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Food From Truth

“A man can’t be always defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it”  C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, ‘Introductory’.

 

In December 2015, I wrote a few verses of doggerel which I had the cheek to call a carol. This was subsequently set to music by Kevin Stannard, of the University of Wolverhampton, and sung by the University’s Staff Well-Being Choir at the University’s carol service on 14 December 2016:

 

A Carol for Stir-Up Sunday

 In the damp and the dark and the cold of these days,

O stir up our hearts, Lord, recall us to your ways,

Your coming, so soon, Lord, but seeming delayed,

We offer you our hearts, O God, our Saviour we praise.

 

Our bowl it resembles a hole or the cave,

From which our dear Lord rose, our lives for to save,

We stir in the currants, the rum and the peel,

And long for the time when God’s Son he’ll reveal.

 

Christmas At Last Comes, God’s Word to be Fleshed,

Our Worship, our prayers, and our praises are blessed,

And next you’ll return, Lord, come back to us soon.

Our stirring all done now, we’ll all lick the spoon.

 

- Collect for the Last Sunday Before Advent (25th Sunday After Trinity) (Book of Common Prayer, 1662)

Stir up, we beseech thee, Oh Lord,

 The wills of thy faithful people;

 That they, plenteously bringing forth the fruits of good works

 May be plenteously rewarded;

 Through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

 On this day (the last Sunday in the Church’s year) wives made the puddings and cakes for Christmas, assisted by the children. Advent was about to begin, Christmas not far off. I well remember, in the 1950s, stirring the mixture – and licking the spoon.

 

 

Big Tobe & Little Tobe   (Corrected 18/12/16)

 High up within the south-west transept of Liverpool Cathedral is set Edward Carter Preston’s fine sculpture of The Archangel Raphael and the Boy Tobias (1931-2).

A long, long time ago, in a far-away place called Nineveh, there lived two blokes called Tobe, Big Tobe, the dad, and Little Tobe his son (there was also mum Anna; they only had one child, the Little Tobe I’ve referred to). Now, depending on what * you believe, dad was actually Tobit, and his boy was Tobias. Big Tobe was a very caring, charitable bloke, always giving money to all kinds of good causes, and helping people down on their luck, and he was always going on and on at Little Tobe about this, urging him to do the same; but despite Big Tobe’s generosity, things tended to go badly for him; he himself had no luck, except the bad sort, and the family weren’t too well off (well, apart from some sort-of investments he’d made a while ago – we’ll come to that in a bit). Bad luck: for example, one day he was sleeping by a wall in his garden, as you might, minding his own business, and some sparrows dropped two big dollops on his eyes, yes, and the white stuff actually blinded him. He also went on to Little Tobe quite a bit about living a clean life, not having anything to do with bad ways, booze, and bad women, like trollops and tarts, and that kind of person (“Lewdness is the mother of famine” – was one of his sayings; he could get a bit boring, sometimes). Actually, Little Tobe was a decidedly virtuous young man anyway, and took note, being very amenable to what dad was saying. Then, finally, after lots more bad luck, Big Tobe decided he would risk sending his boy off to a town called Rages in a country called Media, where he had a mate called Gabael. Some while ago (it gets a bit complicated here), he had entrusted this man with some of his money, thinking of it as a sort of nest-egg. Big Tobe had worked in Media a while back, but then had been unable to take his wages out of the country due to nasty regime-changes (the usual sort of thing); but now things were a lot better over there.

Meanwhile: Big Tobe had a cousin, Raguel, who lived in another town in Media, Ecbatabe. He also had a problem. His only child, a girl named Sara, had been set up to wed, by those arranged marriages, only for the bride-groom, on the wedding night, to be murdered by a really evil number called Asmodeus – seven times this had happened. Raguel, as you can imagine, was at his wit’s end – would he ever have a son-in-law? Grandchildren? But back to Tobe & Tobe: Big Tobe drew up all the papers authorising Gabael to hand over the money to Little Tobe – but the problem was, could he send the boy alone? Surely not, for though Little Tobe was not actually very little, or very young, it was still a long journey, a big undertaking … Fortunately, as chance would have it, Little Tobe met up with a big man called Azarias who knew all about Gabael (indeed, had spent some time with him a while ago), and Raguel and Sara; “I’ll take you!”, he said, and along with Azarias’s camels, servants, and suchlike, off they went. Anna wept quite a lot (mothers!). (Actually, just between us, for the present, Azarias wasn’t who he said he was at all – he was in truth an angel! Yes, really!). Little Tobe also took his dog.

On and on they went. Eventually, they stopped beside a big river, the Tigris, and Little Tobe went down to have a wash. Suddenly, a big fish leapt out of the water, intent on eating him. Azarias rushed up and told Little Tobe to grab it and pull it to land. Easier said than done, was Little Tobe’s reaction, but he managed it all the same. Then, Azarias got him to cut the fish open and take out the heart, liver, and gall-bladder, and keep them in a safe place (odd requests, you might think). Now, little Tobe ate the (rest of the) fish. “Why keep those particular bits you mentioned?”, Little Tobe asked, intrigued. “Well, the heart and the liver are good for  …” – but that’s to introduce a plot spoiler. Next, they came by chance (!) to Raguel’s place. Raguel was overjoyed with the prospect of marrying Sara off to one of his own folks, rather than to one of the local lads – but very much feared that Little Tobe was likely to end up dead on the wedding night (he dug a grave for the lad, just to be safe), but he was generally happy. His wife was Edna; she wept quite a lot (mothers!). This time, though, things were different. Azarias told Little Tobe to carefully heat up ashes, put the heart and liver of the fish on them, thus creating smoke (this was in the marriage-bed chamber, of course). Asmodeus was surely standing by ready to go in for the kill, but the smoke had a really bad effect on him, such that he fled off to Egypt, never (Azarias made sure of it) to return. Little Tobe and Sara were so worn out by the struggle with Asmodeus that they slept all night. Raguel was really surprised to find Little Tobe alive next day; he had to fill the grave in again (actually, the servants did that). Things had worked out well for all (there was much feasting, well, fourteen days of it).

