Baking, Brexit and the multicultural hope

(Spoiler Alert: If you are a fan of the BBC show ‘The Great British Bake-Off’, please note that the winner of that competition is named below…just in case you haven’t seen it yet.)

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I have just come back from a week’s vacation in Britain. Our kids were delighted to see me back, along with my youngest child. I suspect part of that was because they love us, and I know that it was also because I arrived with a suitcase filled with British ‘sweets’. Each bag of ‘Jelly Babies’ and ‘Chocolate Fingers’ is a nostalgia trip all of its own, taking me back to a childhood spent in small town England, where even the weather was about average. It was Thomas Wolfe who said ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’, writing of an author who writes a book with frequent and less than flattering references to his home town, much to the chagrin of its residents. One of the points of the novel is that it is hard to live into a life that you no longer can find yourself in. As I wandered along the aisles of the grocery store, picking out packets of unnecessarily high calorific value one at a time to the giddy delight of my five-year old daughter, I did question what it was that I was up to. You can’t eat your way back into the past, although I think there are some of us who have tried.

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It turned out that the topic of food and belonging was high on the national agenda the week we were there. The BBC were expecting their highest ratings of the year for the final of the ‘Great British Bake-Off‘. Three newly minted mini-celebrities in their own right were competing to claim the other crown available to subjects of a monarchical system of government – the crown of public hero number one. The British love a common man or woman hero, and the eventual winner of the bake-off was right in that mold, Candice Brown, a physical education teacher in her local public school, a somewhat ironic profession for someone who has now beguiled a nation into eating themselves into the winter and perhaps beyond. She cried when she won and I suspect one or two others did with her. Record viewing figures of people watching three strangers bake on national television.It’s a great and odd story all at the same time.

brexitThe other major story – which seems to be always the other major story on that side of the pond – was Brexit. I think that it is safe to say that the United Kingdom is now officially in the depth of the Brexit-blues. In the space of our singular week there all of the major banks had threatened to leave London’s financial heartland for a more Euro-friendly destination on the continent; Prime Minister, Theresa May, was revealed to have warned Goldman Sachs in a private gathering of directors of the perils of a ‘leave vote’ before the summer referendum only to be all but silent during the then Cameron government’s public push for the remain campaign; and British Universities had seen a 9%-12% drop in EU applicants for their places the coming academic year. Incidents of racist hate speech, intimidation of ethnic minorities, and shameful comments made by one individual that refugee children from the just-closed ‘Jungle’ encampment in Calais were staying ‘three days too long’ in his Kent village while they were being processed for settlement in the UK brought the week’s sorry news cycle to an unsavory end.

It is safe to say that Brexit has laid bare how right Angela Merkel was when she publicly stated a couple of years ago that multiculturalism was a failed experiment. Add to that the rhetoric of our own presidential race, and it can be argued that much of the progress that we had taken for granted had been won in terms of multi-ethnic diversity and integration, women’s rights, and our sense of what it means to belong to a 21st century social democracy is now under question. I can’t help wondering if the fascination with a baking competition also serves as a timely and perhaps needed respite from what must at times seem like an ever-decreasing circle. And for those who have a connection with both sides of the pond, as I do, that our own reality TV winner should now be within a hair’s breadth of the Presidency is a parallel that I still find hard to fathom. Yet here we are, at a place in time when sectarianism is seemingly all the rage, and London’s 2012 Olympic vision of multicultural unity in our diversity seems now like a distant and even far-fetched dream.

sarahg_canadianculturaldiversityAnd so, we might well ask, where now is our hope? Theologians, when faced with such époques of apparent disintegration are less inclined to be nostalgic about a supposed golden age of the past (which makes my recent investment in the British candy industry doubly problematic) and much more interested in articulating what is called an ‘eschatological hope’. Such a hope, whilst with it sights set well beyond in the consummation of history and the reconciliation of all creation to its Creator, is rooted in the daily struggle of here and now and it does so not with a sense of defeat about the present moment but with deeply founded hope. Christians are called to be eschatological people, human beings who can see the already but not yet fulfilled kingdom of God in their midst. It is because of this that people of such a faith are able to see the bridges that join us one to another even in seasons of deep division and mistrust. They are able to see such bridges not because they trust in humanity’s capacity for goodness as much as they have set their lives upon the subversive power of a God whose love is so vulnerable and self-donating that it is able to withstand even the most over-cooked ego. Christians have this hope because in the end God’s grace is always more than our pride and privileging of the self over others.

