Evangelising with a nail
From Brother Ivo:
Whenever Brother Ivo puts his hand in his coat pocket to find his mobile phone, car keys or change for the parking meter, he finds a nail. It is about 3 inches long.
He was given his nail last Good Friday and he put it in his pocket. He did not intend it for it to remain there, but never quite found a good enough reason to put it aside, which is perhaps what Bishop Stephen Cottrell intended when he wrote his short Lent book The Nail. Its 75 pages can be read in a sitting, and comprise seven reflections which can be used privately, with a Study group or, as Brother Ivo encountered it, as a constituent part of a Good Friday 3-hour service.
After setting out a relevant part of the gospel, the author presents a fictional internal reflection for each of the key participants of the passion narrative; Peter, the Roman Centurion, Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, Mary Magdalene, and Pilate's wife each in turn asks questions of themselves and indirectly of the reader.
The biblical texts are familiar, which is perhaps why the Bishop's additional exploration is useful. To hear possible questions, reactions, motivations and doubts of these participants draws the reader into personal engagement with the crucifixion from a very human human and strangely vulnerable perspective.
The fictionalised monologues may not be 'true', but they contain truth in the same way that a Shakespearean play may reveal much about the human condition on a grander scale. It becomes easier to excuse Peter his cowardice when he asks: "What would you have done?" The Centurion reveals our own cynical self=-justifications when he begins with bravado: "What a laugh, strung up by us lot for aggravating his own." Yet even he reflects more sensitively on how Jesus affected him, before passing the buck - to Pilate. Mary Magdalene confesses: "I had never known God before."
We live in an age where 'How do you feel about..?' has become the opening gambit of many media reporters, and by this elevation of the emotional response to importance in each and every daily issue, truth is often devalued. It is not wrong, however, occasionally to use such techniques. They can take us deeper. Jesus's teaching method was to start where people found themselves. If those around us use their own emotional response as the guiding principle of what they believe and 'consume', it becomes increasingly necessary to spark such a response, but with the intention of leading them the foot of the cross.
One might once have been able to jolt people into a realisation of their need for faith by declaring 'Jesus wants to wash you in the blood of the lamb', but the Jeremy Kyle generation - to whom such cultural references mean nothing - needs to be approached from a different angle. They are repelled by the ease with which they believe Christians condemn them, so accessible books like The Nail are truly valuable.
Being short, it does not feel intimidating, but it packs a punch: story-telling works.
In Jesus' ministry, he does this all the time. 'Behold a sower went out to sow..' invites the audience to engage with the coming story and its message. We are ready to pay attention and ask 'What happens next?' Similarly, no parent can fail to identify with the grieving father of the Prodigal Son, knowing what is best, yet patiently waiting for the child to learn from their own mistakes. The projection we make onto the sower hoping for a harvest, or the father awaiting his child, is fictional, but also universal.
So it is that when Stephen Cottrell's Judas begins: "I have to explain.. It's not what it looks like." We want to hear his account of self-justification and expect to confront him; yet with his plausibility, he does not let us condemn him easily. The more we hear his and every other person's plea to be understood, the more we realise that they truly are just like us.
When Brother Ivo experienced the reading, everyone was given a nail, and its significance remdinded at the end of each witness testimony. The words were repeated: 'You hold in your hand a nail that was used to crucify Christ.'
We all have our part to play.
It remains as a reminder in Brother Ivo's pocket, and when it makes itself known, there is also a recollection of the chilling sound from the closure of each of the witness readings - that of a nail being driven by a heavy hammer into a block of wood.
Brother Ivo has been thinking of his nail as he watches the world's leaders in politics, the Church and the media exculpating themselves from a variety of scandals concerning bullying, abuse of power, obfuscation, and sexual abuse. He cannot help regretting that so few of them will read The Nail.
Imagine if our leaders spent less time trying to prove themselves innocent and more time trying to improve themselves by acknowledging culpability.
Imagine if they ceased justifying themselves and allowed themselves more time to be justified by faith.
Isn't this where the secular world starts to go so wrong? With no internal controls, and an aversion to feeling personally discomforted, personal failure is not something to be considered and worked upon, but rather to be denied and given over to those who manage reputations.
'Make it go away' is so much easier to ask than forgiveness. The former is an assertion of power; the latter of vulnerability.
How much would public life be improved if Ed Balls came forward and said: "I really wish we had not spent all that money, like we did." Think of how children's lives would be transformed if David Cameron confessed "We really have not done enough to explain the value of marriage for children or done enough to support them." Imagine Lord Patten reflecting: "We have become too protective of own privilege." Perhaps Nick Clegg might say: "I did not do enough to protect women" or Tony Blair: "Actually, I'm not the pretty regular sort of guy I claimed to be."
These would be early steps on the way to the world being truly transformed.
Actually, Brother Ivo does not insist on humiliating public confession. He would settle for our leaders making a start by admitting it to themselves.
For the want of a nail..
(Posted by Brother Ivo)