The book of Barabbas

Chapter 1. (New Revised Standard Edition Anglicised.) 

Lamentation’s answer. 

1While an encampment that human beings had erected in order to survive their journey away from death was being torn down (because of external decisions), another – longer standing – encampment of human beings who journeyed in search of a better life was deciding its direction. 2The world that could choose was choosing, the world that could not choose was watching and waiting to learn if its future had hope or darkness. 3Beneath the discourse a slight whisper from the hearts of those who themselves couldn’t hear. 4Words, very clear and chilling to the ears of those who were attentive: “am I my brother’s keeper?”.

5Those who heard it, the same who hold the memory of blood from the shepherd’s head-wound dripping on the rock now dropped by his brother, wept. 6They wept alongside the tent pegs that had been left behind when the bulldozers came; 7they wept beside the old men, sifting through the rubble of the old city for signs of the lives they were in denial of loosing; 8they wept with the mothers of sons who were criminalised, lived under the threat of death and its worse sibling twins – incarceration and slavery, sons who were shot before tasting grey. 9They wept as their tears were projected onto the endless feeds as pictures that mocked justice by pointing to guilt that would go unpunished and unchallenged 10(for those with the power to act, didn’t react – the threat never close enough to warrant lifted hands). 11They wept bitterly, tears bursting the underdeveloped levies and washing away their home: 12how were they to call home the place that their stronger brother had claimed for his own – even without birthright?

13These were the days when judges were scarce; when prophets were silent and pharisees were loud; when the widows were hungry – portions served to false kings; 14and the fatherless uncovered – squatting in the shadows of hillside mansions. 15These were the days when no one noticed the wind – no vanes were erected nor sails raised 16and none with oars left the harbour and nets were swapped for fig leaves. 17These were the days when the third crow was unheard, heart unhurt, and stomachs stretched as far as the blood-soaked heaps of coins would allow. 18No one ventured into the wilderness, by the river where the death that saved awaited: opting rather to skirt the edge of the greens on the journeys from fortresses to fortresses. 19Those who bore the truth had arisen and headed to Tarshish by land leaving the outcry of the infants – whose blood also stained the sacrificial rocks – to rise. 

20Then spoke the Lord to the old soldier’s son,

“Gather your garments,

take off the sackcloth;

rinse your head and be clean.

21Cease from your weeping and rejoice,

for now you know my deeds –

my thoughts in the silence

22when with feeble knees I stood,

half alive from the lashes

wearing my crown of thorns

and my blood-soaked robes of glory,

23watching as they chose

to make Barabas their king.

24Come, stand with me in love,

and love from this place beside the tree

till darkness fails and every knee

bows”.

Let him who has ears…

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Catch up: Part 3…The Little Black Tourist

By the entrance to the crypt a sentry stood.

“I’m here for the ordination retreat”. I almost whispered.

Right this way Sir!”, the reply, with an arm extended toward the well lit hollow.

I lifted my bags so they wouldn’t hit the steps. Inside one of them was a bottle of Aardberg which I had been advised to take with me (as for the contents of that bottle, what happens on retreat stays on retreat!).

The last time I came to St Paul’s Cathedral it was for my confirmation service. I managed to find myself a seat upstairs and secured some for my family: who had come to support me. About five minutes prior to the service, my sister’s nose began to bleed. One of the vergers, who I came to learn later was a cannon (cracking Job title by the way) had let us down some steps into the crypt. That was my first time down there.

I had once, before writing Talitha Koumi, aired some of my frustrations about Christian  obsessions with buildings. Stone altars was the series of blog posts through which I  mused on the place of symbolic structures in the life of faith. At that point, as with now, I was passionate for people to know God as one who did not need the many buildings, and all the ornate things within them, in order to touch the heart. Because of this, the history of St Paul’s Cathedral and of all that was within its walls – specifically the crypt, weren’t a fascination.

