Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly

See the mascot?

See the Mascot?

Homily at the Annual Commemoration Service for the Staffordshire Regiment at S Paul’s Church, Burton upon Trent, 13 September 2014

I have no military connexions other than a father-in-law who served in the Royal Navy, an uncle who served in the Royal Air Force and a father who served as a batman to a General in the British Army. Born in 1950, I am one of the pampered post-war generation who have never had to fight for anything and for whom everything has been free, including education to third level. What can I say to you who have served, to you who have suffered, and to you who have lost comrades, or confidence, or loved ones? What can I say to you who through your training learnt the hard way that personal preferences were irrelevant when you trained and worked together in the service of something bigger than you? What can I say to you who through all this were forced to think about justice and mercy, and who had a certain sort of humility drilled into you?

Although others have called me morally and intellectually courageous, nobody has ever called me physically courageous. I am a coward. I am always willing to stand right behind someone else, physically. So I need people like you who I can stand behind. I thank you!

Regimental Mascot

Regimental Mascot: he sings when we sing

I have been transfixed these last few Monday evenings watching the training of Marine Commandos. It is wonderful to see how in the service of something bigger than themselves these young men learn about justice and their attitudes to it, men who see by example when mercy is called for, and men who learn that their own preferences and desires count for nothing when it comes to the wellbeing of the troop. When one of the company failed in an exercise there was none of the derision that I suffered in PE classes in school, but rather a remarkable level of sympathy and support. You might even call it prayer.

All this has obvious biological parallels in the cooperative communities of creatures like ants, termites and marine invertebrates, where each individual knows its place in the big scheme of things—a scheme of things that to each individual must surely be incomprehensible, but which must, one supposes, be hard-wired into what passes for a brain.

You men know what it is to have to put your ‘self’ aside for the sake of something bigger. In the church calendar, tomorrow we celebrate the Holy Cross. There is a tendency to think that the death on the cross is only about what happened 2000 years ago. This is nonsense. It is of course about that, but it is also about what happens every moment of every day as we gradually realize that the energy we spend in trying to be individuals yields altogether more wonderful fruit when we divert it into trying not to be individuals—when we give up ‘self’ for the sake of something bigger. That is what happens in your military training. At some point in the pursuit of individualism we will ‘hit the wall’, and, as in training, we can, if we set our face to it, break through into resurrection life.

Commemorations such as today’s are ambivalent occasions. You know people who were injured, you know people who are still suffering, you know relatives who suffer, you have comrades who were killed. But you know the excitement, the comradeship, and the singleness of purpose as many hands are put to the plough.

I know some of you, having been at home in community, find it difficult upon leaving to cope with the individualistic society that you find yourself thrown into, but I hope most if not all of you can look back with satisfaction on what you learnt in training together. Young men these days lack opportunities like this. There is nothing, or very little, set apart for them. We have organizations for women only, and women are certainly encouraged to be women, but men aren’t allowed to be men, from early childhood onwards. Schools and society tend to emasculate. Society needs more opportunities for men to be men—I’m not talking about boorishness or the dreadful hail-fellow-well-met insincerity of golf-clubs where ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch your BMW’—but opportunities for the naturally occurring testosterone to be expressed in male bonding, adventure and service.

You, gentlemen, have a wonderful opportunity to help today’s young men to learn how to be men, and to learn the benefits of working for a cause that is bigger than any individual. That perhaps is your job now: to show others how to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

Once again, I thank you and I commend you in your service, past, present and future.

Posted in A great future behind me, Theology | Leave a comment

T’interweb meedja

JesseRight, so. I sorted out how to do a Facebook (? FaceBook) page for the churches. I managed to do it for an organization rather than for an individual so was quite pleased with myself. This is in preparation for a website.

It took me a while because I’m 64 and these things don’t come naturally at an age when many of us are worried about letting angels prostate fall around our ankles. And, it has to be said, in my former lives I’ve always had people to whom I simply had to utter a command and lo, it cameth to pass. Not now I fear. So gird up your loins, young man, or what’s left of them, and show the virtual world what you’re made of.

So I did.

I emailed my many friends and asked them if they would be kind enough to ‘like’ the Facebook page so that it would begin to be noticed by the great noticer of things in the firmament of heaven which must now be stuffed full of things jostling to be noticed. So full, in fact, that the aether is getting thicker and thicker—have you noticed?—and moving is more and more difficult. Either that or gravity is getting stronger by the minute. Anyhoo, back to the plot. As I say, I emailed friends and asked them to like it.

