Saints and souls

800px-Votive-candlesHomily for All Saints and All Souls

Colossians 1: 15-20. Matthew 5: 1-12

Today’s gospel, the Beatitudes, takes on a startling immediacy in The Message. I shall read it to you.

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your tether. With less of you there is more of God. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inner world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or spread lies about you to discredit me. It means that the truth is too close for comfort, and they are uncomfortable. Be glad when that happens, for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets have always been in that kind of trouble.

This is how to be a saint. It’s not about piety and being seen to do the right thing. It’s about persistence, carrying through, determination, self-knowledge. It’s about disturbing the comfortable and not being swayed from the cause of right. It’s about being real and authentic, and giving your self away.

I’m not keen on saints. They’re too perfect. The nearest thing to saints I’ve come across are those who live with the most awful grinding problems day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, yet still manage to keep their heads above water, if only just, smiling and glad to be alive.

Prophet Micah says do justly, be merciful, walk with humility. Humility is the key. Prophet Stanley says Micah is right, because one day you’ll be dead – and it could be very soon. Live life to the full. Those who do that, who use their gifts and lives to make the world a better place are saints in his book.

If you want to be remembered as a saint, you’ve no chance. If you don’t care how you’re remembered other than as someone who did their best, then you might be—if that matters which it shouldn’t. It’s trite to say that every saint has a past and every sinner a future, but its true. Prophet Stanley goes further and says that you’ve no chance of living life to the full unless you’ve cocked up in the past. Often. And learnt from it. The words of the hymn we shall sing in a few minutes—we feebly struggle, they in glory shine—are wrong. They shine, and we shall shine, because they and we have feebly struggled, and are feebly struggling.

As I say, humility is the key. Humus, earth. Feet planted firmly on the earth, living in the here and now, not in some la-la-land of your imagination, or someone else’s imagination, or of how things used to be when you were young and vicars knew how to be vicars. Earthed. We are creatures of this earth. From the earth we come and to the earth we return.

In Colossians we hear of the cosmic Christ, present at the moment of creation with the creative force. Begotten of his Father before all worlds. The Christ that comes to show us the way, who in the Greek comes to save not just you, not just me, not just humanity, but the cosmos. The Christ, that is the anointed one, the Messiah, who is always and everywhere present.

We are creatures of the cosmos. The Christ is of the cosmos, always and everywhere. We come into being as biology gathers up particles and atoms and molecules into what you see when you stand with no clothes on in front of the mirror. A frightful sight, I know. And when you pop your clogs you disintegrate as molecules and atoms and particles return to the cosmos for reuse. It’s the same for everybody and everything. Always was, always will be.

Think about that. Some might say it’s a kind of reincarnation. Whatever. Certainly, nothing is wasted. But however you look at it, people come, people go, but particles, atoms, molecules remain. Importantly for today, we are never not in the presence of the particles, atoms, and molecules of those we mourn. The particles, atoms and molecules that constituted them are all around us. We are never not in the presence of those whom we remember today.

We are never not in their presence, and they are never not in ours.

Their names will be read out. Candles will be lit. What do we think we’re doing? Praying for their safe crossing across the sea of purgatory? Well, if you like. That doesn’t float my boat though. There might be some kind of reckoning in which we see ourselves for what we really are, naked, rather than as what we in our delusional pride think we are, but I doubt that a few scrappy mutterings on days like today will make much difference.

No. What today’s about is us, not them. Reading out names and lighting candles is about our coming to terms with loss. Today’s ceremonies are intense. And so they jolly well should be. Our love for the dead was—and is—intense. Our grief is—should be—intense and painful.

The grief will of course have different hues. Loss of a spouse, loss of a parent, loss of a son or daughter, loss of a friend: different shades of intensity. Recent loss, distant loss: different shades of intensity. Different people have different feelings today, and cope differently. You can’t judge another person’s grief by the standards of your own. Susan and I know that full well.

As well as all this, there’s something else, and this comment comes from deep within me. When somebody dies we lose not just them, but also part of ourselves. That is particularly so with the loss of someone younger than us. We have had ripped from us the emotions we projected onto that person. In my case, I wish I had been more like Hugh in his fearlessness, so I saw him as making up for my own inadequacy. We have had ripped from us the plans we tentatively made. No chance now of driving with him from Denver to Las Vegas. Loss of potential, waste of life, destruction of dreams. All this we must grieve—for them and for us.

