– Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 13: The “Miscellanies” (Entry Nos. a–z, aa–zz, 1–500), ed. Thomas A. Schafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 331.
O my white-burdened Europe, across so many maps greed zigzags. One voice and the nightmare of a dominant chord: defences, self-mirroring, echoings, myriad overtones of shame. Never again one voice. Out of malaise, out of need our vision cries.
Turmoil of change, our slow renaissance. All things share one breath. We listen: clash and resolve, webs and layers of voices. And which voice dominates or is it chaos? My doubting earthling, tiny among the planets does a lover of one voice hear more or less?
Infinities of space and time. Melody fragments; a music of compassion, noise of enchantment. Among the inner parts something open, something wild, a long rumour of wisdom keeps winding into each tune: cantus firmus, fierce vigil of contingency, love’s congruence.
– Micheal O’Siadhail, ‘Motet’, in The Chosen Garden (Dublin: The Dedalus Press, 1990), 82.
Martin Schleske lives just outside of Munich. From the age of 7, he studied the violin, then violinmaking, and then physics, completing his thesis on the topic ‘Eigenmodes of vibration in the creation of a violin’. Today he is one of the most highly respected violinmakers in the world. In his book Der Klang, first published in 2010, Schleske describes the ways that the violinmaker must yield to the composition of the wood before they can begin to reshape it into a violin’s body. To find that right wood – the best ‘singer trunks’ – Schleske would often spend months on end seeking the truest tree by tapping on them with a tuning fork. The violinmaker chooses seasoned timber – trees formed by rough weather, winds, and meagre ground, and where the knots and cracks add to rather than subtract from the character of the wood. Such trees, as Jim Gordon noted, bear witness to the resilience and to the kind of elasticity required to create the curved sides that the best violins call for. They witness to the possibility of lives lived ‘without pressure warping [their] integrity’; of lives that ‘bear stress without splitting’; of lives that ‘survive intact and strong’ through the seasons of life. So Schleske:
A good violin builder respects the texture of the wood and under their fingers feels the character, the solidity and density. This shows the builder both the possibilities and the limits of the wood. Each of this wood’s quirks and characteristics has an influence on the sound it will bring forth.
It is nature’s cruelty that shapes the best-sounding wood. As Schleske puts it: ‘every hardship the tree experiences, make the roots go deeper and the structural fibres stronger’. The best-sounding wood is discovered not made, and after being cut down is then stored for many years in the artist’s workshop where the heat and humidity levels are carefully monitored, until such time as it is ready to be shaped into the body of a violin. Here is where the true work of the craftsperson comes to the fore, for the best violin makers are those who resist the temptation to force their own perceptions, or forms, or laws onto the wood through being fixated on some ‘ideal’ or ‘right’ shape. Instead, they see something else; they follow the wisdom given in the timber’s own history as it is carried in the wood’s fibres, honouring what is crooked, exercising care to not cut in the wrong places or a direction that would dishonour the grain, and knowing both the possibilities and the limits of the material in their hands. The goal, after all, is to so form the instrument that it sings with its own voice. What makes it an act of loving creation is that it is not the wood that capitulates to the artist, but the artist who consents to the wood. It is the difference between forcing an agenda and living with a promise, between subjection and interlocution, between working upon and working with.
(He’s tricked me before with his manifold lurking-places.)
I looked for His symbol at the door.
I have looked for a long while
at the textures and contours.
I have run a hand over the trivial intersections.
I have journeyed among the dead forms
causation projects from pillar to pylon.
I have tired the eyes of the mind
regarding the colours and lights.
I have felt for His Wounds
in nozzles and containers.
I have wondered for the automatic devices.
I have tested the inane patterns
I have been on my guard
not to condemn the unfamiliar
For it is easy to miss Him
at the turn of a civilization.
