About Rambling Rector

Church of England Parish Priest

From Iona’s isle

213420.bHomily for Patronal Festival Evensong of the Church of St Aidan, Burton upon Trent

What attracted me, a Cumbrian village lad brought up in Chapel Sunday School, to defect to the Church of England when I was about 13? It was serious enough to lead to attempts at emotional blackmail by the Methodist minister about betraying family loyalty.

It was the liturgy and language of the Book of Common Prayer. Although I may by then have developed an ear for words—I was already consuming P G Wodehouse—what really appealed was the sense that these words and this liturgy had been used for over 400 years in this place, week-in, week-out. A matter of tradition.

What makes me begin every Sunday Mass at St Paul’s with the Trinitarian greeting in Latin? It’s not because I think I’m in Rome. It’s the feeling in some small way that those words have been said in similar circumstances for give or take 2,000 years. A matter of tradition.

The root of the word tradition is trade. It implies movement, transaction, development. It is not a static, sterile thing, but active and fluid. I like to know what a tradition is, and why and how it developed. I can use bits of it as suits me. In this morning’s readings we were reminded that tradition is not to be blindly followed, but is there for our sustenance. We live in the present and make plans, drawing on the best of the past as and when.

What, I wonder, did Aidan think of tradition? What would he have regarded as traditions? He is credited with the growth of the church in Northumbria. What would he be doing here in Burton, now? At this festival last year, George, the Diocesan Director for Mission said that we might see growth in the church if we could all tell one person the story of our Christian discipleship, encouraging them to join us and see for themselves.

I didn’t say so at the time, for I had no wish to be discourteous in public, but I didn’t agree with him. I don’t think that cuts the mustard these days.

First, I think many of us would be hard pressed to articulate our Christian formation. We came to church because we were made to. We found something that kept us coming, maybe singing, maybe shared interests, maybe community. We might occasionally have listened to Scripture or even to sermons, and gradually, very gradually we absorbed something of the Christian tradition. It has been, and remains, a slow process. It’s bit like the development of a fetus from one cell to a newborn baby: it’s impossible to point to one particular moment at which something dramatic happens, but over nine months the transformation is miraculous. For many of us, that Christian transformation takes place over decades. I don’t believe that the thing that some people call conversion is an event. It’s a process. Even St Paul’s so-called conversion took place over days, rather than in a moment.

Second, the Christian story is not sufficiently compelling—or maybe is not told in a compelling enough fashion—to get people to change. In western Europe, we are, I think, too prosperous, not desperate enough. Look around the world at where Christianity flourishes—I’m not talking here of the prosperity gospel of the American evangelists: that is a perversion of Christianity.

And then there’s the public image of the church. At the moment it’s grim. Suffice it to say that the institutional church is seen by many as a safe-space for child abusers.

So I think telling people about Jesus, or telling them our personal story is unlikely to be effective. In our world, people are suspicious of institutions, and of anyone who tries to impose their point of view. Such a strategy is seen as manipulative, even abusive.

Sorry George, it’s not the way.

Rather than tell, let’s show. Actions speak louder than words. I’m much more impressed by what people do rather than what they say, and you might remember the gospel story comparing a man who says he won’t do something but then does it, with a man says he’ll do something but then fails to deliver.

We have sung a hymn written by John Bell of the Iona community. If there is something about Iona that infects people, then I like to think that this hymn has the spirit of Aidan in it—not tramping around the countryside yabbering on about Jesus, if he did, but showing Jesus in action.

Whatever else the traditions of the early church in these islands have given us, they have left us with that of confession: heart speaking to heart as we tell a friend our deepest fears. Those fears are so often about the lack of courage to change, being too comfortable, too complacent, too prosperous, as we surround ourselves with metaphorical fig leaves of luxury. Those fears lead us to live, as it were, behind electric gates, inclosed in our own fat, our mouth speaking proud things.

The words of the hymn are prophetic, demanding, shocking.

  • Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Are you prepared to be changed?
  • Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is not necessarily the Divine will?
  • Will you leave yourself behind?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is no more important that what someone else wants? The crucifixion/ascension is the replacement of selfishness with selflessness. Are you prepared to give and not to count the cost?
  • Will you risk the hostile stare? Are you prepared to be unpopular?
  • Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?Are you prepared to delve deep into your psyche to uncover your deepest darkest fears and impulses, and expose them to the light?
  • Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around?Are you prepared to fight? Fighting for justice is love in action.

