Friday 30 July 2021

Liturgy for a Minister Losing a Set of Church Keys

Minister: Woe unto me for I have lost the keys of St Mungo's, Mill-on-Flume.

Minister's Spouse: Is that the big set?

Minister: Forinasmuch as it's the keys to a rural Church of England church building, yea it is a big set. The keys are as numerous even as the grains of sand on the seashore - even unto the stars in the sky, including those we cannot see. But they are all big sets.

Minister's Spouse: But is the front door key big?

Minister: The front door key is like unto the weaver's rod, or even the Leviathan that sporteth in the deeps. But not quite as big as that of St Mary's, Sutton-by-Flume or St Midge's, Bridgeton-on-Flume.

Minister's Spouse: Lo, are these the keys of which thou art deprived?

Minister: As it is clearly written on the little red key fob, these are the keys of St Jemima's, Little Mincing.

Minister's Spouse: And what of these keys?

Minister: The green fob indicateth that these are St Hamble's, Hambletown-on-the-Heath.

Minister's Spouse: Let us pray unto St Antony.

All: O St Antony, saint of all lost things, pray for thy servants that we find the lost keys of St Mungo's, Mill-on-Flume. And let this not be unto us like when we lost the fountain pen, and through thy intercessions found it just as its replacement was delivered by the Man of Yodel. Amen.

Minister's Spouse: When didst thou last see thy keys unto St Mungo's? 

Minister: When I locked the door of St Mungo's last Wednesay after Mattins, which is also called Morning Prayer. 

Minister's Spouse: And then whither goest thou?

Minister: Around and about. Unto the petrol station which is called Morrison's, then the Post Office, then I returned to the parsonage and fell asleep while mowing the grass.

Minister's Spouse: And hast checked the grass?

Minister: All grass is like grass. And there be no keys to be found. No, not even one.

Minister's Spouse: Didst leave them in thine other trousers, which I put in the wash? 

Minister: If thou hadst put my other trousers in the wash with the keys of St Mungo's, then wouldst thou have known all about it when the washing mashine madest a noise like the cymbals of David as he danced before the Ark. 

Minister's Spouse: And then wouldst thou have been dressed like David as he danced before the Ark, given what that would have done to thy trousers.

Minister: Verily. 

Minister's Spouse: And didst leave them on the desk?

Minister: Nay, for I work at my desk and there are there no keys.

Minister's Spouse: What are these keys from the top of the food cupboard?

Minister: Those are the keys of Great St Edward's.

Minister's Spouse: And these from the sill of the round window?

Minister: Those are the keys of St Edward the Less.

Minister's Spouse: What about these keys I found in the electric cupboard?

Minister: Verily those are the keys of St Humpty's, Humpington Magna.

Minister: Art thou also Rector of Humpington Magna?

Minister: I guess I must be.

Minister's Spouse: Here they are, in your coat.

Minister: Oh yeah. I remember now.


All: Thank goodness for that. Amen.

Wednesday 28 July 2021

Bathsheba's Baby (2 Samuel 12)

David Demands Justice

So first up. When it comes to Nathan's denouncement of David. Nathan's being very brave. He is tearing a strip off the king of Israel, whatever it costs.

He had a bit of practice two weeks ago, when he told David he wasn't allowed to build a temple. But stillNathan lecturing a sitting, shell-shocked, David he really is being brave. David at this stage is pretty much an absolute monarch - able to take any woman he wants, or get anyone killed he feels like. He's got the heroic back story. He's still the embodiment of the new Israelite state. He can be pretty sure he can get away with murder, with the people behind him. That's what power can do.

But Nathan has to tell it to David  as it is. Nathan is a prophet of the Lord. And a prophet has responsibilities. And telling the truth is one of them. As is standing up for justice.

 And Nathan tells his story carefully. He's a good prophet. If he'd gone to David and just said, "miserable sinner: adulterer and murderer" he'd have lasted about as long as Uriah the Hittite. I think about all the times I've seen people standing on the street, shouting at passers-by that they're miserable sinners. I suppose they've a chance of attracting other people who'd like to stand on streets, shouting at passing sinners. But that has got to be a limited market, I reckon.This is not how to get people to listen to you.

So Nathan doesn't do that. He weaves instead a tale about a rich man stealing a poor man's sheep. Now, there's nothing to suggest that David thinks he's listening to a parable, a moral fable. David is, as king, the supreme judge of Israel. So trying cases is his job. But normally a senior judge (think Moses) would get the tricky cases. And to David, this is a very simple case. 

