Simple

Homily for Proper 13, Year C

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23. Psalm 49:1-12. Colossians 3:1-11.Luke 12:13-21

I talk this morning about simplicity. Simple. 

Not simple as in lacking, stupid, inadequate, unsophisticated, not quite all there. Not that sort of simple, the sense in which the word is often used. A somewhat derogatory meaning. But simple in the way that it is properly used. In Latin, simplex: single, whole, having one ingredient, plain. Simple in the way that mathematicians and philosophers use the word: indivisible, incapable of being splintered—the opposite of diabolical. Innocent, modest, free from ostentation, unmixed.

Here is an image of our psychological development. We begin simple and whole in an allegorical Garden of Eden. Then as we see the world around us we begin to make judgments about what we think is good and bad. We become fearful. We hide behind metaphorical fig leaves. We tart ourselves up with finery to make ourselves look more impressive. We “embiggen”* ourselves with layers of flummery and hide behind spiritual cosmetics. We surround ourselves with more and more layers, like a Matryoshka doll.

Each hurt brings more and more layers of scar tissue around the simple core. We become heavier and more complex, weighed down, more and more rigid, less and less adaptable. There’s more to break down. Like electric windows in the car, they’re more difficult and more expensive to fix than the old fashioned wind up/down ones. The opposite of simple.

Simple is a beautiful word. A restful word even.

It’s easy to read today’s Gospel story as if it were about redistribution of resources. I am nervous about preaching such a message because it soon sounds sanctimonious: look how good I am because I ‘graciously’ give my stuff away. When I attack the mega-rich, it sounds suspiciously like envy.

We live in a society where governments and the evil advertising industry encourage us to want what we don’t need. The Lotto! How would you deal with winning millions? Go round the world? Buy this and that? Buy posh clothes? Eat and drink fine food and wine? So what? After all this, you are the same you, but now with new sensations behind you. Your quest for new experiences—for that’s what it is—means that ‘s now harder for you to experience the same degree of novelty. You need more and more of whatever it is to get the same degree of pleasure. This is the psychobiology of addiction. The more we have, the more we want. This is greed. It becomes dangerous for the community when we wilfully accumulate so that others are deprived. We possess – a terrible word. We think we are self-sufficient. If we have enough in the barn, we won’t need anyone else. Greed shows a lack of love and trust. We become lonely and paranoid like Gollum in Lord of the Rings.

In today’s gospel the man in the story was not condemned for being rich. Instead he was (somewhat tetchily) told by Jesus to use his wealth in ways that benefitted the most people, not just himself. It is not about renunciation, though there is plenty in Jesus’ teaching about exactly that. Today’s story seems more about how to cope with good fortune. It’s not about giving it away: it’s about sharing it. By sharing we demonstrate our being connected, our not being separate. When we keep things to ourselves we become wizened and twisted and consumed. We become inclosed in our own fat, living behind electric gates and security fences. Miss Havisham, unable to let go of the past

We can stop trying to accumulate goods and feelings and emotions and memories. We can simply exist and enjoy. Living with trust like this, directed towards the Divine, reminds us that there is no point trying to secure the future solely through possessing more and more just for the sake of it. Before it’s too late, let’s share what we have: talents, time, money. That’s what the men in today’s story need to be doing.To attempt to keep possessions and memories locked ‘in a barn’ is like chasing after wind. We can not recover the feelings we once had, we can not find the same stimulation we once found. We can relax. It doesn’t matter what I have or what I’ve done. What matters is who I am and how I share what I am.

Vanity of vanities. It’s all transient. You, we, are all going to die – maybe later today. Be ready. Get yourself sorted NOW so that when that time comes there is as little unfinished business and as few regrets as possible. Do not delay. One of my sons went to bed one night in October 2015 and did not wake up. That had and has a profound effect on the way I look at life.

A rich woman dies. Where there’s a will, there are relatives! How much did she leave? She left everything.

In our lives we move from simple to complex and hopefully to simple again. The wisdom of age, of experience, of searing self-reflection.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.

* embiggen came into use, along with cromulent, after being used in ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’, the sixteenth episode of The Simpsons, seventh series (1995-6).

Are you willing to be grateful to your enemy?

