God bless this mess

tasty_middle_east_treats_off_market_menu_for_now_1715875500But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God

Imagine the shed. Imagine the cold, the sense of being alone. Let’s assume there were animals there. Imagine the creatures, the smells, the dung. Imagine the placenta, the umbilical cord – the connexion between old life and new life. Imagine the blood. Since neither parent was, as far as we know, a qualified midwife, imagine the fear of getting things wrong and the baby suffering. What a mess!

Life is a mess. Relationships don’t do what you expect. Things don’t work out. Actions, or inactions, have consequences. Like a row of skittles where one knocks over the next, and the next, and the next …. actions and consequences endless and uncontrollable. This is the glorious mess of being alive.

If the divine was willing to lose control by jumping into this mess of humanity, then we don’t need to worry about it. To begin to know the innermost part of the mess that is yourself is to begin to meet the Lord. Relax into yourself, as you are—after all, you are made in God’s image. Then you will start to see what you can be. Christ is born in you today. That’s the Christmas message. We are sons and daughters of the Lord.

Don’t be ashamed of yourself. You are part of the mess of God. Let go. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and start all over again.

Posted in Pastoralia | 1 Comment

Courageous Pope

Pope_Francis_2013Il Papa needs to watch his back. He is ‘courageous’. Francis has listed fifteen ailments from which he thinks the Vatican Curia suffers. Here is my interpretation of them.

  • They treat the church as a private club. They form cliques. They show off. They suck up to people more ‘powerful’ than themselves. They think the more they have the better off they’ll be.
  • Everyone thinks he is in charge, so without coordination, nothing gets done.
  • They confuse looking miserable and/or pompous with seriousness of purpose.
  • They build walls around themselves and their own creations. They are inclosed in their own fat, and their mouth speaketh proud things. ( Psalm 17:10, BCP 1662)
  • They think that driving a computer is more important than dealing with real people.
  • They are hard-hearted. They are delighted when a rival comes a cropper. They ‘kill’ others by gossip and backbiting because they lack courage to speak face to face.
  • They plan too much so become inflexible, they think activity means progress, so they never reflect on what they have done or what the consequences might be of planned action.

Sound familiar? Entitlement. Masonic intrigue. Petty rivalries. PCC meetings. Church processions. Church politics. Mission Action Plans. Fawning to bishops. Church flower rotas. Church choirs—oh Ye Gods, church choirs, may the Lord save us and protect us.

I spent three years of my life dealing with a particular manifestation of such as this. I resolved when I got out of it that I would never again tolerate such self-obsessed behaviour. And I mean it.

Back in the fourth century AD Evagrios the Solitary wrote that the demons that fight us in the front line are those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those that suggest avaricious thoughts, and those (worst of all) that incite us to seek the esteem of men.

Nothing has changed. I’m with the Pope.

Posted in A great future behind me, Ecclesiology, Pastoralia | 2 Comments

You scratch my back

orangutans-grooming-didi-higginbothamA court in Argentina has ruled that an orangutan has rights. Commentators say that this is the first time an ape has been so blessed.

Utter nonsense. They just don’t get it, do they? It’s not the first time at all.

There are apes somewhere near you. There are apes somewhere near me. No, I’m not referring to the locals of Ashby or Swad: Twycross Zoo actually. In a manner of speaking, they’re inside my skin. I am an ape. You are an ape. He/she/it is an ape. We are apes …

Orangs are apes, just like us. They are primates just like us. Moreover, they are intelligent primates who value solitude—in which they are perhaps more discerning than some of us.

When will humans realize that we are not the centre of the universe? We are a recent development in terms of cosmic history, we will not be around in the present form for ever, and it looks as if we might well be wiped out soon (again, in cosmic terms). We are creatures of this earth. Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.

As a square is a rectangle, so a human is a primate, an ape, a mammal, a vertebrate, a chordate. There is nothing new about this classification, and if there are theologians who don’t accept it, then all I can say is that they’re wrong.

Orangs are capable of acts of kindness, mutual care and compassion. They grieve. They think. They ponder. They reflect. Perhaps they are more than human. We sometimes act as if we’re less than human.

Posted in Biology & theology | 2 Comments

No room in my head

homer_braincolor1The characters in the Christmas story live in my head. It’s pretty crowded in there. Legion, you might say.