David's judgment: the poor man has been sinned against. The rich man is guilty of theft. He must die. And pay 4 times the value of the lamb.

Reading that back, it might make more sense if he paid 4 times the value of the lamb, and then died. Gonna get messy the other way round. But still. David wants justice! David is also projecting his own guilt, I think. Because the penalty for stealing one lamb - however much-loved - is not death under  Israel's laws. It was under the supposedly Christian United Kingdom in Victorian times, of course. Amazing how flexible Christian forgiveness becomes when property is involved. But the Hebrew law was as much about limiting punishment as it was about imposing it.

How often we want justice imposed properly as long as it's others who are getting that justice. It won't have occurred to David that he's judging himself. He's one of those people that are better speck-spotters than plank-removers. Some of us are the same. Not only do we pretend to ourselves we did no wrong. We also make excuses for ourselves when we do something wrong. We assume that others are always making the wrong decision with level heads, wherease when we get something wrong, it's because we were tired, or stressed. Others among us, the opposite - we judge ourselves too harshly, and forget we have a God who forgives. In  this case, David doesn't just judge the sheep-stealer's theft. He also judges him because he had no pity. Best remember. Sin is sin. And we all foul things up. But God's forgiveness, bought hard, is free.

And David has passed a death sentence on himself.

In David's case, there's quite a charge list here. Of the Ten Commandments - the moral laws that underpin the Covenant with Moses, I reckon David has definitely broken three:

  • Do not covet your neighbour's wife
  • Do not commit adultery
  • Do not murder.

And arguably, in his attempts to cover up his adultery, he's also broken the command against false witness. At what point does attempting to evade blame become straight lying?

You start with breaking one. You end up breaking three or four. Thing with sin is - repent early and repent often. Or it can take you over.

The Woman Pays

It's quite a strip Nathan has torn off David. But. Although Nathan says David has had his sin taken away, the consequences of that sin are pretty huge. Nathan says the Lord has defined three punishments for David's adultery and murder:

  • A blood curse on his descendants
  • Someone else (Absolom his son, as it turns out) sleeping with his wives in the open
  • The death of the baby Bathsheba has just borne.

And maybe it's just me. But in my conception of God, I'd rather that the person taking the rap here had been David. Struck down by lightning, crushed in a surreal harp-falling-from-a-window accident, anything. Anything but a curse on the newborn, the unborn, and the totally innocent. The punishment for David's sin has not been so much removed as transferred.

And do you know what, I don't see any way of letting God out on this one. Thomas Hardy said that it was a mystery to him how humans can conceive a deity that is less moral than they are themselves. Though Hardy tormented his creations just as much as any President of the Immortals could care to do. Poor Tess. Poor Marty South. Not Jude. Useless get.

And I'm not going to let God off by comparing the judgemental God of the Old Testament to the lovely God of the New. Because the God of the New Testament lets a lot of people send themselves off to perdition, apart from the whole Ananias and Sapphira incident.

I can see it could be a post-justification by the person writing the Book of Samuel - this happened so if must have been a punishment. Except I can't apply that to the rest of life. Jesus was clear to the man born blind that his blindness was not due to anyone's sin. When someone today suffers - cancer, the loss of a child - I won't accept that this is punishment for their sin. Yet it's easy to do. There's been enough victim-blaming over Covid the last 18 months. People have been too overweight, too stupid, too reckless, to have protected themselves, we are told. So I don't buy that.

I can see that the way the world works means that people do in general get hurt by other people's sin. I was reading the way athletes have suffered because of their country's and their coaches' determination to win medals. And the ones normally suffering the abuse are young women or children. And when people are hurt by others' sins, the sinners are normally the powerful and the weak are the ones hurt.

All this should make us angry. And it's worth going off to Loughborough Church's "Ministers' Muse" with Revd Wendy Dalrymple and friends to hear more on this.

Because isn't this how life actually is? The powerful man sins. He is humiliated. But he gets to die at a ripe old age, with a young virgin in his bed to use as a hot water bottle. He's remembered as the ideal king - the one whose monarchy will be restored in his descendant, the Messiah. Even has a hotel named after him in Jerusalem.

Bathsheba is abused. Her husband is killed. She has to marry her abuser. Her son dies.  She has been treated as property. And yet still she pays.

The other wives of David are abused. The foreigner, Uriah, is dead.

The powerful man has sinned. And everyone else pays the price.