Fourteen days, you would think, is quite enough feasting for anyone, and so the two of them (with the new wife as well, of course, and the generous dowry, and the dog) set off for home, where (as things were done in those days) the real wedding would take place (yet more feasting); besides, mom and dad would be getting concerned. However, Little Tobe asked Azarias to go on to Rages first, with the papers, so that Gabael could release his father’s money, telling him to be sure to bring Gabael back to the wedding, as well. Little Tobe’s mum Anna, as you can imagine, wept again when he returned, though it was a pity Big Tobe could not actually see his boy, new daughter-in-law, Azarias, etc. With Azarias’s help, they set about putting that right. Remember the fish’s gall bladder? Little Tobe rubbed the thing on his father’s eyes, as instructed by the big man; they began to smart; he rubbed them a bit more. Lo and behold, the sparrows’ white stuff fell off them – a result! Joy all round, there was, and much more weeping and feasting.

But what of Azarias? Big Tobe insisted that he be paid well for all his great work. His son, being virtuous also, suggested they give him a complete half of all that had been brought back from Media, and dad agreed readily; but at that moment, Azarias decided to reveal all: he was in fact an angel sent from God (real name: Raphael)(“Didn’t you ever wonder about the fact that I never ate or drank anything? We angels don’t”). “My job was to reward goodness and virtue, to balance things up, set things straight, even up the score, to show that the really good guys don’t always finish last  – sometimes they get the girl (and to show you that fish is really good for you).” Big Tobe and Little Tobe could only marvel … it was … amazing … uplifting … life-enhancing (quite: between them, they lived 330 years).

No. 6 of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563) lists the accepted books of the Old Testament in the Protestant Bible. Other books (contained in what is known as The Apocrypha) include The Book of Tobit; Article 6 tells us that these books are to be “read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it [the Church of England] not apply them to establish any doctrine”. * The Roman Catholic Douai translation of the Old Testament, 1609, contains The Book of Tobias, which refers to son, and father, as ‘Tobias’. Modern Catholic bibles are closer to that found in the Apocrypha – which I have used. 

2016

 

 

Temporality
Little more than a chip flown off from the solid stone of eternity,
A fragment, this, melted and flowing, running, never still:
Time, the so-fast river we all run in, racing – for us – to its end;
But it, too, will reach conclusion, cease also, for that is the nature of frantic motion,
It runs to its end, ineluctably.

And then will return all its ways and things to solidity, totality, to what it always is.
And that is why my present choices and decisions are one with true predestination,
Since all is truly set beyond my present choosing
(At times, in my fancy, I glimpse, peer, beyond this life, at all that always was, always is;
a tiny opening.

Our inability, though, to recall aught before this life is one with blindness to that beyond; veiling.
How might the temporal the eternal scan?)
Eternally real though, the fragment’s source (the only reality) for all that.

2010

 

Sacrament

Indeed, he has no hands but our hands,
To do his work of helping, showing, upholding;
But these hands are hands that have held, in their palms,
The soft, fragile form of an oh so-vulnerable one,
He in his weakest and smallest;
Yes, a little thing, white, and brittle-seeming.

Surely, he has no mouths but our mouths,
To speak his words of wonder, comfort and constrain;
But this mouth is a mouth that has held within it, briefly,
The full shock of his presence,
Disquiet almost … glory …indefinable warmth …
Weak, brittle – but of a power I could not begin to know,
Not comprehend or analyse,
Only look back, longingly,
at how this secret moment
Has worked its loving ministry
In all my otherwise-drabness.

I have words, many words,
Words that can scan and snare a myriad things,
Throw out to view, expose;
But I have no words to hold, embrace, this wondrousness,
Sort it out and slice it, open it to others’ view;
Convince them.
2010 

 

Rejection
Even the harsh, hard straw scratched at his thin salted flesh, in the place he was laid,
Refusing the soft tenderness of any warm caress, gentleness, even in his earliest beginning;
- And see how Christmas sentiment makes the warm, adoring tongues of peaceful beasts
Lap against him, lovingly,
Where, in reality, their angry hunger perhaps pushed him roughly aside
(Not enough, it was, for worried parents to be thrust into an outhouse, in the first place).

This is not our home, this thing of earth, and now-ness, the familiar fact of being in a known place,
Known before aught was known.
For if the world of first experience throws one out (angered, more embarrassed, probably),
as it did him, then the whole world is alien, other.
Surely not our home, this scrap of moving earth, this passing, this ending moment,
Gone before present;
A place outraged at us, shocked.
But not a shock to him.

