Keeping up appearances

article-1029700-001533AB00000258-694_468x383Homily for 30 August 2915. Proper 17, Year B. Deuteronomy 4: 1,2,6-9. James 1:17-27. Mark 7: 1-8,14,15,21-23

Last week Martin told us that when Paul said that we should fasten the belt of truth around our waists, the word he used which is translated as ‘truth’, alètheia, means openness, reality, authenticity, the opposite of lie or appearance. Martin said: “many people hide behind a façade, never really allowing others to get to know them. Like Adam and Eve covering themselves with fig leaves, many believers dress themselves in man-made realities that are easily penetrated, their weakness quickly exposed in times of intense spiritual onslaught. Paul exhorts us to be honest, to live with integrity and be real with God. Dishonesty is an open door that will wreak havoc in our lives, especially during any kind of enemy siege.” I suppose that’s saying, in short, the trouble with telling lies is remembering which lies you’ve told to whom: it gets so complicated that before long you’ll be found out.

Look at today’s Gospel: Pharisees concerned only about appearances, about doing the right thing, or rather being seen to do the right thing. Do you know people who are always finding fault? Do you know people who are always and only concerned with what the neighbours think? Do you know church people like this?

Look at the Epistle. Paul says: do it, don’t just listen to it, or think about it. JFDI. “If any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” I’ve preached so often about looking in the mirror and asking yourself what you see? Do you see yourself as you would like to be seen? Or as the Lord sees you?

It’s hard work to sift through our facades, our appearances, our pretensions, our notions. Look at Hyacinth Bucket keeping up appearances. It takes so much energy to pretend, just as it takes so much effort to remember to whom we’ve told which lies. The result is that we don’t have the energy to live life to the full.

There’s a word in today’s Old Testament reading that’s important in this respect: discernment. It comes from two Latin words, dis and cernere. Dis– means apart, and cernere means to separate. In his book God of Surprises Fr Gerry Hughes writes “The words ‘shit’ and ‘discernment’ have the same root – the word ‘shit’ being related to the Old English sceadan meaning ‘to separate out’! The billions of cells in our body continuously practising ‘discernment’ on the food and drink we consume and on the air we breathe. Each cell accepts what it needs for the good of the whole body and rejects or passes on the remainder. Cancer cells could be described as a failure of discernment on the part of individual cells. They ‘forget’ the good of the whole body and concentrate only on their own individual good. As a result, the whole body suffers … In human society, individuals, groups, nations and religious bodies are all liable to act within the narrow parameters of their own immediate interests. Such behaviour brings oppression, misery, starvation and death to other human beings … Discernment is as necessary for survival as air, food and water.”

Sifting through our attitudes and actions to get rid of the masks, the notions, the pretences. It’s such hard work.

Let me tell you a story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

I was a regular visitor to the biggest men’s prison in the Republic of Ireland. One of the gentlemen there said something that impressed me very much: “it’s such a relief be found out.” Now he was caught, he didn’t need to pretend any more. Such liberation, lightening of the load. I became aware of the energy we waste trying to put on a show, to pretend to be what we are not. The energy we use and the trouble we go to hide from ourselves and from each other. We become enslaved to pretence.

We – all of us –  need to find that same sense of relief in the liberation of being found out. It’s almost completely absent from ordinary lives because we try so hard not to be found out. The result is that we never find true freedom because we can’t bring ourselves to give up our addictions to pretending, even though it costs so much. It’s like being trapped in OCD (did you see the TV programme the other night – a young man weeping because OCD was ruining his life?)

If only we could expose our burdens to the light, as it were, instead of hiding them away. If only we could accept ourselves, warts and all. St Paul, the patron of this church, continually talks about the past he was ashamed of. He does this to show God’s mercy and he uses it to power his own work. It would be self-indulgent of me to do likewise, though I have no objection to doing so, and not now. But I know that until we’ve seen the dark places of our own hearts, the evil that comes from avarice, envy, pride … and so on, we will never be free and never be fully ourselves. Just think what could happen if instead of using energy to keep up appearances, we use it to bring healing and delight to the world, the last mask shed as we emerge from the chrysalis of old habits into the fully adult form, the imago. Imago Dei in whose image we are made.

