Dazzling Darkness

Every now and then I read a book which makes me feel like I’ll never be quite the same again. Every now and then I read a book which makes me want to repeatedly yell “Yes!” in recognition of my own innermost thoughts expressed much more clearly than I could ever put them myself. Very occasionally I come across a book which does both of these things – “Dazzling Darkness” by Rachel Mann is one such book.

I devoured it in a single sitting on my day off, and have been thinking about it ever since. This isn’t a book review, and I wouldn’t even attempt to summarise it – I couldn’t possibly do it justice. Just read it. Seriously. Even if you don’t think you’re interested in issues of gender or sexuality. Even if you’ve no desire to read about chronic illness. Even if you couldn’t care less about God. Just read it. You won’t regret it.

What I do want to do is share some of the thoughts “Dazzling Darkness” triggered in me, some of the ways it both confirmed and extended my own thinking about God and what God is like. For as long as I can remember, the idea of God in the darkness has been important to me. A God who is present in the pain and sadness and illness and grief which is an intrinsic part of human existence, seems to me the only sort of God worth knowing. What has dawned on me this week, partly as a result of reading “Dazzling Darkness”, is this: for God, darkness is not second-best.

Let me explain. I very frequently say things like “God is there even in the pain”. Dealing with bereavements in school recently, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said “Even when we are sad, God is with us.” But actually, that isn’t quite right. In that formulation of “even if”, “even when”, I am unintentionally implying that, while God is definitely there with us in the darkness, God would rather be with us in the light. That’s the implication of much of our language about God and suffering, God and pain, God on the margins. And I don’t believe it’s true. I don’t believe God is in the darkness in a way that is reluctant or half-hearted or in any way less than the way in which God is in the light. In both darkness and light, God is.

And that has implications for how we relate to God, and perhaps more importantly for how we relate to those people with whom God walks in darkness, including when we ourselves are among those people. We are fond of talking, in some parts of the church at least, about God being with the least, last, and lost. And indeed God is. But the implication is often that God is with them even though they are least, last or lost, even though they are on the margins, even though they are damaged and flawed. But if God is in darkness as much as in light, those “even though”s are not the right way to describe what’s going on when God meets with people in darkness. The way we speak betrays an assumption that God, although present with people in the darkness of the margins, would prefer to walk with them in the light. And that isn’t true either.

“Darkness and light are the same to you” we read in Psalm 139. And if that is true. then darkness is not second-best. The people who walk in darkness are not second-best. God does not come near to people in spite of their grief and pain and brokenness, God simply draws near. God does not walk with people in spite of them being on the margins, God simply walks with people. God does not love in spite of the darkness, God simply loves. Because love is all that God is. 

Once we accept that God in darkness is not less than God in light, I think we must accept this: the people we perceive as being in darkness are not less than the people we perceive as being in light. And, perhaps harder, this: we ourselves are not less when we feel ourselves to be in darkness than when we are in light. God makes no such distinctions, so how can we?

These are my initial, rather unformed, thoughts on first reading. I will no doubt return to it at some point. I would be very interested to hear what others think, particularly those who have read “Dazzling Darkness” (which I hope will soon be all of you!).

Rainbow Sunday

Today (16th March 2014) is Rainbow Sunday, an initiative started by Inclusive Church to celebrate and affirm LGBT people in our churches. At the church where I am children’s minister, we marked Rainbow Sunday in Ark, our children’s group, with discussion, stories, prayer, and the creation of a beautiful rainbow altar frontal. Then we took our altar frontal into church, put it on the altar, and I had about a minute to talk to the congregation about what we had been doing and why.

All Saints has sometimes tended to keep our message of inclusion “under the radar”, as a colleague put it this morning, occasionally mentioning sexuality as an afterthought in a list of groups we are not excluding, but “not making a big thing of it”. Our congregation is in every sense a broad church, and I am aware that there is a very wide range of views on this subject. Today felt a bit like sticking my head above the parapet!

This is (roughly) what I said:

“Today is Rainbow Sunday, the day in the church calendar set aside for affirming and celebrating LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans*) people in the church. The rainbow, as we know from the story of Noah, is a sign of hope. It has long been used as a symbol by the gay community to represent the hope of equality, a brighter future, and the right to be and to celebrate who God made each person to be.

The church does not have a good track record when it comes to how we have treated gay people.  Too often our brothers and sisters have been hurt and rejected simply because of who they, these precious children of God, are.  Still, when equal marriage becomes a reality at the end of this month, same sex couples won’t be able to get married in this church, to experience that joyful celebration and blessing of their love as part of the body of Christ. Still our church leaders are too slow and too hesitant to speak out against the support shown by some of their African counterparts for violently homophobic laws.