Important, at the centre, was his owns’ transience, shallowness,
For only when it came in power, Spirit, could the things of our world solidify to certainty, resolve,
Capacity to change everything, all;
Till then, those around him, no less than any, folded and feared, rushed back to safe certainties –
Such they surely appeared; compliance, silence,
The same non-opposition to all, that mars our latter-day leaders – weakness.
Solid becoming, also, were the awkward strands,
For even soft straws can easily harden to thorns,
Easily, also, enmesh to serve harsh cruelty,
Turn hardness into sharp pain,
Stiffness wreathed, entangled, into a mocker’s ring,
That runs and writhes in circles to flaunt its stained victory.
Only seeming so, however, since only the once could our rejection work; it will not the next.

 2009

Some of the images of this poem were inspired by words of G. W. Target: “… Nazareth of Galilee, where He was now so entirely without honour that He had been thrust out of the synagogue by His wrathful fellow-citizens … for preaching that He Himself, Joseph the carpenter’s son, was the fulfilment of scripture …” (p. 37). “His mother bore Him, then, flesh made God, God made flesh, tended Him, washed Him in water to supple Him, rubbed Him in salt, as was the custom, suckled Him …  And a manger for the child, with straws almost as sharp to His tenderness then as the thorns after, His first bed as uneasy at first as His Cross at last”. (p. 57), G. W. Target, Watch With Me. Spiritual Exercises Towards Learning the Lesson of Penitence and Humiliation At the Foot of the Cross, London, Gerlad Duckworth, 1961.

 

(The Lord Doesn’t Want A) Poem

I had the idea to write a poem, construct it carefully,

A little work of art, full of rhymes and imagery,

A work crafted, designed, expressing all my feelings,

Telling all that had happened, to me, to humankind.

But He didn’t want a poem, a piece of literature,

A work; He wanted me, to love Him.

My scheme was a subtle use of symbols, such as to encapsulate a vision,

Like some medieval painting, miniature – small, but beautiful, intricate;

But He didn’t want that (plenty of those already);

All He wanted was my love.

And once, I thought to plan a whole series of scenes – perhaps prose, or drama -

To bring to life all that His life and death had done, had done for us.

But I could never finish it, never started, even.

Perhaps He wanted something else much more (perhaps He took it from me);

Perhaps he wanted me.

I seem to have produced … a … but it isn’t anything at all; it matters not.

Did I give Him what I knew He wanted, just my love?

Oh yes.

July 2013

 

Action: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, etc.

I used to work in an office next to a young woman who always had a List of Things to Do next to her computer. Thinking about this, recently, I realised that St. Paul was a compulsive “list maker”.

You know about list-making – as in all those time-management task-oriented training days at work, which encourage you to set out everything the boss thinks is important (and then prioritise, and “action” them); or all those lists of need-to-do things stuck to your fridge door, by friendly-looking magnetised badges; sometimes they can appear threatening – so much to achieve, so little time.

But alternatively, they can be encouraging if we think to use them in another way: they can be lists of things we’ve succeeded at – like CVs, listing qualifications and experience – or lists of good, virtuous, powerful things that are on our side – or can be, if we choose to concentrate on them.

Paul’s lists are of precisely this kind. In one, he seems to hint that all the good and virtuous things will develop naturally if we simply tend, properly, the seed we’ve planted.

Thus love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5, 22) are the “fruit” or “harvest” of the Spirit, so that if we water the plant regularly they will flourish, perhaps without our realising it.

Concentrate on the one essential, I’ve often considered – filling your life with the presence of God – and the rest will simply follow; here is something which does its work imperceptibly, without our knowledge or effort, as seeds bring forth shoots, or the life of prayer and worship, which can silently spread out into all areas of one’s being.

But in another list, Paul suggests we need a bit of effort, thus he sets out at great length the many things that the Christians at Phillippi should be concentrating on: that which is true, noble, just, pure, lovable, gracious, excellent, and admirable (Philippians 4, 8) and, “Think on these things”, he says (in the language of the older translations); and myself, I always take that to mean think on these things, not all the rubbish that the media throw at us all the time, most of which is rarely excellent, and never pure.

Above all, it’s very hard – I consider – to discover much truth in modern life, unless you look very persistently. Ours is a world ruled by fashions, illusions, and hopeless substitutes for what is real, most of them taking the form of some kind of pretend salvation, which seductively beckons in the form of possessions, wealth and fame – the false values of the celebrity culture (worse still, authorities and powers press magic formulae upon us – isms – whereby the answers to all the world’s problems can effectively be found). We live, in C. S. Lewis’s phrase, in the City of Clap-Trap.

Perhaps the reality is a bit of both, we need effort, and inattention – working hard to practice the good things Paul lists, but also letting go of them in order to concentrate on the one priority, the source from which all will come.

Actually, I think Paul had been on one of those task-management training days, for notice how good he is at the prioritising and “ranking”, in 1 Corinthians 13, 13: faith, hope, love, but the greatest of these is love.

