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What my first Bible story means to me now

28 January 2011

Summer 1940 in Kent.  I sit, three years old,  with my mother and little sister under a big tree.  On the tree, apples ripen. In the tree, birds make themselves at home.  Above the tree, the Battle of Britain rages,  though I know nothing about it at the time.   My father climbs the tree: detective remembering says he did so to observe the Battle, but it may have been to pick fruit.  Memory is more certain about what happened under the tree.  My mother reads from a Bible for children.  The story of Adam and Eve, in the beautiful garden.  They are pictured, their happiness discreetly shielded by luxuriant foliage.  I see just the bright colours.  The story does not lodge in my mind or strike my conscience.  I am not yet equipped to manage and order my thoughts about the Bible or the world.   I am being taken into the colour and community of Bible reading, just as I am taken into the garden to sit under the apple tree.  It is warm and peaceful, with my mother under the sun. 

Suddenly a bird in the tree drops its dirty natural bomb directly on to the page, into the middle of the Bible story of creation with its fresh beauty and its sad spoiling. The story does not stay in the mythical past, even older than the stars or in the gentle tones of a Mother reading.  It gets enacted violently, when an innocent bird drops a messy exclamation mark on the page, as if to say: Note this!      

What next?  At once, my mother takes her hanky and wipes it off the page, without a word, without fluster.  She was a city girl, grown up in Walthamstow, but not urbanised away from plants and animals. In the First World War they kept animals for food in their little garden behind the terrace house, where Father Willy brought up four sons and his daughter.  She was used to looking after animals, just as she was practised at mothering long before she had me – she was the second eldest and helped her Mother in the home.  So a bird dropping does not faze her.  She just deals with it.  That, when all is said, is my mother when I am three years old  – what else would I expect?

This happening  sticks in my mind.  I do not merely recall it mentally, I feel myself there.  The most indelible memories we carry forward in life are those which we have no need to tell to ourselves.  We find ourselves there again, feel the event, without words, because it comes upon us, unengineered.  So this is for me. 

Some events that rise again from the store of memory  and grab us by their inherent power,  we simply let happen.  They seem to give us little choice: they are upon us before we can refuse permission.  If they are pleasant, we are content for them to come to meet us from time to time, and we have no need to try to manage them.  If, however,  they are unpleasant, frightening or shameful, we fear their visits.  We work and get help to protect ourselves or, if we can, to get free and to find healing for memories.   

For me, the bird’s  interrupting the reading by dirtying the page fits into neither of these categories.  It is a pleasant memory – partly of course because I was not aware of anything higher than the tree, like the battle,  and because I was with my mother.  But is more than a pleasant memory.   I have not been content to let this memory come and go as it pleases, to say Hullo, here I am again, and then to go away for a time.   This is a memory I have thought about increasingly as the years pass,  and it has acquired meaning as it has come into conversation with other parts of my life.     

My intellectual engagement with forgiveness is a later part of my story too complex to describe here.   As an academic theologian, I have been studying forgiveness for fifty years.  As my thinking has  developed, what happened under the apple tree has become, for me, a rich symbol. The beautiful creation is spoiled. Bombs and planes and dying men fall out of the blue sky. Birds in the tree dropping on the clean page of the children’s Bible book resonate with the messing up of life in the ancient and contemporary Garden of Eden.  The bird’s event echoes and converses with the Bible story.  

But what most impresses me is the way, without a word, my mother wiped it away with one sweep and carried on with the story.  That is a picture of forgiveness.  It does not ignore the mess, but takes its true measure.  And then wipes it away without making a fuss about it. And carries on with the story, not as though nothing has happened, but making the judgement of grace and hope that nothing has happened which is worth breaking off the story and letting it die. It is in carrying on with the story that the forgiveness has its substance and its power. 

Forgiving is prevented and undermined if we say the wrong does not matter.  Yet forgiveness in its true nature does not groan under the often great costs and pains of dealing with the wrong – it is a form of love in action and does not keep an account of wrongs (I Cor.13. 4-7).  Forgiving puts its energy and invention into carrying  on  making the good story, not letting it be cut off by interruption or diverted into some other despondent or vengeful road.

So it is in the Bible story of God.  When Adam and Eve sin, they lose the Garden, life changes, but the story goes on – looking towards the promise that the woman’s seed would bruise the head of the serpent, which can be taken as a promise of what God does in Jesus Christ (Gen.3.15).  He was born of woman, born under the law, sent by God to redeem us, and to adopt us his children, who have a new life to live with God. (Gal.4.4-6).  God makes and carries on the story in Jesus.  God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  because the whole of God is together always carrying on the story against and through all obstruction.    

Peter said he would die with Jesus, but he left the Lord to die alone and denied he knew him. The death of Jesus sealed for Peter the verdict his own conscience passed on him: he was an utter failure. He had promised to tell a certain story with his life and he had given up the story and lost the plot. How could he live with himself?   It was not a mistake he could shrug off, nor an ordinary human weakness to be admitted over a pint with wry regret as a bit of mediocre normality we must accommodate and get used to.  Peter wept bitterly.  He was broken. Could he be forgiven? Then Jesus is raised to life and ‘appears to Peter’ and Jesus gives Peter the task of tending and feeding Jesus’s sheep. He is forgiven because the story goes on and he is given a part in it.  God in Jesus carries on with the story, and gives Peter a chance to begin a new chapter in it.

God forgives because God is making a good story and is not turned aside when things go wrong – God keeps going and somehow engineers the next bit of the story, so that it is consistent with the good will of God.   God takes the bad, weak, newly messed up hand that is dealt him today, and plays it recreatively  (II Cor.5.17, in context 5.11-6.13)    

And it is the same for us, who are called by God to be fully human, to be forgiving as God forgives us.  Being forgiving does not mean we should be like sponges, soaking up wrong without complaining, for that image is too passive and negative and won’t work:  the sponges will get filled up till they can take no more,  and the muck will slosh around in a triumphant flood.   Forgiving has to be more active and creative, indeed recreative (or as some say, reframing). Invention and intention is needed  to carry on with the story which we have been rooted in by the grace and forgiveness of God. The story comes clear as a sequence of surprising restarts.   

Zolile Mbali (born 1940)  is a Christian theologian who resisted apartheid in South Africa.  Like others, the struggle seemed for many years to be hopeless.  Could it end without war and mass-killing  and a new state shaped by being born out of hate and violence? Zolile once told the story of a moment of despair, when it seemed there was no way forward.   It was as though the story had been written and come to a sad end.  When a story is ended, we write a Full Stop. What is a Christian to do?  Zolile had the idea to talk and write about God after the Full Stop. That is God.   

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
They buried my body & they thought I’d gone
But I am the Dance & I still go on!

To forgive is to tell a story, keeping it going through all interruptions and keeping it open even for those who mess it up, because they have not yet got hold of the plot.

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