Remembrance Sunday 2018

thiepval-memorial-missing-2Inevitably this year we look back on the First World War.

Thinking about it, even briefly, fills me with sadness: sadness at the events that led to it, sadness at the way it was conducted, and sadness at the loss of life—in round figures, 2 million from the British Empire, 4 million each from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and approaching 5 million from Russia.

That sadness soon turns to anger. I find it hard to see WW1 as anything other than gangs of arrogant, inbred, white men strutting around, boasting “mine’s bigger than yours”, and demanding the sacrifice of lives they consider expendable for the sake of their pernicious playground politics.

Let’s move on 100 years.

Can those images be applied to contemporary affairs? You bet they can—all of ‘em. We see pettiness, squabbles, lies, evasions, egocentricity, showing off, and a refusal to accept that actions have consequences.

Why do we humans behave like this?

We do so in part because we’re too attached to polarized thinking, right/wrong, either/or. This is rarely healthy. Even in science, where you would think ideas are either right or wrong, it doesn’t always apply, especially for things that are very small or very large. Rather than either/or, thinking both/and can be more helpful: inclusive rather than exclusive.

The problem with right/wrong thinking is that if we are certain we’re right, we feel no need to learn anything new. We stop being curious. We lose the sense of wonder. We stop being open to other viewpoints. We surround ourselves with attitudes, possessions, money. We become addicted to them. We retreat behind metaphorical electric gates that we think protect us, but that in truth constrain us. We become obsessed, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In the words of Psalm 17 we become “inclosed in our own fat, and our mouth speaketh proud things.”

We provoke fights to prove who’s top dog. We become fearful of people that are not “one of us”. Demagogues know that fear lasts longer than hope, and is more powerful, and that with fear on their side, they can get people to believe anything and do anything. We start to regard others as less human than we are, and so fair game to be bullied, abused, killed. We become as those for whom might is their god.

In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, there’s a story about Jesus talking to a man who wants to do the right thing. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns, and give the money to the poor—that is, don’t let possessions rule his life. But the man, despite his goodness, can’t let go of wealth, power, status—things that people fight to hang on to. Jesus challenges him to try to liberate him from attitudes that will destroy his personality and his ability to enjoy life to the full.

I ask you to contrast the closed-mindedness and fearfulness of so many adults with the open-mindedness, intellectual vitality and fearlessness of the young. I wonder how things might be different if there were more young decision-makers—people who have a vested interest in the future. I wonder why the church is run by yesterday’s men and women for a future they won’t be alive to see. I wonder why the country is run by yesterday’s men and women.

I’m one of the old men, of course, but these comments are based on experience. I have the honour of being Chaplain to Burton Air Training Corps. For 30 years I taught young adults in medical schools, and although I was born in 1950, I feel as if I‘m six. As always, I’m delighted to see young people here. Let’s applaud them and their commitment to the Services in all sorts of ways.

What’s the solution to the arrogance, fearfulness and closed-mindedness that so easily leads to war?

In the first reading we heard Prophet Micah telling his people that the Lord doesn’t need to be placated by gifts and sacrifices. All he asks is for each individual to work for justice, to be compassionate, and to be humble. Don’t get that word humble wrong. It doesn’t mean grovel. It doesn’t mean being “ever so ‘umble”: that’s merely inverted pride. It means to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. It means having your feet firmly planted on the ground—to be earthed (humus). It means remembering that we’re all in this together.

If we—each one of us—heeded this advice, the world would be a better place. If we all meant what we said and said only what we mean, if we were honest, if we were compassionate and recognized that not one of us is perfect, if we refused to lord it over others, then the world would be transformed. Yes, we need armour, as the second reading tells us. We need to protect ourselves. We need to be ready to fight—but fight for justice, fight to rid the world of oppression. Fighting for justice is love in action. The trouble is we see injustice and we do nothing, and that nurtures resentment, and resentment breeds extremism.

The answer to pernicious warfare does not lie with someone else. It’s not the responsibility of “them over there”. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us—you and me as well as them.

When we go to war—and the Second World War shows that there are times when we must—let’s be sure that mendacious and malignant swaggering plays no part. If those in power insist that they are right and everyone else is wrong—and recent history tells us that there are such people—then let’s strip them of office: after all, we still live in a democracy.

