Thursday, 3 April 2014

Of bricks and giant cardboard thermometers

Are you a Rev fan? I'm guessing so, purely on the mathematically dubious statistic that I haven't yet met someone who doesn't enjoy it. Last week's episode, as well as featuring a same-sex marriage, had the Archdeacon presenting the eponymous Rev Adam Smallbone with a huge cardboard fundraiser thermometer and the instructions 'filly filly, uppy uppy' and booking him on to a church growth seminar which turns out to be a wonderfully observed parody of the worst type of sub-commercial management speak that infests all manner of walks of modern life, the church included. Adam, responsible for a large, historically significant building and a dwindling congregation,  looks woefully at both the thermometer and at his old chum from theological college, now making a living out of making clergy feel insufficient, and feels the burden of being expected to do more and more with less and less.

At the moment, in our morning prayers, we are reading through the seminal narrative of the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus; literally, in the Greek, that gives us the book's name, the 'way out' of slavery in Egypt and eventually to the freedom of the promised land. It's the first Bible story I remember consciously from my childhood; back then, in my primary school classroom, I was enthralled by the drama, the heroism and the villainy in this epic. I still am, and even now, earlier his week when I heard the story of Moses' encounter with Yahweh at the burning bush (if you haven't heard this story in a while, here is a good animated version), I suspended my prior knowledge and put myself in the shoes which Moses had taken off, allowing myself to be in the moment of meeting with the divine. I found myself wondering what it must have felt like for the children of Israel to have been slave-labourers for the Egyptian regime, producing and producing and producing brick after brick after brick. Where is God? they might well have asked as the toiled. He's not around here, that's for sure. 

Then, that moment of divine encounter:   ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.' I have observed. I have heard. I know. I have come down. I have seen. The burning bush is a place not only of Moses' meeting with God, but also of Moses' realisation that God has been with his people all along, all through their toil and slog, all through the injustice and exhaustion. I was there with you, all the time, says Yahweh. I have heard. I have seen. I know.  


Back to Rev. As I said, I've yet to meet someone who doesn't appreciate its gentle but sharp observational humour, and maybe one of the reasons for that is that the show has a knack for apt expression of things that are deeply true. There are clergy, like Adam, responsible for large, historically significant buildings and dwindling congregations who have, if not an actual gigantic cardboard fundraising thermometer in their churches then certainly an internal equivalent in their minds, constantly reminding them of the enormity of the needs around them and the lack of resources with which to meet those needs. They feel the burden of pressure to do more and more with less and less. And, without wishing to descend into too much sub-standard unqualified pyschobabble, maybe the reason that the Archdeacon is such a delicious pantomime villain is that it's quite cathartic to externalise and personify the part of oneself that stands there, aloofly examining one's fingernails and lightly but deliberately pointing out just how very far one falls short.   


Of course, this scenario doesn't just concern clergy. The burden of pressure to do more and more with less and less is one that is carried by so many - too many - in our frenetic, driven society. Children are taught to perform, achieve, and produce from a young age. Adults are judged by how well they perform, achieve and produce. The sunny aspect of this state of affairs is that wonderful opportunities may be opened up for people. The shadow side is that it can feel like simply producing and producing and producing, brick after brick after brick. And where is God in amongst all this achievement, production and performance? He can feel very distant at times. But the encounter with Moses says it all: I have heard. I have seen. I know. 


The irony is that for those of us with an inner Archdeacon, God can feel more like Pharaoh demanding more and more and giving less and less, than the Yahweh whose promise is one of freedom.    


So what does freedom look like for those of us who are conditioned to perform, achieve and produce? A while ago,  I suggested that spiritual freedom is a bit like a dog running through a woodland. You might think of other, better similes. One thing it's not, though, is inactivity. The opposite of slavery is not rest, it's freedom; maybe part of what this means is that when we, like Moses, encounter God in such a way that we know that he knows all our struggles and sufferings and, like Moses, screw our courage to the sticking-place and allow ourselves to be led across inhospitable landscapes and despite perilous opposition, to a new place of freedom in our lives, is that when we get there, we find that what we have to do is no less demanding, but entirely and at times unpredictably fulfilling as we enter more fully into becoming the people whom God has created us to be.  Creating a new people, as the Exodus did, is no less difficult than churning out bricks, but qualitatively, it's such a very different type of activity that to call both 'work' seems not quite right.  


 I have observed. I have heard. I know. I have come down. I have seen.  I have seen your giant thermometer and your critical Archdeacon and your soul-destroying training seminar. I have seen you producing and producing and producing, brick after brick after brick.  I was there with you, all the time, says Yahweh. I have heard. I have seen. I know. Now take off your shoes, come with me, and I'll show you what to do.   




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