Into the gutter

I don’t often preach these days, but I am booked at Horninglow this Sunday. Here it is.

A homily on the parable of the Good Samaritan

Jesus must have been a very irritating friend.  Ask him a straight question, and the last thing you get is a straight answer.  It’s like dealing with a utilities company.  His excuse might be that rather than tell you what to think, he wants you to work it out for yourself. That’s why he uses parables, so that we can interpret them as appropriate depending on the context.

Today’s story of the so-called good Samaritan is just such a story.  On the face of it it’s a call to show compassion to all we encounter, not just to members of the club.  I imagine the rather supercilious and snotty lawyer who was trying to catch Jesus out being somewhat narked.  I hope so.  

The story today might concern football supporters.  Would a Liverpool FC supporter go the aid of a seriously injured Manchester United supporter? I once asked that question of a young lad in church, a Liverpool supporter, who responded “never”.  Do we even notice people who are not like us, the druggies by the canal or by the Town Hall? Do we greet them, or do we pass by on the other side?

This brings me to the Priest and Levite.  They are often painted as bad, hard hearted, lacking in compassion.  I don’t think they were.  They had roles in the Temple that required them to be ritually clean.  Had they touched the man who was bloody and may have been dead, they would have rendered themselves ritually unclean and thus unable to fulfil their professional duties.  They were guilty only of putting duty before compassion and humanity.  Is any of us free from guilt?  Who has been in too much of a hurry to help someone who needs it?  All of us. Who as a parent has emphasised duty at the expense of tenderness? All of us.

Now another way of looking at the story, one that was a revelation to me.  It’s a Jewish interpretation – and remember, Jesus was a Jew.  

Using the Manchester and Liverpool analogy, never mind whether Liverpool would go to the aid of Manchester, the question now is would the Manchester guy be willing to be helped by his mortal enemy? 

We are so very proud and stand-offish.  We are unwilling to expose our need for help to people we disdain.  We have in the words of the psalmist “a proud look and high stomach”.  We hide behind electric gates so as to keep out hoi polloi.  We are, again from the psalms, “inclosed in our own fat and our mouth speaketh proud things”.  

Are you willing to set all this aside and be grateful to your enemy?

Finally, a very personal interpretation.  The man was going down to Jericho on the shore of the Dead Sea, way below Mediterranean sea level, Fourteen miles by road, down, down, down more than three quarters of a mile.  Ears pop.  

This for me is an allegory of the descent into mental illness, overcome by the wilderness demons of depression until you simply can’t go any further.  For those of us who know depression and grief – I’ve been on antidepressants on and off for decades – it’s a realistic image.  We are immobilised, unable to make even the simplest decision or set foot outside home. Where is help to come from?

It comes from the most unlikely sources.  

The chance encounter.  The kind word that is nothing out of the ordinary to the speaker but that transforms your day.  The smile from a stranger that gives a glimmer of light and colour to the dark greyness within.  The Samaritan has been likened to Jesus, but every one of us has the divine spark within and with that spark we can with simple acts of humanity and kindness bring life to others.  We are the Samaritan.  If you have friends or family that suffer from depression, be kind.  Listen to them, talk to them.  Nothing dramatic, just tend their metaphorical wounds.  You are the Samaritan; you are the Christ who comes in the most unlikely of guises.

He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not.  He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time.  He commands.  And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.  (Albert Schweitzer)

Lent as relaxation?

Welcome deare feast of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is a wonderful feast of being human. Since dust we are and to dust we shall return, we might as well stop trying to be what we’re not. Ditch the personae, shed the skins, get rid of the fat. Relax into yourself.

Lent as relaxation?

Relaxation from the constraints that we tie ourselves up with, and the new clothes we wrap around ourselves to appear bigger, brighter and better than we are, to impress others. (Evagrios the Solitary, 4th century: Of the demons … there are three groups who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men.)

Relaxation from the constraints that constitute addictions. I’m not suggesting we indulge them but, as it were, put them on the table in front of us and look at them full in the face. Addictions to food, booze, complaining, finding fault, having to win … and so many more. Hold them up to yourself. You can’t let go of something unless you look at it and know what it is you have to let go of. This is hard work.

