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.

Even my own familiar friend

A repost of a 2019 blog.

Michael Burrows (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) inspired this reflection and Michael Ipgrave (Lichfield) directed me to Mynheer’s painting. Thank you.

Do you know this picture by Nicholas Mynheer? (used with his permission).

Two women embracing. Look at the background. The artist names the women as the mother of Jesus and the mother of Judas. Such sadness at the death of their sons.

I have a soft spot for Judas, bravado and posturing imploding to catastrophe. I’ve been there. Telling fibs to wiggle out of trouble. I’ve been there too. What was in his mind?

Was Judas disappointed with Jesus? Did they hatch a plot to have Jesus arrested deliberately in order to increase the profile of the “Jesus movement”? If so, it went horribly wrong.

Was Judas angry with Jesus? Perhaps Jesus did not live up to Judas’s expectations of being enough of a political revolutionary? The truth is that we never live up to the expectations of others because they’re not ours.

Was Judas Jesus’ special friend – a second disciple whom Jesus loved? There is no doubt about it, they were friends. And when Judas realised the enormity of his actions he couldn’t live with the shame and guilt. Just think how much hatred came into the world as a result of the way in which the Judas story was written up in the Gospels. I don’t know how the church can live with that shame.

Whatever was in Judas’s mind, his actions liberated Jesus. He started the process that allowed the Christ-imago to break free from the earthed cocoon.

I’d like to give Judas a cuddle. There’s a lot of him in me. Thinking about the distraught and desolate mothers makes me wonder about the fathers. Men grieve too.

You may know this story: the Vicar visiting the school asked, after some discussion of Easter story, “why did Jesus descend into hell?” After a silence, a small voice piped up “to rescue his friend Judas”.

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?

The Holy, Blessed and Glorious Onion

220px-Moscow_05-2012_StBasilCathedralEthical veganism having been declared a philosophical belief (here) provides me with the new religion I was seeking for retirement.

The onion has more than twelve times as much DNA as you or me, so I shall worship the Holy, Blessed and Glorious Onion. I can set up onion temples with onion domes. I can invent liturgies in which clouds of incense mask onion odours. I can make garlands of onions, wear them, and do with onions what SWMBO does with them when she stuffs a chicken.

I can still eat chicken, of course, because in the US it’s considered a vegetable. Some people are vegetables, so I can eat them too. To quote Jonathan Swift, who proposed eating babies to alleviate Dublin’s poverty problem (A Modest Proposal), “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasee, or a ragoust.” I’m sure that well-cared for adults would be just as succulent.

A vegan was recently reported are saying that he didn’t like using buses because of the possibility that insects would be harmed in the making of the journey. Surely, that’s a certainty, not a possibility? Not only do I feel for the insect collection that develops on the windscreen and bumper, but also the poor dears that are squashed under the tires. I am well-known as holding the view that the only proper place for a cat is under the wheel of a heavy truck, but the possibility of an insect being squashed there is much greater than that of a cat being so flattened. Unfortunately.

Vegans need not only to ensure that they ingest enough protein, but also give serious consideration to what happens should they find themselves with an infection. You see, the things I really feel sorry for are our fellow inhabitants of planet earth, bacteria and viruses. The way that we use antibiotics in the genocide of these poor defenceless creatures is deplorable and indefensible.

My Christmas homily if I were giving one

3306734280_7aeb48a6d5_z-e1573696472514Imagine the birth. Mary pushing, shoving, moaning, yelling.

Imagine the placenta, umbilical cord, blood, fluid.

Imagine the mess.

Imagine, for a moment, that the stable and animals are not fiction.

Imagine the noise, the animal dung, the hay getting places it shouldn’t.

Imagine the mess.

The nativity is messy. The infant is born into mess. My life is messy. Your life is messy. If you say it’s not, I don’t believe you. Being human is messy. But being human is what the nativity is all about.

People try to clean up Jesus. People try to clean up God. But the truth is that God is not present only in things that have to be cleaned up. God does not demand tidiness or purity. God does not demand cosmetics or fig leaves to cover up bits of us that we think will thus be hidden. God does not demand that we pretend.

God is present in your mess and mine — the mess of the world.

We have no need to pretend. As it says at the beginning of St John’s Gospel, every single one of us is a child of the Divine. Just as I am, just as you are.

The message of the incarnation is that you and I can be like Mary — agents of the divine, of God, of Jesus. Let Jesus grow in you as Mary did. As it says in verse 4 of “O little town”, O holy child of Bethlehem, be born in us today. Everything you do to make life a bit better for somebody else is you acting as God’s agent. Everything you do to make life more difficult or unpleasant for somebody else is you acting as Satan’s agent. Choose well.

Enjoy being human. Help others to enjoy being human. Help others to glimpse joy and delight, even if only for a moment. Then, you are letting the holy child be born in you again and again.

The Christmas message is not about making yourself sick on chocolates, or stuffing your face with turkey, or arguing about what to watch on TV, or about reliving your childhood. It’s not about going to church so that you don’t have to go again for another twelve months.

It’s about bringing joy to the world — and helping others do likewise.

Happy Christmas.

Response to Retirement 1

c2RR writes: not long after I’d posted Retirement 1, I had this response from a retired priest. I have her permission to post it — it’s worth reading.

I can relate to a lot of what you say. I’ve been out of Church now for about 15 years and it took me an awful long time to get rid of enough rage to be able to recover the sense of the divine chuckle at the silliness of most of it.

When I went forward for ministry, women were not ordained at all, just licensed as Deacons, so I spent much of my time being regarded as the freak, and forcing a pathway to acceptance. Of course now the C of E is so desperate for ministers that women are accepted because they are willing, as a result of cultural pressure, to fill the vacancies. That, of course, will change as new generations of women, my children’s generation, no longer see that women have to be submissive, willing to do anything, to take on a job.

The saddest thing I’ve witnessed is the retreat of the Church from engagement with the world as it is for most people. When I was ‘called’, liberation theologians from South America were essential reading for us. David Jenkins was Bishop of Durham, and constantly in the media for standing on the side of the marginalised. In our own diocese, the then Bishop of Stafford was out on the streets marching against Thatcherism. I suppose this is what you mean by “being Jesus” rather than “talking Jesus” – the latter being something that makes me nauseous.

As you can see, the rage is still present.

As for speaking out—it takes its toll. The state of the Church Rampant (irony alert) now makes me sad. I see rural clergy with six churches and no ministerial help, up against all the things you mention in terms of nonsense from the institution. I would like to get involved but, as I’m constantly reminded by my partner, it is no longer my problem.

Maybe this is just as well, for beyond the confines of the institutional church there is plenty of life, and contributions to “The Kingdom” can come in other ways.