And so, I wonder whether this might be a time for people of faith to call the people around them to a holy curiosity for one another, the kind that I suppose does turn a nation’s gaze to a PE teacher’s baking talents and weeps with those who weep for joy, sharing somehow in that moment of simple human connection. German theologian Paul Tillich called the divine the ‘Ground of All Being’, which to oversimply it is to say that you and I all get to share a space for existence that transcends any attempts we may muster to set us apart from one another. Multiculturalism does not need to write its obituary in the back pages of Brexit’s socio-political fall-out any more than the American dream of a great melting pot of humanity should concede defeat in our own season of political discord and polarization. If a baking competition has the power to remind people that they can still share life with one another, albeit via their television screens, perhaps you and I are capable of sharing life too.

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God and Politics

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A story from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: ‘Why not become fire?

What if our vocation were to become fire, casting light on dark places? What if our calling in this world were to be as people through whom the brightness of heaven could be seen? What if we saw light and beauty as God sees it?

Perhaps these are not the normal questions you ask yourself when you brush your teeth in the morning, and it is unlikely that your fingers have turned to flame recently, but the truth about our sojourn on earth is that you and I walk in the presence of living miracles, six billion holy flames criss-crossing the planet every day. Some are risking their very lives as I write this, desperate to stay afloat across the Mediterranean in the hope of a future beyond the bombed out streets of Syria. Others are gambling working women and men’s futures on one rogue Wall Street trade. There are those who will save a life tonight and there are those who will take one.

deepr_human_dignityHuman dignity is the foundational premise of civilization. It is also fundamentally a theological truth. We are infinitely beautiful, fashioned in the image of a love-giving maker. As a Christian, I have to commit to the embodied difference of the other, to the irreducible right of that other to be valued and honored and seen as God’s own. The calling of Christians, indeed the calling of everyone, is to see each human life as God sees it: as infinitely valuable.

It is because of this Christian conviction of the inviolable value of others that I believe churches should find their voice in this most critical time in our national life. Churches should be free from electioneering because people should respected to think freely about their vote. Yet churches should also be free to take their place in the public square. The rhetoric of the last many weeks of campaigning has uncovered the fissures that pervade our life as a nation, fissures that are characterized and deepened by an increasing permission people feel to be able to speak of one another in ways that do no justice to their humanity. We have heard  entire ethnic groups and nationalities caricatured, people with disabilities mocked , women belittled and degraded, people’s body image maligned. Our vocation is to honor one another, and the churches’ vocation is to remind society of that calling, a calling that transcends political and religious affiliations. It is not possible for our political life to engage in such a mutually diminishing season of campaigning and still remain as it was before we began. Ugly and hurtful rhetoric impacts us all. We have all been lessened by these months of public conversation.

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And so I appeal to the churches, to Christians, to any person of faith, ‘Why not become fire?’ Why not realize our vocation to cast light on dark places? Let us stand up as people of faith and call out with passion and power the denigration of human dignity when we see it around us. The desert fathers and mothers went to the wilderness in order to draw themselves and those who encountered them closer to the holiness of God. Perhaps we, as their legacy in Christian community, might do well to ponder where our wilderness places should be after this election, as we seek to heal and once more see our fellow human beings as a source of wonder and joy. Mahatma Gandhi once said when asked what he thought of western democracy that it was a ‘great idea’. It was a potent statement of subversion and hope. America is still a great idea; an idea worth fighting for.

A Blazing Fire

tumblr_static_deep-blue-ocean1About 170 years ago, Kierkegaard famously said that faith in God should feel like we are being suspended over 70,000 fathoms of water – the waves of the deep crashing onto the rocks below, the wind howling, nothing to hold onto but the trust that God is actually a reality. Since I learned of Kierkegaard’s love of the terrible awe of God, I have often felt that it was a shame that he never had the chance to meet my grandmother, because the two of them would have got on very well. By and large, I was afraid of my grandmother. I never heard her shout. She never once raised a hand against me. In fact, it didn’t take me too many years of life to stand as tall as she did with her diminutive frame. Yet my grandmother could fill me with dread.