I have watched the wheels go round in case I might see the living creatures like the appearance of lamps, in case I might see the Living God projected from the Machine. I have said to the perfected steel, be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I felt some beginnings of His creature, but A, a, a, Domine Deus, my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible crystal a stage-paste … Eia, Domine Deus.
– David Jones, ‘A, a, a, Domine Deus’, in The Sleeping Lord, and Other Fragments (London: Faber & Faber, 1974), 9.
‘Cameras miniaturize experience, transform history into spectacle. As much as they create sympathy, photographs cut sympathy, distance the emotions. Photography’s realism creates a confusion about the real which is (in the long run) analgesic morally as well as (both in the long and in the short run) sensorially stimulating. … Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation. Through the camera people become customers or tourists of reality. … Bringing the exotic near, rendering the familiar and homely exotic, photographs make the entire world available as an object of appraisal. … The reason that humanism has become the reigning ideology of ambitious professional photographers – displacing formalist justifications of their quest for beauty – is that it masks the confusions about truth and beauty underlying the photographic enterprise’.
– Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), 98, 100.
I have a new essay out: ‘“Live Bread for the Starved Folk”: Some Perspectives on Holy Communion’. Ecclesiology 18, no. 1 (2022): 57–77.
The Abstract reads:
This essay argues that ecclesial existence involves learning to view the world and to move in it in ways informed by the Christian community’s sacramental practices. Of particular concern here is the practice of Holy Communion. This looking and moving is not about one thing; it is rather about many things. Frequently, such discussions are exhausted by fruitless debates about the metaphysics of the elements, or strangled by concerns to defend certain prescriptive practices or shibboleths. This essay is unconcerned with these matters. Instead, it brings together some observations about the practices of the Lord’s Supper with a range of themes representative of commitments shared by Christian communities broadly – people, God, stories, hospitality, power, catholicity, martyrdom, and hope – with the intention of provoking a thicker assessment of eucharistic modes of being in the world, and promoting practices marked by the kinds of imaginative freedom that the gospel instigates.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body …..love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’, in Dream Work (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986).
The video, taken on Yalukit Willam country, was shot by me on 13 February, 2022.
‘The evidence is everywhere that native speakers of English no longer understand their own language, and no longer bother to try. They no longer require of it anything more than practical communication; as in the rest of their lives, they demand of their language mainly efficiency and informality and velocity. And if this is the case with our own language, how much could we understand of anyone else’s? And how, absent years of dedicated scholarship, could books from other contexts be read or understood? Much advocacy of translation relied on the idea that it was enough to bring a foreign text into our language, and serious readers would do the hard work of diving deeply. But one risk of emphasizing works in translation was never spoken: that a smattering of Polish or Yoruba or Chinese books would be playing into the same vogue for novelty, for passing sensations and transient enthusiasms — for multicultural sanctimony — that was undermining every other area of our cultural and social life.
There is nothing wrong with reading a book from a culture that one does not know well, but I do not understand the insistence that in itself this is a positive good. It depends on the book; it depends on the reader. And it strikes me that, after years of following these debates, I rarely heard a justification beyond “diversity”: an unanswerable concept that dispensed with other justifications — artistic, scientific, scholarly, spiritual — for translation. It was harmless to enjoy Swedish crime novels or Elena Ferrante, but such enjoyment no more implied a familiarity with Scandinavian or Italian literature than enjoying Mexican food denotes a familiarity with Mexican culture.
Translation without context can be a form of consumerism, of tokenism, of — dare I say it? — “cultural appropriation.” The real problem with “cultural appropriation” is that it does not appropriate deeply enough. Clarice Lispector called Brazilians “fake cosmopolitans,” and the term seems uncomfortably appropriate to us: people forever dipping in and out of cultures they hardly understand. By expanding into too many other worlds, we have sacrificed depth in our own, and cut ourselves off from what was particular, and profound, about us’.
I am thrilled to announce that the manuscript for Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology, which I’ve been editing with Rod Pattenden, is now in the hands of the publishers. Updated details here.