Today, as the outstretched arm of the Sentry pointed me down into the crypt, I hadn’t lost that sense of non-wonder (and this has taken a while to understand). It wasn’t the building that I was walking into that had me trembling, it was the life I was leaving behind. Going down the steps felt like leaving the autonomy with which my journey had been peppered: I was one amongst many traversing the busy London streets. It felt as though with each step down my life was stopping being my own.

At the end of the ceremony to come there would be a prefix to my name. One that denoted my connection to the institution that this building represented. It would denote my connection to a whole plethora of people. I trembled because I knew how complex my own sense of identity was (#It’sComplicated). How could I then enter into the space of representing? Would I lose who I was and become something else? If yes, then what if I did not like who I became? There were too few steps and too many tourists going up and down them for any of these questions to have had answers by the time I got to the room we were supposed to congregate in.

Bags down I was glad to see some familiar faces. I was also glad to see some new faces, each with that Nicky Gumble christian smile. It was daunting, but somehow also safe. I could trace in each face I met – of the ordinands – internal turmoils of a similar texture. There was a quiet, subtle, undercurrent of care for each other which made – even the silences – a good thing.

About 40 minutes passed with us, the group of ordinands, doing things not worth the blog-space (apart probably from the pre-quasi-seminar coffee, which was good). When all had been said that needed saying we donned our cassocks to head up for the rehearsal. The cafe in the crypt went silent as soon as the door to the room we were in opened. Cups were put down, some even did the sign of the cross as we – in single file like soldiers – marched out towards the set the same steps that had ushered us individually in. Lifting my cassock so as not to trip on the steps I slowly ascended back out into the sunshine of the courtyard. The faces, now turned towards our cohort of oddly dressed individuals, were filled with wonder and confusion in equal measure. We went up the steps, through the side doors past the tourists into the nave.

Part of what we would have had to do in the service was walk in that same single file up the aisle to the front. There was a slight commotion in the nave as the many tourists who were in the building gathered around close to the font, where we were, in order to see what was going on. Our names were called out so that we will be in the right order when our march begun. Like a good schoolboy I listened attentively for my name, suppressing every instinct towards mischief (I know… it happened). When it came, resounding with echoes, I walked toward where I was supposed to stand: my stomach slightly churning. I lifted my eyes from my shoes and that’s when it happened; that’s when I saw him. I’m certain however, that he had been watching me a while now.

He was short, just tall enough for the rope that demarcated the ‘no access’ area to pass across his shoulders. His hair was combed, dark like his eyes – which were wide open. There was a look of wonder in his eyes that both confused and encouraged me. It was a look mirrored by his mother, who was standing beside him. Hers however, had a tinge of pride: the kind of pride that God likes; that expresses a gratitude mixed with joy and affirmation. No one else had the same look these two had. For most of those surrounding them, the look was more of surprise and intrigue. Somehow, within that moment, I had become his – a memory to savour. He too had become mine. Both our eyes glistened at the realisation that we were no longer just tourists, misfits in a place we didn’t belong. We represented each other from the other side of the rope: I could be him (in fact I was him once but in a life that – till fairly recently – was empty of the counterpart in a cassock), and he could be me. Once innocently colour-blind little black tourists in a sea of white, now priests to each other. Me, evidence of a new possibility; Him, a reminder of where I came from and the privilege I was now to hold: the privilege of who I was becoming.

Stopping short of going to embrace him, I nodded and waved. He slowly raised a hand, still with wonder in his eyes, and gently – almost with a tinge of embarrassment – waved back. With that we were called forward and I had to leave the scene.

Being an ethnic ‘minority’ (and I hate some of what that word might imply) had never really been a thing that I focussed on. Being and ethnic ‘minority’ in the Church of England was also not a thing that I had particularly focussed on. Being a Church of England ordinand from an ethnic minority was also not something I particularly mused upon. For some reason – and do think it is from him – God had somehow blinded me to the fact that I was usually one of perhaps two black guys in most of the churches I had been involved in. Looking back now, with the added experience of my sending church, I can see quite clearly the correlation between the affluence of the particular churches and their ethnic diversity (quite a sad thing to ponder really).

