Use your wits

Homily for Proper 20 Year C

Amos 8:4-7. Psalm 113. 1 Timothy 2:1-7. Luke 16:1-13

The trouble with Bible readings in church is that they’re usually from a translation that may be accurate, but doesn’t sound like the way we speak today. It is somewhat stilted and therefore the meaning is not always as obvious or forceful on first hearing as it should be.

Here is part of the the Amos reading in a modern American version, one that I think quite wonderful, The Message by Eugene Peterson:

Listen here, you who trample all over the weak, who treat poor people as less than nothing, who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up? How long till the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?” Listen here, you who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. You exploit the poor, using them—and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.

And they say that religion should have nothing to do with politics. Ha!

“Ah but,” you say, “that’s from the Jewish Scriptures, not Christian. “Well”, I respond, “Jesus was a Jew. Furthermore he was well capable of being narky, rude, abrupt and provocative. As I said last time I was here, he was not an agreeable man”.

Here is the essence of today’s gospel as if from The Message.

The rich man realised that his manager was on the fiddle. He’d used his position to siphon off money for himself. So he sacked him and said “before you go I want a complete audit of your books.” The manager said to himself, “What am I to do? I’ve lost my job. I’m not strong enough for labouring, and I’m too proud to beg. . . . Ah, I’ve got a plan.”

One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his boss. When someone said he owed a hundred jugs of olive oil the manager told him to write fifty. When someone else said he owed  a hundred sacks of wheat the manager told him to write eighty. And so on, the crafty guy making friends for his new life.

Note Jesus’ comments. He commended the crooked manager. “He knows how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to survive, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.”

In short, if only we put as much effort into working for the Kingdom as we do into trying to avoid the washing-up, or ironing, or hoovering, or cheating the taxman …. Today’s Gospel tells us to be crafty:

  • Use the ways of the world to further the cause of right.
  • Take risks like the steward—he was commended for his audacity. 
  • Don’t be lazy, or take things lying down.
  • Make good use of what comes your way. Don’t moan because it’s not what you expected or wanted.

It’s a call to action, and to shrewd action, planned action, cunning action. Use your brains and think before acting.

Amos gives us a focus for our craftiness:  to wage war against oppression. Isn’t Amos just wonderful? He is utterly blunt, never minces his words. Quite un-Anglican. In my ministry I have been incumbent of two churches that particularly need to hear Amos. But they didn’t and won’t. They are little more than social clubs for the respectable, for many of whom church is treasured because it reminds them of the security of childhood and a life gone by. What church is really for, of course, is to stir people up—excite is the word—to fight injustice. Instead so often it’s about cosy complacency and gossip.  That’s the trouble when Christianity becomes respectable. I’ve done my best to bring it back into the gutter but people don’t listen to me any more than to Amos.

So: be crafty for Christ. Work for the kingdom. And for this church community, working towards cooperation with St Paul’s under one incumbent, this command has particular immediacy.

It would be easy to come together in a way that requires minimal change: the odd tweak here and there, this a bit later, that a bit earlier, and things can continue more or less as now.

The trouble is they can’t. This generation, our generation, is dying off and each loss is not matched by a gain. There is no steady state, and soon there will be no critical mass of people for all the tasks.

If you take the gospel and Amos seriously you will stop trying to keep things much as they were. It’s like a dying patient on life support. You will instead try some imaginative thinking. Jesus laid into his disciples for not reading the signs of the times – and this is exactly what you need to do. 

Ask yourselves:

  • What will this part of Burton look like in 10 years time? 
  • How many C of E churches will still be open, and how many will have weekly services?
  • What are the likely forces that will shape society?
  • How can we build a church community to serve this part of Burton?
  • Is it right that decisions about the future are taken largely by people who won’t be around to see it?

Ask yourselves:

  • Why do you need a mass in each church every Sunday? Why not one in each church alternate Sundays with non-Eucharistic services on other Sundays?
  • Is holy communion the right hook to grab people? Weekly mass is a fairly recent feature of the C of E. 
  • Will people be attracted by the music on offer? the welcome of strangers? 
  • Is the church warm and are the seats comfortable?
  • In short, is church worth getting out of bed for?