If we want to attract people to the Christian message we can’t do better than show them what it is. Working for justice, tending the sick in mind or body, provoking people to leave the ruts they are in, getting people to see things differently. This is Jesus in action. It’s so much more authentic than simply telling people about Jesus. It’s utterly authentic psychology, utterly authentic Christian tradition, utterly authentic Christianity.

Expectations and reality

SnailShell45Church Magazine, September 2018

I’m glad to see the back of August. It seems to have been an awfully long month. From a personal point of view it’s not been without its trials. At the risk of boring you all, I tell you again I don’t like hot and muggy weather, and it has been very hot and muggy. Then there is the continuing saga of the left eye. Earlier in the month, the pain was such that I was sure it must be eye cancer that had already invaded the skull bones, and I was planning my funeral. Like many medics—even though I practised full time for only 12 months 40 years ago—I tend to catastrophize.

I quite enjoyed sitting in the ophthalmology waiting room. It gave me a sense of superiority. I may be older than some of the other punters, but I’m not as obese as most, I’m sprightlier than most, I don’t have a Zimmer frame and I look less miserable than most. Indeed the consultant ophthalmologist said that I looked a lot younger than 68. So there.

The NHS, truly the national religion, is indeed a wonderful thing and we need to protect it from the assaults of the enemy. But let’s keep a sense of proportion. It was not invented to make up for our irresponsible decisions. It was not invented for A and E departments to be a pool of vomit every weekend as a result of leglessness. It was not invented so that people could ask for sterilisations to be reversed just because they’ve changed their minds. It was not invented to keep people alive well beyond what might reasonably be expected. It can not alter the fact that life is a terminal condition, and the longer you live the more likely you are to die. Get used to it.

We have unrealistic expectations of health. We think the doctor’s duty is to make us feel as well at 68 as we did at 28, despite the lifetime of shoving stuff into our gobs that is not good for us, despite choosing to do things that take their toll. If you are going to go running on hard pavements, don’t be surprised when you get knackered knees. And don’t blame someone else. I know this is a favourite theme of mine, but the fact is that actions have consequences, and we have to take responsibility for our actions. It’s no good praying to the sky pixie for healing when the condition results from our own genetics or activities. I know people are afflicted by disease through no “fault” of their own, but I’m not talking about conditions like that.

Anyway, healing doesn’t mean perfection. It means coming to terms with the reality of the situation you’re in. If you’re dying of cancer and accept that it is so, there’s a sense in which you are healed. Think about it. And remember that stress always results from the mismatch between expectations and reality.  Ditch expectations and live moment by moment. Yes, I know it’s difficult. I’m not good at it.

Just as we are often unrealistic about things of the body, so we are about things of the spirit. Here are some tips for spiritual refreshment from Niki Hardy, who lives with rectal cancer.

  • List a few things you’re grateful for: practising gratitude increases wellbeing.
  • Write down how you’re feeling: tired, angry, worried, resentful, hopeful or whatever. Then think about what you’ve written.
  • Put on some beautiful music.
  • Get out into nature: lots of people see more of God in a garden than in a church.
  • Find somewhere quiet and sit in silence. Remember Elijah encountering God not in storm or noise but in silence. Be still. Be quiet. Stop yabbering on.
  • Be kind to others. Remember that everyone is fighting battles you know nothing about.
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Stop moaning.

Happy Autumn.

ees crazy Mr Fawlty

parody-of-the-famous-scene-by-a-basil-lookalike_542319Church magazine, August 2018

Mental health

Several people with mental health issues have come my way recently. It’s quite clear that support for psychiatric patients in this country is woeful. Men suffer more than women, partly because it’s more socially acceptable for women to talk about this.

I was at a party recently during the World Cup when a group of men came in and immediately gathered round the TV, exchanging football banter. I was watching from the side. This meant that they didn’t have to make any effort at conversation. It’s what men do—or don’t do. We’re tender creatures under all the bravado, and have not been brought up to talk about personal issues. Sport talk is displacement activity. We suffer for it.

Staffordshire has the highest rate of young suicides in the country. You’ll know from local news how often the trains are disrupted, or the A38 is blocked, by suicides from overbridges. And they are nearly all young men.

Sunday morning recently at St Paul’s saw a psychotic man demanding help. He was talking non-stop about fighting Satan and listening to and talking to Princess Diana. We rang the police who said they didn’t want to know—we said they should want to know. We rang the ambulance service who after some reluctance eventually turned up, and so, interestingly, did the police. The man was taken to hospital.