Finally, I ask you particularly today to remember a group of people often forgotten. Remember women who have lost embryos through miscarriage or induced abortion. Pregnancy, however brief, changes a woman. It is not widely known that fetal cells invade the mother in the first week of pregnancy—before she knows—and change her ever so subtly. The notion that her body is the hers to do with as she likes is biologically questionable. The loss of an embryo should never be trivialized, and we should treat women who have suffered such loss with utmost compassion and tenderness. There are countless numbers of them, many of our nearest and dearest.

When you light candles, remember that you’re lighting them for yourself as much as for the dead. And remember that they are never not in our presence.

Homecoming

Eden valley 2

Eden Valley looking to Blencathra. No, I think it’s Wildboar fell.

A homily for Proper 19, Year C

Here is Jesus talking to the religious jobsworths and nitpickers, the people who put duty before compassion. He uses two stories about people losing things, searching for them, and finding them.

Is this a message for me to spend my time in places of ill repute, talking to the lost, rather than propping up this strange manifestation of the Evergreen Club? I have sympathy for this view but it makes me a bit uncomfortable for it seems to imply that I am not lost, and am making judgements that they are.

Yes, we must feed the hungry and tend the sick, but maybe there are other messages here that we need to apply to ourselves as individuals. What is Jesus telling those who put rules before people? Is he hinting that they themselves have lost something? Is he trying to tell them that in their punctiliousness to keep rules and tick boxes, they have lost themselves, their humanity, their sense of joy and fun – all lost amongst regulations; lost amongst their amour propre, their pride.

Luke’s two short stories come immediately before the story of the man with two sons, the gracious father, and the so-called prodigal son. Another story of lost and found. In the father and two sons story, both sons are lost: one lost in recklessness and wilfulness, the other lost in envy and resentment. Both of them have a twisted relationship with their father. Sometimes we are like the son who goes off, deliberately sticking two fingers up at some authority figure. Sometimes we are like the son who stays at home, begrudging others’ successes, others’ good fortune, and angry with our friends for having things we lack. In sermons, my guess is that we hear more about the son who went a-wandering and a-squandering, probably because the church was much into trying to control people rather than help them develop. Jewish commentators, on the other hand, concentrate just as much, if not more, on the stay-at-home, sulky son.

If we’re honest, it’s easy to think of ways in which we are like one or other of those sons. But I think that it is our calling to move beyond that. We will find eternity and peace (a quality of mind, and nothing to do with idleness or sitting having pious thoughts) when we become like the father: compassionate, forgiving, welcoming home.

And that – homecoming – is what this is all about. It is about what Christianity is all about. Homecoming, forgiveness, shalom, reconciliation, salving, HEALING. Coming home to the Divine – or rather recognizing that it is there in the middle of us all the time. We can identify what we have lost, and make our way back home, through what the church calls repentance, re-turning, RETURN.

Getting lost is a good thing. Keeping young people attached to apron strings, or parents’ purses, always ends in tears. We need to be lost in order to realize what it is we need to seek, or re-seek, or re-turn to. And it’s not a matter of going back in time to things we used to love, or to things that take us back to our childhoods, but rather a matter of going home to our real selves, to that inner sanctuary of the soul that we shut out through wilfulness, recklessness, pride, self-importance, resentments. We can’t see that inner self, that bit of the Divine within, unless we have been lost, and have ditched ego, amour propre, and the dignity on which we are so keen to stand.

T S Eliot, Little Gidding

         We shall not cease from exploration

         And the end of all our exploring

         Will be to arrive where we started

         And know the place for the first time.

In my pastoral ministry, I find that nearly all our spiritual sickness comes from a sense of guilt or shame about the past. Such guilt and shame often—not always—come from our not having accepted ourselves for the maimed humans we are. Guilt and shame come from our thinking that we are in charge of our natures. We are not. We are simply bags of hormones and emotions, and constantly at their mercy. I don’t think there is any such thing as free will. We are, every one of us, potentially able to do the most horrid things to other people. If we haven’t ever committed such atrocities, it’s just because we haven’t been in circumstances that have tested us. Deliver us from the evil part of ourselves. When we acknowledge our shame, longings, guilt, we feel a great liberation, a great sense of coming home. RE-TURNING.

The shepherd seeks out the lost sheep, finds it, places it on his shoulders, and brings it home. Look at sheepdogs. They don’t run barking after the sheep. But, as the sheep wander off, they watch, then run like hell, and get in front of the sheep. Then they lie down across the path where the sheep were wandering. So when the sheep come up to them, they are gently turned in the right direction.

That is the challenge for us: to care not for our own cosy club, but for the lost. First, observe and think; second, run like hell; and third, be found lying about. And the lost includes our selves. We are no use to anyone else unless we recognize our own need for homecoming.

John Henry Newman

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom, lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me.

 

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;

I loved to choose and see my path; but now lead Thou me on!