If only we could pass our burdens to someone else. This is what talking with a trusted friend is about. I like Cardinal Hume’s image of God: someone into whose ear you can whisper all the things you’re afraid and ashamed to tell anyone else, and know that you will not be rejected. If you know of anyone who needs to talk in confidence to someone, tell them that I shall be in the Lady Chapel every Friday between 5 and 6. Nobody will be rejected.


Much of this meditation has been inspired by the writing of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of the Russian Orthodox Church in London. I finish by quoting someone whom he greatly admired, the Latvian Elizaveta Yurievna Pilenko (1891-1945), later Skobtsova, murdered in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, who became known as Mother (Saint) Mary of Paris.

It would be a great lie to tell searching souls “go to church because there you will find peace.” The opposite is true. Go to church because there you will feel real alarm about your sins, about your perdition, about the world’s sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth. There, instead of lukewarm, you will become ardent, instead of pacified you will become alarmed. Instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become foolish in Christ.

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Puddles from heaven

rain-13403567897hrThe story goes that back in the 1970s at a conference in London, a UK politician was congratulating Sheikh Yamani on Saudi good fortune in finding so much wealth under the sand. He responded by pointing out of the window “but it is nothing compared to your wealth in having  this precious substance fall from the sky.”

It’s odd stuff, water. It cleanses and revives. It looms large in Scripture because of its life-giving properties: reviving the drooping spirit, dropping fatness on the earth to soften it, making the desert landscape bloom with colour, maybe only once a year. It’s the life that flows from good teaching, the visions that issue from the prophets when the Lord communicates through them, enabling them see what others do not. Water heals—the water of life flowing from the Holy of Holies through the street of the heavenly city.

Now, cast your mind back a few years to the floods in Boscastle and Cockermouth, to the tsunamis, or recently to the south coast floods. Water is heavy. It’s extraordinarily destructive. It can kill. Drink too much and it’ll be curtains.

We moan about too little. We moan about too much. We waste it in ways that horrify people from places where it’s too precious to waste. I’m told on excellent authority that much of the tea we consume comes from tea plantations irrigated by water diverted from nearby towns. People who have so little go without water so that we can feel smug about buying their tea. How long before there’s war over water: mass migrations, global conflict? Maybe it’s already begun.

For seven years of my life, I had a three-quarter mile walk from the bus stop in King Street, Penrith, to school. It rained every day (or so it seems now), and this ten-year old discovered that it took 20 seconds to get soaked, but once soaked, he couldn’t get any wetter, so there was no point bothering. Furthermore, the ten-year old observed that he soon dried out. Though mothers believe that cold and flu are caused by getting wet, I cling to the peculiar view that these illnesses have something to do with viruses and bacteria.

Celebrating water with well dressings is not just a Derbyshire tradition. Have you heard of the water festival on 16 August each year in Villagarcia de Arousa, northwest Spain, where it also rains a lot? After the church service, the tradition is for people to drench each other: 30 tons of water were used last year, delivered by hydrants, hoses and buckets.

Wouldn’t it be a wheeze to do this in Burton? I try my best with Holy Water in church, but a hose would add a new dimension.

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College life

Cambridge_Queens'_GatehouseA Cambridge contemporary died recently. The funeral was in Hampshire. I didn’t go. I gather that at the do afterwards a group of them raised the possibility of hiring a venue for a house party reunion. Would I be interested? one of them asked.

Part of me is curious, of course. It would be fascinating to see who’s fatter, thinner, balder (men only college in those days), richer. It would be interesting to see who’s still a nice guy, who’s a pompous gobshite.

But a bigger part of me is reluctant to go, so I was examining why this might be so.

When I think about those years, the predominant feeling is that I was always smirked at, tolerated. I put that to the man who wondered if I might like the house party, and he agreed that it was so, but that it was always with affection. “Like the village idiot” I suggested, but response came there none. ‘You can’t help loving that Stan of ours’ they sang in a College concert,

Why? No public school veneer? No sporting ability or interest? No posh accent? No family connexions? No sex appeal? (This was the opinion of the Deputy Head, a woman, at Penrith Grammar School, who said so to SWMBO when we were both pupils).