If you treat church as a private club, then it will die, and it deserves to. If you heed Amos and as a church community love your neighbour as yourself by fighting injustice, I suspect people will come. 

Jesus said he wanted us to be smart like the man on the fiddle—but for what is right—using every means possible to stimulate us to work for justice and the common good.

Trust and be silly

A homily for Proper 14 Year C

Genesis 15:1-6. Psalm 33:12-22. Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16. Luke 12:32-40

I usually start thinking about a sermon on the previous Sunday afternoon as I’m in my groove on the sofa, dozing or whatever. “What can I say next week that I haven’t said already?” This is a bit of a problem because the gospel readings at the moment are variations on a theme, so the sermons are pretty much interchangeable. 

As I was pondering, into my head came David and Goliath. The little squirt versus the the big man. And David killed him! They weren’t expecting that. What sticks in my mind about this is an easily missed detail in the build-up. Saul gives the young David all his armour because, presumably, he thinks the little lad has no chance without it. David tries it on and says “no thanks, mister, too heavy, I can’t move in all this clobber, I’ll be better without it”. The confidence of youth!

No armour, no preconceptions, no assumptions, no prejudgments. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure that our lives will be predictable. We try to control the future. We try to manipulate people so that they do things that we can cope with. Is this because we want to feel powerful, as if we’re the boss, or because we’re so afraid that we can’t cope unless things happen in a certain way? Maybe those are the same. Either way, we want to feel that we’re in charge. 

The trouble is that if we’re in charge like that, we’re not flexible, we’re not open to inspiration, we’re can’t cope with changing circumstances. Think how many businesses go under because they are not responsive and able to adapt quickly.

If we are to live, as opposed merely to exist, it’s this flexibility that we need. We need to resist the temptation to dress ourselves in restrictive armour: David ditched all this clobber and marched off to meet Goliath full of confidence that since he could deal with lions and bears that attacked his sheep, dealing with Goliath would be a piece of piss.

We need to take the risk, like David, of stepping out without conditions, restrictions, safety nets, assumptions, expectations, efforts to manipulate. Without clobber. In Christian-speak (which I heartily dislike) you might say that the Lord wants us to trust him enough to live with him unafraid, totally defenceless in his presence. 

The Greek word for this is pistis, and in Greek mythology Pistis was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. Pistis, better translated as trust rather than faith, is a decision. We decide to trust. 

Trust in the uncertainty of life. Trust not to be fearful of possibilities. Work with the cosmos, don’t fight it. 

For us all, it means working with what we’ve got and enjoying it while it lasts. And when it disappears before we do, we work with something else rather than moan how good things used to be—an empty-headed activity according to Ecclesiastes. 

Let go of trying to control. Let go of what “I” want. Let go of ego. Do not be afraid. Step out, be ready, be alert to possibilities, be responsive. 

This means having faith in, trusting in, your own ability to make decisions as circumstances arise. In my theology, this means making contact with, and having faith in, the inner divine core, the little boy David within each of us. I rather think that someone once said that unless I become as a child, I will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Life is messy and unpredictable. Despite what anyone may tell us, or what we in the privileged West may think, we are not in control. We simply don’t know what’s around the corner. Live each day as if ‘twere thy last – a recurring message. Acceptance of uncertainty is the key to living in the moment, and living in the moment is the key to eternal life—eternal being a quality of life outside time, not everlasting. And when we acknowledge our powerlessness, and discard attachments, there is nothing left for us to stand on our dignity about, so pride (hubris) goes too. Think how much better the world would be without that sort of pride, based as it is on the notion that “I’m better than you”.

I know—this is hard. I say these things not because I’m good at them, but because I’d like to be. But we’ve got to start on this journey of trust sometime, and the right time is always now, before it’s too late. 

You can be sure of one thing: there is no alternative

Well, there is, but it’s putting a black bag on your head and living in a gloomy cellar never venturing forth in case something attacks you’

Bronnie Ware, a nurse working in palliative care,  wrote of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, a book based on her experience. Here they are (my summaries, not hers):

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live my life rather than the life others expected of me. Most people die knowing that their lives have been limited by their choices.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. This came from every man the author nursed. It is true for me. I missed a good deal of my children’s youth and Susan’s companionship.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to say what I felt. Many people don’t say what they think in an attempt to keep peace. They settle for mediocrity. The frustration, bitterness and resentment that build up inside can cause heart disease and cancer.
  • I wish I’d stayed in touch with friends.
  • I wish I’d let myself be happier. Happiness is a choice. Misery is a choice. People stay stuck in old habits. Fear of change makes us pretend to others and to ourselves that we are content, when deep within, we long to laugh and be silly. There is not enough innocent silliness in this world.