Only once during the discernment process had cultural mis-translation proved an issue for me: even then it was only slight. I barely noticed my ethnicity at my B.A.P (selection conference), and only slightly – on rare occasions – had it become a noticeable thing at theological college or in the placement churches. But this wasn’t because issues regarding race and culture weren’t alive in the undercurrent. No! It was because they were the aspects of my own experience that I had chosen, sub-consciously and consciously at times, not to reflect on. For so long as doors kept opening I kept walking through without pausing to ponder the scars and wounds from the journey.

This moment, then, was important because it helped me realise that I had a tourist’s understanding of my presence at the cathedral. Somewhere between church, the discernment process, theological training and all that had led to this point, I had suppressed the truth of my blackness and thus wasn’t really in the space to recognise the fact that I belonged where I stood. I had forgotten the wonder with which my eyes met my sending incumbent – a young black man serving as a priest. I hadn’t recognised the permission he had given me, permission in my deepest recesses to dream. He had given me the sight of a future I could occupy, like the sight I had here given the little black tourist. I had had the fortune, in the sea of middle-class white males (a generalisation, but also a kind of reality), to have found someone who looked like me, spoke like me, had a story like mine, who was doing what I felt God was calling me to do. My dream had possibility.

To recognise my belonging meant recognising the moments when I was a cultural outcast, smiling in groups when I didn’t understand the references or appreciate the same genre of music or films being used (unintentional exclusion by my God-loving peers). It meant recognising the loneliness of culture-centric pleasures and joys that I couldn’t share: they would neither be appreciated fully/ understood nor enjoyed. It meant having to recognise the struggle to find a barber shop that did afro hair while my colleagues had short walks to theirs. It meant recognising that I didn’t know how to begin to express my hurt when I was made a victim by a racist shopkeeper (my colleagues would have cared for me but they may not have understood the pain – real untranslated empathy heals in a way unparalleled). It meant recognising that I was going to be ordained as a black man.

If I didn’t allow the authenticity of my experience to kneel before the cross, I wouldn’t be healed; neither would the others from my background for whom our shared experience would be an avenue through which hope would flow. As Rev Azariah France-Williams (my sending incumbent) was for me, so I had to be for myself first, then for others. I suppose this was why Jesus had to be fully human, so as not to be a tourist but a priest.

The rest of the rehearsal was a blur: my thoughts overwhelmed me. I was occupied for the days of reflection that followed and have been since. The young boy ensured my commitment to a deeper reflection on the part my ethnicity plays in this great adventure God is leading me on. It’s not easy. Keep me in your prayers.

….

I couldn’t post this without this minor appendix….

In the diverse city that London is, I was the only black person ordained in 2016. There were a few from other ethnicities but in total we were a small percentage and I suspect didn’t represent the make up of our city. I don’t think this is an issue whose root rests solely in the majority male-middle class white clergy. What God blinded me to, other’s see and are afraid. Had I seen it myself, I might not be where I am. We must together share the burden of cross-cultural translation. I think it is at the centre of the term ‘incarnate’. Difference is not to be feared but to be embraced. Sin will mask our fear in apathy or the illusion that is the assurance of our being untouched by issues of race and culture: do not allow it to take root. Repentance, specific to this, looks like a real interrogation of the sub-conscious biases that exist within us. These are not just about race and culture but also include gender and age. Kneeling at the foot of the cross means just that, accepting that our minds need transformation and our whole lives conforming to be like the God who reached out to the uncircumcised.

(More can be said, more will undoubtedly be said.)

PS: Pontiff sed hi.