When I was a medical student, there were asylums for the psychiatrically incapacitated. Then they were closed, replaced by “care in the community”. This might work for those who are reasonably well adjusted. It doesn’t work for people with severe neuroses and psychoses. If you wonder what these words mean, neurosis in simple terms is exaggerated worrying; psychosis is losing touch with reality. It has been said that neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them, and psychiatrists take the rent.

Asylums were not there to protect society from crazies; they were there to protect ill people from society. We need asylums and better community support. Pressure needs to be brought to bear on local and national representatives and on government. What are you going to do about it?

Mental health issues are common. I make no secret of the fact that I have been on happy pills (SSRIs in my case) for over a decade, and probably should have been before that. When I try reducing the dose or stopping them, I become paranoid. I have a tendency to that anyway, but it’s kept in check by sertraline or similar drugs. I see no reason to hide this. I’m not in the least ashamed of it. There’s obviously something about the production of brain chemicals in me that isn’t ideal. If someone’s insulin production from the pancreas is awry, allowances are made and people bend over backwards to accommodate them. If someone’s brain chemical production is awry, they may well feel ashamed and try to hide it. This is crazy.

Life is complicated. I’m pretty sure our brains weren’t “designed” to cope with the complexities we’ve invented over the last 100 years. We need to simplify our lives. I keep telling you that we are apes. Perhaps we can go back to picking fleas off each other as we sit companionably basking in the sunshine.

Which takes me to a major rant. It’s too hot. I hate this weather. Some of you may be praying for more of it. I’m praying for cold and some rain. I suppose it’s a bit like an arm-wrestling competition. Who’ll win? This leads me to wonder if praying to a sky-pixie is itself a psychosis. I wouldn’t be the first.

The world is in a mess—not just mental health services. We’ve heard some Old Testament prophets recently who wrote at a time when people had become greedy and had stopped following values of decency. The wealthy elite had become rich at the expense of others. Farmers who once served local communities had been forced to farm what was best for foreign trade. And people say Scripture is irrelevant to modern life.

Moving on 

The talk at schools recently has been about seniors moving on, and welcoming new pupils in September. Lots of emotions in the air: excitement, apprehension, finding new friends, losing old ones. Likely as not, students move from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a bigger pond. If this hasn’t happened to them before, it will certainly happen again, because that’s life, and it happens again and again.

We’ve a choice in dealing with this: we can jump into the pool, go with the flow, and take what comes, or else we can retreat into a self-contained box and do the equivalent of living in dark room, never venturing out.

Jesus’ most often heard advice was ‘don’t be afraid’ (or words to that effect), and on several occasions he advised his disciples when out fishing to put out into the deep for the best catch. There’s good advice. Jump in and see what comes. Grab life by the little round things. Young people are usually much better at this than so-called grown-ups.

Here’s some Stanley advice: give to the world what only you can give—you, with your combination of gifts and talents and enthusiasms. Your vocation is, in the words of Frederick Buechner, ‘where your greatest joy meets the world deepest need.’ So go for it, boys and girls. Take risks, jump in.

Taking responsibility and growing up

In all this, there’s more than a whiff of the need for each one of us to take responsibility for ourselves. To grow up, in fact. This process is not helped by the indulgent over-cosseting that people and organisations provide for those who should learn to stand on their own feet. The NHS is culpable IMHO in that it leads people to think that it will pick up the pieces for their irresponsible choices.

So here’s a message to all of us, myself included, who are responsible for the nurturing of young people: we’re doing them no favours by mollycoddling them. We do them no favours if we confuse love with sentimentality.

C S Lewis said (something like) ‘God wants us to get out of the nursery and grow up’, a message that reflects the teachings of Jesus whose healings always included the afflicted coming to terms with the reality of their situation. The laws of nature (‘God made everything, and it was very good’) are inexorable and totally unsentimental. And human behaviour, which could be merciful, often isn’t. We need to deal with the world as it is, not the world as we wish it to be. Then our own healing can begin. Stop moaning.

You’re no good to anyone else if you’re suffering yourself. Which brings me back to where I started. Take care of your own health; seek help when necessary.

Happy summer.

Divine sustenance from a child

DancingHomily for Proper 12, year 

2 Kings 4.42-44; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21

I’m not bothered whether the feeding of the five thousand is historical or not. Its symbolic power is profound.