Ross Langmead once suggested that to be human is to ‘find ourselves in the middle of a cosmic story’. He was, it seems, on a perpetual journey to discern and to celebrate the spirit of life in all things. And he discerned that spirit in communities, in movements of justice, in solidarity with the poor, in creation’s hope-filled and determined persistence and wonder, and in the life and teaching of Jesus, God’s ever-new Word among us.
Much of Ross’s life and work recalls commitments expressed also in the life and work of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, someone whom Ross liked to read and to cite. In particular, it was their shared conviction that ‘God’ – ever irreducible to a single name or principle, and never impounded by any particular religion – is never present in general; never simply ‘out there’. Rather, God is always present for and in God’s creatures, every one, in concrete ways – as grace, as care, as kindness, as light, as troubling and healing water, as ‘mystery of servant love’. ‘We are not alone’. This is to recall that Ross’s life was grounded in the twin-conviction that God is not a Christian, and that the western-centric nature of Christian theology that dominates ecclesial life and that of theological academies in Australia has both hidden and distorted divine revelation that is at work in every human culture, and, indeed, in all creation.
Inspired by the courageous work of Latin American liberation theologians and those theologies emerging from the ‘womb’ of Asia, Ross came to the conviction that a church preoccupied with its own welfare, security, and self-perpetuation is something quite other than that community that is a sign of God’s self-emptying life in the world. And, like Bonhoeffer, he came to the unshakeable conviction that the church is the church only when it exists for others.
There are, in fact, only two questions worth asking in theology – ‘Who (or what) is God?’ and ‘So what?’. Ross’s work bears the marks of these two questions, and finds their commonality in the language and praxis of mission, which is ‘the mother of theology’ (Martin Kähler). As Ross once put it: theological education should be ‘missiological to the core’. Missiology is, therefore, neither a theological hobby horse nor an addendum to theological work. It is theology at its crux – concerned with the life of God as God, with the life of the world as world, and with the vocation of a community made to celebrate, interrogate, and participate in the encounter which is the God–world partnership. Moreover, it is theology that can be sung, and embodied. Indeed, it must be, lest it perpetuate a lie. So Ross did a lot of both, and this deep conviction emboldened him to develop what he called ‘a mission heart in … curriculum praxis’.
I reckon Alison Langmead summed it all up very well when she wrote in the book’s Foreword:
This book’s account of Ross’s life reveals an authentic journey into how learning to trust and to participate in [God’s] great love, can play out in a single lifetime: how his early childhood in Hong Kong prepared him for an expanded world view; how he looked at and worked with the questions of life through study, practical exploration, writing, friendship, teaching, singing, and research; how he encouraged others to grapple together with the many challenges of life, taking time out to consider, to learn, to pray, and to act with courage; how working with unemployed youth and exploring the multicultural needs of a municipality could shape his theology of being the church in the world and ground his future work as a missiologist; how he consulted professionals as he tried to face the truths of his own issues; how songwriting could open the windows of the soul when other things could not; and how others have felt the benefit of having known him.
It is, however, really important for readers to remember that this is not Ross’s book. In fact, I’m not sure how Ross would have felt about the whole project; possibly quite embarrassed. It is, rather, Jeanette’s book, Jeanette’s story. Each of us will have our own memories about Ross. Some of those memories will be stirred by those recollections captured here in this story, beautifully told. Good stories do that.
Living for Shalom is a biography that walks carefully somewhere between Ross’s private and public worlds, and between the recollections of both the researcher herself and those with whom she has had exchange during the course of her research; not an easy task, but one that Jeannete pulls off admirably. Of course, Jeanette’s work on this book was assisted greatly by the generosity of those she interviewed – who responded to her survey, who kindly shared with Jeanette their own reflections and pictures of Ross, who answered her many questions, and who, along the way, widened the research pool. Moreover, Jeanette had the enviable and remarkable twin-benefit and burden that her subject appears to have never done anything much that he didn’t write down. His detailed diaries, journals, letters, notebooks, articles, academic writings, and songs mark the research gathered here in this volume.