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Catch up: part 2…#Pilgrim

About a month had passed since the valedictory service. Some of the faces and memories are referred to in my last post was still fresh my head. I hadn’t quite began to miss things because it all sort of felt like an extended break. Somewhere within, I was convinced that things would resume at a certain point and the rhythm that I had grown accustomed to would return. This illusion was kept in place by the fact that we hadn’t moved from the house we had lived in while in Bristol. The place we were to take up during my curacy was due to be worked on – maintenance and repairs. What this meant was I would have to take my stuff for the ordination retreat with me all the way from Bristol and after the ceremony return to Bristol. This wasn’t particularly ideal: but that’s life. To be honest I was more daunted by the prospect of ordination than I was with the discomfort of travelling.

I suppose there is something about the pilgrims journey being the pilgrims journey. If one does not own the destination as their own, where does one draw determination and the hope to persevere – or even the courage to attempt the journey in the first place.

Close to 3 years prior, I set off from quiet house in West Sussex to make the three-hour trip across to Bristol to begin my theological education. I stress that ‘quiet house’ because it was empty. There was no one to share my anxiety and excitement; no one to encourage me; no one to pray for me – I had needed it badly. Then, and in this moment I am here reflecting on, it felt as though God clearly wanted me to understand my sense of calling as my own. In as much as there are so many people he had placed around me to nurture me and encourage me through the journey, it seemed important to him that I knew that it was my journey first. That it will be me that would be shaped, tested, carried, refilled, thirsty, bruised, strengthened, and approved. So when with the retreat beckoning I placed my bags in the boot of my Little VW, that sense of solitude – positive solitude – was one that I recognised. This journey was for me.

There is something about the M4 that’s both charming and frustrating. Over the time spent in Bristol I have had to make numerous trips to and from London. Both the night time and the daytime journeys always gave me time to reflect, time to dream – obviously not while asleep at the wheel, and time to ‘defragment the hard drive’. The morning  drive was east into the sunrise, the evening drive west into the sunset; and the night’s peppered by a cascade of headlights. One grows accustomed to the red of the rear lamps. (If you are doing the London to Bristol trip, the Membury services have a drive through Starbucks #BroTip). On some days you might be lucky and there are no roadworks slow you down. But on other days, most days are really, at some point you have to slow down to a creep because hundred or so drivers decided they wanted to have a look at what was going on the other side of the motorway. For the many trips I had taken, I had grown to know the different curves and distances between the junctions; and how many songs would get me to which point.

This journey was different. For some reason  It had a feeling of finality to it. Almost like the beginning of an end. This was more than just a ‘you will no longer live in Bristol’ kind of end. Or a ‘you will no longer be a student at Trinity’ kind of end. This was a ‘your life is about to change’ kind of end. A ‘brace yourself’ kind of excitement washed over me as I buckled in. I started the ignition as that kind of smile you smile when you see the lion in the zoo and recognise how small you are, washed across my face. Needless to say I was parked up and a few steps away from the train station in Chiswick when I realised that I didn’t even put the Radio on for the two hour road trip.

The headphones were in and the music soundtracks for the cascading scenes and faces as the train took me deeper into the big smoke. The same Waterloo station that I had frequented in my freelance days now took on a different sense of wonder. Light interrupted by rows of steel ushered me forward. I slowly walked past the National Theatre and the BFI keeping away from the river because I knew what awaited me. But with a sense of inevitability the buildings peeled away. I could see it across the water, that great survivor who had welcome me into her arms once before and now towered above all so she could do it again.

When Wordsworth talks about spots of time, I think it’s things like these that he refers to. The memory is etched, maybe seared in. I can almost count the contours on the stems of the trees that line the embankment, their broad leaves slowly swaying in the gentle breeze. In front of me the tourists with their big cameras trying to catch little scenes, little glimpses to take home with them. And then there are other joggers, pilgrims themselves; and those on benches unpacking their sandwiches. I must have fitted right in with my travel bag and cassock carrier.