Relaxation – letting go, loosening up, freedom from constraints,.moving to a wide place. If we are not constrained, if our view is not limited, we have freedom of action, we are farseeing, clairvoyant.

Relaxation – abstinence from things that hold us back. Don’t give up what you enjoy: that’s just another constraint. Rather give up what you don’t need any more. Let go of ways of thinking that you once needed but that now constrain you. Let go of hurts, resentments, oughts and shoulds. Let go of prejudices and attitudes that restrict your view of the world. Start saying ‘no’ to the expectations of others, and begin to get to know someone you’ve hardly ever met—no, not your maker, but yourself.

This Lenten abstinence has nothing to do with hair shirts, but everything to do with freeing up yourself for delight you had forgotten was in you. It’s about losing your ego, and rediscovering the Divine within. It’s about loving the hell out of you.

Welcome deare feast of Lent.

Advent 2021

I am recovering from a 6-week chest infection (covid negative), the like of which I have not experienced since the 1960s. Childhood memories of standing at the open bedroom window in the middle of the night trying to get air into my lungs. Susan is about a week behind me, as it were.

There are several reasons why I might have fallen victim to this, but what it really tells me is that (a) my lungs are 65 years older than I am in my head, and (b) viruses and other creatures that can take us over will win. It is entirely likely that these “extraordinary” times will last longer than I will. Talk of “post-covid” is well-premature. So, have no expectations other than that you’re gonna die. Get busy living, and as the well-known American theologian Dolly Parton might say, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” before you lose it.

Susan had her second cataract done early in the year. She can see clearly now the mist has gone. She drives with more confidence. Her hair has turned pink with age. Stanley’s one functioning eye has glaucoma and a mega-cataract. He expects to have said cataract attended to in the next few weeks. Will he be able to drive again? He’s not done so for over 18 months and has no wish to start again. The local taxis take him to the gym and back and – added bonus – he is picking up a smattering of Urdu. His eyesight or lack of same has provoked the great renunciation of giving away most of his sheet music, organ and piano. Liberating in a way. But what if the surgery means he needn’t have done so?

In 6 months’ time Stanley will have outlived father (he outlived mother a few years ago). Susan has yet to reach the age of her mother’s demise. Stanley’s retirement more or less coincided with lockdown 1. “What Is there now to live for?” is the question. Facebook has yielded more people crawling from under the stones of the past, and he’s struck by the number of friends now in their 70s who have said to him that left to their own devices they wouldn’t have made the choices in life that they made – or that were made for them. Him too.

We are of course not often left to our own devices: parental expectations, quirks of circumstance, economic realities, consequences of actions, all conspire to set us on pathways and before we know it we’re too far gone to go back.

Stanley was brought up at a time and in a culture when the man was expected to husband – to father and provide. We made decisions, took the consequences, made the best of it, then another decision had to be made. Repeat ad infinitum. No complaints, no complaining – he’s not – we’re born, we struggle, we die. The molecules that once made us are used again. This cosmic cycle is satisfyingly reassuring. If Stanley had to name one event that marked expulsion from Eden (garden not river though the river is appropriate), it was when he was 5 and his sandpit was tarmacked over. He still feels the outrage. He was never the same again.

Maybe going off into the jungle with a begging bowl is the answer. It might be tolerable in warmer climes, but it’s not for him. His idea of roughing it is running out of ice cubes. He could live in a community of gorillas or orangs, kind of returning whence he came, but there’s still the ice cube problem. Decluttering, giving away possessions (downsizing forces this – it’s very refreshing), having no expectations, living in the moment (eternal life – Jesus was a Buddhist), and being mischievous. Why do people take themselves so seriously? They must think they matter.

Where have we visited this last year? Some of our friends have done so much travelling they must have needed indulgences from The Holy and Blessed Greta. How they can live with the guilt I simply do not know. We in contrast have been models of environmental restraint. Leeds, Derby, Newcastle under Lyme (Susan’s eye) just about sums it up. It’s been thrilling.

We hope to be in Ireland for Christmas, though Dublin is more cautious about covid restrictions than Westminster so we’re not banking on it. It’ll be the first time in two years we’ve seen Vic face to face. Ed visited us a couple of months ago.