What began with a tentative question to herself and with a hesitant email to a sister-in-law resulted in a well-researched story written with a clarity, order, and precision befitting Ross’s own work. Of course, like any good biography, Living for Shalom teaches us about much more than only its main subject, and here readers are given rich and lively insights and snapshots: about growing up as a missionary kid in a Salvationist family; about the challenges, costs, and risks associated with sustaining Christian activism; about the shape of love in private and public life; about the insanity, character, costliness, and desired ends of theological education, not least in places like Nagaland; about how to carefully tread a path through the fears and expectations of others while maintaining your own integrity as a researcher, biographer, and person with a living faith; about the face of poverty and the possibilities of its concrete overcoming; about leaving home, and about just how complicated leaving home can be; about the difficult and painful questions of Aboriginal and migrant identities that sit like cancer on the heart for the quest for a just Australia living with the invitation for ‘a fuller expression of [its] nationhood’; about the radical (and Salvationist) roots of the Westgate Baptist Community, roots evident only in Ross but also in many other Westgaters; about the life of Christian communities in Melbourne from the first Prime-ministership of Robert Menzies through to Julia Gillard’s (another Westie!) last days in the same unenviable job, set against the backdrop of music played by the likes of The Seekers and Bob Dylan, and against the terrifying screams of the Vietnam War and of the jungles of the Thai–Burma border, violent howls that show no signs of petering out and where even here hope manages to find a way against all the odds.
We all responded to and coped with Melbourne’s long and multiple lockdowns in different ways. Jeanette Woods used that time to write a beautiful book about her brother and then gifted it to us all. For that, we are much in her debt.
This reflection is part of something that I had prepared to share at the launch of Jeanette’s book. Unfortunately, the launch needed to be cancelled.
‘Hating bodies is a form of self-hatred and leads to hatred of others, human and (non-human) animal. Hating what you yourself are is already pointless and makes for unhappiness. But it is worse still when we know that projective disgust is almost certain to follow. Body-haters are bound to find some surrogate for the animal, the bodily, in themselves, whether it be a racial group, a gender or sexual group, or the aging, who come in for a tremendous amount of body-hatred all over the world.
One particularly significant reason to avoid the projective form of body-hatred is the way it has distorted and poisoned our relationship to the other animals …
With the fiction of the incorporeal driving a wedge between us and all other animal species, we can all the more nonchalantly treat them as if they were nothing. Since I think our torture and exploitation of other animals is a great moral evil, I would like to point out that things would almost certainly not have reached the present stage of cruelty and neglect but for our lies about who we are — our erroneous view that we are not their fellows and family members, but some spiritual stuff floating around somewhere, in or with a body but essentially not of it.
However. However. One big reason to despise the body remains: it is mortal and vulnerable, it is the very seat of our mortality. All the other things that disgust us are not so much “animal reminders” as “pain-and-death reminders.” What is found ugly and disgusting is, first, pain; and, second, death and decay, and whatever reminds us of them. The fiction of the incorporeal is above all a fiction of (painless) immortality. Socrates’ friends surround him in prison, mourning his imminent demise. You are mistaken, he says cheerfully. The real me will not die, because it is not bodily at all, but an incorporeal substance merely trapped in the body. The students cheer up — and those that do not, including Socrates’s wife, are made to leave the room’.
Creatives leading the way at the Koala Funeral March, which took place earlier today at Catani Gardens in St Kilda, Narrm/Melbourne. The event was a wonderful collaboration between Extinction Rebellion and designer Ian Bracegirdle (and his Motherworks workshop).
