Stations of Advent – the Antiphons

Address for Advent 3

I have written about prophets in the December magazine (see https://ramblingrector.me/2022/11/28/prophets-2/). It is hard not to feel as if you are being harangued by them—as if they are wagging their fingers at you like a head prefect. It’s possible to read the words of John the Baptist like this.

I used to but I don’t any more. 

He talks about a baptism of repentance. It’s the feeling that comes in that moment when you see past actions and attitudes as having been selfish and self-serving though at the time you persuaded yourself that your motives were entirely pure and noble. Such a realisation leads to shock and the shedding of tears when you see that you are not as perfect as you thought you were. You see things in a new light.

This is repentance—no more and no less than a new way of looking at things. It is a joyous moment, even if painful, when you see the truth.This is what the Baptist was on about—a new way of looking at things in order, if you like, to clear the ground of weeds and rubbish that make it difficult for the seed of the Divine to grow and flower. It is preparing the way for the coming. It is hopeful.

What is it that comes? Who is he that comes?

The Advent antiphons give us a glimpse of he that comes. They are used from 17-23 December before and after the Magnificat at Vespers. They bring us images from Hebrew Scripture: wisdom, leader, descendant of Jesse, David’s successor, morning star, king of the nations, the Divine within.

I am always moved by these plainsong chants. I first heard them—sang them—as a choral scholar at Carlisle Cathedral, fresh from somewhat puritanical rural Methodism. It is as if they wrap me in timelessness, bringing the whole of history into the present moment in anticipation of the Divine growing within.

You have the Latin and English texts before you. Listen as I sing the antiphons and let yourself be enfolded by all cosmic history. Use them for the rest of Advent. Listen to them on Youtube. The are far more eloquent than any Advent sermon you will hear.

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae. O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento. O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm. 

O radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare. O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris et umbra mortis O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis. O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis,[48] qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti. O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone[53] making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster. O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Let us not forget

Homily for Remembrance Sunday 13 November 2022 at Horninglow

In the mid 1980s I visited Moscow and what was then Leningrad. I learnt that the Russians lost more people in WW2 than the UK, US and Germany combined. I have a granddaughter in the US. I see how US society values its servicemen and veterans. It puts us to shame. I have a daughter, a son and many dear friends in the Republic of Ireland and I worked there for 19 years, three as a Church of Ireland rector. Their focus on 11 November is different from ours. 

So not surprisingly, I have confused attitudes today. They include 

  • embarrassment that we’re raking over the past, and keeping open the wounds, revelling in jingoism.
  • incredulity that we English delude ourselves thinking that we won WW2 unaided.
  • anger at the waste of life.
  • recollection of the camaraderie that bad times can bring. It’s understandable that people feel that the war years were the best of their lives—if they survived.
  • shame at our involvement in war, particularly in Ireland—and that is not over yet.

But whatever is buried away in our minds, today we recall those who have died in what is called the service of their country. Those who obeyed orders. 

Now, let’s not restrict this to the two world wars of the 20th century. Let us not forget that our women and men have died in Korea, Balkans, Falklands, Cyprus, Middle East, Egypt, Africa, Ireland. Iraq and Afghanistan, where a poppy has a different meaning. 

Let us not forget people of every race and tongue who have died and continue to die in war:  Syria, Ukraine, Africa—in fact just about everywhere.

Let us not forget those who wait. It was a woman of Derbyshire and Staffordshire who brought home to me the effects on those who wait at home. Vera Brittain of Buxton and Newcastle under Lyme lost her fiancé, brother, friends, So let us remember too the bereaved mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, lovers, friends.

We sanitise war by thinking of the dead. It is easier. It costs nothing. We don’t have to provide medical care for the dead like we do for the maimed. We don’t have to worry about the lacerations, the amputations, the psychological scars when we consider the dead. Who was it said, if you want to forget about the nastiness of an event, arrange an act of commemoration and then forget about it? Let us not forget that behind the ceremony today there are countless stories of real continuing human tragedy. 

Are we just going to stop at remembering? Are we going to pray that things will change? Do we expect a sky pixie to sort problems that we humans have brought upon ourselves?

Perhaps it is we who need to change. 