Jesus distributes victuals to the hungry. Victuals, fruits of creation, are gathered by the labour of human hands. Crossing the lake to the other, gentile, side tells us that the message is for all, not just respectable club members. It’s for the whole world, represented by the five thousand. God’s grace and goodness is signified by 5 in Biblical numerology. In all this, the allusion to the mass is clear enough: takes loaves, breaks them, distributes, consumes.

Here are several topics for a homily, but today I’m not dealing with any of them. I want to consider something you may think is a minor detail. All the gospel writers tell this story, but only John tells us that the victuals are provided by a paidarion, the Greek for child or young slave. Yes: the bread of life comes from the hands of a child. This is a remarkable detail, and one that hits me all the more forcefully every time I see children in action.

Here are some resonances it conjures up:

  • A little child shall lead them.
  • Allow the children to come to me.
  • If anyone hurts a child, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the water with a stone around his neck.
  • To enter the kingdom of heaven you must be as a child.
  • The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man (Simeon).

What is it about children that is so important to salvation?

Straightforward. Trusting. Direct, unhampered by so-called politeness and good manners. Pushing at boundaries. Taking risks. Full of energy. Full of imagination.

The openness and open-mindedness of children reminds me of a favourite Hebrew image of salvation: enlightenment, freedom from ignorance. Buddhist too. Such freedom comes from living in the moment—being fully aware of what exactly is going on in and around us, with open eyes and minds: nonjudgmental mindfulness.

But this is a difficult thing for us adults to aspire to. The ‘freshness’ of the child within us has been obscured by the accretions of ‘adultness’ that gather around the core. Layers that come from pride, wilfulness, selfishness, thoughtlessness, self-deception, pretence, puffed-upness. We are “inclosed in our own fat”. We tell ourselves that some of these things are necessary to get on in life, to crawl up the greasy career pole, to please other people. I know—I’ve been there. All these things that prevent us from living the authentic life that is trying to get out. All these things mar the image of innocence within, and by innocence I mean simply a lack of noxiousness. Our hearts are hardened by life. Scarred. Solidified. Frozen in ice. All encasing that innocence, that child-likeness within.

To give a medical analogy, think what happens when we are wounded. The wound heals by scarring, and scar tissue is thick and ugly. So as we go through life with its hurts – others hurt us and we hurt ourselves, the accumulating scar tissue obscures the inner core. It clouds our view of the world; it prevents others from seeing what we are truly like. We end up like a Russian doll with so many layers covering the core.

The journey towards salvation requires us to let these layers fall away. I suggest, like the Fathers of the Church of the first three centuries (before Augustine) that the core within is divine, part of God implanted within us all. All we have to do is cooperate with it once we recognize it. To recognize it requires that we search for it.

This is not easy. A good place to start is by self-examination, by trying to see ourselves as others see us. You might try imagining yourself on a cloud looking down at you and noting what you see. One of the best ways to go about this task is to open your heart to someone you trust absolutely.

You might say that such self-examination is about letting the light shine into your soul. It may be that you are altogether better than I am, with only pure whiteness within—but looking around at you, I doubt that. In myself I’ve seen pride and selfishness masquerading as necessity or pragmatism. I’ve convinced myself that rearrangement of my prejudices is radical thought. And I don’t think I’m alone: listen to the first letter of John: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Later in the liturgy we meet the Lord. He is love, so why be afraid? Maybe we are not so much afraid as ashamed. If God is love, and love is God, we don’t need to be ashamed. Are we afraid that by letting someone into our lives we are in some way diminished? Not so, said Pope Benedict XVI at his inauguration: ‘Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return.’

Let the warmth in. Warmth hatches chicks. We need hatching of our hearts. Or, melting. Strangely warmed, as John Wesley said. Warm the shell of grumpy self-obsession, and we see the world again through child-like eyes. If the eye is healthy, the whole body is full of light.

Hatching of the heart is not going to happen until we pause, rest, and are still – in order to let it happen. The challenge is to confront our demons inside in the hope that the light of Christ will bleach them, to help us to approach the image of God within. Now we get to the message of the reading from Ephesians: Christ does indeed dwell in our hearts. We may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

Consider this:

I think we have lost the ability to balance. Our equilibrium is off. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed somebody making a good balanced unbiased decision. I think the phrase “godly, righteous and sober life” is the thing, sober is the way forward, well–considered, well thought out, and poised. This doesn’t even come close to saying what it was supposed to, but when you get started it’s hard to stay on point which I think was about listening. Inner peace – it is in the listening that I heal. The problem is that the noise inside my head is deafening.

