Plant gardens when others plant bombs

Grace to you

Two weeks back I recommended some Advent-time reading. During Advent-time our imaginations are stretched to include the possibilities of a world where the poor are prioritised and not persecuted and suggested that Tomatoes and Taxi Ranks will help us in this reorientation of our priorities. Advent-time is also most beautifully and powerfully honoured by those who dare to “prefigure” a hoped-for-future in the present. This is wonder-fully captured by a war photojournalist by the name of Lalage Snow in her book: War Gardens – A journey through conflict in search of calm.

Snow honours Advent-time by refusing to deny the horrors of war while at the same time exposing people’s stubbornness against despair as expressed through their daring and caring acts of garden planting.

While interviewing one restorer of gardens in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Snow got the sense that they “were effectively tidying up after two decades of chaos, the conflict erupting around them and all the trappings which skip alongside war were merely an annoyance rather than an existential threat. The restoration almost belittles the war. It says, ‘OK, you guys carry on fighting, we’ve got more important things to sort out.’ If war is anxious, uncertain and terrifying, gardens are the antithesis. They are solid worlds of hope and life, and their gardeners work at a cognitive distance from violence.”

In another interview, Mohammed Kabir is introduced as a gardener for the Kabul municipality. His garden is mostly for subsistence living – beans, potatoes, okra. Snow writes: “’But what about the flowers?’ I point at the messy square of colour in the middle of the courtyard. ‘Well’, Kabir says, ‘I just decided to bring some seeds from my home and plant them in the courtyard. The soldiers helped me to dig and water. I am an old man,’ he reminds me. I ask him why he would make a garden in the ruins of a forgotten palace where only the military and the ghosts will see it. He looks at me as if I’ve asked him to count up to three. ‘Everyone needs a garden. This is our soil. When you work with it, things grow. It’s nature, life. I am a poor man, sometimes my family and I only eat once a day, but I can live without food; I couldn’t live without seeing green leaves and flowers. They come from heaven. Each one,’ he insists ‘is a symbol of paradise. I have a flower in my garden at home and have counted seventy colours in its petals; tell me that it doesn’t come from heaven!’ he exclaims… ‘Since starting this garden I feel I am getting younger. Every tree, every plant, every flower gives me energy.’

Alexi lives in Donetsk in the Ukraine and declares: ‘Tonight I will sleep in the shelter in the ground like my plants.’ While Hamidullah in Parwan, Afghanistan explains: ‘I had a friend in the army, an officer. He was like a brother to me. He was killed, fighting, about a year and a half ago. I was so sad. I … I couldn’t sleep for grief. I tried to garden to forget him but in the end, I planted to remember him and when one grew, it was like I had a new friend.’

Advent-time is planting a garden when others are planting bombs.

Grace,
Alan

Celebrate don’t Regulate

Grace to you

Last week we listened to the beautiful, sensual and erotic literature of Song of Songs. We heard the strong voice of a woman passionately sing of her sexual desires. There is no shame or judgement in her voice. She sings with joy and delight. This front-of-stage location of a woman’s voice is unprecedented in the whole of scripture.

A literal reading of Song of Songs affirms human sexuality as God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. By refusing to take the Song of Songs literally, biblical interpreters fail to affirm the flesh as good and perpetuate the false belief that bodily pleasure is wrong or at least less spiritual. Sexuality divorced from spirituality results in our spirituality being less likely to shape our sexuality. When this occurs, sex as gift, gives way to sex as performance, conquest and commodity.

Sadly the church has been more focused on regulating sexuality than celebrating sexuality. Fear and anxiety, denial and repression have determined the bulk of religious discussions on sexuality. This is more hurtful than helpful, and in this area of our lives people already carry too many wounds. As Jo Ind writes in Memories of Bliss: “We are all wounded. We are all vulnerable in matters of the groin.” For some of us it is also the area we have wounded others most acutely.

To regulate more than to celebrate is like an artist focusing more on the frame surrounding a painting than on the painting itself. This is both odd and unnecessary, for if we are moved by a painting’s priceless beauty, we will know it needs a special frame to hold it and with delight rather than duty we will seek one out.

The poet Marge Piercy in her poem, The Seven of Pentacles invites us to: “Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses. Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.” If we are going to learn to “make love that is loving” we first need to embrace our sexuality as the magnificent mysterious and glorious gift that it is, as Jo Ind does in telling her lover: “Yes you may bow down before my awesome, mysterious body and my clear, original mind; you may honour my story, be tender with my wounds, cherish my yearnings and unspoken dreams; you may pay homage to my magical juicings and pungent smells, the secret caverns and magnificent connections of my resplendent sexuality.”

Secondly we need to adopt a new sexual ethic. I support the statement from the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing that declares: “Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation.”

By embracing our own sexuality and adopting a new sexual ethic we will “make love that is loving”. In this we will also honour the woman in Song of Songs – too long denied and dismissed. Yet she refused to be silenced over the centuries – singing with firey joy and delicious delight, ever hoping we will hear her unashamed voice and join her in singing the chorus with our own God-given sexuality.

Grace,
Alan

Bring Jesus Joy

As we enter the last week of Advent we remind ourselves of how it all began. Four weeks ago we celebrated the beginning of a New Year. The New Year of the Christian Calendar is very different to the New Year of January 1st. Instead of making a list of resolutions based on our good intentions – Advent invites us to practically and prayerfully prepare for the coming of Royalty into our midst.

The question we need to ask is: How do we make room for Jesus in our life and world? To wrestle with this question is how we start a truly New Year. It is a question that is not focused on ourselves but on Jesus. Yet, to answer it we need to have some insight into what brings Jesus joy.

And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to Jesus… (Luke 21:38)

In his own words Jesus called those who recognise their need for God and who feel the grief of their neighbours as blessed. He rejoiced in those who hunger for justice and practice mercy while praying for the light of the Holy One to make their own hearts pure. Jesus claimed the peacemakers as his family. To focus practically on these things will go a long way in preparing for Jesus’ presence among us, but not all the way.

We are called to underpin our practical preparations with prayer. To pray is to recognise our limits – it is to recognise that we do not have what it takes and that we need help from beyond ourselves to make room for Jesus.

May the next few days begin early in the morning in prayerful listening to Jesus.

Jesus is coming, Alan

Psalm 16: A Brief for the Defense

How can one enjoy joy, and celebrate life when there is so much suffering? It’s actually our responsibility to do so.

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Poem: A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies are not starving
someplace, they are starving somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The
Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women at
the fountain are laughing together between the suffering they have known and
the awfulness in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody in the
village is very sick. There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of
Calcutta, and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance
of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not
enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the
ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our
attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the
end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored late at night in the
tiny port looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront is three
shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat comes slowly out
and then goes back is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.
— Jack Gilbert

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All images used under Creative Commons license.
Image credits in order of appearance:
D. Sharon Pruitt
Joanne Q. Escober
Ubo Pakes
Ibrahim Lujaz
Ariful H Bhuiyan
Living In Kuito
Anant Rohankar
James Emery
Hamed Sabar
Clemson
Lisa Edwards
Pranav
Pedro Simoes
Ubo Pakes