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Lincoln In The, Very Christian, Bardo: 27 November

November 27, 2018

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders won the Booker Prize last year. Rightly so. A superb book, telling the story of Abraham Lincoln mourning for his young son in the dark days of the American Civil War along with the stories of several Americans stuck in the same graveyard as Willie Lincoln. A book more Christian, more Biblical, than most people, maybe including the author, realise.

The stories are told entirely through voices, like a documentary film with no narrator. Each voice is distinctive, full of character. Each person faces the challenge of responding to the legacy of their own past, with many, not all, learning, changing, moving on.

The identity of each voice is noted at the end of each set of their words so that, to start with at least, we don’t know at first who exactly is speaking. This is disconcerting and it helps to glance to the end of the paragraph before reading.

‘The Bardo’ is Saunders’ name for the graveyard as the place where people, souls, are stuck along with their bodies. Bardo is the Tibetan name for the place where souls await reincarnation. Saunders has said that he did not intend to denote the full Tibetan understanding of Bardo, rather ‘to help the reader not to bring too many preconceptions to it… in a book about the afterlife, it’s good to destabilize all of the existing beliefs as much as you can.’ Saunders says he included elements of Christian and Egyptian tradition. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincoln_in_the_Bardo

From the Tibetan Bardo people move on, mostly, to reincarnation. From Saunders’ Bardo, people move on, if they can, into a new dimension of light. One Germanic character uses a wonderful Germanic expression to denote this transition: ‘the matter-light-blooming phenomenon.’ Souls rise suddenly high into the air, their redundant clothes falling behind them. They have most decidedly gone. Beyond communication. Gone into light, into glory. A Bardo more Christian than Tibetan.

Saunders’ Bardo is the same as the grave. Each day the souls have to return to their bodies, only at night can they roam the cemetery – and no further. Souls live in the grave, an in-between place. In the Old Testament the dead are described as being ‘in the grave’ in the pit’ ‘in Sheol.’ Sheol is gloomy half-life. In the New Testament Sheol is rendered by the Greek word ‘Hades.’ The understanding is the same as in the Old Testament, except with a stronger certainty that Hades-Sheol is an in-between holding place pending resurrection. This Hades has been distorted into the Hell of eternal torment and has not been taught for centuries. Saunders’ Bardo is much closer to the New Testament. A remarkably Christian Bardo.

Saunders’ Bardo has another great difference from the traditional Christian Hell – people leave it in a glorious ‘matter-light-blooming.’ Through the book we understand that this is the very best outcome for all of them. At first it seems that a young dead soul, and body, being held in love by a living human, is a comfort and a help. Later we see that the holding has been a disservice, that souls need to be freed to escape the grave and move beyond, even beyond communication. In an age of widespread semi-spiritualism, when many like to think that those who have died are close enough for communication, Saunders shows the danger to the living and to the dead of such holding on instead of letting go. A helpfully Christian Bardo.

Saunders’ Bardo can be left through a change of mind and heart. A soldier faces and confesses the truth of his unfaithful sexual liaison. He leaves. A boy faces and confesses the truth that he will not recover, he cannot be part of ‘normal’ life again. He leaves. A clergyman who has always taught the fearsomeness of God, while also acting increasingly kindly to others, says, quietly, in brackets, ‘Perhaps, I thought, this is faith: to believe our God ever receptive to the smallest good intention.’ He leaves. Such change of mind and heart leading to new, eternal, life is called in the New Testament ‘metanoia’ aka repentance. A most Christian Bardo.

But surely it isn’t Christian to see people as able to repent beyond death? The Church has consistently taught that people’s eternal fates are sealed the moment they die. Jesus, on the other hand, proclaimed ‘Fear not! I was dead and am now alive. And I have the keys of Death and Hades.’ (Revelation 1:17,18) In Saunders’ language, Jesus has the keys of the Bardo. It may not be Church teaching, but it is entirely Christian to understand that Jesus tells us He has the keys because he uses them. Jesus continues to seek and to save the lost in Hades, in the Bardo. (See https://rogerharper.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/the-lie-of-hell-death-is-not-the-final-chance-31-july/) Jesus continues to invite people to repentance, to a change of mind and heart, so that He can welcome them into the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. Saunders does not show the ministry of Jesus. He does show repentance leading to departure for the Kingdom of Heaven. A surprisingly Christian Bardo.

Sunders has written a great book, comparable to ‘The Great Divorce’ by CS Lewis. Lewis’ book should have been called ‘Bus Out Of Hell,’ for it describes various people taking a bus from a freshly-depicted hell for the outskirts of heaven. They have an opportunity, through repentance, of moving further, inexorably, on, into heaven. Who will take this opportunity and who won’t? Saunders echoes CS Lewis – knowingly or unknowingly? I highly recommend both books.

Roger Harper

PS George Saunders has now replied to my comment on his Facebook page. I actually haven’t read “The Great Divorce” but sounds like I should – right up my alley.’

 

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Why do people cuddle by Monet’s Thames?

July 14, 2018

Monet returned to London for months to paint the light on the Thames by Parliament. He was enthralled by the changing effects, impressions, of sunshine and fog and rain, of sunrise and midday and sunset. He painted 19 canvases which, together, show a delighted and delightful kaleidoscope.

 Six of these Thames paintings were reunited for the ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition at Tate Britain earlier this year. I sat and sat happily taking in Monet’s presentation of the glorious variety in the ordinary British.

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People went by and came. A woman who I had noticed on her own a couple of rooms previously came alongside a man facing the light blue and dark blue midday Thames. She threaded her arm around his waist. They leant into each other. Another woman turned her head as a man entered. He walked up to her; they kissed, lips lingering together. Unusual expressions of affection for London?