My elder son wrote that in an email from Texas. He died a few years after.

Listening to the quiet, letting the heart be warmed and hatched in the light, is a daily discipline. Listening in silence is prayer. There are other ways of hatching too: coming to church is hatching with others—battery hatching. Journal writing, gardening, walking, acts of compassion, social protest are others.

Whatever ways you choose, attend to your heart. Listen to others. Be quiet and listen to yourself. Read The Snow Queen. Again and again—it’s full of pertinent resonances, wholeness restored when Gerda’s tears of love melt Kay’s heart of ice. Through child-like love we attain eternity.

O my Saviour, lifted from the earth for me, draw me, in thy mercy, nearer unto thee. Speed these lagging footsteps, melt this heart of ice as I scan the marvels of thy sacrifice. Lift my earth-bound longings; fix them, Lord, above; draw me with the magnet of thy mighty love. Lord, thine arms are stretching ever far and wide, to enfold thy children to thy loving side. And I come, O Jesus: dare I turn away? No, thy love hath conquered, and I come today, bringing all my burdens, sorrow, sin, and care; at thy feet I lay them, and I leave them there. William Walsham How, 1823-1897.

Play with your ears

PONTING_1911_Dog_Listening_to_Gramophone_Antartica-620x481The 2018 summer organ concerts at St Modwen’s finished last Wednesday. We went out with a bang.

The player was Ben Bloor, a kind-of-local lad, who’d been chorister and organ scholar at Derby Cathedral, then went on to organ scholarships in Oxford where he read music, Westminster Cathedral, St George’s Windsor, and Rochester Cathedral. He is now successor to Ralph Downes and Patrick Russill at Brompton Oratory—at the tender age of 27. He wears his virtuosic gifts with quiet affability, earthed humanity, and wry humour. He is someone who would have provoked in me, when I was his age, naked envy.

The concerts began in 2017 when the new organist, Tony Westerman, arrived. He has many contacts in the local organ scene and I said to him that it would be wonderful to have “a bit of culture”. I pretended that this was for the sake of the church and the town, but in truth my motivation was entirely selfish. It was I who wanted a bit of culture. Thanks to Tony’s organisational skills, I sure got it.

The concerts have been a remarkable and unexpected success. Burton is within 11 miles of two cathedrals with great musical traditions: Derby with its wonderful acoustic to the north-east, and Lichfield to the south-west. Coventry and Birmingham are not that far away either. So if Burtonians want organ music, they haven’t far to go.

I wasn’t expecting great numbers, and told people that I’d be happy if we made double figures. At the first 2017 concert there were, IIRC, over 30, and the most we had in that season was over 60. I’m told we sometimes had more than Lichfield Cathedral.

St Modwen’s has a number of things in its favour. It’s in the Market Square, in the middle of town. The organ is in the west gallery and speaks directly into the church—going full pelt it’s almost painfully loud. The console is at ground level and the organist can be seen, and can hear everything in proportion. But perhaps most significant was our insistence that the pieces played should be foot-tappingly tuneful. No forearm smashes. No tuneless crap. And the players have obliged with good heart. And hearts have been good. We’ve been blessed with organists, including professionals, willing to give their talents free, therefore indirectly for local charities. I’m extraordinarily grateful.

Some players have been stunning, and most excellent. It doesn’t follow that professionals necessarily play better than amateurs. I would rather listen to a performance that’s passionate and in tune with the spirit of the music despite a few mistakes, than one that’s cold, clinical and flawless—and I’ve heard professionals give performances that have been exactly that, and certainly not worth the vast fees they charge.

Only two players were disappointing. It sounded as if they, quite simply, did not listen to the sound they produced. A good player always plays with his or her ears. S/he will listen to what s/he’s doing. In my half-century as a church musician and cleric I’ve heard organists who are transported in ecstasy to an Enid Blyton la-la land where the sun always shines and wrong notes are unknown. Rather than listen to what they’re actually doing, they “listen” to what they think they’re doing. I’ve “fond” memories of a Derbyshire village organist whose hands worked entirely independently of each other, and without any apparent neural connexion to the retinal impulses resulting from the black dots and squiggles of the printed music. I coped with this by singing very loudly so as to drown her out. It was truly w-o-e-f-u-l. She couldn’t be sacked since she was related to half the village and the pastoral consequences would have been seismic.