If this doesn't make us want to rage against God, and consider the state of this world and what we should be doing about it - it should.

Where Prophecies Collide

And we're now left with two prophecies, which while not quite contradictory certainly aren't particularly synergistic.  

David has previously been promised that his throne will last forever

He has now also been told that the sword will never leave his descendants.

How do you reconcile them?

I look to a man who walked this earth, a son - it was said - of David. He died a violent death at the hands of the powerful - the religious and secular powers of his place and time. He died the death of the powerless, the death of a slave. Death by crucifixion. Even though he was said to be the Son of David - the Messiah - he gave up all the power he had and died like a rebel.

And when he rose from the dead, he took all the weakness of humanity, the scars that had been inflicted - the sheer suffering that human beings can inflict on others - and carried them into heaven. And there, the Lamb that was slain from the beginning of the world, he argues with his Father on behalf of the weak, the powerless, the victim. And when the time is right, he will come to claim back his own.

That Son of David - bearing the scars of that curse forever -  having made all things right, he will reign.

And there will be no more oppressors, and no more oppressed. Because the Lamb's own will love him and be loved. And they shall inherit, not through force and might, but through the Lamb's own sacrifice. And though the violence David brought on his descendants will always be remembered, yet that throne will never end.

Tuesday 27 July 2021

The Husborne Hump: An Apology

I would like to offer my personal apologies to all customers that came to the Husborne Hump today.

Based on the Marble Arch Mound, my plan was to allow people to get up above ground level, in a Covid secure way, which let them feel free after these 18 months of confinement. To experience a similar sense of spiritual fulfilment to those that have climbed Ayres Rock. Or Uluru. Or even both. 

Some people complained that our Covid Passport policy was strict. And yes, we showed a great deal of rigour in ensuring that nobody visiting Husborne Hump would be carrying the virus. Measures included demanding proof of 2 vaccination jabs. A negative test. And living in solitary isolation in a small caravan in Aspley Heath for a fortnight. Stringent, yes. But no worse than having to be in a spaceship with Richard Branson, I'm sure you will agree. I say "spaceship". "Plane that went a bit higher", really. But that's netierh here nor there.

A slight hill

But those who payed the £1,800 to isolate, and then visited the Hump, said it was "disappointing". And I have to admit, there were some issues. Our planting is still to grow to the planned height. Which is not surprising. You can hardly expect it to spring to rain-forest height overnight. Especially when it's astroturf. And then some said they thought that the Hump could have been higher.

But it couldn't. For health and safety reasons, the Husborne Hump was limited to a height of 5'3". And people could only climb it in hard hats and while roped to a guide (Burton Dasset). Some said that Burton's presence was the main issue, and to be fair I could see that.

So I can see people's disappointment. So I've decided that we will meet all our statutory requirements to our dissatisfied pilgrims. If they want, they can get a QR barcode to come back in 6 weeks and do it all again. OK, the QR barcode will cost £200. And will never fade. But it's a small price worth paying when you consider they'll have to spend another 18 hundred quid to isolate again.

If anyone wants me, I'll be reconciling the takings.

Saturday 24 July 2021

Revd WH Tawdry

In the Diocese of Gallifrey and Sodor, the Rev WH Tawdry is struggling to keep his head above water in his parish. They exist to be Jesus-shaped tea lights. Maybe we are all called to be Jesus-shaped tea lights? 

Wednesday 21 July 2021

One wedding and Uriah's funeral (2 Samuel 11)

 So at what point did the heroic King David become "bad to the bone David"? As he turned 50 and looked at his paunch and slowed down, I expect. 

The time of year when kings go off to war.  But not David. The slingster of old is no longer a ruddy-faced youth. More a gammon-faced geezer now. He's too old to charge into battle. And the arthritis gives him terrible gyp when he slings a stone. These days he has people to do his slinging for him. So he could go off to war, but Joab's a loyal chap and unlikely to do unto David as David did unto Saul. So Joab's in charge in the field.

David also has people to do his courting for him. Well, I say "courting".

Bathsheba (modesty covered by wisps of cloth and arms) is attended by her servants while a very small David peeks down from above
Bathsheba at Her Bath - Artemisia Gentileschi

Bathsheba is beautiful. She's not pregnant, as she's washing off her ritual impurity. She's also the young wife of a loyal subject of David - loyal even though he's not an Israelite.

And David wants her. So the "courting" may well be along the lines of "King David would like you to call. If it's not too incovenient, which it won't be of course."