 A man in his 50s walked up behind a woman with greying hair looking at a Thames shimmering in the mid-afternoon sunlight. He put his arm across her shoulder and she leant into his neck. A younger couple stood in front of a misty, cooler, Thames. They turned towards each other, kissed briefly, before their lips returned for a longer touch.

 Four public cuddles seemed extraordinary. Might these paintings emit something romantic?

 A few weeks ago I saw the ‘Monet and Architecture’ exhibition at the National Gallery. I had noticed a solitary man in a blue jacket, about 60, like me, matching my pace through the rooms. I sat in front of the two ‘Thames by Parliament’ paintings. He sat on the same bench facing the other way, towards views of Rouen Cathedral. He talked to the woman next to him. Did they know each other?

 The woman stood up and walked close to one Thames painting. After a couple of minutes, the man in the jacket came up to the same painting. He put his arm round her waist and whispered in her ear. Surely this was confirmation of the effect of these paintings.

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Monet loved London. He loved the light on the Thames. He loved the safety he found as an exile from the bloody turmoil of the Franco Prussian war and the ensuing Paris Commune. He loved the stability of a country with a solid democracy and no revolutions. He loved the flowers, abundant in a land of sunshine and showers.

In exile Monet painted his wife in London. She sits in French mourning clothes, looking wistfully out of the window, unable to pay attention to anything present, not even her book.

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Monet’s attention is on his wife’s chair, more central in the painting. An English chair called a ‘chaise longue,’ a play on the French-English connection and maybe an expression of their long wait to return home. The viewer, as intended by the painter, sees mostly the bright flowers of the quintessentially English cloth. The centre of the painting, which indicates its overall atmosphere, is bright. Monet was loving what he saw in England, despite exile.

Monet painted the Thames by Parliament with affection, with care, with love. As people watch, they respond with affection, with care, with love. Art communicates. Alleluia!

 

Last chance to stop the Brexit wrong turn

July 1, 2018

Last Saturday I  Marched for a referendum on the final Brexit deal On the train to Charing Cross I wrote my banner. The man sitting next to me, a retired taxi driver and newspaper printer, said he had voted Leave but would now vote differently.

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We ended with rousing short speeches in Parliament Square, albeit too many, Anna Soubry was the climax ‘I want to put love back into this country.’ Yes indeed: love your European neighbour as you love yourself.

In Tesco by Trafalgar Square, buying water for the journey home, a 17 year old white lad behind me was talking on his phone. ‘It’s like mad busy. There’s been a parade. What’s that thing with the seven gold stars?’ It’s future fellowship and prosperity from which we are cutting ourselves adrift.

Please sign the petition
https://www.peoples-vote.uk 

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Jewish Voice for Israeli Peace Outlawed

April 28, 2018

In Jerusalem for New Year January 2014 I searched the old city for a Peace, Shalom – Salaam T shirt. Such shirts were common on my last visit at New Year 1997. In 2014 they were nowhere to be seen. Eventually, one small shopkeeper turned up a good quality, embroidered, Israeli-made shirt, which I wore happily. ‘Peace’ in Hebrew letters. ‘Peace’ in western letters. ‘Peace’ in Arabic letters. So be it!

 ShalomShirt

18 months later an Egyptian-American cousin in law told me that the Arabic is fake. The ‘Arabic’ writing does not read ‘Peace.’ It does not read anything. It is made to look like Arabic but is only squiggles.

The T shirt is a cynical, hypocritical, Israeli production, high quality but fake. Produced for the outside world, the visitors, prominently featuring the word ‘Shalom’, ‘Peace in Hebrew’. ‘We Israelis want peace,’ the shirt proclaims.

What does the Israeli-made fake Arabic say? Maybe: ‘The Arabs who speak of peace are all fake.’ This is a common Israeli claim, which justifies not engaging seriously with any peace talk with Arabs. Or maybe: ‘We don’t know their language, we don’t want to know their language, we’ll just pretend we do.’ How can there be peace between people when one side refuses to learn the language of the other, while pretending otherwise?

Now even the real the Israeli voice for peace has virtually died. Uri Avnery, Israeli soldier in the War of Independence, long-standing advocate for peace between Israel and Palestine, wrote 2 weeks ago about Israeli snipers killing unarmed protesters within Gaza, near the border:

Not only is the shooting of the unarmed protesters, far from the fence, done by order, but there seem to be no other voices. The military and political leadership is united. Even in civilian society, voices against the mass murder are very few… Nobody dares to speak out against the killing, apart from some faint whispers. Even the many admirable groups of youngsters who fight against the occupation, each on some special sector, are silent about the Gaza killings.

No mass demonstrations. No huge protests. Nothing.

So we, too, are to blame. And perhaps more than others.

Please write down: I am guilty!’

http://zope.gush-shalom.org/home/en/channels/avnery/1523632747

Jewish Voice for Peace, a US organisation, is now officially banned in Israel. Jewish Voice for Peace is one of 20 organisations whose members are banned from entering Israel. Israel sees itself as the home, the haven, for all Jews across the world – except those who talk honestly and seriously about peace with the Palestinians.

https://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/israel-includes-jewish-voice-peace-bds-ban-list-supporting-palestinian-human-rights/

Is my writing here ‘disproportionate and furious hostility to Israel.’ David Hirsh would probably deem it so. In this week’s Church Times, Hirsh repeatedly claims that Jeremy Corbyn’s talking with Palestinians, at times even using their language, is the same as the worst anti-semitism. This is how Jewish, and other, voices for peace are silenced – loud, repeated, shaming, assertions of anti-semitism. David Hirsh’s article shows mostly that he, like many others, is adamantly confusing and conflating being Jewish with being a whole-hearted supporter of the State of Israel. Those, especially currently, in the British Labour Party who carry on criticising Israel, while honouring Jews, are vilified.