At a time when students are about to begin college courses, leaving the nest, incurring massive debts with student loans, it’s as well to remember that the image of partying, drinking, and carousing student life is a figment of the imagination of irresponsible commentators. It just aint so.

Essays, reading, tutorials, practicals, lab work, site work, placements, regulations, theses, dissertations. It is hard work. And on top of this—even before this—one has to deal with one’s own insecurities and thread one’s way through the cliques and gangs and the self-appointed élite of the student body.

And when they come out? There are not enough jobs befitting their qualifications, according to today’s news. So they take jobs for which their courses have been entirely superfluous. Still, it’s kept them off the streets for 6 years or so.

My father felt strongly that education was the way to better oneself. That was so in his day, but not now. So why not send people to school until they can read, write and do sums, then at 12 they can join the jobs market. Higher education then follows only for those that need it or that actually would like it.

A sure vote winner.

Posted in A great future behind me | 6 Comments

Invertebrates rule OK

4985825287_273f35736fThis is not a swipe at spineless Church of England bishops, though God knows there are plenty of reasons why they deserve to be swiped.

It’s about octopuses. A recent article announced that scientists said that because of their DNA, octopuses ‘are aliens’. The assumption is that those scientists are competent to judge what is and what is not alien.

Humans have been around—let’s be generous here—about 200 thousand years, and our immediate antecedents about 6 million years. Octopuses, on the other hand, have been around for 150 million years, and their antecedent cephalopods 500 million years.

So—let’s get this right—the new arrivals belong on the planet, but the old stagers are aliens.

This mind-set allows us humans to do what we like with animals and plants. It allows us to do what we like with the planet. It enables us to discard rubbish, pollute environments and behave as if we were rulers of creation, bossing it about.

Biblical scholars might like to know that when Genesis 1:28 is properly translated from the Hebrew, it’s clear that we are to be custodians of the earth, not subdue it or have dominion over it. We are responsible for it, and our actions.

A theological conundrum arises. Are octopuses saved? Do they need to be? Let’s say for argument that they don’t. What do we humans have that requires our salvation, but that octopuses lack? This is not an entirely silly question, for its implications need to be explored if biology and theology are to have a serious conversation. Good luck with that.

Octopuses are very bright. They use tools and solve problems. Comparing the behaviour and skills of octopuses with those of some of the species to which I belong yields conclusions that it ill behoves a clerk in holy orders to consider, let alone articulate. Perhaps the human ape is evolving into several species as I type.

7869-a-plate-of-octopus-salad-pvThere are more octopuses than humans. Octopuses will be around long after we’ve disappeared. Jellyfish are older and vastly more numerous. The more toxic waste we chuck into their environment, the sooner they will rise up against us. Read The Swarm by Frank Schatzing. In the mean time, I am very fond of octopuses, especially with garlic and lemon.

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For God’s sake, go!

scissors_2-resized-600A level results today. Reminds me of three episodes last week.

One. A young woman said she was nervous about what she might get. I said: “what do you need?” Before she could reply, her grandmother answered for her. I said “where do you hope to study?” Her mother replied. Then, “and what will you be studying?” Finally, she was allowed to get a word in.

Two. Can’t remember the topic of conversation, but I was again chatting to a young adult, man this time, and his mother kept answering for him. I ignored her and pressed on.

Three. I met a young relation for the first time since he was about 10. A personable young man, at home in his own skin. He’s in his first year “at uni”. (Ye Gods, how I hate that abbreviation.) I said “which?”, and blow me, but his father answered. I said “you’re a fantastic ventriloquist: I didn’t see your lips move and the sound came from over there!”

All these people are old enough to vote, to reproduce, to fight for their homeland. Not to speak for themselves, it seems. It’s highly commendable that they acquire any articulacy skills.

Luke 14:26.

There comes a time when fledglings need to be shoved out of the nest if they haven’t gone of their own accord. Such a pity that leaving home is increasingly not a viable financial option these days. As SWMBO observed “I don’t know how young people can afford to go to university now”.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which if not taken at the flood, leads on to boredom. And mothering becomes smothering.

