Posted by: owizblog | June 19, 2016

On Loving Complexity, as God Does… Sermon, UCB, 19 June 2o16


Franklin Delano Roosevelt certainly knew what he was saying, when, coming to the United States Presidency in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, he said, in his Inaugural Address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But he also said more than he knew.

rosseveldt fear

Fear is a terrible thing. It makes people cower, and strips them of their defences, so that they grovel to the people who bully them. It strips them of hope, and makes them despair. But it also makes people hate, and kill. It paints the whole world as threatening, alien, full of threat – and justifies and legitimates violent rage against the world understood in that way, what a rugby coach once termed memorably “getting your retaliation in first.

This has been a week in which one man made himself the agent of irrational fear and hatred and massacred forty-nine young people in a nightclub because they were gay, and he seemed unable to cope with that, and in which another man connected what appears to be fear and hatred stemming from his belief that his country was being taken from him with some hideous justification in his own mind for brutally murdering a young mother, apparently because she stood so publicly as an MP for compassion and openness towards refugees.

orlando flowers

We hear of the atrocity in Orlando, and reflect that so many of these lively, loving, creative and gentle young people are like people in our own families, our own community. And suddenly, it doesn’t feel far away.

We pick up a developing story, breaking news on television, about an attack in which an MP has been hurt, and we move in just a few tens of minutes from wondering what on earth is going on, to beginning to understand the horrible truth that Jo Cox has been murdered.

[jo cox memorial.png

The deeper understanding of what it means will take a long time to come fully, but already we know enough to be horrified. We know enough, too, to be frightened, because we come to see that horrible, horrible things have come very close to us.

How many of us have said, over the last few days, “What’s happening to us?” “What are we coming to?”


Fear is a fearful thing, and the story of the prophet Elijah is a study in fear and its effects – but at the centre of it is something truly remarkable.

elijah carmel

Elijah lived in a time when things seemed to be falling apart. The huge, multicultural realm of David and Solomon, which had included Israelites, Judahites, Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, all retaining their different patterns of life, had fallen apart within months, maybe weeks, of Solomon’s death, when the Kingdom of Israel elected to go its own way. All sorts of delicate balances were disturbed in ways no-one could have predicted, and now, half a century later, Israel herself was disintegrating. A despot ruled – and it wasn’t King Ahab.


It was his wife, the utterly ruthless Jezebel, the princess of Tyre, who took the side of her Canaanite kinsfolk against the Israelite population, their laws and their faith. She saw the Israelites as the incomers, the immigrants, incomers from the wilderness, wild tribesmen down from the hills. She saw herself as representing the ancient, settled city civilization of the land. And she saw the power her husband Ahab had as King of this complicated, multicultural land, as power to settle things in favour of her people. As she saw it, she was going to help her people take their country back. But then, Elijah was thinking the same way.


It’s hard to see powerful people as motivated by fear. Yet fear hates complexity. Fear wants to simplify things. Fear wants things black and white, good and bad.


The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein taught us that this way of thinking goes back into our earliest life. This is the way newborn infants think, thrown out of the paradise of the womb into an uncaring, cold world, dependent on the only thing that offers them any succour – the mother’s breast. Filled with fear, surrounded by threat in a universe that makes no sense to them, the hands that appear in order to care, the breast that appears in order to nurture and feed are the very embodiment of goodness and love.

But sometimes, the child is hungry, and the breast isn’t there, needs attended to, and the hands are absent. The infant has no idea that the mother has other things to do, that she is away for a moment doing them, that nobody can respond instantaneously to a baby’s demands all the time.

As far as the infant is concerned, the completely good, completely loving breast has gone away, and has been replaced by a wicked, threatening breast that wants the child to hunger and die.

That’s the only way a tiny baby can think. It can’t imagine that the face, breasts and hands belong to a human being who can’t be everywhere at once. It dare not imagine that the breast which feeds and nourishes it is anything but wholly good. So when the breast isn’t there, in the child’s mind it’s gone completely, replaced by a bad, malicious breast, because the infant can only think in terms of good and bad, black and white, nurturing and threatening, love and hate – and these things are straightforwardly one thing or the other. And the child fears the universe as somewhere hostile and threatening, and its response is outrageous, uncontained, over the top anger.


And this sticks around, this oversimplification, this black and white thinking, this rage and fear. Melanie Klein did a lot of work with young children, and one of her great discoveries was the way this fear and rage against the world can recur later. How many times have we seen a toddler, denied a toy or a sweet, rolling on the ground screaming “I’m going to kill you!!” What Melanie Klein discovered was that they really mean it. And so do we.

It’s part of adult experience that fear and rage come together in ways that make us want to unleash the most frightful violence against the people who cross us, or thwart us, or hurt us.

How many times have we heard ourselves saying “What wouldn’t I like to do to him…?!?”
And we laugh, guiltily!

And that’s healthy. The laughter and the guilt are healthy, and Melanie Klein explains why. As the child develops, there’s a switch to another way of thinking – another “position”, Klein calls it, and by “position” she means that we can shift between the old, fearful, angry, black-and-white thinking and this new style throughout our lives – and we do.

Suddenly, the child is old enough to grasp that the smiling face, the caring hands, the nourishing breast, all belong to one being – another human being, a human being just like himself. And the child understands that this human being is an ambiguous reality. You can’t split human reality into separate good and bad. Life isn’t like that. The world isn’t like that. Human reality isn’t like that.

And there’s another advance. Remember the murderous rage? “I’m going to kill you!”? The child suddenly realizes that it was directing all of this rage at a real human being like itself, a human being who loves him. And he feels bad about it. He thought at the time that his furious thoughts would actually be able to hurt or kill. In grownups, they can.

