Life abundant

A little brown bird

A little brown bird

A homily for the Sunday after Ascension

Did you enjoy the reburial of Richard III down the road at Leicester? What a load of claptrap. Is that what the church is for now: heritage industry, pageantry, posh dresses, and anodyne addresses? That’s what people seem to want. Is this worship of the past all that we’re about. I hope not.

Evidently not for Jesus. In St John’s account of Easter morning, he says to Mary Magdalene ‘Don’t cling to me, Mary, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ I would be ashamed to confess how recently it dawned on me why this matters. I used to think that it was in Mary Magdalene’s interest not to cling to Jesus, and couldn’t work out why. Then I realized. It’s not for her sake, but for his (which in the long run is hers, but bear with me). ‘If you cling to me, you’ll stop me doing what I have to do’. Not for Jesus any idea of sticking with the past or even the present, but for him—and it could have been said brusquely—‘let go of me, I have work to do.’

We’ve waited 40 days since Easter to celebrate the Ascension and now, thank God, we’ve done so with great joy. Life that has been on hold, as it were, for 5+ weeks now resumes. I’d like to look at the Ascension in three ways.

First, the cosmic event. At the incarnation, God takes human form and enters into all human experience. These events take place at one time and in one place. At the Ascension the Christ-event becomes available to the entire cosmos, unlimited by space and time. Outside time—ex stasis. The cosmos is redeemed.

Second, the personal event. God returns into the Godhead. God returns to Godself, goes deep inside himself. This is a model for the way we can journey into ourselves, a call to searing self-examination, the better to gain wisdom and insights in the service of others. Paradoxically the more one goes into oneself, the more one is free from oneself. It is painful, as the crucifixion was. The blackening of the forge (Jung’s nigredo) before the transformation to new creation. Personal blackening, personal crucifixion, personal resurrection, personal ascension as we learn to fly—yes, fly. We become unlimitedly available for service to others, as Christ was unlimited by the Ascension. We do not impose ourselves on others, as Christ never did. It is a leaving behind of self, just as Christ left behind human flesh. An ascension beyond self.

Third, the salvation event. We are human beings. There is nothing shameful about this. If there were, why would the Ineffable God have taken the trouble to become one? At the Ascension all human experience was lifted up into the Godhead. The ascended Christ is the wounded Christ, the wounded healer, insulted, spat at, nailed, kicked, beaten, thirsty. By his wounds, we are healed. Through our woundedness we can act as channels of healing for others. We do not need to pretend to be what we’re not—that’s the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden where they tried to cover up who they were. Humanity with all its imperfections is divinized: ‘God became man so that man might become divine’—the interpenetration of divine and human. Rising above is always a metaphor for release, for a yearning (eros) for better things. Such yearnings are part of the human condition. The abused people I have dealt with ache for better things, and look forward to a better life. Ascension as something to aim for.

So what?

God became man in order to raise man to God. Christ takes human-ness to the Divine Godhead. The Ascension unites earth to heaven, humanness to divinity: sanctification, divinization, redemption, theosis, call it what you will.

We are too obsessed with the puritan mentality of the BCP, miserable sinners and so on. We wallow too much in self-flagellation. This is self-obsession, a kind of inverted pride. We are obsessed with what we are saved from. We need to lift our eyes to what we are saved to: glory and splendour of Ascension. This is why we need the Ascension: to rekindle, restore, our sense of hope in a world where we hear and see too much of the nastiness of humanity, where we hear of people who ignore that longing for the divine, who shut it out. We need this when we hear the bad news that the media seem to like to concentrate on and when we are, as I have been this week, dealing with people for whom life is not worth living.

God the Logos became what we are, in order that we may become what he himself is. The glory of God is a living person and the life of man is the vision of God.

Harry Williams, author of

Harry Williams, author of “Life abundant or life resisting?”

The mission Jesus gave the apostles was simple. It was to teach others what he had taught them. So what are you going to do about it?

Let’s put heaven on earth. Let’s ascend to new possibilities. Let’s do what we can to enable others ascend to the heights of humanity. This is sharing in divinity.

You write a new page of the gospel each day, through the things that you do and the words that you say. People will read what you write, whether faithful or true. What is the gospel according to you?