So there you are! Ditch the notions. Trust in uncertainty. Be silly.

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.

Winifred Little

Winifred Little died on 20 December 2021 aged 92. She spent her life in the Eden Valley, that gentle, understated, pastoral land between lakes and north Pennines. 

Winifred Wilkinson was raised in Culgaith, married Norman Little from Renwick, lived in Langwathby, then Lazonby, Kirkoswald and finally Penrith. She and Norman raised three children, the eldest of whom was a couple of years junior to me at Penrith Grammar School, the other two following after.

Why do I write about Winifred? 

With her death, there is now nobody left of the older generation that influenced me. Winifred’s guidance was not dramatic or earth-shattering, but gentle, enabling and kindly – words that describe Winifred herself.

Winifred nurtured my musical gifts long before anyone else.

Monkhouse life in the 1950s in Langwathby revolved around the Methodist Chapel. Sunday School at 2 o’clock followed by the main service at 3. There was the rota for entertaining visiting preachers (imagine my alarm when later on it was our turn to feed and water the Grammar School deputy headmistress). There were Kirkoswald Methodist Circuit socials in the village hall. Chapel was pervasive. My memories of Sunday School are in no way grey, dull or controlling but warm, informative and interesting to a somewhat solitary and self-sufficient boy in short pants (though I took against felt crafts),

And that atmosphere was down largely to Winifred. Don’t get me wrong – she was not mumsy, indulgent, or sentimentally emotional: fellsiders know nothing of indulgence or emotional sentimentality. She was kind, unassuming and considerate – but firm. 

Winifred played the hymns on the foot-pumped reed organ. She schooled us for the big events like Sunday School Anniversary and Harvest. She gave me my first solo “Jesus, friend of little children”. I was about eight and can remember exactly where I stood and how I felt – nervous. I made a mistake but there was no criticism, just encouragement. Winifred pushed me to play for Sunday School and later for the main service, and she made sure I could play hymns properly. Because of Winifred, I began to uncover the riches of the Wesleys’ hymns.

She shared her gifts with the surrounding area by teaching, and running and accompanying choirs, her musicianship far exceeding that to be expected in what was then a remote rural backwater.

Long before piano and organ lessons and O level music, Winifred Little opened a door through which I glimpsed enchantment and enlightenment.

To say that I am thankful for her is truly an understatement.

Saints – who needs them?

In the church calendar, it’s All Saints.

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.

Being a saint is not about piety and being seen to do the right thing. It’s about persistence, perseverance, 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.

Prophet Micah says do justly, be merciful, walk with humility. Prophet Stanley says Micah is right. One day you’ll be dead, and it could be very soon, so live life to the full: justly, mercifully, humbly. Those who do that, who use their gifts and lives to make the world a better place, are saints in Prophet Stanley’s book.

If you want to be remembered as a saint, forget it. If you don’t care how you’re remembered other than as someone who did their best, then you might be in with a chance—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—cocked up often, and learnt from it. The words of an All Saints hymn “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine” are wrong, wrong, wrong. They shine, and we shall shine, because we have feebly struggled, and continue to feebly struggle.

We are creatures of this earth. From the earth we come and to the earth we return. Nature gathers up particles and atoms and molecules into what you see when you stand with no clothes on in front of the mirror. And when you pop your clogs you disintegrate as molecules and atoms and particles return to the cosmos for reuse. Some might say it’s a kind of reincarnation. Certainly, nothing is wasted.

Earth. Humus. Humility is the key. Feet planted firmly on the ground, living in the here and now, not in some la-la-land of your or someone else’s imagination, or of how things used to be when you were young.

People come, people go, but particles, atoms, molecules remain. And, get this: 

we are never not in the presence of particles, atoms, and molecules of those who’ve been before us; we are never not in the presence of particles, atoms, and molecules of those who will follow us: we are never not in the presence of past and future.

