A liver of lilies

white-water-lilyDoes being a C of E parish priest advance the Kingdom of God at all?

I am the curator of listed buildings, the administrator of diocesan regulations, the community shaman and witch doctor for rites of passage for people rarely seen again, the chaplain to an offshoot of the Evergreen club. I am expected by many to be the upholder of middle class prejudices as they try to suck me into agreeing with them. Sod that for a game of soldiers.

Some people who knock at my door for this and that are, I think, genuine. One of them has just been – with a child in a buggy – wanting money. He went off with tins of baked beans. I am a softy, but only, I fear, because I don’t have the courage to say ‘no’, so I chide myself about that.

SWMBO is much more robust—like when we were at Penrith Grammar School, and I used to ask her (a prefect like me) to tell the boys to get out because I didn’t want to. It’s true that I didn’t see why they should have to get out, but that’s another matter.

I recall being told to chuck some boys out of the bogs where they were smoking. I went to the Headmaster (a good man and a wonderful Maths teacher) and asked why I needed to: ‘if they want to kill themselves, let them’. He said ‘do it, or resign as Prefect.’

Guess which I did.

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A woman of no importance

1A homily for 6 September 2015

Proper 18 Year B. Isaiah 34.4-7. James 2:1-10, 14-17. Mark 7:24-37

The image of the child drowned trying to flee Syria will stay in my mind for a long time. I wonder why that image is so much more powerful than hearing of Rwandan children suffering similarly, as they are at this moment, or of Burton children suffering abuse at the hands of adults, as they are at the moment.

It makes me realize what a privileged and easy life I have. This is not my fault, and I’m not trying to make myself or anyone else feel guilty: it’s not my ‘fault’ that I was born on a European island in the mid-20th century. But it makes me question the job I’m doing in the face of suffering. Am I really advancing the Kingdom of God as the Vicar of these parishes? Should I not be doing something, using my medical or political skills, or my ability as a provocateur to disturb the comfortable?

It brings us face to face with our powerlessness and our mortality, and so how important it is for us to get out priorities right now before it’s too late. Squabbles about church stuff such as who can lay hands on whom at an ordination, or who may or may not take communion, are put into perspective. I see yet again the importance of taking risks for the big things of life and not sweating the small stuff. Compared to the drowned boy it’s all small stuff.

Look at today’s Gospel. Jesus taking risks—yet again. Goodness me, a sense of humour in the Gospels. How shocking. Jesus teases a woman—shock horror, a gentile woman—swoon, likening her to a dog—sal volatile please. If he said that today, he’d be in court on a charge of abuse. The woman was no pushover. She answered back and stood up for herself. Then he went on to the Decapolis, most definitely not among the chosen people. Pushing at boundaries, ignoring the conventions of the day. Stepping outside the comfort zone and getting our priorities right – loving neighbour as self.

In talking to the woman, Jesus paid no heed to the Levitical laws for hand washing. He seems to ignore those rules a lot when he’s eating on the hillside, on the lakeshore, across the lake on Gentile land. He pays no heed to where and with whom he eats—despised tax collectors and sinners. He talks about food with a Syrophoenician woman—certainly a woman of no importance (was he crucified because of the way he ate?). Jesus—cautious? I think not. Although meals are ritual events where social order and rules of the tribe are reinforced, he doesn’t let rules stand in the way of a party.

Look at today’s epistle. It’s easy to think this is the argument about faith versus works. It’s not about that at all, though some may say so. It’s not about comparing the relative sinfulness of murder and adultery either. It’s about getting your priorities right. Stop fawning over the powerful, the influential, the well dressed. Stop sucking up to the Masons, the members of the Burton Club, the MP, the Mayor, the doctor, the Vicar. Start ministering to your neighbour as yourself, no matter how they speak, or smell, or appear. Don’t let convention stand in the way of compassion. Don’t let duty stifle initiative.

We need to guard against being so concerned to keep our lives, our churches and our religion ‘pure’ or ‘just the way we like it’ in a way that excludes others, or welcomes them only on our terms. Being open-minded and willing to explore and do new things is expensive. It leads others to criticize us. It leads to a kind of crucifixion as we see the death of all we once held dear.

When I see pictures of refugees dead and dying I know that none of our conventions and rules is important enough to go to war over. Faith without works is merely self-indulgent narcissism.

Harden not your hearts. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy that seems to elude mere mortals.

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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