This is an affectionate, inspiring, and fluently written account of the life of Ross Langmead, a dedicated and infectious teacher and leader who turned many things upside down. It’s also a striking witness to the redemptive power of the love song that moves the earth toward healing, reconciliation, and wholeness. Very few people could have written this book. That Jeanette Woods has done so has helped us to see—see more and more—what we have loved in and learned from this good mate of a carpenter’s son
‘People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread into the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the young people. And we got off pretty lightly. People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could. There was talk that the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have.
The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared. Most of them took me to mean they were spared the trenches and the mustard gas, but what I really meant was that they were spared the act of killing. It was just like a biblical plague, just exactly. I thought of Sennacherib.
It was a strange sickness – I saw it over at Fort Riley. Those boys were drowning in their own blood. They couldn’t even speak for the blood in their throats, in their mouths. So many of them died so fast there was no place to put them, and they just stacked the bodies in the yard. I went over there to help out, and I saw it myself. They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right here in Iowa. Now, if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like.
I have a new wee essay out: ‘The Powers of Death: Recognition, Resistance, Resurrection’. Jurnal Jaffray 19, no. 1 (2021): 1–26. [pdf]
The Abstract reads:
This essay is an invitation to examine the powers of death, particularly the modes by which such powers are manifested in the world, modes that relate to but are irreducible to an individual’s life. It considers contributions to the subject from Karl Barth, Walter Wink, and William Stringfellow, among others, to argue that while death and its associated powers are pervasive, they are also penultimate realities. The powers of death meet their end in Jesus Christ. The gospel concerning Jesus Christ is the invitation to live as if such a claim were true, to recognise one for whom death is not foreign territory and in whom death is confronted and its powers brought to nought. It is the invitation to a life in which resistance to the powers of death is possible. It is the invitation to live a life characterised by resurrection.
[Image: Max Böhme, Los Angeles, CA, USA, 20 June, 2019 | Unsplash]
Isaiah 40:21–31;Psalm 147; 1 Corinthians 9:16–23; Mark 1:29–39
The Jesus of the Gospels is not the Jesus we’ve imagined. We’ve learned to picture him as nice and wholesome; approachable, never aloof; a marvellous wonder-worker and a simple – and, most importantly, politically-neutral – teacher of simple truths. But, in fact, the Jesus of the Gospels is a difficult, demanding figure, a troubled and troubling presence.
In Mark’s Gospel, especially, Jesus is mystifyingly odd and volatile; tense as a chord waiting to be struck. As Mark tells it, Jesus is usually met with one or another of three responses: the crowds are enthralled; the priests and Pharisees are upset (mostly by his influence over the crowds); and the disciples are devoted. But all these responses are rooted in profound confusion and misapprehension. The disciples are conflicted (impressed, like the crowds, but even more disturbed than the religious leaders). And Mark apparently believes that this conflictedness is precisely what Jesus intended for them – and for us – all along.
Mark’s was likely the first of the four Gospels to have been written (between thirty and forty years after Jesus was executed). It opens without a lengthy preface or genealogy. Instead, readers are given a terse, politically-charged title – ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ – , then presented with a montage of events from the first days of his ministry: Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by the wildly eccentric prophet, John, and driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he outwits and outlasts Satan. After John is arrested, he launches his ministry, coming to Galilee – not Jerusalem, not Jericho, Galilee – to declare his message: history has at last come full term, and the reign of God (another politically-charged term) is crowning, ready to be born. From that point, Jesus calls a band of disciples, beginning with four fishermen: Simon and Andrew, James and John. (Hilariously, when he calls, they immediately abandon their work – and their fellow-workers!) And in his first act, in Capernaum, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus teaches in the synagogue and saves a man from an unclean spirit. The crowds are amazed. And Jesus’ fame begins to spread.