What is the gospel according to you? Mine is life abundant, not life resisting.

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Funerals

296-1226348580VH2IIrish funerals are big. And soon—rarely later than the third day. On the two or three evenings before, there are prayers over the coffin in the house, even a Protestant house. Not something I was used to in Chesterfield, but I found the pocket-book of Pastoral Offices bought in a Catholic shop does the trick. The place is full, with tea, sangwiches and Uisce beatha. A real good do, people drifting in and out to see the guest of honour laid out in Sunday best.

Just before the church funeral, we gather in the funeral parlour for more prayers round the coffin. Lots of people again. Church is packed, and there’s a crowd outside. The full liturgy, an hour by no means unusual, is relayed over the loudspeaker.

Then comes the wake. The whole day is soon gone. There are so many people involved in even one funeral, I wonder when they get any work done.

Funerals in England are small, late, and brief. People have had a week or two to chat and grieve. Since most are not regular churchgoers, and wouldn’t think of involving clergy in these early stages, undertakers do what in Ireland the clergy still do. I’ve learnt what’s expected of me in England, and that to exceed those expectations is neither necessary nor usually welcome. The Vicar is ‘hired’ for the ritual magic stuff, and the family isn’t bothered about which Vicar.

Church of Ireland clerics rarely bury people they don’t know. Church of England clerics rarely bury people they do. I averaged four a year when I was a C of I Rector. So far here, I’ve done three a month;  some colleagues do that many a week. Late and brief they may be, but I do them as well as I can, antennae sensitive to atmosphere, sounds, and sights. Only 25 minutes maybe, but 25 minutes in which dignity and professionalism are paramount.

Irish colleagues were incredulous at English ways. I can live with both.

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False Prophets

This is not mine. It comes from the website of the Association of Catholic Priests http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie. If I knew whom to acknowledge, I would.

It contains this wonderful line: Often the gospel is diluted to accommodate the prejudices and lifestyle of the parishioners.

Oscar_Wilde_portraitAdmirers have suggested that the brilliance of Oscar Wilde’s plays was only surpassed by that of his conversation. He was a superb raconteur whose conversational offerings were heavily laced with irony. He had a particular penchant for parables, often recounting them in the style of the gospel narrative. Here is one of them. “One day, an unknown man walked down the street. It was the first hour of daylight and people had not yet gathered in the market place. The man sat down by the wayside and, raising his eyes, he began to gaze up to heaven. And it came to pass that another man who was passing that way, seeing the stranger, he too stopped and raised his eyes to heaven. At the second and third hour, others came and did likewise. Soon word of this marvellous happening spread throughout the countryside and many people left their abodes and came to see this stranger. At the ninth hour, when the day was far spent, there was a great multitude assembled. The stranger lowered his eyes from heaven and stood up. Turning towards the multitude, he said in a loud voice: “Amen, amen~ I say unto you. How easy it is to start a religion!”

To start a religion, as Wilde observed, may not be that difficult, but to ensure its survival is quite another matter. People are gullible. Futurists predict a growth in religious activity in the 21st century. For them it forms part of the leisure industry which is expected to expand dramatically. Whether one should greet this prediction with joy or apprehension is a matter for debate. A purely statistical increase in church membership is a dubious gain. What counts for Christianity — indeed, what ensures its survival — is not external but internal growth. What is required is not more members of the Catholic Church, but better disciples of Jesus Christ.

Mere membership and full discipleship are worlds apart. Christianity has always suffered from a surfeit of members and a shortage of disciples. Humans are social animals and crave to be associated. In a world grown cold and depersonalised the churches offer a comfortable ambiance of friendship and security. Often the gospel is diluted to accommodate the prejudices and lifestyle of the parishioners. Few preached fearlessly enough, like St Paul, to risk their livings, let alone their lives. The radical Christ is made into a benign bishop and the collection plate registers members’ approval. Too many withered branches remain un-pruned.

St John tries gently to prod us into discipleship. “My children, our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active.” You won’t meet Christ in your Sunday liturgy, if you haven’t rubbed shoulders with him in the office, in the factory or in the kitchen. You won’t hear his message from the altar, if you were deaf to his call at your office desk. Jesus put it simply and bluntly: “It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit and then you will be my disciples.”

