Saturday, July 22, 2006

You Can't Always Get What You Want

When I was young I was a hit with the girls! So much so that, at age two, I was invited by a little girl to her birthday party. She was about four or five years old at the time, and she made it known to her parents that her idea of a dream party would be to have me come along as her guest of honour, which – because I was cheaper than a magician or a trip to the cinema – I duly did. She was not alone at the party, of course. There was a whole gaggle of her little girls friends in attendance too, and I was the star attraction. For a time they attended to my every whim and found it amusing to follow me around wherever I went, allowing me to do whatever I wanted to do. But then they discovered a snag. I wouldn't settle to anything. If one of them picked up a skipping rope, I wanted to skip. If another one picked up a balloon, I wanted to play with it. If someone had a doll, I must have that doll right now. And after a while – of course – they got tired of me, and I had to be rescued by my mother until it was time to have the birthday tea.
What those little girls had discovered was that tiny children always want what someone else has got, and they never want anything for very long. Fortunately for me, of course, I grew out of that phase. Because I've never again been as gorgeous as I was when I was two, I started to get much less attention from girls – but at least I didn't put my friends off so quickly, because I learned that you can't always get what you want.
That's the title of a Rolling Stones song:
You can't always get what you want,
but if you try, sometimes you just might find,
you just might find
you get what you need!
What do you want? England to win the football world cup again? Or maybe a British tennis player to win Wimbledon, just once in your lifetime? Or a winning lottery ticket? Or a perfect romance? Or a satisfying job? Or an easier life? Or a new kitchen? Or a fast car? Or maybe you just want to be healthy, or happy, or to be together with those you love? Maybe you want to put the clock back to a golden time in the past, or to turn the clock forward to a rosier future?
Well, as the Rolling Stones sang, 'You can't always get what you want!' Even when we want good and noble things like world peace, or everyone to agree to put an end to global warming, we can't always get what we want.
Some people's response – when they find out that they aren't going to get what they want – is to give up. They become cynical. Or they become so laid back that they almost fall over. Or they take a couldn't care less attitude to everything.
But if you don't give up, if you try, sometimes you might just find – not that you will get what you want, but that you just might get what you need!
Jesus' friends, the apostles, were having a good time. They had been following Jesus for a year or two, and learning how they could help to continue his work. They were making a difference. They were doing things to make the world a better place, and they were teaching people how to get much more out of life. There was a buzz going on around them. Good things were happening. But there was so much going on, and so many people were coming to them to seek help, that they didn't even have enough time for lunch and dinner breaks. The pressure was constant, and it was getting to them.
So Jesus suggested an away-day. 'Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,' he said, and off they went together in a boat to a deserted part of the lake shore. But you can't always get what you want, can you? 'Many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them,' so that they were just as busy and pressured as they had been before they set off. Jesus realised that he couldn't turn his back on such a crowd of needy people. Instead he had compassion on them. He began to teach them many things, and his original vision for a quiet day went out of the window.
The same thing happened when they moved to a different part of the lakeside. Again, people rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard that Jesus and his friends had gone to stay. In fact, 'wherever [Jesus] went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.'
What was going on here? Jesus and his friends weren't getting the rest which they craved, that's for certain. But were the sick people who were brought to him, and their relatives, friends and carers, getting what they wanted?
Sometimes I guess they were. But I suspect that, even when Jesus was in town, and even when you could touch the fringe of his cloak, you didn't always get what you wanted. Because you don't always get what you want, do you? But if you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need!
These were people who hadn't given up just because they couldn't get what they wanted out of life. They were still prepared to keep on trying – trying to make things better, trying to overcome disease or disadvantage, trying to learn new truths or build a better life, trying to get to Jesus. They had faith that things don't necessarily have to stay the same, and what they had realised was this: if you try, sometimes – not always, but sometimes – you just might find you get what you need!
God doesn't deal with what we want. God is only interested in what we need. Sometimes, what we want and what we need are the same. Sometimes they're very different. And, sometimes, even when we do need something very badly, God still can't meet our needs in the way we might want them to be met. It's only when we've got ourselves to the right place at the right time, so that God's will can be done in us, it's only then that we will get what we need.
You can't always get what you want,
you can't always get what you want,
but if you try, sometimes you just might find,
you just might find,
you get what you need!
[1]Mark 6:30—34 & 53—56

