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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

At the Dangerous Edge of Things

Robert Browning spoke about ‘the dangerous edge of things’. Today’s New Testament lesson speaks about events that take people to the extremes of their experience, and it does indeed feel edgy and dangerous.  The disciples in their boat on Galilee struggle against the storm.  The waves crash over the flimsy craft and it threatens to capsize. The Lord, asleep in the hold, is woken by terrified cries of panic: ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ He rebukes the chaotic wind and waves and there is a great calm. Safely on dry land, it’s the same story in another guise. Jesus takes on the chaos in human life: the Gadarene man and other victims whose lives are being possessed by demons, or by disease and disability that reduce their victims to chaos. As on the lake, mortals clamour desperately for help, beg to touch even the hem of his garment.  Who is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, demons, sickness and death and they obey him?
Just before the reading from Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, we learned how ‘the earth was a ‘formless void’: tohu wavohu, a rare moment of Hebrew rhyme.  That first creation story in Genesis 1 tells how shape and order emerge out of the chaotic deep: light and dark, sea and dry land, vegetation, the different orders of life in earth, air and water; and humanity as the crown of God’s achievement.  This patterning of time, space and the material world is fundamental to a cosmos that is stable and trustworthy.  In this universe that is ‘very good’, chaos has no place. And although the lesson we heard from Genesis offered us a much earlier story of creation, what scholars call the Jahwist’s version, with the Bible as it now is we can’t help but read the second story in the light of the first. When we do, it echoes the same primordial pattern. God is at work to shape a world like an artist or craftsman. When Michaelangelo forged a sculpture, he said that the shape was already there in the stone; it was simply a matter of revealing it. I like the idea of God chipping away with infinite skill to bring out the fundamental shape and structure of reality from the undifferentiated chaos of matter.
In the ancient world, order was experienced as precarious. There was an ever-present fear that the chaos might return to overwhelm hard-won civilisation.  In the psalms, Yhwh is king over cataract and flood who has crushed the heads of the monsters of the deep; in today’s, he ‘stilleth the raging of the sea: and the noise of the waves and the madness of the people.  And that madness tells that the threat is not only natural but human.  The raging of the enemy is personified as an overwhelming force which only the mighty power of Yhwh can subdue: ‘why do the nations rage so furiously together?’  In a bleak vision of Jeremiah, the formless void appears again:  ‘I looked on the earth and lo, it was tohu wavohu, waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no-one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger’.  This is Genesis wound backwards from cosmos to chaos, its artistry unravelling to a terrible, anarchic collapse. 
If once, people doubted that atavistic fears like these had been banished by the onward and upward march of progress, this last century surely dispelled the fantasy. Tohu wavohu does not only belong to the ancients.  A century ago, an unsuspecting world sleep-walked into a Great War. Seventy years ago, the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau were opened to reveal the unspeakable horror of what had gone on under the Nazis. I was brought up under the shadow of the Bomb: the Cuban Missile Crisis taught me how deeply untrustworthy the world is. I learned to be afraid. Now we have Al Qaida and Boko Haram and Isis, not to mention climate change, human trafficking, the abuses that drive asylum seekers to our shores. They all point to tohu wavohu as a present reality for us, both as nameless fear and felt reality, consequences most of them of what the Prayer Book collect calls ‘the unruly wills and affections of sinful men’. 
The history of this Benedictine cathedral reminds us how in the 6th century St Benedict set about creating communities of stability and order when the Roman Empire was in its final descent into anarchy.  Perhaps his Rule saved Christian Europe from the dark ages.  His enterprise could be a model for mission today: intelligent religion marked not by easy successes or showy drama but by the sustained spiritual imagination and commitment to live with complexity.  In his book A Staircase for Silence Alan Ecclestone offers clues as to how we might set about this.  He says that only a radical deepening and broadening of our vision is equal to the task of bringing to birth and nourishing a spirituality strong, generous and inspiring enough to help men and women…. grow up as truly human beings in the immensely complicated world that lies ahead. That spiri­tuality must provide a disciplined way of living in which growth to the fullest possible stature of each is made the concern of all. It requires a spirituality [that] relates the creativity, the humanising and the unification of mankind in one growing experience of mutual love. The world may well be entering a yet darker age than any known before. The demands laid on the spirituality needed during such time will be correspondingly greater.

So we must not be paralysed by the storm, hide in the bowels of our ship, never venturing on deck to get the measure of the tempests that rage outside and within. At those times when we stand on some dangerous edge of things – in personal life, in world crises, the first thing is to imitate the mariners at the start of the Tempest and cry out, ‘to prayers, to prayers!’: like the disciples, the vessel we are sailing is so tiny and the sea is so terrifying and big. But as we face our fear, assess the danger, say our prayers and help one another to find strength, we find that Christ was hidden in the darkness all along, and is there beside us, rebuking but also cheering us: ‘where is your faith?’

The tornados and tsunamis of life put hard choices to us that call for hard decisions. When the crisis comes, do we have the spiritual resources to respond?  Even in the storm, especially then, we need to keep the doors of perception open so that God can come anew to us, as he did to the possessed man by the lake and to the disciples in the boat. The Lord’s Prayer that we utter every day has as its focus how we fare in the time of trial, how we endure Gethsemane when we cry in despair, ‘let this cup pass from me’. When it comes to our great ordeals, what would we do? What shall we do?

This is where Christian character is tested. And I wonder, as I hear the news day by day and feel profoundly despondent about it, whether my Christianity is being called to some test of resilience and maturity it has never had to undergo before. This is no time for easy religion, play-acting our Christian profession. Our faith needs to go to the heart and change us. This is why we need those Benedictine virtues of stability, obedience and conversion of life in our churches and our personal lives.  They shape us to live by the values of the gospel, so that life is transformed and we begin to make a difference in the world: as Benedict did, holding on for dear life as the world fell apart around him, yet never despairing of the mercy of God. Which is why, when big storms break against the shores of our complacency, and we are shaken by earthquake, wind and fire, we need to hear the voice that calls out to us, ‘where is your faith?’, the still small voice that gives us the strength not to be afraid. And then, God willing, we shall live to praise his name, and tell how much he has done for us.

Durham Cathedral, 8 February 2015, Genesis 2.4a-end, Luke 8: 22-39

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