Our duty is to fight for justice, for without justice there will never be peace.

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.

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.

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.

Easter freedom

CarlBoss

Eyes that see shall never grow old

Easter homily 2018

The New Testament word for sepulchre, tomb (as in empty) is mnema. It’s the word that gives us memorial, memory, and mnemonics beloved of medical students. The stories in the gospels about Jesus expelling demons from men living in the tombs are for me about freeing them from living in their memories, from living in the past.

People who live in the past cling to resentments, unable to let go, unable to forgive, unable to move on. They are entombed. Think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Think of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Think of parents who live through the achievements of their offspring. Think of sad men propping up golf club bars boring all and sundry with tales of their sporting achievements before their hairy bellies started hanging over their belts.

Now think of the Easter story. Never mind if it’s literally true or not. Never mind if it’s a fable based on more ancient folk tales. It’s utterly psychologically authentic. The stone is rolled away. The contents of the tomb have escaped, flown away.

Can you not see that this is an invitation for us to let go of the past? If we are to live life abundant then we have to learn to to move on. The empty tomb means the past is cleansed. Forgiven.

People make the mistake of thinking that forgiveness will just happen. It won’t. It’s hard work. We have to practise it like we have to practise the piano. We have to keep telling ourselves. We have to brainwash ourselves. But the penalty for not forgiving is that we become like Miss Havisham or like Gollum, wizened, miserable, resentful, odious, mendacious. We think we are sticking two fingers up at the world, but in truth the world doesn’t care a jot. The only person I harm by living in the past is me.

Think of people who refused to support Jesus, who deserted him, who told lies about him to save their skins or to curry favour with authority, who joined the chanting mob. How many of the Palm Sunday supporters joined that baying crowd? Now think how shocked they must have been to hear that the man they’d betrayed wasn’t dead and gone, but might meet them in the street. It’s like gossiping with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who, just as you’ve made the most utterly bitchy remark, appears round the corner and cheerfully greets you. You want the ground to open up and swallow you.

How does Jesus react when he meets his so-called friends again? Does he berate them for their calumny? Does he take them to court? Does he arrange for some big fellers from the local pub to kneecap them? Does he plan some even more horrid act of vengeance?

No, none of this. All he says is “Peace to you”. It’s like he says, “never mind the past, friends, let’s get on—we’ve work to do.” Forgiveness.

Now, think of those times you’ve gossiped, betrayed, told half-truths to get you out of a tight corner, blindly followed the crowd—every time hammering another nail into the wrists and ankles. The story is not just about 2000 years ago. It’s about human nature, you and me, now. It’s about death of pride and self in order that selflessness can ascend.

We need to, we must, forgive and let go, otherwise we become entombed in living death. This is not about an afterlife—it’s about life abundant before death.

The most difficult person you’ll ever have to forgive is yourself. Some of us like wallowing in it like Miss Havisham. We turn masochism (all very well in its place, I’m told …) into an art form. But life is to be lived. So, girls and boys, practise forgiving yourself. Moment by moment. It doesn’t mean you escape the consequences of your actions, but it helps you to move on and make the best of them for the benefit of others. It helps you to escape the tomb and see the big wide world: eyes that see shall never grow old. It helps you to live life to the full by laying down all the vain things that charm you most.

Forgive yourself. Live for the future. Happy Easter.

Plagiarized from the Easter sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes before King James at Whitehall on Sunday 16 April 1609. 

http://anglicanhistory.org/lact/andrewes/v2/easter1609.html

Monday in Holy Week: letting go

hot-air-balloons-1422702946OcWIsaiah 42:1-7. John 12:1-11

The events in tonight’s gospel take place before the Palm Sunday procession. I’m going to take the stories in the Biblical order.

Here are some themes that strike me.

  • Preparing for death: Mary’s anointing Jesus with oil normally reserved for anointing the dead.
  • Hypocrisy and dissimulation: Judas pretending to object to the waste of oil because of what it might have bought the poor, whereas maybe he wanted it for himself.
  • Jesus doing the unexpected: riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9. Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey).
  • Jesus facing the future squarely: his cheerfulness, and the crowd’s acclamation. Faces are important in this story.