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Death Be Not Proud

Over the last two weeks, the anniversary of the 7th of July – and its aftermath in Beeston – brought to my mind John Donne's poem,
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
The poem is a declaration of faith and hope in the face of all that might otherwise cause us to despair. I remember the words being read out at the end of the TV adaptation of Olivia Manning's novel 'Friends and Heroes', part of her trilogy of books about life in the Balkans during World War II. The scene is an old tramp steamer full of refugees fleeing from Greece as the German army invades. The engines have been cut and the ship bobs silently on the waves, hoping to evade detection by the encircling U-boats. Even the passengers hold their breath, fearing that – at any moment – a torpedo might be skimming across the waves to blow them all to pieces. And then, in the stillness, as the sunset casts an orange glow over the sea, the hero of the novel, Guy Pringle, begins to read aloud from John Donne's poem:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
I guess Fay Weldon, who wrote the adaptation, thought it was a suitably dramatic thing for Guy to do, given that he was supposed to be an English tutor, just like Olivia Manning's real husband. But, again like her real husband, he is also an atheist, and probably the last person in the world who would take comfort himself, or invite others to take comfort in, John Donne's poem. Nevertheless, it made a very affecting ending to the programme, and the scene has stuck in my mind ever since.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
Death is not mighty, says Donne, because it cannot choose when to strike. It is the 'slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men'. It was chance that decreed which people would be passengers in those train carriages, and on that bus In Tavistock Square, on the 7th of July last year; and it was chance which decided which of them would be killed and which would live. It was desperate men who carried out those acts of savagery, and it was the State which then over-reacted and – in its own desperation to prevent further acts of terror – gave the fateful orders to tail and shoot Jean Charles de Menezes. John Donne wrote his poem four hundred years ago, but nothing much has changed. Death is still the 'slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men'.
An atheist like Guy Pringle might not take comfort in John Donne's poem, but – if they ever read the poem – the terrorists might have found echoes of their own reasoning. 'Those, whom thou think'st. thou dost overthrow, die not, poor death,' says Donne, 'Nor yet canst thou kill me.' That thought was surely what must have motivated the terrorists as they triggered their bombs. They must have told themselves that, though they were about to die, yet they were also about to live more full than ever before. Death would not destroy them. They would be translated to Paradise.
Just as 'much pleasure' flows from rest and sleep – which are only pale imitations of death – so much more pleasure must surely flow from death itself, reasons Donne, as he looks forward to everlasting life in God. This kind of reasoning is, of course, one of the things which makes religious fanaticism so dangerous. The most ardent believers are never afraid of dying because they believe that, no matter how good their prospects might be here and now, they will certainly improve after their death. And isn't that what all religious believers are supposed to think, except that – unlike the terrorists – we don't believe it's our job to give God a helping hand and bring death on!
John Donne was himself a Church of England clergyman and never a fanatic of any kind, but – be that as it may – he strikes yet more cords with the way that modern terrorists think. He says, 'Soonest, our best men with thee do go.' He means that it is usually the best and most committed believers who tend to take the greatest risks, and do the bravest deeds, and who have the least care for their own health and safety. He's not, of course, advocating that believers should be reckless, or that they should seek out death. He's merely giving poetic expression to a fact of life – that, on average, where people are more concerned about the well-being of others than they are about themselves, they will tend to die sooner than those whose only concern is for their own self-preservation. That's not just common sense, of course, it's also a central plank of the Christian's understanding of how we should all live and die. Still, it's more than a little disconcerting to think that Muhammad Saddique Khan probably encouraged his own recruits with the same basic idea that only the good die young.
These reminders of the ways in which religion can be twisted by the terrorist mindset are bound to disappoint and dismay us, but fortunately, like John Donne, I have been able to save the best part of the poem until last. 'Death shall be no more,' says Donne. 'Death thou shalt die.'
In saying this Donne doesn't mean to cheapen death or to deny its impact. I'm never happy, when people ask me at funerals to read poems which tell us that death is not real – that the person who has died is not actually gone – because that it untrue. We do have to confront the pain and loss which death inflict because, if we are not honest with ourselves, we shall never learn to cope with them. Pretending that death does not really matter is never a solution to grief.
This, however, is not what John Donne is trying to tell us. He's not denying the reality of suffering and death, only challenging their permanence. Death is for real, but it is not forever. It will be overcome. Death, too, shall die.
Donne is referring, of course, to the resurrection – to the central Christian conviction that, from God's perspective, no one dies forever because we always live on in the mind of God himself and so, at the deepest and most profound level of our existence, we shall all meet one another again in God, even after we have died. And, eventually, there will be no more dying, or grieving or pain. For all these former things shall pass away and only life and love will endure.
Yet there is another sense in which John Donne's words are also true. 'Death, thou shalt die' is a reminder that nothing which death achieves can ever be permanent. There will always be some kind of new life springing up in spite of death, to replace the life which has been lost and to challenge and negate death's achievements. This is what King Herod discovered, to his chagrin, when Jesus appeared in Galilee, preaching a message of Good News from God which was not unlike the message of John the Baptist, whom Herod had only just silenced. He had thought that John's troublesome teaching was gone for good, but here was the same kind of thing being proclaimed all over again. [1]
How many times will people like King Herod need to kill the prophets of God in order to silence their message? The answer, of course, is that the message can never be silenced. The Herods of this world would have to go on killing good men and women until the end of time if they really wanted to keep God's messengers silent.
I think this is the abiding lesson for people in Beeston as we look back on the 7th of July. 2005. The terrorists hoped that their bombs, and the threat of more like them, would call into question the Government's policy of attacking members of the Muslim community in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even that limited aim has not succeeded. If anything, like Pharaoh when he was challenged by the ten plagues in Egypt, Tony Blair has only hardened his heart and become more determined than ever not to give way.
On a broader canvass, I suspect the terrorists also imagined that death and destruction could make a difference where positive or non-violent means of protest don't succeed. They failed to appreciate that the ideas of peaceful protest, co-existence and non-violence, which they thought they could overthrow, cannot be so easily killed off.
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And, soonest, our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls' delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
[1] Mark 6.14-29