October 2007

 

Seasonal Sermons

About nine years’ ago, I endeavoured to produce short meditations, or miniature sermons with prayers, related to the Church’s season of the year. I posted them in this section of the site, and then, the following year, I posted them again. I did this a few times – thinking that real sermons in church were on occasion re-cycled a year or two later. I realised that this repetition could not go on for ever, but then – horror of  horrors, well known to all computer users – the whole folder of these seasonal pieces became deleted; I had lost the lot. Recently, delving into my D drive (an old hard drive rescued from a long-scrapped earlier machine – I was looking, of course, for something quite different, and older), what should I come across but a file-copy of the old meditation folder. What I have decided is that I should simply upload the whole thing at once, and leave it here till enough people tell me they are bored with it (my apologies if you are one of them), but until then, they may have a use. I am aware that there are other festivals in the Christian year which I might, and should, have written a piece for.

June 2012

  

  The Annunciation To Mary

    She Said Yes!

I remember at school being forcefully told, by the history teacher, that it was absolutely valueless to ask what might have been, if certain important things had not actually happened as they did – if the Saxons had beaten off the Normans in 1066, if Catherine of Aragon had had a son, if Hitler had died at birth. But the most crucial speculation of all has occurred to me more recently: what if Mary had said No!  – because there is no doubt that the young peasant woman of 2,000 years ago, whom we know as Mary the mother of Jesus, was possessed of free will. That is the way it is with humans, that is the way God arranged it. People are free to reject him, to go their own sweet way and assert their puny pretence of “independence”, to refuse his wishes for them, and thereby reject the one thing that is any good for them. The message of the angel’s visit to Mary, for us, is that we too are asked to do things, to accept or reject. The work God proposes may not seem quite so crucial, or so dramatic; we may not receive a visit from an angel. But we do have the choice to accept or reject, and for us, the work we are called to is as important as was hers for her, since if we choose to accept it, then we choose to accept the whole of God’s offer to us, which is as great as his offer to anyone; and the greatest calling – the only one – is to have faith in him, to offer ourselves freely, as he gave himself freely, unconditionally, in the saving act of his Son. Mary might not have said yes, and then … but she did, and because she did, then the whole reality of our salvation, and our freedom, is possible, when otherwise …

O Lord Jesus, help us to have the courage

And faith of Mary; to offer our whole selves to you,

To accept and treasure all that comes from you,

To know that perfect freedom, eternal bliss,

Issues only from one source, from one crucial choice;

And give us courage and strength to hold fast to this,

While the temporary things of this world surround us,

Before we come home to you.

Advent

    “Come, Lord Jesus …”

Secondary school for me, in the 1960s, was a boarding school. Being a Church of England foundation, it had a chapel and weekly services, but we were always at home during Christmas itself. For us, there being no Christmas service, the big religious event of that time of the year was the “Advent Service of Light”. I remember little of it, but I recall that, at its beginning, the choir moved slowly up the aisle from the west end, singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel …”, as the lights were slowly switched on; what began in darkness, ended in light. It was a time of great anticipation, I seem to remember, we were all expectant, expecting Christmas, and – especially – going home, after a gruelling fourteen-week term. For the most homesick, younger ones, it might be six or so weeks since, briefly, for a few hours, they had seen their mothers (it was a school for children whose fathers were dead). The end of term – going home! No thought could be more wonderful, no anticipation more thrilling!

It is precisely this image that C. S. Lewis uses at the end of The Last Battle – the final book in the “Narnia” series – to convey the idea of the end of this present age, and the coming in of the new one, of a new Narnia, created after Aslan’s return. The lives that the children could expect in the Narnia-made-new was one of every day being much better than those in the old, of the real story beginning at last, after the old, brief, one has finished. And this, of course, is precisely how it will be, this is exactly what we are to expect, and, in the truest sense, to anticipate. The meaning of Advent is not just that we look forward, with hope and expectancy, to the celebration, once again, of God’s coming into the world in human form, long ago, but that we look forward also to his actual coming again; to our return, not just to our mother’s arms, but to that true home where we will be with him for ever. Neither inappropriately nor importunely does the Church pray for Jesus’s return. We are told that we cannot know the time or occasion (second-guessing is out, though many somewhat-deluded people have tried to do it), and that constant vigilance and preparedness are vital; and very much patience is necessary. But if we delve deep into the meaning and experience of Advent, we can glimpse that summation, that eternal joy, which faith in Jesus makes real.

                   O God, bless us at this time,

                        as we prepare for your coming into the world.

                   Help us to discover, once again, the wonder

                        of your approaching birth as a person like us.

                   Let us labour daily, work and pray,

                       to end the want and strife which you entered into; 

                   And let us be always mindful of your promised coming again,

                       ever watchful and ready, faithful and prepared;

                   Then, when all the length of history’s course is ended,

             let us enter worthily into that world-made-new of your

                   promises,

                   Where all will be the joy that you have won for us.

 

 

Christmas

     Israel in 4 B.C.

