Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mothering Sunday

Gerard Hughes, who wrote the wonderful book, God of Surprises, paints a picture of a character he calls Good Old Uncle George. To look at, this gentleman bears a passing resemblance to Santa Claus, and indeed Uncle George encourages you to ask for presents, although you soon realise you never get quite what you wanted. One day, while you are still young and impressionable, your parents take you to visit Good Old Uncle George. Mum and Dad tell you that they love Uncle George very very much, though you can’t help noticing they seem somewhat nervous in his company. After a bit of polite chit-chat, Uncle George asks you if you’d like him to show you around his house, and there’s something about his voice that suggests to you that you had better say ‘yes’. And so he takes you downstairs to the basement. The deeper you get, the hotter it gets, and you begin to hear some dreadful screams. Good Old Uncle George explains that he loves you very much, and he insists that you visit him once a week. As he says that, he opens the door to the basement, in which reluctant men, women and children are being thrown into pools of molten brimstone by maniacally-laughing demons. ‘And this is exactly what will happen to you if you don’t behave yourself, or if you don’t visit me every week’, Uncle George tells you with a genial smile. On the way home in the car with mum and dad you’re probably feeling a little subdued, but then mum asks you, ‘are you beginning to love Uncle George with all your heart and soul and mind and strength yet?’, and of course you answer, ‘abso-cotton-pickin’-lutely’.

Gerard Hughes is making a very important point, which is that our mental image of God makes a huge difference. If deep down we think God looks and acts a bit like Uncle George – as Hughes suggests many Christians have been brought up to do – if we think of God, in other words, as an unstable lunatic who pretends he dotes on you but secretly is just waiting for you to put a foot wrong and then – bam! – if that’s really what we think God is like then we also start acting in ways that are capricious, judgemental and contradictory. If your image of God is that of a stern judge who sees everything you do and doesn’t like it very much, then that makes it harder for you to love and forgive yourself, and you gradually learn to project feelings of inadequacy and guilt onto the people around you.

But Gerard Hughes’s cartoon image of God is compounded even further when Jesus comes on to the scene. Because in much of the traditional theology of the church, God – aka Good Old Uncle George – has been having a hissy fit for the last 6,000 years or so, in fact ever since Adam and Eve liked the look of those apricots (apples are so boring, did you know the word ‘apricot’ comes from the same Latin roots as ‘precocious’? Now that’s a more sinful-sounding fruit). So grumpy, in fact, that God’s just about ready to give the whole thing up and go and make another galaxy when Jesus comes along and says, ‘come on Dad, isn’t it about time to let bygones be bygones’? But God is determined that somebody somewhere is going to have to pay. So Jesus makes a tricky deal – ‘well, what say I go down there and become one of them, and then you can take it out on me? Real blood and gore, I know how much you like that’. It’s an offer that Good Old Uncle George can’t refuse, so he says, ‘OK, but they’re going to have to be pathetically grateful!’

You’ll have guessed I don’t buy any of this. I don’t buy the idea of God as Uncle George, and I don’t buy the idea that Jesus had to suffer and die because God couldn’t let us get away with being less than perfect. There are better ways of understanding what it means for God to take on human form in Jesus of Nazareth that emphasise not how disappointed God is in us, but how desperately God loves and needs us, how tenderly God cares for us. And when we start to see it this way around, we find we also need a human metaphor, an image of God that’s a bit closer to the mark than Good Old Uncle George is.

And so we look around us for a way of describing a God whose love and care for creation is so unconditional that – far from God acting towards us in ways that are capricious and vengeful, God always stays in love with us even when we ourselves act in ways that are violent and self-centred. Which means God is vulnerable to us in the same way a loving parent is vulnerable and is so often hurt by the behaviour of a wilful toddler or a self-centred teenager. And so it seems natural to imagine God as a loving parent who perseveres with us despite our temper tantrums, whose discipline is always intended to strengthen us and help us grow in character, in resilience and in love. When it comes down to it, we humans can only think in human terms, and when we want to imagine a God who loves us as least as much as any human being could ever love us, then for many Christians it’s natural to think of God as a parent.