Posted in Pastoralia, Theology | 4 Comments

A cold climate

An architect designed this

An architect designed this

One of the less welcome accompaniments to getting older is dreaming about school, university and previous jobs. Last night I was yet again feeling guilty for not ‘getting on with research’ as a lecturer in Anatomy at Nottingham. The boss, Rex Coupland, made some barbed remark about it being too much to hope that he would see a publication soon.

How long does this sort of tripe go on? I thought I’d ditched this sort of stuff! Ah well, at least the dreams about the pecking order of school playgrounds have died down. Maybe I’m becoming demented with long-term memories shoving out short-term stuff. I can’t find my fountain pen—lost it last Wednesday I think. I’d much rather be able to remember that than some jerk in a 1962 playground.

As it happens, publications from Nottingham days did trickle along eventually, after I’d submitted my PhD dissertation. I vividly remember the viva voce examination: it was embarrassing. People had commented on how easy it was to read the dissertation—‘like a novel’ said the examiner from Glasgow, but the examiner from Sheffield, the foremost expert in one of the techniques I used, was (rightly) scandalized that I had made some sweeping journalistic statement that conveniently ignored facts (they always get in the way of a good story). I had to modify and resubmit.



I’d begun to write the dissertation the previous year. I first put pen to paper (no computer or word processor) on a week’s holiday to the Isle of Mull. We rented one of the cottages attached to Glengorm Castle near Tobermory. I’d been rather taken by the place as Madam Sin’s (Bette Davis) HQ the film of the same name, a kind of silly James Bond romp in the Highlands and Islands. There we pitched up: Susan, her mum, three kids and me just after Easter.

Ye Gods, it was cold. Never been so cold. Was the cottage heated? It was not. There was a wood burning stove that made my eyes run, and there was a bath with some hot water if you turned the heater on and did a Highland Fling to get it to work. The children slept in their overcoats. I think I did too. The seaward views were terrific though: Coll quite close, and was that South Uist in the distance?

Those were the days when I was daft enough to think that I should take work on holiday with me. Never did any, mind, but felt I should. Despite an inauspicious start the dissertation was completed and submitted later that year.

After that I applied for promotion to Senior Lecturer. Those were the Thatcher days of University squeezes, and that year there were, I think, fewer than 10 such promotions in the entire University. Needless to say, I was not one of them. I started to look about at other opportunities. Early in 1987 the Professorship of Anatomy at the College of Surgeons in Dublin was advertised. I don’t quite know why I applied: no Irish blood, no golf, no shooting, no fishing. But I did. The interview was in March. East Midlands to Dublin was in a Fokker with elastic bands. All very cosy. I must have charmed the panel.

The job started on 1 January 1988. Those were the last years of Catholic Ireland, and that’s another story.

Posted in A great future behind me | 1 Comment

Blessed are the cheese makers

1454733_748175428602511_7689659126080922878_nHomily for Year B, Proper 14

1 Kings 19:4-8. Psalm 34:1-8. Ephesians 4:25-5:2. John 6:35, 41-51.

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

I’m talking about dairy products this morning, but before I do, I ponder the problem that cheese lovers have when it comes to spreading the word.

People sneer at virgin birth, resurrection, ascension, eating flesh and drinking blood. They laugh at the notion that the world has been saved by an angry God who has his own son murdered to satisfy that anger. They ridicule the idea that people might pray for someone to get better, or for something not to happen. They laugh at an imaginary friend.

People—all of us—are losing the ability to read between the lines. We are inclined to take the printed word literally. We are inclined to think that if it’s printed it must be true.

Scientific ways of thinking have schooled us to think that unless we can see it, touch it, feel it, measure it, it is of no importance. We think in terms of yes, no; right/wrong; true/false. We began to feel that we are right, and that those who disagree are wrong. We lose the ability to cope with both/and, with ambiguity. We lose the willingness to consider that there might be grey areas. We lose the ability to think in pictures.