The method David uses to get his end away is not confined to the early Israelite kings. It has been used all over the world, including by such lovely types as Stalin's hitman, Beria, and the sons of Saddam Hussein. We're not told if Bathsheba had any choice when David's henchmen came along to tender his respects. So probably not.

So Bathsheba's purity and innocence stand in opposition to the lusty old goat she is brought to see. And when Uriah comes on the scene, we see it again. David wants Uriah to go off to make up for lost time with Bathsheba, and cover up David's dirty deeds. But Uriah's just your humble bloke. He won't leave the palace while he's on duty. He won't have a happy homecoming with Bathsheba until the boys are all back home. He's faithful to the Hebrew God - even though he's a Hittite himself. What can a lusty old king do with such a faithful man?

 Kill him, obviously.

Joab is, it has to be said, not a blameless man. Loyalty is generally regarded as a virtue. But when you're getting your soldiers killed because your uncle can't keep it in his ephod, you've probably pushed your loyalty too far. It's a loyalty that will also kill Joab when David dies.

But David's spun completely out of control. His self-control has gone. He has killed to cover up his lust, which he only got the chance to enjoy because he indulged his laziness.

God will give him the bad news next week. But in the mean time, consider. For David, it is now downhill effectively all the way. He rose on the wreckage of relationships and sheer brute youthful energy, but also his closeness to God. And now he will sink under his own weakness, his own failings, his own betraying body. He cast himself free of God. And now, free from God's guidance he is like, as someone said, a trolley careering out of control in a supermarket. 

He was already toxic to his first wife. Now he's toxic to his sons, to his followers, to his sons and daughters.

From now on in, he's not the hero. He's the fall guy.

Monday 19 July 2021

St Gregory and Macrina's Day

 Today as well as Freedom Day, when the Covid plague stops at the threshing floor of Araunah, it is St Gregory and Macrina's Day.

It was St Gregory who, when told he could take his mask off in church because St Boris the Hermit had healed the land, said he would be keeping his mask on and so would all those in his churches because St Boris had a habit of making up stuff he thought might be cheerful, rather than living in the real world.

We mostly remember St Macrina for her contribution to Liturgical Dancing. The song she wrote has been sadly corrupted since her time, but the original ran:

Have a dance in holy joy, St Macrina
Dancing is a holy thing, St Macrina
Though we all find it embarrassing, St Macrina
Hey St Macrina

St Macrina would find the current words much less edifying.

Liturgy of Joy for Freedom Day

Hymn: Bells they Aren't Ringing, Children aren't Singing

Archdruid: Let us give thanks that this pandemic is suddenly over this Freedom Day. Let bells ring out and let little children sing.

Charlii: Little children aren't singing. Bubble's burst.

Archdruid: Then let adults sing out loud in the stifling heat of the Moot House!

All:  Let's not, but let's  keep our masks instead.

Archdruid: So no singing in the Moot House?

All: Beaker Quire can sing.

Archdruid: I'd banned them before the pandemic.

The Cautious Beaker People: If you're singing in the Moot House, can we have a separate service?

The More Cautious Beaker People: Outside?

The Even More Cautious Beaker People: In a separate field each?

Archdruid: Maybe the stones could cry out?

Stones: We're isolating.

Song: She's Coming Home, Katie Hopkins is coming home.

Archdruid: As if it's not bad enough, there's the danger of Hopkins standing naked in doorways. Still, at least Chester Cathedral bells are ringing out.

Chester Cathedral: No, they're not.

James Delingpole: It's freedom day! 

Laurence "Quite Good in Lewis" Fox: We're off to Spoons to lick the bar like normal men of the people! 

Servicing staff: Same as last week you mean? Good grief.

Delingpole: Got your camo jacket Loz?

Hathaway: Too right, Della! Makes me look so tough!

Boris Johnson (via video link): On this Freedom Day it gives me pleasure to announce that I'll be self-isolating in a massive house and garden out in the country. I apologise for the state of my hair, but I'm also in isolation from my comb. 

Archdruid: And now we silently sing the hymn from the screen, "You're not singing any more."

Thursday 15 July 2021

A Temple Not Made With Hands

 "Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?" (2 Sam 7:5b)

So a quick recap. David kills Goliath. Saul dies. Jonathan dies. David becomes king. David defeats everyone. David takes the Ark into Jerusalem. David reveals altogether too much while dancing. Now read on.