I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

 

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on.

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone.

And with the morn those angel faces smile, which I 
have loved long since, and lost awhile. 

 

Life moves on

wormMouthOpen2_2144128i

Bristleworm mouth. These creatures of the sea bed can be a foot long

Type “coping with the death of son/daughter” into a search engine and you will be rewarded with a host of material. But most of it is directed at mothers, and nearly all concerns the death of an infant or a child. There is next to nothing about a father coping with the loss of his adult son.

In writing what follows, it’s inevitable that I’ll be accused of wallowing in it, or drawing attention to myself. I don’t think either is true, but who am I to judge? Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are some observations on how I felt and feel. It might be helpful for someone else.

Within days of returning from the funeral, I took up weightlifting again. I’m glad I did, and I intend to carry on. But the interesting thing is why? Physical activity is of course an outlet for energy and anger, but I can’t in all honesty say that I felt angry. I felt drained, despondent, scraped out, exhausted, flattened, destroyed, sad—overwhelmingly sad at such a waste. But not angry. What I certainly did feel was the need to test my own physiology, particularly cardiac, since that is what failed Hugh, to see if it would stand up to extreme provocation.

About four months after the funeral I became aware of a nasty creature roaming my subconscious. I didn’t know how to get it to show itself except by waiting. So I waited. And one day, it poked its head out of the sea bed, and then its bristly carcass followed. It was this. (1) A father’s job is to protect his offspring. (2) I had failed to do this. Therefore – and this is the important bit – (3) I deserve to die.

Note the word deserve. I can’t think of a better one. I did not wish to die: I deserved to die for having failed him and his wife and daughter and sister and brother and mother. And, ye gods, for having failed myself.

Understandable, I think, from a biological point of view. I’ve passed on my genes and had a vasectomy, so I’ve had no biological function for over 30 years (I have views on the effects of vasectomy, but they can wait). And since one offspring has gone before me, I might as well do the honourable deed and bugger off myself. There the logic breaks down. Logic breaks down in other ways too, of course. I have two other offspring alive and kicking and lovely; parents do not own their children; parents are not responsible for their children once the latter have reached adulthood; and so on. But logic is not much in evidence in these circumstances, and I still felt that I deserved to die.

Maybe the wish to provoke my cardiovascular system was the first manifestation of this malignant worm that was, as I say, gobbling its way through the floor of my psyche, but it has gradually faded. Not completely, but substantially. And since I rather overdid it at the gym and tore my right gastrocnemius (almost better now), I hope that it and I can settle down to a less frenzied modus vivendi.

Then there is the matter of allowing a new normal to develop, and a new vision for the rest of life. This is a work in progress.

I used to rail about stupid parents who lived through their children, and now see the extent to which that is what I was doing. My plan for retirement involved at least annual trips to the US to explore, I dunno, the north east, the west coast, the Great Lakes, the east coast – whatever – in his and his family’s company. Trips to the US will continue, but on a different basis. Part of the plan was a response to my not looking forward to retirement. What will I do? How will I occupy my brain? This forces me to ask what I want, and frankly, after a lifetime of—so it seems to me at present—pleasing parents, teachers, bosses and ego, and providing for and ministering to others, I’m not sure what ‘I’ is any more, let alone what it wants. So it’s back to the drawing board, and let’s hope that whatever blueprint emerges is built this time upon reality rather than escapism.

I’ve coped with the last ten months by doing very little. At a review meeting with the area bishop recently I said that since two of my urban colleagues were leaving Burton soon, I would consider going if that would help diocesan strategy. He said no, they wanted me to stay as long as possible. So I said OK, but I’ve no intention of looking for work. I’ve watched a lot of films. I find that I still have little to spare for other people, and as far as parishioners are concerned they seem to have sensed that: they have been gently supportive and got on with things without bothering me. Long may this continue. I did rather lose it at a meeting last April at which I, in the throes of major exhaustion, was gravely provoked by people who wouldn’t shut up and I said that I was sick of this and I was going to bed and they could all go forth and multiply. But apart from that, we’ve done quite well. (I offered my resignation, but was told that I should never apologize for being human).

What of Susan? I learnt long ago never to put words in her mouth, or into the mouths of my children, so all I shall say is that different people cope differently. We talk. It affects us differently and at different times, unpredictable and sometimes debilitating. But as she says, you just can’t maintain that level of grief. Eventually it dissipates, until the next time. And while the distress is on me, there is nothing I can do but wait. Getting used to that impotence has to be done, and I venture to say that it is more difficult for men, who are in general used to solving problems, than for women.

And finally what of God? Hollow laughter. That’s something for another blog. If I were wise it would not appear until after I retire, but since I’m not it will appear sooner.