Back in the 1960s my piano teacher, Miss Julia Thompson, a very proper Penrith lady, constantly exhorted me “Stanley, you must always play with your ears”. It was some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. I carried on with lessons until I went to Cambridge in 1969. A lumbering late teenage boy sat next to a bird-like epitome of propriety, alternately praising and chastising him, must have made a pretty picture. One of my most cherished memories was when Miss Thompson set me a Beethoven sonata (can’t remember which) and after listening to me for a few minutes, stopped me and, knowing that I was a good sight-reader, said “Stanley, have you done any practice this week?”

A midsummer night’s dream

15163038101103088973a-midsummer-nights-dream-clipart.medFor St Paul’s Magazine, July 2018

I wake about 4 am sweating, heart thumping. I’ve been dreaming of some disturbing event, often at school, often involving exams I felt sure to fail: physics usually. Sometimes at medical school, with doom-laden foreboding that I am to fail physiology or biochemistry (the one subject I actually failed was pharmacology, and that doesn’t seem to feature). I’ve even had to go back to Cambridge for resits—here’s the curious thing—despite knowing in the dream that I had spent 30 years as a medical school academic.

In last night’s dream I told a few home truths to parents. I wish I’d done that when I was younger. It was gratifyingly violent.

Such a lot of insecurity. Such a lot of anger, never openly expressed, but smouldering, occasionally erupting at inconvenient times. It’s very tiresome. I wish I could remember pleasant dreams. As it is, I wake feeling as if I’ve done several rounds with Mike Tyson.

Why am I telling you this?

Some people expect clergy to be perfect, to be free of the problems that affect ‘normal’ people. Some people who don’t know me apologize for swearing in my presence, presumably on the ground that my thoughts are so pure that my psyche will go into meltdown if exposed to too many profanities. If only they knew. I could teach them a thing or two about swearing. It’s impossible to live and work in Dublin for almost 20 years without becoming adept at the handling of profanities, given the infinite creativity of Dubliners in that regard.

Mixtures of past and present. Mixtures of sacred and so-called profane. We are all mixtures. There is nothing pure about any of us. We are mixtures of genes from ancestors. Do you realize that each one of us carries around particles from the big bang? Do you realize that every one of us has something of the primordial swamp in us?

It’s hardly surprising that past memories are part of us too. In fact, they are stored in the brain more securely than more recent memories, which is one reason that old people find it easier to remember what happened 30 years ago than what happened yesterday. You might have heard me use the analogy of a snowball rolling down a hillside, picking up with each revolution some of the snow it has rolled over, getting bigger as it descends. Not a bad image of the human condition—except that there comes a point when we realize that we don’t need all the snow that we’ve collected, and it’s time to get rid of much of it. Trouble is, this isn’t easy, and some of the bits we’d like to get rid of are reluctant to go.

Dreams are just dreams. They don’t foretell the future, but in my experience they can point to stuff in my head that needs sorting out. If it niggles, sort it. Examine the emotions you feel in the dream, try and figure out why they bother you. This is called prayer. Prayer is not about presenting the sky pixie with a shopping list. It’s a journey into yourself. And the further into yourself you go, the closer you get to the Divine core—God in the middle of you.

When you cut yourself, blood particles called platelets gather at the site to plug the hole in the blood vessel and help the blood to clot. These platelets are broken off bits of huge cells called megakaryocytes, which is Greek for—wait for it—huge cell. You and I, all of us, are broken off bits of God. We too can plug gaps and mend cuts, metaphorically speaking, by doing things that help to heal and restore people and events. Life’s destination is to be reunited with the Divine megakaryocyte. This is the doctrine of theosis as interpreted by the Vicar. Look it up if you’re interested.

Ponder these:

  • 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. St Irenaeus
  • It is most kindly to take part with Him in that which He took part in with us, and that, to no other end, but that He might make the receiving of it by us a means whereby He might “dwell in us, and we in Him;” He taking our flesh, and we receiving His Spirit; by His flesh which He took of us receiving His Spirit which He imparted to us; that, as He by ours became consors humanae naturae, so we by His might become consortes Divinae naturae, “partakers of the Divine nature.” Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, Christmas Day 1605.

Accept the upsetting dreams, and take what you can from them. Go easy on yourself—there are plenty of gobshites out there who are quick to find fault with you, so you don’t need to join them—and remember your destination.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:

And whatever else you do this summer, have a rest.