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Knowing one’s worth

You would think this would do for the ABC

You would think this would do for the ABC

In today’s Church Times, The Archbishop of Canterbury seeks a Diary Manager, salary between 23K and 30K. My stipend is 23K, so when you add in the cost of housing I suppose the Diary Manager might be costing much the same as a parish priest. It’s good to know one’s worth in the eyes of the Pope of Canterbury.

The Diocese of London is thinking about having a seventh bishop. The Diocese of Leeds (formerly Bradford, Ripon and Wakefield) is appointing a sixth bishop. This diocese has four bishops. And if you’re regular C of E kind of guy or gal, you’ll know that each year the Dioceses ask for more and more of your money. You might think that there are questions to be asked about how the church spends its money. The place to ask them is … well, I can’t answer that. There isn’t one.

Deanery Synod might be the place, though a recent meeting I attended seemed concerned only about writing a mission statement. Deck chairs and titanics spring to mind. Nevertheless, Deanery Synod is the nearest to the decision makers that hoi polloi like you and me get, and it would be good to see meetings become a teeny bit relevant.

Some of my friends thought that the ad was asking for a ‘Dairy’ Manager. Quite a nice job, some said, looking after the Archbishop’s cattle, herding them, feeding and watering them, milking them. Well it might be in rolling Staffordshire perhaps, but in Lambeth I suspect it would be udderly tedious. Boom, boom.

We plod on. There were 12 people at today’s 1230 Mass. No gimmicks, just the work of the church in all its glory and tradition and continuity.

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Awesome

The Tetons, Wyoming, Truly awesome

The Tetons, Wyoming, Truly awesome

An email today from a church administrator begins “I am hugely excited about the prospect …”

I think I remember being hugely excited when I was younger, probably about visiting Auntie Lily in Bradford. I was quite excited about being able to spend York Minster Evensong in the organ loft with Francis Jackson. That was over half a century ago. Have I been hugely excited since then? I rather doubt it.

I have looked forward to a rail journey to Prague, to playing Schnitger organs, to visits to the US, even to a Carlisle jaunt last week to relive my mis-spent youth on the Cathedral organ. I look forward to our autumn trip to Houston, even to watching a few films on the way.

Hugely excited? No. Is this because I am a grumpy old man? Is it simply a matter of semantics? Is the fault, if fault there be, in me?

A quick random trawl of a few church websites just now yields:

  • fantastic venue, fantastic celebration (same site). Fantastic means unreal – mind you, they use that too.
  • inspiring vision. Who does it inspire? It clearly inspires them, but for them to tell me that it does or will inspire me is presumptuous.
  • fabulous space. Really? Do they really mean the stuff of fables?
  • stunning public space. Rail journeys, hotels, views, décor, cosmetic … all these are now stunning. They knock you out.
  • vibrant church. Ye Gods.
  • amazing. So remarkable as to elicit disbelief? I don’t think that’s what they mean.
  • awesome. My granddaughter with her Texan accent uses this in a way that sounds entirely natural. It is charming. But used by aged hipster ‘worship leaders’ it is an embarrassment,

I am turned off by word-inflation in any context, but the church should know better than to indulge in it. It speaks of insecurity, desperation, panic and, worst of all, insincerity. People are not stupid – they see through it.

There are no words left to express real admiration, awe and excitement.

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The world’s yer lobster

Philosopher extraordinary

Philosopher extraordinary

Pensions soon. The UK state pension is pretty measly. I know I worked in the Republic of Ireland for a bit, but some years back I bought extra, so I get the full state pension without any bells or whistles. £113 a week wouldn’t keep much going if that was all. How do people manage on it?

Then there’s the pension from 14 years in UK universities. That’s a bit better. On top of that comes a pension from 15 years at the College of Surgeons in Dublin. Euro – so that’s affected by exchange rates, Euroland politics, and different tax regimes. What a joy. Anyhoo, all that might add up to something reasonable until western capitalism collapses. Being so cheerful keeps me going.