There are, however, a couple of flies in the ointment. And the first is that the Bible comes to us from a world that was rigidly, almost without exception, dominated by men. We do find some strong female characters in the Old Testament, think of Rebecca or Ruth or Bathsheba – but mostly the contribution of women in Old Testament stories is to have children, and then fade into the background. Which is not to say that’s what they did in real life! But in the culture of the ancient Near East, where women were regarded in the same way as possessions, God was virtually always imagined as masculine, as a Father with the masculine quality of strength, as a protector rather than a nurturer. And because the masculine bias of the Bible has been carried through, almost into our own time, with a masculine bias in Western culture, when we talk about God in church much of the language also emphasises the power and transcendence of God, and for many Christians it seems natural to continue the tradition of talking about God as a ‘he’. Jesus himself used the Aramaic word for ‘Daddy’, ‘Abba’, to talk to and about God, and that can be a strong and tender way for us to think about God, especially if our experience of our own fathers has been loving and protective.

Except that if we only think of God as a father, then we miss the whole world of meaning that might open up if we allow ourselves also to think of God as a mother. In recent years, Bible scholars have found many of the rare and tender passages in both the Old and New Testaments that speak about God in feminine terms, like in Hosea, chapter 11, where God assures Israel that she is like one who lifts an infant up to her cheek for a kiss, like one who nurses a baby - or in Isaiah chapter 42, where God protests that she experiences the pain of Judah’s exile like a woman gasping in the pangs of labour. And in the New Testament Jesus also uses feminine images to describe God’s compassion, comparing God to a woman who searches her house from top to bottom, looking for a lost coin, or speaking words of comfort to the doomed city of Jerusalem, who he longed to shelter like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing. When we want to express our understanding of God’s presence within creation, and the intimacy of our relationship with God, then imagining God as a mother is natural and helpful.

But then there’s the second fly in the ointment, which is that none of our human relationships are perfect. Whether we think of God as a mother, or as a father, we remember that our earliest relationships that form us as human beings and teach us how to be independent and how to love – can also be fraught with pain and regret. For many Christians, the idea of God as a father – or God as a mother – can’t help but be associated with the pain of loss, or the anger and bewilderment of betrayal. I sometimes wonder how helpful it is to tell a person that God is like a father, if for that person Dad was never home, or worse, if Dad took out his own feelings of inadequacy in acts of domestic violence. Or how helpful it is to tell a person that God is like a mother, if that person is unable to have children of her own, or if he is carrying around a load of pain because his birth mother couldn’t care for him. On Mothering Sunday we need to recognise the ways in which God’s love is like that of a mother, but we also need to remember, to forgive or to ask forgiveness in our hearts for all the ways in which our own experience of motherhood has been a source of pain or regret.

Ultimately, we can’t claim God as a mother – or as a father – without recognising that God’s relationship with us gathers up both the positives and the negatives of our human experience. To call God our Mother is to make motherhood holy, to gather up both the joy of intimacy as well as the bitterness of alienation into the place where healing is possible; it is to make a profoundly theological claim that at the same time deepens our understanding of God’s tenderness and involvement in our lives, and recognises our human relationships as the arena of God’s love and forgiveness.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Being born again

You might have seen on the evening news a few days ago the story of a little girl who was afraid of the dark. So she thought about it, and then she walked into a local pharmacy and said she wanted something to get rid of the monsters that came into her bedroom at night. Luckily, she had come across a very understanding pharmacist, because they mixed up a solution for her right on the spot – ‘Monster Spray’, the label read: spray around bed at night before going to sleep.

I wish I’d had some of that when I was five. I distinctly remember waking in the middle of the night rigid with terror that the extra dark lump behind the door was – well, a monster. Even when I woke in the morning and saw that my dressing gown hanging behind the door was exactly the same shape as my monster – well, it still might have been.