Preparing for death

We live in a society that refuses to look death full in the face. People pretend it won’t happen. They go to great lengths to try and delay it, even when it’s obviously inevitable. The medical profession doesn’t help. We spend money on seeking a cure for this or that disease as if there’s some hope that we can live for ever. We may be cured of cancer today but as sure as eggs is eggs we’ll die of something else tomorrow.

This always leads to trouble. If you pretend it won’t happen, you can’t set things straight before you go. There’s unfinished business. If you can’t set things straight, you are left with regret and guilt. You can’t say that you wished you’d not said so-and-so, and you can’t say, before it’s too late, what you should have said years ago. And all that is the overwhelming cause of grief and weeping and family tensions at funerals. It’s in contrast to the death of a friend of mine, who knew she was dying, told the world, and wrote her funeral homily, and characteristically witty it was too. Our refusal to be straightforward about death results in grave disappointments.

For six months of my life I worked in a children’s hospital just off the Brixton High Road in south London. I saw there babies with incurable conditions having operation after operation, and I was required to insert drips into their tiny veins whilst seeing their eyes looking at me. The inhumanity and cruelty of it. I plucked up courage to suggest that baby Anthony should be allowed to die with dignity. The reaction was swift: I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms. He died the next week after yet another operation. It is not my intention to start a debate tonight on end-of-life issues—that’s for another time maybe—but I’m using this as an illustration of how many of us refuse to confront one of the realities of animal existence on this planet. Death comes to all≠. By pretending otherwise we cause grief for ourselves and for those that love us.

This sanitisation of death, this refusal to look it full in the face, is a consequence of urbanisation. In Derbyshire and Ireland, my parishes covered large rural areas. Rural folk have a robust attitude to death. They see it day by day. Animals are killed so that we might eat. One of my churchwardens thought nothing of shoving her arm up a cow’s vagina to pull out a dead calf. Now, I acknowledge that my attitude to death may be peculiar: not only was I brought up in a farming village, but for 25 years I was using human cadavers to teach anatomy: cutting them up, examining them and handling them.

I’m convinced that our attitude to death needs realigning. Tonight’s Gospel and the Palm Sunday procession seem to say likewise. Our Lord faces death full in the face. Face: earlier in the gospel Jesus came down from a mountain with a shining face. Then he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And now acknowledging to Judas—I rather like Judas by the way—that he is being anointed for death. The Easter message is that death leads to new life. If you want to build on a new site, it is wise to clear it of rubble so that good foundations can be laid. This is new life following death of the old. And so, of course, is the resurrection story.

Biologically speaking, death is part of life. The cells of our bodies are dying all the time, and new life replaces them. Skin cells are constantly being shed and replaced. Blood cells past their sell-by date are replaced all the time. There are lots of other examples, but here is a startling example of the necessity of cell death. When a fetus is developing in the uterus, the hands and feet start off as spade-like things, a bit like fists. You might think that fingers and toes grow out from the spades, but you’d be wrong. What happens is that rather than digits growing out, four strips of cells are programmed to die, leaving digits remaining between them. If not enough cells die, we get webbed fingers and toes. If more strips die we get more fingers than usual. Here is another example. When a bone is fractured and reset, the two ends are rarely aligned properly. The body copes with this by killing off bone cells in the wrong place, and laying down new ones where needed.

Biology has no hesitation in killing off the old in order that the new can flourish. We can’t move on if we try to preserve the past. That is why, despite my love of architecture and liturgy, I oppose the conservationist lobby. We must face death when necessary. We can’t engage with the present if we refuse to accept the inevitability of death, because we will be tempted to put off things that need attention before it’s too late.

No dissimulation

As the donkey procession (allegedly) arrives from the east, history books tell us another procession arrives from the west. At Passover the Jewish people celebrate deliverance from the Egyptian oppressors. But here they are now under Roman oppressors. A recipe for civil unrest. The Romans were nervous. So the Roman governor rode to Jerusalem from the ‘capital’ Caesarea on the coast, with military reinforcements in case of trouble. The procession from the west was one of Roman imperial power. Pilate rides a war horse, Jesus rides a donkey. Empire versus individual. Mockery of imperial power. Turning the tables of convention as much as turning the tables in the Temple. Wisdom from a donkey. There’s a scene in Attenborough’s film Gandhi which always catches my attention, and that is when the ship docks in Bombay, some British bigwig is disembarking in full dress uniform to the sounds of bands and military display. At the same time, Gandhi dressed as a local is disembarking further up the quayside. The crowds are with Gandhi.

