Wednesday 31 January 2018

The Bible too

We didn’t read all of Genesis 19.1-29 at Matins this morning.  The lectionary told us to leave out verses 4-11.  This is the eighth time since we began reading our way through the whole of Genesis on 8th January that we’ve been made to skip chunks of the story.  Half the omissions appear to have been the selectors kindly letting us off reading through lists of descendants’ names.  But half have not been, and I was unusually disturbed this morning at what the selectors are shielding us from.

The missing passage today is the story of the men of Sodom seeking to rape the foreign men (they are actually angels, but the men of Sodom don’t know that) who had come to stay with Lot.  So, among other things, we didn’t read about Lot’s offer to send out his virgin daughters so that they might be abused instead; this appears to have been a potential outcome which Lot found preferable to the shame of betraying those to whom he was giving hospitality.

Now I’ve been taught that the purpose of our reading our way through whole books of the Bible is to ensure we are deeply acquainted with the text.  And I I’ve been encouraged to feel that being deeply acquainted with the text is to ensure it is all there in our mental knapsack ready for those occasions when we need to make the connections with life around us in our prayers, our personal reflection or our teaching.

In which case there is a gobsmackingly large number of connections which could be made, of which the church’s present divisions over faithful monogamous gay relationships (is the deep sinfulness of Sodom to do with gay sex, or to do with predatory sex of all kinds, or to do with abuse of foreigners, or to do with the breaking of hospitality taboos?) is just one.

What about the question of honour – everything from cultures which make honour killings possible to the way avoiding shame is a motivation which has the strong potential to deflect my own moral compass?  What about everything from the prevalence of domestic sexual abuse to the cascade of revelations about the coercive sexual manipulation first in the film industry and then in society generally?  Isn’t the story of Abraham’s nephew offering up his daughters exactly what should be prompting our urgent Matins prayers and feeding our discernment about society today?

The selectors have got form.  It was Genesis 12.10-13.1 we simply didn’t notice as we finished at 12.9 on Monday 22nd January and then picked up again at 13.2 on Tuesday 23rd January.  It appears that Abraham overshooting the promised land, ending up in Egypt, and passing off his pretty wife as his sister so that the local ruler could have a relationship with her without eliminating him is a not dissimilar story which it doesn’t matter being airbrushed out of our awareness of him.

The other two missed portion of Genesis so far have been Noah’s sons finding their drunken naked father (9.20-28) and Abraham circumcising the members of his wider household (17.23-27) which almost makes it look as if prurience is part of the selectors’ motivation.  Curious and, I suspect, in the context of the news around us this month, damaging. 

The picture is lifted having just been posted on one of Cross Roads village’s Facebook pages.  It is part of a postcard showing the temporary church which stood on St James’ site before the present 1910 building, not something I’d yet seen pictured.

Sunday 28 January 2018

Exploring fictional foundlings

It is a long time ago that I visited the Foundling Hospital Museum and, like so many people, was awfully captivated by the tokens (identifiable items) which many mothers left with the children they felt forced to abandon but who they clearly hoped eventually to be able to reclaim.  

So it was fascinating to learn that one of the projects the Brontë Society has lit upon for this bicentenary year of Emily Brontë’s birth is to investigate this whole area - better to understand the potential background of her character Heathcliff.  Their idea has taken them to the Foundling Hospital’s Coram Foundation which put them onto one of their 2016 Fellows (Lily Cole) who has been working in this area.  I look forward hugely to finding out where she takes things.

Meanwhile, the text ‘Like the way newborn babies crave milk, you should crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation’ (1 Peter 2.2) turns out to begin in Latin with the words Quasi (like) and Modo (the manner).  I realised that I might use either word in English - using ‘quasi’ to mean ‘sort of’ and ‘mode’ to mean ‘method’.  