Things look different at night. Also, I think, we ourselves are different at night. Our daytime selves are more confident, more professional, more focussed. At night we are more receptive, less certain of ourselves. For the writer of John’s Gospel the difference between day and night is also symbolic – the truth is like the light coming on or the Sun rising, night is when the truth is hidden or submerged, it is the time of doubt, of betrayal – but also, as in this story of Nicodemus, the time when certainties become less fixed, when differences blur.

Nicodemus comes at night for a very good reason. He is a Pharisee, a religious professional and an important man. He has a day job with responsibilities and doesn’t want to be seen as flaky. At night, he is just Nicodemus, afraid of the dark and needing some reassurance. Who is Jesus, and what does he have to offer? Nicodemus is spiritually open and wants to know more – and yet he is cautious, he needs to keep his interest in Jesus under wraps, separate from his public life. When Jesus says to Nicodemus: ‘this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world and yet people preferred to live in the dark’ – we understand that for Nicodemus, the critical moment of his life is this night-time encounter with Jesus. How will it change him?

Nicodemus is a sympathiser who the Gospels never describe as a disciple. It is Nicodemus who, in chapter seven defends Jesus strongly before the temple police and the chief priests and who in chapter 19 anoints Jesus body for burial with a mixture of costly spices. Nicodemus is not inconsistent, he is not without courage, but he is a curiously modern sort of phenomenon – the person of integrity and faith but who keeps that faith within strict boundaries, the person who keeps his faith in the private sphere, separate from his public responsibilities. It’s not that he doesn’t put his money where his mouth is, but he balances his roles and responsibilities in different compartments like a modern Christian who is also a boss or an employee, maybe a member of a sporting club or a political party, a voter and a ratepayer and a parent. For centuries, churches have bought into the notion that faith is a good thing for family and personal morality, but needs to be kept quiet about in public. There are lots of Nicodemus’s around, many of us, perhaps even most of us from time to time find it comfortable and expedient to retreat into a sort of Nicodemus position when the going gets tough.

But Jesus says to Nicodemus, in effect, that his faith is too small, too tentative. Jesus is uncompromising – have you ever noticed? You’d think he would have been flattered and impressed that this important man was prepared to make an appointment and come to see him privately, off-duty, and take instruction from him. You’d think Jesus would see this as a pretty good start, ‘hey, the message is starting to cut through. We can work together, the religious elites and me’. But no, Jesus tells Nicodemus without even bothering to be too subtle about it, ‘your faith is incomplete, immature. It isn’t a grown-up faith, you are like a child who wants to stay safe inside its mother’s womb. You are still gestating,’ Jesus points out, fairly disparagingly, Nicodemus might have thought. ‘You’re not even ready to be born yet. In fact, that’s what needs to happen – you need to come to birth.’

Jesus even pokes fun at the important Pharisee when he doesn’t immediately get the point of his metaphor. ‘What, you call yourself a teacher?’ Trouble is, it’s a very slippery metaphor and I don’t think Nicodemus is alone in not working it out. He seems to want to tease it out by taking it literally – ‘huh? When you’re born, you’re born. You can’t do it again surely?’ His question focusses on the how and the what – what am I supposed to do to make it happen? And of course this has become one of those hot-button issues for Christians today also. ‘Are you born again?’, means ‘are you the right kind of Christian?’ Have you made a decision for Jesus? And of course for people who aren’t Christians at all, ‘are you born again?’, just means, ‘are you a fruitcake?’.

Of course Nicodemus should have got it. Jews of the time used this sort of language non-literally, referring to themselves for example as sons and daughters of Abraham. The typical ancient understanding was that the character of the parent was revealed in the child, so a son or daughter of Abraham was one in whom God’s promises to Abraham bear fruit, one in whose life we see the fruit of faithfulness. Jesus says to Nicodemus, ‘you must be born again’. But he is also saying, ‘you must be born from above’. The delightfully ambiguous Greek word he uses, anothen, has both of those meanings. At the level of repartee or conversation, Jesus is making a skilful play on words. But the question Nicodemus should have been asking is not, ‘well, how do I do that’, but ‘if I need to come to birth, then of what must I be born?’. What brings me to birth? If I am gestating, if I am growing in the womb, then who bears me? If I need to be born – again, or from above – what is going to change in me?