In many ways life is like being back in the Eden valley in the 1950s. Small world, don’t go anywhere much, a 4 mile trip to Penrith the highlight of the week. Forced onto one’s own resources. I am now thankful for a solitary childhood that allowed an inner life to grow. Neither of us has a bucket list of places we’d like to see (just as well now) and Susan has long been of the opinion that world heritage sites should be visited only through the pages of the National Geographic.

I’ve been reading a lot. I return to Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet (Jewel in the Crown) and find something new each time. He has a great line about the British in India in the 1940s who “came to the end of themselves as they were”. I feel a bit like that myself. Retirement, sensory loss, lockdown, restrictions, all forcing an end to me as I was – and therefore a beginning. What next?

The phrase is certainly true of our way of life in the west. It is unsustainable. The aforementioned Greta is right, but wrong too – it’s way too late and has been for over a century. We might as well carry on and hasten the end. The sooner we humans are wiped out so that evolution can do its job again, the better. Homo sapiens is an odious species, far from sapiens. I’d like to be reincarnated as either an octopus or one of them sea squirts that come together with their mates to make a tube that glows – pyrosomes. Glowing in the dark is something we’re both used to having been brought up within spitting distance of Windscale (or Calder Hall or Sellafield) in the 1950s.

Two MUST reads: (1) Skyseed by Bill McGuire (he lives in Brassington where I was a curate). (2) The Swarm by Frank Schatzing (he doesn’t).

KBO. Klaatu barada nikto. Happy Advent. Nollaig Shona agus Athbhliain Faoi Mhaise

Easter freedom

An Easter homily if I were giving one. It’s based on the Easter sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes before King James at Whitehall on Easter Sunday 1609.

The New Testament word for sepulchre, tomb (as in empty tomb) is mnema. It’s the word that gives us memorial, memory, and mnemonics – phrases to help one remember things. 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 in the past. Think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Think of parents who live through the achievements of their offspring. Think of sad men propping up sports club bars boring all and sundry with tales of their sporting achievements decades ago 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.

Can you 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 let go and move on. The empty tomb means the past is cleansed. It is forgiven.

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 condemned 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? Does he take them to court? Does he arrange for some big fellers from the local pub to kneecap them?

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

Now, think of those times you’ve gossiped, betrayed, told half-truths to get you out of a tight corner, or blindly followed the crowd. The story is not just about 2000 years ago. It’s about human nature, yours and mine, NOW. It’s about death of pride and ego 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—if there is one—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, turning masochism into an art form. But life is to be lived. 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 any skill. We have to keep telling ourselves that we are forgiven. We have to brainwash ourselves. This is important as we get older, for it’s easy to dwell on the past and less easy to imagine the future. At least, I find it so.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you escape the consequences of your actions, but it helps you to move on and make the best of — that is to say, confront — the hole you’ve got yourself into. It helps you to escape the tomb and see the big wide world: eyes that see shall never grow old.

The penalty for living in the past is that we become wizened, resentful, odious, and mendacious. We risk becoming deeply unattractive miserable gits. If we behave like that, people will avoid us, and rightly so. The only person I harm by living in the past is me.

As Andy and Red say in Shawshank, “get busy living or get busy dying”. The choice is yours.

Happy Easter.

What’s your little helper?

drugs-and-addictionSo, girls and boys, out we go for a walk with Bella the Staffy.

As we approach the Trent and Mersey canal, a young man walking purposefully in the same direction overtakes us. We exchange pleasantries. Then, surprisingly, he stops. We catch up with him just as another young man approaches from the opposite direction. With sleight of hand the two guys exchange something. They retreat whence they came.

User and supplier, we mused? Which was which?

What does it take you to get through the day?

  • Nicotine/tobacco. The sense of calming and release can be blissful, I gather.
  • Alcohol? At a funeral of a wealthy 40-something year old who died of alcoholic liver disease, I said from the pulpit that anyone who ever encouraged him to “just have one more” was complicit in his death.
  • Exercise, fitness? The endorphins released are addictive.
  • Sex? Porn? Likewise.
  • Golf? I’m not old enough to play golf, but I’m told that it’s quite popular amongst the brain dead.
  • Other drugs? Cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol. Cannabis rice krispie cakes are delicious.
  • Religion? Yes. The ecstatic trances of mystics are well known to be comparable to—even equate to—orgasm.