At some time in the future I start to get a miniscule pension from three years in the Church of Ireland (euro again, maybe enough for the occasional bottle of gin), and some sort of Irish State Pension. Euro again. but worth having, for it’s more generous than the UK state pension. Finally, if I don’t die first, there’s a tiny pension from the C of E. Mind you, I’ve no intention of giving up here for a while yet. We like Burton and this incumbency so far is congenial. There’s a danger that some of my pronouncements may fall foul of church thought police, but I’m not too bothered.

I’ve not been a good husband of my financial resources. I find it so much easier to spend than to earn. It’s a disease I have. I can always sell my body, or teach. I could write a real humdinger of novel about Protestant shenanigans in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains, fictional of course. So the world’s my lobster as Brian Potter might have said.

First we need somewhere to live. But where?

A son, daughter and son-in-law in Dublin, pensions in euro – makes sense, doesn’t it? But Dublin is expensive. We’ve tried Ireland twice. Didn’t someone say something profound about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result next time … ?

A son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter in Texas. A big part of me would be off to the US like a shot, and not only for family. I love the feeling of unconstrained-ness, wide spaces, open-ness, expansiveness (Hebrew salvation), opportunities for everyone no matter what age. It’s a pity that a car is a total must-have, but I could live with that. Oh, think of the places to visit!

The cost of health insurance is a bit of a downer though, especially with SWMBO having type 2 diabetes (as yet I am, though deaf, blind and fat, with a dodgy back the result of a weightlifting incident some years ago, mercifully free of disease), so the NHS is something of a twitch upon the thread.

The only place where I feel I know every inch of land is the area bounded by Tebay, Mallerstang, Pennines, Scottish border and river Caldew. That would be a possibility except that property prices are quite high (the M6 corridor). We like Norfolk, but so does everyone else. We’d like to be by the sea, but so would everyone else. Round here is good and we like it.

What I’d really like is a cottage right next to a busy mainline railway. Oxenholme say, or Shallowford near Stafford to choose two places at random. Sitting in the garden surrounded by dogs I could say ‘there goes the 0830 from Euston; a bit late today’ or whatever.

Wherever it is, it needs to be handy for trains to Birmingham or Manchester airports. Answers on a postcard please, no prizes.

Posted in A great future behind me | 6 Comments

A right judgement in all things

_68043404_005783605-1A General Election approaches. Some people expect the Vicar to make deep and meaningful recommendations and warnings about who to vote for, or not to vote for. The trouble is, I can’t.

I can’t recommend voting for any one person or any one party in particular. This is not because I’m unwilling to say what I think—I’m not. It’s not because the first-past-the-post system makes it pretty pointless voting in constituencies with large majorities, though that is the case.

It’s because the big 3 are all pretty woeful. Labour big nobs are Islington windbags with attitude, obsessed with political correctness. Tories are all Cotswolds and Chelsea tractors, and Liberals simply wishy-washy. I have some sympathy with English people feeling at a disadvantage compared to the Welsh and the Scottish, but the solutions on offer for that are, to say the least, unappealing.

I look for a bit of decency and common sense. I’d like to think there was some old-Labour somewhere. I’d like to see someone confront corruption. I’d like to see an end to the culture of giving jobs to school chums, friends and relations (the Church of England is pretty good at that too). I’d love to see an end to rampant corporate managerialism that stifles us all, especially schools and hospitals, preventing teachers, doctors and nurses from doing what they thought they would be doing when they joined those professions. I’d love to see a welfare system that helps the hard-pressed without making silly hoops for them to jump through, and that no longer pays a few to be irresponsible.

You might be tempted to vote for a party you don’t really agree with in order to give the same-old-same-old a bloody nose. You might be tempted to spoil your ballot paper. You might be tempted to vote for her or him because they have a nice smile, or they sent you a Christmas card, or did some small service that is no more than their duty, and for which they are paid.

All I can suggest is that you vote for those you think will best serve the common good. This might not be in your self-interest, but it might just lead to a healthier society and a healthier world community. Of course, with the best will in the world, you might make a decision that turns out to have been ill-judged. But nobody chooses wisely all the time.

Vote for the good of all, on balance. Not the good of the bankers, of the landowners, of those with their snouts already in the trough, or for this group or that, but think about sons and daughters trying to get a job, find a home, start a family and make a contribution to society.

Vote for the common good.

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