I hadn’t realised that when I used them together as a name (Quasimodo) I am simply quoting the text.  I learn that it was sung on the Sunday after Easter and thus became a mediaeval nickname for that Sunday – and then the source of a name for another fictional foundling baby, one discovered on that day at Notre Dame.

The picture on the other hand is simply the only vaguely decent one I’ve now been able to take of part of one of the Stations of the Cross in St James’, Cross Roads – the reflections on the varnish on the paint has otherwise defeated me.

Saturday 20 January 2018

Literary wish fulfilment

I’m briefly immersed in the longings of Charlotte Bronte (who died in 1855) and E Nesbit (who was born three years later in 1858).

Reading or re-reading their biographies and their work seems important professional development for a newish Rector of Haworth.

So, most recently, I’ve read Villette for the first time.  The denouement has the spinster narrator, a governess turned teacher, have a suitor taken away and the independence of her own teaching establishment almost miraculously given to her.  The knowledge that, at just the time she wrote, one potential partner married someone else and one actual suitor was made to move away is touching enough.  But somehow the deeper more abiding sadness is the knowledge that she had invested her own hopes of some level of independence in an attempt to launch a school in Haworth which had in fact failed.

And now I am reading a biography of E Nesbit, who has no Haworth link other than the filming of The Railway Children here.  The biography begins with the observation that the death of her own father when she was very small clearly lies behind the recurring theme of the absent father in many of her stories, most famously in The Railway Children itself.

So the apparent wish-fulfilment of the end of both books is palpable.

Similarly, but less emotionally striking, I’ve enjoyed this week the further discovery from the Nesbit biography that girls’ red flannel underwear was popular when she was a teenager living near a railway cutting (the development of aniline dye from 1856 was the trigger, I find) but wasn’t by the time of the Edwardian setting of The Railway Children.

The picture across the Worth Valley from our house was taken in the week; the steam railway is hidden in the dip behind the house in the foreground.

Saturday 13 January 2018

Where God is present

Last Sunday’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord took my mind back to what I recorded about our only visit to the Jordan and to the Dead Sea in October 2013.

So what I shared with congregations here was the sense of disappointment which anyone might feel standing at the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism.

It ought to be a place of intense experience.  Here the people of Israel finally entered the Promised Land as Joshua struck the river and made a dry pathway through it.  Here God was revealed as Trinity as the Son emerged from the water with the Father’s voice audible and the descent of the Holy Spirit visible.  Here, the Welsh hymn writer reminds me, is the symbol that my step into death should be as anxiety-free as any safe passage.

But instead here is a discoloured, narrow, sluggish stream, approached through a minefield, robbed of much of its headwaters as they are extracted and piped away from local use, fed instead in part by water from sewage recycling upstream.

From all of which I begin to see a new message.

We are prone to claim to recognise the presence of God at moments of highlight: a prayer answered, a healing experienced, beauty encountered.
But God-in-Christ chose to be identified with our sin at what is actually the lowest point on dry land on our planet, a point at which a rift is opening up in the surface of the globe. 

So should we not be claiming particular encounter with and awareness of God at places of disullusionment, places marked by the detritus of our war making and the consequence of our environmental and political exploitation, places where our resources can only be generated from our own waste?

At our lowest points, at the points at which our world is coming apart around us: here I really feel the presence of God?

The picture is of early morning light spreading across Haworth churchyard last week.

Monday 8 January 2018

Stanbury Friends

A small early Friends' burial ground exists in Stanbury in Haworth parish.  It appears that local William Clayton had heard George Fox himself preach in Yorkshire during the early years of the Commonwealth and established a meeting in his home village from which burials took place over the next sixty-two years.  Although early Friends probably wouldn’t themselves have chosen either a cross or the nickname Quaker for their commemoration in the external wall of the burial ground today, it is a fascinating survival to have from the religious tumult of the time; the hamlet didn't have an Anglican building until the nineteenth century so they may have had less scrutiny or interference from the incumbents of Haworth of the time than some other Friends' meetings would have done.