One of the ways this has often been understood is that in order to be ‘saved’ I simply need to ‘come to Jesus’, or accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. I don’t disagree, but I don’t think goes deep enough. It’s a bit of a ‘tick and flick’ formula – ‘yes, done that’. In his wonderful book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg helpfully points out that the image of being born again is very close to the other image that Jesus talks about, and demonstrates for us – dying and rising again. In other words, to be born again is fundamentally a new beginning, it means dying to an old way of being and being born into a whole new way of being. We need to die to the old, self-centred, way of being in order that we can enter a way of being that is centred in the sacred, in Christ and in the Spirit, in God. So its more organic, it goes deeper than just agreeing to the claim that Jesus is my Saviour.

In this sense, being born again really does mean the same thing as being born from above, or from within. Because it means a fundamental shift in what lies at the centre of our lives and what we understand gives us life. Marcus Borg also writes about what it means to believe – it’s not just what we agree to, he says – belief is not just what we think because it is about faithfulness and trust. Belief in God is not just agreeing with the idea of God, but experiencing ourselves as living out of the reality of God. In this sense, belief isn’t something that we can do all at once, but something that grows in us as our relationship with God grows. So being born again – or born from above – is not just a moment, not just a conversion experience that we can look back on and say, ‘yes it happened last September’, but a lifetime of growth towards a new way of being marked by freedom, joy, peace and love. All of which means that ‘being born again’ is not something we do – for example by making a decision for Jesus – as something that we grow towards – just like, in fact, is always the case in childbirth. Babies don’t decide to be born, after all, their part is to wait, and to grow, and to trust. It’s not our initiative, in other words, but God’s.

So are we, in fact, born again or are we, like Nicodemus, still groping in the dark, sometimes resisting and holding back, sometimes trusting and allowing ourselves to be drawn forward to new birth? That sounds more authentic, to me, because gestation needs time and the miracle of birth is preceded by the slow-motion miracles of growth and empathy and love. I wonder what happens next, for Nicodemus? Does this late-night conversation mark the beginning of the journey that will result in the whole of his life, not just compartments of it, flowing from the well-spring that is God? Quite possibly, and if that is how it is for Nicodemus then there’s hope, isn’t there, that it might be like that for us as well.


Friday, March 07, 2014

Lent 1: A Tale of Two Gardens

I remember having to write an essay in junior high school on a witty aphorism by – I don’t really remember, maybe James Thurber or G. K. Chesterton – who wrote: The only thing natural for human beings is to be artificial. I’m not sure a classroom full of 14 year old boys really got the point, but it’s true, isn’t it? What makes us human is our need to change and use and transform stuff in order to surround ourselves with an environment we have made for ourselves. For example, somebody flies over a perfectly good and beautiful mountain range and realises the magnetic compasses are going crazy, which means there’s iron ore down there. So we blow it up and we tear it up and make train lines and deep water ports and we extract the ore and ship it out and sell it, and the steel gets turned into towns and factories and machinery that we use for tearing stuff out of the ground and selling it.

This is not wrong – being blessed with vulnerable, relatively powerless bodies but with a restless, powerful intelligence and juxtaposable thumbs means that human beings are naturally toolmakers and artificers. We look for a way of weaving safety and advantage for ourselves out of what we’ve got. Both the story from Genesis this morning, and the Gospel reading, recognise that and play with the idea that all that restless human energy also needs limits. Today in fact, we have a tale of two gardens.