You would be astonished, Bruce, just how many darlings responded by saying something like ‘well actually, I don’t do Facebook’ or ‘I can’t get the hang of these twitter things.’ Astonished. You can, I hope, read the smell under their noses. All of these hoity-toity people, be it noted, were English, not Irish. It is noticeable that clergy colleagues in Ireland were on Facebook much more often than English clergy. Perhaps this is because Church of Ireland clergy have fewer calls on their time (seriously, this will get another blog), but whatever the reason, Irish folk are much more meedja savvy than English folk of similar age. What d’ye make of that?

Now to the website. The possibility that I might do one (‘seek to do one if it is the will of God’ in C of E speak) was dumped upon by a whole load of nay-sayers. I can understand that church people of an age when incontinentia buttox begins to loom might feel that such things are not for them, but unless they grasp the concept that the church has to deal with the world as it is and will be, rather than as it was when they were young and Napoleon was in Paris, we are more likely to be, as Private Fraser used so eloquently to say, doomed.

On the grounds that there is a tide in the affairs of men. which, if not taken at the flood, leads on to extinction, I thought the best thing was simply to JFDI. WWJD? He’d JFDI.

So Website-Ho! as Charles Kingsley would have said.

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

Holy Goat

Strangely compelling

Strangely compelling

Churchyard upkeep is becoming a problem for church councils and Select Vestries. What is to be done as volunteers become incapacitated, or drop of their perches?

Rotas for grass cutting could be drawn up. This would give even more opportunities for church people to fall out. To the list that includes flower rota, cleaning rota, washing the linen rota, and rota for ‘who complains this week about the wrong tune’, can be added the churchyard grass cutting rota. This is a special rota because while the others are largely or exclusively for girls, keeping the churchyard looking good is not really a girly thing. Indeed, farmers could legitimately wonder whose was the biggest tool.

In a former parish, I had complaints about grass being unkempt round auntie’s grave. I ignored the first letter, but the second elicited a response in which I pointed out that the churchyard was looked after by volunteers, and that I would entertain no further correspondence from people who neither contributed money nor lifted a finger to help.

But now there is a new weapon in the armoury for keeping the graves looking nice for the general resurrection. A goat.

Yes, boys and girls, a goat. Goats are on the agenda of a Council meeting near you. Goats are the new solar panels. In the light of this I humbly put forward some helpful tips for any church council soon to be considering goats, in the hope that my thoughts will help the implementation of this game-changing strategy.

New rotas will be needed:

  • Who will march the animal down, tether it and then march it back every day? Sheep might stay out in all weathers but goats do not, and Billy will need tethering so that he doesn’t attack the flowers lovingly placed on the grave yesterday.
  • Who will make sure the goat has clean water every day? The RSPCA are hot on this, and it would be unfortunate to make front page of the Diocesan red-top for animal neglect.
  • Who will be on-call in the small hours for capturing an escaped goat before it crops all the plants along the bungalows?

Other practicalities:

  • How can the tethering rope be prevented from wrapping itself around gravestones and pulling them over? A falling gravestone could even trap the goat, useful if there were a barbecue in the offing.
  • Insurance against acts of goat? A Goat Compare website would be helpful.
  • Dogs wander into churchyards, so people could pay to watch dog-goat fights. Or a new species could be engineered: the barking goat. Half-man, half-goat is Pan, so I suppose half-dog, half-goat might be Gog. Or Dot.
  • Rules will have to be drawn up—and enforced—to banish poisonous plants. Either that, or market the incense made from essence of dead goat in churchyard. Although in the United States Fresh Expressions is a brand of cat-litter, too many complications would follow from pursuing this here.
  • There is opportunity for a whole new tranche of administrators to be appointed in Diocesan Offices, thus enhancing God’s Kingdom.

Whatever floats your goat I suppose. What do you call a Spanish goat with no back legs? Gracias.

I’ll get my coat.

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

On this rock …

Blackpool-rock-ePeter, the denier, the dissembler, the man who means well, the man who cocks up time after time. The man who sometimes gets a bit above himself and has to be given a slap. Homer Simpson in fact. You. Me.

Cut us in two and we have humanity written all the way through us.