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Touching and Being Touched by Jesus

In this week's lectionary story [1] we see some extraordinary scenes of high drama. First a leader of the synagogue falls at Jesus' feet and begs him for help, not once but repeatedly. How undignified! What must the other villagers have thought?
No doubt some sneered to see him brought low, but others must have felt sorry for him. His daughter wasn't really little. She was twelve years old – almost a grown up by the standards of the time. So, unless she was remarkably short, the expression, 'my little girl' has got to be a term of endearment, a sign of the man's great love for his daughter. Later, Jesus borrows the same turn of phrase himself when he goes to heal her.
The story contradicts the idea we sometimes have that women were not valued in the ancient world. Here we see that fathers could love their daughters every bit as much as they loved their sons.
As the scene unfolds, a woman turns out to be so ill, and so desperate, that she is prepared to sneak up on Jesus just to touch his clothes as he goes by. And, when she is found out, she too ends up falling down before him – this time in fear and trembling. Not only that, but she blurts out the whole embarrassing story about her illness, about the misery which the doctors have caused her instead of making her better, and about her shortage of money. But, unlike Jairus, it's not desperation which causes her to fall at Jesus' feet. It is alarm that he might be about to punish her. What must the other villagers have said to one another as they listened to her story?
For the whole of the time that the little girl had been growing up in the village, this woman had been battling to overcome her illness. Where had her money come from? Again we are often told that – in the ancient world – women had no money unless they were widows. But the money to treat her illness might have been given to her by her husband so, again, perhaps she was valued and loved just as much as Jairus' daughter.
She discovers, to her embarrassment, that it isn't possible to be a secret friend of Jesus. His disciples try to reason with him when he demands to know who touched his clothes. There is a huge crowd pressing round them. It could have been anyone. But Jesus continues looking all round, searching for the needy person who has found wholeness by believing in him. She must come out into the open, so that others can know she has at last found peace and so that her own faith can be affirmed.
Then, there's the way that Jesus brusquely throws the mourners out of the house, accusing them of making a commotion – a fuss about nothing. 'Jairus' daughter is not dead,' he tells them. She's only sleeping. We know exactly what they thought. Tears of sorrow turned to scornful and derisive laughter. Jesus must have lost his marbles. He must be several knives and forks short of a full picnic set! And yet, to everyone's amazement, the girl gets up and immediately begins to walk about.
What are we to make of this? Even if the girl wasn't really dead, but only in a coma or unconscious, it is remarkable that she should be walking around and eating food straight after meeting Jesus. And if she was dead, is this a promise that all of us are only sleeping when we die and will one day wake up again and be with Jesus?
In some ways these stories of dramatic healing can seem strange to us because we are not used to such things, but in other ways the stories are oddly familiar. Today illness continues to have huge implications not just for the person who is unwell, but for their family too. The lives of carers can be blighted by strain and sadness as they watch a loved one, especially a child, slowly succumb to ill health. Or families can be bankrupted by the cost of having someone who needs urgent or expensive treatment, such as a new wonder drug not available on the National Health Service, or when one of the family breadwinners can no longer earn a living.
The transformation in the lives of the two women is also a reminder of the way that encountering Jesus always transforms the life of the believer – sometimes in very dramatic ways. Meeting Jesus is never a non-event.
And the story is a reminder of Jesus' openness to women. They are certainly every bit as important to him as the men he meets. But then we have also seen how important his daughter was to Jairus, and how important the woman must have been to whoever paid for her expensive treatment. If we proclaim Jesus as the first male supporter of feminism, as some Christian feminists have been tempted to do, are we perhaps being unfair to some of the other men in Palestine at the same time?
Finally, the thing that makes Jesus' experience of the story different from our own understanding of it is that he would have seen both the woman and the girl as ritually unclean. The woman would have been seen as unclean, or unholy, because of her illness, the child because she was dead. To touch or be touched by them was supposedly to be cut off from God. Or, at least, that was the standard view at the time. In challenging him to work a miracle for them, Jairus and the woman knowingly ask Jesus to overlook that risk. But, of course, Jesus knows something they don't know, but we do. These things do not cut us off from God. God's love is no different from our love. Like our families and our true friends, God goes on loving us come what may. In fact, God's love is broader and deeper than our love. Nothing can cut us off from it at all. When Jesus asked, 'Who touched me?' it was not so that he could complain about being made unclean. It was so that he could celebrate the breaking down of yet another barrier between people. In him we are all one.
[1] Mark 5.21-43