If you were here on Wednesday evening you will already know the connection between the tale of the first garden – Eden – and the liturgy with which we enter the season of Lent. Lent itself is not in the Bible – it’s a season of the Church year and the word itself, ‘Lent’, comes from the Anglo-Saxon for spring. So Lent is a sort of spring-time of the soul – at least in the original, northern hemisphere understanding of these things. In the southern hemisphere we have a more profound way of connecting Lent with the seasons as a deepening of the days, the lengthening of shadows and the release of the land from the deadly torpor of summer. It is a time of regathering, restoring, mulching and pruning of the soul.

So we start with a tale of two gardens. You might not have much trouble imagining Eden as a garden – the Bible tells us that’s what it is - but notice that it is a garden not yet touched by human hands or secateurs, a pristine wilderness planted by God with everything in it needed to sustain life. If your idea of a garden is neatly laid out and well-turned beds, weeded, pruned, reticulated and fertilised – well, that’s the artifice that we humans do so naturally. Eden isn’t that sort of garden. But the wilderness Jesus finds himself in after his baptism, when he is led by the Spirit, as Matthew tells us, or driven out, as Mark puts it, to be tested in the desert. That you might not think of as a garden but it, too, contains all that is needful.

Both Eden and the desert of temptation are wilderness states, which is to say there are wild places that human hands have not made, and so they reconnect us with our original dependence on God’s provision. In our contemporary state of heightened ecological awareness of the vulnerability of creation both Eden and the desert are also original states that represent the planet we live on – untouched and vulnerable to our wrong choices, our runaway greed.

It’s a commonplace for Biblical commentators to point out that Jesus’ 40 days in the desert are a sort of re-run of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. At every turn, the Israelites make wrong choices, turn away from God, and only the intercession of Moses pulls them through. Jesus undergoes the same testing in the wilderness, and he makes the right choices. But the testing in the desert is also a re-run of the testing of the original humans in Eden. For all its danger and sparseness, the desert is a place of beauty, a place that sustains both soul and body, and a place in which fantasies and dreams are confronted. Not for nothing were the desert Fathers in Egypt in the fourth century the foundation of Christian disciplines of spirituality. Not for nothing do men and women even today retreat to the desert for contemplation and renewal.

As I noted on Wednesday evening, the essence of the sin of Eden was for the man and woman to place themselves at the centre of their own moral universe – and in doing so they are appalled to discover that there is nothing much there. They are running on empty – as the story of Genesis figuratively expresses it they discover themselves to be defenceless, unarmed, see-through-able, naked. When we set ourselves up as the centre of our own experience, we soon discover that we are standing on nothing. And the consequence of that is an existential vacuum – the universe collapses into nothingness and meaninglessness – the consequence is the death of meaning. This, of course, is a quintessentially modern malaise.

Jesus undergoes a series of tests that make the same point. Incidentally, the structure of the story of Jesus’ testing follows another ancient literary genre – the ordeal that the hero must undergo in order to be purified and worthy of the quest. And the ordeal always begins with a ritualised weakening of the candidate, for example by fasting. One commentator makes the point that hunger is not just a physical condition but the measure of what it means to be a human being (Swanson: Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). In Eden, God breathes life into Adam and makes him a creature of desire, driven by the needs that hunger provokes. So the test for Jesus is to be completely and utterly human, to face the reality of emptiness, of hunger and thirst, and to learn in that condition of need to remain dependent only on God his Creator. Which of course was also the test in Eden. It is telling that the temptations attack Jesus in the everyday places of need, the places in which we human beings work so hard to weave security for ourselves – the places of weakness and hunger and the desire for mastery and control. What the story is telling us is that these are the sacred spaces of our own spiritual struggle and growth – not the imagined sins or weaknesses of others, not the feel-good spirituality of the church pew but the places in our lives where the struggle gets personal and the outcomes are stark.