What causes warfare is the notion that we are right and others are wrong—that we must impose our will on others. Individuals fight. Groups fight. Nations fight—all because one side wants to impose its will on others. And at the root of this is pride and vanity—not just theirs but yours and mine too. It’s unfashionable to use the word sin, but sin is what it is—the sin of the individual and the sin of the world. 

There is a solution. Micah told us what it is: do justly, love mercy, walk humbly. Or in the words of another translation, “do what is fair and just to your neighbour, be compassionate and loyal in your love.  And don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously”. Don’t misunderstand “humble” or “humility”. They’re not about grovelling, they’re about being realistic in knowing your strengths and weaknesses, recognising your failings and—yes—not taking yourself too seriously. 

Micah spoke, Jesus showed.

“Simple” you might say, but oh how difficult it is to quash egocentric pride that makes us justify our views at the expense of those of others.

You might say “surely we should fight oppression and injustice, with weapons if necessary”. And as it happens that’s what I say—that fighting for justice is love in action. But others would not, for it’s possible to use Christian doctrine to support both points of view.

I leave you with a thought. If I say I am the best, the greatest, people call me ridiculous. If we say we are the best, people call us patriots.

Let us not forget that war comes from within the human mind—yours and mine. Kyrie eleison.

Just do it

A homily for Proper 22 Year C

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4. Psalm 37:1-9. 2 Timothy 1:1-14. Luke 17:5-10

In Greek the word in today’s New Testament readings that’s translated as faith is pistis. Faith often linked with hope and charity, in Greek pistis, elpis agape; in Latin, fides, spes, caritas.

You might think that linking Faith, Hope and Charity was the inspired invention of St Paul. Not so. It’s much older that that: he: stole it from Greek culture. Faith, Hope and Charity were three minor goddesses, personifications of different aspects of human “good behaviour” – good in the sense of helping you to live a life that contributes to the wellbeing of the community, bringing honesty and harmony among people.

When we study Scripture, therefore, we should think of faith, pistis, not as we have come to use the word, but in terms of what it would have meant two thousand years ago to the people of the eastern Mediterranean – to Paul, to Luke, to Jesus. 

For many of us, faith has been presented almost as a state of anxiety – the more you have, the more likely you are to earn nectar points for a better cabin on the after-life cruise ship. If you have lots of faith, God grants your requests, but if not, hard cheese – it’s your fault and you deserve to suffer. So the longer you’re on your knees, or the more Hail Marys you knock out, or the more masses you attend, or the more you say you adore Christ – whatever that means – the better it’ll be for you on board. You’d better do as the priests tell you.

This is pernicious rubbish. 

Faith is about what you believe in, they say. But what does believe mean? North Koreans believe that Kim Jong-il was born in a cave on a mountainside and that a bright star appeared in the sky to mark the event. They believe that because they’re brainwashed. When we say I believe in God the Father Almighty … is it because that’s what we were taught, and that if we don’t affirm it we’ll get a terrible deal in an afterlife? If so, we’re allowing ourselves to be brainwashed like North Koreans.

Another problem with the word believe is that it often implies an element of doubt. When you repy to a question with “I believe so” you’re often adding “but I could be wrong”. And of course the word believe has been utterly devalued by its use by politicians and other creatures of the night who say they believe in things that quite patently they do not.

What a quandary! But fret not. Another translation of pistis comes to our aid. Instead of I believe, think I trust. Trust is much better and I suggest that every time you come across the word believe you replace it with trust. It works for me.

Now look at today’s gospel. It’s a pity that it begins at verse 5 for verses 1-4 set the scene. Jesus is saying “look guys, there are bad times just around the corner so be ready for them. Don’t be swayed by them. Stick to your guns.“ The disciples want more faith but Jesus says “you don’t need more, you just need to trust what you’ve already got, and great things will happen. Persist.”

Cumberland
Coat of Arms

Persist is another idea that pistis incorporates. At school in what was then Cumberland our exercise books had the county crest on the front with the Latin motto Perfero. Being an inquisitive child I had to find out what that meant. It was Latin – whatever that was – for I bear, I carry through, I complete, I persist, I endure. All aspects of pistis. This is what Jesus tells the disciples. I’ve always known there was something truly Divine about us Cumbrians.