Still, in so many ways, the church fails to be the face of God’s justice and love. And I believe God weeps for that.

At Ark this morning we’ve been looking at the last two verses of today’s gospel reading, which N will read for us [John 3.16-17]. Everyone who believes inherits eternal life. Jesus came not as judge but as saviour. How can we hear those words and not be moved to do our bit to right the wrongs done to our LGBT brothers and sisters?

And so today we are making this small start. We are saying that discrimination is never the will of God, and that in this church we will not accept it. We are saying that there is nothing about anyone that is not fearfully and wonderfully made by God. And we are celebrating in all the colours of the rainbow the fabulously diverse group of people God calls us to be.”

 Then the vicar led us in this prayer, which I wrote for the occasion:

“Loving God,

We thank you that each of us is made in your likeness

And that every aspect of ourselves is a gift from you.

Help us to celebrate and treasure each other

As your precious children.

We thank you for the rich diversity of sexuality and gender

And pray that we may come to value one another

And support each other

As we grow more and more into the people you made us to be.

We thank you for the example of creativity and love

Shown by our children today

And ask that we may all face you and each other

With the openness and honesty of a child.

May your church become ever more like Jesus,

Filled with the generous love of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.”

Here’s a picture of the altar frontal:

Image

And finally, a quote from one of the children who helped make it: “it’s to show everyone who comes into our church that God loves them just how they are”.

 

Come as you are

It is fair to say that time-keeping is not a strong point at the church where I work. Our main Sunday service starts at 9.45. At 9.43, approximately half the congregation will be there, some of them even sitting down. By 9.50, most have arrived. A steady trickle will continue until at least the sermon, with the odd one or two continuing to come in at random intervals throughout. Some will arrive just in time for coffee afterwards.

Me. I’m obsessively punctual. I hate being late, and will go to great lengths to avoid it. And to be perfectly honest, it drives me up the wall when other people are late. So how do I feel about the time-keeping at All Saints? Actually, it doesn’t bother me at all. It has done, but it doesn’t now, because I’ve come to see it as part of how we welcome people as they are.

To take a not-unusual example from the other Sunday, I was chatting after the service to a mum of two children, who told me about the awful week she’d been having. It had clearly been one thing after the other, culminating in the realisation that various factors involving changed timings of a rugby practice for one child, an unexpected dance workshop for another, and a husband on nightshifts, meant there was no way she’d be able to get to church on time. “I nearly didn’t come,” she said, “and then I thought loads of other people come in late, no-one’s going to mind. So I came. I missed the sermon, but I got here in time for communion. I’m glad I came, I really needed it today.”

Here is an example of exactly the sort of person who most needs us, the church, on a Sunday morning. Busy, stressed, snatching time between family commitments, but desperately wanting the comfort of belonging, community, communion, drawing near to God to be refreshed and renewed, ready for the next long slog of a week. And if we were the sort of church where people turn and stare and tut when you come in late, she wouldn’t have come. It’s as simple as that.

So no, I don’t mind when people wander in half way through the sermon. I don’t mind when they take their children to the toilet in the middle of the prayers (after a loud “but Mummy, I need a poo NOW”), or when a toddler is laughing or yelling, or when the two old ladies behind me carry on with their conversation throughout the Eucharistic prayer. Because that’s part of who we are. It’s part of being a family, God’s family, as we gather at his table.

It’s part of how we welcome people. Jesus doesn’t wait for people to be sitting in neat rows and listening quietly before he welcomes them. God says “come as you are”, and so should we.

But we’re so far off from that, aren’t we? So far from accepting and welcoming people however they are, whoever they are. We might be ok with a yelling toddler, but what about a drunk adult shouting the odds? A couple of old ladies talking, fine. But what about someone talking to voices only they can hear?

Mental illness, addiction, disability, family breakdown, challenging behaviour, poverty, a dozen other things that make up what professionals politely refer to as “chaotic lives”. Are we really ready to say “come as you are”? Or do we mean “come as you are, as long as it’s not too disruptive to how we do things”?

If we believe in a God who loves unconditionally, extravagantly, outrageously, and if we believe Christ calls us, as the church, to be his body in the world, how can we place limits on that love? How can we say “we love you if…” “we welcome you unless…” Those are things we’ll never hear God say. And if we the church say them, in our words or actions, rolled eyes or tutting, disapproving glances or avoided eye-contact, we place limits on that love which are nothing to do with God at all.