Christmas raises many questions. In one of the final numbers of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas asks Jesus why he chose such an odd place, and “backward” time, in which to be born – if he’d come today, things would have been very different, his message would have been quickly spread across the world; and, Judas might have added, all that happened to Jesus, the whole truth of his death and resurrection, would have been ascertained and verified, established beyond doubt. Why did God choose to be born into the world in the time and place he did? – a question many of us have often found ourselves thinking, at this season. Above all, “Israel in 4 BC” – as Superstar assures us it was – was a very different world from our own. But our information concerning this backward place and time are far from negligible. In fact, there are many occasions where our records of New Testament happenings are very good (significantly, Christianity is a religion whose founding events are set in a real historical context of time and place), and the witness and descriptions of key events are such that some, such as Frank Morison (Who Moved the Stone?), have considered them capable of constructing legally-valid testimony upon. But still they are sufficiently in the mists of time, and so contrary to our rational laws and experiences, that people are more than free to discount them. Time and again, I get the feeling that we are given just enough to make our Christian ideas and beliefs defensible, but with no possibility of rendering them into something which might compel people. Freedom, choice, decision, and commitment are still necessary, the choice which Jesus requires of all of us – for few people know nothing about the Christian faith, at least of its existence, and so everyone has made that choice, consciously or not, with overt consideration or otherwise. Of course God was to enter the world by way of his chosen people (but that could have happened today), but I fancy that it happened when it did by way of that dead-accurate balancing of essentials which is God’s plan (God knows, as Cardinal Newman says, what he is about); five thousand years before Quirinius was governor in Syria, and we would have been in the world of pre-history, two thousand years later and … we can’t imagine what kind of world there would have been without Jesus’s coming.

The same is true of our own lives. I used often to think how much more appropriate it might have been if I myself had been born in some other time – perhaps when the great Gothic cathedrals, which I love, were raising their glorious testimony to Christ above the plains and hill-towns of northern Europe; or perhaps in some other “age of faith”, when Christian arts and learning were respected by all, and great religious movements were the cutting-edge of education, science, civilisation and culture – until, that is, the penny dropped with me: that I, like you and everyone else, is alive now, wherever they are, because that is the setting God chose for them; here, now, and only here and now, can we do the work he has for us, if we will seek it and embrace it; God knows what he is about. The message of Christmas is that now is the time, now is the moment of our salvation and our faith’s certain promise, for now is he come among us. Obviously, Jesus was present in his world last week and the week before, but only by celebrating – by re-creating – the moment of his known historical birth, can we make real our experience of his emergence into the realm of time, the Incarnation, the moment the creator of all flesh actually became flesh as our own.

 

O Lord, you came into the world

to end human bondage,

To set people free, to create a new world;

You did not come as we might have expected,

You did not come within our own time;

But you knew our needs and our condition

more than we did ourselves;

You are the Lord of history,

The beginning and the end;

In your hands is the destiny of all.

St. Stephen – First Christian Martyr

 Nowadays, martyrdom is devalued and derided; for some, the very word is suspect, for our cynical age has managed to transform its meaning into the very opposite of what it is supposed to suggest. The death of Stephen, at the hands of an angry mob, is related  in Acts Ch. 7, verses 54-60, and it sets a pattern which Christian martyrdom has always followed; and hence the Church rightly honours Stephen’s death on the day after that of Jesus’s birth. With sectarian and terrorist violence constantly increasing in our world, we are used to hearing of “suicide bombers”, “fundamentalists” who attach explosives to themselves and die, “for their cause”, in the act of causing hideous death and injury to vast  numbers of innocent people, a kind of violence which is indiscriminate, uncontrollable, and quite devoid  of any legitimate – or in some cases, identifiable – target; this is not martyrdom as Christians experienced it, as the death of Stephen makes quite clear. Real martyrs do not die in the act of causing death to others, since real people of faith, whatever their religion, know that killing is totally contrary to the will and law of God, neither are they guilty of real criminal acts – except the crime of standing up for truth in a society (like ours) governed by lies; real martyrs love, and even forgive, their persecutors – Jesus, their model and pattern, taught them, and lived and died, this truth. Martyrdom and suffering, such as Stephen and his myriad successors experienced, is not a thing of the past, but very much of the present; those of us who are able openly to proclaim our faith, and worship in public, are very fortunate; in many parts of the world, the opposite of this situation in true.

And then there are those in our society – including some, dare I say it, in the Church itself? – who are cynical and critical of any kind of suffering for truth. After all, what is truth? – just what you or I choose to believe in because it “works for me”, because we just happen to like church – “but surely (I have heard Christians express this view, sadly),  it’s not something you would risk getting imprisoned for, much less risk your life for … nothing’s worth that!” I prefer the view, first expressed some while back, and no doubt the target of derision, now, that if a person has nothing they would ever be prepared to die for, then there is nothing that they are living for, and not anything that makes their life worth while. Christians in North   Korea, China, Pakistan, parts of Africa, and many other places, are of just this kind, they love Jesus, as Graham Kendrick puts it so well, more than their own lives, more than this present life itself. I have no idea when or why the Church decided to remember St. Stephen today; but I do know that without valuing his act of ultimate faith, our celebrations yesterday, of Jesus’s birth, would be only partial, incomplete.

 

Lord remember the suffering of your people

In all the dark places of the world;

May they always know and feel your love,

And presence with them;

And for we who know nothing of this suffering,

May we live worthy of them by never failing

To proclaim your Word, your Truth, and your Love

 

Massacre of the Innocents

 Herod’s mass-killing of children, in order, as he supposed, to destroy the infant Jesus (Matthew Ch. 2, verse 16), is one of many incidents in the Bible where large numbers of innocent people suffer death; and we can rightly see such incidents as indicators of the cruelty that seems to be inherent in the human race, particularly when it opposes the will of God, or tries to order its own world to its own ends, while leaving God firmly out of the picture. But there is always a tiny suspicion in our minds that somehow these blood-lettings are part of what is required if God’s plan is to be carried out, at least in the world that we currently have, that God somehow seems to be operating as if such massacres were a necessary – albeit regrettable, no doubt – means to an end. Thus it is possible, sometimes, to fall into the trap of seeing our creator and father as some kind of earthly utopianist, intent on making a better world, albeit after a few un-cooperative people have been got out of the way. In the Old Testament, whole peoples and nations seem to require obliteration, in order that the Lord’s people can be manoeuvred to the right place, ready to learn God’s will – by suffering, mostly – and finally become the recipient of his own emergence in human form; and in the New, the ending of a person’s life-long sickness happens, we may be told, in order that God’s will, identity, and purpose should be shown, not for the ending of the suffering in itself.