Am I saying that for many people religion is merely a prop to help them get through the day, on a par with smoking or drugs or booze?

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

Here are some other things we can be addicted to: money, power, controlling others, pleasing people, wanting to change people, gambling, internet, social media, books, buying stuff you don’t need, gossiping, criticizing, moaning, being miserable.

Some are financially more expensive than others, but there isn’t one that’s any worse than any other. They can all destroy us. It’s as hard for you to let go of your addiction to new clothes, or whatever, as it is for someone else to put down the drink or the syringe.

They’re like demons. They steal our personalities and stop us being ourselves. They deny us our freedom. They make us obsess about ourselves instead of serving others.

We’re all wounded because of stuff that’s happened to us. We all need something to dull the pain. We develop patterns of behaviour to protect us from these hurts. Whatever “pain relief” we choose—substances, attitudes, activities, religion—can be dangerous. We become addicted to them.

We’re all addicted to something—several things in my case. Look at your addictions. If you think you haven’t any, you’re blind.

All the vain things that charm you most—accept that they are part of you. Think of them as controlling different versions of yourself. Then give that version of yourself a cuddle. You begin to love the hell out of yourself. You might have to accept that some will stay with you till you die.

This is not easy. But even beginning the process is a kind of renewal. Nobody is perfect. Nobody has a perfect upbringing.

We are all in recovery.

Hugh would have been 42 today

Hugh2I find his birthday more affecting than the anniversary of his death—in three days’ time. I don’t know why, it just is.

Hardly a day goes by without him cropping up in my thoughts, but then that’s true for Gloria (Victoria) and Ed too. With Hugh, though, it’s not what he might be doing, or hoping that the cold is a bit better, or the marathon training is going well, or whatever, but rather an emptiness.

There was a time when the overwhelming malignancy of loss blotted out any possibility of hope or delight or joy. That is not so now. The loss is there, certainly, the waste of a good and heroic man, father, husband and son, but now mingled with memories of mischief, boldness, pugnacity and perseverance. A smile on the face and a tear on the cheek.

I suppose this is progress. It’s interesting to observe and note my feelings and, as it were, cuddle them. And I do. For months after the catastrophe, maybe even a year, the lament of King David at the death of his son was always with me: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!  And it still is, but periodically now, not constantly. Unpredictably, but temporarily.

HughAs I’ve written elsewhere, the death of a son affected this particular father in some interesting ways. I no longer waste my time on things I don’t have to or won’t enjoy. The exhaustion that came with the devastation—like being assaulted by the greatest imaginable physical force—has not quite dissipated, and indeed is prolonged by tiredness that comes with the culmination of 43 years of ministry to students and parishioners. But I am hopeful.

I’m still not sure what to do with the rest of life, and as I retire officially in five days’ time, the sense of uncertainty is heightened. It’s a modern disease of course, this quest for purpose. It’s not helped by a society that measures success according to rank, qualifications, wallet, and size—none of which matters when you’re in the coffin.

Familyl’m sick of doing. Maybe it’s time for a bit of being. SWMBO has tended me for forty six years, so now I shall do my best to tend her. I’m free of having to organise and administer and chivvy a bit, so I’ll be better able to think, to write, to spread lovingkindness with eye-twinkling mischief in all the ways I can to all the people I can. Doubtless along the way I’ll continue to provoke and irritate and exasperate.

Hugh had PhDs in those qualities.

Angels and demons: a farewell

MichaelS Michael and All Angels 2019

Revelation 12: 7-17. Matthew 18: 1-10

Rambling Rector’s last Sunday homily as Vicar of Burton upon Trent

When you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.

He was a terribly bad hobgoblin, a goblin of the very wickedest sort and, in fact, he was the devil himself. One day the devil was in a very good humour because he had just finished a mirror which had this peculiar power: everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it seemed to dwindle to almost nothing at all, while everything that was worthless and ugly became most conspicuous and even uglier than ever. In this mirror the loveliest landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and the very best people became hideous, or stood on their heads and had no stomachs. If a person had a freckle it was sure to spread until it covered both nose and mouth. If a good, pious thought passed through anyone’s mind, it showed in the mirror as a carnal grin.

