And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.
Andrew and I chose this hymn for our wedding. A random choice you might think...a song about England and imagery of battle...a far cry from a wedding in Auckland. And how silly is the idea that Jesus took a trip to England in the middle of his ministry in Jerusalem? But this poem expresses something for us of a true vision of the Christian life, once you take away the literal understanding and see what its metaphors are doing.
This poem affirms that while Jesus may have been a once-only historical event, in one time and place, the meaning of the coming of the Christ is for all places and all times. The physical Jesus may not have set foot in England, but the Lamb of God, God's sacrifice for us, surely walked on the land there, as on the grass of New Zealand, and shed his blood into the the whole world's earth to give life for all people. That is, the eternal Jerusalem - where God dwells among people - is everywhere for those of us with eyes to see. And it is the task of the Christian to transform, and to enchant the world where we live, so that the true, eternal, city of God is revealed in our midst.
Blake uses imagery from the industrial revolution to describe the conditions of the world that hide and disfigure the Jerusalem that awaits us right where we are. He talks of dark satanic mills.
What are the dark satanic mills of our own context?
- The horror of little children being abused and murdered by those who are supposed to care for them, and protect them?
- Drugs that so brutalise the mind and spirit of their users, so that they do actions that no human soul should contemplate?
- Our crass over-consumption of material goods while millions of the world's people starve for want of bread and clean water?
- The dislocation, loneliness, and despair of people's lives that comes from mental illness, or just alienation from our true purpose in God?
- The pollution and destruction of this good creation that supports our life?
These issues present as social and political issues, and to some extent, they need to be resolved in those spheres. But they are also spiritual issues, addressable only by the gradual emergence of a new hope and a new creation in the places where we live.
Where is Jerusalem, in the midst of our darkness? The hymn answers: 'in our hands'. It's ours to build, ours to renew, ours to reveal. The poem uses military imagery, but as we have seen from Andrew's reflections last week on Archibald Baxter, it's entirely right as an understanding of Blake to see this imagery as metaphorical and spiritual, rather than literal.
This is my creed: Bring me my bow of burning gold, my arrows of desire, my spear, my chariot of fire. I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in this land of New Zealand, and in all places. This is our task and our call as the church - the people of God. We stand against the ideas and actions that hurt and enslave, and cause misery, and that obscure the real presence of Christ's Spirit in our midst. And we create, we produce, we celebrate, those ideas and actions that give life to God among us, and build Jerusalem here and now.
That is my creed.
This is my reality: the words of Romans chapter 7 in the Message translation -
"For if I know the law but still can't keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realise that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time...Is there no one who can do anything for me?
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different."
Under my own steam, with my own drive, agency and energy, with my own will and internal contradictions and mixed desires, Jerusalem will remain a far off dream.
We cannot build Jerusalem simply because we want to, or are captured by the vision. God must build Jerusalem through us. Instead of us just going out and aligning ourselves to this or that cause, to this or that political party, there is an initial step...which is to learn to discern and give space to God's action in us through God's Spirit. We need also to be in the process of being changed, renewed and rebuilt by God, so that we live as Christ in the world. And this is a process of prayer, of worship, of openness to God, and of being disciplined to notice the ways the dark satanic mills have formed us and go on shaping us even as we seek to live in the freedom of Christ. It is not always obvious to us how we're blinded into certain ways of being. Confession isn't just about the things we do and don't do that clearly transgress what we have been taught. It's about living close enough to God, that we begin to see how even an exemplary life in the terms of our society contains within it the darkness we really want to dispel. This is part of the mental fight that the hymn talks about - it starts with us, not with the world outside us.
An example. I'm sure you've heard the story before. It's a story of how our best values are sabotaged internally by other, seemingly stronger factors that come not from God, but from our culture. I don't know if it really happened this way, but I believe it to be a true story nonetheless. A group of seminary students training to be priests are studying the story of the good Samaritan - the one who stops to help out an injured man on the side of the road. As an experiment, their teachers organise a situation where they need to cross town from one lecture to another during the day. One half of students is told that they are running late, and ought to hurry to get to the next lecture on time. The other half are not told this information. On the route from one lecture to the next, where the students must pass, there is an injured man on the side of the road. All of those who stopped to help came from the group that thought they had enough time. Those who thought they were running late ignored him.
The purpose of this story is not to jeer at the ones who didn't stop, and minimise the genuineness of their faith or concern. It's to show how one set of cultural norms operates more strongly than another when determining how we will really act in the world, despite our aligning ourselves to a different value. For many of us, a sense of not having enough time, a concern not just for punctuality, but an insistent and permanent sense of time pressure, makes it impossible for us to have any hand in the building of Jerusalem in our local world.
The busyness of our culture is a curse. It springs from the dark satanic mills. I really believe that Jerusalem is not a busy place. An active, creative, lively, productive place, yes. But not busy in that sense of being on a treadmill, unable to offer our best energies to our true desires.
I think that another undermining factor is a sense that many of us carry of not having enough, and not being enough, to carry a bow of burning gold and ride on a chariot of fire. Our whole culture screams at us all the time that we don't have enough, we need more. And, if you watch enough car ads, you'll realise that in fact the valuable things in life - strength, perfection, silence, beauty, balance - are all achievable by buying a new Lexus. It's not hard to see how this sense of needing 'more' actually generates the problem of being busy, stressed, and over-worked.
The dark satanic mills structure us so that our private lives are inward looking, protective spaces, and our public lives are energy sapping, stressful, and performance oriented. Where in all of this is the building of Jerusalem? Where is the energy of desire, and the mental fight that leads to real transformation?
Just as we need to seek our confession, we need to seek our hope and our call by looking deeply into the face of God. By learning how to pray.
When we allow Christ to live in us, we will find that we do have enough and we are enough for whatever God calls us toward. And we can none of us do it all. Which is why we are part of this community, this part of the body of Christ, so that collectively we are the presence of Christ in the world, not each of us all by ourselves.
We are all unique, the events and experiences that have shaped us are specific to us, our particular nexus of skills and interests is ours alone. There is no point in each of us rushing out willy nilly with our spears and bows of burning gold fighting the fire of any social cause that comes to hand and burning ourselves out in the process.
Instead, I believe that our call comes from the inner place where we meet God in contemplation and openness. To add to this, though, I have a few questions that might be helpful in discerning what is mine to do and be in the world:
- what makes me cry?
- what makes me angry?
- what do other people say I'm good at, and often ask me to do?
- what thrills me?
- who are my role-models, my saints?
- what gives me energy, what saps my energy?
These are questions that have different answers at different times. It might help to ask them of ourselves more than once across a week or a month, and to notice what moods, and what contexts, give rise to certain answers.
The metaphors we live by make a difference to how we live. Are we circus performers, constantly juggling and performing, and walking a high wire of stress? Are we gardeners, cultivating, nurturing, planting and waiting? Are we builders of a new life, a new vision, riding on a chariot of fire and wielding a bow of burning gold?
I invite you to ask God to nurture in you some metaphors that can describe your way of ushering in Jerusalem into the homes and cities where you live and work.
And in the meantime, let's sing this hymn, which reminds us of the vision. Feel free in your minds to replace 'England' with 'Auckland' or whatever part of the world is your home or call at the moment.