This matters when we read Holy Scripture. It was written in languages that are not now spoken. It was copied by hand again and again. It has been translated into Latin, then English. Do we allow for ambiguities and mistakes that are therefore inevitable? Do we allow for not being able to see the facial expression of Jesus, or Paul, or whomever, so that we can’t know when they’re being ironic, or have a twinkle in the eye? Scriptural idioms have been torn from their cultural and geographic contexts. Do we allow for that? What would a visitor from, say, Vladivostok make of our expressions such as raining cats and dogs; scales fell from my eyes; wet behind the ears; green with envy?

bavaria-blu-self-2With all that in mind, let’s talk about cheeses. Look at the last sentence of today’s Gospel: Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

First, what does “live forever” mean?

The Greek for forever is aion, from which we get aeon. It has several meanings, such as lifetime, generation, destiny. Is it to mean for all eternity? For ever? Or is it about a quality of life beyond time in which time is of little importance. Does it perhaps mean something like what we mean when we say “to the ends of the earth”? A declaration of intent, of commitment. Is it about destiny, that is, our inclination towards God, our home?

Exploring like this enables us to move beyond a literal meaning of Scripture and move into something altogether more exciting and imaginative. It enables us to engage with people who dismiss the simplistic notion of life after death.

Next, in the same verse in the Greek, we have “I shall be giving over the bread which is my flesh for the sake of the ‘cosmic’ system of life. Whatever else cosmos may mean, it is also about good order. So the bread of life, the flesh of Jesus, is about order, as opposed to disorder. This is wisdom. Or, if we want to think about cosmos in terms of the universe, then the Jesus event is about more than simply humanity. It’s about the transformation of the whole existing order. It’s about a worldview that is far more exciting than the self-obsessed me me me of personal salvation.

My third point for this morning is “I am the living bread.” The living bread is all that Jesus and his message encapsulate: recognition of our dependence upon something much greater than us, our dependence upon one another, our need to let go of attachments, our need to accept that we are not in control, that we are here today and gone tomorrow, that there are cosmic forces not dependent upon us, that we have urges and inclinations that can yield great beauty and others than can lead to immense harm. All this is the living bread.

If we wish to share our faith with the sceptics of today, we need to engage our brains for new ways of talking about God and Jesus that sidestep issues like virgin births and the doctrinal stuff that’s hard or even impossible for 21st century westerners to swallow.

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

The Divine (“God”) is all that is beautiful, delightful, lovely, creative and ordered (i.e. just and true). There is a bit of God in everyone and everything: we are all broken off bits of God. “What is not God is nothing; what is not God is no thing.”

God is the laws of science (logos), of physics, of the cosmos, … and much more. God is love. The perfect human manifestation of logos is Jesus the Christ whose example and life we emulate as best we can in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Since none of us, despite God within, is perfect, we cock up. This is part of the human condition. Sometimes we do this intentionally and sometimes accidentally; sometimes by things we do that we wish we hadn’t, and sometimes by things we fail to do. We acknowledge our own mistakes, our own imperfection and our own helplessness. This is not to grovel, but simply to accept that we are not perfect and not in control, but that we will bash on doing our best.

The Divine within is like a pilot light. Incarnation. For us to be fully human that light needs to fill our skins from the inside. What stops it from doing so are things like pride, greed, avarice and showing off. To let it shine and fill us, it’s not that we need to DO something, it’s simply that we need to relax into ourselves, to recognize our pride, greed, avarice and showing off tendencies, and then let them melt away. When you lift up the lid of your psyche, you begin to see all sorts of grubs wriggling around. But then, in the warm light of love, they can begin to melt away as you love the hell out of yourself. This is at least a lifetime’s work.

“And if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say.” And what Jesus demonstrated is that we rise to the heights – we approach The Divine – when we let go of pride, greed, avarice, showing off – that is, when ego dies, and selflessness replaces selfishness. Crucifixion followed by ascension.

quest-historical-jesus-albert-schweitzer-paperback-cover-artAll the rest, the dogma, the doctrine, is poetry that has collected around the message. Much of it is of great beauty and psychological authenticity. Much of it is past its sell-by date and should be ditched.

Schweitzer: He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who did not know who he was. He says the same words, ‘Follow me!’, and sets us to those tasks which he must fulfil in our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether wise or unwise, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the suffering that they may experience in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

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