“That’s very funny!” said the devil, who, laughed aloud at his invention. 

The hobgoblin’s apprentices scurried about with the mirror until there was not a person alive that had not been distorted. Then they flew up to heaven itself, to scoff at the angels, and our Lord. The higher they flew, the wider the mirror grinned. They could hardly manage to hold it. Higher they flew, and higher still, nearer to heaven and the angels. Then the grinning mirror trembled with such violence that it slipped from their hands and fell to the earth, where it splintered into billions of bits, or perhaps even more.

And now it caused more trouble than before it was broken, because some of the fragments were smaller than a grain of sand and went flying throughout the wide world. Once they got in people’s eyes they would stay there. These bits of glass distorted everything the people saw, and made them see only the bad side of things, for every little bit of glass kept the same power that the whole mirror had possessed.

A few people even got a glass splinter in their hearts, and that was a terrible thing, for it turned their hearts into lumps of ice. Some of the fragments were made into spectacles, and evil things came to pass when people put them on. The fiend was so tickled by it all that he laughed till his sides were sore.

But fine bits of the glass are still flying through the air.

Like the passage from Revelation that we heard earlier, it’s a fairy story about the origin of the human propensity to sin, to do bad things, to do things that harm others and ourselves. It’s the beginning of Hans Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

It makes the connexion between devil and diabolic. Diabolic, in contrast to anabolic, means splintering, and here we have splinters of evil glass that pass into eyes and heart to distort vision and turn the heart to ice. You don’t have to look too hard to see these twisted characteristics of world leaders: Pyongyang, Damascus, Khartoum, even Westminster, for this nation is being splintered asunder. It is diabolical.

But this applies not just to “them”. It applies as much to “us”. It’s our tendency to hard-heartedness, lack of compassion, forgetfulness of loving-kindness, determination to see the worst in people and situations. It is egocentricity. It is self-obsession. It is total self-indulgence. And that is Satanism.

Am I deluded to use such terms? Listen to S Paul: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Revelation, Paul, and Andersen tell vividly of what Michaelmas is about: the battle between good and evil, the “force fields” in which we exist. It’s a personal battle, in my experience often lost in a fit of temper or a surge of adrenaline: the things I do in the heat of the moment, no chance even to consider consequences, leading to regret and shame.

The question is: how to deal with this? Does Scripture have anything to say?

The Common Worship lectionary for Michaelmas does not: it gives the story of Nathaniel with Jesus telling him that he’ll see angels ascending and descending. I can’t make anything of that. But the historic lectionary of the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer, comes spectacularly to my aid for Michaelmas with these words of Jesus:

Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

There are other wonderful bits of today’s gospel, not least that anyone who harms a child should be thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck. With all the church scandals, I sometimes wish we took that literally. But for Michaelmas the message is that the forces of evil within are more likely to be vanquished if we assume the mantle of a child.

Here are some of the characteristics of childlikeness that we might use in our struggles: innocence, trust, fearlessness, imagination, having fun, making the best of things.

I spoke of some of this last week, particularly at S Modwen’s where I urged you to approach the future with imagination and without fear. Fear is the opposite of love. Fear leads to hatred. Graham Greene wrote that hatred is failure of imagination. Fear leads to suspicion, name-calling, abuse, oppression, cowardice, failure to fight injustice. And fear leads to death of the spirit in both oppressor and victim. We harm ourselves every bit as much as we harm others.

Am I suggesting, then, that we should become like children in order to fight wickedness?

I am.

But I’m not so naïve as to think that we don’t need to be careful. Our world is one of suspicion, cynicism and selfishness as much as it is of beauty, delight and joy. We need to be watchful. We need 360° vision. We need to consider likely consequences of our actions. But the more we can adopt the attitudes of childlikeness—not childishness—as a starting point, the more likely it is that good will follow.

This message is hammered home in The Snow Queen. It’s the trust of a child, Gerda, that helps her confront adversity. It’s the persistence of a child that keeps her going. It’s the prayers of a child that defeat the demons around the Snow Queen’s ice palace. And in what is quite the most moving part of the story, it’s the tears of a child that melt Kay’s heart of ice and wash out the evil splinters in his eye.