What's a bloke gonna do when he's defeated everyone and got a capital city and brought the holiest of all things into the city and put it in a tent? Upgrade the tent, obviously. 

And you may wonder why God gets a bit humpty about it. Maybe David's getting a bit above his place. Maybe he thinks by building a nice house for the ark, he's got God pinned down. Always best with God, you might think - to be located somewhere safe. Under control. No self-respecting deity that made the heavens and earth is gonna stand for that. Same for us. We like God to fall in with our specifications of an orderly life and a well-run church. But every time we decide what God wants to be doing, God decides something else. God doesn't sympathise with our liturgical preferences, our decisions as to who is and isn't entitled to be in God's in-crowd. God's a bit random like that.

Or maybe David really does just want to honour God, and God doesn't want David doing it because his hands are so blood-stained.  David just isn't clean enough to build this Temple for the holy one of Israel.

And God's offer is to turn this round completely. Instead of David building God a house, God will build a house for David. And that's another reminder of David's limited nature - he can control cedar and stone. But he can't control the future. Nobody ever can. Let's take some examples... 

The dictators of the past dreamt of a boot stamping on a human face forever, they say. But they all passed the same way as all the other dictators in the end. The future is not and never will be in their hands. 

It makes you wonder why any vicar ever bothers to make changes in a church, for instance. Soon as they leave, the next one does the opposite. Bring in one of the many modern Lord's Prayers and the next vicar will replace it with the old one.  That or the congregation will bring it back during the vacancy, and swear it was always that way. Bring in the old Lord's Prayer and the next vicar will replace it with the new one.  Same way, no Gordon Brown can bring in exciting initiatives like HIPs (remember them?) without David Cameron scrapping them. No Cameron can make the Tories a bunch of cuddly liberal metrosexuals without an Alexander B dP Johnson turning them into a bunch of people booing young black men. Even this current Government will one day see its power gone and somebody reversing what they did.

Or us at home - domestically we can make our houses into homes only to know that when we sell them the buyers will rip the insides out and turn them into their own homes. We know the day will always come when we lose control of the future. 

In business a Chief Exec can decide to make the company closer to its customers - more responsive - by decentralising. And the next one will promptly centralise everything to make it more efficient and standardised. 

There's always a point where our control is gone. 

But God has control of the future. And God will build David a house. But not a house made of stones and cedar. One made in human life. David's son will build the Temple, and will be the first in a line of kings that will last quite a while. But. As we know. Only 400 years. At that time, the house that Solomon builds will be destroyed and the house in the flesh that God has established will be dissipated and scattered. But not lost.

Because God's promises are longer term than that. And bigger than flesh and bone, cedar and stone.

The throne God's putting in place will last forever. David can't guarantee that - he can't control the future. Henry VIII drove the country to distraction trying to ensure his family would inherit from him - and with all the viciousness of Thomas Cromwell and all the liturgical genius of Thomas Cranmer, and all the murderous instincts to kill and elbow out non-delivering wives... he managed one generation. One generation. David's family managed about 18 generations before they passed into the vagueness of Exilic history.

But God's promise will last forever. And it's a promise that will be achieved in a circuitous way. Through Bathsheba and an adulterous relationship and an arranged death. Through Solomon, the boy who was not really born to be king. Through a descendant of David marrying a descendant of Jezebel - at least, according to St Matthew.

And through the Exile and the return, through the chaos of the Maccabees and the descent into defeat by the Romans... God will establish his throne that lasts forever. In a temple not made with hands - the body of that son of David, Jesus.

It's all grace. David couldn't earn this. David couldn't plan for this. In a million years he couldn't envisage it. Somehow God's promise will come down through the troubles of God's people to the point where a son of David will come to this world, and take his place on a throne that will last forever.

It's all grace. Solomon's temple made with hands will not last. But the house that God builds will last forever. And the temple that God will make is the one that will be destroyed - and rebuilt in three days - the temple that is Jesus's body.

It's all grace. David can't earn it by  goodness. Can't plan it. Can't build it. Can't control it. But through him, God blesses all people. Through him, we are blessed. And the temple not made with hands is our heavenly temple, and God is with us, and the temple is our God and our Lord, and our Saviour and our friend - the son of David whose throne lasts forever.

Wednesday 14 July 2021

Beyond the Alternative Service Horizon

I'm really annoyed. It's been so long since this happened last.

And now I've got to go and update the notice board that said "4209  days since we last lost part of the community into a black hole" and reset it to zero.