The fault with such suspicions is that they tend to be those of people judging God by their own standards. He is re-made in our minds, I have hinted above, as some modern-day political tyrant. We forget that for the earthly dictator, the removal of individuals, to the supposed eventual benefit of “the race”, has been considered (Heinrich Himmler was quite open about this) quite justified, and, of course, permanent (no chance, such tyrants supposed, of their victims ever returning). God, however, creates us and knows us as individuals; we are numbered as the grains of sand on the shore (“the race” is very temporary), yet each one of us he knows and loves, values and holds dear – all of us, if we will it, can enjoy the salvation he has prepared us for. Destroyed or not, like the Holy Innocents, in this world, we are held firmly in his hand until the day when we will be with him beyond death, when all suffering, and the Last Enemy, will be destroyed and ended.     

O Lord Jesus, we remember, before you, innocent victims

Of violence and oppression wherever they may be;

We ask you to help them and care for them,

To fill them with the knowledge of your constant presence

And eternal love; And we pray also

For the perpetrators of violence, deluded into thinking

That their actions will do ought but bring

Judgement and destruction, upon themselves.

 Ash Wednesday

     “Dust Thou Art …”

The vast majority of Christians – it has been said – have already got home safely; they’re dead (and never must we forget the ‘Church Invisible’, the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who are not in the world as we are, but have gone before us, and with whom eventually we will be united). Death is a great enemy, the result of mankind’s sin, and Satan’s scheming – not what God intended at all – but it should hold no fears for us. Naturally, no one wants to be involved in a hideous accident, imprisoned in sickness and ill health, wracked by pain, or victim of the kind of pointless violence that is increasing in our world; but once through that, once through the portal of death, Christians must always look for the hand of Jesus – guiding us, loving us, the source of our eternal security, and joy.

Our bodies – and all the stuff of this visible, material world – is but dust, garbage, and the simple ritual which many churches hold on Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality. The people gather round, as for communion, and a fine powder of ash is applied to the forehead by priest or minister, generally in the form of a cross. “Remember thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return”. There are other words, but this is probably the phrase most often used, and perhaps the most important feature is the injunction “Remember …”  The ‘Imposition of Ashes’ could well be held every Sunday, or every day, since there is no time ever when it is not valuable to think of one’s mortality. Don’t get me wrong, if I heard tomorrow of some terminal disease I have, it would obviously be terrible news, and surely I would be frightened – but only of pain and suffering, and after a while, I might recall St. Paul’s assurance:

” …neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8; 38-9, New International Version).

It is our union with Christ in this world, and in eternity, and that alone, which gives meaning and purpose, value and vision, to our brief existences here, before we, too, get back safely – home.

Dear Lord Jesus, help us to live each day

With the knowledge of our death, and the end of this present life;

Help us, above all things, to trust in you as the source of our eternal

Security and the purpose of all our being,

That in the fulness of time, and our destiny’s end,

We may come at last to the home you have prepared for us,

Which is the joy of your eternal presence.

Lent

   “Freedom from … freedom for …”

I used to think Lent was about giving up chocolates, sugar in my coffee, that kind of thing. It was going without something, something I liked; and this was a rather virtuous thing to do, and it was also not bad for my physical well-being. In fact, cutting down, and going without, helped to move me from a fattening diet, helped keep the weight down, and the junk-food consumption level down also. I’ve even heard of people for whom giving up cigarettes in Lent kick-started their successful campaign to give up smoking. These are all good things, for sure, but not exactly what Lent is really about. Health, fitness, and physical well-being are very important, but can become ends in themselves which might become ultimately this-worldly, and they, like so much else, can – ironically – be corrupted into the great preoccupation of our times – self-improvement, self-indulgence, and the gratification of physical desires. And that is the opposite of what Lent is about. Make no mistake, society is definitely obsessed with instant gratification. The media, above all else, treat it as normal and necessary, “natural” and good; that if we experience any urge, we gratify it straight away. This is not a normal state of affairs. It would have been inconceivable in past times, but today, whole industries depend on helping us to do this – particularly, of course, anything relating to our age’s principal obsession – sex. If you’re not doing it with lots of different people, in every conceivable way, then you must be lacking something, and an army of counsellors, psychiatrists and therapists are on hand to help you overcome this sickness, to rid you of your abnormality; and all these people are not just doing it for the money – they actually believe that constant, immediate sexual gratification is normal and proper, indeed, that it is, in a word, good. The world is this way because of its total acceptance of the myth that humans are just a kind of animal, and the general equation – in all of our behaviour – of “natural” with “good”.