Cut us in two and we bleed. Some of the things that help us to stop bleeding are platelets. These are not blood cells, but are broken-off pieces of huge cells (megakaryocytes) that lie in wait to be summoned to wherever they are needed to plug the holes in the pipes. Biological Radweld. We are broken off bits of the Divine. To be sure, we have other things in us too that are maybe not so Divine, but we are all sons and daughters of the Divine.

Platelets bind together when they recognize damaged blood vessels. They aid blood clotting to stop blood seeping out of damaged vessels. Blood is life force, so pushing this silly simile a bit further, we stop the life force seeping out by plugging bleeding hearts, easing burdens, bringing delight. Blood brings iron, oxygen and nutrients. Blood disposes of waste products.

On this rock. Not the rock of perfection, superiority, excellence and aloofness, but the rock of humanity with its tendency to wander off like a supermarket trolley, and its ability to act as plugger of holes, mender of fences and bringer of jollity.

O admirabile commercium.

Posted in Biology & theology, Pastoralia | 2 Comments

Doctrine of the fall

The fall

The fall

Ladies ‘fall pregnant’. Why? It’s a curious conjunction of verb and expectant adjective. Today’s Church Times describes Sinéad O’Connor as falling pregnant. Is it like Breaking Bad? What or where do they fall from? Do they fall onto something, or into something? Is it like tripping on the pavement and falling onto something they’d not noticed? And are they pushed?

Fr Richard Rohr uses the expression falling upwards to signify that only through falling, a kind of crucifixion in which one sheds one’s ego-driven obsessions, can one ascend to the heavens. Is this what happens to ladies who fall pregnant? I know that motherhood, like apple pie, is a state of grace, but am not clear why ladies fall into it. Is it like leaves falling after a glorious display?

Yet another of life’s perplexities.

Post script. SWMBO tells me that I should change ladies to women.

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Still small voice of calm

galilee-3A homily for Proper 14. 1 Kings 19: 9-18. Matthew 14: 22-33.

At creation, the spirit hovers over the waters. The spirit brings order to chaos. In Holy Scripture, water, waters, the sea always signify risk, danger, turmoil, the tendency to entropy. We talk of being up to our necks, out of our depths, going under.

Elijah was in it up to his neck. His personal circumstances were to say the least a bit sticky. He found the spirit of wisdom not in the noise, the storm, the wind, but in the silence.

Life is a bit sticky. We fall out with people, sometimes their fault, sometimes ours, usually both. We struggle with fractious families, tedious jobs, unyielding rules, unreasonable expectations, addictions, and more. Will we find wisdom in more noise, more words, more busy-ness? Will we find wisdom in a bit of solitude and silence? How can we hear the still small voice if we crowd it out with noise and crackle? The spirit came to the disciples as they were in it up their necks. Calming wisdom bringing order to disorder, cosmos to chaos.

Sit back. Silent. Still. Perhaps the answer to the question the Lord asked of Elijah will become clearer to you.

What are you doing here?

Posted in Inner kingdom, Theology | 1 Comment

Making waves

4604300082_a0f1293f46Baroness Warsi has been hitting nails and nerves with her comments about public school toffs in the UK cabinet.

It puts me in mind of 1969, a new boy at Cambridge. Students from public schools were at home from day one. College was simply more of what they’d been used to at school. There were quads, courts, chapels, libraries. There were common rooms, ‘screens’ and ‘staircases’. There were gowns, gyps and bedders (no, not like that). There were shared toilets and no hot water. For these boys, the  jargon, the culture and the ethos were just more of the boring same-old-same-old.

For me, it was exotic and exciting and romantic. And not a little daunting. More daunting still was my reaction to noticing the ennui of the posh boys. It took some effort not to be cowed by it and them, and their tiresome efforts to mimic a northern accent so that I could feel at home.

Despite this, it was membership of an élite club. Or so I thought.

I guess the atmosphere at Westminster is the next step on the ladder from public school and Oxbridge. Despite the influx of women, I don’t suppose it’s changed much. In fact, maybe because of the influx of women the Hooray Henrys have become more hooray-henry-ish in at attempt to keep their end up, so to speak. All very silly.

I’m reading again The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott (Jewel in the Crown for TV buffs). Hari Kumar was ‘too English for the Indians, too Indian for the English’. Baroness Warsi comes to mind, and indeed everyone who is too big to fit into little boxes all the same and made of ticky-tacky that are manufactured for them by unimaginative apparatchiks.

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