I wonder which procession we will be part of? Will we part of the naked emperor’s procession that lusts for power, that fawns over those who have it? that fiddles expenses claims? Will we like them go for the puffed up image like an overstuffed balloon that will soon burst? Or will we be part of the procession of straightforwardness, of humility, of service? Will we be in the procession that faces stark reality, that embraces death in order that something much more glorious can rise? Death of worldly ambition. Look at the contemporary church and see how the power-lust of bishops leads them to put the needs of the institution before those of the individual.

Renunciation

Facing the future mindfully means killing all that holds us back. It can be very painful. We begin to see ourselves as others see us. We realise that we are not as good as we thought we were. We realise how we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We need to grieve our lost attitudes, our lost expectations, our lost dreams. We need to let go of what we want, or wanted, and accept the grace of God to resurrect us. We must die in order to live. Death of our self-obsession enables us to rise:

As larks, harmoniously / And sing this day Thy victories: / Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

As I grow older, I look back on some of the things I used to be so passionate about and wonder what it was about them that so obsessed me. Obsession is the right word, because these passions blinkered my vision and limited my action. A couple of humdrum examples. I once had a huge collection of books: they were my friends. I came to see that they limited me. Not only did they cost a lot of money, they also dictated the type of house we could move to. And after all, when one has sucked the marrow out of a book, one might as well pass it on! (How many books do we all have for show, unread and likely to remain so?) In my teens, cathedral music introduced me to beauty, lifting me from a drab village existence. I allowed it to rule my choices for too long. Now it sustains me without, I hope, dictating to me.

These are not evil things in themselves (though many clergy harbour evil thoughts about church musicians—or is it the other way round?) but they limited me, they narrowed my vision. They stole some of “me” and prevented me from being fully me, in a similar way to that of any addiction. I am still afflicted by things—we all are—but now I’m slightly more aware of the symptoms of addiction. As we get older we find ourselves attached to fewer and fewer things. Our vision becomes less restricted. We are moving into a wide, unfettered place. The view from the road from Sleaford to King’s Lynn is an image that I have in mind for this wide view. This notion of being in a wide place is one of the Hebrew images of salvation, and it is one that Jesus teaches. If we die to earthly attachments, we are in this place, and we can focus on what matters: love of God, and love of neighbour. I like the Buddhist idea that all disease is caused by attachments—or hatred, which is just negative attachment.

Eternal not everlasting

There is a kind of renewal in all this, and the key to it is to live in the present. Our Lord’s teaching again and again emphasizes that we need to do just this. Learn from the past certainly, but don’t live in it. Look to the future, but don’t waste time laying up treasures. Live now, in the moment. This, actually, is what eternal means. When we hear ‘everlasting life’ in church services, we often get the wrong idea, and it would be better, and more accurate a translation of the Greek, to use eternal. It’s not quantity or length of time that matters, but quality. Eternal, timeless, out of time, in the present, Divine. Thy kingdom come on earth, here and now. Trust the teaching of Jesus: live in the present moment, and do your best in that moment. We can do no more, and we need do no more. In one sense this is easy to do, and in another it’s extraordinarily difficult when we are surrounded by the petty irritations that life throws up day by day, when we see the injustice that surrounds us, and when we are governed, as we are, by prejudices and faulty behaviour patterns bred into us by our upbringings. But see all these for what they are, and trust and hope.

Back to death

If we are to attain eternal life, here and now, we must face death and die to worldly trivia—the vain things that charm us most. Having divested ourselves of these burdens we walk off lighter. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ – light in both senses, light because of the light of the world, and light because we are less burdened by weighty impedimenta from the past.

Jesus’ last hours complete the incarnation. Our Lord gave up a divine dwelling for human frailty, and now he suffers the stripping away of dependence on self to fall into he arms of the divine. ‘It is finished’. This is a renunciation that we recall every time the priest utters the consecration prayer at Mass. It is a renunciation that we join in this week, and every week. And the task for us, sisters and brothers, is to accompany the Lord on his journey of death in order to fall into the arms of the divine.

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.