Lent stands against all of this, every last syllable of the mindless rubbish that currently goes for thought, ideas, and values, rubbish which rules our world. Lent, to many (providing they’ve heard about it), is like the spectre at the feast, the whining kill-joy who wrecks the party; no wonder it is all but banished. Lent advocates another way, and a very unpopular one, today. It suggests that we take steps not to gratify desires, that we prevent appetites from ruling us, that we discover the law of diminishing returns (the more you have, the more you want, and the less satisfying it becomes). And – here’s an old idea – real freedom comes from breaking away from desires, breaking loose, and finding real freedom from what is in reality the tyranny of the body. All this is done by using the will to master the body. What? People won’t stand for any of that today … sounds positively Medieval!

If just a little of all the effort that went into the failed freedom-by-endless-gratification campaign, could be re-directed towards discipline and self-control, the real liberation it would bring would instantly create better people and a better world; and it would fit us for a world beyond that of material experience, where things of the body, and “nature” count for nothing, the very world God has prepared us for. Only by taking the meaning of Lent seriously do we stand any chance of being part of that future world.

 

Help us Lord, to find freedom -

Freedom from our endless appetites, from desires,

From the constant demands of our bodies, and the siren-sounds of this world,

Freedom from the perpetual barrage of the material upon our consciousness,

From our fear of non-acceptance by a world ruled by possessions.

But more, grant us the freedom to find You, and You alone,

To please only You, to love only the prospect of Your presence,

When, at last, the things of the world and the flesh are no more.

Palm Sunday

   “Hosanna … Crucify!”

The New Testament presents many “crowd scenes”, occasions where Jesus is surrounded by people mobbing him, fascinated by him, asking for something, avid for his words – or just curious. Sometimes it seems that crowd scenes in literature owe something directly to the Bible. There is the scene is Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the funeral oration (Act III Scene II), where the crowd is initially critical of Caesar, supportive of his murders – but then is very quickly turned against them. Crowds are fickle – that seems to be the meaning of this scene in the play, and nowhere was there a better precedent for Shakespeare than in the closing chapters of the Gospels. During his “triumphal entry” to Jerusalem, the crowd was for him, but very quickly, they were calling for the release of Barrabas, and for Jesus’s death. Don’t rely on crowds, or the mob, or public opinion; and between the two crowd scenes, as if to make the point even stronger, there was the betrayal, not by the mob, but by a follower, one who had promised to give everything to his master, the denial of Peter. Palm Sunday, and the other later Gospel chapters, have one particular message: ultimately, one cannot wholly trust people, and particularly not en masse. Of course, this is a terrible conclusion to come to, that we cannot in the end completely trust in those around us. Everything we believe tells us otherwise, that we should believe differently, that we ought to believe, that trust in those around us is acknowledgement of their goodness, and is the realisation of God’s love for us, mediated through others.

The wonderful thing about our Christian faith is that we are not some kind of humanist, and the things of this world are not all there is, not the measure of all. This world is not our true home, and the people around us, and we ourselves, are fallible and fallen. Our love for others, for one another, does not depend upon illusions of their possible perfection or moral improvement (we know, from our knowledge of ourselves, how unlikely this is). Our faith and our belief is in things beyond the human, and the ebb and flow of the crowd need not worry us, nor the ultimate fallibility of our friends cause us fear. Yes, the crowd may seem to be with us today, but tomorrow it may give a different cry, and also those people we think most of; but the love and constancy of God is for ever.

Lord Jesus,  Help Us to Trust Only in You,

Be With Us in Moments When Friends Desert Us,

When Those Who Upheld Us Seem Alien & Distant.

Above All, Lord, When We Experience

Praise, Support & Any Adulation,

May We Never Be Tempted To Hold To It,

That We Might  Know the World’s Values for What They Are.

Thus Let Our Life Be Built Upon The Rock of  Your Constancy, Your Love.

Good Friday

   No Other Way

It has been said that the Christian Gospels are unlike conventional biographies in one important respect. Most ordinary accounts of a person’s life devote almost all of their pages to the adult life of the subject, and only a very few to their death; the gospels are different. Certainly some of them spend several chapters writing about Jesus’s origins, and very early life, but the emphasis – by far the largest part – concerns the last few days of his life. These are books about the death and ending of a person, or rather, the death and resurrection. Other things that Jesus “did and said”, are important also, they too are presented in vivid detail, and other doings and sayings, not recorded, are constantly alluded to; but it is the arrest, trial, and crucifixion which take up the space.

Christianity is not a religion about ethics and morals. If we only knew what Jesus said, what he urged people to do in their lives, we would miss the vital part. The gospel writers left no possibility of this occurring; the trial and death filled no final manuscript page, which could easily come loose and drift away. Many people, particularly in recent times, have tried to portray Jesus as an ethical teacher, the last of the Jewish prophets, a great leader of humanity in the mould of the Buddha or Confucius, a spiritual leader whose wisdom might enable us to create a better world, a place where, at last, people might learn to live in harmony and love, discarding self-interest, greed and hatred. Jesus was not such a person; all attempts to fit Jesus into this “good man – moral teacher” mould are doomed to fail; Jesus was not primarily a good man: Jesus was not just a man, or good, at all. Jesus was someone who died a hideous death, innocently convicted of crimes, the victim of human evil, whose death actually removed our crimes, whose ending, strange as it may seem, was itself the way out of our evil.