And so to the temptations. ‘Turn these stones into bread’. It’s the human dream, isn’t it? We look at the stones in the desert and we see iron ore, or oil shale. We look at the low yield and the disease susceptibility of grains grown by poor farmers and we see the promise of genetically modified super-cereals. We look at burgeoning cities strangling the natural catchment areas of rivers and we invent sophisticated water purification plants and drill deeper into subterranean aquifers. We are in love with our own technology and we forget that the goodness of the Earth is a fragile gift. Our technological dreaming causes us to forget our dependence on the Creator of all that is, and our interrelationship with all the living systems of the Earth. And so our dreams of transforming the Earth wreak damage on the environment just as we also are alienated from our own Self. Jesus’ words are a reminder that physical need in all its forms is an ever-present part of the created condition. Being blessed means not putting reliance on self, or reliance on science, or reliance on government, in the place of radical reliance on God.

‘Throw yourself down from the Temple’. The devil suggests that Jesus is special, so special in fact that God will prevent even a stubbed toe. It’s the temptation of spiritual pride, which, again, is a subtle way of putting our own selves at the centre, not God. The devil is telling Jesus that he can, effectively, blackmail God. Throw yourself over the edge and dare God to catch you. This is the dark side of putting ourselves at the centre of our own world. Because if I’m at the centre, then the world can’t exist without me. In philosophy it’s a simple fallacy called solipsism. If I can’t see it, then it’s not there. My dog expresses it even more beautifully by hiding – just her head, because she’s too big to get her whole body under the bed – when I call her for a bath. But, says Jesus, reality belongs to God. Beloved as you are, your life is lived in the matrix of gravity and cells and DNA, your physicality is a part of who you are and you are subject to the limitations of all that breathes until your life is hidden in God’s own life.

‘All this, then, I will give you if you worship me’. Remember Faust, who makes his deal with the devil and gets long life and success and riches in return for – well, the one thing that really wasn’t his to bargain with. We do, however, make Faustian bargains with God – or try to – when we make our worship conditional on God doing this or that. Jesus reminds us that who we are – and who God is – are absolutes. The centre of our life – and the greatest commandment – is to love the Lord our God with all our strength and being – and from that flows the web of relationships with other people, and with the whole of creation, that constitute our own life.

The radical dependence on God that Jesus is teaching doesn’t come easily to the DIY species. We’d rather depend on our ingenuity, or our credit card, or even the certainty that one day soon I must win Lotto. Lent – the deepening of the days – calls us back from all that to the remembrance that God is God and I am me. The desert in one form or another – a physical desert or a self-imposed desert of stripping back in some way the artifice of our lives – is the essential place to start. And the desert of Lent is experienced – if you enter it with joy – as a garden. When Jesus had answered the devil for the third time, the devil retreated, St Mark tells us, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.

Welcome to Lent.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is a day of contradictions. Has it ever struck you as strange that we come to church and hear the reading from the Gospel in which Jesus tells us to keep our piety a secret – when you fast, Jesus says, keep it to yourself. Don’t look miserable, wash your face and brighten yourself up and wear a smile – don’t wear your piety like a badge – so we listen solemnly to this then we go home with dirty faces and the unmistakeable badge of penitence. When I first became an Anglican my parish did their Ash Wednesday service early in the morning, so all day we wore the mark of the ashes for everyone to see.

It’s a contradiction of moods, as well. As a priest, the act of making the sign of the cross in ashes on the foreheads on men and women more holy than I am is humbling and confronting. The words themselves don’t seem to be designed for maximum reassurance. ‘Remember’, I say to the frail octogenarian and the oblivious small child alike – ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return’. This is telling it like it is, isn’t it? We live in a culture that denies death, idolises youth and tries unsuccessfully to hide the fact that we are impermanent. We don’t even like to say straight out that somebody has died – they ‘pass away’, they ‘pass over’, or these days, increasingly, people just ‘pass’. Ash Wednesday causes us distress because it rubs our faces in our mortality, or more accurately, it rubs our mortality in our faces. Both our mortality and our sinfulness. Ash Wednesday informs us of the fact that we would like to pretend we are not aware of – that we will die. And the fact that we bring death on ourselves when we live as though we have forgotten in whose image we are made.