How was I to know how many Alternative Service Books were going to come in as a result of us declaring an ASB amnesty? But that was the problem. It wasn't the ASBs. As the trunker-loads of ASBs came in, and we wondered how to deal with them, we were caught in a pincer movement as thousands of copies of "100 Heresies for Today" came in from the other direction. Who knew so many people bought them? And held on to them - presumably locked in an attic like Mrs Rochester lest they got out and did any damage?

And then packed them into cardboard boxes and sent them to us.

The Preface to 100 Hymns for Today starts, "Today's Christians need today's songs to sing as well as yesterday's." If the book had ended there as well, that would have been good. But they had to follow it with some actual hymns. I mean, that much heresy and dodgy poetry that tightly packed.Those Sydney Carter titles alone were wrenching at the astral plane. How can a book be 3% Sydney Carter? Well over the critical limit. 

So the sheer weight of Syd C dragged all the dark things from Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes towards itself. Including a concrete cow, a couple of tons of slugs, and a Wetherspoons pub. All circling the Alternative Service Horizon.

Now the thing is, once you're beyond the Alternative Service Horizon, time goes very slowly. It's like being in a Liberal middle-of-the-road church in the 1980s. As the vicar preaches on why King David was invented by King Josiah to justify his writing the book of Deuteronomy. In other words, it tends to infinitely slowly. To our horror, Burton Dasset was dragged into an endlessly-cycling loop of "God of Concrete, God of Steel". 

How were we to save Burton? 

I'll be honest, I've got no idea. He's still in there, his face frozen with horror. Oddly, in a Theological Black Hole, all the light can escape. It's the hope that gets dragged down.

We'll have a bit of a think. He'll keep. Beings he's an accountant, he was always a bit light on hope. 

Saturday 10 July 2021

No Passengers in Mission

The Beaker Folk have been on at me. Apparently my statement that "there are no passengers in mission" has been dissected, digested and deliberated and the results are in.

It has been suggested that in fact the following people are entitled to be passengers in mission:

  • People too old 
  • People too tired
  • People too ill
  • People who were just too ill and haven't really got over it
  • People too sad
  • People too confused
  • People too young.

In fact, it has been suggested to me that maybe we should regard the people who really should be passengers as the mission field. Trying to bring in all the people that won't be passengers, so they can pull in others that are not going to be passengers... I mean, it's a bit Ponzi-ish isn't it? Are we, I have been asked, a hospital for the spiritually sick or a sales techniques training centre?

To which I can only say, get me some decent sales people. We haven't met our targets.

Friday 9 July 2021

Dance as David Danced

"David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.  As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart." (2 Sam 6:14,16)
First up - asking the big questions. What is an ephod? 

Looking at Wiki, as you do, it seems like the answer is - something shaped a bit like a kind of liturgical pinny - a kind of sleeveless apron, down to below your waste. So quite a handy item to dance in, though the important thing isn't what it looks like, so much as what it's for. It's a priest's garment, in the Old Testament, and it seems David could wear it because he was king and taking part in this ritual.
Howard from last of the summer wine cleaning windows with a pullover over his pinny, while Normal Clegg leans on his bike to talk to him
Man in a non-liturgical pinny

And what a ritual. Our Restricted Common Lectionary compilers have, needless to say, removed the bit where Uzzah catches the Ark and drops down dead. Bit too Indiana Jones, I expect. But David wants the big show to really make the point - he's the King, this is the Ark. And the Ark is coming home.
It's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming
The Ark is coming home etc

But Queen Michal is not happy.

The reason for her unhappiness, she tells David later, is that as a result of all that dancing and leaping about, more people have discovered what David keeps under his ephod than should have been the case. She thinks that David should have behaved in a more kingly way than pogo-ing around in a pinny. And it sheds a whole new and disturbing light who people who like the song "Undignified". And it was disturbing enough as it was, to be honest, that song. Or the song, "When the Spirit of the Lord is within my heart I will dance as David danced" - what in a liturgical pinny with an insubstantial undergarment?

But maybe as with many people that get grumpy there's more to it than just the thing she says. Michal is, after all, Saul's daughter and Jonathan's sister. Maybe she's figuring that the person that should be bringing the Ark triumphantly into Jerusalem is her dad. Maybe she's angry that God didn't bless Saul, but did bless David. It's common enough, I think, to begrudge other people their blessings. Why did they get that talent, that job, that house, that car, and I didn't? But sulking and hating only grow more sulkiness and hate. They consume your energy and blight your joy. 