 If you want to read a clear, strong, case for separating Judaism from Zionism try Robert Cohen: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/writingfromtheedge/

Let a Jewish Israeli have the last word here. In his blog of March 17. Uri Avnery wrote:

Real friends of Israel should advise Netanyahu to make peace as long as Mahmoud Abbas (Abu-Mazen) is still around. In two weeks he will be 83 years old, and he is ailing. He is deeply committed to peace. He has no obvious successor, and his replacement may be far, far less moderate.

But Netanyahu doesn’t care. Peace is the last thing he has on his troubled mind. He is far more committed to the eternal conflict with both the Arabs and the Iranians.

After all, what would life be like without enemies?

Roger Harper

The Shack movie: improvements?

January 4, 2018

Maybe some people have recently had the DVD of the ‘The Shack’ for Christmas? I saw the film last year, wrote up these thoughts and shelved them because they are long. Maybe they will help someone?

Seeing The Shack on screen is more vivid than reading the book.  All that is great about the portrayal of the Trinity is clearer. Not so good elements are clearer too. Some of the resolution comes too easily. Jesus and the ‘hero’ Mac, whose daughter Missy has been abducted, abused and murdered, run across a lake. They skim the surface unbelievably. More plunging the depths is needed: the depths of Mac’s anger, the depths of the pain taken on by Jesus, the depths of the many-formed self-giving of the Holy Spirit.

What different scenes could there have been..? Here are some…

1

Jesus entices Mac into his workshop with the lure of a tool that Mack has always wanted to use. Inside Mac finds the beginnings of a child-size coffin. Mac’s fury is unleashed. Accusing Jesus of planning his daughter’s death as some sick sacrifice, of standing by while little children suffer unimaginably, of punishing people by taking away their most precious treasure, Mac smashes and rips and pounds all that he can. Tools and nails and splintered wood fly around the workshop, glass shatters into blood-letting shards.

Jesus comes close to Mac, so that some of Mac’s blows fall on him. Jesus stands between Mac and a shattering window so that the shards shed Jesus’ blood. Angels appear and disappear, wings protecting Mac from his own violence, giving Jesus no protection. Jesus winces and cries out in pain as he is wounded.

Mac’s huge wave of anger subsides; his energy drained. He looks at the devastation around him. He reaches for a sharply splintered section of wood and tries to cut himself. Sometimes he succeeds. Sometimes Jesus manages to place his hand under Mac’s cutting hand. Again Jesus bleeds, clearly in pain. The wounds in Jesus mirror the wounds in Mac.

‘What are you doing?’ sneers Mac.

‘What are you doing?’ says Jesus calmly.

‘You think pretending to be the victim, not the judge, will win me over?’ spits back Mac. ‘You’re the punisher, you’re the one who sees all and holds it all against us. You wanted Missy dead to punish me for my killing. If you think that’s the way to get me to beg for forgiveness, think again!’

Jesus looks calmly at Mac. ‘I don’t make that connection. Trust me. The enemy is the stealer, the killer, the destroyer. I am with you for your good. Do you want me to stay?’

Mac is quiet. Eventually he nods. ‘I don’t understand but there’s something good about having you around.’

‘Thanks.’ Replies Jesus warmly, sounding relieved. ‘And you can be forgiven, when you’re ready. Healing can come, when you want it. I’m not sure you want it yet.’

‘Just when I thought I was comfortable with you…’ says Mac a little exasperated. He shakes his head. ‘Give me some time.’

‘There’s a bed for you in Papa’s house. Come on, I’ll take you.’

2

The following morning Mac meets Papa at breakfast.

‘It’s tough when you child dies,’ says Papa warmly.

Mac looks back with some anger still but now tired.

‘How many children do you have?’ asks Papa.

‘Three, or … What kind of a question is that?’

‘And how many of your children have been hurt bad?’

‘You’re supposed to know everything.’

‘How many children do I have?.. Do you think I’m so different to you? And how many of my children have been hurt bad?.. You’ve been furious. Yeah, we know all about that! When we want to take the attackers’ children and have them torn limb from limb in front of their eyes. When we want them to burn with pain outside and inside so they feel what they have done.’

Mac looks up, surprised.

‘They’re not just your thoughts, Mac. We know! How many children’s tears rip into our heart?’

Mac holds his head in his hands.

‘Mac,’ says Papa gently, reaching out to touch his hands. ‘We want to make it better. Just like you. Make it better for your kids, for all the kids, even the grown-up ones. How does hurting someone who has hurt someone make it better?’

Mac relaxes, collapses ‘OK, OK! You win.’

‘And how can you heal someone who doesn’t want to be healed; they just want someone else to hurt?’

‘I guess you let them do some hurting and wait for them to want it to be made better…’

3

Mac goes back to his room. He hears a groaning, a yearning, an anguishing cry beyond words. He searches for where this sound comes from. The Holy Spirit is bent double, clutching her belly. Her hands and arms are cut, bleeding, like Jesus’ hands and arms.

Mac grimaces at the sound, shaking his head, trying to distance himself. But as he walks away, there is an even more piercing shriek. Mac turns round quickly his mouth gaping open. He echoes the cry.

After that cry, Mac tries to pull himself together, but tears are beginning to fall. His tears mirror the tears of the Holy Spirit, her tears mirror his. Gradually he lets go and echoes the groaning of the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit echoes Mac and also begins to look more like him. Together they weep and cry and groan and shout.

The wave of anguish ebbs away.

‘You do know. You do feel.’ Mac shakes his head in wonder. ‘I always thought you were impervious to feeling.’

The Holy Spirit shakes her head, still looking like Mac. ‘Love always feels. We never stop feeling.’

‘Thank you,’ says Mac wiping his eyes and sinking back exhausted. ‘That does feel a little better.’

‘We want to make it better.’

Mac smiles ‘I’ve heard that somewhere before.’