What will you become?

6a00d83454b21e69e20168e9543645970c-800wiHomily for Nativity of John Baptist

In the “proper” Church Kalendar (BCP), there are only three births celebrated: Jesus, Mary and John Baptist. John is important. You can tell this because his mother was well past childbearing age.

It’s a well-known literary device in myths that heroes are born to such women or to virgins. Think Greek myths. In Scripture, when the Lord had a special task for someone, there was something unusual about the birth. There’s Sarah, there’s Samuel’s mother, there’s Samson’s mother. In the New Testament we have, today, Elizabeth, and of course Mary. The device is still alive and well: read North Korean propaganda about Kim Jong-Il’s birth.

John Baptist is the bridge from Old to New. He’s the last of the straight talkin’, John Wayne, shootin’ from the hip Old Testament Prophets, and the first of the New. And his straight talkin’, shootin’ from the hip message is REPENT—that is, reassess your priorities.

Repent—not to please God the finger-wagging headmaster so that you can get more celestial Nectar points for a club class seat in the afterlife. No!

Repent—to free yourself from lumber that weighs down the ship of life, and prevents you from living. Lumber like pride, prejudice, expectations, envy.

Repent—to be free from self, free from me, me, me, free from the lust for power, from the certainty that you are right and everyone else is wrong, and to tell them so, constantly. Free from self-righteousness.

Repent—so that you can live abundantly, not constrained by ego, but flying free. Hot air balloons ascending, to use an analogy that I like.

We see the need for this every day of our lives—and don’t imagine that I’m any better at this than you are. We see self-righteousness. We see commitment to control. We see commitment to cause hurt and division. Division arises when people who want to retain power exclude others by gossip, or anonymous messages, or Facebook, or whatever. This kind of division has been part of human experience since time immemorial: the hissing serpent of the Garden of Eden with its forked, divided tongue.

These are some of the things that John Baptist calls us to repent of—to acknowledge that we have strayed and that we can revise our course by working for togetherness, community and cooperation.

When we divide person from person, or exclude others, we become the devil. Consider the word diabolic: anabolic means building up, catabolic means breaking down, and diabolic means dividing, splintering. The Kingdom of God is about anabolism. It’s as far removed from diabolical gossip as it is possible to get. It’s about being undivided, integrated, It’s about being anabolic agents without the side effects.

What do we really need? We need food sufficient for the day, we need shelter, somewhere to sleep, and some form of activity that gives a sense of accomplishment. And since it is not good for us to be alone, companionship. That’s all. But we are brainwashed by capitalism and the diabolical advertising industry to let ourselves be trapped by payments, mortgages, fashion, preposterous gadgetry, and storing money in the bank. This is idiocy. As the years pass, our hopes and dreams are corroded by caution and fear. And then we die, having never truly lived.

What do we need to do to prepare the way? Do we give in to diabolic division, or do we work for anabolic integration?  Here are some suggestions

  • accept yourself in your glorious humanity: go easy on yourself.
  • accept others in their glorious humanity; go easy on others.
  • forgive yourself; don’t harbour resentments.
  • forgive others; you’ll eat yourself up if you don’t.
  • welcome each other; don’t exclude.
  • care for each other; don’t gossip.
  • bless each other, especially those you find difficult, and those that find you utterly impossible.

In my homily two weeks ago I asked: “Who am I? Who are you? Is there anything underneath all the onion skins, or the layers of the Matryushka doll? Are you, as I so often feel, like a Polo mint with nothing in the middle?”

Today’s Gospel asks a different question: ‘What, then, will this child become?’

What will you become?

The ship in which we sail the voyage of life, like any ship, doesn’t do well overloaded with lumber. It sinks. It does best when carrying only the essentials. If you set out on a venture, first of all preparing something to fall back on in case you fail, you can be sure that you’ll fail. If you risk all and have nothing to fall back on, you’ve no choice but to KBO.

To be truly challenging, the voyage of life must rest on a firm foundation of risk.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune, said Shakespeare. The Vicar, stealing from Mrs Emmeline Lucas, says, There comes a tide in the affairs of men, which, if you don’t nip it in the bud, leads on to boredom. The purpose of life is not to be bored, boring and cautious. Sin is life unlived. The purpose of life is to lie on your deathbed and say, ‘Ye Gods, that was some ride’.

That’s life abundant. That’s eternal life.