And the result? Reunion, restoration, rescue, healing, salvation, Make no mistake, the two characters in the story are in truth parts of you and me. Oh, how our splintered souls long for wholeness.

Unless you become like a child you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This has nothing to do with the afterlife. The kingdom of heaven—eternal life—is a quality of life here and now. It’s an attitude of mind, a way of looking at the world. It is life abundant before death. This is not a matter of appeasing an irascible sky pixie, or collecting nectar points for a seat in heavenly club-class. It’s a matter of making the world we live in more like the kingdom of heaven by fighting injustice and spreading loving-kindness.

Some people believe in angels. I like the idea of Michael the fighter, of Gabriel the messenger, of Raphael the healer, of Uriel the bringer of light. I like the idea of hosts of angels surrounding us, protecting and directing us. But for me it’s just more poetry, and it doesn’t affect my basic Michaelmas message about childlikeness bringing a glimpse of heaven.

Sunday worship is about precisely that: giving us a glimpse of heaven. Before mass, the vestry prayer often includes the words: “may our worship be a vision of your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, so that others may be brought closer to you”. Good sounds, beautiful sights, inspiring words, lovely smells. One of my descriptions of the thing people call God is beauty in all its manifestations, and I have tried my best to cultivate that.

BurtonOnTrentPaul06We’re in S Paul’s, and for me to come into this place several times a week, and bathe in its glass, its furnishings, and the sense of the numinous they help create, has been a real joy. When I came to Burton six years ago with a view to applying for the job, I’d already seen the cool elegance of S Modwen’s, and I knew the moment I stepped in here that I could be at home. And then when a year or so later we unearthed that glorious altar frontal, I recognised it as the Bodley/Watts original: it’s the same design as in the Bodley-designed chapel at Queens’ College Cambridge where I was an undergraduate. What a delight!

This all contributes to the beauty of the liturgy in which relaxed ritual, with contributions from others, give a real sense of “numinous in community”. The party line is that in our services we honour the Lord, but since there is a bit of the Divine in each of us, in truth we are honouring ourselves, we are honouring the best of humanity. And that is a exactly as it should be: we refresh ourselves so as to enable us to feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and comfort the oppressed—and remember that unless we do that, all this churchy stuff is utterly meaningless.

It’s not only in church that we can experience this “numinous in community”. Some people, I’m told, have such a feeling at a rugby match. I gather that there is a popular sport in this country in which a round ball is kicked about, and millions of people find spiritual refreshment in that, however implausible I find it. Does this mean that church is merely a hobby for us, like sport for others? Maybe so, but I leave my successor to explore that. Meanwhile, let me tell you a story from my past that at least one of you here will recognize.

About 20 years ago when I was Professor of Anatomy in Dublin, I was standing with a colleague in the Dissection Room – a huge room housing 20+ cadavers and 200+ students and staff. The Anatomy course I was responsible for was acknowledged as being first rate, and the atmosphere was buzzing. Some students were dissecting, some chatting, some looking at x-rays, some considering symptoms and patient stories. Some staff were talking, some listening, some dissecting. For a brief moment I was overwhelmed: I felt as if I were in the presence of something Divine. My colleague must have felt similarly, for he turned to me and said: “you have made this happen”. It is my most treasured memory of sixteen years at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Since July 2014 I have tried to provoke you to think, to shake you up, to let you see how right Diderot was when he urged enlargissez Dieu! I’ve tried to get you to pluck out eyes that offend—that is, to see differently, to move beyond the Sunday school pap of “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. And I hope our liturgy has enabled us to glimpse Divine grace and glory.

Sisters and brothers, I thank you for the fun we’ve had together, the joy and delight. Since my heart is in large part in Ireland, and since I’d like my ashes to be scattered on an Irish mountain, where almost four years ago I scattered my elder son’s, let me say:

Go raibh maith agaibh. Slán agus beannacht leat. Bail ó Dhia ort.

Thank you. The grace of God be with you. God bless you

Let me leave you with one question, a most profound question that takes us back to Revelation, to The Snow Queen, to today’s gospel:

would the child you once were be proud of the adult you have become?