Ash Wednesday forces us to be realistic about ourselves. Our culture is not only death denying – the other side of the same coin is the unrealistic belief that we are in control of our own lives. This is because our culture has absorbed the ideology of individualism, the ideology that we are at the centre of our own moral universe. It’s been a gradual process, replacing God. According to medieval theology I exist, because before I ever exist, God knows me. The Age of Enlightenment drew the circle a little bit closer in and decided that I exist because I am the rational observer of all I see: I think, therefore I am. The Age of Self replaces both God and rationalism: I spend money, so I know I’m alive. But deep down we know that our grasp on reality has become shaky. We can no more pretend to be sufficient unto ourselves than we can wish away our own mortality. Deep down I know the moments in my life when I have taken what was not meant for me, placed myself at the centre instead of God, refused to be who I was created to be, valued things more than relationships, and failed to love as I have been loved. Every one of those moments is a sort of death. Ash Wednesday confronts me with my wilful neglect of others, my self-centredness, and the false images of the world around me with which I distract myself. And invites me to radically re-order my life – repent, says the liturgy, and believe the Gospel.

This is another reason Ash Wednesday is uncomfortable. Not content with pointing out to me that I will die – that I am not, in fact, the centre of all I experience – Ash Wednesday informs me that I must repent. The first part of the injunction comes from Genesis, chapter three, God’s chilling reminder to human creatures expelled from Eden. But the second half – repent, and believe the good news – these in Mark’s Gospel are the first words that Jesus speaks, his mission statement, the agenda of Jesus’ ministry, in effect. And they go together – our awareness of the ways in which we go wrong, and the realisation that in order to grasp the good news that Jesus embodies, we need to turn ourselves around. The words of the imposition remind us that we have chosen death, but are nevertheless offered life.

The Creeds that we recite in our worship are the key to how we understand this, because they remind us that our sinfulness is not the main thing but the faithfulness of the God who refuses to relinquish us. The mark of Ash Wednesday is not an indelible smudge of inadequacy, but a joyful exclamation mark, because the One by whose holiness we are created continues to invite us into new life. Genesis chapter three reminds us that the consequence of seizing the prerogative that belongs to God – eating of the tree of knowledge in other words, which is an allegory for placing ourselves at the centre of our own moral universe – can only be death. But it is a penalty that is subverted by God’s care for the human creatures whose presumption results primarily in a sudden uncomfortable awareness of their own vulnerability.

When the man and the woman eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the net effect of their new-found knowledge is simply this: they know themselves to be revealed, transparent, defenceless and naked in the world. So what does God do? God clothes them, just as surely and beautifully as, Jesus reminds us, God clothes the lilies and the birds. They cannot live any longer in the garden of naivety because they are separated from it by their own lop-sided and lacerating new self-knowledge, but as the following chapters of Genesis make clear, neither does the God who drives them out of the garden remain in Eden himself. Instead, God goes with his human children into the turmoil of uncertainty, and the bittersweet mess of sorrow and joy that we call real life. "This," writes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, "is not a simple story of human disobedience and divine displeasure. It is rather the story about the struggle God has in responding to the facts of human life. When the facts imply death, God insists on life for God’s creatures". And so, says Mark’s Gospel: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news’. (Mark 1:15)

All we are called to do is to be who we are created to be. We actually only need only to be human, a simple matter of being in relationship with God and other human beings. And the story that calls us together and forms us is the story of a God who knows that we are imperfect and who refuses to stop caring for us despite our lovelessness. A God who comes with us down the corridors of our isolating self-delusion, and who never relinquishes the divine dream that the relationships that are our true purpose might grow and thrive and that we might indeed have life.

Ash Wednesday – the imposition that isn’t an imposition at all. Tell you what, when you get home tonight, wash off the dirty mark, put on a bright face, and smile. The all-too-human failures of your life are just another reason for God to keep working on you.