One of my former churches was often visited mid-service by a vagrant. He tended to arrive “tired and emotional” during the sermon. I welcomed him from the pulpit and told him to sit down and shut up. After some chuntering he did. He enjoyed the wine. We chatted afterwards.

That man suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune more than I shall know, for he died recently. He coped with life as best he could without the insulation I enjoy that comes from stable relationships, employment, a roof to sleep under, and a pension. His addictions more often got the better of him than do mine of me. His courage was all the greater. He added colour and earthiness to a narcotic and entitled church community. I shall miss him.

Is there a saint in this story?

NHS encourages irresponsibility?

For Church Magazine, November 2020

You might remember Terry Waite, adviser to a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who was captured and kept in solitary confinement for over three years in Lebanon. He speaks with some authority about how to survive in difficult times. 

He has in no uncertain terms told us to stop being so pathetically wuss (my words not his) about dealing with the privations arising from efforts to stop the spread of covid. We should stop moaning and be constructive about organising our lives. We could read more, be creative, use technology to chat to people. However bad we think it might be, it has to get a lot worse before it compares with being on your own in a Beirut shithole for years. In short, we should take responsibility for ourselves and not expect someone else to come along and sort us out.

Amen, amen.

It applies to every aspect of life, not least health.

Actions have consequences. If you stuff your face with cream cakes from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, don’t be surprised if you get fat, develop diabetes, have a heart attack, and suffer from joint disease because your joints weren’t expecting to have to support a ten ton truck.

Part of the blame lies with the NHS—or rather the way we have allowed it to develop. Having it as a safety net is one thing, but now we expect it to deal with the consequences of our stupidity. We think that we have a right to feel as good at 70 as we did at 30. We refuse to take responsibility for ourselves in the expectation that the NHS will sort it out for us.

It’s a bit like praying to a sky-pixie to sort out problems that we have brought on ourselves. Indeed, it is exactly like that. The Dalai Lama has pointed out how silly it is: “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.” 

And so with health.

Make a weekend visit to a casualty department (after covid, if it ever ends). Wade through the vomit on the floor caused by alcohol overconsumption. Is this what the NHS is for? Why should doctors be non-judgmental? When I was a teenager, my GP told me I was too fat and should do something about it. He was right, and I did. 

None of this is easy to manage. Some of us eat to make us feel better about ourselves. At least the food loves us even if nobody else does. Some of us have genetic predispositions to certain conditions and there is little we can do other than manage them. Life is difficult. We are at the mercy of our obsessions and addictions – and don’t kid yourself that you don’t have any because we all do. Here’s a list.

Nicotine/tobacco. Alcohol. Exercise, Porn. Golf (I’m not old enough to play golf, but I’m told that it’s popular amongst the brain dead). Recreational drugs (cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol; cannabis rice krispie cakes are delicious). Religion: ecstatic trances of mystics are orgasmic, and for some people religion is merely a prop like smoking or drugs or booze to help them get through the day. Some people are 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.

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

You hear people compare themselves to others: “if she can eat it, why can’t I?” The sad truth is that as with everything else, our bodies and our metabolisms are unpredictable. We are not all the same. Swallow a handful of paracetamol and see what happens. Some of you will have no detectable symptoms; some of you will die. Or covid: some people have mild or no symptoms, some have serious symptoms that last ages; some die. 

And all of you will die sooner or later. The longer you live, the more likely you are to die. Life is not fair. Life is uncertain. Get over it. 

One of the first things that medical students do is study a dead body. It is a ritual that helps define them as trainee doctors. All their patients will die, and so will they. As a priest, at every funeral I took I pointed to the coffin and said “every single one of you is going to go in a box like that, and it might be later today, so get your affairs in order, make peace with those you need to, and if there’s something you need to do, do it now. And stop moaning”. I had more complimentary remarks as a result of that stark advice than ever I expected.

My reading of Scripture tells me that we are to be responsible for ourselves. You are no good to your neighbour if you don’t look after yourself. The NHS encourages some of us NOT to take responsibility for ourselves, instead remaining as infants expecting nanny (NHS staff) to deal with the consequences of our idiocy.

You could say that the NHS is UNChristian in tolerating irresponsibility.