The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man

dionysiusmonastery_athosEaster is early so Lent is upon us almost before the last of the Christmas chocolate cherry liqueurs disappear ‘down the little red lane’. We turn from crib to cross at the last great feast of Incarnation/Epiphany/childlikeness: Candlemas, or Presentation, or Purification, or whatever you want to call it.

Simeon holds the divine child and says ‘this is enough, I need no more’. Ich habe genug—if you have not heard Bach’s Cantata of the same name, it’s not too late. Find the first movement on YouTube here sung by the glorious Dietrich Fischer-Dishcloth as at least one member of my family calls him. Words can hardly express the satisfied gently swaying longing that Bach conjures up. Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

euston 030-1The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man: you might reflect on how spot-on that is psychologically. The child is the father of the man. We are governed by thought patterns laid down in childhood. Childhood innocence, willingness to explore and ability to have fun are, as we grow up, so easily perverted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that life throws at us. The supermarket trolley of the psyche becomes more and more wayward, and less and less inclined to head for the target we once thought we were aiming for.

We need the 3Rs: repent, recall and recover the childlikeness we’ve lost. Is the child you once were proud of the adult you have become? Examining that question is worth the Lenten discipline of spiritual spring-cleaning. If the answer is no (and I doubt that anyone can truthfully answer otherwise), what are you going to do about it?

The Orthodox call this great festival The Meeting – Simeon meets the infant that changes everything. We meet again the child we once were in order to change what we are. We are changed by encounters.

Seeing clearly now the rain has gone

 

quote-i-can-see-clearly-now-that-the-rain-is-gone-i-can-see-all-obstacles-in-my-way-gone-are-johnny-nash-106-43-93-1For Paul’s and Aidan’s magazines, January 2016

Christmas is Emmanuel: God with us. Or rather, God within us.

We cannot attain the presence of God because God is already in us. We just don’t realize it. We have nothing new to learn, but an awful lot of things to unlearn, and we need to learn again to see clearly (clair-voyant).

Think about Christmas in our culture. All about more, bigger, better, faster, further, longer, more expensive. We’re hypnotized, sleep-walking, our greed and avarice fed by the narcotics of the evil advertising industry. Have a look at the film They Live! (YouTube again).

“If your eye offend you, pluck it out”, and replace it with one that sees clearly. “If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light”. Re-learn to see clearly, as a child. Re-connect with reality. Re-connect in Latin: re ligere. That is what religion is about. Not keeping rules, or gathering brownie points for club class in an afterlife, or asking God to cure your arthritis, or make events suit you, or some other entirely self-obsessed request. But reconnecting with reality. Be awake. Stay watchful. The advent call.

All spiritual disciplines have one purpose: to get rid of illusions so that we can see clearly what is, who we are, and what’s happening. What’s happening is that God is in us. Prayer is not about saying words or thinking thoughts. It is about becoming aware of this: God within and around. The contemplative is not just aware of God’s Loving Presence, but trusts, allows, and delights in it. Let go of trying to control.

When the disciples start jostling for power, Jesus plonks a child in front of them. The only people who can recognize and be ready for what he’s talking about are those who come with the mind and heart of a child—a “beginner’s mind”. The older we grow, the more we’ve been betrayed and hurt and disappointed, the more layers we wrap around ourselves to cover the vulnerable clarity of the childlike mind. Think Russian dolls with all the layers. Or onion skins. We must always be ready to recognize the layers, peel them away and begin to see afresh. To let new life grow in us.

This is the only new year resolution that is worth keeping. Be born in us today and every day and every minute of every day.

Incarnation is the beginning of real-ization.

(Much of this is stolen from that great source of wisdom, Richard Rohr)

I came to bear witness to the truth

15tue_hhdl-adt_12x8

Faces of the Divine

Homily for the Feast of Christ the King 2015

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent statement that the Paris attacks caused him to doubt the presence (or was it existence?) of God gave me cause in yesterday’s sermon to lay into the intellectual poverty of our leadership. The implication that God is a European; the blindness to the fact that Islamic fundamentalists were originally recruited and equipped by the US for fighting Russians in Afghanistan; the lack of acknowledgement that the UK and US fawn over the ISIS-connected House of Saud. Is the former oil executive blind?

Look at the West’s involvement in the middle East over the last century: the partitioning of the Arabian peninsula, the partition of Palestine, the formation of Jordan and Iraq, the military campaigns that are seen as Christian wars, modern Crusades. And people wonder ‘why Paris?’

I wonder what His Grace’s musings say about his notion of God. That God is ready to jump in and solve problems for ‘people like us’ in a city that is such a nice place to live? He said something like that too.