But - maybe it's because, while Michal was David's first wife, David basically abandoned her when he escaped from Saul - and married two more wives while he was a fugitive. Michal ended up married to another man, who was very upset when David demanded her back. Maybe Michal thought, I'd rather have a quiet life with the other bloke than this twerp cavorting around. Maybe if that's what it is, you can't blame her.

It's like trying to follow a plot in Coronation Street, isn't it? Next time someone demands Biblical standards of morality, I suggest you ask if they mean like David.

Michal is thinking of her dignity, maybe of her dead family and her other husband and past hurts. David has forgotten everything in the joy of the moment. He has done God's will, he has united the kingdom of Israel, he has given it a capital - and now the most precious possession of Israel, the Ark - has been brought to the place God destined for it. The Ark that went through the desert with the Hebrews, that led them across the Jordan, and led them round Jericho. The Ark that represented the presence of the Lord with God's people. How can you not be glad when the Lord is with God's people? When God's purposes are being worked out? 

Michal's relationship with David has been broken - she loved him once, but he's let her down repeatedly. Whatever grace God has shown David, has not been down to the way he's looked after Michal. How often does a political career destroy a couple's relationship? A couple of weeks ago, Sarah Vine (and who would think I would quote her?) told us in the Mail that the problem with a male politician marriage is - the wife who's left at home knows her husband is not the Master of the Universe he puports to be.
Michal certainly knows that.

David didn't have to abandon Michal. Didn't have to marry increasing numbers of wives. Didn't have to indulge Absalom. Didn't have to be such a weak dad that he ended up dead sons. Didn't have to nip down to see Bathsheba. As an upholder of family values he was - at best - in need of improvement. 

David is not a deep thinker. He's not the sort of bloke you'd meet on a silent retreat. He's impetuous, hormonal, sometimes dangerous - a man who has killed many times, and treats women badly repeatedly. If you like, David is a stereotype of the male virtues and vices - brave to the point of recklessness, yet a disaster for all around him. Yet God has made him king.  And he gives glory to God and serves God's purposes.

God's is gracious enough even to work through someone as flawed as David. In the days when the universe was first woven into place, the thread of the story of salvation went right through men with their good and bad aspects - Abraham, Jacob, Judah, Boaz, David... through that litany of badly treated, long-suffering or non-stereotypical and yet exceptional women - Sarah, Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba.  And through all these, God will bring forward through that most exceptional woman, Mary, the Son of David who excels David. The promise from before time began, in flesh, brought forward from this brilliant, reckless, flawed line.

If God's grace can work like that through David, then it can through us. We can praise God for all he's done for us. For the promises yet to come. Knowing the one who was faithful to David is faithful to us. David's no perfect hero. But the one he followed - and the one who followed him - is.

Sunday 4 July 2021

The Lord is With You

 "And [David] became more and more powerful, because the Lord God Almighty was with him." (2 Sam 5:10)

One of the more common expressions in the Bible, "The Lord is/was with someone." Said to Joshua when he's about to go up and start conquering the Holy Land, and the people of Israel tell him to be bold and strong. Said spectacularly to Mary at the Annunciation - when Gabriel said "The Lord is with you", and Mary "was greatly troubled at his words" - as who wouldn't be?

Said here about David. And it's a key message of the books of Samuel and Kings. Why does David - the ideal King - become more and more powerful?

Well, it's not because of his great might, in the first instance. God chose him when he was just the farmer's lad.

It's not because of his great morality. He spent half his life basically acting like a guerilla, at one point he went off and joined the Philistines, he slept with the wife of one of his captains, then arranged for that captain to die.

It's not his judgement and wisdom. He hopelessly over-indulged his son Absolom and when he should have been ruthless in dealing with Absolom, he spent his time faffing around over the matter until Absolom got himself caught up by the hair in a tree - and then he went off mourning when he should have been ruling.

It's not his accuracy with a sling, though that was handy. And not that he's a pretty handy writer of psalms and a bit of a hero at playing the lyre. Though that's useful.

It's because the Lord is with him. Which puts it all in context.

Also puts our modern life in context. We put people on pedestals because they look good on YouTube or because we think they're charismatic politicians - left or right. And then when they fail we beat them up because they are in fact just human beings.

But the thing that David seems to have known all along is that he's just a man. You don't see pride from him. Bear in mind this is the man who's captured Jerusalem - already an ancient and holy city, and one that will be for the next 3,000 years and more. He's united the tribes of Israel around him. He's established a dynasty. 