‘For all our children? The Holy Spirit now looks more like the Father. ‘Will you let us make it better?’

Mac nods, a tired but definite deep nod. ‘Yes. I want it made better too.’

‘You don’t want someone else to hurt?’

Mac shakes his head, tired and definite again. ‘Not now.’

‘Come here!’ invites the Holy Spirit with great motherly warmth. As Mac comes to her, her arms become huge wings with golden feathers and he rests and sleeps like a little child. The Holy Spirit becomes a great dove hovering, brooding, over Mac. Angels come with bright glittery clouds which they gently pour into Mac’s head. His forehead seems to glitter a little from inside as his eyelids move rapidly. The Holy Spirit bends down and kisses Mac’s head. ‘Sweet dreams Mac!’

4

Mac awakes and goes out for a walk. He sees Jesus a little way off and goes to join him.

‘Man! How do you do it?’ Mac asks in wonder. ‘I’m not the same and, you know, I am sorry now. Sorry for smashing up your shed. So sorry for… killing… my Dad. It didn’t make anything better, did it? Only worse.’

Jesus smiles at Mac. ‘Thank you. That’s a great gift. Is there anything else you want to give me?’

Mac looks a little nervous.

‘Just that while you’re in apologising mood, you might like to add something?’

‘Yeah. Why not?’ The camera moves away so that Mac and Jesus are further away and their voices soon cannot be heard. ‘I’m sorry I’ve ignored my daughter. I wasn’t making it better for her either…’

The sunlight moves, indicating that a couple of hours have passed. Jesus stands in front of Mac as the camera moves in again. Jesus holds out his hands showing his nail-wounds. He smiles. ‘Peace be with you, Mac. You are forgiven.’ He looks Mac in the face and nods. Then he takes a deep breath, fills his lungs, throws back his head. ‘YOU ARE FORGIVEN!’ Jesus proclaims, his voice reverberating around the tress and buildings. Mac stands buffeted and buttressed by the sound as in a strong wind. Jesus then leans in close to Mac and adds, more quietly. ‘And you always will be!’

‘Come and see!’ says Jesus excitedly, taking Mac’s arm. They go to Jesus’ shed. Angels, hundreds of angels, are just leaving, Huge bright beings, some with wings, some like people, some shafts of light, broad or fine, many with workman’s tools.

‘They’re good at their work for us’ says Jesus. The shed has been transformed. The broken glass has become fresh diamond insets, the broken wood has become part of an intricate pattern of jagged and rounded shapes. The whole place is larger than before and more intricate and also more useful, with more space for work of different kinds.

‘I did that, and you did that!’ Mac exclaims in awe.

‘We want to make it better. We can make it better. When you let us.’

Now Mac sees and meets his father. Now Mac sees Missy in her field, with Jesus and with her grandfather.

5

Another morning, another breakfast is finishing. Plates show remains of barbequed fish. A charcoal barbeque is close by, one last fish still on it.

Papa leans back contentedly. ‘Mac, we’d love you to stay, but we’d love you to love a little more.’

Mac looks puzzled.

‘Why don’t you three go for a walk?’ invites Papa cheerily and firmly.

Jesus and the Holy Spirit stand up and invite Mac to join them. ‘OK!’ Mac says, a little puzzled but happy.

As they walk along the Holy Spirit becomes a dove, or like a dove, again, hovering over them. They reach the lake where there is a small sail boat. Jesus steps in and invites Mac to join him. The Holy Spirit fades and becomes faint. We can just make out her wings, now very large and fanning. A wind from the Holy Spirit blows the boat along.

‘Faster?’ asks Jesus.

‘You bet!’ replies Mac.

The wind rips into the sail and the boat takes off at a perilous angle. Jesus and Mac yell and yelp as they career along, pulling ropes, leaning out, laughing in the spray.

‘Where are we going?’ shouts Mac.

‘Haha!’ shouts Jesus back. ‘It’s up to her!’

The boat veers and turns and speeds forward and calms to pottering before speeding up again.

‘Enough already!’ yells Mac at last. The wind calms down.

‘Man, am I hot!’ exclaims Mac.

‘Shower?’ asks Jesus.

‘I could do with a full body cool wash!’ laughs Mac.

The Holy Spirit is back over them, now like a cloud. A gentle shower begins to fall on Mac and on Jesus. Mac tilts his head back to receive the water on his face. ‘Man, that is so sweet!’

‘More?’ asks Jesus. Mac nods.

The water starts coming a little more strongly. ‘More?’ asks Jesus. Mac nods. A few times until Mac is standing under a great torrent, his body moving sensuously taking pleasure in the flowing waterfall.

‘Enough already!’ yells Mac. Jesus slaps him on the back with approval.

‘How do you get dry in this place?’ asks Mac.

‘Like everything,’ replies Jesus happily. ‘You ask. Anything. Try it!’

‘Hey! You!’ Mac turns to the cloud-Holy-Spirit above him. ‘Can I have a towel please?’

The cloud flattens out, becomes white and fluffy and comes down, wrapping itself around Mac.

‘How many wows can you give a guy?’ asks Mac in wonder, clutching his perfect towel, now bathrobe.

‘More than you can ask or imagine!’ shouts Jesus and gives Mac a high five.

Jesus sits down on the grass. Mac sits beside him. ‘If you go,’ says Jesus, ‘you can go with me with you, and with her.’ The bathrobe lifts off Mac and becomes the female Holy Spirit again.

Mac looks puzzled. ‘You’ll have to look. It’s a bit murky there, you know. You’ll see me but blurry, like a reflection in the body of a beat up old car. I won’t be as bright as many other things. You’ll have to keep looking. But I’ll be there. With you. Always.’

‘And her?’ Mac gestures towards the Holy Spirit.

‘Who does she look like?’ asks Jesus.