Slowly, as I approached Millennium bridge, all other buildings began to shrink. The cathedral grew bigger with each step, and so did the tremor from within. I was hungry but knew I couldn’t eat. It was all made worse by the fact that I knew I was afraid, wanted to turn back but couldn’t: I just couldn’t. I should have bought the sugar coated peanuts from the vendor on the bridge. There were steps to ascend gradually as the paved path from the river to the courtyard opened up. I wished I had memorised a song of ascent: there was a song playing through the headphones that I can’t recall – in truth I wasn’t listening.

With one last look up the steps at those daunting West doors I turned left as had been instructed. By the entrance to the crypt a sentry stood.

“I’m here for the ordination retreat”. I almost whispered.

Right this way Sir!“, the reply, with an arm extended toward the well lit hollow.

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John 19:28-30

But am I thirsty?
Yearning for the cup of obedience,
For the sour wine of humility
And the salvation it brings?

Am I thirsty?
To endure with you and not to reign,
To stay faithful through the pain,
To praise in chains,
Or when blood stains my imperfect garments?

Am I thirsty?
Knowing that nothing else satisfies
No food for this desire,
Wood for this dying fire?
Or am I mourning my death while waiting
For it all to dry up!

No!

Give me thirst,
Give me hunger.
March me into the wilderness,
Into the desert where you are.

Give me stones
Destroy my thrones
Shake these bones and make me re-membered.

The beds are dry, the clouds long departed:
Dust reigns.

Give me thirst,
Give me the name to call
Give me the knees upon which to fall.

In deed I rage against mercy,
Refusing the first.
Oh Lord!

Give me thirst

© Denis Adide 2015

Before he dies Jesus drinks the ‘Cup’ after saying he thirsts. This the same cup he asks be taken away in Gethsemane. On the cross he thirsts. Is it a thirst for something to drink or is it a desire to be obedient even unto death: death on a cross. He desires to take upon himself the work of salvation.

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me”.

Lines composed while contemplating John 19:16-30

They were bare hands that sharp nails received
Bare lips that with a kiss revealed
Sealed with bare stone and silver a heart deceived.

Love seamless as His royal robe
Untouched but taken whole
Given whole.

And as they take your robes, you take mine.

Filthy rags.

I resist for a fear of shame
But you shame my fear by clothing me
Clothing me with that seamless love

I’m touched and overtaken whole
Given whole.

© Denis Adide 2015

One Stone!

Bones upon bones, upon bones, upon bones,
Strewn across the land
where swords unsheathed have sprouted –
are sprouting – like flowers

‘Not one stone will be left a top of another
all will be thrown down’

Blindness, upon the hour of thy visitation.

When the earth laments
it spews up limbs
like slowly dropping, stubborn, thick, viscous tears.

‘Not one stone.’

What, one stone?

These are not the dead
They are the dying
They are our dying
Covered in dust but refusing submersion

They are the flesh you ask us to leave
That with fine sinews cleave onto our resurrecting
emerging from our tarrying
unclothed and Spirit-less.

‘All will be thrown down’

Bones upon bones indeed,
Bones upon bones in need
Called away but staying slain
With spades harvesting the swords
Harvesting death from death.

‘Not one stone’

‘One Stone!’

© Denis Adide 2014

 

“Let the dead bury their own dead…”

 

Crown Him

May you always be set upon your throne
May you always be set upon mine –
This I say reluctantly
Urged on by my pride
(Did you set a king within me
or am I just in the ruins of my forefathers
from the loins of their forebear?) –
Set your place in my hearted furnaces
where my resilience reigns
and into whom I have cast
All desires for you,
To burn alongside the knowledge of the crown
that it – my desire – holds
while boldly proclaiming that you
(for whom long life is assured)
Should wear.

Walk among them so that I may see,
Unconsumed in the burning,
The hope that pokes at my stubborn heart
Shouting in its emptiness
for a kingdom and a king
it doesn’t want but desires.

Doesn’t want
But desires.

© Denis Adide 2014