For the last few months, The Swan has been a grocer’s shop, a takeaway, a foodbank, a delivery service. On Saturday night it’s reopening as – wait for it – a pub, of all things. And I’m trying to book a table.
Likewise, parishes are considering how they might gather again in their churches on Sunday morning. While I’m looking forward to leading worship in church, there are nerves too. It’s not a case of ‘Have I forgotten how to do it?’ (I’m not sure I knew how to do it in the first place.) It’s more a case of not wanting to open up by closing down: prematurely foreclosing on something we’ve only just learned or are just beginning to learn, something precious. And I recall God’s words to Jeremiah:
Thus said the Lord to me: Go and stand in the People’s Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say to them: Hear the word of the Lord, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem who enter by these gates.Jeremiah 17:19-20
We’ve been standing in the city gates for the last few months – out on a limb and yet coming together in new ways, virtually, and with an ignited sense of community and care for one another. Jeremiah is not called to speak in the centre of the city, in the temple, where you’d expect to find him. He is called to the margins, to the gates. I don’t want to lose our place in the gates. After all, Jesus says, ‘I am the gate’ (John 10:9). We’re supposed to be here.
I was sent a video this week of three boys running amok in a church which had just reopened for private prayer. Pretty harmless stuff actually, just the sort of thing bored boys are likely to get up to given half a chance and having been cooped up at home for months. But the incident raised questions in my mind about openness.
The church is open and therefore open to being abused. And if you think about it, the boys were open too, openly sharing their video on social media (which is how I ended up seeing it). Foolish on their part, I suppose, but telling in its own way. Openness, a willingness to share, is foolish, risky.
So our instinct is often to close, not to open, even in the way we think. We see things in binary, as black or white, true or false, on or off, cut and dried. I’m right; you’re wrong. It’s a way of parcelling up the world to our advantage, neatly, in boxes. Psalm 119, longest and least lovely of the psalms, is a hymn to commandments, statutes, orders, laws, rules and regulations. To use the dangerous word we discussed on Sunday, we are willing slaves:
The slave wants what is unconditional; he understands only what is tyrannical, even in morality; he loves as he hates, without nuance.Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, II.46
Spend some time scrolling through Twitter. Or watch Question Time, and you’ll see what Nietzsche means. Subtlety or nuance leaves a chink open; we don’t want that; it’s weak, vulnerable. We admire strength and certainty.
Jesus’ words in the gospels, on the other hand, are unclosable, their ultimate meaning endlessly nuanced, endlessly elusive and deferred, never final. No reading is definitive. It is a truly open text, and therefore openly, dangerously true:
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.John 8:31-32
Knowing the truth is not, for Jesus, to do with having facts at your fingertips, or even being right; it is a continuing, a setting free, a discipleship; it is a process. The Word of God does not have a full stop after it. We’re not called to follow rules; we’re called to follow Jesus. St Paul recognises this immediately. He realises that through Jesus Christ we are
discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.Romans 7:6
But as Nietzsche says, to be released like this is actually the last thing human beings want. We love laws, written codes, instructions; we love tyranny; we choose it.
I tell you man has no more agonizing anxiety than to find someone to whom he can hand over with all speed the gift of freedom with which the unhappy creature is born.Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov II.5
Canny demagogues understand this instinctively; freedom is the last thing people want. In Dostoevsky’s great novel, the Grand Inquisitor accuses Jesus of betraying the true interests of human beings.
Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom you multiplied it and burdened the spiritual kingdom of man with its sufferings for ever.Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov II.5
The Grand Inquisitor is right. Freedom and the truth are a burden to us, they make demands on us and entail suffering. Jesus’ life and witness are testament to that. Like the crowds on Good Friday, we’ve had a glimpse of the Truth, a glimpse of true, loving, risky openness and it frightens us. We prefer the tyrannical, prefer to listen to the Pharisee with his rules and laws and traditions, prefer to be told what to do and how to think.
So much of our thinking – philosophically, politically, even theologically – aims to turn the ‘Open’ sign to ‘Closed’. We run away from freedom, run away from the Truth, taking shelter behind dogma, behind facts (whatever they are).
But we’ve been standing in the gates. And we’ve learned something there.
As we prepare to open our buildings, we should consider opening ourselves too.
A pianola can only play the instructions fed into it through rolls of punched card. Grand Pianola Music by John Adams entertains the fantasy of a pianola capable of running away with itself, a pianola able to punch its own card. What would a pianola play for itself? Half tent show, half concerto.
When the piece was premiered in New York in 1982 it was booed. There’s something wilfully unserious and histrionic about this music. But its playfulness, its over-the-topness is precisely its point: whose rules of good taste and decorum is it breaking? Ours. But its claim to be pianola music suggests it doesn’t have to abide by our rules at all. The instructions come from somewhere else. So should ours.
This is the third movement, called ‘On the Dominant Divide’.
Lord, you called Jeremiah to the gates,
draw us, like him, to the margins, to new places
where our certainties crumble away, our hearts are opened
and we are to live by faith alone.
Grant us your grace that we might abide always in your promise,
walk always in your peace,
and continue always in your Word,
even Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.