Mac turns and looks intently, puzzling it out. We see his face, looking. ‘She looks like you!’ Mac exclaims. The Holy Spirit has indeed changed to look like a more female version of Jesus.

‘That’s who she is really,’ affirms Jesus. ‘And now?’

Mac looks again, moving his head to the left, to the right, quizzical. As though he can’t quite make out what he’s seeing.

‘Does she look like me?’ asks Mac tentatively. The Holy Spirit has indeed changed to look like a kinder, wiser, younger Mac.

‘Why does she want to look like me?’ asks Mac with some self-disdain.

‘So she can fit into you,’ says Jesus calmly, seriously, nodding affirmation. ‘She will be with you, she will be in you. OK?’

Mac looks bemused. ‘How?’

‘Take her in!’ commands Jesus, then more loudly: ‘Take her in!’

Jesus blows hard on Mac. At the same time the Holy Spirit becomes a cloud, moving swiftly, darting round Mac, brushing past him, returning under him, swirling. His hair moves as blown by a strong wind.

‘Don’t let her just pass by. Take her IN!’ shouts Jesus. He sucks in a great gulp of air. Mac does the same. His cheeks puff out. He looks tense. Then he swallows. A couple more sucks and swallows.

Mac starts giggling. ‘Ye-hu, ye-hu, ye-hi-hu!’ He laughs. ‘It’s like tickling, but it’s warm! It’s so weird! And so good! Ye-hu, ye-hu, ye-hi-hu! Ye-ha, ye-ha, ye-hi ha. Yee hah!’ Mac falls over laughing. ‘I’m burning, man! I’m burning! Man!’

‘Yeah,’ nods Jesus with a broad grin. ’She fits, you know. And she brings gifts. The fire’s good. Real good. Wait till you have the living water, or the dove, or  the oil. Man! That oil is so GOOD! More than you can ask or imagine eh?’

Mac, still laughing nods. ‘Too true! Man! So GOOD!’

‘Enjoy the pictures, enjoy the nudges, enjoy the surprising thoughts. She’ll lead you into everything you need to know. She’ll guide you every step of the way. She will not leave you nor forsake you.’

Mac calms down to chuckling. ‘You mean I get to keep this?’

‘You get to keep the Holy Spirit. You just keep asking, keep taking her in. And you get to keep me. You just keep looking. Now…’ Jesus pauses to gain Mac’s full attention. ‘Are you ready to go back and do some loving?’

‘I need to do something with all this!’ Mac shouts, waving his hands in front of his belly and up to his chest and out around him. ‘This isn’t just for me is it? This is for sharing, for making things better.’

‘You got it!’ exclaims Jesus. ‘Are you ready to go back and do some loving? Are you ready to love patiently, when they think you’re just a weirdo and keep their distance or drive you out of your job and your town? Are you ready to love in tears when the pain is almost unbearable? Are you ready to love all the selfish and nasty people? Are you ready Mac?’

Mac holds up one hand, to ask a question. Jesus nods.

‘What about Papa? Do I go without Papa?’

‘Papa is in me with you. Papa is in the Holy Spirit in you. Papa is closer than the sky. Papa is not far, not far at all!’

‘Thank you.’ Mac beams at Jesus. He holds out his hands in front of him in surrender to Jesus. ‘I’ll go.’

‘As Papa sent me, so I send you!’ Jesus speaks calmly and with great authority.

Mac wakes up in his crashed car, wincing in deep pain, but also chuckling a little.

Roger Harper

‘The Death of Stalin:’ Great truth and strange distortions. 23 December

December 23, 2017

The film ‘The Death of Stalin’ is a tour de force. Taken from a French book of the same name, financed and produced by French companies. Superbly written, acted, filmed, mostly by British filmmakers. (Why could the British financial institutions for whose benefit the whole British economy is geared, not have expressed financial confidence in this brilliant enterprise?)

deathStalin

‘The Death of Stalin’ conveys the grinding terror of post war Soviet Russia and the crazy chaos around and after the Communist dictator’s death. ‘Based on real events’ and on real people. Each nasty character is distinctive and believable, verging on caricature, yet never losing touch with the grimly real history. Yes Stalin did have his close colleagues play silly, degrading, games and watch American cowboy movies. Yes the whole population knew someone who had been dragged off in the night by the State Security Police and half expected, any night, to be on the ‘list’ for forcible removal, torture, exile, execution. (The composer Dmitri Shostakovich sometimes slept in the hallway so that when ‘they’ came, his family would not be disturbed.) Yes Soviet leaders were coarse and sex-obsessed. I remember an official Soviet ‘Peace Delegation’ being received by the Town Council of Belper, Derbyshire in the 1980s. During the break for refreshments three good Soviets, including an Orthodox Bishop, did not realise that I could understand the gist of their lewd conversation about the body of a female Councillor. Yes when Stalin had the stroke which finally killed him he was listening to a record of a Mozart Piano Concerto which had been made in the night after he had heard it broadcast and had ‘requested’ a record of the unrecorded broadcast. Yes the pianist was Maria Yudina who had written to Stalin critically. 

But no, Maria Yudina’s note was not as harsh as in the film. The Concerto had not been recorded the night before Stalin died but nine years previously. Neither did Yudina bargain for money, as in the film. Stalin was so pleased with the recording that he sent Yudina 20,000 roubles. She replied with a note assuring Stalin of her prayers, calling him to repent for his many sins, and explaining that she had given the money to her church. All expected Stalin to show some displeasure at the note, maybe a curling of the tip of his nose. This would have been enough for the night-time hammering on her door. Stalin’s face remained blank. See https://forwardseeking.wordpress.com/tag/stalin/ and http://www.crossroadsculturalcenter.org/events/2011/9/17/maria-yudina-the-pianist-who-moved-stalin.html Stalin also never forgot. Was there a true connection, not as immediate as in the film, between Yudina’s playing, her thank you note, and Stalin’s stroke?