No other human religion contains anything quite like this. Others give rules and laws for living, ways of gaining God’s acceptance and forgiveness, means by which individuals, and the whole race, may become right with God, become righteous, or again, ways of living by which the constrictions of the (faulty) human condition may be thrown off, escaped from. But Christianity doesn’t offer any of this. It presents us with a part of God who, having become human, dies to remove our certain, permanent, death. There was no other way in which this could have happened. All the other schemes miss the point. It was nothing we could do for ourselves, by any means whatever (Jesus told us how to live, to live righteously, but endless death still waited for us). But this death, his death, changed all, eternally.

Lord Jesus, Help Us to Embrace The Work You

Did for Us, Let Us Realise the Price You Paid,

The Suffering that Bought Life, Destroyed Death.

That We be Ever Mindful That Only by This Means,

Only by Our Ownership & Acceptance Of Your Gift,

- Not by Our Own Efforts – Can we Also Triumph

Over the Grave, and Come, At Last, to Your Presence.

Easter

   The Most Important Happening

So what’s changed?  – Don’t you sometimes feel like that? Jesus’s life and works, his miracles and teaching, and then, his suffering and death (“For our sins”), and finally, most significantly of all, his returning to life … and yet nothing seems to be different. The world, surely, still went on much as before: and evil things continue to happen, the bad people still seem to be fully in charge of everything (or rather, the badness in people, all of us, still seems to exert considerable influence); the world and the people in it do not appear to have been much different from what they were before he was born. Certainly – as has been argued strongly, in recent years – the world, had he not been born, would have been a much crueller place than it is now; but Jesus’s death and resurrection doesn’t quite seem to have destroyed evil in the way we sometimes tell ourselves in hymns and prayers, and as for destroying death – the funeral directors and coffin-makers still seem to flourish. No doubt atheists and cynics will say: What do you expect? If you will have these delusions …

The answer is to remember that much of our faith is just that – faith, for so much that we believe in and anticipate is invisible. The destruction of death – the certainty of evil’s eventual defeat – can no more be seen and demonstrated than the creative power of God, which brought all that there is into being, and holds it there. Perhaps it has to be given to the materialists that the world/life is something that might indeed appear to be the product of chance, of undirected processes. Nothing that we believe in can be proved as such, and there can be no compulsion issuing from the world to rob people of the freedom to choose to believe, or not to believe. So the power of the resurrection has to be veiled from any verification, and the destruction of eternal death has to be held in the realm of things of our choosing and believing. But those who choose it – choose life, rather than death, choose love rather than hate’s destruction – those people know of the reality, the greater-than-material truth, of Jesus’s rising to life, today.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is by a very wide margin the most important event to have occurred in the whole of human history. People will go on talking about it, writing about it, accepting Him, and rejecting Him, long after the seemingly-so-important concerns and values of our present society have become a historical memory. But this would not have been the case but for that happening known only to the eyes of faith, his resurrection, the one event that changed everything.

O Lord Jesus, We Thank You that by Your Dying for Us,

And your Resurrection this Day,

We are Saved from Death Eternal, our Sinful Nature Wiped Away,

Our Flawed Humanity Re-made.

We Cannot Know what it Cost You, We Cannot be Worthy of You,

We Cannot Merit Your Love for Us.

But now, by Holding to all that You have Achieved, by Our Faithfulness,

We can Stand Upright in the Days & Events that Come to Us,

And in the Final Summation of All that Is and Has Been,

When at Last We will be With You Eternally.

 Pentecost

    Making Things New

A few years ago, Britain started a National Lottery, by which a very few people won vast fortunes. Soon, everyone went lottery mad; even church leaders were reported as saying that, in our society, today, to win the lottery was the only hope people had. There were great fears that compulsive gambling would grow and grow, and large amounts of people would become hopeless gambling addicts, with all the destructive effects that that has. A while later, however, it was reported that these fears hadn’t been realised, if anything, the colossal, impossible odds against a lottery win had caused many to abandon gambling altogether, and use their money more wisely. Even the National lottery itself was for long said to be in difficulty.

Potentially bad situations don’t always have to realise our worst fears, and ones that start bad can sometimes be changed for the better. Though I firmly believe, as Jesus says, that Satan and evil powers rule in our world (John 14, 30 etc.) they are not the only influences, always there is the power of good. How does it operate?

At this time, Christians celebrate the birth of the Church occasioned by the coming into our world of the Holy Spirit of God, the promised “Comforter” which Jesus said would appear after his departure (Acts 2, 1-13). The Holy Spirit is God active in the world, God here and now, working within and upon things, changing evil situations into good ones, getting involved in the nitty gritty of life, confronting bad circumstances and turning them around, creating something different, something new. The most vivid example is perhaps the original one, the situation of the future Church’s leaders: a small group of men and women, people who had lost everything and had only the sad memory of “empty” promises. But from the day of Pentecost, everything changed; with the power of the Holy Spirit they could embark on re-making the world.

O Divine Spirit, Come Upon us With Your Power,

Make Our World so Full of Your Influence and Strength

That Evil and all its Powers Must Shrink Away,

Hiding in Their Darkness until Finally They are Cast Down,

When all Badness shall be Ended.

Be Powerful in Our World, Spirit, to Support the Weak,

To Make Goodness Flower in Every Place,

To Ensure Love Triumphs Over all Hatred,

And Every Evil Situation be Transformed,

Turned to Good, Through Your Work.