There are characters on the hillside left out in the cold until they are surprised by light and encouraged in. There’s Mary who listens to something bigger than herself and sets aside her own plans. There’s Joseph who worries that maybe he’s taking too big a risk, but he’s started so he’ll finish. There are magi that journey far and wide using abundant gifts to enrich life.

Then there’s Herod strutting and swaggering, clinging to power and possessions, like Gollum to his precious. He is fearful. He stifles initiative, nips new life in the bud before it gets chance to flourish. Or so he thinks.

All these characters move towards the infant.

The child in the manger shows us how to let go, take risks, follow our stars, bring in from the cold. If we search hard enough—and it is maybe the most costly thing we ever do—we might even realise that the Christ child is within, like a neglected pilot light waiting to be turned up. The infant saving us, in fact, from ourselves, selflessness superseding self as the inner light glows ever more brightly. My kingdom is an inner kingdom.

In the early hours of 30 June 2005 I dreamt I was descending stairs into a church basement, completely in the dark. Something was awaiting me, though I knew not what. I was without fear. Along a corridor, into a room, pitch black. I felt to the left for the light switch. I flicked it. In front of me was a young lad. So pleased to see me, so lonely, tears of joy, so relieved. He had been abandoned and given a home in the church, alone all week. So sad, but so full of grace. ‘I am so glad you’ve come for me.’

Would the child you once were be pleased with the adult you have become?

Posted in Inner kingdom, Pastoralia | 2 Comments

Church parasites



Today’s Church Times announces that the good old C of E is thinking about using human resources managerial strategy to train people for high office. Nothing has quite spoiled my Friday morning as much as this has – not even the prospect of a politically correct Christingle for a non-church and significantly Muslim school later in the day.

I know from selection conferences when I was an Assistant Diocesan Director of Ordinands that people, even at that very early stage, are labelled as potential high fliers. This is woeful enough in an institution that claims to be about service. But to institutionalize it is shameful.

The problem about wearing the clothes of other creatures is that one picks up their parasites, and in this case the parasites that come with the coats of corporate managerialism will at best disable and at worst consume the host. This is the sort of policy that drives me towards the former ‘flying’ bishops for a vision of the church that accords with what has been handed down to us.

I suppose the people that come up with this are so struck with guilt about what they have allowed to happen to the church – or rather, they should be – that they now flail about like headless chickens. ‘Something must be done’ they say. Maybe, but Ye Gods not this.

It’s like medical education. You qualify as a doctor (it’s a conveyor belt – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – there’s no intellectual content, it’s all memory), then you train in obs & gynae, GP, physician, surgeon etc. Then you get 8-10 years under your belt and find yourself approaching divorce, middle age etc. And you are BORED. You have done 5 gall bladders a day every day. You have looked up the orifices of 7 zillion people and you are NUMB. So then you take to the bottle, or whatever, and start to attend meetings (with expenses of course) at the Royal Colleges where you sit around in panelled rooms on committees that interfere in things that don’t need interfering with. You impose your ‘new’ ideas and force reorganizations and generally foul things up even more. But at least you are not bored any more, and you can wait in line for your gong.

Now put all that in the context of the church. I’m long enough in the tooth to say to Church apparatchiks that I shall go on as I am. By the time they get round to disciplining me for not going along with unimaginative fads I shall be either dead or retired. But I pity the poor souls who are at the beginning of their ministry.

Posted in Pastoralia, Ecclesiology, A great future behind me | 4 Comments

Retreating with dignity

pizza_snackThe door yields to a gentle push. Fragrance wafts outs. Aetherial choral singing is faintly audible. I step inside. Seraphic smiles greet me. Scrubbed faces, headscarves, Barbour jackets, hushed conversations.

Is it a National Trust shop? No. I see why you might think so, but no.

Maybe a Cathedral shop? Getting warm.

It’s a monastery shop. Stanley is on retreat.

‘Will you be getting up at three for Vigil?’ Hollow laughter. ‘How about Lauds at seven?’ I think not. As it happens, I slept most of the three days.

I had hoped not to have to speak much, but words were forced out of me at meal times, for others were nosey. There was a large dishevelled old man (other than me) who managed silence—I rather warmed to him as he shovelled food into his oral cavity at a rate that beat even me (you learn to eat fast as a hospital doctor between bleep calls). Though there was a bit of camaraderie over the Fairy liquid (we had to wash up; no pampering here), I did my best to say as little as possible. As is my wont.