Why does the film, and the book on which it is based, distort details? Beria the vicious head of the State Security Police did not die without a trial the day of Stalin’s death. He died three years later after a typical show trial. Was it because the writers thought a more compressed, more dramatized version of reality would be ‘truer’ in some way? Or that they wanted to leave their personal imprint, changing history to reflect their art? Better to be accurate in detail as well as in broad sweep, more respectful to the actual, named, people. 

More importantly, the film focuses entirely on the variegated human wickedness of the Soviet leaders and misses the wicked ideology which they followed. Anyone who visited Soviet Russia, as I did in 1974 and 1978, will have seen Communist Party slogans everywhere, especially on top of prominent buildings. These are absent from the film. Soviets lived a double life, the official narrative of present sacrifices for the glorious socialist future contrasting with the desperate struggle for survival, for human warmth. Life was always cloaked in pompous rhetoric; atrocities cloaked in official justification. The ideology was not a minor detail, as in the film, but a major feature of public and private life, a necessary part of the grinding terror. 

If we are to learn from history, as the makers of ‘The Death of Stalin’ would want, we must see more clearly the dangers of idolatrous ideology – whether Communist, racial-Fascist, Free Market, or Islamist. Each demands belief in a better world ahead for which bloody struggle is necessary now. People other than the ideological leaders are made to pay the price. Life becomes grim: over-controlled and diminished and fearful

Life is not to be lived in the service of the great Communist, Capitalist or Islamist dream, it is to be lived as an expression today of love of God and love of our neighbour. Maria Yudina, in her piano playing and living, expressed this counter-cultural love. This is fullness of life, tree freedom, based on full truth, with no distortions. 

Roger Harper

I’m an apostate! 20 October

October 20, 2017

Gay marriage maybe!!!??? An apostate then’ This was the only comment online on my recent article for Christianity magazine about working as a Chaplain at an Immigration Removal Centre. https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2017/October-2017/God-behind-bars-faith-stories-in-an-immigration-removal-centre

John Rollins declared me to be no longer a true Christian because of the title of my website about gay marriage. He gave no evidence of having read the site, nor even of having read the magazine article. Anyone who does not condemn gay marriage outright cannot be counted a Christian by him.

John’s view is shared by many Conservative Evangelicals, especially in America. The Conservative Nashville Statement on Biblical Sexuality, published in late August this year, includes:

Article 10   

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree. https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement

The writers are clear that any homosexual sexual practice, whether inside of outside of a monogamous, lifelong, publicly declared, relationship is immoral. Anyone who even contemplates approval of gay sex only within a ‘marriage’ or who accepts that fellow Christians so approve in good conscience cannot be in fellowship with these Christian leaders. That includes me.

I am not aware of any of these leaders having engaged with the reasons for saying a middle ground ‘maybe’ to gay marriage. Neither have they given any reason for say that approving of gay marriage is so much worse than approving of remarriage after divorce, about which Christians continue to disagree. (See the current controversy in the Roman Catholic Church – although the Nashville people are unlikely to count Roman Catholics as Christians either.)

 The Nashville Statement is deliberately hard-line. Conservative Evangelicals are saying what they have said before but more stridently. A Staff Writer for the US broad Evangelical magazine Christianity Today (not able to give their name for fear of being branded an apostate) wrote: The Statement ‘offers a comprehensive conservative position on sexuality, using harsher language and drawing tighter dividing lines than before.’ https://www.christiantoday.com/article/evangelicals.and.the.nashville.statement.what.is.the.point/112827.htm

The anti-gay-marriage Christians are in full battle mode.

The pro-gay-marriage Christians are also in full battle mode. Christians United quickly issued a Statement opposing and mirroring the Nashville Statement. Steve Chalke, prominent UK Evangelical, was on the Editorial Team.

Article 3:
WE AFFIRM that relationships between fallen humans have suffered great distortions resulting in various forms of infidelity and unhealthy behaviors that contribute to the suffering of humanity. We also affirm that God’s desire is for all humans to enter into loving, sacrificial relationships with one another, whether romantic, platonic, or social, regardless of gender or sexual identity. http://www.christiansunitedstatement.org/ 

These Christians fight against any hint that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or other such people are not as God created and intended them to be. All loving relationships in which people give something of themselves, whether monogamous or not, life-long or not, publically declared or not, are championed as part of God’s desire for humanity.

People like me who question how an active Bisexual could possibly be in a monogamous, lifelong, relationship are castigated as unloving and out of step with the Spirit today.

Considering gay people to be singing out of tune, but still part of the choir, is, according to Christians United, an affront to the worth of gay people as created such by God. They may sing differently but no-one can say that it is out of tune. They have their unique voice.

According to the Nashvillites, people who sing out of tune cannot be part of the choir. They can have a full Christian life in every way, except that they are never allowed actually to sing. Anyone who contemplates allowing them to sing, albeit out of tune, is themselves sinful.

(As those who know me can testify, the sounds that come out of my mouth are indeed brazenly out of tune.)

The Church is in a battle, with each side fighting harder than ever. More than ever, we need a strong middle ground to say to both extremes ‘Your strident aggression is unbiblical, unloving, neither in tune with Biblical teaching on how Christians are to behave with each other, nor an expression of the original image of God in human beings. Stop it! Come off your high horses, down from your battle tanks, and join in negotiations making every effort to maintain the unity of the body of Christ.’

These negotiations should be based firstly on a thorough look at the words and ministry of Jesus (not Genesis, Leviticus or Romans to begin with) examining what light they shed on the acceptability of gay marriage only – not other relationships. This examination should also include asking what light Jesus sheds on whether Christians can agree to disagree about gay marriage or not. There should also be a serious attempt, together, to discern the will of the Holy Spirit, hoping that we can come to say ‘It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’

See https://gaymarriagemaybe.wordpress.com/ for more details.