Today’s reading picks up with Jesus having left the synagogue and the adoring crowds, and following his disciples to Simon’s house. There, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law immediately, without prayer or ceremony. The news of his exploits again spreads quickly. By sunset, the house is thronged: ‘the whole city was gathered around the door’. Deep into the night, Jesus works to heal the sick and deliver the oppressed. In the morning, he escapes into the desert to pray. His disciples hunt him down, urging him to return with them: ‘Everyone is searching for you’. He ignores them. They have to leave Capernaum, he says, because his message must be shared with the neighbouring villages, as well.
Mark is an exceptional storyteller, a master of suggestive detail. Earlier in this opening chapter, he tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in a single thrilling sentence: ‘He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him’. The reference to the wilderness and the forty days draws up from the deeps of our memories the stories of Moses and Elijah. The detail about the wild beasts suggests Jesus is the Last Adam, the one who comes to heal the sick creation, ‘to make the blessing flow as far as the curse is found’. The reference to the ministering angels summons the story of Jacob’s vision of the ladder, revealing that Christ is the hidden site of God’s sudden inbreaking in the dark.
Given Mark’s skill, we should be careful not ignore the details in today’s passage, even the smallest ones. We’re told the people brought to Jesus everyone in the village who was ill or oppressed atsundown. This is a reference not to the end of the day, but to its beginning. Remember the liturgical refrain in the creation story: ‘the evening and the morning were the first day’. This reference also recalls the story of the Exodus: Israel goes out from Egypt at sundown, the beginning of the new day. We’re told that after Jesus healed many of them (but perhaps not all?), he left in the early morning, ‘while it was still very dark’, to pray in a ‘deserted place’. We’re told that his disciples had to hunt for him. All of these details anticipate the end of the Gospel, and the end of Jesus’s life. On the cross, he becomes the deserted place, dying alone under the thickest darkness, crying out after a Father he can no longer find. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me’. Perhaps the most important detail in today’s passage, however, is his silencing of the evil spirits: ‘he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him’. Jesus, Mark wants us to know, is guarding a secret.
Again and again in the Gospel, Jesus forbids his disciples and the crowds, including those he has healed, from speaking about who he is and what he has done. But he is bizarrely inconsistent. For whatever reason, he sometimes does allow or even require the demons or those he has healed to speak. At the beginning of chapter 5, for example, he delivers the man who had been known as Legion – perhaps a former solider, a Roman legionnaire, now haunted by the horrors of war. Jesus allows the platoon of demons to speak, and even demands that they name themselves. Then, he commands the healed man to return home and to share his story with his friends. But at the end of the same chapter, on the opposite shore, Jesus returns to his usual pattern. He raises a synagogue ruler’s daughter from the dead, and then strictly forbids the few who have witnessed it from speaking about it to anyone. What is Jesus doing? Is there a method in his madness?
If we read uncarefully, it may seem Jesus did this because he wanted to keep ‘outsiders’ from knowing his identity and mission. But closer reading shows this cannot be his intention. Mark’s Gospel is split into two parts. The hinge is Peter’s confession (in chapter 8). In that exchange, after asking what the crowds are saying, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And Peter, the only one of the disciples to risk a response, answers, ‘You are the Messiah!’ In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus praises Peter for this answer. But in Mark, Jesus offers no praise. He simply orders Peter and the others not to breath a word to anyone. From this point, however, Jesus begins to speak openly about his mission, Mark tell us. And as soon as he does, Peter rebukes him, and takes him aside to correct him. So, Mark confronts us with a hard truth: those who know Jesus best are the first to deny him, to interfere with his mission. Insiders, not outsiders, are the ones who need to be saved – precisely because they think they understand the secret that has been shared with them, because they think that the secret is theirs to use.
The controversies about the various endings of Mark’s Gospel tell the same story. Originally, the Gospel almost certainly ended at 16:8: ‘So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’. But (unsurprisingly) the first readers were frightened by this ending, so scrupulous scribes added verses to bring the Gospel to a lighter, less disturbing end. Before we rush to judgment, however, we have to ask ourselves if we aren’t sometimes tempted to do the same. To tidy up what God has left messy. To touch up God’s unfinished work.