 And yet - when he fights Goliath he knows that he will win because the Lord is on his side. In Psalm 20, he says, "some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." In Psalm 22 - speaking of himself and yet, through the Spirit, also of the One who will come from his line - he describes God enthroned as the Holy One, and himself as just a worm, not even a man.

And that's maybe why God is with him. Because David knows how things are. He doesn't set himself up as a god-king, like the Eastern rulers do and the Pharaohs and like the Caesars started to do. Maybe he spent too long out in the dark, fighting off wild animals, to think that he's the super human. He's always aware of his dependence on God. And because of that, he's always aware that God is with him.

God is with you. We pray it as a blessing - "The Lord be with you". The Lord was with David when he was winning battles, when he was dancing as the Ark of the Covenant came into Jerusalem - but also when he is in great distress. When his son Absolom has killed his other son Amnon - and is now taking over his kingdom - and David is once again in hiding - he can write,

"But You, O Lord, are a shield about me,
My glory, and the One who lifts my head." (Ps 3)

God's grace, God's free love, is most with David even when he's being most useless, and when things are going wrong, you could say. And that's when David can respond to God's love in faith. So this is true for us as well. We don't have to be ashamed of our weakness - to hide our sadness from God. David poured all his out. And the Lord was with him. Even if I fall into Hell, said David, even there I'm not hidden from you:

"Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you" (Ps 139)
Like all lives, David's comes to an end. By the standards of his day he's quite old - 70 - but by then he's worn out I expect with all that fighting and dancing and dealing with all his wives and children.

But he dies having been promised that his line will never end - although he's not to know how that promise will work out. But we know. In that holy city of Jerusalem, which he captured, which he made his capital and where he gathered the tribes into one holy nation - his great descendant was presented before God, and Anna and Simeon prophesied that he was one greater than David. Just outside that same city, this great descendant died. Just outside that same city, he also rose from the dead. And one of the titles that great descendant is given is Immanuel - God is with us.

When John Wesley died - another chap whose holy career interfered badly with his relationships with women - his last words are said to have been, "best of all is, God is with us."

The Lord is with you - because you are God's child. The Lord is with you - because of God's love. The Lord is with you - because "great David's greater son" was in fact the Son of God, who came to earth to find the lost and find you and me. The Lord is with you - because God's love is so great that God can never ever leave you.

So today, whether you're feeling happy, brilliant, sad, or broken, know this blessing - the Lord is with you.

Saturday 3 July 2021

"Free From Limiting Factors" - 10,000 new Laboratories

The establishment of 10,000 new, non-expert-led laboratories in the next ten years is among the ambitious targets that will be discussed by the Welcome Trust. 

It also envisages the doubling of the number of children doing brain surgery by 2030.

The initiative has been christened "Brilliant" by Prof Branestawm, of the Institute of Dodgy inventions and Groupthink.

Professor Branestawm explained how Brilliant would result in a million new scientists, operating from someone's front room.

 "Labs led by people who fancy having a go release science from key limiting factors. When you don't need a proper lab, to pay the scientists, and long, costly education for nuclear physicists, then we can release untrained people to just crack on and do stuff with whatever kit they can knock up. In lab-planting, there are no safety standards. I mean, passengers."

 Prof Branestawm has been testing this theory by talking to other scientists. There is some work to be done, he admitted, in ensuring nobody actually created dark matter and destroyed Croydon.

Many of the 10,000 labs would start small, and some would remain as 20 or 30 self-taught scientists working from someone's front room. Prof Branestawm broke off to appeal for people with enormous front rooms to come forward. But he said the definition of laboratory was "tight". There must be at least one drunk bloke who everyone works round, and a spare lab coat and safety glasses in case Boris Johnson pops round.

As a mushroom cloud formed over Chipping Pagwell behind him, Prof Branestawm said, "we must avoid this initiative being seen as 'just another initiative '. Which is why we're calling it a 'vision ', which is entirely different. Not the same thing at all. The important thing about this vision is that, when we've stripped talented people out of existing labs to found new labs in people's sheds with no equipment, it's not my fault that the existing labs fail because they've lost key staff, and the new ones explode because Mrs Jones managed to split the atom in the Hoover. No, it's your fault because you didn't believe enough."

Possibly based on an article in the Church Times about the Church of England starting 10,000 new churches in ten years.