My Anglican Church is perhaps best able to embark on such examination – expect that no-one seems to want such robust standing up to both sides. Focusing on Jesus is not talked about – only the rest of the Bible and what is currently deemed loving by the different sides. The question of why exactly gay marriage is treated as a primary issue over which we have to walk separately is not posed. The possibility of allowing different Anglicans not only to believe different things about gay marriage but also to have different policies on gay marriage is not envisaged. (The Scottish Presbyterians have, sensibly, envisaged this.) We seem to be doomed to slog it out before a nasty divorce. A good way forward is roundly ignored, to my ongoing frustration.

 One person on the Christianity magazine website defended me as not an apostate, given what I had written about my ministry with immigration detainees. ‘Gay marriage maybe?’ it’s better than‘ NO WAY!’ or ‘YES, YES, YES AND MUCH MORE!’

Roger Harper

(with apologies for the change in font which WordPress made and refuses to let me change.)

Changing the picture of hell: 23 August

August 23, 2017

Giovanni Rimini Harrowing Only

Here is Jesus pulling people out of hell. This was the dominant picture of hell for many years. ‘Look! Jesus rescues people from hell.’ A hopeful picture.

This picture is one of six which together make up the Scenes from the Life of Christ, by Giovanni di Rimini, usually seen in Rimini, but currently, until 8 October, in a special small exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The catalogue describes the painting as showing the standard highlights of the life of Jesus. At the time, 1300 – 1305, it was normal to show Jesus pulling people out of hell.

Jesus pulling people out of hell is usually called The Harrowing of Hell. Harrowing here has an old, Middle English, meaning of Despoiling. Jesus is making hell impotent, depleted, empty. This is an accepted and important part of what Jesus came to do.

Very soon, though, this picture changed dramatically. Dante’s Inferno, the most influential book on hell ever, was written about 1314. Over the door of Dante’s hell is written ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ The idea that Jesus can and does pull people out of hell was quashed. Fear replaced hope.

Dante was writing graphically about the hell described by the theologian Thomas Aquinas. The Church made this ‘no hope, more fear’ version of hell the dominant one. The Harrowing of Hell was no longer painted. Instead we see

Salisbury-St-Thomass-credit-to-www.visitwiltshire.co_.uk_Photo from www.visitwiltshire.co.uk

Here Jesus presides over people being thrown into a vividly tormenting hell. Jesus is far removed from these people, and seems not to care about them. Their awful fate is sealed as decided, or supervised, by Jesus.

These pictures, of the Doom, or Last Judgement, became common, replacing the Harrowing of Hell. Above is the best preserved English painting, in St Thomas’ Church, Salisbury, painted about 1475.

Florence Duomo Fresco 2Photo by Paolo Villa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39353393

Here is perhaps the most well-known Last Judgement painting, from the Duomo Cathedral in Florence. The artist Vasari began this in 1568 and it was completed by Federico Zuccari in 1579.

As in the English painting, the people in inescapable torment in hell are closest to the congregation. Seeing these agonised people, remote from Jesus, gives a very different message from seeing Jesus pulling people out of hell. ‘Look Jesus presides over people being tormented in hell forever.’

Hell changed in the early 1300s. The painting now in the National Gallery is perhaps the last still to show Jesus pulling people out of hell.

Why did the picture of hell change then? What is the true picture of hell? My book The Lie of Hell www.laddermedia.co.uk gives answers. Or search ‘hell’ for other posts on this blog.

The picture of hell has changed. It needs to change again – to the Hades and Gehenna about which Jesus spoke. Hades the tormenting remand prison before Final Judgement; Gehenna the unquenchable fire after Final Judgement where some unrepentant humans are destroyed, body and soul. This dual picture includes Jesus having, and, by implication, using, the keys of Hades, pulling people out of Hades. A stern warning and a serious, sure, splendid, hope.

Roger Harper

 

Jacob: The Full Story on the way to publication? 27 July

July 27, 2017

Jacob’s life story: feeling weak, cheating, lying, stealing, loving, acquiring, losing, mistrusting, letting go, blessing. A tale of men, women and angels, of wrestling between the sexes, between men, between God and man. A tale of the promises of God, the limits of God, the strange and subtle workings of God. A tale of family, favouritism, fear, fury. A tale of what it means to be human and what it means to be Jewish.

 ‘Jacob – The Full Story’ is the exact Bible story, filled out.

Draft words for the back cover of my next book, I hope

Many people know that Jacob dreamed of a ladder to heaven. Most do not know the message of that dream and whether Jacob heeded it. Many people know that Jacob cheated his twin brother, Esau, out of his blessing. Most do not know whether or how they were ever reconciled. Many people know that Jacob wrestled with God. Most do not know why God was determined to put Jacob on the ground. Many people know that Jacob had his name changed to Israel, Most do not know how Jacob connived in the first genocide. Many people know that Jacob gave his son Joseph an amazing coat. Most do not know how Jacob angered Joseph in blessing his sons. Many people know that Jacob was promised blessing in the land we know as Israel / Palestine. Most do not know how he came to die an alien in Egypt.

As well as recounting and explaining the lesser-known times in Jacob’s life, Jacob – The Full Story, portrays his thoughts and feelings, his conversations with others, and background to the Bible account. Jews have long filled out their Bible stories in a tradition called Midrash. Myjewishlearning.com explains: ‘Midrash is commonly defined as the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah. It is a literature that seeks to ask the questions that lie on the tips of our tongues, and to answer them even before we have posed them.’

Draft beginning of the Introduction.

To find a Publisher, first find an Agent. Publishers won’t read manuscripts from writers, only from Agents. Finding a Book Agent is now a challenge.