The Gospel won’t let us forget: God works in the dark. But we are afraid of the dark. And perhaps also afraid of God. So, we are desperate for light – even artificial light – if only it will clear away the shadows.
Rowan Williams argues that the Gospel of Mark was written ‘to reinforce a faith in the God who does not step down from heaven to solve problems but who is already in the heart of the world, holding the suffering and the pain in himself and transforming it by the sheer indestructible energy of his mercy’. And that, Williams believes, is why what Jesus says and does in the Gospel is so shocking and bewildering. Jesus works miracles, for sure. But he does so in ways that make clear miracles are decidedly beside the point. Jesus teaches. But he does so mostly so his hearers – especially his disciples – will not understand. Why? If we trust him, and if we trust Mark, we must assume there is no other way for us to learn the truths we need to learn.
Williams get this exactly right, I believe:
Jesus in Mark’s Gospel appears as someone wrestling with the difficulty of communicating to the disciples things that there are no proper words for – communicating that they have to think again about how God works, and to prepare themselves for greater and greater shocks in understanding this. I’m tempted to think that perhaps one reason why Mark’s Gospel has in it very little teaching of the sort we find in Matthew or Luke is that Mark not only wants to draw our attention away from miracles, he even wants to draw our attention away from conventional teaching. He wants to tell a story and present situations that bring us up short. He doesn’t want us to go away discussing the interesting ideas that Jesus has or the poignant stories he tells. He wants you to focus on the person of Jesus and on the relation you might have with him, knowing that only so does the radical change come about … So it makes some sense that this is a Gospel full of secrets, silences and even misunderstandings, a Gospel which on every page carries a very strongly worded health warning to the reader: Don’t think you’ve got it yet!
Perhaps this is where some of us have gone wrong? We’ve imagined that knowing Jesus is an easy affair. We’ve imagined that the truth is simple, and that the truer something is, the simpler it is. We’ve imagined that God’s work is always obvious. And we’ve imagined that we know the secrets of our own hearts, and that we can therefore always be trusted with the truth. But we need God to save us from what we’ve imagined. We need to be saved not so much from darkness, but from our fear of it, and our use of false lights.
The other readings today teach the same truth: Isaiah, in a familiar passage, declares ‘The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless’. But the prophet immediately insists ‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength’. God’s power is unlimited and his strength inexhaustible. And precisely for that reason, God does not do everything at once. And what he does do, he always only does in ways true to our creatureliness, never violating the integrity of our freedom, or our responsibility. We might be tempted to think that because God is all-powerful, we should not have to wait for his will to be done. But if Jesus’ life reveals anything it’s that God’s power is not at all the power we would’ve imagined for a God. It is not violent, but generative, working precisely in our waiting, in our powerlessness. As the Apostle Paul comes to learn late in his life, God’s strength is made perfect in our weaknesses.
The Psalm for the day, Psalm 147, celebrates God’s infinite power and perfect wisdom, but concludes with a song to God’s slow work: ‘He covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the earth; He makes grass to grow upon the mountains and green plants to serve mankind. He provides food for flocks and herds and for the young ravens when they cry’. Once again, then, we are reminded that God’s power is revealed not so much in the miraculous and extraordinary, but in the natural, the unremarkable. Grace, as a rule, comes not in dramatic interventions from above, but secretly, from deep within the dark recesses of our hearts. God creates in us an ‘inner creative fire’ that slowly lights up our lives from the inside, spreading out from us to our neighbours – without us intending it, or even being aware that it is happening. This is why, in today’s Epistle, Paul insists that ministry requires becoming ‘weak with the weak’ (rather than trying to make them strong). He is ‘free with respect to all’, freed with God’s own freedom. And for that very reason he can care for anyone in any way they need. His reward, he says, is not to have to make use of his ‘rights’.