When I was a child, my grandmother’s house on the coast of south east England was something of a wonder in my life. It was four storeys high, plus a cellar I never did dare to descend into. The reason for that was partly because I was convinced, as the 25th or so of her grandchildren, that the cellar was where she kept the remains of my various cousins who had dared to disobey her over the years. It was also because in my grandmother’s house, a number of the 30 or so rooms were out of bounds for little boys. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse into one of them and steal a vision of fine furniture, or a grand piano in the corner, or paintings that the young could barely look at, let alone breathe near. Her home was to me like a small palace of wonder and mystery; a museum of sorts with trinkets from my missionary great-grandparents in China and collection pieces from my eccentric great-Aunts’ assortment of knickknacks from Victorian Britain. ‘You have not come to something that can be touched’, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it,  just might have well have been emblazoned on the doorframe of the front door.

cathedral_stpauls2One of my warmer memories of my grandmother was the one occasion I think when she came to hear me sing at St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London, as our parish choir sang evensong on Easter Monday while the Cathedral boys and men were on vacation. St. Paul’s was and still is a place of splendor even more untouchable than my grandmother’s home, and I can remember how the ushers, who directed traffic under the great cathedral’s dome, never smiled, but instead pointed worshippers to some dark huddle of chairs at the side for the unsuspecting visitor to stay absolutely still on, and at all costs, never to make a noise until the closing hymn. After all, this was God’s great English house, and it seemed that God didn’t care too much for visitors. As a child, then, both God and grandparents were fearsome things: like a blazing fire, something that cannot be touched.

All of this now makes me think of Annie Dillard’s wonderful appeal to church goers today that they might have ‘the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke’. She says,

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On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions…The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return’. 

Isn’t that indeed Kierkegaard’s point with his image of faith as being suspended over 70,000 fathoms of the deep below? Faith must not be for us an experience that wraps us up in the comforting blanket of certainty and familiar religion; rather it must be the place in our lives to which we have been drawn out, suspended above all of our pretense at control and power, drawn out at last to a place of honesty and freedom.

Such honesty begins in our recognition of where it is we are gathering when we do in a church building on a Sunday and in whose name. To worship the living God is to come to a blazing fire, to draw near to a burning bush, to ground that is holy enough for us to tremble as we enter it, where wise prophets of old took off their shoes as they walked upon it. It is to come to a pillar of fiery light, illuminating the path of slaves set free.

3f19d0fYet the fire of God is not meant to make us afraid such that we stay away; it is meant to transform us, like slaves who finally taste freedom after bondage. The liberation the blazing fire of God gifts to us is one that sets us free from the tyranny of believing that the only vision of life available is the one we can muster for ourselves. For God’s blazing fire of light in our darkness is the voice of truth we so often repress that tells us we are beloved, that we are of God, that incarnate within us is all that we ever have needed to be and to live freely in this world.

Yet freedom does not come to us without cost. Fire burns. Like the smelter’s fire that refines its gold over and over again, each time removing the dross, the blazing fire of God’s love for us will bring into the light the gods we have fashioned in our attempt to give value to ourselves – our money, our standing, our power, our desires fulfilled. And as they are brought into view we will have to choose: either to continue to enslave ourselves to their empty promise of fulfillment, or to face the painful honesty of change. Such pain sets us free, yet truth be told, most of us are not ready and willing to embrace such an honest journey. Indeed, left to our own devices, many of us would rather spend a lifetime avoiding who and how we really are in favor of bumping along the surface, and take pleasure as a consolation prize for the happiness honesty might gift us with – which is why life together matters.

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To commit to life together in a community of faith is to be counted among those honest brokers in the kingdom of God, the motley crew of saints and sinners whose vocation it is to notice when one of us has been doubled over by life. For the blazing fire of God is meant not only for our own transformation, but for the freedom of others. Such fellow travelers are those who are to have the courage to be the hands of God in the lives of others, to dare to touch the untouchable blazing glory we each inhabit as children of a living God. And as such, the body of Christ is called to notice one another, to lift one another up, to see the blazing glory of God in the eyes of everyone that comes into their lives.

In this season of searing political rhetoric that burns as much as it enlightens, I wonder if our country could do with such people even more than it usually does. Everybody falls once in a while, even people who run for office. Everyone needs a chance to stand straight again. A fire blazes for each of us. Let’s look for it with awe and wonder.