Agenthunter.co.uk offers help. (https://www.agenthunter.co.uk/) The website contains details of many UK Book Agents, searchable according to the kind of book you are writing. Jacob: The Full Story can fall into categories of adult fiction, historical fiction, romance, religion. Searching accordingly gave me many names. A good start.

A closer look showed that some of the Agents Hunted do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Some were not even interested in fiction. The searching and the Agent info was not as fine-tuned as I had expected. I was given a long list of names to work through, with little to choose between them.

First on the list, though, was an Agent more likely than most. Some serendipitous coincidences. Her company says ‘no unsolicited…’ but she is quoted as encouraging writers to make bold approaches. Using AgentHunter was helpful. And it was a free trial on the understanding that I would write about it on my blog.

Suddenly, though, my plans were unexpectedly, happily, diverted. A cousin gave me money for Freedom From Torture, the UK charity caring for victims of torture. I used some of the money to go to their ‘Big Street Feast’ at BAFTA, Piccadilly, in June, intending to use the rest on other events of theirs. The Feast turned out to include an Auction. The Auction turned out to include a couple of Writing Workshops with Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With A Pearl Earring and others. The winning bid turned out to be the amount I had left of my cousin’s money. Tracy will help with Jacob: The Full Story.

Smiley face. Very smiley face.

Roger Harper

Surprised By Government Grace: 6 February

February 6, 2017

At the beginning of this year I drove without due care and attention and knocked a man off his motorcycle. He was taken to hospital by ambulance. In other circumstances, what I did could easily have killed him. I tried not to think about how I would live without my driving licence. 

My first reassurance came from the policewoman who attended the crash. She showed no anger or judgement against me, rather care and concern as she made sure everything happened from them on as it should. The injured man’s brother came, furious with me, and she kept him away. She kept coming to me, as I sat in my car, asking if I was OK. Eventually she explained that she was worried that I had my eyes shut. I was praying hard for the man. 

This kind government official took time to phone me a couple of days later. She wanted to reassure me that the man had been discharged from hospital the same day with bruising and some skin damage, nothing more. What a relief! I was, and am, deeply grateful that I live in a country where I had to do nothing to help repair the damage I had caused to this man because it was all taken care of by the government, the NHS. They didn’t even charge it to my insurance. (Maybe they should..?)

The policewoman also said she thought that I would be invited to go on a course rather than face a charge in court. This was great news but seemed to me unlikely, much less than I deserved. She said I would hear within a month. 

Two days later I received the official letter inviting me to register for a course instead of being charged. Another huge relief! The people at the busy government office, understaffed compared with a few years ago and catching up after the holiday period, had made and processed my decision immediately. I was spared even three weeks of wondering. 

I was given a choice of where and when to attend the course. Six of us bad drivers came to learn Driver Alertness. Again no hint of anger or judgement from the trainer. He was calm, respectful, and subtly talked about his own impatience with elements of ‘the system’ to assure us that he understood those of us narked by being there. He focused on the learning, with only a little mention of what we had done. We were keener to talk about our driving ‘incidents’ than he was, starting with waiting in the lobby for the course to begin. 

The trainer gave time and detail to explain a key factor in my crash. This, and him pairing me up with another man with a similar crash, makes me think he knew our crimes. They key factor is that, if we look far left and then far right, our brains fill in the middle without us actually seeing it. (This is true for multi-tasking women as well as for one-track men.) Because I was not looking at the road near me, only at the gap further away, my brain did not register that the motorcyclist was there, so I pulled out. This knowledge is a great relief. There is nothing seriously wrong with me. I suffer from a common human fault of which I need to be aware and to correct. I now look far left, middle left, near left etc. This takes practice but is not too difficult. 

The ‘classroom’ learning was well led, with an impeccable mixture of lecture, delivered sitting, individual and pair exercises. It brought out the complexities of responsibility for driving accidents and therefore the need for all to be alert. We were then paired up and taken on the road by a driving instructor in his car. Mine was a BMW Mini. I have now driven one! (Once is enough.) 

We each drove for about 20 minutes and then the instructor gave his comments. He too was calm, cheerful, making suggestions rather than giving orders. He overrode the instruction given when I first learnt to drive, to move smartly through the gears to 4th. With modern cars especially, it is better to drive at 30mph in 3rd. He said that I would do better not to wait until the last minute to brake for an obstruction ahead. The gentle way he said it made it easy for me to accept. My fellow criminal drove most of the time with one hand on the steering wheel. The instructor picked this up gently and clearly, not arguing when the man said he didn’t think it mattered, but calmly mentioning it again and again. After lunch we drove for longer. The instructor was quick to praise the good, especially the improved, driving. A very helpful day. 

The UK Government has said to me: ‘We’ll take care of the immediate human damage, and make sure you have insurance to take care of the vehicle and maybe longer term human damage.’ (My insurers, NFU Mutual, were also impeccably kind and efficient.) ‘We’re not going to throw the book at you, not this first time. We know people make mistakes driving, we’re with you in that. We don’t want you to feel terrible about your driving, we want you to understand human weakness. We want to help you to drive better.’ 

What an amazing attitude! It’s called grace. Like Jesus who shows care and concern for everyone, aware of the requirements of the Law, but more focused on helping people feel better about themselves. (Jesus knows that most of us, prodded by the devil, feel plenty guilty enough about what we have done.) Jesus who is with us in our guilt, to take care of the damage we have caused, to deal with our accuser, and to help us to live a better, less damaging, life. Jesus who offers us a choice: law or grace, like I was offered the choice of a criminal charge or a helpful course. It’s great news and seems at first too good to be true. .

If our government act, sometimes at least, according to grace, maybe the UK is closer to being a Christian country than I had thought?

Roger Harper