November is a very looking-back sort of month with All Souls at the beginning, then Remembrance Sunday. We will say prayers in churches and at memorials. We will remember names of those killed trying to maintain peace. But what use are these prayers unless they result in changing our human behaviour? It is easy to see how others need to change their behaviour, but the truth is that we all need to look into a mirror and start with our own behaviour before even beginning to think about telling other people what to do. Playground fights become wars. Interpersonal slights grow through resentments into bitternesses and feuds. The trouble is that when you harbour a grudge, and plot revenge, you are harming yourself more than anyone else. And then you die. So let us use the November season to resolve that when that day comes when we shuffle off this mortal coil, we leave behind as few resentments and as little unfinished business as possible. Let’s start now by being honest with one another, by getting things out in the open. An abscess needs to be lanced with a knife, not covered by an elastoplast.
Learn from the past to live in the present to lay foundations for the future. This brings me to Advent on the four Sundays of which we remember patriarchs, prophets, John Baptist and Mary—the past being renewed in preparation for a transformed future. Advent for me the best time of year: cool, sunny (one hopes), fresh, crisp, invigorating. Images of waiting, preparing, cleansing. And yet, with Christmas carols already as shop muzak, we seem to have lost the art of waiting. I’m one of the world’s most impatient people, but a bit of waiting, however painful, increases the joy. And it’s waiting that the four weeks before Christmas are all about: Latin ad venire meaning ‘coming towards’. We wait for a guest, an eagerly expected visitor. As at home, preparation for such events usually means a bit of tidying up, getting stuff ready, and relaxing before the arrival. Unfortunately, this sense of waiting with mounting excitement has been all but lost to us in what the media call the ‘run up to Christmas’ – planning presents, trees, food, booze, frenetic activity, much of it fuelled by the children’s media and the evil advertising industry that incites us to greed and avarice. Even the church in so many places is caught up in this as Carol Services are held well before Christmas. Advent is obliterated. And I am complicit: although I complain, I do not like Carol Services after Christmas, so must have them before! I encourage you, if possible, to take some time out in December, maybe just a minute or two here and there, for stocktaking and refreshment. For waiting, in fact. For relaxing. At Christmas we celebrate having been shown the way to live as the Divine comes to us: ‘God became what we are, in order that we may become what God is.’ The glory of God is a human life lived to the full, when our deep joy meets the world’s deep need. If, like me, you long for a bit of peace and quiet before Christmas, don’t feel bad about taking time out. And if you want to be stimulated, come to our Advent discussions on Wednesdays at the Rectory at 8 pm. These might be just the things to revive your drooping spirit before the onslaught of family arguments and frayed nerves. Relax into being yourself. Get rid of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ (too much butter leads to hardening of the arteries, and too many ‘oughts’ leads to hardening of the ‘oughteries’), and be yourself, bringing as much delight as you can into the world.
I have a simplistic view of money, and doubtless old fashioned. I do not see how people can spend what they do not have. I have always been better at spending than at earning, and I look back with horror at the ways in which I have been a poor husband of my resources. The retrospectoscope is a wonderful thing. But: the churches need your money. This is not a good time to ask for it, but needs must. First among our financial obligations come the diocesan assessment (clergy stipends, pensions, advisers, administration etc), upkeep of the buildings, and the maintenance of our liturgical and pastoral activities. There are those who bemoan the fact that historic buildings can be a millstone around our necks, but they are a fact of life, and it would be irresponsible for us wilfully to neglect them. Anyway, buildings are mission tools—they can bring people to church, and there they might just find something worth staying for. Some churches have large reserves. Maybe we should ask ourselves: what are these for? It’s difficult to persuade people to give to an organisation that is wealthy. In the Jewish Scriptures, much is made of tithing—giving a tenth of your income to support the work of the Jewish priesthood. Christian Scriptures make no mention of tithing (though since the early Christians were Jews they may have assumed it), but they do (see Acts especially) talk openly about the maintenance of ministry and the obligations of those that have more than they need to support those that have not. This does not mean that sponging off others is permissible or even allowed—we are all responsible for ourselves ultimately. But I encourage you to dig deep into your pockets to support the work of the church and its ministry in order to safeguard the future.
Despite my profligacy, I am alive. I wake up each morning and think, good—I’m not dead yet. I’m of an age when some of the people I was at school and university with are no longer breathing. If you are reading this, be glad.