This is good news, even if it does not seem like it at first. Jesus, Mark insists, is difficult. But his difficulty is good for us, essential to us becoming ourselves in time. God does not force this difficulty on us in order to humiliate us. Never that. Instead, God intends to free us from the fear of humiliation, which controls so much of what we do and fail to do. In Orwell’s famous short-story, a white police officer kills a Burmese elephant, even though he knows he should not do it. He kills it precisely because he cannot imagine who he is if he is not playing the part of the ‘strong white man’ before the crowds of so-called ‘natives’. He has a moment of almost-clarity, realizing that if he decided not to kill the elephant, ‘the crowd would laugh at me’. He admits to himself that his whole life in Burma, like the life of any colonizer, has been ‘one long struggle not to be laughed at’. And he realizes, or almost realizes, that he has been wearing a mask and that his face has grown to fit it. Jesus, Mark assures us, wants to strip our masks away so our faces can find their true shape.
Mark’s Gospel ends with the disciples paralyzed in fear. The women flee the empty tomb terrified and speechless. But we do not need to be afraid. Bonhoeffer taught his students that the aim of ministry is to make it possible for others to pray. And today’s reading shows us Jesus at prayer. Notice, he does not pray for the strength to work the miracles. He prays after that work is done. And he prays in secret, in a desolate place. And notice: we do not know what he prays about. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel, we rarely do know what Jesus says to his Father. We are told many times that he prayed (always in solitude). But only at the end are we told anything about what he says in prayer. In the Garden, he prays for a change to come, a change he fears is impossible: ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want’.On the cross, he prays a prayer of dereliction, raising his anguish to God: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Astonishingly, it is the Roman centurion who sees the way Jesus dies, hears his screams and death-rattle, who realizes at last what no one in the Gospel has fully realized: ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ Paradoxically, then, it is in the throes of prayer – in sorrow, fear, agony, and uncertainty – that Jesus finally becomes recognizable to others. Questioning God, Jesus is shown so unquestionably to be God.
This is the kind of prayer to which we’re called in Christ. In Mark, Jesus never teaches his disciples the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer. But in his last teaching before his arrest, Jesus warns them that the end is coming, and he directs them to ‘pray it does not come in winter’. In this strange suggestion, Jesus teaches his disciples how to know what to pray. Some things cannot be changed: God is coming; the truth will out. But there are things that can be changed, things we should want to see changed and should try to change. But only in prayer, only in praying not to Jesus but with him, can we learn the difference.
So, if we learn to turn toward God in our fear rather than away from him, settling into the darkness with Christ rather than trying to light it up artificially, we find ourselves sharing his mission. In that silence, in that secret, we begin to know that which passes knowledge, to understand truths too deep for words. Asking God to change what can be changed, we begin to see ever so dimly the difference between God and everything else, between the one who is unchangeable and everything that is changing and needs to be changed. And in that way, we learn – slowly but surely, in a series of shocks – that Jesus is not who we’ve imagined him to be. He’s better. Infinitely, immeasurably better. Good in ways we never could’ve dreamed. We learn not to be afraid of the dark.
Sometimes I wonder if Mary breastfed Jesus. if she cried out when he bit her or if she sobbed when he would not latch.
and sometimes I wonder if this is all too vulgar to ask in a church full of men without milk stains on their shirts or coconut oil on their breasts preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.
but then i think of feeding Jesus, birthing Jesus, the expulsion of blood and smell of sweat, the salt of a mother’s tears onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth, feeling lonely and tired hungry annoyed overwhelmed loving
and i think, if the vulgarity of birth is not honestly preached by men who carry power but not burden, who carry privilege but not labor, who carry authority but not submission, then it should not be preached at all.
because the real scandal of the Birth of God lies in the cracked nipples of a 14 year old and not in the sermons of ministers who say women are too delicate to lead.