I’ve not been on many retreats, but what will stay in the memory about this one was watching the retreatants serve themselves at meal times. Movements were slow and deliberate, as if on the moon, and accompanied by smiles and nods of the head. One extremely ‘nice’ couple—let’s call them Candice-Marie and Keith—similar age to me, were so very eager to help everyone else. Frankly I find that sort of thing majorly irritating, almost patronizing, but hey that’s just me.

As I was leaving, Keith happened to be in the vestibule (had he been waiting for this?) and said ‘I wonder if I can have a word with you’ in a very gentle and breathy voice, very meaningful. Then, with his head slightly inclined to one side, a gentle smile on his face, and a very caring wrinkled forehead, he said ‘It’s Stanley isn’t it?’ Without waiting for confirmation he continued ‘I’d just like to say I’m a nurse, and I think you should know that eating your food with your hands [can you eat pizza with cutlery?] can be dangerous, what with allergies and infections. There are bacteria on your fingers and they can cause disease.’

What do you think I did next?

I tell you, I am very proud of myself. I said ‘Thanks a lot. Bye’. Then I turned round and left the building,

Posted in A great future behind me, Pastoralia | 5 Comments

Drop down, ye heavens, from above


Drop down, ye heavens

A woman is awarded a divorce settlement of £337 million. Babies are punched by their ‘parents’ such that the pathologist likens the injuries to those arising from the baby having been thrown from the top of a tower block. People are so intent on getting the latest gadget or fashion that they trample on other shoppers. There are over 13000 slaves in the UK. The banks are bailed out by you and me, but they still overpay their bosses and refuse to serve our needs.

Let’s get personal. I would love God to sort out those people who over the last three years in Ireland behaved so as to spoil our, and others’, lives there. I would love God to do unspeakable things to those who maim babies and children. And more. Perhaps this is why stories of revenge (Shawshank) are so well received.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and pour down righteousnessCome like a tornado. Stir up thy strength and come and help us. Wachet auf! Part the clouds, stretch out your hand. Sort out this mess.

But hold on. The more I think of this image of us waiting for God to come and sort things out, the more disturbing it gets. It assumes that we are like children waiting for daddy and mammy to come and kiss it all better. Like so much religion, it makes infants of us. Surely, this can’t be right: the point of Jesus’ teaching is to help us grow up, not to make brainless nincompoops of us (though you often wouldn’t think that).

Come and sort this place out. And so he did. He came down to earth from heaven. He shared our human life, so that we can share His divine life. Admirabile commercium. God becomes one of us, and we have power to become sons and daughters of God. We are his hands and feet and eyes and mouth and ears. We all have the divine spark, the light, within. God acts in this world through us. So rather than waiting for Daddy to come and sort things out, what are we going to do about it? You and me?

How are we going to deal with a corrupt economic system that enables hedge fund managers to amass 700 million? Or sportsmen who are paid more in a minute most people in the world earn in a year? Or dictators who brainwash their people? Or people—us—who are so besotted with being acquisitive that we trample on other shoppers to get the latest gadgets or fashions? And more and more. Shall we demonstrate? Shall we rebel? Shall we organize civil disobedience? How about a national day of prayer and fasting? Or several such days. It would do us no harm. Gandhi showed how effective that could be. How else can we make our feelings known?

The trouble is that it’s not just about them—it’s about us. We are part of them. They are part of us. We might well amass £700 million if we could. We’re all addicted to bad behaviour of some description: holding on to power, greed, controlling others, booze, fags, complaining, gossiping, criticizing others, exercise, drugs, food. If you’re from the prosperous end of society, such addictions are encouraged and rewarded. If you’re not, they land you in trouble. But for all of us, these attachments steal our personalities, they change us, they eat away at us like caterpillars chomping leaves.

Come and save us. That ain’t gonna happen until we acknowledge the depths of our own addictions and our own need for liberation. Deliver us from evil. Deliver us from the evil parts of ourselves. This has to start with ourselves. That is what Advent is for: making us ready. Look in a mirror. Let the infant Christ grow in us as it is growing in Mary.

‘He was not idle all the time He was an embryo — all the nine months He was in the womb; but then and there He even eat out the core of corruption that cleft to our nature and us, and made both us and it an unpleasing object in the sight of God. …. [We] were by this means made beloved in Him … this the good by Christ an embryo.’ (Lancelot Andrewes 1614)

Thus He in love to us behaved,
 To show us how we must be saved
; And if you want to know the way
, Be pleased to hear what He did say.

The trouble is, we don’t. Happy Advent.

Posted in Theology | Leave a comment