Habbakuk warns people not to be distracted by the ways of the world but push on with what’s right. Psalm 37 in the Coverdale translation (the proper one) begins “fret not thyself because of the ungodly, ignore them and let them stew in their own juice” (I paraphrase slightly).

Athletes in training know that the most pernicious enemies of achievement are doubts: thoughts that they are not good enough, thoughts that lead to loss of confidence. These are some of “the ungodly” of the psalmist, the distractions that Habbakuk and Jesus urge us to ignore.  “Push on – just do it” they must tell themselves. The sports clothing brand Nike knows Greek. Nike is the goddess of victory, The firm’s motto, “just do it”, is none other than our friend pistis.

Just do it is a pretty good motto. Perfero. Stop shilly shallying and allowing yourself to be distracted. Be resolute, determined and fearless. When you believe in something you don’t just sit in a chair and think fine thoughts about it – you act. Get off your backside and just do it.

Faith is not about what you believe; faith is about what you do and how you do it. Faith is action.

This is all very well, but I look into my heart and ask myself “what has it to do with church?” and answer came there “next to nothing”. As a priest I should have been just doing it following the example set by Himself of feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting the oppressed, fighting injustice, and so on. Maybe I did a little bit of that but I regret to say that most of my time was spent providing life support to a dying patient – the institutional church – titillating and pandering to the prejudices of the reasonably affluent that make up church congregations. I look at my colleagues and see that they too are trapped in this dreadful prison, one that is at odds with the reasons most of them entered pastoral ministry. It so easily leads to despair. I know of some people who do sacrificial work for the poor and needy largely in urban centres here and the third world, but I know personally only one. I used to work with him here in Burton, but now he’s a priest in Stevenage doing what he was ordained for spectacularly well.

So as a church community ask yourselves “what can we do to follow the Master in a realistic and practical way?”.

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.

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)

What’s in a name?

I’m a regular reader of the blog Thinking Anglicans (yes, I know there are very few of them ….). It keeps me up to date with the lamentable politics of the Church of England. 

There’s been an interesting discussion about whether contributors should be allowed to use fake names, as some do. The consensus is that real names are ideal but some people must hide their identities for various reasons. For example, a cleric using his/her name might feel obliged to stick to an official church opinion. That never bothered me for so much official church teaching is utterly bonkers and needs to be changed. I rather hoped that I might be hauled up before an ecclesiastical court – it would have been fun – but alas I seemed not to have been offensive enough. Must try harder.

Anyhoo, back to names, I am William after father and his father, Stanley after mother’s father, and Monkhouse because here at present we use the patronymic. Quite why my second name was routinely used I know not. 

I wonder if there is such a thing as a “me” that can be adequately encompassed in just one name.  You see, girls and boys, there are several “mes” living in my body. 

There’s adolescent me discovering things, 6 year old me playing in the sandpit, finger wagging me that gives out shoulds and oughts, 71 year old me that is angrier about injustice and more subversive than ever before (whoever said we get less revolutionary as we age was wrong), dutiful me that serves, eye twinkling provocative me, emotional me, fearful and inadequate me, depressive me that spends money as therapy, and more. 

Add to these the millions of creatures that live in and on me, bacteria, viruses, symbiotes, even maybe parasites, many of which produce chemicals that affect my thoughts and behaviour – we’re all at the mercy of circulating chemicals from whatever source, so is there really free will?

Having three official names to choose from I give different names to these various “mes”: Stanley, Stan, Will, William, Billy, Willy, Monk, Monkey (inevitable school nickname), fat git (used by one of my sons with then some justification). I like all these “mes” and love them even though some cause problems. Interestingly, the “mes” with the problems tend to be creative and good fun, and I wouldn’t be without them. 

As I reflect on these “mes” I return repeatedly to the profound question “would the child I once was be proud of the adult I have become?”

I am put in mind of this exchange on Life of Brian between Stan and his mates.

Stan wants to be a woman called Loretta so he can have babies. 

It is true that many men as they age and lose testosterone develop tits and become more female-like. Changing sex during the life cycle is not unknown in the animal kingdom.

I’m not there yet.

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.