Carolyn and I still laugh at the recollection of a teacher friend of hers who was giving a well-deserved row to an already very angry primary one; he started behaving in a very strange way, grunting and straining, and clenching his arms and heaving his shoulders, and the penny dropped; he was trying to turn himself into the Incredible Hulk, and clearly thought that this was a possibility!

More darkly, how easy is it, when someone frustrates, or angers, or belittles, or hurts us, to put two fingers together in the shape of a gun, point at them when they aren’t looking, and murmur “Bang!”

And how do we feel when we realize the power and darkness of our response? Guilty. And, says Klein, that’s exactly what the child feels when it suddenly manages to assemble the jigsaw of hands, face, breast, into a human being. A human being it wanted to hurt, and destroy. It wanted to hurt; perhaps it did…

But guilt, in Melanie Klein’s sense, is a healthy thing. It’s the impulse to mend, to put right. It’s not the powerless thing that so many religious people think it to be. It’s a clear seeing of how things are, of how complicated they are.


It’s easy to see how Jezebel’s thinking is, in the story of Elijah. Black and white, Canaanite and Israelite, Ba’al and the God of Israel. And how the world is threatening, and the correct response is murderous anger, until everything is back to being the way we want it again. If you feel you have no control, you have to take the situation back.

But we need to realize that that’s exactly how Elijah is thinking, too. He challenged the priests of Ba’al to that magnificent showdown on Mount Carmel that we were looking at a few weeks ago – but we usually stop the story, certainly when we’re telling it in Sunday School, before we get to the bit when he takes his opportunity to slaughter Ba’al’s people just the way they’d slaughtered his.

And now, for him, the world has turned hostile again, because Jezebel has trumped his rage and fear with her own. She is going to kill him; and she is no toddler. She has the means to do it.

elijah in the wilderness

His nerve breaks. He’s too small, now for a toddler’s omnipotent anger. Just a fleeing, tiny figure lost in the landscape of the wilderness, he has only overwhelming fear. The desert won’t feed him, won’t comfort him, and before ever Jezebel’s hitmen get there, he is a dead man.

He barely notices that he is, somehow, fed, and that he has, somehow, made it to the mountain of Horeb, and the shelter of the cave.

And there, he meets God. Not in those volcanic natural metaphors of anger, and fury – as though God would give him the ability to turn himself into a wrath-filled Incredible Hulk whose anger would re-trump and horribly destroy Jezebel.

elijah horeb

No, beyond all of these things, he encounters God in silence. He encounters God when there’s nothing left but the world the way it really is, and things the way they really are. He encounters God when he acknowledges that he can’t simplify the world by his own will, or the power of his own violence, that things aren’t black and white, but an infinitely minutely graded spectrum of grey.

And, having met God on the mountain, he goes back. Back to things as they are, back to a complicated world that he can’t simplify, back to a rapidly changing reality that nobody’s on top of – but that’s where God is. In truth. In the way things really are. In the ambiguity and the complexity.

And he starts dealing with the world that way. Now, Elijah is a man from a distant time, an Israelite prophet of the ninth century BC. He doesn’t become a twenty-first century humanitarian, a conciliator, a bridge-builder, through his experience of God on the mountain. That isn’t why he’s important to us. It’s because his experience is of the God who holds all of reality in his hands, who is the meaning of everything, not just of our bit of everything, the God who isn’t just the God of our side’s murderous simplifications, or Jezebel’s side’s murderous simplifications, but of the complicated truth of how things are.

We’re still eight hundred and odd years from being able to talk in Christian terms of the God who loves the whole world in its complexities. But by the time Paul is writing to the Galatians, we’ve got there.


“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And that’s complicated. What God in Christ demands of us is that we embrace complexity – because that’s what God did, and does, in Christ. There is no room in our faith for the kind of murderous simplification that unleashed itself on a roomful of young gay people in Orlando last Sunday, or that reached out to take the life of Jo Cox on Thursday.

And yes, the people who do terrible things like this may well be troubled, deeply damaged people who are – and I use the words very carefully – possessed by these awful ideas that are circulating in their society. And I don’t use the term possession lightly. It’s the way twenty-first century people like us can make sense of the heart-rending story of Jesus and the man whose troubled head and damaged mind are so full of presences and influences not his own.

But we, also, can discover that we’ve given these hideous things houseroom in our own souls: the hate, the fear, the anger sometimes turned violently against ourselves, only very rarely, if at all, turned on others – but it’s there, in us all, this capacity to slip back into a black and white world in which all we need to do is to turn our fear into hate and anger.

We need to acknowledge this, and repent of it, and step away from it. We need to realize that we all live in the world as it is – and that it’s full of other people who are different to us, but just as human as we are.

And that that’s where God is.

That was Elijah’s discovery, the truth he caught a glimpse of, eight hundred and fifty years before love came down at Christmas, and tears and smiles like us he knew, nearer nine hundred years before all the anger and rage and fear in the world was confronted on the Cross of Christ, and overcome by a love that suffered and absorbed it all, to break its power and set us free.
Are we free?

Well, there’s an opportunity coming up very soon to look at that huge question.

You all know that I am not going to tell you how to vote in Thursday’s Referendum.

But every one of you would expect me to say this.

Examine yourselves. Check to see if there is anything in you that is reacting with fear, or anger, to the way the world is. Check to see if there’s anything in you that inclines you to vote, one way or the other, because you feel, and fear, that the world is too complicated, too much shades-of-grey, and that this will simplify it, make it black and white, right and wrong again.

Because you all know, already, that it won’t, whichever way you vote.

God bless you, whichever way you vote. But remember, whatever happens after Thursday, we will still be living in a complicated world, among complicated people, some of whom are very different to us.

And God, having seen the whole of it, loves all that he has made.

And he doesn’t let us off loving it, either.




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