The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees were afraid to go after Jesus because people hung on his every word. Where is there a Christian leader of whom that might be said? Pope Francis perhaps? Certainly no Anglican now that Desmond Tutu has left the main stage. Nobody in the Church of Ireland says anything at all for fear of the brain dead eejits in the North, and in the Church of England all we get is ignorant bluster.

At least Dalai Lama has balls: “We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

I ‘came out’ in the pulpit yesterday. I said that Jesus was a Buddhist in everything he said and did; that all he asks is that we follow his example; that arguments about atonement are piffling; that what matters are compassion and the death of self.

I said that we were now witnessing the oozing into place of the third world war and that the future is bleak. Of course, none of this absolves the evil perpetrators of evil deeds, but we might at least recognize our complicity in the sin of the world through our own ego and pride.

I said that there is no hope until people realize that the Kingdom of God is not about life after death or about an ideal political system to be gained by bashing people over the head until they agree with us. My kingdom is not of this world.

It is an inner kingdom, here and now. It is certainly not a kingdom of control, It is a kingdom of beauty. I came to witness to the truth – that is, beauty and imagination in all their manifestations. Beauty and imagination do not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.

Conquering kings their titles take, from the lands they captive make; Jesus, by a nobler deed, from the thousands he hath freed.

It was St Cecilia’s day yesterday, so we sang:

When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia!

Beauty and truth seem pretty interchangeable to me. I came to bear witness to the truth. I said I’d probably be sacked after a sermon like this.

I love all beauteous things

CarlBoss

Eyes that see shall never grow old

At last, Herbert Howells speaks to the sanctuary of my soul. Or, more truthfully, at last his music has penetrated the fat inclosing it.

Over the years, I’ve thought and said some dismissive things about Howells. That when you’d heard one of his Evensong settings, you’d heard them all (like Haydn String Quartets, and Palestrina Masses). That his organ compositions were little more than quiet-loud-quiet or loud-quiet-loud. That—ye Gods, how I am ashamed of this—he never let go of the death of his son. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

It’s tempting to say that his loss released energy in his work that speaks to my loss. But the Requiem that I now find so poignant was written in 1932, three years before his bereavement. Howells certainly channelled his grief into creativity, but early compositions speak to me just as powerfully, so there is something more than the outworking of his grief that penetrates to my Holy of Holies.

I wonder what it is. Is it perhaps no more and no less than the pursuit of beauty?

I found beauty in the early 1960s in Carlisle.

The biology teacher shouts “don’t you know which side your bread’s buttered?” when I bare my soul about music or medicine. The organ teacher borrows money from my parents, so can hardly encourage me to go against their wishes. I finally let hold of my grip in 1972 when I went to medical school. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from that loss. I’ve been chasing and mourning it ever since. Is my addiction to the church merely a vain attempt to cling to that first love?

Today I’ve discovered Howells’ I Love all Beauteous Things written in 1977. Like the anatomist’s knife it slices open my insides in one stroke. It exposes my soul to the world. An unprotected soul is mortally vulnerable, but better wounded than icy, for the wounds do the work. Gerda and Kay in The Snow Queen, different parts of me, tears of love melting heart of ice.

We see events in the world that demonstrate, yet again, the three groups of demons (addictions in modern parlance) that Evagrios in the fourth century AD identified as responsible for the ills of the world: “those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those that suggest avaricious thoughts, and those that incite us to seek the esteem of others. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three groups.”

“We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.” These words of Dalai Lama shout at me.

Take responsibility for your actions: your overeating, your overuse of antibiotics, your exploitation of other people, your consumption of natural resources … Face your grief for your sins, and for the hurts done by others. Then your tears will flow. Tears that come from the heart: herzwasser. The woman’s herzwasser that washes Jesus’ feet. Herzwasser that flows when we are forgiven, and when we forgive. Herzwasser that flows in the presence of beauty in all its manifestations: sounds, sights, smells, handiwork, openheartedness, and above all else sacrificial love: “O my son, my son, my son! would God I had died instead of thee, O my son, my son!”

The Kingdom of God is not about life after death. It is not about an ideal political system. My kingdom is not of this world: it is an inner kingdom, here and now.

It is certainly not a kingdom of control. It is a kingdom of liberating beauty in its protean manifestations. Beauty does not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.

I love all beauteous things,

      I seek and adore them;

God hath no better praise,

And man in his hasty days

      Is honoured for them.

I too will something make

      And joy in the making;

Altho’ to-morrow it seem

Like the empty words of a dream

      Remembered on waking.

Robert Bridges, 1844–1930